“Article written for the New England Big Game Journal by Capt. Dean Panos”
Recreational swordfishing throughout the world, and especially in South Florida, has gained tremendous popularity. With the ban on longlining along parts of the eastern seashore, swordfish populations are showing signs of recovery. The recovery is far from complete and is not a fraction of what it was in the 70’s when recreational swordfish was discovered off of the coast of South Florida. With swordfishing readily gaining in popularity, more and more anglers are venturing out into the Gulfstream at night in all kind of craft, and more anglers are doing it in center consoles. You don’t need to have a million dollar sportfisherman to catch a swordfish, although a nice AC with a warm meal sounds good! This article will provide some advice and input as to how to rig your center console for a safe and rewarding swordfishing adventure. Although this article may be geared towards swordfishing South Florida style, the techniques used and adaptations made to your vessel can probably be used worldwide. As a charter boat skipper in South Florida, I have taken many a Northeastern fisherman on quite a few swordfish trips. I keep in contact with many of them and they are using techniques they have learned in South Florida, and are catching swordfish in the canyons while tuna fishing.
To catch a swordfish off of Florida, most anglers, including myself, drift live or dead baits in the Gulfstream. We drift our boats beam to sea, which is why center consoles are so popular for this type of fishing. I have a relatively large openfisherman, 34 foot SeaVee powered by twin Mercury Verado outboards. Given the size of the openfisherman and the fact that I am drifting beam to sea, my openfisherman allows me to spread the rods out quite a bit. Don’t get me wrong, on calm nights with favorable weather and good seamanship, much smaller center consoles have ventured out at night and have successfully landed swordfish. Just this past summer, two anglers fishing on a 23-foot openfisherman landed a 418-pound swordfish! When the weather kicks up though, it is better to have a vessel which is a bit bigger. The run to the swordfish grounds in South Florida is relatively close. From Miami’s Government Cut, Haulover Inlet or Port Everglades, the run to the swordfish grounds is less than 20 miles. Given the speed of the Gulfstream though, and fishing the majority of the night, you may end up as far as 40 to 50 miles from your homeport. From talking to longliners who used to fish in our waters, swordfish can be found in various parts of the Gulfstream, but the majority of recreational anglers fish a corridor of water that is 3 to 4 miles wide, but starts in the upper Keys and ends in Palm Beach. The reason this area is so popular is due to the bottom terrain. In this lane there are a series of rises and falls in the depth contour which provides upwelling and seems to hold bait better than open expanses of flat bottom. When we get into the electronics portion we will discuss the types of bottom machines most of us use.
We can start a good debate as to how big must a center console be to venture offshore at night. There really isn’t a magical number, but more of it is dependent on the seaworthiness of the craft, the sea conditions and the experience of the captain and crew. Without a doubt, the vessel must be in good shape and must be seaworthy. You may head out to the sword grounds in calm weather, only to have a storm or front roll in and kick up the seas quite a bit. The vessel should have functional bilge pumps with automatic floats and manual override. The navigation lights should be in good order and spare bulbs handy. Power can be either inboard, outboard or I/O as long as the power is reliable. Twin power is obviously better than single power, but ill maintained twins could be worse than a well-maintained and functional single. I am biased to twin outboards, since I have twin Mercury Verado’s hanging off of my transom. With the size of the center consoles these days, triple outboards are also gaining popularity. Preventative maintenance and scheduled maintenance gives us piece of mind when you are drifting at night far from home. Regardless of how well the outboard or inboard is maintained, you need ample battery power to start at the end of the night. Many of the boats drift with the motors off. The drain of the livewell pumps, depth recorder, GPS, etc., can put a sufficient drain on the batteries. It is always a good idea to have two separate battery banks. Use one battery bank to house all the pumps and accessories and have the second battery bank available to start the motors. This can be done with simple battery switches. Have your mechanic look at your set up and ensure that it is proper. Keep your batteries topped off with a battery charger. On my boat, I have four batteries total – two Group 31 batteries on each bank. This setup has proved to be quite reliable for me.
Safety is first and foremost and nothing is more important than safety. Basic safety gear used in near shore waters needs to be left near shore and good high quality safety gear is needed offshore. Live preservers should be commercial grade Type 1 life preservers. I prefer the jacket type rather than the vest style. The jacket type is a bit bulkier and takes more room to store, but most center consoles have plenty of storage spaces. Each life preserver should have reflective tape on both sides so if by chance someone ends up in the water, they can be spotted with a spotlight from a greater distance. It is also a good idea to have a strobe attached to each life preserver. This will obviously increase the likelihood of being spotted in the water at night. A whistle can also be attached to the life preserver and will only cost a few dollars. Another option is to have a personal Epirb for each life preserver. This is not to be confused with the Epirb that you must have for the vessel. Personal Epirbs have fallen drastically in price and can be found at most boating supply stores for less than $150 each. The vessel itself should also have an Epirb. Although not required by law to carry an Epirb (unless you are commercial), it is well worth the money to have one. There are many different types of Epirb’s, but in my opinion, the minimum should be a type 406 MHz. An Epirb that either has a GPS interface or has a built in GPS is preferred. Also an Epirb that releases automatically when submerged is also preferred. If you have an Epirb that has to be manually activated, keep it close by. You should also periodically check the battery of the Epirb and the expiration date of the battery. Each Epirb manufacturer has a procedure to do this. Emergencies can happen quickly and it is best to be as prepared as possible. Flares should be of the type used for offshore nighttime use. Before the beginning of each season and periodically, check the expiration date of the flares, the condition of the life preservers and the charge on the fire extinguishers. A first aid kit is also advisable to have and should be more than just a band-aid and some aspirin. As fisherman and fishing at night, your first aid kit should be prepared for puncture type wounds (hooks,gaffs, rigging needles, and hopefully not swordfish bills). Also a good
hand held spotlight or boat mounted spotlight is good to have. It can be used to locate people or objects in the water. This may seem like a lot, but safety gear is never thought of much until it is time to use it. Notice, I never got into life rafts and this is due to the fact that most life rafts are simply to big to store on board of a center console. If you have the space and feel the need to have one though, it is just another piece of equipment that may save your life in an emergency.
Now that safety gear has been discussed, we can talk about boat electronics, which happens to be an area I enjoy. My 34 SeaVee has a tremendously large console and most center consoles have sufficient console space for at a minimum of a depth recorder, GPS, and VHF. I currently have a Furuno NavNet (10 inch screen). The Navnet houses a GPS with a color chartplotter (Navionics chart) and radar. The chartplotter is a must and the radar is very beneficial to have when running around in the dark. Put it this way, once you have radar, you will never own another boat without one. A GPS chartplotter is needed to get you to the right fishing area and also to get you home, but it can be even more important when drifting for swordfish. Every time I catch a swordfish, I save that waypoint on my GPS (after a while you may have too many waypoints and may choose to delete some of the older ones). After a few waypoints, you may see a pattern develop. This is where the chartplotter shines. Dependent upon current and wind, you can position your boat so that you can drift over the most productive areas. As you get into an area where you have done well in the past, your attention level is heightened and you are ready to get on the bite. This coupled with your depth recorder can give you a definite advantage. Earlier we had mentioned that in South Florida, bottom contours that are jagged and have many rises and falls seem to hold more bait and thusly more swords. In South Florida, these depths are usually from 1000 ft to 1600 ft in depth. You need a decent machine to read the bottom at that depth and an even better machine to read it while running. I have a Furuno FCV-1100 depth recorder with a 2000-watt transducer and a temperature sensor. While this recorder may be a bit overkill, it is powerful enough to be able to detect thermoclines that are below the surface. For most center consoles a color recorder with a minimum of 600-watt transducer is needed. A temperature sensor is also invaluable. A temperature sensor though will only detect changes in surface temperature, which is also a very valuable piece of information to know. However, detecting thermoclines that are below the surface do require a fairly powerful machine and an operator that can differentiate between a thermocline and plain clutter. Thermoclines below the surface are not detected with the surface temperature probe, but are interpolated from the readings on the depth recorder. The importance of thermoclines is that either the bait or the predators of the bait are usually located at or near these thermoclines. It is also known, that broadbills are hesitant to cross thermoclines. Which in turns means that if there is a thermocline at 100 feet, you should have at least one bait right above the thermocline and one bait right below it. If all of a sudden you get all your bites below the thermocline, you can adjust more of your baits to that depth. Depth recorders are often not used to their potential. My advice to you is to start by removing all the prohibitive settings or keeping them at a minimum. Then place the depth recorder in manual mode. What I mean about prohibitive settings are items such as filters and settings that the depth recorder uses to filter out noise, clutter etc. Read the manual and determine how to set these filters to a minimum setting. Then you can start by adjusting your gain properly. Without getting into a technical boat electronics dialogue, to ensure that you have the gain set properly do the following. First, determine how deep you are. Lets just say you are in 900 feet of water. Now take your range setting and set it to at least double the depth that you are drifting in. If you are in 900 feet, change the depth setting to somewhere between 1800 ft and 2000 ft. Now adjust your gain to zero and start to slowly increasing your gain until you read the bottom again. Keep increasing your gain until you get a second echo. A second echo is another depth reading at double your depth. For this exercise, if you were drifting in 900 ft of water, your second echo will read 1800 ft of water. Once you get a second echo, your gain is adjusted properly. Now you have a good baseline and as you gain experience with the unit, you can change filter settings and see if the effects of the changes where favorable. Another piece of electronics that can be useful is the VHF. While also a piece of equipment that we can use for safety, fisherman can also communicate with each other. When the bite goes off during the night, it is not uncommon to hear the reports come flying in. With that said, if you use your electronics to their potential you will definitely increase your odds of hooking up with a broadbill. Just imagine this, your chartplotter is indicating that you are coming up to one of your hot spots, the depth recorder is showing hilly terrain, you detect a thermocline at 100 ft, and reports on the radio that the bite is going off. All of a sudden you become more aware, you may adjust some of your baits to match the thermocline, and you are ready for action.
Although not really part of electronics, we also need to discuss the use of lights in the water. Almost everybody uses a light stick (chemical, battery, or water activated) near the bait. Most people also use a light submerged right next to the boat. I use a Hydro Glow light on each and every trip. This light is place on the down current side of your boat and creates a glow of light around your boat. This will in turn attract bait, which may then attract predators. Besides the attraction of bait, I use it for two other reasons as well. After you hook a swordfish and are fighting him, I leave my Hydro-Glow in the water the entire time. This allows me to see what is going on and to keep track of where the swordfish is. Some anglers prefer to put their spreader lights on, but I believe that causes the swordfish to shy away from the boat. The Hydro Glow light also allows me to see swordfish that are naturally curious and swim to the boat. They come up to the surface and either the light or the boat attracts them, or they are just naturally coming to the surface, but with the light in the water you can actually see them free swimming. When this happens, you can pitch a bait to them. I can tell you from experience, there is hardly anything more exciting than pitching a bait to a swordfish at night that is free swimming around your boat and actually hook them up. I have learned more from watching swordfish eat baits next to the boat. You can see how they use their bill to attack and kill their prey. All I know, is that I would not want to be in the water when a big swordfish is looking for a meal.
Earlier we had mentioned that most center consoles drift beam to sea (drift sideways with the waves). If your boat doesn’t drift sideways, you can correct this with a sea anchor. A sea anchor either positioned on the side cleat or bow cleat can usually correct this. If the seas are running big though, be careful if you place a sea anchor in the side cleat. Large seas can break over the side of the boat. Also ensure that the cleat is sufficiently fastened to the boat and is sufficient in size and construction to handle the extra load that the sea anchor produces. The size of the sea anchor varies with every boat and with the varying sea conditions, but most center consoles use 4 – 8 foot sea anchors and sometimes as large as the 15 – 18 foot sea anchors. I carry three different sea anchors from 15 foot in diameter to 4 feet in diameter. If you are uncomfortable drifting beam to sea, you can also power drift. With the aid of the engine(s) you can maintain stern to sea or bow to sea conditions. With this setup though, you are likely to have to fish less rods and lose the stealth advantage.
As with all boat owners, the way you lay out your boat is somewhat personal and dictated by the style of fishing you do. In South Florida, we do a lot of live bait fishing and a lot of drift fishing. I have lots of rod holders on my boat, some people say to many. With the amount of rod holders in the gunnels, I can position my swordfish rods for a maximum spread dependent upon wind and current. I have a total of 14 rod holders on each gunnel, 18
rod holders on my console, 5 rod holders on my tackle station, and 5 on my T-Top. That a total of 56 rod holders. You don’t need that many but you need at least 5 rod holders on the gunnels of a center console to allow you to fish 5 rods. Those 5 rods holders should also be spaced out from bow to stern to allow you full use of the length of the boat. The rod holders should all be through bolted on the gunnel and also have backing plates installed. Although we intend to fight swordfish stand up style, every so often we hook a big stubborn sword or have an angler that may prefer to fight the fish right out of the rod holder. Twenty to 30 pounds of drag over an extended time can pull a rod holder out of the gunnel if not firmly attached. You should have your flying gaffs, gaffs and harpoons securely affixed to the boat for the ride to and from the swordfish grounds, but also attached in a method that allows for quick access.
The boat setup also plays a critical role in what happens during the fight. Most often we hook the swordfish by reeling on the rod, right out of the rod holder. Once were are tight on the fish, we transfer the rod from the rod holder to the angler and secure the rod to the belt and harness. The deck should be clutter free to allow the angler the ability, if needed, to move around the cockpit. Nowhere is this truer than when you have a double or even tripleheader going. If everyone keeps on their fish and can move around the cockpit freely to follow their perspective fish, you can land a tripleheader of swordfish, just as we did earlier this year. If we are only fighting one fish, as captain, I try to maintain position on the swordfish, by keeping my angler positioned next to the tackle station (slightly aft of amidships). The angler can then fight the swordfish off the side of the boat and can use the tackle station to lean back on to relieve some of the physical strain placed by the harness. You can rig your center console with a fighting chair, but part of the beauty of having and fighting a fish from a center console is the ability to move around the entire boat as needed. With that said though, the boat captain should do everything possible in maneuvering the boat to give the best angle to the angler. Once the swordfish is boatside, we determine size and if the fish will be kept for the table or released. Please note caution here, since even a tired swordfish can inflict a great deal of damage with his bill to either the boat or anyone on board. If the fish is to be released, we use a release knife to cut the leader close to the hooks. If the fish is small enough, using heavy leather gloves, we can bill the swordfish and remove the hooks. If the fish is going to be harvested and is of good size, we will first dart the swordfish with a harpoon and then secure it with either a flying gaff or a straight gaff. The fish can then be either brought over the side or as in my case; I have a tuna door that I can bring the fish in. Either way, be cautious and beware of the swords bill. It can and has inflicted a great deal of damage to boats and people.
Swordfishing is truly big game fishing but now we don’t need big sportfisherman to go swordfishing. Keep on eye on the weather, use good common sense and good seamanship, and you will be rewarded with plenty of good nights fishing for the almighty broadbill swordfish. Not always possible, it is good practice to go out with other boats and also to keep contact during the night. Just remember if someone is in need of assistance, please offer it to them, as you never know when you will be the one needing the help. Although I have tried to point out all the specifics that I employ on my boat, if you have any questions I can be contacted either through the Big Game Fishing Journal, or from my website at www.doubledcharters.com.
Tight Lines and Good Swordfishing,
Capt. Dean Panos
Double D Charters