Swordfish

Swordfish

Swordfish are found in oceanic regions worldwide, including the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. Swords are found in tropical, temperate, and sometimes cold waters. The swordfish is a highly migratory species, generally moving to warmer waters in the winter and cooler waters in the summer. It is often present in frontal zones, areas where ocean currents collide and productivity is high.
 
Generally an oceanic species, the swordfish is primarily a midwater fish at depths of 650-1970 feet (100-300 fathoms) and water temperatures of 64 to 71°F.  Although mainly a warm-water species, the swordfish has the widest temperature tolerance of any billfish, and can be found in waters from 41-80°F . The swordfish is commonly observed in surface waters, although it is believed to swim to depths of 2,100 feet or greater, where the water temperature may be just above freezing. One adaptation which allows for swimming in such cold water is the presence of a “brain heater,” a large bundle of tissue associated with one of the eye muscles, which insulates and warms the brain. Blood is supplied to the tissue through a specialized vascular heat exchanger, similar to the counter current exchange found in some tunas. This helps prevent rapid cooling and damage to the brain as a result of extreme vertical movements.
Swordfish have been observed spawning in the Atlantic Ocean, in water less than 250 ft.  deep.
 
Estimates vary considerably, but females may carry from 1 million to 29 million eggs in their gonads. Solitary males and females appear to pair up during the spawning season. Spawning occurs year-round in the Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico, the Florida coast and other warm equatorial waters, while it occurs in the spring and summer in cooler regions. The most recognized spawning site is in the Mediterranean, off the coast of Italy. The height of this well-known spawning season is in July and August, when males are often observed chasing females.
 
If you want to know more about swords in general, I recently read a book on swords. Swordfish – A Biography of the Ocean Gladiator.  Probably more information in that book than most anglers want to know but a good read in the winter months when the fishing is slow.
 
Targeting Swords at Night.  OK, so let’s talk about how to catch them.  First off, I am no true expert.  I am just a part time fisherman but have obsessed with swords for the last 8 years off the coast of the Virginia.  I am going to talk about fishing for swords at night.  I have not tried day time dropping for swords.  I know some anglers that have had success with daytime drops off Virginia but I have not done that yet so this article will discuss how I target them at night.  The best time to target them is in the fall from September through December and even January.  But they can be caught anytime spring, summer, or fall.  I’ve caught some nice swords in April.
 
Where:  Swordfish are like most other pelagics.  They roam the vast oceans looking for a meal.  Swords have a distinct advantage in that they can feed throughout the entire water column but as the squid rise at night so do the swords.  Figuring where to fish for them is much like trying to decide where to tuna fish.  I look for temperature breaks over good structure.  Or where blue water meets green water over structure.  Structure is not always just the 100 fathom curve.  Most of the modern chips in chart plotters do a great job in laying out decent offshore bathometry.  Obviously canyons are great structure.  Off Virginia we also have good structure behind the cigar and off the triple zeros.  Study your charts closely to find areas with good structure.  If you can find where there is a temperature break or blue water over good structure that is a great place to start.  I will say this does not happen too often off Virginia, or at least it seems to not happen during a weather window.  It always seems to happen when the weather is terrible.  Often the blue water is way out there near the 1000 fathom line with no decent structure.  If I had to chose between blue water way out deep with no structure and green water with good structure, I would chose the structure.  I have been out fishing in 1000 fathoms in blue water thinking I’m in the right area and no swords.  I believe structure is king when locating swords but good water over structure is ideal.
 
Quick note about long liners.  Watch out for them.  They are looking for the same areas to fish for swords as you.  There seem to be more of out there lately.  I don’t want to sound like I’m trash talking long liners, they are just hard working commercial watermen trying to make a living.  I respect them for all they do in the conditions they have to work in everyday.  If you fish near a long line set your gear will likely tangle with their lines.  And that can be a mess at night trying to detangle your gear from theirs.  You generally won’t find long line gear on the canyons because most of our canyons have been claimed by lobster pots which long liners stay away from.  While you can snag a lobster line its not likely because they have only one line going straight down while long liners have miles of horizontal lines that can easily tangle your line.  While trolling at night or near dusk try to spot the long liners gear so you can avoid them.  I will also call on channel 10 and simply ask where their gear is so you can avoid it.  If you have an AIS receiver you should be able to pick where they are.  They are friendly guys and will talk to you.
 
I typically do an overnight trip for sword so by day I’m fishing for something else.  Trolling for tuna, mahi, wahoo, marlin, or deep dropping.  Then when the sun sets, I’ll pull the trolling spread in a put the motors in neutral.  I drift for swords as anchoring in waters deeper more than 100 fathoms is difficult.  Once the boat is in neutral, I calculate my drift speed and direction.  I try to position the boat where I’m going to drift over my target area.  The target area can be an area with lots of life you found while trolling or just good structure.  If I have a fast drift to the west (inshore), I will push east.  If I’m drifting to the east I may have to start west of my target area.  No drifts are the same.  The combination of currents and wind causes mother nature will push you where ever she wants.  And sometimes the drift changes during the night forcing you to pick up and reposition once, twice or more times.  But as long as you are over good structure the swords can hit anytime.   I have not had luck on swords once inside the 100 fathom curve.  Best drift is to stay between 100-300 fathoms over good structure.
 
Tackle.  Obviously you want heavy tackle.  I believe a 50w is about right.  But I recommend spooling with at least 130 lb hollow core braid for around half the capacity of the spool.  Not half the line length, but half the spool filled up.  Then do a hollow core splice to at least 80 lb mono.  When I first started sword fishing my Tiagra 50w reels were filled with all mono (no braid).  We had a monster on that on the first run took 95% of the mono off like it was nothing.  Then paused and the angler started to get a few more wraps on him then he surged again and we were spooled, line breaks gone.  Having the 130 lb braid will give you a better fighting chance on the big ones that might easily spool a reel with just mono.  An 80w or even a 130 is good but I don’t think it is necessary on most the fish.  Most can be licked with just a 50w.  I think a 30 is probably not enough in many cases.  Put a bimini twist at the end of the mono and add a 200-300 lb 25 foot mono wind on leader.  End the wind on leader with a crimped, heavy duty ball bearing snap swivel.   I have lost a few swords because I didn’t take the time to put on the wind on.  Often times the sword takes your bait and does not run away but rather continues on his journey towards your underwater light on your boat.  This creates a lot of slack in the line and if the body or broadbill touches your 80 lb mainline you are probably done.  The extra 25 feet of mono helps prevents this plus more to grab ahold of near the end game. And it’s a windon so it can be reeled back onto the reel.
 
Terminal Tackle.  All my sword rigs are connected with 300 lb mono leaders. I try to do several baits the day before if I have time.  I put at least 12-15 feet of 300 lb mono leaders although this is not as critical as long as you have the heavy windon leader, you have some cushion should the sword get above the leader.  I have used both circle hooks and J hooks for night swords.  I will say this about the circle vs J hook debate.  A circle hook will hookup less numbers of times but when it does get hooked, it is almost always a good hookset and will likely not pull.  A J hook will get you more hookups but you will get more pulled hooks because it does not always set in an ideal place.  I am not sure which is more frustrating, getting that bite but no hookup or getting the hookup only to be pulled later in the fight.  For circle hooks I like an Eagle Claw Sea Circle, 18/0.  For J hooks I like an Owner Jobo Big Game 11/0.  Both are very good and very sharp.  If you do an internet search for the best hook for swords you will get so many different opinions so this debate is not settled.  Experiment with you own hooks and see what happens.  With both hooks I let the sword eat for a good bit before cranking.  With so much line out and stretch in the mono, the drag will set the hook when he finally eats.  I like at least 15-18 lbs of drag which is essentially set at strike.
 
The bait and rig.  I have tried so many different baits and rigs over the years.  And the experiment continues today.  I think swords are like big catfish, they are scavengers looking for anything to eat.  They will eat live bait, dead bait, strip baits, dead squid, eels, etc.  My top sword baits are a rigged squid, a large (dead) eel, mahi strip, falce albacore strip, and blueline strip.   Here are a couple of rigging videos that work.  https://vimeo.com/49988592, https://vimeo.com/43577014.  I also like the simplicity of Captain Bouncer’s squid rig. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ue3rjo2yS54But my favorite has to be the eel rig with an Eagle Claw Sea Circle 18/0.  You want big eels, perhaps not as big as the one pictured but big nonetheless.
 

Here is a false albacore strip bait.  It’s important to sew the skin together to get give 360 around view as it’s the flash that attracts them.  Any strips baits, mahi, speckled trout, or blueline, sew em up.
 

Here is a Golden Tile and Blueline Tile strip.

 
My setup.  My boat drifts to beam and is an express style boat so I only have the cockpit area to fish from.  A CC would be more ideal as you can fish from bow to stern.  I will say the more lines you attempt, the riskier it becomes because sometimes these fish hit like a rocket ship and can wrap all your lines up in about 2 seconds.   I typically fish 3 sword lines.  Two on floats and 1 tip rod.  Your float can be anything that floats but I like pool noodle section of abut 18 inches.  Light stick on top and long line clip on bottom.  As long as there is weight pulling down on the noodle, it points pretty much straight up and down.  Once there is no weight, like when the sword eats the bait and keeps coming up, the noodle will lay on its side.  This tells you something is up and be ready.  If the float was a balloon or jug, you would have no indication that something is going on.
 

 
Lights.  I like LED lights for attaching to my lines.  I don’t like the chem lights as they often implode (on the way back up) and leak colored fluid all over your boat.  On a bright night like a full or near full moon I’ll attach the light closer to the bait, around 15-20 feet.  A dark night I’ll put them farther like 25 or 30 feet or right on the braided part of your windon leader.  Don’t put the light directly near the bait.  Swords have excellent night vision and only need the light to get in the general area and they will see you baits. I usually just attach the weight directly to the LED light with an 8 inch piece of mono and snap swivel.  Some sword fisherman like the weight farther up the line.  I’m not sure it makes a difference but does make one more thing to clear while fighting a fish.  How much weight is needed depends on the current and drift speed and how deep you want to set it.  Usually you need no less than 28 ounces.
 
 
I put down a green 4 foot LED Hyrdaglow.  I think green attracts more bait but purple or blue penetrates the water column farther.  I’ve lost a few lights over the years to sharks who think the light is something to eat.  I now protect it but wrapping the power cord with a steel dog leash, plastic coated.
 

The spread.  The first line out is your deep line.  At or below the thermocline or around 300 feet.  If there is a lot of current 300 feet may be 400 feet of line, just have to judge for yourself based on the line angle.  Does not have to be exactly 300 feet as anywhere near it the sword should find your light.  Put a #64 rubber band on your mainline to protect it and attach your float with the long line clip and send out.   Second float line is your mid water column line set between 150-200 feet.  Same operation, attach your float and send it out.  Be sure to keep enough separation between lines so they don’t tangle.  Third line is your tip line and set around 50-100 feet.  This line depth can be changed frequently and should be reeled up and down slowly as that may just entice a bite.  You can use all the same baits on all or use different baits.  I like to put my more hardy baits, like the eel or strip baits on the floats because the are more of a pain to check than the tip rod.  The tip rod is often squid which is more fragile but can easily be cranked up and checked.
 
We often chunk butters while sword fishing.  First I am convinced it pulls in all life, not just tuna.  I think the swords can be attracted to a chunk line just like tuna.  We caught a 188 lb sword on a tuna rig with a small butterfish chunk.  Besides, if the tuna show up too you can turn a slow night waiting on the swords into an exciting one.  Just don’t get too greedy with the number of lines out at once.
 
The bite.  No two sword bites have ever been the same for me.  Sometimes they jump on it and lines screaming and hook set good.  Often they eat the bait and keep rising to the surface.  My very first sword trip in my boat I looked down and saw a light moving about down about 75 feet.  I asked my buddy Rich what the heck kind of fish glows like that.  A few passes and we see a 150 lb swordfish swim by near the surface with my bait and light hanging out of his mouth.  I had about 200 feet of slack line below that so I cranked as fast I as could and as soon as we get to tight he shot like a rocket and line parted as he got some of the mainline wrapped around his bill or body.  Most often the sword will slash the bait as they are just like any other billfish.  They want to stun, wound, or kill their prey before eating it so they don’t have to chase it down.  So you might see the rod tip dance a little but that does not mean the bait is eaten yet.  Be patient.  You can slowly move the bait up and down to entice the bite but don’t rip it away and crank up.
 
Once tight often a sword will rise to the surface and sometimes even breach jumping pretty high.  All you can do is try to keep the lines tight to keep that hook tight.  It is important to clear all lines as this fish when green will go where ever he wants.  Don’t let the angler worry about a harness or belt or anything early in the fight.  We’ve lost some good ones because the angler wants to harness up before the fish settles down.  While messing around with a harness there can be just enough slack in the line to drop the hook.  Remember there is a weight hanging down too. Eventually the sword will want to get back deep and sound.  Then it can be just a straight up and down battle.  Then get the harness for your angler even if he had to wait 10 or 15 minutes.  You need a good helmsmen and good communication with the crew to keep the boat moving and maneuvered so the line does not go under the boat into the props.
 
The fight.  A nice sized sword of 150 lbs or more will give the angler a good prolonged fight.  A good standup harness is essential to keep a good amount of pressure on the fish.  Short pumps are better and keep the constant pressure on the fish trying to keep him coming up.  Don’t let the angler rest or the fish is resting too.  I don’t like to try to go past strike on the fight.  Only push past strike if you at risk of being spooled.  Even if you think your line is heavy enough for the battle and you may be tempted to increase the drag but the mouth of a sword has soft spots which can result in pulled hooks.  A good size sword will have several good surges of 2nd, 3rd, or 4th winds.   I like to have a hapoon ready in case the fish comes up still lit up.  But after a prolonged fight the sword may be spent and just a gaff or two is all that is needed to land him.  If the sword is still lit up the end game can be intense so a good stick with a harpoon can mean win or lose.  Try to harpoon in the head or gill plates as the meat is very soft and the dart can easily pull.
 
Now after writing all this down, I’m excited and ready to get back out there.  Give me a call if you want to book a sword trip.
 
Capt Mike 757-329-5137

  Sword, Tuna, Mahi, Shark Overnighter 5-6 Jun 13 from Mike on Vimeo.