SoCal Has Purple Fever

A new sickness has swept over the SoCal fishing community: Purple Fever.

This newly unlocked fishery for Pacific broadbill swordfish has anglers fired up to get their shot at a fish that was once considered a unicorn in our waters. Much like the El Nino of 2015 and the subsequent development of a large bluefin tuna fishery, SoCal anglers are in a frenzy to get up to speed and refine the techniques to provide more consistent swordfish bites.

It’s hard to imagine our fishery changing again with the amazing things we have seen over the last five seasons, but this one seems to have changed our “game” forever. Previously, local anglers were lucky to see maybe one or two swordfish a year sunning themselves on the surface. Usually unprepared and under-gunned, anglers would present a live mackerel or a dead squid in an attempt to get a bite. More times than not, the fish would show no interest and eventually spook. If the angler was lucky enough to elicit a bite, the fight, more times than not, ended in heartbreak after several hours of agony.

Back in 2015, the Pacific Fisheries Management Council (P.F.M.C.) approved a trial program of Deep-Set Buoy Gear fishing in the Southern California Bight with the intention to reduce and eventually eliminate the traditional drift gillnet fishery. This decision was reached after several years of research by the Pfleger Institute for Environment Research, or P.I.E.R., proving the technique is viable.

In this experimental project, five commercial fishing boats were allowed to set and work 10 buoy gear rigs each for three seasons. The rig is surprisingly simple. The top of the rig features a “high flyer” style buoy and a couple of smaller floats with 800-1200 feet of heavy monofilament line attached to it. At the bottom of the line, there’s a heavy sinker and just a few feet above there’s a flashing light and “dropper lead” with a large baited circle hook attached.

These boats fished up and down the coast for three years while having their catches monitored by P.I.E.R. and the P.F.M.C. The results were impressive with many boats having banner years harvesting swordfish with this “clean” method of take. Shortly thereafter the PFMC approved the Deep-Set Buoy gear method for commercial swordfishing.

While this experimental process was underway, a handful of local anglers “in the know” were paying attention to what was going on.

Before long, a few of these anglers had modified the technique for rod and reel fishing. Not surprisingly they started catching “unicorns” right here in our backyard!

The gear and techniques are a little different than what we are used to using, but with a little research and a few bucks, you can get in the game as well.

Most guys are using an electric reel or some form of electric assistance. Some of the popular and lower-priced options include the Shimano Beastmaster 9000 and Daiwa Seaborg SB1200. Both of these reels are compact and up to the task of handling our average 150-pound swordfish.

With so many bigger fish from 200-400 pounds in our waters, many anglers are opting for more heavy-duty solutions that can also be clipped into a harness to fight the fish standing up. Hooker Electric reels are known for making rock-solid electric reels by taking proven technology in the form of a Shimano or PENN big game reel and adapting it to work with a heavy-duty brushless electric motor. By adding features like an auto-stop line counter and level wind, Hooker offers a great swordfish option. Hooker also makes a removable motor for those that want to fish stand up in a harness or using a rail rod but can benefit from 12-volts when checking your bait.

Lindgren Pitman also makes the largest electric reel in its class, the S-1200. Originally designed for commercial applications, it’s become very popular with sword fishermen in the South East USA for its reliability and durability. The LP reel also gives you the option of quickly switching spools which allows anglers to easily use the reel for other things like pulling dredges.

The final option is to use your existing big game reels with a device like a Reel Crankie or Speedy Crank. These devices allow you to use a standard electric drill to power a conventional reel. This makes doing bait checks and clearing lines much easier than cranking by hand. Beware, these devices work well, but you’re going to need at least a couple of battery packs for your drill as they do eat up a pack pretty quickly.

Once you’ve decided on the reel solution that fits your budget, it’s time to find a rod. Ideally, the rod will be a 6-foot or 6.5-foot bent butt rated for about 80# line. You want a rod that has a soft tip so you can see the often subtle bite of a swordfish, but it also needs to have a strong backbone to lift the king of the sea during long, hard battles. Fortunately, you can usually repurpose a rig out of your heavy bluefin or trolling tackle. If this rod isn’t already a part of your quiver, a little research online and you will quickly find some solid options in the $500 range.

Now that you’ve got your rig together, it’s time to spool up. Most guys are using 80# hollow braid. This yields the best strength while still being thin enough to cut through the water without too much drag or resistance. We like to use hollow braid because it gives you the ability to make seamless connections and splices. When you fill your reel, make sure to leave about ¼” of space on the spool to allow for a heavy wind-on leader.

Your wind-on leader should be about 60-feet long and either 200# or 300# test. There are many great pre-made options that are ready to fish out of the bag. If you like to make your own wind-on leaders, quality fluorocarbon like Seaguar or a harder monofilament like Momoi Xtra Hard works great. You’ll also need to add a floss loop a few feet below your connection loop to hang your weight and light on. It’s not hard to learn and probably worth your time if you’re going to be fishing for swords often.

Now that you have your rod and reel spooled up, it’s time to think about the terminal tackle. At the end of your wind-on, you will want to crimp a ball bearing swivel. Before crimping the swivel on, most guys are sliding one or two small diamond style lights on the line. You will crimp your bait leader to the other end of this swivel. The bait leader should be 300# or 400# test to prevent chew offs during extended battles. These fish aren’t line shy, so don’t be afraid to use heavy leaders.

The other end of your bait leader will have your hook and bait of choice. For rigging a large squid, a Mustad 7691 in size 11/0 has become the standard for our fellow anglers on the East coast. A 16”-20” squid seems to be the perfect bait in our waters. You can source these squid at most saltwater tackle shops now and you can often get them for a few bucks less at an Asian market.

Many tackle shops are selling pre-rigged baits as well. These include rigged squids, strip bait and belly baits. They do cost a couple of bucks extra, but for a lot of people, it’s worthwhile for the convenience. Just make sure you’re buying a reputable brand. Losing a big fish over a cheap crimp or hook would be heartbreaking.

The only other piece of terminal tackle needed is your weight. These generally range from 5-12 pounds with the preferred style being a “sash” weight. These long skinny weights are easy to store and drop perfectly into a rod holder to prevent them from rolling on deck. You’ll want to attach the weight to a swivel and longline clip using some large stainless split rings. This longline clip will attach to the floss loop at the top of your wind-on leader.

Now that you’ve got the tackle out of the way, you will want to have your local tackle shop place marks on your line at 800, 900 and 1,000 feet. These marks will give you an idea of how deep your bait is swimming. Even if you are using an electric reel with a counter, these make a great backup. You can also mark your line yourself by stopping your boat in the depth you want to mark, quickly dropping until you hit bottom and then mark the line with a sharpie. We use three marks for 800’, four marks for 900’ and so on.

Prime season for swordfishing seems to be June through November. During these months the fish will be prowling our local structure spots looking for an easy meal. These spots include ridges like the 9-mile bank, the 182/182 ridge and offshore banks like the 302, 14-mile, 43, etc. Swordfish also really like to work canyons like the La Jolla Canyon, Carlsbad Canyon, Newport Canyon, etc. The fish will also be found away from structure on established temperature breaks.

When looking for a place to drop in these areas, remember the golden rule of offshore fishing, “find the bait, find the fish.” These are big, hungry fish and they are never going to get too far from the kitchen. Learn to dial your sonar system into a lower frequency like Low Chirp or 28-32 hertz to best show the bait down in that 800-1200’ deep zone you will be fishing. When you locate the bait, you might even mark a fish. They usually appear like a “hot dog” shaped mark.

When it’s time to drop, make sure you do it SLOW to avoid tangles. Since your weight is above your bait the bait will be forced upward as you drop and you don’t want to wrap your mainline. It should take about 10 minutes to drop to 1000’. Put the clicker on and a little drag on the lever and let it lower itself down at about a foot per second.

Now it’s time to crack a cold beverage and stare at the rod tip. Sword bites can be as subtle as a little peck that just barely moves the rod tip. They can also just pile on the bait and start ripping drag. More times than not, it’s something in between. Once you have a solid bite and the rod loads up, wind, wind, wind! You want to “get tight” as soon as possible and get that hook buried in the fish.

If you are dropping or drifting and your line goes slack, WIND LIKE HELL!

This means a fish has eaten your bait, felt the weight and is now swimming straight up to the surface to try and shake the weight now attached to his face.

These are just the basics. Do some research on your own to dial in your process. Read up on the Internet, talk to guys who have a few fish under their belts, etc. Most importantly get out and do it, learn and experiment. This type of fishing requires a great deal of patience and isn’t for everyone. You can expect long days of staring at a rod tip and not catching anything. But when it comes together, there’s no better feeling than conquering the King of the Sea right in your own backyard.