Midnight Mules

With the increasing popularity of daytime swordfishing, the nighttime approach is in jeopardy of becoming a lost art. It’s a shame, because under the cloak of darkness is exactly where South Florida recreational swordfishing was invented. Plus, the winter is an excellent time to cash in on this exciting fishery. While you have to pick and choose your nights cautiously, you can boat a broadbill and still be home in time for a midnight snack.


Image 1 of 7

Photo: Carey Chen

Those who have experienced this amazing fishery know that nighttime swordfishing is more hands-on than daytiming, where anglers deploy a single bait to the bottom reaches of the water column fifteen hundred feet below the surface. Deep dropping for swordfish can be incredibly exciting once you’re tight, but intently staring at a single rod tip for hours on end in anticipation of a strike is often too much for less enthusiastic anglers to withstand. Nighttime swordfishing is much more active and requires the use of multiple rods, with multiple baits in the water simultaneously.

Note that the following recommendations are only a starting point and you will have to adjust for prevailing conditions—a skill that only comes with experience.

Interested parties looking to target these gladiators might be hesitant to enter the dark side because of the challenges associated with nighttime swordfishing. Case in point, from Palm Beach to Key West this world-class fishery unfolds in the Gulf Stream where powerful currents and unpredictable sea conditions must be taken seriously. Even if it’s calm along the beach, a stiff 15-knot breeze counteracting with the northerly flowing current 20 miles off the beach can make a small boater’s life a living hell.

Regular shipping traffic is another concern. You’d be surprised how fast an 800 ft. freighter cruising up the Florida Straits can sneak up on you in the middle of the night. Still, with these precautions in mind, and with the proper preparation, safety equipment and a proven system in place, success on the swordfish grounds can be relatively simple.

Note that the following recommendations are only a starting point and you will have to adjust for prevailing conditions—a skill that only comes with experience. For the sake of simplicity, let’s discuss what’s involved with fishing a standard four-rod spread with two squid and two live baits. As you gain experience you can add an additional bait to your spread.

Once you arrive in the general area you intend to fish, pull back the throttles and determine your precise speed and direction of drift. You will always move with the prevailing current, but you may be pushed inshore or offshore depending on wind direction and velocity. After monitoring your course of travel on your plotter, select a starting point so your drift takes you directly across the bottom contours you want to target. Remember to leave an ample buffer so all of your baits are fishing properly before reaching prime territory. While you can find life anywhere from 1,000 to 1,800 feet of water, the goal is to drift baits in the upper third of the water column across hills, depressions temperature breaks and bait readings. Along these changes in bottom contour, deep-water currents force nutrient rich water toward the surface. Microorganisms, squid, mackerel, and other nocturnal predators will be feeding in these rich zones. You should be drifting beam to, and a drift sock will help.

Broadbill swordfish are apex predators. These fish are highly migratory hunters that rarely sit still. They are one of only a select number of game fish equipped with an internal heat exchanger that forces warm blood to their eyes and brain, allowing the fish to successfully hunt in frigid, pitch black depths during the day, and higher in the water column at night. It’s when these magnificent fish feed near the surface that they are the most vulnerable.

Unlike seasonal species, swordfish occupy the sloping continental shelf along the entire Eastern Seaboard year round. This is where they live and breed. They use the deep-water terrain as migratory highways, which means South Florida anglers who are fortunate to reach these rich waters within a relatively short boat ride have access to a viable fishery 365 days a year, weather permitting.

Once you’re on point and prepared to fish, deploy your farthest bait first, working your way toward the boat as you go. This will simplify your spread and help avoid tangles. If your vessel is not equipped with underwater lights, you’ll need an external light source to attract attention to your spread. The light rays penetrate the depths and invite forage species in for a closer look, resulting in an opportune feeding scenario.

As you’re monitoring your lines while drifting and dreaming under the moonlight, a swordfish strike may be as subtle as an irregular tap on the rod tip, or as distinct as line screaming off the reel with your light stick ripping across the surface. In any case, start winding! The idea is to get the slack out of the line as quickly as possible. If all goes as planed, drag will start peeling off your reel as the stunned billfish reacts to the unfamiliar tether.

Some anglers apply serious heat in an effort to boat the fish as quickly as possible. Others lean on the side of caution, fearing if they apply too much drag the hook will rip out of the soft tissue around the fish’s mouth. In either case, swordfish must be fought with finesse and perseverance. With time and experience you’ll find the right balance that works for you.

At boatside, subdue the beaten broadbill as necessary. A harpoon or flying gaff and a tail rope may be needed to secure your catch, and use extreme caution when boating the fish, with a dedicated member of the team in charge of controlling the bill. A jagged, slashing swordfish bill can do serious damage and it’s critical you’re fully prepared for an encounter with an aggressive fish.

Effective swordfishing requires flawless rigging techniques, especially considering that more than a few 500-pound mules are landed each year. Even average fish in the 120-pound range are incredibly strong and don’t surrender without exhausting every last bit of energy. To stand a fighting chance, the proper arsenal for nighttime swordfishing includes a set of 50 or 80 lb. class stand-up outfits. Both bent butt and straight butt rods will do the trick. Reels should be loaded with fresh 80 lb. mono. We opt for hi-vis line for maximum visibility in low light conditions. At the dock you should start by doubling 6-feet of running line with a Bimini twist.

Now start by pulling line off one reel, carefully coiling it on deck or into a bucket, measuring the arm lengths as you go. The typical two-arm stretch/six-foot ratio is close enough. At the first 100-foot interval tie a small loop onto the running line by half hitching wax rigging floss or heavy braid. Repeat the process three additional times before reeling all of the line back onto the reel. Once complete, you should have a fixed loop at 100, 200, 300 and 400-foot intervals in every one of the four outfits. These loops are where you will be attaching your balloons or floats to suspend your bait at the desired depth. With the same loops in every outfit, you can adjust your spread accordingly for emerging patterns. In addition, any rod can be fished in any position in the spread.

Proceed by attaching a 25-foot long, 250 lb. wind-on leader via a loop-to-loop connection to the double line, and complete the wind-on leader with a 300 lb. ball-bearing snap swivel. Add a final wax loop just below the Spectra or Dacron connection on your wind-on leader. This is where your weight and light source will be affixed, allowing your bait to swim naturally in the current some 30 feet away from the lead.

Regarding weight, 16 oz., 24 oz., and 32 oz. bank sinkers will cover the bases, with battery-operated LP lights in green or blue popular choices. You will also need an additional light source on your float to help monitor it in the distance. A chemical light stick placed inside the balloon makes an illuminated target that’s easy to spot on the horizon.

Effective temptations include large whole squid, which you can rig yourself on 6-feet of 300 lb. mono, or purchase pre-rigged. Live goggle eye, blue runner and tinker mackerel bridled to a fully exposed 10/0 J-hook are also effective offerings. Broadbill swordfish are notorious for unleashing their fury on unsuspecting prey with their sharp bill, so regardless of what offering you choose to present make sure it is securely fastened to the hook.

While there are certainly no guarantees with any fishery at any time, when everything comes together on the swordfish grounds and you boat a beautiful broadbill, it will be one of the most exciting and rewarding angling achievements you’ve ever experienced. Go kill one!