Mark Kitteridge on catching Broadbill Swordfish (2017)

It’s been a long time coming, but Mark Kitteridge finally gets a very broad monkey off his back.

It began way back in 1986. I was at the Three Kings Islands aboard the rather tired and battered charter boat Miss Aotea with her marginally less tired and battered skipper Trevor Canty in charge. 
It was pitch-black and we were fishing for broadbill – our third attempt at targeting them in the deep trenches and canyons off the King Bank. So far we’d been unsuccessful, and despite plenty of action over this session, we’d only encountered sharks – a mix of makos and blues. On the plus side, the last blue I’d hooked around 4am was an absolute horse around 180 kilos – a potential world record at the time – but we’d allowed it to swim back off into the inky depths. Then, with all of us feeling completely knackered, Trevor made the call for us to hit the berths. 

I still vividly recall the relief flooding through me as I eased into my sleeping bag and lowered my head onto the pillow – and the chagrin when, just moments later, I heard desperate calls coming from the deck: “Kitties, Kitties! Help! HELP!”

Having already been awake for nearly 24 hours, my body was very reluctant to move. It took all my willpower to drag my sorry butt back outside, where I was faced by an annoying sight. Here was Dean Jackson, accompanied by Andrew Passuello, holding onto my brand-new 37kg Penn outfit (my pride and joy!), its line disappearing down and under the boat’s hull. These guys had hit the sack early, having got too ‘wonky’ during the day, and missed the night’s action. 

Now, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed once more, they’d decided to drop another bait and, fortunately for them, my flash rig had been there, all set to go. So they’d hooked a skipjack tuna through the nose and dropped it down – but not very far, with something eating it as it descended. After letting the unknown quarry run for a short distance, they’d struck and hooked up. However, without anyone at the helm, they could only watch as the fish steadily swam under the boat, forcing them to ease the drag off or risk breaking the line – at which point they’d called for me. I was very grumpy.

“You stupid buggers! I’ve just let that big blue shark go and now you’ve hooked it again! On my bloody rod! And look at the line – it’s being munted on the boat!” 

Still annoyed, I headed down below to wake Trevor, but he was dead to the world. Instead, his brother John replied.  “It’s okay, Mark,” he said, “I’ll sort it.” Just a minute behind the wheel saw the line freed and Dean able to exert some pressure on the fish. But for the next hour nothing really happened, with the line going out a bit and then coming back in again. All very unspectacular. 

So Dean asked Andrew to fetch him his guitar, and soon he was strumming away in the fighting chair, only occasionally pausing to wind line in or brace as it fed out. 

Then, with the horizon starting to lighten and the sun threatening to emerge, the fish began steadily accelerating away and angling upwards, culminating in a a porpoising jump that left us in no doubt as to its identity. “BROADBILL!” we all screamed in unison, and as if by magic, the rest of the crew materialised on deck.

Another 90 minutes passed before our hard-fighting gladiator was finally brought boat-side, and although it was just a modest-sized specimen, the power with which it smashed its tail against the solidly-built Miss Aotea’s hull was frightening. Wow, I HAD to catch one of these amazing fish myself!
It was such an easy thing to say then, but who knew it would be such a hard thing to accomplish?

FAST FORWARD 33 years, and catching a broadbill swordfish still occupied the top of my ‘to catch’ list, just ahead of ‘20lb-plus trout’ and ‘South Island salmon’. I had lost count of the nights spent chasing broadies without reward, despite the efforts of some excellent skippers. 

Several of those nights had been fantastic experiences: flat-calm without a breath of wind, and sometimes made more interesting by a variety of oceanic visitors that included sharks, seals, dolphins, huge squid, a school of juvenile kingfish, and even a young bass! At other times the dark hours could be wretched, with the wind unexpectedly rising, causing the boat to wallow and crash, preventing any sleep, and making the air chilly and unfriendly. 

I even recall being out on deck one particularly freezing night, wrapped up in my sleeping bag, and having a big wave wash over me. Another time, it was so rough most of the guys had to lie on the floor because they were being tipped out of their bunks. As I said, it could be bloody unpleasant.
Good or bad, most nights saw me ending up on deck alone (the rest of the crew’s earlier enthusiasm having been replaced with exhaustion), watching, watching, watching; waiting, waiting, waiting; or dozing in the cabin doorway. But nothing, apart from the occasional shark bite, along with an even rarer ‘maybe’ – big fish that were hooked, but not landed for various reasons. 

Then, thankfully, daytime deep-dropping techniques came onto the scene. What a treat – no need to fight through tiredness or put up with lumpy drifts in the freezing-cold. Best of all, this method was also proving unbelievably effective.

I was actually a bit unlucky not to catch my broadbill earlier on, when two charter skippers, Aaron Sergeant and then Carl Muir, took me out for respective shots at it. We had at least four broadbill bites over the two sessions, but our choice of rig/bait and/or lack of fish-hooking experience saw us fail to capitalise.  

All this saw me become an object of charity – who could take me out and make my dream come true? Carolyn Rose did her best, inviting me to join her targeting swords with well-known charter skipper Geoff Lamond for several days … but still no go. 

Then along came Luke Davey, the owner of SwordPro, a company specialising in swordfish rigs and components. I’d been ‘stalking’ Luke since seeing recent captures by him and his friends posted on Facebook. Fortunately, he was receptive to me joining him on a trip then writing about the (hopefully positive) experience. He also suggested his nephew Ethan Harris, a budding photographer, accompany us, along with buddy Craig Sheward. Perfect!

We left Mangonui’s Mill Bay ramp in moderate conditions, heading towards well-known swordfish location, the Garden Patch.

On the way we had to catch fresh bait, and fortunately, despite the super-seiners’ recent efforts, we managed to catch four, beautiful skippies small enough to be perfect broadbill ‘lollies’.

Upon reaching our destination a bit later, Luke determined the drift direction, then lowered a carefully rigged bait into the water. With the sea floor over 500m down, it took a long time for the weighted tuna to hit the bottom. Next, he wound the bait back up for setting at a very specific depth – an aspect so critical to success he apologetically asked me to turn around whilst doing so! At first Luke held the line between his fingers to help him detect the often surprisingly subtle broadbill bites, but I convinced him to let me have a go. 

Five minutes later, I felt the unmistakable tap-tap of a curious broadie – like a big snapper biting. Initially Luke looked at me dubiously, but my earnestness soon won him over. However, he had to take the line back and feel for himself!

Sure enough, he felt the same taps, so went through his sword-bite routine, quickly pulling off several metres of line, then waiting to see if the slack line fed steadily away. It did. In response, he rapidly wound in around 30 metres of line, but failed to come up tight. 
Although bummed, I suggested leaving the bait where it was, just in case the sword had followed it up… 
It had! Luke went through the same bite procedure, but nothing appeared to move off with the bait this time. “Probably just a little one,” he muttered.

Eventually, after another five minutes of nothing, Luke reluctantly decided we should wind up, nominating our ‘camera crew’ to be a tag team so the bait could be cranked up from the depths more quickly. However, after winching in around 300 metres, the rod started slowly bending over. 
“What the…? We’ve... WE’VE GOT A BROADY ON!” 

Gently but insistently I took over, ripping hands off gear, shoving people out the way, then winding fast. Sure enough, the rod kept on loading, before wrenching hard down as a subterranean monster raced for the bottom, the heavy-duty braid hissing through the guides. 

The run wasn’t that long – maybe 100 metres or so – but it was incredibly powerful, the line peeling off effortlessly against 14 kilos of drag pressure. Then, encouraged by the relatively short ‘leash’ between us, I upped the Shimano Tiagra 80’s drag to try and keep it that way. Soon I was hunkering down in the Black Magic harness with increasing confidence, steadily pumping and cranking the line back on the spool when I could, my fingertips clamping down on the spool during each rod lift to prevent any line releasing. This was all too easy! 

Suddenly, without warning, an incredible force transmitted up through the braided line, wrenching my body up and down in a show of strength that nearly jerked me over the boat’s transom. 
‘Whoahhh!’ I thought. ‘Was that a headshake? That’s not a little fish! Better ease that drag back a bit, buddy!’ 

Despite my dented confidence, the lighter drag pressure still proved effective when combined with the hand clamping. The fish also helped by staying on the move. Sure, I lost line at times, but the runs never went too far and overall I got more line back than was taken away. 

I started feeling more positive – but only momentarily, as my rod abruptly lost all weight. 
“Is it gone? Have we lost it?” Luke asked anxiously. “No, I don’t think so,” I said through gritted teeth, cranking the reel handle furiously.

Sure enough, after removing 30 metres of slack line the weight slowly came back on, and I was hanging onto a bent rod once more, with the line leaving the reel smoothly and angling up towards the surface.
“It’s going to jump, guys – get ready!” 

Cameras were trained, but we only witnessed a ‘windscreen wipe’ of the bill on the surface, rather than a full-bodied jump. It was a big wiper, though! 

After that, the sword went down again and started behaving like a tuna, continually circling, and irritating Luke by repeatedly angling in under the boat, prompting calls from me for him to keep turning right, right, right, RIGHT! 

This kind of activity continued for around 40 minutes, and was made more ‘interesting’ when the rod suddenly sprung upright on two occasions (in hindsight probably due to the line pinging off fins or the tail) – but even more so when the fish jumped, this time blasting clear of the water around 100 metres away. The size of the creature momentarily stunned me, but not for long. “Oh my god, what an animal – that’s gotta be at least 180 kilos!” I said.

Suddenly I felt much less confident about a successful outcome. How could that piddling 250lb trace stay attached to such a huge, powerful beast? Mentally I started preparing myself for a possible loss. 
If only I’d come up against this fish 20 years ago, when I went to the gym five days a week in a bid to become the fittest, strongest fisherman I could possibly be! Why now, with my ageing body providing a list of aches, strains and issues that even bores me?

Meanwhile, the sword kept digging down, circling, and holding position in the thermocline, despite the pressure being exerted. Worse, the long stalemate was causing the rod bucket to crush and roll my thighs’ meat across the bone underneath – most unpleasant. Time to engage ‘granny gear’, the Tiagra’s low-ratio option! 

This decision worried Luke, but I was quietly confident: this strategy had been great for getting bluefin tuna to move in similar situations (settled and stubbornly holding) – I just had to be quick to change back to the high-gear ratio if the fish suddenly charged towards us. No problem…
To my relief, this did the trick once more, steadily raising the slowly circling fish, to the point the 30-metres of 60kg nylon top-shot was being wound onto the reel. Then, soon after, the sword came into view, its huge pale belly gleaming up from the darkness. 

But not for long, with the big creature powering back down again in what proved to be the first of several instances where the top-shot came onto the reel, only for the fish to swim off again or force us to drive away in order to get a better retrieval angle on the line. 

Finally, after much patience, I got the broady up near the surface, but Luke’s first harpooning effort failed. Helming the boat, leadering the fish, and then chucking the harpoon accurately had proven too much for one person. We needed help.

Fortunately for us, Ethan Harris, a good mate of Luke’s, was nearby, and his crew selflessly wound in their broadbill rig and dropped him off to help us. 

This made a big difference. With Ethan at the wheel, Luke could concentrate on securing the fish. Just 10 minutes passed before the leader reappeared, and I rather nervously reminded the guys (again) it was only 250lb, ‘so don’t pull too hard!’.

I needn’t have worried: Ethan and Luke proved a good team, and this time the sharp steel found its mark. By the time the splashing craziness subsided, the tail rope had been secured. 

Swordfish – TICK!

July 2017 - Mark Kitteridge
New Zealand Fishing News Magazine.
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