Targeting Swordfish In The Northwest Region With Capt. Jeff Hagaman

When you think of offshore fishing in the Northwest Region of Florida, most people envision grouper and snapper fishing on the offshore rocky ledges, but there’s actually a group of anglers who make the long run offshore to target swordfish in the open Gulf of Mexico. The only drawback to targeting swordfish in my region is that they like deep water, usually 1,500 to 2,000 feet, so you can expect long runs to the fishing grounds.

Because the Gulf of Mexico is so shallow and the runs four to six hours, the majority of anglers that target swordfish in my region make it an overnight trip. That doesn’t mean you can’t catch swordfish during the daytime. The same day and night swordfishing techniques that work in the Atlantic and Florida Keys work here in the Gulf.

One of the most popular areas to swordfish off my region is northwest towards the panhandle and called the DeSoto Canyon, which is a deep canyon with lots of humps, ridges and atolls that swordfish like to congregate around. It’s also an area closed to commercial swordfishing, so it doesn’t get a lot of pressure like some of the open areas of the Gulf.

In the Gulf of Mexico, swordfish spawn all year, and our fish tend to be larger on average, somewhere in the 100 to 400-pound range, compared to Atlantic swordfish that are in the 50 to 150-pound average size range. Because of that, I always suggest using 80 or 130-pound tackle. You can go as light as 50-pound gear, but with the big fish around on a regular basis, it’s better to have plenty of lifting power to get the fish out of the depths and shorten the fight.

At night, swordfish come to the surface to feed, so most boats will set up a drift in an area they know the fish are holding in from recent catch reports, and put out three or four lines scattered at 50, 100, 200 and 300 foot depths. The standard swordfish rig uses 250-pound monofilament leader, a 12/0 to 14/0 circle hook or 12/0 “J-style” hook, and whole squid or ladyfish for bait. The leader is usually 15 feet long, and attached to a swivel, above which is placed a small light that blinks one or multiple colors.

Because they live in such deep water where light doesn’t penetrate, swordfish have huge eyes that help them find their prey. In their natural environment, squid will light up, and the light is what draws swordfish to the area to feed. The bite is often subtle, and may only twitch the rod tip several times, but when the line comes tight and the hook sets, the fish will make blistering runs and even jump.

During the daytime, swordfish head to the bottom and feed around humps on the floor of the Gulf. Swordfish anglers target these areas, and use electric reels to help bring the fish up from 1,500 feet of water or more. It seems like 1,700 feet of water is a constant depth for daytime swordfishing, with the key being to keep the boat atop the bait and as little scope in the line as possible so you can feel the bite.

To do that, boats use as much as 20 pounds of lead weight to get the baits down to the bottom quickly and keep them there in the current, and power drift atop their gear. Most of the terminal gear is similar to nighttime swordfishing, although baits are usually sewn dolphin or bonito bellies, which are designed not to spin on the way down like a whole squid would, and thus avoid tangling the bait in the leader.

More often than not, the swordfish hooks itself when daytime swordfishing, as it eats the bait and pulls against the 20-pound weight, which instantly sets the hook in place, so it’s common for the rod to bend and a hooked fish to swim to the surface in just a few seconds. Swordfish are known for being one of the toughest fish to catch on rod and reel, for long, deep line consuming runs, epic leaps and also for being one of the toughest fish at the boat to gaff. They’re one of the most prized billfish that swims, and outstanding table fare. While it takes a lot of effort, time and fuel to chase this species on my coast, it’s also one of the most memorable fish to catch.

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