Richard Abela heads to Victoria’s north-east in search of a life-long sportfishing pursuit- daytime swordfish.
Thinking back to my grass roots as a blue-water sports fisherman, it’s not hard to recall where my obsession with the broadbill swordfish began. I can still remember the first trip I ever did to the east coast of NSW. It seems like only yesterday that a 17-year-old boy walked down to the Bermagui fishing co-op and saw two massive swordfish that had just been unloaded off one of the long-lining vessels. If memory serves, the big one weighed almost 600lb, and the smaller at least 400lb. I remember thinking, “What hope have I got of landing one of these giants of the deep? Even dead I’d have no hope at all – so imagine if it put up a fight!”
It wasn’t until 2000 that I finally decided to put in a full night on the swords. Fishing Bunga Canyons, due east of Bermagui, the sun had only just set when the 80lb outfit started howling. “Could this be a swordfish, already?” We asked each other. After a 500m run that threatened to spool us, it finally stopped. Over the next 30 minutes, we managed to gain almost all the line back without losing another inch. Through the murky blackness, a silver image took shape. Delight turned to disappointment when an 180kg oceanic thresher shark appeared under the boat. We hadn’t caught our magical swordfish. However, the very thought we might’ve been connected to one was enough motivation to keep the broadbill flame alight.
After that evening, I spent many more sleepless, icy nights swording with a select few diehard anglers. We often wondered what the hell we were doing out there when we could be home tucked into a warm bed. Social media hadn’t taken over our lives yet, so magazines and fishing videos were our only link to what others were doing in swordfishing circles, here and around the world. I drew inspiration from an elite group of skippers who had mastered catching these gladiators of the deep at night. Captain Bruce Libbis on the Rathlin II, fishing out of Merimbula, NSW, and New Zealander Captain John Gregory on Prime Time, were the leaders in their field. They kept me inspired.
It wasn’t until I read an article about a new daytime swordfishing technique, pioneered by Captain Nick Stanczyk from Miami, Florida, that everything changed. After some research on this lethal method, I decided to put it into practice off Jervis Bay in NSW. We were fishing a canyon to the north in about 1500m of water when we had a sudden bounce on the rod tip. Something had taken an interest in our dolphin fish belly flap hanging 450m below the surface. The line then went slack. I wound frantically to regain tension, but 450m is a long way down and this fish was surfacing fast. I’d wound all but 50m of line back onto the reel before I finally regained tension. Moments later, the sword came crashing out of the water. Although at 41kg it was no record breaker, it didn’t matter – I’d just caught my first daytime sword!
Five years later, with many more unsuccessful night sessions (and a few failed daytime attempts) under my belt, I decided to head to Tasmania – a new recreational sword fishery that rivalled some of the world’s best locations. Following the recent success of my good friend Leo Miller, who had landed an exceptional swordfish, it was time to get amongst the action. Fishing in Tassie really helped me refine techniques I’d been experimenting with over the years.
Back home in Victoria, I was raring to go with plans to ship my brand-new 3000 series Noosa Cat Dreamcatcher II to Tasmania, where I planned to start my new sports- fishing charter operation. Unfortunately, circumstances got in the way and I didn’t make it. My disappointment was amplified by the incredible reports of giant swordfish filtering back. It wasn’t until my fishing buddy Julian Coyne organised a boys’ marlin trip to Mallacoota that the penny dropped. While Jules had marlin on the brain, I had a swordfish session up my sleeve. With my good mates Lee Rayner and Joel Ryan, the four of us headed up the east coast to target marlin. All the while, I had a swordfish back-up plan in the corner of my mind.
Launching off Mallacoota was a fairly new experience for all of us, only recently made possible by the construction of some great new facilities. With no real expectation about how the day would unfold, we headed north-east of Gabo Island towards a temperature break that had been producing great results in the days prior. By 2pm, it became apparent that the bulk of the baitfish and marlin had moved on, despite the cobalt blue water and very little current. Suddenly plan B was looking pretty good. We moved south back into Victorian waters. By the time we reached our spot, it was 3pm, but the trip south gave us enough time to set up the sword gear. On our first drop the bait had only just hit bottom when we noticed a slight tap on the rod tip. “Are we hallucinating?” we asked each other. Then moments later, another bite, but this time the rod immediately loaded up. We were tight to what seemed like the bottom, until suddenly the line started angling towards the surface. Lee quickly started winding – faster than he’d ever done before. It was a frantic effort to stay tight to the fish. With all the right telltale signs, excitement was growing as the clock ticked over the first hour. With the sun sinking on the horizon, we started to wonder if we’d be fighting into the night. Then, as if conceding defeat, our first Victorian swordfish was there for the taking – just lying on the surface. It had been foul-hooked and was coming in backwards, making it impossible to consider for a healthy release. The sheer excitement was overwhelming – we had just caught a daytime sword, and a big one at that! Returning to Mallacoota in the dark, we weighed the sword – a whopping 135kg. We were pumped!
Eager to see if it was just a one-off encounter, we headed out to the same location the following day. Much to our delight, it wasn’t long before we’d hooked up and landed a 65kg sword. We couldn’t believe our fortune when we backed that up with a 70kg fish! I was shell-shocked. All those years of carefully planned but fruitless trips only to finally have my swordfish dreams pan out after minimal preparation. With many great captures since that awesome weekend, the Victorian and Australian sword fishery has been well and truly cracked open and is ready to explode Australia wide!
TOP SIX SWORD TIPS
1. Take the time to rig your baits correctly. It’s a long way to the bottom!
2. Master your electronics. At these depths you’ll need to fine tune settings.
3. Find the bait hanging on canyon structure and you’ll find the fish.
4. Keep your distance from other boats, drifts can be wide-spread.
5. Check your baits every 30-40 minutes.
6. Be careful when handling swords boat-side as they’re unpredictable and can inflict serious pain.