Seen by many and caught by a few, the gladiator of the sea, Xiphias gladius, or more commonly called swordfish, broadbill or simply two-finner, has become an obsession for some who like Captain Ahab travel the globe to add them to their bucket list.
Recently, most of the talk about them has been coming from Texas and Florida, or internationally from New Zealand, where “deep-drop” has become the popular way to target them.
Captain Brett Holden and his crew on the “Booby Trap“ has dazzled the sportfishing world with his “deep-drop” techniques while catching broadbill off the Texas Gulf Coast at depths reaching nearly 2,000 feet in some cases.
Farther East in South Florida, Captain Ray Rosher, Captain Bouncer Smith and Captain Nick Stanczyk amongst others have also fine tuned “deep-drop” to a science reflected in their remarkable catches.
Thus far, while showing promise, the “deep-drop” techniques have not been successful on the West Coast where the preferred and productive method has been catching broadbill in daylight and on the surface.
Commercially, the swordfish harpoon fishery began in the early 1900s in California where daring Captains and crews fishing on boats with planks as long, or in some cases longer, than their boats scoured the surface searching for the unmistakable tail and dorsal of the swordfish, earning them the two-finner nickname.
William Boschen, the first man in angling history to catch a broadbill swordfish on rod and reel, used a kite to bait a 358-pound beast in 1913 off Catalina Island. The fish was weighed in at Tuna Club in Avalon where Boschen was a member. He went on to land more swordfish than anyone else during his lifetime.
However, his success was overshadowed years later by another Tuna Club member — Roy E. “Ted”, Jr. Naftzger caught forty-nine swordfish on rod and reel, a remarkable feat that no other southern California boat or crew, let alone single angler, has ever managed to best.
Naftzger still holds a Tuna Club record set in 1970 for a 503-pound broadbill swordfish on 80-pound Dacron line.
He was President of the Tuna Club of Avalon, a founding member of both the Channel Island Broadbill Tournament as well as the Lizard Island Fishing Club.
And though Naftzger successfully fished for exciting game fish all over the world, spending many seasons on the Great Barrier Reef, it’s his swordfishing skills that are legendary.
It was when he purchased his first Rybovich that his passion for catching swordfish on rod and reel was ignited. Shipping her to Los Angeles, he renamed her “Hustler” and hired Captain Art Cherry to run her.
At that time most West Coast anglers ignored swordfish, preferring less difficult, more common, striped marlin. However, his new Captain possessed extensive knowledge on baiting broadbill on the East Coast; Ted Naftzger decided to apply similar techniques in the Pacific and the rest is history.
All but one of his swordfish was caught on presented rigged squid bait. The two-finner could eat from behind instead of chasing down a squirrely, live mackerel, resulting in a higher percentage of mouth-hooked versus foul-hooked fish. If it worked out, Naftzger was already in a fighting chair (no stand-up) with bent-butt working for him. He was an excellent angler (one of the best) using that set up; “Hustler” could spin on a dime and with a top-notch crew to boot, he had the perfect combo to do battle.
Naftzger’s angling accomplishments aboard his Rybovich locally are a remarkable story of tenacity and dedication to his sport.
Captain Steve Lassley has made a living fishing since he purchased his first fishing boat at age 17 logging thousands and thousands of days fishing California and Mexico waters for swordfish, rock cod and albacore commercially. This provided him with a unique understanding of the waters he fished.
Lassley’s introduction to yacht fishing came when Elmer Hehr gave him the opportunity to captain his 87-foot harpoon yacht, “Dorsal,” from 1980 to 1982. “Dorsal” was a fine boat and Elmer was a legend in his time. Since then Steve has run the “Hana Pa’a,” “Colleen,” “Mirage,” “After Midnight” and “Bad Company” to name a few.
So how would Lassley prepare for trip to target broadbill? “If we were looking for swordfish — everything else would be incidental. I would spend several days before our fishing trip enhancing all of the satellite shots from FishDope or Ocean Imaging — then laying out the breaks on my plotter, tweaking the shots until everything was lined up as it needed to be.”
Call your buddies, read the websites (only use the info you trust such as that found on www.fishdope.com), and look at all the SST info. The first thing you want to find out is the time of day your target species bites best and plan on being in the “zone” at that time.
Jot down any breaks that look good between where you are going and your homeport. Note where the edge starts, where it bends and where it ends. Look at where the edge crosses the bank. Try to be at the break where it crosses a bank at prime time (slack tide). If you can, get there a little early and scope it out. Look for kelp paddies, breaks, bait, birds, and any other signs of life.
Fish the area until a little after the tide and then keep trolling your way home. Bait capacity is often limited on most boats, but if at all possible keep a mackerel or two in your tanks whenever you can. You might spot a few nice ones to cast to.
Most true fishermen would rather be someplace by themselves than fishing in a crowd.
These are the guy’s that are expending the effort and doing whatever it takes to figure it out and make it happen. I hate fishing in crowds. It makes me mental but it has also forced me to figure out diverse techniques and technologies to be successful.
Sure, sometimes you have to go into an area where other guys are fishing, or have been catching, but it is not nearly as satisfying. Nothing is better than returning to your dock full and nobody have any idea where you were.
The more eyes on the water, the more opportunities found.
Although some boats may have the manpower and space to accommodate more spotters, the important thing is to use what resources are available effectively.
Using regular or gyrostabilized binoculars (which are heavier than normal), the key is to find a comfortable way to sit so you can support the glasses with your elbows on knees or a flat horizontal surface.
Once you’ve settled in try setting the horizon about a third of the way from the top of the field of view to maximize the amount of water you are looking at. Look for anything moving or out of place.
The number of spotters on the bridge and elsewhere will dictate the pattern scanned by each. If you only have one pair of glasses they should be used to search as far as possible directly off the bow and both sides 30 degrees. Other members of the spotting crew should be scanning port and starboard closer to the boat. If there is a designated cockpit person watching the lures, they should be scanning beyond the lures and both sides as well.
As the number of the spotters increase, the pattern can be fine-tuned to fit. As a reminder, when someone spots a fish, do not take the glasses down until another member of the crew has spotted it visually!
Tackle for your Beast
Don’t be a hero! Use an 80-pound casting outfit with a reel to match, full of 80-pound Spectra with an 130-pound mono top shot and your wind-on leader and a Mustad 7691SS hook in 10/0 to 11/0 depending on your bait.
Regardless of bait selection, mackerel, barracuda, finfish or squid, if trolling around a finning swordfish, or other finfish, it’s important to understand that these fish are not primarily surface feeders. They have large eyes that rotate downward not upward, which allows them to see better in the deeper water where they normally feed.
Their only natural enemy is the mako shark which attacks from behind and bites their tail which explains why they usually spook when the bait lands right on top of or behind them, depending on water color.
When casting off the bow or trolling around them using a mackerel or other finfish, hook the bait through the lower jaw out the top of the head using a Mustad 7691S in a 10/0 or 11/0, depending on the size of the bait. This brains the bait slowing it down and also making it much more difficult to knock off the hook. Ideally, try to cast past and in front of the swordfish. This is more apt to cause them to strike and eat the bait in a down angle position — a more natural feeding position for them. When they first strike the bait, peel line off the reel to reduce the possibility of the bait being knocked off the hook and allows the bait to be taken in their normal angle of attack.
In the late seventies when I hooked my first swordfish alone on my 23-foot Blackman skiff, I was in over my head! If it hadn’t been for a few friends, the catch might have turned out differently. Captain Gene Grimes, who ran the “Legend” for first the Birtcher family and later for Ken Battram was one who saved the day. The “Legend” had a remarkable number of rod and reel swordfish to its credit and when Grimes spoke “swordfish,” everyone listened!
The day I hooked up alone, he called on the “VHF” to offer his advice. “Try to lead the fish,” he suggested. For the whole story, go to “Game Changer.”
Captain Peter Groesbeck discovered his craving for anything “ocean” at age 12 while working on local sport boats and at the San Diego Marlin Club. Afterward, there was no turning back. Born and raised in San Diego, Pete has been a licensed captain for many decades and has built a distinguished resume in the West Coast sport fishing community.
Recently at the wheel of “Controlled Chaos,” Groesbeck led his crew and angler/owner Kevin Harvey through his first swordfish weighing 349-pounds on 80-pound tackle which included a Talaca reel and live bait — fight time one hour 45 minutes. And that same day on “Controlled Chaos,” the angler/owner’s son, Tyler Harvey landed a 223-pound bluefin tuna on 80-pound with Stella 14000 spinner on popper, a two-hour fight; a remarkable feat that is one for the records books. Accompanying him were Captain Barry Brightenburg and Captain Jim Kingsmill.
Who better to ask about swordfish fighting techniques than Captain Peter Groesbeck?
Groesbeck responded, “When hooked up the ensuing battle is different than fighting most billfish. As an example when harpooned they still can travel long distances, dragging 600-feet of rope, buoys and a flag. So forget about following a swordfish. Their strength and stamina demands much more aggressive tactics. After the initial run, put the fish in a lead. By easing the throttle forward one engine at a time, the angler applies as much drag as they can. If the fish breaks the lead and takes some line, circle around and repeat the process.”
This technique burns a lot of the two-finner’s energy. All the pressure is lifting the fish higher in the water column instead of allowing the fish to have control. The leverage with the line over its back as would be the case if you chase the fleeing fish — even when you have the swordfish at color — continues leading until it’s in gaff range.
If you have two breakaway gaffs (the bigger the better), the ropes on the gaffs should already be securely attached to the cleats in both corners and you should have a fixed-head gaff within easy reach as well as a sturdy tail rope. Take your time and pick your shot! No matter how tired you think the fish is odds are it will take much more than you expect to subdue the beast. Try to make your gaff shot over the front portion of the dorsal into the collar. This will keep their head up and is less likely to tear out which is much more likely if the gaff ends up in the body.
There is a good chance that your first swordfish will be an incidental catch you stumble on.
When it happened to me, the heaviest tackle I had on the boat was 50-pound; I had no flying breakaway gaff, I had a can of nuts and a little water –totally unprepared to meet the demands of a 13-hour battle. So do yourself a favor and load on a dedicated, heavy rod, gaffs heavy enough to give yourself a chance to catch that first one! It may lead to your own dose of “two-finner fever!”