Nothing comes easy in offshore fishing. The run is long, the waves are big and finding a fish in a million miles of ocean is hard. But there is a bluewater fishery with surprisingly easy entry. Two rods, a box of tackle and a thousand yards of line are all you need to deep-drop for swordfish.
Up until a few years ago, most anglers targeted swordfish at night by drifting with rigged baits and bright lights. The tactic was marginally successful and not easy. Then, anglers in the Florida Keys developed tactics to catch huge swordfish during the day. They dropped rigged baits more than 1,000 feet to swords feeding near the bottom. Since then, the technique has spread around the world. Daytime swordfishing is especially popular in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast, where anglers are deep-dropping in the canyons.
Swordfish are the black sheep of the billfish family. They are caught all over the world, in water temperatures from 40 to 80 degrees, which is the widest temperature range for any billfish. Unlike marlin, swordfish can’t be bothered to chase down a trolled bait. Instead, they feed lazily on chunks of meat drifting in the current.While swordfish can be spotted during the day swimming close to the surface, they are designed for life in the deep. They have the unique ability to warm their brains. In addition, because their huge eyes are encased in bone sockets, these fish can hunt in darkness under thousands of pounds of water pressure. It’s been said that humans know more about the surface of the moon than the bottom of the ocean. If that’s true, swordfish live in the world we know least.
When anglers fishing off my homeport of Virginia Beach, Virginia, started scoring daytime swordfish, I was quick to get onboard. I took a master course with Capt. Fin Gaddy on his charter boat Qualifier. Gaddy had just started targeting swordfish off North Carolina’s Outer Banks and found instant success. His experiences attracted the attention of South Florida swordfish expert Capt. Brent Feder and local charter skipper Capt. Jeff Ross. On a chilly November morning, with Gaddy in the bridge and Feder and Ross in the cockpit, we headed to the drops and canyons 30 miles off Oregon Inlet.
Swordfish action runs year-round, but the best bites seem to be during spring and fall. The fish haunt the bottom from 250 feet to more than 2,000 feet of water. To locate swords, anglers watch the fish finder for a sharp drop hosting a cloud of bait.
While tackle may be simple, swordfish anglers geek out on the details. Gaddy uses an 80-pound bent-butt rod attached to a powerful Lingrid Pittman electric reel. He also carries Daiwa hybrid electric assist reels for a more sporting approach. The hybrid reel allows the angler to use electric retrieve when changing locations and checking the bait; he can then switch to manual retrieve when a fish is on the line. Any 80-pound rod and reel combo will work, with diehards using stand-up gear to go toe-to-toe with these fish.
The reel is spooled with 60-pound braided line. Lots of it. Anglers can expect to fish in more than 1,500 feet of water. Braided line is thinner and stiffer than monofilament, allowing the bait to hit bottom with the least amount of weight. Braided line is more sensitive too, capable of transmitting the vibration of a fish biting the hook a quarter mile below the boat. The main line is attached to 100 feet of 100-pound wind-on leader. Using rigging floss, 700-pound mono and longline clips, Feder will attach 15 pounds of eggsinkers to the leader a few feet below the wind-on connection. At the end of the 100-foot leader, he connects a 400-pound test swivel and 12 feet of 300-pound test monofilament.
There’s debate about the business end of a swordfish rig. Feder brought a variety of weapons on our trip, including rigged squid, strip baits and artificial soft plastics. To rig a natural bait, he uses rigging floss to secure a whole squid, a giant eel or a long strip of dolphin or albacore belly to a 1/0 J-hook. He slides a rubber skirt over the bait to give it a wider profile and more action. For artificial soft plastics, many anglers favor an 18-inch Hogy Swordfish eel. The lure is rigged with two hooks and a rubber skirt. The big, soft plastic is impervious to bait stealers and attractive to big swordfish.
Once we were rigged up, Gaddy stopped the boat over a sea mount. Feder and Ross dropped the bait followed by leader and lead weight over the side. It took several minutes for the rig to hit bottom. Every few hundred feet, Feder would stop the reel to let the line catch up with the sinker, then resume the descent. When the sinker hit, he retrieved 50 feet of line and set the drag at 24 pounds.
Once the line was set, Gaddy held the bow into the wind and let the boat drift slowly across the structure, keeping the line straight up and down. The rest of us watched the rod tip bounce slowly with the swells. When the rod tip bounced slightly out of cadence with the roll of the boat, Feder jumped on the reel and brought in 50 feet of line. Then we waited, watching the rod tip. Nothing. Feder reset the rig close to the bottom.
The bite of a huge swordfish 1,000 feet below the surface looks more like a nibble. The rod tip dips with a slight bounce. To set the hook, the angler needs to be vigilant and retrieve line quickly. Hooking the fish is the art and excitement of this sport. It takes quick reflexes and a little luck to connect with a trophy sword.
We suffered a couple more missed bites before the rod bent heavily and we had our first fish on. The opening salvos in the battle were subdued as the fish came easily to the boat. But when our adversary was a few hundred feet down, it went wild and started to fight.
Swordfish have a soft mouth and often snag the hook or wrap the leader, so patient anglers keep the drag light to prevent pulling the hook. I searched the water for a sign of the fish. Slowly, a silver blur appeared against the dark blue water. The blur turned into a 5-foot-long fish with a thick bill that was almost the same length. Torpedo- shaped with a crescent tail, the fish would give one strong kick and pull 20 yards of line off the reel. Exhausted and anxious, our crew went to work again, bringing in the line and raising the huge fish to the surface.
When the sword was close, it turned on the heat, surging and even jumping a few feet from the boat. As Ross worked the reel, Feder stuck the swordfish with a gaff. Ross then swooped in with a second hook to help haul the man-sized fish over the side of the boat. Lying on the deck, it gleamed silver and blue. I looked into the fish’s huge eye, which a few minutes earlier was swimming almost 2,000 feet below the surface of the water, and knew it had seen things no human has ever imagined. After years chasing this species at night, I was blown away by what I saw in the light of day.
This article was originally published in the October 2020 issue.