Hooked on swordfish

ISLAMORADA, Fla. -- Moments of discovery are rare these days. Been there, done that has become the national mantra. Now and then, however, at unpredictable times when we've just about become convinced that we've run out of new horizons, we surprise ourselves.

The light bulbs blazed on for five fishermen aboard the Catch 22 on January 21, 2003. That was the day that Vic Gaspeny's cynical friends finally granted his request. Gaspeny wanted to see if what a Venezuelan fisherman had written about swordfish would work in the Atlantic Ocean off Islamorada where the continental shelf drops into the abyss.

It was Dr. Ruben Jaen's claim that broadbills could be caught just as well in the daytime as at night and Jaen, a respected trustee of the International Game Fish Association, had plenty of catch statistics to back him up. What he said wasn't exactly heresy, because other anglers such as legendary fisherman Michael Lerner had caught swordfish elsewhere in daylight, but everyone knew that swordfish preferred to eat nocturnally active squid and night was the best time to fish for them.

Still, Gaspeny wanted to test Jaen's contention and finally convinced his skeptical companions to let him give it a try during their sailfishing foray. While the Catch 22 drifted along the continental shelf about 30 miles east of Islamorada, Gaspeny grabbed a well-worn Penn outfit loaded with vintage 80-pound-test mono, rigged it with a 12-pound downrigger weight and a 10/0 hook baited with a whole squid, and then lowered the weight and bait into the clear blue Atlantic.


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It took 10 minutes for the bait to reach the target depth more than 1,600 feet below, but soon the rod tip bounced a couple of times and Gaspeny was hooked up. The 65-pound broadbill he boated after a 30-minute fight wasn't big by swordfish standards, but it was huge in terms of proving a point.

"That was the day I went from being a moron to being a genius, at least to the guys on the Catch 22," said Gaspeny, who up until then was more famous for his exploits on the Keys' tarpon and bonefish flats than as an offshore angler. But maybe that's what it took: somebody who didn't have preconceived notions about the rules of bluewater angling.

Giving it a try

"Until January 21, 2003, everybody around here pretty much had the same idea about catching swordfish. It was a nighttime deal because the squid they feed on are more active then," Gaspeny said. "In 2001 I read a short article by Dr. Ruben Jaen called 'Deep-Dropping Technique for Swordfish' that was about swordfishing at depths of more than 1,000 feet. That's what got me curious, and I wanted to try it."

Gaspeny convinced Richard Stanczyk, the longtime proprietor of Bud N' Mary's Marina in Islamorada, that developing a "new" fishery for his charter boat skippers and their customers was a good idea. The terrorist attack on 9/11 didn't stop all fishing traffic to the Keys, but it definitely slowed what had been up until then a steady stream. Stanczyk didn't take much arm-twisting before he conceded to Gaspeny's experiment.

"This little thing with the swordfish has become an obsession that we've invested about $400,000 in, counting tackle, time, and fuel and boat bills," Stanczyk said. "But it's helped the local economy and everyone is benefitting, and not just us. The broadbill swordfish is a great game fish and lots of boats go out after them now."

Lots of boats go after swordfish, but nobody has caught more broadbills than the crew of the Catch 22, including Gaspeny, Stanczyk's sons Ricky and Nick, his brother, Scott, and K.J. Zeherrig. Gaspeny has caught 147 broadbills himself; during a two-day in June 2007, the Bud N' Mary's boys accounted for 11 swordfish. Ricky and crew boated seven swordfish for their customers in one day. Between the Catch 22 and the other Stanczyk boat, the B n' M, the crews had one stretch in which they had swordfish hookups on 108 of 109 offshore trips.

"Most fishermen know that marlin and sailfish roamed up and down the continental shelf at different times of the year, but a lot of them never stop to consider that the shelf is a highway of sorts for all types of deepwater fish. There's no telling how many swordfish are out there, throughout the year," Stanczyk said.

If swordfish are as plentiful as Stanczyk believes, their presence serves as an example of what wise fishery management can accomplish. It wasn't so long ago that there weren't a lot of broadbill swordfish left anywhere. Overharvesting in the 1980s by longliners led to protected status in the 1990s, and now multiple broadbill hookups are fairly routine during a day-long charter.

Tackling broadbills

Trial and error and a lot of wasted boat fuel have taught the Stanczyks and Gaspeny about fishing successfully for broadbills. Job one for them was figuring out where to fish. One thing they found out quickly is that whether they ran north or south or due east, most bites in the deep Atlantic came in about 1,500 feet of water along the continental shelf. The fishing line is marked with felt-tip pens or waxed floss at incremental stages to determine the exact depth.

"The learning curve was pretty steep. We didn't know where to find broadbills at first but, drop after drop, we gradually narrowed it down," Stanczyk said. "They tend to stage in certain places; who knows why: Current? Bait? Thermocline? Spawning? Now we average about three hookups a trip. We catch fish 12 months a year, though the weather can be a limiting factor."

It's difficult to imagine that fish almost a third of a mile under the surface, suspended in 38-degree water, would be affected by lightning and rain, but Stanczyk says stormy weather shuts down the broadbill bite. On the flip side, the few days after a full moon offer anglers the best chance to catch the biggest swordfish.

The basic fishing setup the Catch 22 crew uses now typically consists of 80- or 100-pound-test TUF-Line high-visibility yellow braided line, an 8-foot length of 300-pound-test mono crimped to 9/0-12/0 J hooks and connected to the running line with 500-pound-test Sampo solid-ring barrel swivels.

Whatever the rig, it conforms with IGFA guidelines because record qualification is always a possibility. The Stancyks also stick with conventional revolving-spool reels (Shimano Tiagra 80 Wides) that they reel in manually. Some fishermen opt for electric reels.

"There are a lot of moving parts and variables that go into swordfishing and we're still learning," Gaspeny said. "The rig we've settled on came about through trial and error. Other fishermen have their own versions, but basically they're all the same. You need heavy-duty tackle to handle a big swordfish."

One also needs a very heavy weight to get the bait down quickly and keep it from riding up in what are often cyclonic currents of the Gulf Stream. Gaspeny and the Stanczyk soon learned that fighting a broadbill with an 8- to 15-pound weight attached to it made the job exponentially more difficult. They came up with a drop-away rig that caused the main line to break free of the weight when a broadbill hooked itself after slashing at the bait.

A wing loop of 20- to 30-pound-test mono connects the weight's running line to the main line. The wing loop is attached to the main line via heavy waxed line, and the weight's running line is attached to it by a heavy (and cheap) snap swivel. The weight hangs down 20 to 50 feet on a length of 60-pound-test mono.

In theory, the weight becomes disengaged from the main line at the wing loop when the swordfish thrashes about. Usually it works, which is why the Islamorada pioneers soon learned that using expensive downrigger weights wasn't practical. They started making their own weights by pouring concrete into plastic bucket molds, and sticking a short length of cloth into the mix to make a tie loop for the running line. Here again, there are other variations, including the use of a mesh bag filled with rocks for the drop.

A taste for anything fishy

In a silent world bereft of light, it's a wonder that any fish can find a bait, but swordfish, with eyes the size of teacups, are up to the task. Still, the Catch 22 guys help them out by attaching a Lindgren-Pitman Electrolume light to the main line above the weight connection. Such battery-powered lights are wrapped in clear housings capable of withstanding the pressures of 275 fathoms beneath the sea.

Squid, arguably the favorite food of broadbills, have the ability to flash phosphorescent light to signal to each other in the inky blackness. Of course, it's also a neon billboard for Atlantic predators such as swordfish. The electronic light, then, mimics nature, but the bait isn't always squid. The swordfish don't seem to mind.

"You'd think that squid would be the all-time favorite bait, but we've done just as well, or maybe better, using a variety of fish bellies," Richard Stanczyk said. "Everything from dolphin to mackerel to bonita bellies will work, and the swordfish can't whack them off the hook as easily as they sometimes do squid. When you lose your bait on a strike, it's a long time winding it up. If you have to wind it up at all, better to have a swordfish attached."

History can turn on a dime. If Gaspeny hadn't caught that first swordfish on his first drop, it's likely that the burgeoning recreational broadbill fishery off south Florida wouldn't have been discovered. Now anglers from Key West to the Carolinas are trying daytime swordfishing for themselves. As many have proved to their satisfaction, what works off Islamorada will work anywhere there is deep water and broadbills.

For a first-person account of catching daytime swordfish, read Mike Suchan's account of his trip to Florida.

For more on the Stanzcyks and Bud N' Mary's, visit their Web site, budnmarys.com. For more fishing opportunities in The Florida Keys, visit Fla-Keys.com.