The uninitiated or the landlocked might be surprised to learn that Texas is inhabited by dinosaurs. Equipped with long, sharp-edged bills and prominent, angular fins that protrude from every side of their powerful bodies, it’s easy to imagine the swordfish as some type of Jurassic monster. Growing to two, three and four hundred pounds (and sometimes quite a bit larger), these fish are among the ocean’s most powerful and awe-inspiring residents.
Swordfish have captivated—and frequently terrified—mariners since Roman times. Anglers have been chasing them since the days of Zane Gray. The combination of targeted conservation and distribution of daytime fishing techniques, first popularized in the United States in the Florida Keys in the early 2000s, has made the Gulf of Mexico and much of the eastern seaboard home to a swordfish fishery that is nothing short of world class.
Joining Jim Donnan, Captain Anthony Lopez, Brad Hildebrandt and Ethan Wilson aboard the Let it Ride, a 66’ custom sportfisher out of Surfside, Texas, World Wide Sportsman jumped offshore for a double overnight swordfish adventure. Utilizing specialized tackle and fine-tuned techniques, we pointed the bow south and headed more than 100 miles offshore into the Gulf of Mexico.
Our plan involved dropping rigged squid and baits made of belly strips to the bottom in 1600’ of water. We would target benthic structure—ridges, craters and ravines—that, when looked upon on the Garmin could well have appeared on the face of the moon. This adventure would involve swordfishing all day and swordfishing all night, from time we left the dock on Friday afternoon until we returned Monday morning at 4:45.
In the daytime, swordfish are down deep. Their large eyes perfectly adapted for seeking out prey in water well beneath the point of sunlight’s penetration. At night, swordfish and much of the quarry they target, ascend the water column, rising in what amounts to the Earth’s largest migration—one that occurs every day and every night—in oceans all around the world.
Deep dropping in the daytime. Fishing two rods, much shallower in the water column, at night. A marathon of swordfishing… falling asleep to the rocking of the boat, hoping all the while to be awakened by the startling whine of the clicker and the unmistakable sound of a swordfish pulling drag.
The Daytime Set Up
In the day, with swordfish marauding the depths, we’d fish two rods. The first deployed was on a buoy, with a bait suspended over the top of structure, well off the bottom. The second, was dropped to the bottom, and kept there by a ball of lead large enough to be shot out of a cannon.
Each of the daytime set ups is fished on a Shimano Talica 50 spooled with hundreds of yards of 80-pound, braided line. Braid is perfect for this application for two reasons—its smaller diameter means more on the spool and because it encounters less drag through the water, there’s less scope between the reel and bait. This kind of fishing would be near impossible with mono.
The end of the braid on the reel is tied into a loop using a bimini twist that is connected to a wind-on leader. The wind-on, a standard configuration in the world offshore fishing for swordfish, marlin and big tuna, is composed of a hundred feet of 250-to-300-pound mono that can be cranked, passing through the rod tips, onto the reel.
Somewhere up the line is fashioned a wax loop, onto which is clipped the weight that holds the bait in position. The wind-on ends in a crimp that attaches to a barrel swivel. On the other end of the swivel, a leader that terminates in a rigged squid or belly bait sewn onto a big hook.
Above the hook are attached a couple small, moisture-activated LED lights that alternatively broadcast reds, blues and greens. These serve to attract the swordfish to the bait.
The buoy rod is made to drift behind the boat, the buoy ultimately floating far enough back to keep it clear of the tip rod. Under the strain of the ball weight, the buoy sits vertically. When the buoy slacks or sits on its side (the result of a fish hooking itself and swimming upwards, relieving downward force exerted by the weight), or starts moving away, that means swordfish.
The buoy keeps the bait suspended above the bottom structure, allowing you to fish different aspects of the water column. It also allows you to displace this bait behind the boat, preventing it from being tangled with the rod that is fished on the bottom. Tangling two lines, each with 1,000 yards of 80-pound braid out, is a miserable (and expensive) proposition.
The second rod is deployed to the bottom in much the same fashion, only without the buoy. It takes a while for the bait to get to the bait makes the bottom—you can tell when the line stops coming out of the reel and you can feel a thud. When it’s there, the angler then cranks the reel a few times and the bait is in position.
From there, it’s a matter of watching the rod tip. In this way, swordfishing is sort of a kin to many other types of fishing with bait, just on a larger scale than most others.
Sometimes the bite takes the form of a series of taps. Sometimes the rod tip doubles over, nearly touching the surface of the ocean.
When there’s a tap, the angler might take the bait away from the fish by reeling or dropping back. The idea is to mimic what a swordfish might expect from its prey. The drop back is a falling fish or squid, drifting after having been whacked by a sword. The cranking imitates a bait that is trying to escape the jaws of death.
This dance between the angler and swordfish has a certain charm. It is interactive. Kinda like bugling to a bull elk or calling a turkey. Cat and mouse type stuff, like giving figure eights to a muskie that chases your lure to the side of the boat.
While there is charm in inducing a bite out of a series of taps, most people prefer the no doubter. Thump, thump, whack!
The rod tip arches toward the surface of the waves and does not return skyward. This is often accompanied by the squeal of drag, an engaged clicker. There are usually a pile of exclamations coming from the people on the boat, too.
When this happens, it’s the angler’s job to get tight on the fish and stay that way. On the Let it Ride, and other sportfishers equipped with fighting chairs, the angler gains tension in the rod holder before transitioning to the chair. You usually reel down until the fish starts taking drag. Under the strain of a swordfish pulling 12 or 15 pounds of drag, the rod can be difficult to take out of the rod holder.
Then comes one of swordfishing’s greatest charms. You never really know what you’ve hooked or how large it might be.
If you are fishing for largemouth bass and you hook something on a jig that you’ve flipped, you’re looking at something between the range of a little less than one to, if you are the luckiest person you know, maybe 15 pounds. In all likelihood, no matter how it plays out, the fight will probably run its course within 5 minutes or so.
When antagonizing some mystery, dinosaur-looking sea monster at a depth of 1800’, there’s no telling what you’re in for. It could involve winching up a 20-pound pup swordfish or a 500-pound behemoth. It could also be some other crazy looking creature from the depths or a big eye thresher shark, the top lobe of whose tail fin could be eight feet long.
For this reason, it’s generally a good idea to keep yourself fed and hydrated when you’re swordfishing. Any given bite could produce a fight of an hour (or four hours) or more. You never know with what kind of creature you have tangled.
The Night Time Set Up
At night we fished two rods. Each was a Shimano Tiagra 80-wide spooled with 80-pound mono. The terminal end of the line attached to wind-on leader. The end of the wind-one was crimped to a barrel swivel that is crimped to a leader that ends in a rigged squid.
The sewing skills of experienced swordfish captains could make a seamstress blush.
A fluorescent green glow stick and a weight are attached to the line. One attracts swordfish (many of the creatures that swim in lightless waters of the depths broadcast some form of bioluminescence), the other keeps the bait down.
The first rod to be deployed is the deeper of the two. Just how deep largely depends on moon phase. The second rod is fished shallower, and closer to the boat. The clickers are engaged and each of the rods are placed in holders on the same side of the boat, in accordance with the drift.
The rods are set before dinner. Sometimes you grill offshore. Sometimes dinner is casserole or lasagna, or tacos. Hot food offshore is a perk of fishing on a sportfisher.
As the sun fades beneath the horizon, the underwater lights come on. The sensation of fluorescent blue illuminating the seas upon which you float is mesmerizing. If the night is clear, there are lots of stars out here (unless you’re tuna fishing in the lights of oil rigs). You never know what will show up in the lights—flying fish, squid, baby dolphinfish, if you’re lucky yellowfin tuna or swordfish.
The drift is planned and the rotation for watches is set. Throughout the night there is always someone awake with the rods, watching the boat.
If the action starts when only one person is awake, he’ll get tight on the fish and then run and bang on the windows or open the door, hollering into the salon to enlist some help from his sleeping buddies. Once the other line is cleared, the diesels engage to follow the fish. This wakes everyone.
Through the night when you’re watching the rods on deck or from the bridge, checking the radar every so often for ships, you hope for the sound of the clicker. Sometimes you imagine it.
It is a harsh sound, discordant… Especially so when it happens unexpectedly, in the middle of the night… in the middle of the ocean.
In its first half second, as the sound shatters the quiet and snaps you out of the deliria that comes from being awake in the middle of the ocean at 2:00 am, it sounds like the squawk of a large, angry bird. It always surprises you. Even when you’ve been trying to will it’s occurrence for three days, you can’t plan for it. You’re always happy to hear it, be it at 3:00 in the afternoon or 3 in the morning. There is no other sound like it.
As night turns to day, everyone wakes up and gathers on deck. By sunrise everyone is out, converging from their various bunks and different windows of sleep— ready to deploy the day’s first drop. This is some kind of ritual… the boat, like everyone aboard it, is excited. Optimism fills the air as thoroughly and completely as the salt mist that surrounds you.
After the baits are deployed in the morning, the person who took the last watch probably heads inside for a few hours of sleep. At some point coffee comes out and there’s breakfast—muffins or breakfast tacos or biscuits.
As night transitions to day and day one rolls into day three, the hunt for swordfish continues. It is a quest whose rhythm is all its own.
Wrangling things that look like dinosaurs makes for quite an adventure.