Ernest Hemingway once compared the Gulf Stream to a trout stream. “The holes, the eddies, the shallows are all there. Only you can’t see them.”
Marlin fishermen today might dismiss such a nuanced reading of water a quarter-mile above the current-shaping topography of the continental shelf, and Hemingway might have been employing a fiction writer’s technique by using trout-fishing familiarity simply to connect his reader with completely foreign billfishing.
Hemingway’s fishing articles intersected with his 21-year position as International Game Fish Association vice president and ambassador—not unlike today’s social media influencers—with technically precise and immensely exciting portrayals that lured average anglers away from stripers and fluke. Eventually, billfishing became mainstream.
Today, ever-increasing social media posts of “triple markers”—commercial-fisherman jargon for swordfish larger than 300 pounds—and “nickels”—swords topping 500 pounds—entice mainstream billfish anglers into efforts to hook broadbills. The allure is unmistakable if, for example, one watches a Facebook video of Capt. Nick Stanczyk’s 757-pound swordfish thrashing against the gaffs (daytimeswordfish.com).
Here’s the thing, though: With knowledge shared on social media broadening understanding of broadbills, it’s increasingly clear that the Gulf Stream current interacting with bottom features affects swordfish bites as much as current affects snook feeding in tidal estuaries or trout in mountain streams. Hemingway’s analogy has proved more fish-catching fact than fiction. Informative accounts on social media are similarly helping focus attention now on huge swordfish, 1,500 feet below the waves. Here, seven captains, all of whom have caught multiple triple-marker fish, and a few who’ve “busted the nickel” more than once, weigh in on catching trophy swords.
The Bottom Line
“In the 16 years that I fished only at night, catching on average 100 fish per year, I never caught a fish over 400 pounds,” says South Florida swordfish pioneer R.J. Boyle (rjboylestudio.com). In the 12 years since he began deep-trolling in daylight, he’s brought nine broadbills to the dock that topped 500 pounds.
“In that same 12 years, I caught one 439‑pound fish at night, but that’s because I understood swordfish from my experiences daytime fishing,” he adds. “Bottom was irrelevant in our minds when we fished only at night. Now we know that the bottom is everything.”
Boyle says daytime fishing is more productive because it compresses the activity of swordfish nearer the seafloor. Current also collects fish in areas with rougher bottom. “It’s no different than barracuda on a wreck. Current keeps swordfish in an area, a zone, that’s more targetable.
“Big swordfish like areas where a rocky or gravelly bottom transitions into mud,” he says. Large swordfish have noticeably worn pectoral and anal fins from laying on the bottom to ambush prey, he notes, and the biggest fish stake out those softer spots adjacent to the rougher bottom that holds bait. Boyle, trolling northward near 2 knots, is targeting large areas with those bottom characteristics.
Fishing off the Dominican Republic requires more location specificity. “We have very little current, so it’s really hard to cover ground,” says Capt. Paco Vela (dulcecococharter.com), so he chooses drops based on structure, conditions and past experience, and bump-trolls slowly. “If I don’t get a bite after 45 minutes, I’ll move.”
Dominican Republic broadbills tend to split between fish smaller than 100 pounds or larger than 200, which adds interesting insight to trophy swordfish hunting here. “Wherever I catch a small fish, I can catch more, but where I catch a big fish, I won’t catch anything else there that day, big or small,” he says. “The next day, I can catch another fish in that same spot.”
Pitch Baits to Sunning Swords
“The California Bight can be really good for swordfish,” says San Diego’s Capt. Pete Groesbeck. “This year we had a wave of big fish early in the season (which runs from June through November). They were all 300-pounders.” The advantage to surface swordfishing, of course, is seeing and choosing which fish to target.
“Get four or five young guys with good eyes looking through gyro binoculars where current edges, temperature breaks or color edges cross over structure.”
Groesbeck says that swordfish feed deep during tidal flows, then surface during slack water. “You have to fish through at least one slack tide,” he suggests.
Using two-speed Shimano Talica 25s with 100-pound braid and an 80-pound top shot, he casts large, live mackerel pinned through the jaw with a 10/0 J hook.
“Swordfish eyes don’t rotate up, only down, so cast it in front of swordfish so the bait twitches as it goes down,” he says. “As soon as the swordfish sinks down, peel line off the reel. Sometimes they’ll whack a bait and come back a long time later, so leave that bait alone until you get the bite or see the swordfish finning again.”
Alternately, some boats troll a bait far behind from an outrigger, then stop so that the bait sinks into position.
“The surface isn’t a normal place for swordfish. Mako sharks go for the tail first. When swordfish sense anything behind them, it freaks them out,” Groesbeck says, warning to keep baits in front of broadbills, and never behind.
“We were just old-school nighttime swordfishing, drifting two lines, one at 10 fathoms and one at 20,” says Capt. Randy Butler of Virginia Beach (rebelsportfishing.com) about the 466-pound Virginia state-record swordfish he landed this past August.
“We definitely get more bites in the daytime, when the fish are concentrated near the bottom, but the average-size fish here is about 120 to 150 pounds, which is the same day or night.” Butler also sees an even split, night or day, among big fish, including a daytime-caught Big Fish Classic tournament-winning fish last season that weighed 295 pounds.
“On most of the pinnacles in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, there is a little trough, a depression, in the southwest corner from all the years of the current swirling over it. In the daytime, I have really good luck fishing there. The swordfish lay there waiting for bait to come,” Butler says. “Now that I’ve had the daytime experience, I’m paying way more attention to bottom structure when I drift at night. The state-record fish came from a sloping edge with a gradual drop between two pinnacles.”
“The average-size swordfish is definitely bigger fishing in the daytime,” says Capt. Bouncer Smith of Miami (captbouncer.com), “but I caught my biggest, estimated at 600 pounds or more, fishing at night.” Since then, he’s weighed one 546-pound fish and a 558-pounder, both caught during daylight fishing.
Besides daytime deep-trolling or nighttime drifting for swords, Smith adds an exciting third option for his charters: Hookless teasers trolled behind planers are retrieved rapidly with electric reels, then the swordfish are switched to a pitch bait or fly. “As we had been doing it, using as little light as legally possible, it’s extremely difficult to see what’s there,” Smith says. “When we add a Hydro Glow, we can see where the fish is and where the fly or pitch bait is. It makes everything so much easier. You can let a 100-pounder slide and wait to bait a big swordfish.
“That’s a great thing about fishing,” he continues. “It’s always changing; there are always new things to try. If you’re stagnant, you don’t keep up.”
“We learned that swordfish are not a fish of the deep; they’re a fish of the darkness,” Vela says. Even the tropical sun penetrates only the first 400 feet of ocean depths. “I might fish 100 feet or 200 feet off the bottom, but sometimes I’ll fish as close as 500 feet to the surface.” His fish finder marks both layers of bait and individual swordfish, which he targets by depth in the Dominican Republic.
Off California, rod-and-reel anglers weren’t hooking swordfish deep—until late this past summer. “If we get near the bottom, we have critters here—hake, sharks, rockfish—that won’t leave the baits alone,” says Greg Stotesbury, an avid Southern California offshore angler and retired AFTCO sales manager. Instead, California anglers target the deep scattering layer—a band of plankton, shrimp, krill, squid and fin fish hovering 700 to 1,200 feet below the surface, which occurs similarly worldwide.
“We’re fishing near structure, but not necessarily on it, typically targeting those midwater depths with one line around 800 feet deep, and another around 1,000 feet, suspended from buoys, and then another off the rod tip around 1,100, all in water around 1,500 feet deep.”
Monsters of the Southern California Bight and the Tasman Sea
Off California, deep rod-and-reel catches have accounted for only a few dozen fish, as of this writing, but they’ve been impressive—at least one weighing more than 400 pounds and several topping 300. “The commercial harpoon fleet and buoy guys are bringing in fish over 500 pounds, some more than 700 pounds. There will be some monsters caught here, for sure,” Stotesbury says—his largest to date is 342 pounds—“but we still don’t quite know where to start. We’re seeing swordfish from Santa Cruz Island to San Diego and in between.”
Swordfish stay where their food choices are good, Boyle says. “Nick Stanczyk, in Islamorada, has caught more swordfish than I have, but I’ve caught more big fish. They have the right bottom structure in the Keys—those transitions between gravel to mud to reef to sand—but we have more of it here, in South Florida off Hillsboro Inlet. Swordfish, particularly big swordfish, migrate through the Keys, but they stay here longer.”
(When I inquired with Stanczyk about an interview for this article, shortly after he caught his 757-pound fish this past March, he replied: “Most of our fish are small here—40 to 150 pounds is typical.”)
“Tasmania, New Zealand—if you really want to catch a big swordfish, that’s where they live,” Boyle adds.
“The average here is 150,” says Tasmanian swordfisherman Mason Paull, a Team Shimano member. “We get them over 200, and my largest is 380—that’s kilos, mate.” That converts to average fish topping 300 pounds, and Paull’s best at more than 800 pounds. He fishes out of St. Helens, on Tasmania’s east coast, but he might as well be living on another planet when considering giant swordfish. “One caught last year went 425 kilos (935 pounds),” he adds.
“We’re at the southern range of where they forage. There are tons of baitfish and loads of squid here,” he says. “I think the bigger fish have the body mass to push south, into colder water. Also, we don’t have a commercial swordfish effort here.”
Unweighted Lines Down Deep
“We’re catching more big fish because we understand how to feed them,” Boyle says. “We drop the lead, which stalls the bait, allowing the swordfish to eat it and turn, just like giving a marlin a surface-trolled bait. If you’re not dropping back far enough, you’ll snag swordfish in the face and pull the fish off, but if you drop too far, you’re increasing the chance of that fish wrapping up in the leader or foul-hooking.”
Feeding a fish a quarter-mile away requires more formula than finesse though. “If we’re not sure it’s a sword bite, we’ll wind it up 30 feet. If we get a second bite, or if we know it’s a swordfish on the first hit, we drop 50 feet, always continuing to drive the boat normally.”
Contrast that method, however, with Paull’s: He differs from other swordfishermen by not using any lead. “The bottom slopes off pretty steeply starting at 300 meters (984 feet). I find most of the fish right where it levels out, around 500 meters (1,640 feet).” A common house brick breaks away, on 8-pound mono; once it hits bottom, the bait is free to follow the slope uphill in minimal current.
“With no weight, we’ve got a big belly in the line. I don’t see the bite unless it’s on the way down, or right after I break off the weight. Most of the time, the rod just slowly loads. They’ve already eaten it, and the circle hook finds the corner of the mouth.” Paull was missing strikes with J hooks, but now hooks most fish with a single 18/0 offset circle hook. “Most fish come up quickly and jump away from the boat, and then they sound 100 meters (328 feet), and it’s just a dogfight. They set on their side and pull. I’ve never had one go all the way back down to the bottom, but I’ve got a brutal rod, and we’ll go to 20 kilos (44 pounds) drag to stop them.”
Tightening the Drag
“There were a lot of lost opportunities in the early days. Now we’ve learned how to fight these big fish,” Boyle says, crediting social media. “Chat groups on Facebook, Instagram and learning platforms like mine are providing constant observation, information and discussion—that’s why we’re seeing all these big fish come to the dock.” (Two public groups on Facebook with this sort of information are Swordfish Symposium and Swordfish group.)
Conventional wisdom with swordfish has long been that anglers shouldn’t put too much drag on swordfish because of their soft mouths. But Boyle says that social media posts have shown that those fish were never hooked to begin with. “We have to set the hook with 25 pounds of drag for 10 seconds,” he says.
“Your tackle had better be right,” he adds. “Out of 100 bites, only one or two are fish over 500 pounds. One weakness will show itself. Eighty-pound braid breaks at 105 pounds. If your terminal tackle is right, your stuff should not break.”
Big fish, Boyle adds, show themselves early in the fight. “We learned to run to the fish at 10 knots and close the deal. People see that on Facebook and can’t believe our line is slack half the time. Through social media they’re realizing it’s OK that the rod is not bent—that the lead, 150 feet away from the fish, is holding the hook tight.
“When you stick a harpoon into a 500-pound fish 15 minutes into the fight, it takes off. If we have a good harpoon shot, we’ll go past 40 pounds on the drag to pull the fish from the mouth, and just take up slack on the harpoon line.”
“I didn’t have social media when I started,” Boyle says. “John Bassett was a pioneer of nighttime swordfishing 20 years before I came along, and he helped me a lot. The swordfish-taco-style strip bait, the extra-long wind-on with the loop for the lead—that all came from him. My learning was trial and error or one to one. Now, when everyone tells their stories of fish they lost—and why—in an online community of sword-fishermen, everyone is learning, and we’re catching more fish—more big fish.”