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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

Baits and Rigs
You won't find some top-secret "Gulf rig" for swords in use, here. But as with most regions, successful skippers have their own take on best ways to fool swordfish. Jarvis attributes his success in part to his use of a sea anchor, "even when it's really calm." He also makes sure his sea anchor is outfitted with a buoy, light sticks and reflectors, so his crew can toss the whole thing over when an angler's tied to a fish of trophy proportions. 
 
Of course, a sea anchor becomes even more useful when the wind blows. Then, Beason points out, the current plays a major role in fishability on the grounds. When a stiff breeze is running opposite a stiff current, the sea gets pretty sloppy (and setting up a good drift gets tricky); in the Gulf, current - the direction and, particularly, its varying velocity - plays a major role in swordfish success.
 
Many northern Gulf skippers have switched from mostly live baits (particularly blue runners, a.k.a. hardtails) to fresh rigged squid or Atlantic mackerel (known locally as Boston mackerel). The results have been speaking for themselves. 
 
Beason favors the same baits as Jarvis. However, he rigs them with a single J hook since "Swordfish have soft mouths, and circle hooks tend to pull out." Ironically, Brown takes the opposite tack. "We've gone from J hooks to circle hooks. We lost fish on the J hooks; we don't with circles." 
 

Rigging Squid that Swords Can't Resist

These two fresh baits account for the capture of most northern Gulf broadbill these days. One of the more proficient riggers, Capt. Chris Vecsey at Top Gun Tackle in Orange Beach, Alabama, went through his processes, step by step, for Sport Fishing readers. You can see it here!

Precisely because of those notoriously soft mouths, swordfish expert Capt. Chris Vecsey (pronounced "vecheeya") at Top Gun Tackle in Orange Beach says he likes to set his 50-wides at 14 to 15 pounds strike drag and stick with that the whole fight unless the fight goes so long the drag must be pushed up. Brown goes even lighter, with an 8-pound strike drag and, when possible, even maintaining that setting for an entire fight.
 
Brown has switched from strictly conventional reels to Daiwa Dendohs, designed to be used either as electrics or strictly manual. The Dendoh means fighting fish on a non-electric reel, the old-fashioned way, while at the same time allowing crews to very quickly bring baits up from deep water to check or replace them or when the skippers wants to make a move. Ultimately, that ability means more fishing time. 
 
Beason thinks with some experimentation, methods new to the region could produce more swords, notably during times when sloppy weather makes it tough to set up a good drift. "Why not use downriggers and slow troll?" he muses. With a lightstick on a livey, big-eyed swordfish should have no trouble finding the bait, Beason adds.
 
Single Sword Tourney
While you can find all sorts of swordfish tournaments out of Atlantic ports, the Gulf has but one: the Orange Beach Swordfish Classic. This July will mark its fifth year and, just maybe, its first big year. Tournament director Jimmy Beason says the inaugural event attracted just a few boats that caught just a few swords. Year two saw eight boats competing with a respectable total of 24 swords brought boat-side. But in years three and four (2006 and 2007), "the weather really killed us," says Beeson of the unusual midsummer blows. For more information on this year's Swordfish Classic, visit www.orangebeachmarina.com/swordfishclassic.

Broadbill Conservation Concerns
For management purposes, scientists consider swords in the Gulf of Mexico part of the north Atlantic stock, according to Victor Restrepo, a fisheries biologist at the National Marine Fisheries Service's (NMFS) Southeast Science Center. (Genetic studies show three distinct stocks of broadbill: north Atlantic, south Atlantic and Mediterranean.) 
 
Much of the DeSoto Canyon has been closed to longlinging, protecting smaller swordfish. Most northern Gulf skippers figure that's why the swordfishing has gotten so good - and worry that those longline boats will be allowed back into the canyon. 
 
In fact, recreational anglers in the Gulf have been releasing lots of (legal) broadbill. Beason says the goal is to see this burgeoning Gulf fishery keep growing. "We're promoting release fishing as much as possible." Many anglers, like Vecsey, can recount nights when several swords were brought to the boat. "But we seldom keep more than one," he says. 
 
The widespread inclination to release swordfish is laudable; however, it makes reporting each and every broadbill caught all the more important. That's because for years the United States has consistently failed to catch its internationally allotted quota of the species. That may open up the agency that manages swordfish to give part of this quota to another nation to catch or perhaps allow more longline fishing to increase the reported harvest. Bottom line: Gulf anglers can help the fishery by reporting to NMFS within 24 hours the catch of any swordfish, no matter the size: 888-872-8862 or 800-894-5528 or log onto https://hmspermits.noaa.gov.