Fishing offshore at night is not for those who are scared of the dark. Peering down into the black abyss, it’s easy to conjure up disastrous thoughts. But if you want to fight with Ziphias gladius, the broadbill swordfish, you have no other options.
Why does this fish feed almost exclusively at night? The swordfish’s huge eyes are sensitive to sunlight, so during the day they inhabit the dim, dark, deep waters. During the night, they rise to forage for food in areas that are 300 or more fathoms deep. Even then, however, catching them will not be easy.
*Setting lines in the dark is challenging, so ease the task by tying two-inch pieces of wax line at 50’, 100’, 200’, and 300’ on each of your lines, ahead of time. Then later, once the sun is down, you’ll have no trouble judging exactly how much line you’re setting out.
* Pre-construct leaders using 15’ of 250- to 300-lb. test line with quality ball-bearing swivels crimped six feet above a 10/0 – 12/0 hook.
* If you have live baits, you’ll have to deal with hooking them in the dark. Otherwise, prep up fresh mackerel, bonito, or—number one on the list—squid. Coil the leader and secure it with a rubber band, and lay the pre-rigged bait on ice until use.
*Use a rubber band to attach a chemical light stick 10’ above the hook. Let out line until you reach the first piece of wax line, then attach a weight using another rubber band.
*Continue letting out line until you reach the 300’ mark. Blow up a balloon, and attach it to the line using a half-hitch.
*Let the rig drift a couple hundred feet from the boat, then set out another line 50’ shallower. Continue staggering depths with each line.
- John Unkart
Life's A Dredge
At least, it is for the fish.
You want to catch more tunas and billfish on the troll? Dredges are critical. In fact, many captains wouldn’t dream of trolling offshore without them. But there are many different ways of building dredges, and plenty of artificial versions on the tackleshop shelves. Which should you use? And once a dredge is in the water, how can you best capitalize on it to catch more fish?
“Since the first time I used dredges, I haven’t gone billfishing without them,” says tournament-winning Captain Scott Fawcett of the Bone Shaker ( www.boneshakercharters.com ) “Speed often dictates the type you use. At a slow crawl of one or one and a half knots, I like to add artificials, because their tails throw out a lot of vibrations. Over four knots, however, every bait on every dredge will be natural.”
BUILDING your dredge properly is critical, and Capt. Scott stresses quality over quantity. “I’d rather have a 10 or 12 bait dredge with every bait swimming properly, then a 50-bait dredge with a few that aren’t swimming well. And if you see a fish approach then fade off from a dredge, change something--it shouldn’t leave. If it loses interest quickly, something’s wrong.”
Artificial dredges have an advantage in that inexperienced trollers can purchase and deploy them without the time and experience necessary to hand-build a natural bait dredge. There are several choices on the market; the Abaco Holofish dredge is a collapsible six-arm titanium dredge with 13 holographic, light-catching plastics. These glimmer and shine like neon lights in the water, while throwing off plenty of vibrations. Another option is the Striptease, which can be purchased in a number of versions that range from 12 to 58 baits. These strips of plastic with micro-embossed mylar are surprisingly sturdy and also throw off a ton of reflections, although they don’t have the vibrations added by a plastic tail thrumming through the water. These are particularly effective for exciting tuna, however, and at the end of a season you’ll notice hundreds of pin-holes in the plastic, courtesy of yellowfin on the feed. To capitalize on this fact, make sure you always run a single naked ‘hoo about 10’ behind a Strip Tease—it’ll become a top-producer when yellowfin are in the area.
This white was attracted to the bait by a dredge.
The Holofish throws light in all directions.
Artificial Dredge Bonus Tip: Add large spinner blades to the inner mounting points on your artificial dredges that utilize teasers which don’t produce vibrations. Use a swivel to attach them so they can spin freely, and as they do so they’ll create a whomp-whomp-whomp vibration that helps draw in fish.
There are two main bait choices when constructing natural dredges: ballyhoo, and mullet. Mullet are appreciated for their awesome wiggle, but since they cost six to ten times as much as ballyhoo, expense will keep many recreational anglers from using them. One trick used by penny-pinching pros: fill the inside of a dredge with plastic artificials, and make the outer ring of baits with mullet.
Many pros will also rig up a large multi-dredge with ballyhoo to be run down one side of the boat, and a single mullet dredge for the other side. The mullet get split-tailed or wedged and deboned. Both mullet and ‘hoo must have their mouths wired shut with pin rigs and copper. Mullet get two or three ounces on the chin, and ballyhoo get one or two. Remember: the dredge needs to be heavy enough to stay in the water at all times, with the baits swimming, never spinning. A single spinner in the mix can ruin a dredge, so eyeball yours closely when putting it in the water, and remove or replace any baits that aren’t wiggling properly.
Of course, both artificial and natural dredges will need additional weight. And, lots of it. Most of the time four to six pounds of lead will do the trick, but larger, multi-spreader dredges with higher water resistance may require even more. Savvy anglers will slide a squid skirt over the weight to add another fish-attractor to the mix, and savvier anglers will remove this skirt when wahoo are around because occasionally, they will take a shot at that additional attractor and cut your expensive dredge off. The frame of the dredge can be an inexpensive “X” type, or a folding-arm dredge with the weight integrated into the center.
Dredge lines may range from 300 to 500 pound test leaders, depending on the size and weight of the dredge. It may be tempting to rig a dredge line with braid to reduce water resistance, but don’t do it. These lines have so much pressure on them that a crewmember deploying one could lose a finger, if the line wrapped it after the dredge entered the water. You can run the lines from a transom cleat on a small boat, but if you have sturdy outriggers and teaser reels, running the dredge line through the first eye of the rigger is a better way to go since deploying and retrieving them is much faster. Remember, however, that these rigs produce a ton of drag. Try this tactic on a lightweight outrigger and you risk breaking it. If you plan to run them from cleats crimp a loop into the end of the dredge line, and make sure you cleat it off before the dredge goes over the side, to avoid losing the entire rig should someone fail to hold on tight enough.
You should judge the exact depth you want your dredge at according to conditions. The goal is to be able to eyeball it from the flybridge or cockpit, while running it as deeply as possible. If it’s so deep it’s out of sight, you won’t see approaching fish. But if it’s right on the surface, it won’t attract as many fish to the boat and it might even tangle with your other lines at times.
Bonus Pro Dredge Trick: Spray-paint the metal arms of your dredges aqua-blue so they don’t stand out as much in the water.
WORKING the dredges is critical; don’t just deploy them and wait for fish to arrive. Let’s say you’ve chosen and deployed your dredges, and you know there are fish around. You have a spread of six ballyhoo placed off the sides and behind the dredges. What now? Are you going to merely troll along and wait? Not if you’re a pro, says Jon Meade, mate on the Cervesa.
“Prospecting is key,” Meade tells us. “Have the anglers take turns freespooling a ballyhoo next to a dredge, then pulling it back up. If you’re serious about winning a tournament, you’ll be prospecting all day. If you’re less serious about your fishing, just prospect now and then. But no matter what make sure the dredges are placed so you can see them and always keep a sharp eye on them. When you see billfish behind the dredge don’t just stand there, offer them a bait.”
Look! There’s a white marlin on the port dredge! One of your anglers offers it a pitch-bait, and it eats. Fish on! What happens with the dredges next is what separates real pros from the wannabes. Most anglers running port and starboard dredges will yank both of them in to keep from tangling in the lines, but savvy anglers know there’s a good chance other fish are near by, and will capitalize on that fact. While you initiate a turn to the same side the fish attacked on, someone should pull in the dredge on that side. The angler should attempt to keep the fish on that side of the boat, while another angler grabs one of the rods on the other side of the boat and begins prospecting around the remaining dredge. Any additional fish that were eyeballing the pulled dredge will often switch over to the one that’s still in the water, and see the prospected bait. You’re only pulling one dredge? Then boost your odds by running a deep line on the other corner of the transom. That’ll give fish that are hanging below an offering to switch to; as you clear lines when fighting a fish that came to a dredge, save that deeper line for last to keep it in the water as long as possible.
Unlimited Budget Bonus Trick: Rig your dredges on electric reels. Yep, it’s expensive, but it’ll allow you to pull in and let out dredges with maximum efficiency and minimum effort.
Build, choose, and run your dredges like a pro, and the results are easy to predict: you’ll catch more fish. So the next time you leave the inlet, be sure you’re prepared to become one of the dredges of fishing society—you won’t regret it.
You want to increase billfish hook-up percentages on your flat lines? Even novice offshore fishermen can boost their results with the simple technique of twisting the fishing line eight to 10 times before inserting it into the flat line clip. The twisted line creates friction, allowing the reel to be set to freespool if desired. This results in fewer fish dropping baits, and when a billfish takes a bait, it gives the angler time to take his rod in hand and continue feeding the fish. The tactic works well with conventional gear and is ideal if you want to try to target billfish with spinning gear, which doesn’t have different instant drag settings. The twists will hold the line in place, allowing you to leave the bail of the reel wide open.
Set the flat line clip to prevent tripping, give your line those twists, and set conventional reels with minimum drag—just enough to stop a backlash. On a strike, the clip will release and very little or no pressure is felt by the fish, allowing him to turn and swallow the bait. Once the fish has completely taken the bait hit it hard, or when using circle hooks, slowly increase the drag to maximum approximately five seconds later—to create solid hook-ups, tail-walking billfish, and shouts of joy.
Use clips, to catch more fish.
Sailfish Tactics from the Professionals
Ask any three top captains from three different areas how to catch sailfish, and you’ll get three very different answers. Depending on the port you hail from, the “best” method of catching sailfish is quite different. Top anglers know each of these methods and apply them all according to the conditions. You want to know how the pros catch more sails? Then check out their favorite tactics.
Stuart Dead-Baiting – Try it when livies are in short supply or to practice your tournament skills. Troll at four to five knots with a spread of dink ballyhoo on small, short-shank hooks. Rig the flat line baits with split bills, and let long rigger lines skip sometimes. The most important part of the spread? Big dredges, with as many mullet or ballyhoo as possible. Keep a sharp eye for dark shadows behind the dredge, and sink a bait back any time you spot one.
Palm Beach/Miami Kite Fishing – Try kite fishing whenever wind and sea conditions permit and you can get appropriate live baits—goggle-eyes, tinker mackerel or blue runners—because it’s damn effective. Run the kite off an electric reel, and stagger three clips at varying distances. Dangle the baits just under the surface and keep a keen eye out for attacking predators. Don’t forget to run a couple flat lines off the transom, as well.
Islamorada Live Ballyhoo – A killer tactic that should be used wherever and whenever you can catch live ‘hoo. Cruise to the reef and anchor over a dark patch of grass. Chum ballyhoo to your transom and catch them on Sabiki rigs or by throwing a cast net. Run a small hook through the ballyhoo’s lower jaw and wire-wrap the bill against the shank. Slide out to the edge of the reef and put four to six baits over the side, then bump the boat in and out of gear just enough to keep the baits swimming at the surface.
Big dredges: the most important part of your spread.
Bump the boat in and out of gear just enough to keep baits at the surface.
Canyon by Moonlight: 10 tips for catching swordfish
Swordfish is one of the ultimate offshore catches. These fish are incredibly strong, incredibly hard to locate and catch, and taste incredibly good. Plus, Swords can get big—really big. The world record fish weighed in at 1,182-pounds This is a long-standing record, which was set way back in 1953. What are the chances of catching a swordfish in this class? Not great. Sword stocks have really been pounded by longliners, but stocks have been on the rise for several years and catching them is again a real possibility. In fact, in southern waters like Islamorada and Miami, three to five bites a night isn’t an unreal expectation.
These are strictly offshore fish, with most being taken along the edge of the continental shelf in 100 fathoms or more of water. Canyon tips and edges, temperature breaks, and sea mounts are all features that will attract these fish. Although new daytime deep-dropping tactics are the topic of conversation, most swords are still taken by anglers drifting through the night, while illuminating the water around their boat with artificial lights like a Hydro Glow. Green is the color of choice, and it’ll attract everything from squid to swords to your boat. Similarly, a cyalume light stick is secured to the lines about 10’ away from the bait, to help draw in the fish. Lines are set near the surface, 100’ down, 150’ down, and so on, staggered throughout the water column, suspended under balloons.
Like marlin and other billfishes, swords slash at a bait with their bill before attempting to eat it. Since squid is their main fare—and by far the bait most commonly used to catch them—an angler’s baits will often be slashed in half by the fish. Thus, it’s extremely important to sew the squid’s mantle to its tentacles to ensure it remains whole when the swordfish turns and eats it, after the initial attack. Want to try and catch a swordie? Use these tactics to get one up to the gaff.
1. Bring squid jigs with you when you’re going swordfishing. Often squid will swim up to the lights around your boat, where you can catch them. Fill up the livewell, then start live-baiting with the squid.
2. Some captains prefer blue lights, some prefer green, and some just use regular white halogens. The lights set from your boat will attract baitfish, which in turn attracts predators like swordfish and tuna. But testing I preformed for magazine articles proved that green attracts more baitfish, while blue (the color which out-lasts others that fade as distance from the source increases) attracts fish from a longer distance. So set out both—a green light to which the critters will swarm, and a blue light to call them in from afar.
3. Watch your balloon bobbers for lateral motion. Often a swordfish will take a bait and swim while remaining at the same depth. The balloon won’t go under, but will seem to slide across the surface of the ocean.
4. Swordfish have relatively soft mouths, and hooks rip free of them with regularity. Apply as little pressure as possible to move the fish, use circle hooks, and never crank the drag down hard.
5. During daylight before an overnighter for swords, keep an eye out for squid boats. These huge steel factory ships will be towing massive nets off the edge of the shelf, and they definitely indicate the presence of squid. Since you’ll find the predators where you find the bait, if you see one of these squid boats keep it in mind when choosing where to set up for the evening.
6. Try to set baits that are near the surface at the very edge of the lightline surrounding your boat. You’ll see an edge where the light fades out into blackness; this is where the predators often hunt, and this is where you want your bait to be waiting for them.
7. Lunar cycles are extremely important when swordfishing. The last quarter moon leading up to a full moon is usually considered the best. Some captains like to fish on a full moon but some others claim there’s too much natural live bait swimming around for the swords to find your hooks, because squid often rise to the surface to mate under the full moon. All agree that the last few days of a disappearing moon and the first few days of a new moon provide the slowest action of all.
8. Temperature breaks are considered very, very important when hunting for swords. Many serious captains will cruise for miles, to reach the edge of a Gulf Stream eddy where there’s a nice change. So before leaving the dock, check your offshore temp chart and see if there are any good breaks within cruising distance.
9. Get good squid. Swordfish can be picky, and the cheap box of squid you buy for sea bass bait won’t cut it. Larger, foot-long squid which retain their outer skin are best. These are usually sold for trolling and command top-dollar, but the better bait is worth the extra bucks.
10. Chunk with squid and/or butterfish as you drift. There’s debate over how much effect this has on drawing in swordfish, but there’s no question it will lead bigeye and yellowfin to the boat. What—you don’t want to catch some tunas as well, while you enjoy the canyon by moonlight?
Swordfish: One of the ultimate pelagic predators.
Most swords are caught at night, though daytime deep-dropping has become popular lately.
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