Fact: Swordfish are among the largest predatory fishes that inhabit the Pacific off Southern California.
Fact: Swordfish are caught by California anglers only rarely, typically when baiting (pitching live baits to) them when seen sunning on the surface of the deep sea (though often, they show little interest in such live baits at these times).
Fact: “Stick boats,” as commercial harpooners with overlong bow pulpits are called, enjoy success pursuing swordfish on top (often guided by spotter planes).
Fact: These are the same swordfish (there’s but one species of Xiphias gladius) caught by anglers with great success off the U.S. Southeast/Gulf states, Florida and Texas particularly.
Fact: Night fishing for them — by drifting baits near the surface in deep water, very productive in the Atlantic, has been tried off California but rarely and with little success.
Fact: Daytime efforts — by deep-dropping baits near bottom in 1,000 to 3,000 feet of water (looking for the bio-rich deep-scattering layer) — have become very productive for large swords in the Atlantic; however, few anglers have really applied the effective, specialized techniques off California to fish swords deep (rather than looking for them topside).
All those facts were in the mind of Brett Holden, the owner of a Texas roofing company, whose passion for and success at catching swordfish in the northwestern Gulf of Mexico have been featured in national articles, while he packed gear in mid-August for the flights that he and Capt. Jeff Wilson would catch the next day to San Diego.
Holden had for some time believed their proved tactics for big daytime swords off Texas — revealed in great detail in a Sport Fishing feature — would work in the Pacific.
Now it was time for Holden and Wilson, from the Booby Trap (the name of their 52 Viking express) team, to find out.
They shipped a fortune in gear to San Diego, including their Lindgren-Pitman 1200 electric rigs with 80-pound braid to find swords and their 80 Tiagras to catch them manually once located, as well as 35 rigged squid and 15 rigged belly baits.
Now, after the dust has settled following three days of experimental deep dropping off Southern California, the boys from Booby Trap caught no swords — and judged their efforts wildly successful and even groundbreaking.
The first day, with renowned Capt. Mike “the Beak” Hurt on his 54 Bertram Chiquelin, fishing 9 to 30 miles offshore, produced some classic sword bites but no hookups. The next day, focusing on 1,800- to 2,000-foot depths, produced more bites and misses, along with some huge Humboldt squid and some large black cod (sablefish). Then, just before 5 p.m. another typical big-sword strike.
“It whacked the bait hard, I dropped back, and we were tight,” says Holden. But almost at once the hook pulled. The sword took a swipe at the weight, cutting through the fairly light line holding it to the leader, and then went back to whack the bait. Holden free-spooled the bait and hooked up solidly this time.
“She was hooked at about 1,900 feet and fought like all big swords do, at first coming straight up to the surface.” But she stopped about 500 feet down.
Over the next 14 hours, they managed to bring the fish to within 150 feet or so between runs down to 1,000 feet until finally, at 7 a.m. the next day, “We lost that giant sword at 200 feet under the boat.”
When Holden says giant, he should have some credibility, having caught swords to 650 pounds and lost much larger ones off Texas. This was clearly one of the much, much larger ones.
Next day, their final attempt was with Mike Hawk on his 58 Viking, Fishawk. Again, no hookups but more unmistakable sword bites (as well as more squid and black cod which the anglers had do their best to avoid) until, again, close to 5 p.m. Then bite became hookup and a fight that had the earmarks of the day before ensued with another sword clearly in the monster category. “She came up to about 150 feet, at the thermocline,” says Holden, “and just wouldn’t be moved out of that. We could see her on the Furuno.” Soon after, “we could feel her start window washing [shaking her bill violently from side to side].” That, Holden says, is when most big swords are lost and, sure enough, this one managed to shake the hook at 3 a.m., after 10 hours.
“Cracking the code in California on swords was our main goal,” he says, believing they did that, using their Texas broadbill techniques. “We can’t wait to get back with the entire Booby Trap team,” probably this fall.
“Without question, swords are the most powerful billfish in the world. We average just under 30 minutes to catch a blue marlin,” says Holden, whose boat has caught more than its share of offshore billfish slams. “A swordfish in the 100- to 200-pound range will take one to two-and-a-half hours; for a 300- to 400-pound sword, it’s typically a three- to five-hour fight. What at incredible fish!”
Meanwhile, the word of Holden’s near-misses with monsters is spreading through the community of big-game-fishing enthusiasts in Southern California. “I just talked to a captain out there and he said, man, are there a lot of guys trying this stuff in the last couple of days!”
With neither malice nor disrespect intended for any person on the Left Coast, Holden says, “There are a lot of really big bitches out there! We’ll be back!”