One of the most challenging and biggest fish you’ll ever have the chance to catch in your life is the mighty swordfish. There aren’t too many fish you have to be very careful about pulling onto the boat, but this is one of them. People die catching even small swordfish. They can launch themselves out of the water and up at your boat anytime. Scary stuff, but don’t worry, it doesn’t happen often!
The risk adds to the excitement level of catching these massive predatory fish which can weigh up to 1400 lb. and grow nearly 10 feet in length, as heavy as blue marlin. Deep dropping for swordfish is one way to target them and it might be the technique that lands you your first swordfish!
Catching swordfish during the day by deep dropping is a fairly recent development that a lot of charter boat captains on the east coast of the US have adopted for years. Over on the west coast, they are also starting to fish this way and it’s blowing minds over there.
The good thing for the sport is that It extends the commercial fishing season another month because swordfish can be caught through Thanksgiving from South Carolina up to Maryland and even Christmas in Florida and nearby waters on the US east coast.
What Is Deep Dropping For Swordfish?
Catching swordfish was a nighttime activity for decades. Dragging a variety of baits from 40 to 400 feet down in the top of the water column produced swordfish sort of regularly. It was difficult fishing and made catching one of these monsters something to be proud of. A boat might land a swordfish once out of 5 or 10 trips.
Not exactly ideal for the sport, is it? Still, fanatics paid for trip after trip to try their luck at catching one.
Typically daylight hours were spent targeting other fish like tuna, wahoo, king mackerel, and other sportfish that are really fun to catch but nothing like a huge swordfish. Nobody knew what to do to catch them in the daylight hours until Nick Stanczyk, his father Richard, and his uncle Scott pioneered the technique out of Bud n Mary’s Marina by beginning to fish the bottom in very deep water in the middle of the day.
It took years to hone their techniques and figure it out but they did and now everyone is doing it.
Today, deep dropping for swordfish has taken over and some boats have switched entirely to focusing on swordfish during the daytime when they’re in the area. Anglers use baits placed just off the bottom to lure the big fish into striking. The fishing gear used is big, heavy, expensive, and can be hard to use if you are hand-cranking the fish in.
Remember, to be eligible for any IGFA world-record swordfish certification you’ll need to hand crank the fish up. No electric reels are allowed!
These massive fish will be filling their stomachs with as many cephalopods as they can find. Squid appears to be the fish’s preferential target but it also takes sardines, tuna, mackerel, and other fish. A fish of over 1,000 pounds must eat many different species to reach the proper intake of food per day.
So, we find swordfish by targeting them at levels in the water where the squid are. At night, squid are near the surface. During daylight, they are deep in the ocean depths.
Movements of Swordfish
Swordfish have the ability to cross thermal barriers multiple times in a 24-hour cycle to feed without negative repercussions. They hunt for food on the surface at night when cephalopods and other fish are eating plankton in the shallower ocean layer. Then they can also swim deep during daylight for feeding on squid.
Most times when you check the gullet of a swordfish you’ll find lots and lots of squid. It’s no surprise then that most anglers prefer this bait and buy or catch a lot of it!
Swordfish Follow the type of migration (movement) pattern called diel. Specifically, the nocturnal vertical migration pattern fits these fish.
Nocturnal Diel Vertical Migration
The movement of swordfish at night from the epipelagic (shallow, surface water) zone known as the ‘sunlight zone’ between 0 and 200 meters deep at night down to the mesopelagic zone (200-1000 meters deep) known as the twilight zone during daylight is called the diel nocturnal vertical migration pattern.
There are two other migration types including the reverse migration and the twilight diel vertical migration pattern which other fish and marine life follow.
Factors affecting this migration include light, salinity, temperature, pressure, presence of predator kairomones, and tidal patterns, and of course the availability of prey.
Cephalopods feed on zooplankton, small plankton that are plentiful and provide sustenance for many ocean species. Zooplankton also follows the nocturnal diel vertical migration pattern, so by following the same pattern, swordfish ensure a steady supply of food. This rich layer of zooplankton is sometimes referred to as the Deep Scattering Layer or DS Layer.
As zooplankton move up and down in the water column to avoid predation, they are followed by cephalopods and other baitfish to the deep water during the day. Swords follow too and spend a large portion of their hours hunting food to provide energy for their large mass.
The factor that dictates where swords will be is where the food is. These fish, like many others, follow the food trail. Almost like a massive chum slick that extends hundreds of meters deep from the surface of the ocean.
Find Structure, Bottom, and Bait
Finding swordfish isn’t all that difficult as they are more common than the fishing community once believed. The problem was that commercial fishermen weren’t catching many of them so we figured the population wasn’t very large.
Swordfish go where the bait is. They need structures like cliffs, ledges, seamounts (mountains or hills underwater), rock piles, and drop-offs.
Bait is continually swept down current. Swords are just like any other fish hunting in a current, they stay near structure of some sort where they can hide in the slipstream a bit. They’ll venture out to grab prey but then return to the cozy slower water behind or near structure of some sort.
Using your advanced sonar you can pick out schools of bait, or fish that swords may target and mark them with your GPS. Swordfish fishing is about finding structure supporting a productive area.
Swordfish are deep during the daylight hours and you can find them anywhere from 1000-2000 feet down.
The prevailing wisdom for catching them once you locate bait near structure is to drop your bait down to the bottom and then raise it about 70 to 200 feet off the bottom (vary it) to find the swords.
If you become skilled at identifying the key points leading to swordfish opportunities, you will catch more than your share of these amazing fish.
How Do You Drop a Swordfish Rig?
The captain of every commercial or recreational fishing boat has a preferred method for attempting to catch these huge and challenging swordfish. The rig, however, stays largely the same. The rig is called a deep-drop rig. It is designed to put bait on the bottom of the ocean, just off the bottom, to present it to a hungry fish.
The technique is not difficult. You drop the bait down to the bottom and then reel in to raise it up off the bottom between 70 and 200 feet. You’ll drive the boat slowly with the current letting out and retrieving line to test different depths. With the fast currents of south Florida, you’ll drive straight into the current.
With slow or moderately slow-moving current you can bump troll the bait near the bottom for the best chance of picking up a bite.
What Kind of Gear Will You Need?
- Line: The best main line for swordfish is a solid core braided line that is rated at 65 to 100 pounds if fishing for the smaller swords on the east coast of the USA. If you’re in the northern panhandle of Florida on the Gulf of Mexico side, you should start with a considerably heavier braided line over 100 lb. test all the way up to 130 lb. A 250 lb. test leader of 15 feet or so should be joined to the main line with a strong swivel.
- Hooks: A lot of anglers still use big Mustad 10/0 J-hooks but the circle hooks are winning the hearts and minds of commercial boats more and more. The Mustad 18/0 circle hook in particular has a great following.
- Rods: The standard rod for catching swordfish is about a 5’6″ sturdy rod with a light-medium action and a soft tip to feel that delicate bump these fish are known for. Rods should be angled-butt 80 to 130 class and around 5’6″. Rod makers are creating rods, especially for fishing for these odd beasts who take bait with the softest of bumps that might move the rod tip a 1/2 inch. The rods feature sealed guides at the tip and have ring guides to help with line placement.
- Reels: Non-motorized reels must be used if you’re chasing a world record you hope to have verified. That said, fishing with hand-crank reels is a real chore and accomplishment if you can bring a big fish to the boat with that method. Most boats have electric reels that are very strong. This can take hours off the fight and though it may not feel like as much of an accomplishment, you’ll probably still be really happy when you get the fish into the boat!
- Weight: You may need considerable weight attached to get your bait down deep, depending on the current. Around 7 to 12 pounds is usual and 20 lb. is not unheard of where current runs quicker. The lead stick is secured to the leader with a long-liner clip.
- Bait for swordfish: J-hooked fresh squid or eel with skirts work well. If using mahi bonito, or mackerel fish as bait, a stitched belly (ventral) strip works. Strip baits are rigged with two inline J-hooks that fit into any available hook size. Skirts are used to protect the bait from slashing. If using lures, try the Hogy lure, it’s a skirted eel-like artificial that can take a repeated thrashing from attacking squid and still land you a nice big fish.
How Deep Should Swordfish Be?
You can catch swordfish during the daytime between 1000 and 1600 feet usually. It depends how deep the bottom is in the area you’re fishing.
You’ll probably be fishing over the continental shelf around 50 miles off the east coast. This stretches from Florida all the way up the coast. It’s a relatively shallow shelf that swordfish prefer during the daytime as they search for prey.
If you’re fishing the Gulf of Mexico, you can head up to the Florida panhandle where they have a deep canyon called DeSoto’s Canyon. Here the depth can reach 2,000 feet. Fish caught in the Gulf are typically heavier than on the east coast and swordfish of 100 to 400 lb. in weight is the average range.
Compare that with the east coast’s 100-150 lb. range and you can see the difference is striking.
So, you are not just limited to fishing on the east coast. The open Gulf of Mexico has some deep spots that will put you on fish, you just need to know where they are. With that said, you’re also welcome to go to California because they have swordfish too and lots of deep water close by the coast.
The long nights of vacation spent targeting swordfish for a once-in-a-lifetime chance at catching one are well behind us. Anglers may catch more than one swordfish on a trip these days. Daytime trips are better in so many ways for our sport. Not to mention the safety factor. Floating around in the Gulf at night required someone awake at all times to watch for boats and or bad weather. Daytime fishing is so much more pleasant!
What Is The Best Bait For Swordfish?
Swordfish eat a variety of bait, so that’s one good thing you have going for you as you attempt to tease them into a strike with a tempting morsel hanging on a line around 1,400 feet down toward the bottom.
Start with squid, like everyone else, and remember that the swordfish’s eyes are legendary. Their eyes are large and they can see very well in deep water and at night time. They use their excellent eyesight and bioluminescence to detect prey in the water. They will shun unappetizing-looking bait so you have to do this right.
Let’s take a look at the range of bait you can use to catch swordfish while deep dropping.
- Dead Squid: If you’re going swordfishing, bring squid. Lots of it. Pack coolers with it. Make sure it’s as fresh as you can get. The texture should be firm. Dead squid bait can catch swords with greater regularity than anything else. It’s one bait they don’t get tired of.
- Bonita: If you can catch them as you motor out to your deep shelf or canyon for swordfish fishing these can be used as bait with some good results. Bring squid first, but this can supplement your fishing. Trolling lures out to your fishing grounds can produce these and other fish you can use as bait.
- Mackerel: Mackerel of any kind can be used as bait if you can find them.
- Live Blue Runner (Aka jacks): These fish will hit just about anything moving through the water. They are also good bait to use for daytime or nighttime swordfishing. You can catch them inshore or in water as deep as 1,000 feet. Don’t waste them if you catch them on the way out to your swordfish grounds.
- Artificial Stuffed Squid: Artificial bait like this can also produce bites, but most of us don’t like to use something THIS fake. Might as well go with real squid, right?
The entire process of fishing for swordfish has changed for the better in the last 20 years. Today, deep dropping for swordfish during daylight hours gives you a much higher probability of catching one than you ever had in the past. Night fishing more than twenty years ago rarely yielded fish.
By changing to deep dropping, one California crew on a boat pulled in 28 swordfish in 2019. That was more than the sum total they had brought to the boat for the 19 years before that! A massive change has occurred in this fishery and one that you can take advantage of right now by going with a boat familiar with this technique.
Swordfish are considered to be one of the most difficult fish to catch on a rod and reel. They have blistering runs that will scream line off your reel and then can come up from 1600 feet to the surface in a matter of seconds, jumping to shake your hook oftentimes.
The level of excitement when catching these fish is probably unmatched. Not only are they one of the hardest fish to catch, but they are absolutely delicious on the dinner table, although not for sushi.
If you want a memorable fish to catch, start deep-dropping for swordfish this month, and let us know how it goes!