Words and Images: Lee Rayner
There is no doubt that there are only a few fish in this country that have a reputation as the Holy Grail of fishing. Inshore, the southern mulloway is surrounded in cloak and dagger secrecy and regarded as a difficult and lifetime capture. In blue water circles no fish is as revered as the broadbill swordfish. It’s a difficult fish to capture and every game fisherman in the world has it on their bucket list. I was recently fortunate enough to capture multiple swordfish off Victoria’s Mallacoota and I’m stoked to be able to share the story with the readers of Hooked Up.
THE FIRST DAY
Sitting in 500 metres of water on the edge of a canyon off Mallacoota in Victoria’s east with my good friends Riche Abela and Julian Coyne, we had just sent our very first bait down to the bottom for a daytime swordfish. The heavy weight used to reach the bottom of what seemed like an endless deep had no sooner broken away than the line pulled tight and the short Stroker in the rod-holder bounced, registering the slightest of bumps up the line. Richie’s voice raised in excitement with “We’re getting bites – get ready”, and as he grabbed the line to feel what was going on below, I took off my jumper and clipped into the Equalizer harness. At this point the line was pulled from Richie’s grip and line peeled off the reel. From there I pushed the lever up and began winding into a heavy weight, which I was sure would be just a big shark.
I concentrated on getting line back and keeping it tight as my unseen adversary kept angling up towards the surface. At the point where it all went really tight the fish stopped about 100m from the boat, gave a few massive headshakes then decided to steadily dive back down to about 300m. I was seriously wishing I hadn’t grabbed the rod as I became aware of the laborious task that lay ahead, but I was ecstatic at the prospect this could be a broadbill swordfish, and everything about the fight so far had the attributes of a swordfish and not a shark.
An hour and a half later a big sword popped to the surface and all three of us screamed with excitement. This was a great fish that went 135kg. To say the three of us were happy was an understatement. We went out again the following day and were able to back it up with a pair of swordfish that weighed 65 and 69kg; unfortunately the second fish came up dead so we had to keep it. This all happened only five days after my mate Matt Porter had landed Victoria’s first official rod and line-caught sword out of Lakes Entrance.
Could it be that Victoria is going to become the place for daytime swordfish on Australia’s mainland? If recent weeks have been anything to go by I think it’s fair to say yes. While the last few weeks of April have seen Tasmania’s east coast stamp its authority as the place for numbers of huge swordfish, Victoria is nipping at its heels with very few boats making some great captures in a very short time. So far my own crew has landed two swords over 120kg, one of which we managed to film for the upcoming series of Fishing Edge. And nothing could top the excitement off Matt Porter’s second swordfish, which dragged the scales down to 255kg. I think it’s safe to say as articles like this find their way into the fishing media and more anglers learn how to target them, we’ll be very surprised at what unfolds over the coming years.
THE NEW WAY OF THINKING
In the past, targeting broadbill was thought of only as a night-time proposition. The thinking was that broadbill would rise to the surface to feed from the depths, so it was a form of fishing that only the super-keen few were willing to attempt; cold dark nights and rough seas aren’t a comfortable combination for anybody.
Thankfully the development of daytime techniques proved that by getting your baits down to where the swordfish reside you could catch them under a warm sun. With hindsight it really isn’t surprising they feed at all hours as most of them carry a lot of weight for their size, which indicates that eating isn’t something that happens at a specific time. Targeting broadbill during the day is by no means new; crews in Florida and South Africa have been refining daytime techniques for many years. In more recent years places such as New Zealand and of course Tasmania have adopted these techniques, with Tasmanian anglers such as Leo Miller proving that catching swordfish in daylight hours in Australia, and bloody big ones, is no fluke.
FINDING THE GROUNDS
The first thing you’ll need when targeting swordfish is a good GPS to look at kinks, canyons and steep walls along the edge of the continental shelf. Areas that drop from roughly 350m to 550m have so far proved productive.
The next step is a good sounder with a quality deep-water transducer that will allow you to track the bottom and show up likely-looking areas. This is really important as while the charts on your GPS are a good guide, they are often not exactly as they show, so it can take some time spent sounding over a large area to get a more realistic reading of exactly what the bottom structure looks like.
Quality electronics will also help you mark the bait, which can be in the form of bottom fish such as blue-eye trevalla, gemfish and other bottom dwellers. Another reading you’re looking for is the scatter layer – this is done by running the gain or sensitivity up high to mark the clutter of tiny food, which will sit in a layer at varying depths. Depending on the day, this can be made up of tiny fish and squid, which naturally make it a prime place for swordfish to hunt.
Once you’ve chosen the area, allow the boat to drift for a few minutes to work out where the conditions are going to take you. There is no point being on the edge of a good drop-off and sending the bait down only to drift at a different angle from what you thought.
The rig required for targeting swordfish is a little bit involved and it’s here that everything needs to be perfect. It takes about 10 minutes to get the bait down to the bottom, so you don’t want anything to go wrong like a fouled or spinning bait or stuff breaking away from the rig on the way down. The rig I have been using consists of a 50W or 80W game reel loaded with 80lb braid and a 100m mono top-shot of 80lb. This ends with a wind-on leader of 300lb connected via a cat’s paw knot to a 300-400lb leader about 8ft long, which I then crimp to a J hook to suit the bait size – I wouldn’t use anything less than 10/0.
With the baits being down in the dark depths, lights are necessary to attract the broadbill. We have been attaching a Lindgren-Pitman Electralume light on the wind-on leader; this attaches easily with the clip on the light, and we then tie a smaller diamond light 6ft from the bait via a heavy-duty rubber band. While I personally like to use these lights and have had success with them, many anglers have great success with big Cyalume lightsticks.
As for the bait and hook system, there are many different baits you can use but we have been putting our faith in arrow squid as they are the number one food source for swordfish on a daily basis. Other top baits are gemfish, blue grenadier or even just the belly flaps of tuna, kingfish or dolphinfish. All these are thin so they flow nicely in the current, and they are tough baits that will stay on the hook and withstand a broadbill striking at them with his large sword-like bill.
Baits need to be well stitched-up with wax thread to deal with the water pressure at that depth and the beating from a big sword. Finally, a lot of anglers are running a luminescent skirt over the bait to provide some added attraction.
As for the hook, the verdict is still out, with some anglers preferring circle hooks and others standard J patterns. My own success has come on J hooks but I’m keen to experiment with circles.
So you’ve found the chosen area, baits are rigged, lights attached and now it’s time to get the bait down to the bottom. This is where your going to get some funny looks loading the boat with a bunch of rocks, but these make the perfect sacrificial sinker.
In order to send your bait down to the depths, a heavy weight is required and it’s a weight that you’re going to break off once you’ve reached the desired depth. Therefore you don’t want to be using lead as it’s litter and will cost you a lot of money. Instead, the best thing to use is a rock. You need to use fairly light line – about 25lb – and spend some time wrapping it around the rock and tying it off. You want the leader from the sinker to be about 10 metres long, which you attach to the bend in the J hook with a uni knot. The rock and the following rig, including your bait and lights, are sent to the depths. Once you’ve reached the desired depth you need to jerk on the rod in order to break off the rock, allowing the bait to drift naturally until a swordfish homes in on the bait. It’s at this point you may wonder how a fish is going to find your bait down there where it’s extremely dark. Richie described it best when he said to imagine it like a farmhouse in the middle of the bush, with no other lights around, that you can see for miles. The same would go for the glowing or flashing lights attached to your rig; it’s going to pull these super-predators in from a long way.
HOW DO YOU KNOW?
It definitely seems that a bite from a swordfish can vary greatly, from a tap-tap bite like a whiting through to the other extreme where the rod loads up and the fish takes line. In saying that, it does seem from my experience and from speaking with a lot of anglers that once they’re hooked most broadbill will head for the surface, so at this point it’s a matter of doing a lot of winding to catch up with the fish. Once tight, the fight can vary from a slow, heavy weight to an out-of-control very angry animal, so be prepared for either, and just because it may have come up easily doesn’t mean it’s not big, with several of the really large ones in Tassie deciding to go crazy at the boat.
THE BEST IS YET TO COME
Its fair to say we are in for some very exciting times ahead and I can’t wait to see what the upcoming months will provide for anglers keen to target the daytime swordfish. Best of all, the end result – if you do decide to keep the fish – is some exceptional eating. The by-catch should also get interesting, it being only a matter of time before someone tangles with a big thresher shark, not to mention bigeye tuna and jumbo bluefin, which are becoming more common as by-catch in Tasmania.