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September 21, 2007

Return of the Swordfish

Employing some new techniques, enterprising crews are enjoying action with broadbill swordfish off South Florida that hasn't been seen in decades.


The author catches his breath with his hard-earned trophy after an hour-and-twenty-minute fight.

The bite was subtle, not what you would expect from a large pelagic fish. We were standing in the cockpit of the Catch 22, a 48-foot charter boat, just before midnight, 30 miles south of Islamorada in the Florida Keys, watching the tip of a 50-pound stand-up rod bend over in slow motion. Something had just eaten the live blue runner suspended 200 feet below us.

"That's him," said Richard Stanczyk, owner of both the boat and the well-known Bud n' Mary's marina in Islamorada. "Start reeling!"

I wound as fast as I could, and in short order the line stopped coming in. It left the reel slowly at first, as if the fish had not yet figured out that something was amiss.

Suddenly, the rod bent hard and line began flying off the reel. The rest of the crew started retrieving the remaining outfits around the cockpit while I snapped myself into a stand-up harness. I remember thinking that the fish shouldn't take long to catch.

Because swordfish have notoriously soft mouths, we backed the drag off somewhat after we were sure it was solidly hooked. "We'll tighten it up again after he tires out a little," Stanczyk explained, and I settled in to help the fish do just that. Unfortunately, it had other ideas, and tiring out wasn't one of them. When it became clear I wasn't getting anywhere, I tightened the drag slightly, increasing the pressure on both the angler and the fish. The sword settled deep, with a strong rhythmic tail beat, and seemed to take line at will.

Also on board that night was Captain Vic Gaspeny, a noted Keys flats guide who also happens to know a great deal about swordfish. Gaspeny grew up in the Northeast and fished for swords often as a younger man. He had seen many a large swordfish, and knew what they were capable of. Now, many years later and much farther south, Gaspeny and the rest of us were taking part in what many are calling the rebirth of South Florida swordfishing. Gaspeny's nephew, Max, had released a small sword earlier that night, and we had lost two more fish to pulled hooks.

Exciting Past

Florida briefly supported a thriving swordfish fishery in the mid-'70s. In July of 1976, Jesse Webb and his cousin, Jerry Webb, both employees of Pflueger Taxidermy at the time, landed what are believed to be the first recreationally caught swordfish taken at night off South Florida. Fishing out of Miami with Captain Mike Cary on the Sea Boots II, Jerry caught a 342-pound fish, then Jesse caught one weighing 363 pounds shortly thereafter. News of these catches spread like wildfire across the fishing world.

Return of the Swordfish
SWS Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Rip Cunningham took part in the last recreational swordfish boom off Florida, and beat the longliners to this catch in 1977.

The very next year, the world's first nighttime swordfish tournament was organized in Miami, and in four nights of fishing, 27 boats landed 86 swordfish ranging in size from about 190 pounds to 491 pounds. The fishery seemed limitless, and all of the swords were big - fish under 200 pounds were very rare.

By 1978 it was all but over. The Miami Rod-and-Reel Club ran the tournament the second year, but it was a dismal failure because so many longliners had moved into the area that anglers literally couldn't find anywhere to drop their lines. Average sizes fell dramatically, and before long swordfish catches were as scarce as hen's teeth. Only a few diehards even attempted it in the '80s and '90s, although there were a few isolated catches and reports of lost "mystery fish."

After years of ignoring the longlining abuse, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) stepped in and banned longlines from the South Atlantic, but only after being forced to do so by a lawsuit. Encounters with swordfish have once again become relatively commonplace throughout South Florida, with Islamorada touting some of the most impressive numbers.

Rigging for Swords

Terminal tackle in this fishery consists of 20 feet of 250-pound-test mono leader, rigged either with a three-way swivel or as a wind-on leader. Most crews use up to two pounds of lead to get the live baits down. With the three-way swivel rig, the sinker is tied with waxed floss to the hanging eye of the swivel. With a wind-on, a waxed loop is tied onto the leader 15 feet above the hook, and the lead is attached to the loop with a snap swivel.

Another waxed loop is tied to the main line at the point where you want to attach your balloon. Lines are fished at various depths, usually at 100 feet, 200 feet, and with one deep line as far down as 400 feet. Moon phase seems to determine what depth works best. On a bright moon, baits are fished deeper. When it's really dark, baits can be fished closer to the surface. Baits are bridled to the hook, and much experimentation has been going on with hook rigs. Some captains prefer J-hooks, but 14/0 and 16/0 circle hooks are emerging as the hooks of choice.

Lights are attached to the leader about ten feet above the bait. The traditional method is to attach a chemical lightstick to the leader with electrical tape, but more and more captains are using high-tech lights such as Electralumes from Lindgren-Pitman ((800) 868-5010; www.lindgren-pitman.com) and Kristal Fishing ((305) 444-3010; www.kristalusa.com). These lights are brighter and reusable.

Baits are suspended below balloons and drifted away from the boat, then it becomes a waiting game. Sometimes the fish eat the live bait and head straight for the surface to jump. In fact, more than once we've looked up to see a light skipping across the horizon, only to realize it was attached to one of our leaders!

The Sword Zone

Stanczyk and others fish an area south of Islamorada known as Floyd's Wall. The deep water off this ledge, in depths ranging from 1,200 to 1,500 feet, has produced most of the fish. Stanczyk began noticing large schools of bait in this area on his video sounder, and has learned that these schools of tinker mackerel are a great place to start fishing. He and his crew even drop Sabiki rigs and catch live bait on-site. If you start getting shark-bit, you've probably drifted in too shallow.

Return of the Swordfish
In the Keys, live, bridle-rigged blue runners have replaced squid as the swordfish bait of choice, with excellent results.

Back on board the Catch 22, I was busy with what appeared to be a very large sword. As the battle continued, the inevitable speculation among the crew as to the size of the fish began, with the younger crewmembers exclaiming that this was surely a 300-pounder! No one out of Islamorada had yet caught a large swordfish, and they were certain this was it. I took all this in, excited about the prospect of landing the first big one in town. But Gaspeny, the only guy on board with lots of experience in these matters, wasn't so sure.

Excitement gave way to cramps and profuse sweating as the fish stubbornly refused to come up. Soon 45 minutes had passed, then an hour, and my progress was still minimal. The drag was tightened incrementally until it reached full strike, then the serious battle began. I've fought giant tuna, sharks and huge billfish, and whatever I had on below was as tough as anything I had ever encountered.

After another ten minutes we finally got a glimpse of the fish in the spotlight, deep below the boat. It was big, but certainly not 300. The fish starting swimming in great loops, going deep beneath the transom and then coming to the surface 50 feet behind the boat. Gradually, the circles tightened until the leader was within reach. Captain George McElveen grabbed the leader, and the decision was made to kill the fish.

All of a sudden, it was over. The fish was gaffed and in the cockpit, and I was looking for a place to sit down after the hour-and-twenty-minute fight. This had undoubtedly been one of the toughest fish-fights I had ever experienced. Later that evening, the sword weighed in at 134 pounds, which, at the time, made it the biggest broadbill yet landed since the recent swordfishing "boom" began in Islamorada last fall.

Hot New Technique

Islamorada
Swordfish Captains

Capt. Richard Stanczyk
(305) 664-2461

Capt. Marc Ellis
(305) 664-4514

Capt. George McElveen
(305) 522-3883

Capt. Paul Ross
(305) 853-5436

Capt. Charlie Scoble
(305) 664-4768

The crew of the Catch 22 took their first swordfishing trip last September, and had a few bites, though they didn't catch any. They were using a relatively new technique that fishermen across South Florida were trying. Instead of the traditional rigged, dead squid, they were using live blue runners for bait, which required some special rigging techniques. Also, there's the added challenge of gathering the blue runners, which can be hard to find at times.

No doubt about it: swordfishing is very labor-intensive, but the results can be spectacular. Late last fall, the Catch 22 pulled off an amazing angling feat. After fishing a normal day charter during which they caught five sailfish, the crew headed offshore at sunset in search of swordfish. By midnight they had caught five fish! That's an incredible 18 hours of fishing in anyone's book.

Many people believe that the waters off Islamorada serve as a nursery area for small fish, a theory supported by the impressive numbers of sub-100-pound fish being caught and released here. Anglers fishing farther north, between Miami and Fort Pierce, appear to be seeing larger fish on average, but Islamorada seems to be producing the largest numbers. Wherever you choose to try it, the swordfish fishery is once again a high-percentage game, and with a little care on our part, it is bound to become one of the finest and most challenging fisheries in South Florida. Get there soon and find out for yourself!

Swordfish Management Issues

Ever since it became clear that swordfishing off the southeast coast was once again a viable sport fishery, a management debate has raged. Moving the longliners out obviously created recreational opportunities, but was it possible for recreational fishermen to inflict damage on the scale the longline fleet had? Were additional management measures necessary?

As of this writing, swordfish regs include only a minimum size, 47-inch lower-jaw fork length measured in a straight line, not curved over the body. There is no bag limit. But the Highly Migratory Species division of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is proposing changes that have upset some South Florida captains. The proposed changes include: a one-swordfish bag limit per vessel per trip, a toll-free telephone call-in system for anglers to report their landings of swordfish themselves, as well as marlin and sailfish. (NMFS has proposed a vessel permit for all recreational vessels fishing for any of the highly migratory species swordfish, billfish, tunas, and some sharks.)

Surprisingly, a lot of captains who would never consider killing a marlin or a sailfish argued against conservative swordfish management, making the case instead for being allowed to keep multiple fish per trip. Some wanted no bag limit at all. This is the price swordfish pay for being good to eat.

I don't have a problem with killing a swordfish for the family table, but one fish per boat per night is plenty. NMFS should opt for a larger minimum size to allow fish to breed at least once before being caught. And of course, there should be a mandatory "no sale" provision for recreational boats.

We are being given the chance to do it right this time. If we manage these fish conservatively, we will be catching them for decades to come.

- John Brownlee