Swordfish are making an amazing comeback in the Florida Keys

Atlantic Swordfish

In 1970 Swordfish were in great numbers in the Florida Keys waters. In 1976 a whole new industry began with fishing for these magnificent fish during the night time. It was indeed rare to catch one under 200 pounds. By 1978 it was all over.

Word had spread fast about the great size and numbers of this fish in the waters off the Keys. The longliners wanted their share. Longliners began fishing these waters in such great numbers that in 1978 you couldn’t find and empty spot of ocean to drift your baits in. The size and numbers of this fish fell off immediately. In the 1980s and 1990s you couldn’t find a Swordfish anywhere. Finally in 1999 longliners were ban from fishing in the South Atlantic Ocean. They’re truly making a comeback. It’s commonplace to see them again here in our waters.

The largest Swordfish on record measured 14' 9" and it weighed 1400 pounds. It was from the Pacific Ocean. They grow much larger there than in the Atlantic where they rarely exceed 700 pounds. The Florida record weighed 612 pounds 12 ounces. All Swords weighing more than 300 pounds are females. Males rarely grow larger than 200 pounds. They’re sexually mature at 5-6 years of age and are thought to live no more than 9 years. They spawn all year round off Florida, Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico and other areas around the world where the water stays temperate. In the Atlantic they spawn in water that’s less than 250 feet deep.

They use their sword to smack their prey with to stun it then they swallow it alive. Swordfish have no teeth. They feed on squid, octopus and other fish of all kinds.

Swords don’t resemble any other billfish. They can be found in offshore waters that are warm all around the world. They stay in mid-water depth of about 600-1700 feet where the water temperatures are between 64-71 degrees. They do dive deep to depths of 2100 feet and they lay on the surface of the ocean basking in the sun. They have a “brain heater.” It’s a bundle of tissue associated with one of the eye muscles. It insulates and warms the brain. This helps to keep the brain from cooling to fast as he dives to these deep depths where the water can be as cool as 40 degrees. They can tolerate cold water better than any other billfish.

Sharks , Blue Marlin, Black Marlin, Sailfish, Yellowfin Tuna and Dolphin fish all feed on Swordfish.


Anglers are again fishing for Swords on a regular basis. Just about any night I’ll see one of my neighbors leaving the dock at 3:00 or 4:00 p.m. with a Swordfish as the targeted species. These fish are tough to catch. Once you hook them you’ll have a battle on your hands. Sometimes they grab the bait and shoot to the surface with a giant leap. Other times they’ll stay deep. It’s extremely hard and painful to crank them little by little to the surface. It can easily take one to two hours to land one of size.

Here’s a couple of methods for rigging your line. You’ll need at least 20 feet of 250 pound test mono leader. You can rig it with a three-way swivel or with a wind on leader. If your rigging with the three-way swivel, tie a two pound sinker with waxed rigging floss to the hanging eye of the swivel. If your rigging with a wind on leader, tie a loop out of waxed rigging floss onto the leader at least 15 feet after the hook. Then attach a two pound sinker to the loop with a snap swivel. You’ll need to tie another waxed rigging floss loop to your line where you’re going to attach the balloon. A chemical lightstick is attached to the leader about 10 feet from the bait. Electric tape works great for this.

For bait I mostly use dead squid. Get the largest ones you can find. I rig with 14/0 to 16/0 circle hooks . Run the hook and leader lengthwise thru the squid. If you have live baitfish , and blue runners are best for Swords, you’ll want to bridle the hook to him. This keeps him alive and allows the whole hook to be exposed for the hook up.

You’re going to be fishing several rods and each one at a different depth. The first one will be fished down at 100 feet the second one at 200 feet the third one at 300 feet and the forth one at 400 feet. If the moon is bright, the deeper bait will do better. If the moon is dark, you can fish them on the surface. In the Lower Keys the wall is the best place to fish for Swordfish. It drops off to 2000 feet plus. Some friends of mine fish in 600 to 800 feet of water and catch them there as well.

It’s time to set the baits out. Just begin letting the line out as you drift. You’ll stop each rod at the point where the balloon attaches and suspends the bait. Now you open a beer and wait.

In this area of the Florida Keys a few anglers are targeting Swordfish in the day time. They go to the wall with the same rigging methods as described before, but instead of a two pound sinker they’re using 10-20 pound breakaway weights. They pay out line until it reaches the bottom then break the weights loose and allow the bait to drift up thru the water column to the surface then do it again. One local angler caught a 350-pound Blue Marlin while fishing this method.

At present time there’s no bag limit on Swordfish. The minimum size limit is 47 inches from the lower jaw to the fork of the tail. This measurement is a straight line measurement not curved over the body.

It’s thought that a nursery for Swordfish is off the waters of Islamorada. Lots of Swords in the 100 pound and under range are caught here. Most fish caught in Miami, Key West and Lower Keys areas are larger. As a matter of fact my neighbor, David Heeter, caught one last year that weighed 257 pounds.

You'll need to get a special permit if you plan to keep one of these fish. This HMS permit is also required for yellowfin, skipjack, bluefin, big-eye and albacore tuna as well as marlin, sailfish and certain pelagic sharks. It's called a Highly Migratory Species angling permit. It's available from the National Marine Fisheries Service. The cost is $35.00 for the annual vessel permit. You can phone them at 888-872-8862 or

click here to go to their website.

I personally think getting rid of the longliners was a fabulous move for the recovery of the Swordfish. And yes they are making a comeback. We should probably rethink the minimum size and bag limit on these fish. Knowing that any caught over 200 pounds are probably females and that they don’t mature until they’re 5-6 years old we may be killing “the goose that laid the golden egg.” Putting larger size limits in place and reducing the bag limit to one per vessel per trip will then allow us to catch Swordfish for decades to follow. We have a second chance here in the Florida Keys and throughout the management area to do right by this fish species so lets not blow it.

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