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April 03, 2008

Sword-Play in the Gulf of Mexico

Return of the broadbill: Discover the Gulf's low-profile, high-catch fishery

What It Is
How good is "as good as I've ever seen it"? "In 18 nights out," says Jarvis, who runs the Back Down 2, a 57-foot custom convertible, "I caught at least one sword every single trip!" 
 
He recounts one night during a billfish tournament three years ago when, after fishing all day, "We were exhausted." Jarvis' turn in the rotation put him in the cockpit, alone, at 4 a.m. "Suddenly I had three swordfish hooked up all at once - and I couldn't get anybody up!" Ultimately, two 50-wides ended up spooled, he says.
 
It's not strictly a quantity thing, either, Jarvis says. "These Gulf swords are getting bigger each year."

"Five years ago," agrees Jimmy Beason Jr., harbormaster and owner of the Orange Beach Marina in Orange Beach, Alabama, "you could hardly find a keeper [47 inches from end of lower jaw to tail fork]. Now it's common to see swords up to 200 pounds brought in." Good as it is, Beason adds, "there are a lot of people around here who still have no idea there are swordfish out in the Gulf!"

Spur and Steps
The shallow slope of the Gulf seafloor makes for long runs, typically 50 to 60 miles and more, to reach swordfish territory. That offers an incentive for those who want to catch swordies at night to stay out "on the grounds" after a day spent pulling lures for marlin and tuna.
 
 But it also makes for some mighty long days, especially if a boat is scheduled to put out a trolling spread at first light. "That's why I have a daytime mate and a nighttime mate who sleeps during the day and gets up for supper as if it were time to eat breakfast!" Brown laughs. 
 
The area where Rachel fought her epic night-into-day battle has long been favored as a top spot to drop swordfish lights and lines. The "Spur" is just that -  a notch in the northernmost tip of DeSoto Canyon. The vast, yawning canyon comes closest to land at its northern extremity off the western panhandle of Florida, about 50 miles from Destin. And here it rises to a relatively shallow 1,200 or so feet - a good depth for broadbill in the Gulf, says Beason. 
 
Jarvis says the whole general area of the Spur will produce broadbill, mainly beyond the 200-fathom curve. "And if, out there, we can find a temperature break, that's all the better." He notes that the Alabama record sword of 448 pounds (September 2006, beating a longstanding Gulf record of 350) came from an area known as the Dumping Grounds, about 20 miles west of the Spur. Not surprisingly, broadbill encounters and interest have been increasing along the entire northern Gulf, with the seamounts and deepwater rigs off Louisiana among the points of attraction for broadbill.
 
Another good producer, the Steps, is so-called because it's a series of ridges along the slope of the continental shelf that drops relatively quickly from 500 feet into water several times that deep. 
 
Swords - like just about every other predatory game fish in the Gulf - also patrol deepwater oil rigs - where they've been photographed by submersibles searching for food in eternally dark abyssal waters.