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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

In the waning hours of the early June, 2007, night, the 55-foot Hatteras  Sea Ya rocked us emphatically in the persistent sea that had settled over the northern Gulf of Mexico after a couple of unseasonably stormy days had kept us in port.

The sort of great expectations that fuel the mental fires of anglers at the start of a fishing trip burned brightly when we'd first put out lights and let down baits near an area of DeSoto Canyon known as the Spur, about 50 miles off Destin, Florida. But in the wee hours, as those hopes dimmed, anglers had wandered down to a stateroom or curled up on the saloon settee.
By 3:30 a.m. nearly everyone had given up the ghost. But our tireless mate, Travis Ream of Destin, Florida, and my daughter, Rachel, ever hopeful until the bitter end, remained in the cockpit tending baits and lines. 
In fact, Ream had just cleared one line of a pesky shark and was putting out another rigged Atlantic mackerel when the shark apparently zeroed in on the bait again, as it was descending just below the surface. He handed the rig to Rachel: While it wouldn't be much of a fight, at least it would give her something to do. 
As it turned out, Rachel, a regular marathon runner, was just starting a very different sort of marathon that she'd have to endure for more than seven hours. That's how long she stayed on the reel (a Daiwa Dendoh with electric capability but never plugged in during this fight) with 80-pound line - not letting anyone else touch the rod during that time. At 11 a.m. that morning, with help from Capt. Donnie Brown, of Destin (, and Trent Rogers, a Daiwa representative who lives in Jupiter, Florida, Ream finally hauled through the swim platform the head of what proved to be one of the larger swordfish taken in the Gulf, a 363-pounder (weighed many hours after being bled on the boat). It also proved to be the biggest on Brown's boat in nearly three decades fishing the Gulf -beating the 333 he brought aboard in 1978. 
Although when we left the docks at Destin, we had never expected anything quite that size, we did figure on catching swordfish. I'd been hearing of increasing interest and success in a growing recreational fishery in the northern Gulf. Then, too, Brown had assured us that he'd never gone an entire night and not at least hooked up one sword.
Brown's new record catch provided additional evidence that the Gulf of Mexico swordfishery is another chapter in an all-too-rare success story based on recovered stocks of a once woefully overfished species.

What It Was
The rather casual level of interest in fishing swords among most anglers visiting the northern Gulf belies the strength of their numbers. "Honestly," Brown told me, "most customers still want to troll [during the day, of course] for marlin or tuna, not that many charters [clients] are asking to fish swordfish," quite unlike, for example, Miami. At the same time, Brown says the interest among local charter crews and anglers is "huge."
His interest in the species goes back to the 1970s when almost no sport fishermen targeted the nocturnal predator despite its surprising abundance - that was before the great commercial longline decimation of north Atlantic swordfish stocks in the 1980s. "I was the first charter out of Destin to target swords back then," he says. Soon, Brown adds, the recreational effort to catch swordfish had become a hot ticket in the Gulf. 
"Oh yeah, in the late '70s, the swordfishing here was awesome," agrees Capt. Gary Jarvis, also of Destin. "Then the longliners moved in." But Jarvis says the longline ban has brought back the recreational swordfishery in the Gulf just as in the more-high-visibility Atlantic. "Swordfishing has been as good here this last year as I've ever seen it."