Catching a swordfish usually only happens once in a blue moon, even for the most seasoned offshore anglers.
Such was the case last weekend, when perfect offshore conditions and an actual blue moon (the second full moon in a given month) made for some hot nighttime swordfishing.
Seeking her first swordfish catch, Heather Leman of Mount Pleasant pushed out 100 miles Friday night in her twin-engine, 23-foot Palmetto center console to fish the legendary Charleston Bump.
With two crew members suffering from seasickness, Leman deployed two whole squid baits, one 400 feet deep and the other 200 feet deep.
In just 45 minutes, one of the lines started screaming.
“It was amazing,” Leman said. “It was a completely flat ocean, and the moon was full and it just lit up the entire ocean. I grab the belt and start fighting the fish. After about five minutes, you see this huge bill come out of the water, and then the whole fish cleared the water with the moon right behind it. It was awe-inspiring.”
The fish made a number of runs, often straight down. Leman thought she’d get spooled a few times, and once even put the reel in free-spool in a last-ditch attempt to stop a particularly long run before her reel ran out of line.
“The fish completely changed direction and started coming to the boat,” she said.
After three hours, Leman had managed to bring the fish boatside. She and her seasick crew put two gaffs in the billfish, estimated at just under 200 pounds, and wrestled it onboard, a process that Leman said took about 30 minutes.
“I still can’t believe it happened. I didn’t really think I was going to do it.
“It was such a beautiful fish.”
Because the fish was too big for her insulated fish bag or the boat’s fishbox, Leman packed ice on top of the fish, wrapped it in towels and headed home.
“I need a bigger fish bag,” she said. “That’s my next investment.”
Paul Godbout of Sellsfish Seafood in Summerville, a former commercial swordfisherman, had a good fun-fishing trip the night after Leman caught her sword. Though Godbout doesn’t fish for these mysterious billfish too often, he and a few family members and friends decided to give it a go.
Their trip started about 7 a.m. Sept. 2 aboard TT Charger, a 34-foot Yellowfin owned by Dave Grafton of Mount Pleasant. After a successful day of bottom fishing (and baiting up), they turned east and headed even farther offshore at dusk.
They headed to a spot in 1,600 feet of water that Godbout knew from his commercial days in the 1980s.
“It smelled fishy,” Godbout said. “Bait all over the water and birds everywhere. Something had been feeding on tinker mackerel, and you could literally smell the fish oils on the surface.”
They started drift-fishing at dusk, running four rods with baits staggered at depths from 500 feet to 100 feet deep. Thanks to a 5-knot current, they covered plenty of ocean.
On the first drift, they caught nothing. On their second drift, a fish batted one bait around, made some runs but never hooked up.
On the third drift, Godbout’s son, Michael, was reeling in a bait when he saw a sword follow it up into the glow of their Hydroglow light, which was floating at the boat’s stern. They quickly rigged another bait and pitched it to the sword. After an hour-long fight, Michael had landed his first sword, a 55-pounder.
On the fourth and final drift, another 55-pounder picked up a bait at 500 feet. Dave Grafton’s son, Justin, fought and landed that one.
They picked up and headed home soon afterward. They’ve been sharing swordfish steaks with friends and family since.
Swordfishing is not for timid souls. It happens at night, and it happens way, way out there — often out of radio range of help onshore. Because these trips often play out over two days, captains need a solid stretch of calm weather and plenty of prep work to safely achieve success.
Sword fishing requires heavy tackle and a good bit of offshore know-how: 300-pound-test leaders, squids and mackerel sewn onto hooks, light sticks fastened above baits, flasher lights at swivels.
Swordfishing also requires conscientious safety precautions. EPIRBs are a must, as are back-up radios and as much survival equipment (rafts, suits, etc) as one can afford and fit onboard. Captains should leave accurate float plans with more than one person, and stick to them.
Anglers may keep one swordfish per day, up to four per vessel per trip. Swords must be at least 47 inches long, from the tip of the lower jaw to the fork of the tail.
Swordfish may be taken only by rod and reel and handlines (handlines must be attached to or remain in contact with the vessel at all times).
A federal Highly Migratory Species Permit is required to fish for all billfish, and all recreationally landed billfish must be reported to the National Marine Fisheries Service within 24 hours of landing at the dock. Anglers can report by calling 1-800-894-5528 or by visiting hmspermits.noaa.gov.
Recreationally caught billfish may not be sold, and billfish that are to be released may not be removed from the water.
Reach Matt Winter, Tideline magazine editor, at 843-937-5568 or firstname.lastname@example.org.