Crack The Code

Anglers patrolling the Florida Straits continue to put big broadbills on the deck. With impressive catches showing no signs of slowing, some wonder how long the glory days will last.

Capt. Steve Dougherty September 25, 2012

While the secret is out and many have cracked the code, South Florida’s daytime swordfishery continues to produce incredible results. And although the initial excitement of the once novel concept has deteriorated slightly, it is safe to say that the flame won’t burn out soon, as mighty broadbills are considered the top tier of pelagic predators.

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Photo: doughertyphotos.com

Unlike most headlines of declining fisheries and extended seasonal closures, North Atlantic populations of swordfish have accomplished what is arguably the greatest revival of any game fish. Hit hard in the 70s and 80s by indiscriminate commercial longlining practices, by the year 2000 the problem was so dire that the National Marine Fisheries Service banned longlining along the East Coast of Florida. As a result of the lack of commercial pressure, swordfish have had a massive resurgence and were recently removed from NOAA’s Fisheries Service list of species threatened by overfishing. Furthermore, ICCAT is four years into a 10 year recovery program study, claiming swordfish populations are on an incredible upswing. Part of the reason for the rapid rebound is the fact that female swordfish, given the opportunity, can produce upwards of 30 million eggs a year.

Whatever bait you choose to fish on your daytime adventure it’s important it is durable, as aggressive swords often slash at their prey with tremendous force before going in for the kill.

While it is known that swordfish are highly migratory, there’s still much to learn about their migrations and seasonal patterns. In addition, it is believed that the North Atlantic population is a single interbreeding stock, further lamenting the fact that pelagic predators have no boundaries. To increase the knowledge base of these apex predators, scientists have started using pop up archival satellite tags that record and ultimately reveal depth, location and water temperature. Although it is common knowledge that swordfish exhibit predictable horizontal movements through the water column and inhabit varying depths in accordance to lunar illumination, tagging studies have also revealed greater insight to their long distance movements. A broadbill tagged in the waters off Canada migrated south of Cuba, with the tag popping up a year later only three miles from the original tagging site. Another story of two South Florida anglers tagging separate fish on the same day revealed the two swords traveled in completely opposite directions.

While the deployment of more satellite tags will paint a clearer picture, one thing is for sure. Swordfish are amazing predators, capable of withstanding extreme temperature and pressure changes. Hunting in near freezing water by day and rising toward the warm surface at night, swordfish undertake radical changes that would kill lesser game fish. With consistent catches throughout South Florida and the nearby Florida Keys, it’s safe to say the Sunshine State is the Swordfish State and once you encounter your first behemoth broadbill under the scorching sun you’ll be hooked forever!

When it comes to feeding time you should know that swordfish are sloppy eaters and will typically devour anything put in front of them. Although broadbills commonly chase down squid, tinker mackerel and other available forage, inspection of their stomach contents reveals alien-like lancetfish, viperfish and anglerfish, further lamenting the fact they will eat anything they can catch. Whatever bait you choose to fish on your daytime adventure it’s important it is durable, as aggressive swords often slash at their prey with tremendous force before going in for the kill.

While choice of bait cannot be overlooked, with most choosing expertly rigged strips crafted from bonito fillets or dolphin bellies, the most important aspect of successful daytime swordfishing lies in your ability to properly present your offering nearly 2,000 feet below the surface. Dealing with the river-like currents can be tricky at first, but once you’ve cracked the code it will become second nature.

When deploying bait you’ll want to start by slowly motoring north with the current. After you’ve attached your sash weight to the joining end of your 150 foot wind-on leader it is crucial you don’t put the reel in free spool and let the rig plummet to the depths at full speed. Apply a bit of tension to avoid a tangled mess. There’s nothing worse than setting a drift and attentively watching the tip bounce, only to reveal a catastrophic tangle upon retrieving your untouched bait an hour later.

Once your rig is about halfway to the bottom the captain should turn the boat 180 degrees and power into the current. While maintaining a heading of 180 to 210 degrees, continue dropping until you hit bottom. At this point you’ll want to retrieve your bait about 200 feet in an effort to remove some belly in the line and avoid snagging bottom. It’s a complicated choreograph that requires a competent captain and crew. Once your bait is deployed and you maintain a southern heading you’ll actually be traveling north at around two knots depending on the velocity of the current.

Although some anglers choose to deploy their baits heading into the current, upper level currents of the Gulf Stream move much faster than lower levels of the water column. Once set, your bait is always going to be behind you—to the south—so heading directly into the current from the start presents a greater risk of tangling, as your bait will have to spin around on the descent.

When your rig is set, there’s not much you can do but crank up the tunes, crack a cold one and keep a diligent watch on the rod tip. Surprisingly enough, even when a monster sword swipes at your bait it will only translate into a barely noticeable twitch. As you rock and roll with the current and waves of the Gulf Stream the rod will bounce up and down. Differentiating between the uniform bounces of wave action and a slashing swordfish isn’t difficult and will become second nature after only a few experiences.

Once you come tight to a fish don’t expect the broadbill to hang deep for too long, as these highly capable game fish often rise to the surface. At the point their giant eyes see the light of day you can expect the fight to really heat up. Continue working your prize to the surface until you can safely unclip your sash weight. This will commence the beginning of round two, with your tethered broadbill likely taking to the air in an incredible display of brilliance and power. Once boatside, a harpoon is often used to seal the deal.

While purists say the use of electric reels eliminates the sport from sport fishing, this is definitely not the case and a statement likely straight from the mouths of anglers with zero experience daytime swordfishing. The truth of the matter is that electric reels only accomplish one goal, and that is retrieving line. Educated anglers must know where and when to fish. They must be able to detect the strike, set the hook, adjust the drag, maneuver the boat and carefully work nearly 2,000 feet of line back on the reel with an aggressive billfish in tow. The idea of using manual reels is great, but try cranking 12 pounds of lead from 2,000 feet below the surface with three to five knots of current. After your very first drop I guarantee you will invest in an electric reel, or give up daytime swordfishing altogether.

Another bash on anglers who enjoy daytime swordfishing is that all the big fish being killed are breeders and populations will once again fall to unsustainable levels. While this does have some clout, it’s highly likely the large fish being caught have had multiple spawning sessions over the years. The reason populations were hit hard in the 70s and 80s is because of commercial longlining, not because of one boat fishing one bait in search of one fish.

If you’ve never tried your luck daytime swordfishing head on down and give it a shot. If it’s not the challenge of overcoming the extreme currents and depths that intrigue adventurous anglers, it’s the impressive size of daytime swordfish with beastly broadbills eclipsing 300 pounds not uncommon. Thanks to a narrow continental shelf that provides aggressive contours and canyons, Florida’s southeast coast continues to provide the world’s greatest opportunities with these magnificent fish.

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