Standing Ovation

The Evolution of Sustainable Swordfishing

Capt. Steve Dougherty October 18, 2018

Fishermen are optimists, there’s just no other way to describe us. Every time we step onto a boat there is a renewed sense of hope that it will be a great day of fishing. We’re also adventurous, whether exploring new waters or testing new tactics, tackle and techniques. Part of our passion stems from furthering information and observations of the game fish we go to such lengths to target. Insight to their behavior, feeding patterns and migration routes only improves our ability to find and catch more fish. But has it come to a point where recreational anglers are becoming too proficient in their craft? In regard to the specialized daytime deep drop fishery in the Straits of Florida where broadbill swordfish are harvested nearly every day of the year, it seems this might very well be the case.

sword1

1 of 1

"...it's imperative we promote a sense of responsibility toward the fisheries we are fortunate to have off our coast." Photography: Doughertyphotos.com

Perhaps the greatest comeback story of any collapsed fishery is that of the broadbill swordfish. Not many pelagic game fish have undergone such intense angling pressure, yet through sustainable and restricted commercial and recreational harvest the once depleted fishery is now thriving to the delight of many. On any given day of the year anglers from Jupiter to Key West can head offshore and hook the worst tempered and most combative game fish in the sea. As great of a comeback story as this is, it may not be the case for much longer as a new chapter is written in the saga of swordfish.

Daytime swordfishing has developed into an incredibly specialized fishery, and the crews out of South Florida have become adept at putting big fish in the boat. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a proponent of electric reels and have penned numerous editorials lamenting their benefits, particularly in deepwater applications, kite fishing and trolling dredge teasers. However, after almost a decade of experience daytime swordfishing with electric reels I truly feel there’s a need for change. Combined with an excessive four fish daily boat limit, and most crews looking to limit out every time they head offshore, there comes a time when we must take a step back and look at the beast we have created before it’s too late.

I clearly remember the exact moment when I came to this realization. This past summer I had the opportunity to spend a week swordfishing with Tony DiGiulian, Nick Stanczyk and Willie Mitchell. With over 10,000 certified billfish releases, Fort Lauderdale based DiGiulian had been heckling me for years about my use of electric reels and harpoons. I had yet to crack. Nick Stanczyk is a perennial IGFA top swordfish tagging captain, guiding clients out of Bud N’ Mary’s Marina to stand-up swordfish catches nearly every week of the year. Willie Mitchell, a two-time NHL Stanley Cup winner and former Captain of the Florida Panthers, is also a passionate angler, outdoorsman and excellent swordfisherman. A native of British Columbia and part-time South Florida resident, Willie also sits on the board of an organization called Save our Salmon, which promotes closed containment salmon farming to prevent sea lice and disease from spreading to wild Fraser River sockeye salmon. His devotion toward respecting the environment is far reaching and aboard King Size, not so much as a tag end clipping of monofilament makes it over the gunnel and into the ocean.

I’ve released many swordfish before, mostly undersized fish, but it was June 6 at 10:15 a.m. when tag #583244 was inserted into the shoulder of an estimated 150-pounder that my approach toward daytiming was changed forever. I’m not one to support increased regulation when it doesn’t make sense, but I am certainly a proponent of protecting our resources when there’s a clear exploitation. There is simply no need for a crew of recreational anglers to harvest four swordfish in a single day. Change my mind.

sword2

1 of 1

While there are many great fishermen in the Florida Keys, there's no competing with the Stanczyk legacy. Photography: Doughertyphotos.com

Back home in British Columbia, Willie tells us that the daily limit for halibut is one, with the annual limit six per license holder. Conversely, in the great state of Florida anyone can clear the inlet with four swordfish, be checked by the FWC, and then go sell those fish illegally. Don’t kid yourself that this isn’t happening every single day conditions allow. Even if the goal isn’t to sell fish under the table, catching a boat limit is the wide-ranging goal for most swordfishing enthusiasts. Yet, there’s an entire industry based on the careful release and wellbeing of billfish caught on the troll. One of the main differences is that marlin are perceived as poor table fare, though this social stigma isn’t entirely true.

Can we not find the value in catch and release sport fishing of swordfish, or will the separation exist forever? Are swordfish any less prestigious than blue marlin or sailfish? Given a wide temperature tolerance, capabilities of undertaking extensive vertical migrations and the extremes associated with hunting such dark depths, they are actually the most impressive game fish in all of the world’s oceans and far better hunters than blue marlin. They present one of the greatest angling challenges known to mankind and demand the utmost respect. You may have your own opinions, but my views, along with many others, have changed a lot over the last few years. Five guys staring at a rod tip and pushing a button at the collective “There he is,” and watching the spool turn as the fish swims to the surface is a huge disservice to these apex predators.

As we move into a new era of daytime swordfising, stand-up tactics are soon to take precedence. Granted, hand cranking a swordfish from 2,000 feet on stand-up tackle is indeed taxing and not everyone is in the physical condition to carry out this task. But, should it be a simple feat? Killing an apex predator should involve more than pushing a button and watching the rod throb in the gunnel. Most opponents claim there’s too much current off our coast and cranking a 10 pound led off the bottom is too demanding, though it isn’t as challenging as you think and once you see it accomplished with your own eyes you’ll be much more inclined to attempt it yourself. You’ll soon become numb to the perceived excitement of an electric reel winching a fish to the surface.

The truth is, if you’re adequately set up to fight fish stand-up, then it’s really not an impossible feat. A mature fish will even swim the lead to the surface for you. And contrary to what you might think, with efficient driving you can easily hit bottom in 1,800 feet with a 50-wide conventional reel and still have plenty of revolutions on the spool to spare. A cordless power drill and reel drive attachment can be used to turn the handle and check bait, though a Hooker Electric (hookerelectric.com) detachable unit allows for power assist when checking bait and then the immediate disconnect once a fish is hooked. With incredible tolerances, this detachable set up retains all the original parts of a Shimano Tiagra or Penn International—including the anti-reverse, drag and bearings.

Yet another option for anglers interested in fighting stand-up is to fish a LP S-1200 (lindgren-pitman.com) rigged as a deepwater downrigger and breakaway from a traditional 50-wide stand-up outfit. Dropping the two rods simultaneously requires a careful choreograph, though it keeps anglers compliant with IGFA regulations. The bottom line is that if you want to fight swordfish stand-up, there are many methods to accomplish the task.

sword3

1 of 1

"...it's really not an impossible feat. A mature fish will even swim the lead to the surface..." Photography: Doughertyphotos.com

As a starting point, deep drop stand-up duties require a short rod around 5’6″ to 6’0″ in length. Spooling with 65 lb. braid will increase line capacity and you can also help fight scope by fishing a 150 lb. wind on leader rather than one formed with 200 lb. test. A Black Magic Equalizer harness (blackmagictackle.com) is as important as any other part of the system and allows anglers to rear back for hours on end without increasing stress on their back, arms or legs. Regardless, it will still be a challenge, but a skilled angler fighting stand-up is far more efficient and less likely to pull the hook compared to the rod throbbing in the gunnel with every approaching wave and rock of the boat. Having the rod bounce too much in the gunnel definitely makes the fish behave differently than an angler slowly turning the spool.

Over the course of our week-long swordfishing sabbatical presenting baits on the bottom of the ocean from Islamorada to Fort Lauderdale, I witnessed multiple swordfish releases, with the highlight a spunky 68-incher captured, revived, tagged and released in less than 40 minutes from the bite on the seafloor in 1,700 feet of water.

So you’ve beaten a broadbill and it’s alongside the gunnel. Now what? Given a gut hooked fish, an angler’s first, or a fish that’s tired beyond revival it’s ok to grab the gaff. There’s nothing wrong with the reasonable harvest of swordfish, but I am against the indiscriminant killing with lack of respect for our resources. To this end, you should also equip yourself with a fiberglass tag stick so when you have an epic day catching multiple fish on stand-up you can let a few swim away. 

While it is known that swordfish are highly migratory, there’s still much to learn about their movements 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, it’s imperative we begin tagging and releasing more of these gladiators of the deep to reveal greater insight to their long-distance movements.

Opponents will claim that recreational anglers killing fish with rod and reel will never hurt fish stocks, but I think otherwise. This is the same mentality that one piece of plastic picked up off the beach won’t make a difference in the grand scheme. However, it takes a collective group to make a difference and it all starts with changing the views of one person.

Scientific analysis has revealed that most all swordfish over 200 pounds arefemale—serial spawners capable of releasing eggs up to 90 times and producing 1.2 to 2.5 million eggs per spawning event. Just a single swordfish, given the opportunity, can produce upwards of around 30 million eggs a year. So, in reality every single fish released significantly adds to the potential population. Don’t try to convince me otherwise. With daytime swordfishing techniques spreading and anglers meticulously fishing the bottom of the ocean in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and across the entire Eastern Seaboard, the unnecessary and irresponsible killing of swordfish will undoubtedly have an impact on the future of the fishery.

Perhaps the only thrill greater than conquering a swordfish on stand-up is watching the beaten warrior swim off into the deep blue after successfully removing the hook. While there isn’t a better location in the world to target swordfish than the deep canyons, trenches and holes in the Straits of Florida, diligent conservation efforts must continue. Across the planet we are seeing species decline and disappear at ever-increasing rates, with environmental issues so widespread they are no longer perceived as dramatic.

As we continue to perfect our daytime swordfishing techniques it’s imperative we promote a sense of responsibility toward the fisheries we are fortunate to have off our coast. It’s certainly a mountain to climb changing the views of anglers intent on harvesting every swordfish caught, but it is a work in progress that continues to change with education.

Join the Discussion