Fighting big swordfish is an experience of a lifetime. Fishing for swords is a very high risk, high reward proposition. These fish are often in great depths, and the opportunity cost to hunt for them is high. Consider these tips to improve your odds.
1. Prepare for the trip
On any serious fishing expedition you need to be ready for everything. When we swordfish we run long distances and fish long days so make sure you have plenty of food, drink, clothing, ice, and fuel. It’s also a good idea to leave a float plan. Tell somebody where you expect to fish and when you plan to be back. If needed, they can call the coast guard in case of an emergency.
2. Bring the right fishing tackle
For a daytime swordfish rod you want a rod with plenty of backbone but also a soft tip to detect the bite. I use a custom Key Largo Rod. For the reel I use a shimano 80w with 80 lb yellow tuf-line xp braid.
I use a custom wind-on leader 125’ long made up of 200# – 300# test monofilament. The break away system is an essential part of our rig. We put 2 heavy duty wax loops 18” apart (5’ from the Dacron wind-on loop), and then tie a piece of 20# monofilament in between the loops, leaving a bend in the heavier wind-on leader.
We hang our sinker line from the piece of 20# monofilament, so when we get a bite the pull on the line will break the light monofilament and the concrete sinker will fall off. Our sinkers range from 12 – 15 lbs. They are 6” across and range from 10” – 12” in height. On our leader we also attach two lights. We use one big LP Light about 50’ from the bait, as well as a small duralite diamond about 20’ away from the bait. All different colors work. Make sure to bring extra tackle. It’s a long way to go not to have an extra rod, line, leader, hooks, lights, etc.
3. Rig good baits
There’s no doubt that a swordfish will eat just about anything, but you want to make sure you have good bait every time you go out. Some days they eat everything and other days they only bite certain baits. Dolphin and bonito bellies are probably two of the best baits because of their durability; they can take a lot of whacks from the indecisive swordfish. Squid is another bait of choice; it’s one of the most common things we find inside of them. It’s also a good idea to have a few whole fish for bait. Ladyfish and mullet are my two favorites.
Make sure to stitch your baits up well to the hook with rigging floss so they don’t come off too easily. People will argue whether fresh or frozen is better or if it makes any difference at all. Some days it doesn’t matter at all, but the days when the bites are hard earned I prefer fresh bait without question. I use a 6’ piece 250# – 300# monofilament from the ball bearing swivel to the hook. I prefer single hook baits but I will fish two hooks when baits need them.
4. Day Drop Driving
Good boat driving is the key to being successful at daytime swordfishing. The first thing I do when I reach my spot is put the boat in neutral and figure out the drift. After figuring out our drift course and speed I run 180 degrees opposite of our drift course. I run the distance for what would be equivalent to about a 30 minute drift. If the drift is 60 degrees at 2 knots, I will run at a course of 240 degrees till we are 1 mile away from the spot. It usually takes about 8 – 10 minutes to let our bait down.
The first step in letting the bait is driving with the current while you let out 500’ of line at a medium speed. After that I will slow the spool down so the line barely ticks off and will make a slow U-turn and head directly into the current, keeping the line just off the side of the boat. Once the line angle is 90 degrees off the rod tip (straight up and down) I will speed up the drop. By the time the bait is down in the bite zone I should be about half a mile away from the spot.
I usually give each drift 30 – 40 minutes before checking the bait. In a 2 knot current a 30 minute drift should give us time on the front side and back side of our spot. Now that you’re down you want to “stem” the current. I keep the bow into the current and use the throttles to slow our drift down. Every 5 minutes I let out a little bit of line to keep us in the bite zone as well as to give the bait a little movement.
If the current is weak I will wind the bait up a little bit every 5 minutes. The best bite you can hope for is when the rod just “loads” up and doubles over. Unfortunately most fish whack the bait multiple times before they eat it, if they even do. When you see your rod tip bouncing you want to entice the fish with the bait. One option is to speed up the boat for a second and another is to move the bait with the reel, either up or down.
There’s not one guaranteed way to hook a swordfish, so I recommend trying different techniques until you get tight on the fish. Every fish feeds a little bit different so you need to work the bait different ways until you hook the fish. One the fish is hooked the rod is steady I usually put the boat in gear to help stay tight.
A swordfish at the boat is an erratic and uncontrollable creature. They like to charge the props and swim from side to side going underneath the boat when they are “green”.
As the driver you need to be ready to get away from the fish and pay close attention when the fish is on the leader.
When they tire out they most of them will pin wheel up in big circles, and you don’t want to put any added pressure on with the boat, so when you need to slide forward do so easily and when you back up do so at a steady pace so the angler can keep tight on the fish. If the mate is unhooking lights or weights from the wind-on leader as well you may have to help out as the driver by keeping tension on the fish as they unclip those items.
5. Location and Depth
Swordfish cover all sorts of depth in the daytime, but we really like to focus our attention in the 1500’ – 1800’ zone.
I have heard of them being caught as shallow as 800’ and as deep as 2500’. Different areas provide different types of bottom structure: all of them can hold fish. One thing to remember is if you find the bait, you will find the fish. If you fish on flatter bottom where there’s a gradual change of depth you may have to keep trying different depths until you find where the fish are.
You can start at 1500’ and on the next drifts try 1600’ and so on. If you are fishing around steep walls where there are 200’ – 300’ drops be careful not to snag them as you drift over them. Spend the time to mark the depth changes on your gps so you know exactly when to raise your line up so you don’t snag. Little small structures as well as big structures can hold bait in the daytime and both are ideal places for swordfish to hang out.
6. Getting the bite
Some days the bites come easy and some days they never come at all. When you have 2000’ of line out you need to pay extremely close attention to the rod tip. The bite can be described as a few ways but I like to tell people to look for an “unusual movement”. The rod will have a steady bend in it with the weight on, even though the tip may move up and down with the motion of the waves. When a bite comes from a swordfish there will usually be a double bounce in the tip or a sharp dip in the tip.
Don’t expect for the swordfish to just swim up and gobble your bait.
It happens sometimes but most of the time they whack the bait and you have entice them to eat it at this point. I recommend either reeling up or dropping back in small increments to make the fish more aggressive.
It’s a good idea to try to give the fish just enough slack to turn his head with the bait to get a good hook set. Swordfish are definitely sloppy feeders and for this reason we foul hook a lot of fish. A lot of snagged swordfish lead to long battles with bad endings.
If the hook snags in a strong places you still have a good shot at landing the fish, but if it’s just in the skin the chances are dismal. I would say 25% of the fish we land our foul hooked, and more than that get away. If you fishing one particular depth off the bottom and are not getting bites you should adjust the amount of line you have out, trying both deeper and shallower in the water column. If you work an area with no luck keep trying different spots.
7. Angling Tips
If you swordfish long enough as an angler you will suffer heartbreak. They are one fish that you are going to lose some even if you do nothing wrong. Since a lot of them don’t get hooked well you have to take the good with the bad. When you hook a swordfish in the daytime most likely he’s going to swim to the surface and you are going to wind slack line.
Be steady when reeling because it is a marathon, not a sprint. Depending on the size of the fish dictates whether or not he is going to swim back down towards the bottom. If the fish wants to go back to the bottom don’t try to stop him. Let him run against a medium drag until he stops.
I like to catch swordfish with as little drag as possible. If you are not able to move a fish however it’s time to go up on the drag. When I enter what are going to be long battles I go up on the drag in small increments every 30 minutes on the fish until we can move them. If the fish makes a big run though I usually back off on the drag slightly, and then when he slows I will go back up on the drag.
Swordfish battles can last for hours and you don’t want to waste any energy.You don’t want to wind against the drag and you want to use the harness to your advantage. Let your body bear the strain of the rod. Make sure to stay hydrated in fights too. You should drink plenty of water and it’s a good idea to drink some electrolytes too.
8. Team Communication
Everyone needs to talk when battling a big swordfish. It can be a game of inches and every one counts. When you get the bite you need to let the captain know so he can make the right move with the boat. When the fish is near the boat sometimes it can be tough to see what is happening on the reel in front of the angler too.
Let the captain know when he’s taking line and when you’re gaining. If the fish is on the wind-on leader and you need to remove weights or lights remind the captain to help you out with the boat in order to stay tight on the fish in close distances, that way the fish doesn’t get too much slack and throw the hook.
If you are the mate and the fish is on the leader below the boat you need to tell the captain which way the fish is facing so he knows where to turn the boat. If the fish is pin wheeling up slowly you can also let the captain know when to go ahead and when to come back to pick up easy line.
9. Landing the Fish
It’s a huge accomplishment catching your first daytime swordfish. When you do catch your first swordfish you’ve done something right.
Now it’s always nice to get lucky once in a while, but luck runs out. You want to have a good team and work together to put fish in the boat. Since we keep a lot of our swordfish I like to have an arsenal with me. It’s made up of two harpoons, a 12’’ flying gaff, and two 8’ straight gaffs.
This may seem like overkill but when you’ve seen what I’ve seen it’s just what you need. As a mate you want to be steady on the leader and keep constant pressure to bring the fish boat side.
If you are going to use a harpoon make sure you have it rigged with a buoy system or attached to another rod. DO NOT tie your harpoon line to the boat. This will break the line or most likely rip the dart out of the fish if he runs. If you have a flying gaff tie it up just incase. You don’t always know how big the fish are going to be and when you’re going to get your shot. I prefer to use a straight gaff and aim for the head of the fish when boating them, but sometimes you can’t be picky.
Make sure you and whoever is helping boat the fish have gloves on. You need to control the bill of the fish when you bring him over the side as well. If one person has the gaff make sure another person has the bill.
10. Safety First
I have let my guard up a couple of times when swordfishing and have seen a couple of close calls. You never want to trust a swordfish!
I have seen them laying on the deck thinking they are dead, but then all of a sudden they go nuts and start swinging that sword around looking to do some damage. You should wear gloves and control any fish on the deck and make sure he is really dead before you leave him unattended.
When using heavy tackle and fighting a swordfish make sure the angler is strapped into the boat. This includes both chair fishing and especially stand up fishing. If you are the wireman make sure to have a cutting device on your side incase you get a bad wrap on the leader and need to cut yourself free.
No fish is worth your life! If you snag bottom DO NOT wrap the braided line around your hands, even if you’re wearing gloves. It’s extremely strong stuff and you should tie it to the cleat if you need to break it.
This should be enough information to lead you in the right direction when it comes to catching swordfish, but you can only read so much. You need to get out on the boat and put some time in. Remember, “sometimes you get the sword, sometimes the sword gets you”. Never give up.