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October 12, 2001

The Facts on Swords & Spears

The fabled swordfish and spearfish are elusive, yes -- but not impossible to catch if you know where to go and change your tactics.

There is a sort of incongruity that occurs when talking about swordfish and spearfish. After all, the broadbill has the greatest temperature tolerance among all the billfishes and inhabits practically all the waters of the globe. You might expect to catch swordfish with relative ease.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Though swordfish certainly played an important role in the pioneering efforts of many of sport fishing's forefathers, today we must reluctantly admit they have become the most elusive of all game fish species. Not only are swordfish not caught regularly any more, they are seldom even targeted on a regular basis.

Conversely, the spearfish represents the least widespread and least studied of the billfishes. This fact, combined with their diminutive size in comparison with other billfishes, has relegated the spearfish to the "incidental catch" department for most anglers. That's too bad, because if you know where to go and use the appropriate techniques, you can target spearfish fairly consistently. And if you do so on light tackle or fly gear, the fish will put on an aerial display you won't soon forget.

To anglers looking for a new challenge, we offer a comprehensive guide to the world's best grounds for chasing the sword and the spear. I have personally fished and caught swordfish and spearfish in many of these areas, alternating weeks of pure frustration with hours of real glory. Like it or not, this is the hard rule of the game, but those unforgettable moments when I've had a sword or spear on my line are truly the highlights of my angling career.

Even apart from the overfishing that has greatly diminished its numbers, the swordfish represents the ultimate angling challenge. Swordfish feed at night, deep in the sea where presenting a bait becomes more of an art form than a science. Even if you get one to eat a bait, they are exasperating to hook, fight and bring to the boat without pulling the hook from their soft, fleshy mouths. Add the fact that they are the toughest opponents you could battle, and you have the most potent cocktail in the bar.

Throughout the world, swordfish are caught by one of two methods. The classic approach, practiced most notably by Ted Nafztger, consists of seeking, spotting and baiting a finning sword in the daylight. However, dramatic commercial overfishing has reduced the effectiveness of this daylight approach, and the technique works only during the fish's spawning season, when swordfish rise above the thermocline to swim on the surface.

The more modern approach consists of drifting a dead or live squid over submerged canyons, banks and seamounts during the night. This technique has proven more successful but requires boats, tackle and crew that are both sophisticated in their fishing and tough enough to endure long nights in typically rough seas. For this reason, very few skippers target swordfish seriously.

However, a few places still exist where courageous crews stand a good chance of putting you on broadbill.

South Africa - Thanks to some brave skippers down at Gordon's Bay and Hout Bay, Cape Point, South Africa, now sits on the throne of swordfish hot spots that once belonged to Iquique, Chile, in the 1950s. During May of each year, the local sport-fishing club in Hout Bay organizes a nighttime broadbill tournament that involves dozens of charter boats. You can expect up to seven strikes per night here, with the average fish approaching 150 pounds. You'll find good skippers in these waters, equipped with seaworthy boats and quality tackle. Rough seas are the norm for the April-to-June season.

Kenya - This east African hot spot, well-known for its exceptional sailfish and marlin fishing, disputes South Africa as the world's most reliable swordfish destination. The Hemingways and Kingfisher charter boat fleets organize overnight trips for broadbill on the North Kenya Banks, 55 miles off the coast of Malindi in the middle of nowhere. They offer very good boats, quality tackle and skilled skippers. Top season is September through April, especially during new moon phases. Expect up to 10 strikes per night, with an average weight of around 80 pounds.

Panama - Jerry Dunaway and his Madam/Hooker mother-ship operation proved that the waters off Piqas Bay can produce their share of swordfish from February through April (striped marlin season). The Dunaways set three world records on 8-, 12- and 16-pound line there in 1986 fishing along the drop-off near Cabo Marzo on the Colombian border, around 30 miles out of Piqas. The Tropic Star Lodge fleet is not equipped for night fishing, so these waters remain available only through mother-ship operations. The sea here is usually flat-calm.

Venezuela - The marlin- and sailfish-rich waters of the La Guaira Bank can produce swordfish as well - sometimes even in the daylight. IGFA representative Ruben Jaen from Caracas reports fantastic daylight swordfishing in July, August and September using a newly developed deep-drop technique. Between 10 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. in July 1996, Jaen caught an incredible five swordfish in a single day. Night fishing there can be very uncomfortable, due to strong currents and tides, but the good strike ratio and the notable average weight of the broadbill encourage anglers to give it a shot - most often when attempting to complete a super slam of four billfish species in a single day. Best season is September through January and May through June, weather permitting. Skippers, boats and tackle are some of the best you can find in the world.

Mexico - The flat, calm waters of Mazatlan offer one of the very rare places where you can fish broadbill by sight in the day. Finning fish are normally located between 20 and 35 miles offshore, with the best season occurring from March through May. Anglers should plan well in advance for this type of fishing, so the sport-fishing operators can set up one of the charter boats with a good supply of fresh squid. As many as five fish per day are normally spotted finning on the surface, but how many bites to expect is difficult to assess as finning swords can be downright uncooperative. Mazatlan's swords average better than 100 pounds, with a good number of fish exceeding 200.

The island of Cozumel, situated just off the Yucatan Peninsula in the Atlantic Ocean, boasts a quality fleet of boats that is particularly involved in swordfishing at night. Joaquin Iturbide reports the best season seems to be March through June. The seas alternate between rough days and calm weeks. The number of bites to expect is unpredictable, and the fish tend to be on the small side, from 60 to 70 pounds.

Senegal - Thanks to a dramatic continental shelf drop-off, the waters off Dakar and Saly produce a good swordfish fishery. The local charter fleets of Air Afrique in Dakar and Espadon Club in Saly assure good action May through December, with July to September considered peak months. Expect up to four bites per night for fish rarely exceeding 100 pounds, and rough seas.

Put simply, spearfish are a frustrating species. Though they frequent most of the world's fishing grounds, they are caught consistently in hardly any of them. One reason is because they prefer colder water than billfishermen are used to fishing.

Scientists report spearfish prefer a temperature range of 70 to 86 degrees, but the magical periods of their appearance in most hot spots seem to correspond to the coldest water temperatures of the year. In fact, they are often associated with other cold-water fish such as their close cousins, white and striped marlin. In most of the spearfish's hot spots, anglers often fish what is otherwise known as the "off season" and frequently encounter rough seas and wet weather.

Spearfish prove infrequent catches also because anglers spend most of their time pulling baits for the larger marlins and sailfish. Due to their small mouths, spearfish are quite impossible to catch with most of the big baits generally trolled offshore. Anglers should drastically reduce the size of teasers, baits, leaders and hooks to those normally used for school dorado of 5 to 10 pounds, while maintaining the same technical approach as for bigger billfishes (bait-and-switch, drop-backs, etc.). Spearfish often travel in pairs, so anglers should expect double strikes as often as singles.

When choosing a place to target spearfish, give first consideration to volcanic islands where a combination of underwater structure and cold currents offers the best shot at reliable action. Some of the best spearfish locales:

Hawaii - If you look at the list of IGFA light-tackle world records, you'll quickly realize Hawaii offers unquestionably the best shot at productive spearfishing. Kona consistently produces more shortbill spearfish than any other known area, thanks in part to a fleet of boats that targets spearfish with more intensity than all the world's other fisheries combined. Kona's skippers don't catch spearfish by accident; they've dedicated many days to light-tackle or fly-fishing efforts to fine-tune their approach for spears. Best season is January through August, with April being the hottest month, and fish reaching the 30- and 40-pound range.

Kenya - July, August and September are the worst months for billfishing in the waters off the Kenya coast. Unless, of course, you're fishing for spearfish and swordfish. Hemingways fleet manager Gary Cullen reports some significant catches made during these months by the few sporadic clients that charter the boat during the off-season. Seas are rough during these months, but the boats, tackle and skippers are the best you can find in all of Africa.

Mexico - Cozumel, on the Atlantic coast, sees some spearfish action in March and April, though little effort is ever directed toward the spears. Yet because local skippers normally use small baits and light terminal tackle while fishing for sails and whites, anglers here are able to hook the spears more frequently than in many other areas where bigger baits are used.

Canary Islands, Madeira and Azores - These islands host the biggest spearfish catches in the world. The IGFA record book shows the three biggest longbill spears ever caught with rod and reel (82, 88 and 90 pounds) all coming from these volcanic isles in the northern Atlantic. Because the blue marlin caught in these waters are also of mammoth proportions, most crews here pull large, 13-inch lures - far too big for spearfish. Most spearfish catches here come when trolling small jet-head lures for bigeye, albacore or bluefin tuna. Best season is April through July, and seas are generally calm. Boats, tackle and skippers are very good, though charter rates are expensive and it's quite difficult to find space in the high season. And since big marlin are the calling card here, you'll need to bring your own light tackle.

Italy - Ironically, the home waters of the biggest spearfish species lack any real interest by the local anglers, due to the massive presence of giant bluefin tuna in the same areas at the same time. In fact, most of the local spearfish catches are made while drifting dead sardines for bluefin. In certain areas, such as Siracusa and Marina di Ragusa in Sicily, some anglers troll small feather jigs in October and November and catch up to five fish per day in the 15- to 30-pound range. However, some boats plan on dedicating the next season to bait-and-switch fishing for record spears, fish that local commercial fishermen catch in excess of 100 pounds. The biggest Mediterranean spearfish run the Straits of Messina August through November.

Senegal - This spot has recently demonstrated a good run of shortbill spearfish in October and November, with three world records set for the species during this time period. Since local skippers normally use light terminal tackle while fishing for sailfish, the possibilities of hooking a spearfish are high, even when spears are not the intended quarry. Try this spot during the off-seasons, May and June, and October and November.

Australia and New Zealand - In February and March (during the striped marlin season off Bay of Plenty), there is a good run of big spears along the coasts of these two world-renowned hot spots. As in many other big-fish fisheries, though, the locals often use lures and baits big enough to discourage even the biggest spearfish. However, these waters can be quite productive for spears when smaller tackle is employed.