Tagging Swordfish

By Daniel Paull

It hasn’t been long since Leo Miller and his crew aboard ‘Choonachasa’ recreationally caught the first broadbill swordfish here in Tasmania and effectively opened the door to a thrilling new fishery right on our doorstep.  Before that fateful day, our gamefishing season usually revolved around the ‘Big Three’.  Those three fish were marlin, tuna and sharks.  Although the availability of yellowfin tuna and striped marlin depended heavily on the influence of the East Australian Current, mako sharks, albacore and big ‘Jumbo’ sized southern bluefin tuna were readily accessible throughout the season and were the primary target for recreational anglers.

With the continuing development of ‘Deep Dropping’ for broadbill swordfish and other deep water critters such as thresher sharks, the fishing here in Tasmania is looking tantalisingly good, especially with the inclusion of swordfish to the list.  Since the recreational fishery for swordfish was discovered, Dad and I have tangled with quite a few of these gladiators of the deep.  Since the beginning of the year, we have successfully tagged and released three healthy swordfish, slowly backing our effort of four fish from last year.  Tag and release has become the most important element to our offshore fishing and has been for a long time now.  Our main goal is to have fun and enjoy ourselves doing something we love while at the same time ensuring we do our little part in maintaining a healthy and prosperous fishery for the future.

Tagging Swordfish

During the 1970’s the GFAA (Game Fishing Association of Australia) and the NSWDPI (New South Wales Department of Primary Industries) created the Gamefish Tagging Program.  This wonderful initiative gave recreational anglers across the country the opportunity to ‘tag and release’ their fish and assist in the gathering of research data.  Ever since, the NSW fisheries have been supplying GFAA affiliated clubs with tags for a host of different fish species. 

All the tags, which can vary in size and colour depending on the allocated species, are labelled with a number and a return address.  Each tag, before deployment, is attached to a numbered card with a description of where to place the tag in the fish.  Tags are usually pinned in the shoulder of the fish, just below the dorsal fin prior to release.  The data recorded on the numbered card includes the locality in which the fish was caught, the angler and skippers name, the estimated weight of the fish and a host of other important details. 

The program provides information on the movements and distribution of fish species, encourages the release of smaller juvenile fish, discourages the taking of large breeding fish, encourages anglers to practice ethical fishing methods and to adhere to sustainability principles and perhaps most importantly, it develops respect and an overall appreciation for a magnificent resource and one that’ll hopefully be enjoyed for the generations to come.  The tagging program has become essential in the continuation and long term existence of our sport and many anglers around Australia are now embracing the tag and release ethic.    

Tagging and releasing broadbill swordfish has become an interesting discussion amongst anglers.  In a sport where the tag and release mentality is well practiced amongst GFAA affiliated clubs and the wider community, it has been surprising to see the vast majority of swordfish being caught around Australia are being taken and processed for food.  While there is nothing wrong with taking a feed, there is a very real concern for localised depletion, particularly in the south-east of the country where the majority of the fishing is taking place.  As recreational anglers, we can all do our little bit here and there to ensure the maintenance of a developing fishery.  We have something very special out there, let’s protect it the best we can.

The perseverance with circle hooks opposed to the more traditional ‘J’ style hook is paramount in the game of releasing healthy swordfish.  Over the years, circle hooks have been shown to greatly increase the survival of swordfish and a host of other pelagic critters.  In fact, many studies have shown that one of the most influential factors affecting the survival of released fish in general relates to where the fish was hooked.  The benefits of using a circle hook are obvious.  They drastically reduce the chance of deep hooking a swordy and almost guarantee you’ll hook them in the corner of the mouth.  Hook exposure is everything while using circles.  We’ve found the most effective way to stay connected to a fish is by bridle rigging our swordy baits.  This technique allows the bait to swing freely below the hook.

The usage of circle hooks is one piece of the puzzle.  The other piece is dealing with barotrauma.  Barotrauma is the condition developed when a swordfish rapidly ascends to the surface causing natural gasses within the fish to expand.  A swordy with barotrauma can be identified by a slightly swollen looking belly.  The key to ensuring a healthy release and defeating the effects of barotrauma is by using heavy tackle and a heap of drag.  A drastically shortened fight on heavy gear will ensure that the swordfish has enough strength remaining to powerfully descend back into the deep and naturally recompress the expanded gasses.  This is the most important key to a successful release.  In every scenario, the fish must be able to descend below the surface otherwise it’ll float and eventually become prey for some other oceanic predator!

Bringing a fairly fresh and agitated swordfish alongside the boat in preparation for tagging can provide a few obstacles.  The usage of a heavy and lengthy wind-on leader will help in those last few meters of the fight where the fish is getting closer to the boat.  Once the majority of the wind-on is back on the reel the fish can then be ‘man-handled’ towards the boat, which is usually necessary when the fish is displaying that nose down attitude and is proving hard to budge.  When the fish is eventually brought alongside the boat, a billfish tag is applied just below the dorsal fin and a few quick photographs are taken prior to release.  A swordfish fully resuscitated and ready to swim back into the deep will often begin thrashing that big bill from side to side.  This is the perfect time let the fish go and watch it swim off, often vertically, back into the abyss. 

Swordfish Tackle

The artillery required to dominate such a powerful fish can come in the shape and form of many different overhead outfits.  We’ve been using the Shimano Tiagra 130, the biggest member of the Tiagra family.  The Talica 50 and Tiagra 80W are also popular options amongst keen fishermen and fisherwoman.  A heavy rod is also needed to combat the drag these big reels can produce.  The T-Curve Tiagra Game and Tiagra Ultra are also very popular accompanied with the reels mentioned before.  Match either of these products together with some heavy braided backing and a short monofilament top-shot and you’ll be set to wrangle with these magnificent creatures of the abyss.

Swordfish are known to most as the ‘gladiator’ of the sea.  The title is certainly fitting for a fish that so many around the globe consider to be the king of all gamefish.  I have the belief that setting out on a mission to successfully hook, fight, defeat and release a swordfish can provide one with the ultimate achievement in gamefishing.  This incredible goal can be accomplished right here in Tasmania and the resource we have right at our feet is extraordinary.  Hopefully as we move forward as a collective and appreciate the significance of this resource, a few more swordfish are released to ensure the existence of a world-class fishery.