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Kenya: Fly Fishing’s New Frontier

An in-depth look at how innovative anglers are catching broadbill swordfish on fly.

October 3, 2001
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Kenyan angler Jeremy Block made angling history in April 1998 by becoming the first person ever to take a broadbill swordfish on fly. Block’s catch was no accident. He embarked on his quest for swordfish on fly back in 1996, when he began testing various fly patterns and nighttime teasing techniques. That preparation paid off when he and Capt. Richard Moller succeeded in teasing a number of small broadbill up near the Eclare, where Block successfully hooked and landed a 56-pound fish on a 20-pound-class tippet.

Block’s fish could indeed be considered small, but it still managed to spark the imaginations of saltwater fly fishermen around the world. That fish was certainly what brought Billy Pate, his wife Jodi, Miami’s Capt. Doug Lillard and me together on a dark, moonless night, as we bobbed in the sea aboard the 33-foot Loki II some 25 miles off the coast of Watamu.

The Wait
We were in our third night of targeting broadbill, and we knew what to expect – another long, miserable night of staring out to sea and wondering just what the hell we were doing out here. It’s amazing how a lack of fish can take even the most experienced angler right to the brink of clinical depression. Every destination, even one with waters as prolific as Kenya, has those weeks when strikes seem hard to come by. When swordfishing, though, the slight exasperation that comes during these times seems compounded tenfold by the loneliness of drifting along on an empty, black sea. Only Block’s recent success kept us focused.

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We knew the techniques Block had used to catch his fish. He and his crew had suspended a submersible light from the stern of the boat and used whole squid and tuna belly strips as teaser baits, set with breakaway sinker rigs at various depths from about 25 fathoms up. The first hard strike came at 60-odd feet down. The crew managed to entice the fish to the surface, where Block had a strike as the teaser was lifted from the water. The hook failed to set, but Block continued to cast into the darkness (they had turned the light off at the first deep take) and hooked the fish on a blind cast, landing it some 35 minutes later.
We had tried all of this with no success, and the general feeling of depression deepened in direct relationship to the lack of fish. Which helps explain why the “thunk” of the teaser rod went almost unnoticed at first. But as always happens, lethargy turned to tension in an instant, especially when the faint trace of a rising cyalume stick cast its luminance on the outline of a good-sized fish.

There is a weird wonder to teasing fish at night; everything has a slight sense of being unreal. In total darkness we watched every movement of the light stick as the deckhand reeled it to the surface. We could see the bait being whipped from side to side by the fish that was grabbing at it. For agonizing seconds we watched the movement of the fish in the water, and then nothing – just the light stick breaking the surface and the plop of Pate’s fly as it hit the water.

Pate has been hunting broadbill on fly for many years now, so his heart and soul were behind each of the long, searching casts that he rolled out into the darkness, but to no avail. Forced by a busy schedule, he departed Kenya without the fish he knew he could catch. Morocco’s Fouad Sahiaoui, who like Pate had sought broadbill on fly for many years, was a little luckier. He proceeded to catch not one, but two broadbill on fly during his five nights of fishing, which overlapped Pate’s trip. Both of Sahiaoui’s fish are pending records.

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The Tease
Teasing swordfish for a fly cast represents a much more basic process than that used in other billfish-teasing techniques. Since you’re fishing at night, it’s important to use only one teaser rod because the lines have light sticks attached above the teaser baits, and more than one light in the water tends to confuse the fish, diverting its attention at a vital moment.

Keep the teasing rig simple. Any rod equipped with a high-speed reel will work as a teaser rod, but we found an 8.5-foot through-the-blank rod to be the best. The lack of guides on the rod ensures that the line does not snarl or hang up at a critical moment.

Apart from squid, the universally accepted broadbill bait, we found a Panama strip bait cut from a tuna belly to be excellent. Sew this strip onto a swivel at the end of the leader, with a Moldcraft Super Chugger riding just ahead of it.
The leader should consist of about 8 feet of heavy mono, terminating in a heavy-duty swivel where it joins the line from the teasing rod. Use rubber bands to secure a cyalume light stick (we like the green ones the best) to the leader, some 4 feet up from the bait. Don’t use too long of a leader, since you need to be able to flick the bait up out of the water once the fish appears on the surface and hopefully within casting distance.

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Using whatever breakaway method you feel comfortable with, secure the top swivel of the leader to the downrigger weight and lower the rig down to a depth of 120 to 150 feet, then troll it along at about 4 knots. On a strike, the breakaway rig gives an audible “thunk” of warning, followed by the tiny glow of the light stick that grows steadily brighter as the forward movement of the boat brings the bait to the surface and with it, hopefully, a fish.

The Take
Broadbill don’t pounce immediately on the fly like other teased fish; they just disappear from sight and leave the angler making the odd desultory cast into the darkness, wondering what he did wrong.

In the early efforts, this has been the dangerous moment. The teased fish show a tendency to disappear into the shadow of the hull, watching all that is happening with those great eyes before suddenly pouncing on the bait and collecting whatever seems stunned (i.e., the fly). Because of this, drags must be set light enough to avoid breaking off on the strike but with enough resistance to prevent overruns. The strike, when it comes, is determined and solid. If the hooks are sharp and sized correctly, the fish should basically hook itself. Still, it’s always a good idea to set the hooks with a couple of slip strikes.

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The Tackle
The fish taken so far in Kenya have been caught on 13- and 14-weight outfits on a variety of tippets, but the fish haven’t displayed much of a pattern that might help select a grade of tackle for a particular size of fish. Take a look at the fight times from the four swordfish hooked so far: Block boated his 55-pound fish in 35 minutes on 20-pound tippet. Sahaioui fought his 50-pounder for nearly four hours on 16-pound tippet, but he followed up with a fish nearly double the size (91 pounds) on lighter tackle (12-pound) that he caught in only 25 minutes. Sahiaoui’s third fish – estimated at about 80 pounds and hooked on 20-pound tippet – broke off when his 14-weight rod snapped after an hour and 20 minutes.
Both these anglers are experienced and know how to pressure fish. Still, even the small broadbill proved a tough foe on fly tackle. Combining the fighting characteristics of marlin, tuna and shark, they took line powerfully, jumped like mad and sounded with determination.

Such pressures require a fly reel that holds a minimum of 400 yards of 30-pound backing and a rod with plenty of lifting power. Plenty of top-quality outfits line the shelves of tackle stores, but for sheer ruggedness and durability the most popular outfit seems to be the Kennedy Fisher 13- and 14- weight rods coupled to the Billy Pate Marlin reel. (When buying a fly reel, look for one that does not have one of those dinky little handles that you struggle to grasp. Sahaioui’s fingers were a bloody mess after three hours of using a reel with too small a handle.)

As for which fly to use, three successes do not provide much in the way of definitive answers. What has worked so far is a fly that broadly suggests a squid, such as those tied by Richard Whitner (504-529-3597) and Bill Howe (760-938-2638). Still, plenty of opportunity exists here for trial and error, and the smart fly-tier will look to the swordfish’s physiology and environment for clues to successful patterns.

Consider the fact that you’re fishing in the dark of night for a fish that has very well-developed eyes but not a highly defined lateral line. That leads to the assumption that vision would be its primary method of locating prey. This, coupled with the fact that the fish feeds at vast depths, would indicate that they require a slight degree of luminescence on the part of their prey to hunt effectively. The successful use of light sticks as attractors bears this out.
IGFA regulations do not currently preclude any light-generating device such as a miniature light stick from being secured to or integrated into the fly (though the subject was up for debate at press time). The rules also don’t prohibit the use of materials that fluoresce after being exposed to a light source. Materials of this nature are readily available at any well-equipped fly shop, and they are easy to use in dressing a fly. Use them sparingly, though; you don’t want a fly that looks like a light swirling through the air on the cast.

Perhaps more important than the fly design, hook style and size can play an important role in fly-fishing success. For fly-rod use, nothing beats the Owner SSW or Gamakatsu Octopus in sizes 5/0 through 8/0. They offer superb penetrating power, and their wide gap allows for the hook to engage and hold. Their configuration greatly precludes the hook working and cutting itself out, an important factor for swordfish that have a notoriously soft mouth.

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