October 2019: Chasing Broadbills in Epicenter of Daytime Deep-Dropping, the Florida Keys
“Do you always sneeze this much?”
“No, never. Literally just started last night.”
“Maybe you’re allergic to swordfish!”
“Evidentally. Or they are allergic to me. Or both.”
A joking exchange between Captain Chase and myself that sadly is truer than not so far. I have to take that with a grain of salt however as I have only fished for swordfish a handful of times. Including last month’s trip targeting broadbills in my local west coast waters. After striking out on that one and being a hopeless optimist, I decided to take a shot at redemption in the daytime sword-fishing epicenter. The Florida Keys.
More specifically, fishing out of Bud N’ Mary’s Marina in Islamorada. Home to many legendary catches and expert pro’s who have been dialing this program in for well over a decade now. One of which is Captain Chase Fulton (@captchasefulton on Instagram) who has been the understudy and right-hand man to swords master Captain Nick Stanczyk (@captnickstanczyk). The two have worked together as Captain and First Mate for the past few seasons with well-recognized and well-deserved success.
Now the baton has been passed. In this case, that figurative baton being the 37-foot, original “Broad Minded” Freeman Boatworks sled. A fresh Pelagic wrap and newly minted as “Water Damage”, Chase is now carrying on the legacy in tandem and out of the gates off to a stellar start running sword trips. The pair of Freeman’s absolutely have the deep-drop program wired and having fished with Chase before, I was giddy about my chances to bag a Keys sword.
If the morning were to be any indication of the rest of the day, we were in for a treat! The sunrise lit up the horizon cloud line as we pushed out to sword ledge. First mate Shane rigged up some baits using skirts and Mahi bellies. I watched closely as he stitched and put the final touches together.
“Do you want to use want to use the conventional hand-crank setup for any reason or good with the LP electric reels?” Captain Chase asked.
“Will it be a hassle or screw up your program if we run the tip rod with the hand crank setup? I don’t want it to be a pain in the ass but my setup at home will be hand crank so that would give me apples to apples comparison to watch how you are running it.” I replied with a little hesitation about deviating from their normal, very dialed-in program.
“Doesn’t matter to me and I can get everything switched over quickly. I’ll get the harness fitted to you and we will use the Hooker Electric motor to get tight then when you’re ready, quickly pop it off and have you fight it in the harness.”
So the gameplan was set and the leads were dropped to the depths. This part of the program I was now becoming familiar with and it was time to lock in on a rod tip in hopes of any little nuance or change in the bouncing rhythm. We drifted at just a touch over 2 knots, which was a big change from the west coast deep-drop trips where half to one knot was par for the course.
Another one of the biggest differences out of the gate was dropping to and reaching the bottom. We were fishing mostly depths anywhere between 1500-1650 feet of water where our leads were bounced off the deep bottom before being brought up a touch. Also, one thing I hadn’t been doing on previous trips was working the tip rod bait. Just subtly, to help with the presentation and work some different depths. Reel up for a few seconds, pause, watch the tip closely in case anything follows up, repeat a few minutes later. Then back to the bottom and work back up.
We were able to cover a good chunk of the zone thanks to the current being sped up but no takers. So we reset and started drift number two. The weather was beautiful and we were even treated to a nice sunshine rain shower. Although there was little wind to speak of, the Freeman was astonishing stable and had next to no roll. This seemed to help make for a very consistent bounce on the tip rod. I was confident that any little tap or change in this pattern would be easy to pick up.
Turns out, I was dead wrong.
I leaned up against the bow gunwale, completely zeroed in on the tip. Then Chase sprung up from the helm seat to tend to “there’s a bite!”. He hit the free spool, dropped the bait down, and sped the Hooker Electric motor up until it audibly began to stall out.
“We’re tight!” Chase exclaimed as I scrambled to find the harness and figure out how the hell he picked up on that bite I completely missed.
“Dude, how did you see that? I was literally staring at it the entire time and didn’t notice a thing.” I quetsioned, still dumbfounded.
“It didn’t really wack it. Just saw a very tiny stall out of the tip as it went slack for just a split second. So I just acted as if it were a bite and sure enough, it was on there. Here, keep tight and if it rushes to the surface, turn up the speed. As soon as you’re ready we will pop off the motor and get you in the harness.”
I was as ready as I was going to be and the transition into the harness went smoothly. Chase instructed me to keep reeling as the fish steadily climbed up towards the surface. You could feel that there was a fish on the other end but it continuously swam the weight up, never making any big runs or head shakes the first minute or so. I was able to make progress on it and we weren’t far from the lead. Now I started to really feel it swimming around under us and turning its head to make short, but powerful runs.
In short order, we were at the leader and Shane reached out to tend to our weight. As he was reaching out and unclipping, I made the fatal mistake. I stopped reeling, just for a second or two max. But that’s all it took. As soon as the weight was off and I took a few cranks, I could tell it was gone.
Immediately, frustration set in. Not because I farmed a potentially nice fish, which trust me isn’t the first and won’t be the last! But because of my decision to deviate from their very wired in swordfishing tactics. I should have listened to my captain and crew by sticking with go to the gameplan, using electric reels. At least to put the first fish on boat. I firmly believe you are at the mercy of your own decisions when fishing and sometimes even the smallest missteps can make or break your day. I feel this is especially true with swordfishing, where every opportunity for a bite really counts.
It’s cliché, but that’s fishing. I cracked a CL smooth and reset my mindset back to the task at hand. Bagging a Florida Keys Broadbill.
Well, as the story goes and despite logging a 12 hour plus day, that was our one and only bite. We worked hard through nearly 10 drifts, changing spots, changing depths, and an overall A+ effort from Captain Chase and Shane but it just wasn’t our day. We found and caught a few squids that pecked at our baits from the massive clusters below. But the swords didn’t want to cooperate with us.
My wait for a swordfish would have to linger on but my desire absolutely will not wane.
In fact, days like this one only stoke fire hotter. There is a reason these fish are so desired and a pinnacle sport fish to most so a few missed attempts are far from enough to deter my dream. Plus, despite not putting one on the deck, I got exactly what I was hoping to from this trip. To see how the Florida pros are doing it and taking some tips away that I know will help in my pursuit back west.
- Stick to the Program – especially one that works and has been dialed in from years of trial and error. The primary purpose of these trips is to learn how the pros are doing it and apply these lessons or tricks to my own backyard fishery. I’m certainly not the only one to ask to stand-up with swordfish, but day in, day out the consistent numbers are coming using certain setups. In this case, electric reels. Perhaps the piece of the equation I decided to change and the one that killed our odds this day.
- Let Failure Fuel the Fire – fishing or at least certain aspects of fishing can have a steep learning curve. Failure or trips without catching your target species are inevitable. Even the great guides or anglers faced failed trips in their progression. Embrace that willingness to fail and keep grinding until your day comes. If I log the days and intentionally treat each failed trip as a learning experience, I’m confident a sword is in my future.
- Enjoy the Boat Ride – a simplified way to say what I’ve said before but sometimes the journey truly is the destination. Although the fishing was slow and the trip was too quick, spending time in an incredible new destination with great weather and great people more than makes up for it. Hard not to feel blessed when on the water chasing a passion with those who share that.
I owe Captain Chase and Mate Shane a huge thank you for busting their asses and grinding through a long day of slow fishing. At no point did either of these two waiver in the drive to land a swordfish. Attitude and sheer work ethic are the most important attributes on days like these which both of these guys don’t lack. I will undoubtedly be back again and we WILL bag a broadbill come hell or high water!