August 16, 2017
Proper gear, assigned tasks make for the right kind of memories.
It's common these days to hear fishermen in the local tackle shop asking questions on rigging for swordfish, yet I rarely hear a question seeking advice on how to safely boat the fish. While just about anyone can learn to target these magnificent fish, safety should be a major concern.
As the name suggests, swordfish have razor-sharp bills, propelled by hundreds of pounds of muscle. For an unwitting angler, the experience of a lifetime can become a nightmare in a matter of seconds.
Safety begins with terminal rigging. The better a story's beginning, the better its ending. Wind-on leaders have become de rigeur in the Florida swordfish fleet. A wind-on leader allows the angler to crank the fish completely to the boat. This eliminates the need for a mate to “wire” the fish in less-than-optimal visibility, when a pile of 300-pound leader can easily tangle around something such as a cleat, fishing rod or even a wayward limb.
The next step in properly boating a swordfish is arguably the most important: assigning roles/responsibilities to each crew member. Before leaving the dock everyone aboard, even first-timers, should be briefed on standard procedures once a fish is hooked. Similarly, everyone should be in charge of a certain task to keep the process running smoothly as possible.
Harpoon through the gills and twin straight gaffs ensure this fish is heading for the ice.
Tasks include clearing the lines, prepping for gaffing the fish, and simply being out of the way when the fish is to be boated. I recall several times some of my crew were so engrossed in the fight that they forgot their assigned tasks. The result was a 400-pound-class fish coming to the boat tangled with three lines. Suffice it to say, that fish is still swimming.
Once the fish is boatside, the next challenge becomes transferring the fish to the fish box. If you're keeping a fish, and unconcerned with IGFA records, a harpoon is the best way to get it done. The harpoon should be rigged with a length of plastic coated cable and connected to 300 feet of ½-inch rope coiled in a basket with a poly ball at the end. Aim for the head and stand clear of the line; those are the rules of the trade. A flying gaff or a large straight gaff helps to subdue the fish once it gets close to the boat. Your crew should be ready with gaffs waiting should the need for assistance arise.
A swordfish bill can slice your hand or foot to the bone. Leave the sandals at home and be sure to wear a good pair of boat shoes or fishing boots. Also, make sure you use heavy duty welding gloves. I vividly remember billing my first swordfish with my orange “sailfish gloves.” I also vividly remember the fingers of the glove floating away after being sliced, as well as the stitches that followed. When billing these fish always keep the palms of your hands facing down with your thumbs pointed at each other. That will allow you to control the fish and makes it nearly impossible for that bill to slash upward.
Flying gaff is also an option; windon leader and heavy gloves are advised.
If releasing the fish, leave the fish in the water if at all possible. If choosing to hold the fish up for a picture, make sure to have a firm grip on the bill and try to support the fish's weight. Pictures taken with the fish still in the water minimize any harm that may result from handling the fish.
Even after a swordfish dies it can cause trip-ending injuries. If you do decide to keep a fish, once the fish is on deck, it should be safely stowed either in the fish box or secured to the side of the boat opposite from which the rods are being fished. Preferably, the bill should be removed or a towel can be placed over it. Your feet and the boat's gel coat will thank you.
When removing the fish from the boat: A hoist can be your best friend, if the marina is so equipped. Otherwise, a team effort can be needed here to safely get the fish on the dock. It is also recommended to put a rope around the tail of the fish in the event that the unloading process inadvertently releases the fish back into the water.
At the end of the day, preparation, planning and a focus on safety will bring you and your crew home intact, hopefully with one of the most prized fish in the sea gracing your deck. FS
First Published Florida Sportsman Magazine March 2011