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June 01, 2011

Lone Star Swordfish

Suddenly, it's all about broadbill for Texas offshore enthusiasts — a swordfish pioneer reveals long-veiled secrets

Think “Texas fishing,” and swordfish probably aren’t the first game fish that leap to mind. Just don’t tell that to a growing cadre of Lone Star broadbill enthusiasts. Not so long ago, the idea of running 75 to 100 miles or more offshore into the Gulf of Mexico to try for swords would have bordered on the bizarre. But in the past couple of years, that cat’s been slinking out of the bag.

Suddenly swordfish are all the rage among Texas fisher­men with offshore-capable boats. Evidence admittedly anecdotal but also pretty irrefutable suggests Texas swords have been increasing in both abundance and average size. That, along with ­empirical discoveries of which tackle and techniques work most effectively off this coast, means there’s never been a better time for gearing up to tangle with ­broadbill in the northwestern Gulf.

One Man’s Obsession
It’s unlikely that any individual has had more to do with the explosion of interest in catching Texas swordfish than Brett Holden.

What the obsessive vision of Devil’s Tower was to Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Texas swordfish became to this Houston roofing-company owner, starting in the late 1980s. That’s when his friend and mentor, Bill Thurber, decided he wanted to catch swordfish. Thurber headed offshore out of Matagorda one evening, gave it a shot and came up snake eyes.

Holden started to accompany his friend in the quest next trip out. That time, “we caught five — and they were all 15 to 30 pounds,” Holden recalls.

Albeit those five pups together barely equaled one good sword by today’s standards, they were enough: Holden’s obsession was sealed.

“Since then, I’ve fished about every rock there is out there in 1,000 to 2,500 feet,” he says. For the past 23 years, Holden has fished the Gulf’s high seas out of centrally situated Freeport, now logging 100 to 150 days per year. While he does fish for and catch plenty of other species of game fish, target No. 1 remains the broadbill.

Holden has caught more than 300 Texas swords, releasing many, in recent years aboard his 52 Viking express Booby Trap, docked at Surfside Marina. Holden and his team have had 10-swordfish nights (with up to 20 shots) and eight-swordfish days (all eight, up to 300 pounds, were released). He’s studied the fish and its fisheries (traveling to Florida just to learn how experts out there had dialed in daytime swording), experimented at length, and adapted techniques to fit Texas’ particular situation. For years, Holden made every effort to keep Booby Trap’s swordy secrets on the down low; now, he’s come full circle and wants to share what he’s learned, so others can enjoy the burgeoning swordfish populations off Texas.

Bigger and Bigger

While Holden has no scientific data (nor does anyone) quantifying broadbill stocks in the northwestern Gulf, his extensive experience leaves little doubt that the species is alive, well and thriving off Texas.

Not only have numbers held up very well, the fish are clearly averaging a larger size. “I’ve watched fish over the past 20 years get progressively bigger out there — no question about it.” He says that the average weight in the late ’80s remained a paltry 25 to 40 pounds. “But now most of our fish will run 50 to 125 pounds at night, and 80 to 250 during the day.” Booby Trap’s biggest swordy to date came in just over the 600-pound mark.

That’s not to say there aren’t bigger swords down there — much bigger. “I’ve always dreamed of catching a thousand-pounder,” Holden admits. “And I’m pretty sure I’ve hooked a couple. Last summer, I hooked what was definitely the most powerful fish I’ve ever had on a line. We got a look at her,” Holden says of the broadbill in broad daylight. “She surfaced, with her head out of the water, behind the boat. If I’ve ever seen a grander, she was it!” But it wasn’t to be: After four-and-a-half tense hours, the hooks pulled. “She didn’t seem the least bit tired at that point, either — though the reel began sounding like it was close to seizing up!”