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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

Florida Tricks — Texas Style
Holden acknowledges that he began swordfishing knowing exactly nothing about best gear or strategies. “When I started, I had never heard of anyone even trying for swords off Texas. I’d never heard of a light stick. There were no magazine articles to guide me,” Holden says. “We just learned from scratch, over thousands of hours of fishing.”

Once he’d gotten the hang of swordfishing by night, the early success of day droppers off Venezuela and then Florida convinced Holden such techniques, perhaps with modification, should work for Texas swords as well. “So I packed up the boat, and we left for Florida!” They caught fish there and, “we learned the basics.” That includes the critical appreciation for the fact that “the fishing off Florida is 100 percent different from the fishing here, off Texas. We found out that when you try to fish daytime Florida-style here, you end up with a tangled mess.” (Much of that, as explained below, has to do with current.)

While it took some time to fine-tune their techniques, the Booby Trap crew (Jeff “Socks” Wilson, Shayne “dot.com” Ellis, Travis Joyce and Brett Holden, captains all) knew right off the effort was worth their time: “The first day we tried it, we went five for nine,” the angler says.

In fact, Holden — a pioneer in Texas daytime dropping for swords though he’s doing it for only a couple of years — uses what he describes as basically the same rig as in Florida; it’s the deployment that he’s had to adapt to Texas fishing. “During the day, fishing off Florida, we had 2 or 3 or even 4 knots of current. Here off Texas, the average is about .7 knot.” The trick is to keep the bait moving, at about 2 knots, says Holden.

Off the Deep End
It’s not only the bait that must be in motion but the line — as much as several thousand feet of it. That, of course, stems from the depths fished, generally 1,600 to 2,000 feet. And in that regard, diurnal fishing off Texas is indeed much the same as off Venezuela or Florida or most anywhere. That’s because swords follow what’s known as the deep-scattering layer toward the surface. And that’s where Holden wants his baits to be. The Booby Trap team has learned to start daytime drifts on the deep side of seamounts or slopes (since prey and swords both tend to associate with structure) and move shallower, typically around 2,000 to 2,500 feet, then following its ascent to 1,200 to 1,400 feet. “My favorite depth in the daytime is 1,625 to 1,775,” he says.

At night, he fishes over shallower grounds, usually 1,000 to 1,200 feet, setting baits from the surface to as deep as 250 on bright nights or 350 on dark nights. “Watch for the thermocline,” he advises, “and put bait just above, below and on it.

“Swordfish often bite gingerly, particularly in the daytime. You’ve got to be really determined,” he says. “The whole time a rod is out deep, we never take our eyes off the tip. Too many guys wait for the rod to really bend; we like to see it twitch, then start taunting the fish by reeling to move the bait away.”

He also advises keeping some baits right on the bottom. “I like to drag a bait through the mud and cause a commotion.”

Swordy Smorgasbord

Swordfish are opportunistic diners, and Holden has learned be an opportunistic angler, offering Gulf swords a variety of live baits including hardtails (blue runners), mullet, rainbow runners, tinker mackerel (his favorite livey; catch ’em while they swim within bright boat lights at night over seamounts). Baits as large as bonitos (little tunnies) weighing two or three pounds sometimes produce also.

His offerings generally include fresh, dead baits as well, with squid a top choice. “We buy the large squid at the Chinese market (rather than at bait stores) — $1.25 to $1.75 a pound in 60-pound flats. They run one to two pounds apiece. That’s been a secret of ours, but one I don’t mind letting out,” Holden says. “Baitmasters four-packs of medium swordfish squid are great for night fishing,” Holden adds, though they’re likely to run a bit small for daytime swords — and “the bigger the squid, the better.”

While squid’s a great go-to bait, “for daytime, I’d say my favorite is a split — butterfly-cut — mullet or Spanish mackerel about a foot long. But we’ve caught plenty on strip baits, such as tuna bellies or wahoo bellies behind a skirt,” says Holden. “We do a lot of stitching and sewing on our daytime baits to keep ’em together while swords are beating on ’em 1,700 feet down.”