BY BOB HOOSE
Late November 2019, a group of friends and I were fishing on the Prospector for the mighty king or broadbill swordfish. The sun was low on the horizon while we watched our sword flags drifting upswell. I was just about to call ‘lines out’ when my buddy shouts out, “The buoy is on its side!” I was the designated angler on that outfit and the adrenaline rush spiked thru my body in a flash. Here we go boys…
What followed was an epic stand-up battle for over an hour — wicked jumps, long steady runs on heavy drag, and an all-out dog fight at the boat. When the flying gaff found home and we pulled a local broadbill thru the transom door — it was a celebration at the highest level. I finally landed a local king and gave the fish a legit battle on stand-up gear. No rod holders or help from the rail — it was one of the most memorable battles of my life.
2019 was the season that changed the way we fish for swordfish in Southern California. Most of the SoCal billfish crews grew up targeting swordfish by casting or slow trolling a bait to a finning sword. The average ‘bite ratio’ was something like one in ten or fifteen basking swords baited would bite. Of those biters, one in ten would come tight. And of the ones that were hooked, similar odds to land the fish. Obviously, the chances of success are slim.
Take for example the Los Pescadores Fishing Club — a local angling club with 75 members. In 2019 the club recorded 28 deep drop broadbill swordfish for their members. That is more swordfish caught in a single season then all the years combined dating back to 1979! What changed the way we target swordfish was to use the ‘deep drop’ method of deploying baits at depths of 700 to 1,000 feet during the daytime — the same depths where SoCal swordfish feed during the day. The results were unbelievable. Southern California captains and crews fine-tuned their programs and put up some amazing swordfish catches last season. For the readers, I was asked to share some of tips on targeting deep drop swordfish. While I am no expert at this fishery, I can talk about some of sword techniques we use on our boat that hopefully will help you catch a deep drop king.
4- to 6-pack starter kit
For the private boat crews, I highly recommend looking into chartering a local four- or six-pack charter boat to fish deep drop swords for the first time. We did it the hard way and spent years trying to figure out the deep drop technique for SoCal. Wives and girlfriends thought we had lost our minds — season after season with no success on the deep drop. We had a few legit bites and caught the occasional big eye thresher, but the king eluded us every fall.
By chartering a professional captain, you can see how the deep drop system works and hopefully pull on a king and figure out what kind of outfits you want to invest in on your boat. The gear list is massive, and you need to go in 100% when tangling with the king.
Furthermore, the deep drop fishery is not for everyone. Many anglers do not have the patience to watch a couple flags all day long while waiting for a bite. And waiting for a bite is an understatement. I know many ‘fishy’ captains and anglers that went without a sword last season. It’s not due to experience, some days luck plays a role and you just have to be the chosen one that day.
The good news is our North Pacific sword fishery is healthy and when “the king decides to enter the building” — in SoCal we have plenty of great structure, canyons, and banks to attract feed and swordfish. Depending on time of year and conditions, I like to pick a couple zones where we have baited swordfish in the past during that time of year. Our boat is based out of Newport, so we usually like to fish in and around the triangle of islands: Catalina, San Clemente, and Santa Barbara Island. Later in the fall, we may shift our focus to the beach or make a run up to the Channel Islands — one of our favorite places to fish swords.
On weekends, and since the “deep drop” fishery has become so popular with the private boat set, we typically try to avoid the fleet and find an area that we have some room to set up on properly. Furthermore, we would rather have our baits and lights down in the zone instead of competing with dozens of other boats and deep drop gear in the same area. Just like seabass fishing, last season we witnessed small areas where the swords were biting shut off on a weekend when the fleet set up on top of the fish.
If I had the flexibility to choose the dates and best time for a deep drop sword, my picks would be the week before the full moon in September, October, and November. Those days have the big tide changes and bait and gamefish seem to go on the feed that week. The old harpoon boat captains would say they harpooned local swordfish every month of the year — I like the fall months best when the sword schools have had time to settle into an area and can be targeted until January and even early February. Once the water drops below sixty degrees, it seems like the fish and feed they are on migrates out of the Bight.
While a good set of gyro binoculars is critical for the basking sword fishery — a good transducer is necessary for the deep drop fishery. When choosing an area to deploy the deep drop gear, you want to set up your drift on a zone that has a good DSL (deep scattering layer) and mark on your sounder concentrations of feed — squid, hake, and deep water fin bait.
An Airmar 1KW transducer with bandwidths of 50 to 200 khz will get you in the game. On our boat we paired the Airmar 1KW transducer to SIMRAD electronics and were really impressed with our sounder on low chirp. By tuning the gain and frequencies, we can mark the DSL and deep bait schools at 1,000 to 1,400 feet at seven knots. Our next upgrade on Prospector will be an Airmar 3KW transducer that can mark individual swordfish at great depths.
When we’re targeting swords, the sounder is the most important instrument. On many sword trips while working along a drop-off or ridge, a small canyon that runs across the ridge wall will have a concentration of deep bait. Deploying our deep drop baits in that zone would be a great place to get a bite. Without a proper transducer, you will not be able to fish the best concentrations of feed and hopefully a school of swordfish.
Note to self — find an elephant seal while out looking for swordfish, stop the boat and drop! Elephant seals feed on the same forage as swordfish — squid being their favorite. Elephant seals are excellent mammals at locating squid, so whenever I see or find one while out sword fishing I will “stop and drop.” Before the local deep drop fishery, if whenever we found an elephant seal, we would mark the spot on the plotter and do a few tacks in the zone looking for basking swordfish. This tactic worked many times — we would find a finner almost on the same numbers as the elephant seal. Last season, while fishing right out in front of Avalon, we watched Willy on the Chronic find one and immediately drop. We had him in the binoculars, and it wasn’t five minutes later he was pulling on a king. Take that tip to the bank — it is a good one.
These creatures are shy animals — you do not want to come charging in on them. We call them “bell buoys” because they look like one from a distance. Slowly make your approach and write down the compass heading and distance for reference. They usually sink straight down when you get within a couple hundred yards but at the same time hopefully you’re approaching upswell and can deploy the sword gear nearby.
Ten years ago, I flew out to Texas and to attend a swordfish seminar by Booby Trap fishing with Captain Brett Holden. These guys were on fire in the Gulf, catching hundreds of swordfish on the deep drop gear. While at the seminar, I purchased a couple deep drop rods from their Texas builder with a soft tip but plenty of backbone for sword battles. I caught my first local sword on these rods and still use them today.
Last season, we wanted a couple more 80-pound stand-up rods for the boat and had Seeker build us a set of composite 60XXHs with a Winthrop roller tip and AFTCO short bent butts. When paired with our PENN International 50VISX and 80-pound line — its now one of our favorite stand-up deep drop rods.
I was introduced to the big game circles by Mike Blower and learned from the beginning of my angling career to fish stand-up rods. Every angler has a preference, and ours is to enjoy the sword battle fighting the fish with an AFTCO harness. No rod holders, rail, or electric reels — we only fish old school style. If this sounds like your style of fishing, go with a Seeker composite 60XXH rod with either an AFTCO or Winthrop adjustable butt. All heavy-duty ring guides and a Winthrop or AFTCO roller tip. If LP or electric reels is more your style, then go with a Seeker composite 60XXXH with a long-bent butt — Wicked Tuna style.
As for reels, you need a lever drag two-speed reel in a 30 or 50 size. I am partial to PENN, but also like the Shimano Talica 25II and 50II. Accurate, Diawa, and Okuma also have good reels for deep drop as well.
Circle vs. J hook
I started out my deep drop quest fishing 10/0 Mustad 7691S J hooks. Same hook we had used for decades on our sword casting outfit. It is a great hook for deep drop rigs and lots of SoCal captains use that particular J hook and do well on them. For me personally, last season I got the bites but kept missing the fish or worse yet pulled hook. It was not until I spoke to Captain Nathan Perez, who runs the commercial harpoon/buoy gear sword boat Bear Flag. He showed me the Mustad 18/0 circle hook that he uses to commercial fish swordfish on buoy gear and I said to myself, “If they are using that hook to make a living, I should be using that same hook for my deep drop program.” I switched my rigs to a Mustad 18/0 circle hook and the next two bites were caught swordfish. Debate closed, that is our hook for deep drop swords.
I have had swordfish bites on mackerel, squid, and one time while trolling a 7 Strand goatfish 1220C Kona Clone! I found one of the best baits for deep drop swordfish are the squid distributed by So Cal Deep Drop. Again, Captain Nathan Perez turned me onto these squids, and they are tougher and thicker than the squids you buy at the Japanese markets. They work for us and are a huge confidence boost when targeting swordfish.
On most of our deep drop trips, we also like to have a tank of greenback mackerel. On some days they want to eat the mackerel, and while the squid will get a bite, like other offshore fisheries, swords get keyed in on mackerel and this can make the difference on a trip.
The only thing predictable about a swordfish is they are unpredictable at the boat. Our first local swordfish was literally on the cockpit deck “hog tied” by the bill and tail to stern cleats, yet when my friend walked past the sword I saw its eye follow him and try to cut him in half with his sword! On our boat, we use two gaffs to secure the fish. First a flying gaff in the head or shoulders, and a straight gaff to secure the tail. Next a tail rope goes over the tail before we consider sliding the gladiator thru the transom door. Talk with your local tackle store to get properly set up for the end game.
While I could write an entire WON paper on this subject, I hope some of these king tips will help with your deep drop program this season. The season is here, we found our first basking swordfish last trip while out tuna fishing. Put your time in on the water and get some help from other captains on how to fish the deep drop. Good luck hooking your next king!