What follows is an epic Texas swordfish story. It is complete with lots of swordfish and a long dance with the mythical Large Marge.
There are a few sayings about Texans. Perhaps the most common is something about everything being bigger in the Lone Star State. It is this backdrop, that provides context for the swordfish fishing out of the upper coast of Texas.
I was fortunate enough to join Captain Anthony Lopez and mate Kyle Slaughter for a double overnighter out of Surfside. Joining us on the trip was Jonathan “Yoboy” Schoeneman.
We were fishing aboard a rocket ship, the 42’ Freeman the Twisted Sisters. We left the dock on the morning of Monday October 12, some three days after Hurricane Delta blasted its way through the coastline of western Louisiana– 200 miles or so to the east of Surfside.
Buoy reports of 35’ seas during the storm had subsided to a forecast of 2-3 and calming. The night before we loaded 1,000 pounds of ice and took on just over 500 gallons of fuel. We loaded four bean bags, a gallon sized bag of brisket that Kyle smoked, and all of the stuff we’d need to whack some swordfish and tuna.
Captain Anthony Lopez is a bad ass dude. He has been centrally involved on the Gulf coast’s sportfishing scene—and the daytime swordfish revolution—for more than a decade. He mated for Captain Jeff Wilson aboard the Galveston-based Titan Up for almost three years before heading off on his own.
Kyle Slaughter fishes with Anthony quite a bit. The two of them not only have a great rapport and are good friends, but each seems to know what the other will do when there’s a good fish on the line. Good with a joke, the sayings that come out of Kyle’s mouth could only have been conjured by someone from Texas or maybe Scotland.
Yoboy splits time between Texas and Cancun. I have never met anyone who can rival his line of spearfishing pictures and stories of giant grouper and big cubera snapper. He has tangled with sharks and saltwater crocodiles and lived to tell about it all.
Captain Anthony is a beast of a swordfish captain. The night before leaving the dock, as we ate bacon jalapeno poppers and boudin balls washed down by Don Abraham (it’s sipping tequila!), Anthony finished rigging his deep drop baits. He sewed each squid for a half an hour— every bait a work of art.
He has tangled with hundreds of swordfish in the Gulf and his skill and meticulousness of preparation were masterful. Our destination was a pair of high spots some 90 or so miles from the dock (it is called Neptune’s Balls—you can find it on the charts). We arrived just after mid-day.
We were using Shimano Talica 50s spooled with 80-pound braid. Check ‘N’ Bottom, a father and son outfit from Friendswood, Texas made the rods. Equipped with Winthrop rollers and an adjustable butt, this outfit would prove itself a worthy instrument to antagonize sea monsters.
Daytime swordfishing is a structure-related affair. Swordfish have giant eyes that well equip them for finding and attacking food items in low light conditions. In the daytime, these dinosaur-looking animals haunt the depths—at night they come up to the top to search for food.
Kyle described swordfish as the Davey Jones’ guard dogs. I think he is right…. they are mean, badass, pterodactyl-looking creatures.
Fishing for them in the day involves depositing a bait to the bottom in 1,200-1,500 or so feet of water. Anthony deploys a 70’ wind-on leader. The squid is sewn onto a heavy gauge steel j-hook.
To get the bait down to the bottom, Anthony and Kyle fasten delivery weights by connecting a hook fashioned out of coat hanger wire to a big ass piece of rebar or lead. A few dozen feet up from the delivery weight (which weighs 8 or 10 pounds), a three of four pound ball weight is clipped on a Dacron loop that is fastened into the wind-on leader.
The ball weight can be removed when the fish is being reeled up to the boat. Once the rebar takes the bait to the bottom, a quick 35 cranks is usually enough to cause the coat hanger wire to straighten—freeing the bait from the weight. Now you’re fishing.
Daytiming in South Florida (the place where the fishery was largely popularized) often involves contending with five or six knots of current. In Texas, especially when the seas are calm, the drift is much, much slower and the activity is much more civilized.
With much fanfare we dropped our first bait. As the reel was whining it’s way down to the abyss, we started talking about Large Marge. The quest for a big swordfish—big enough to displace the 313.5 that was currently winning the Mongo Tournament (a Gulf wide, summer long event that paid for the biggest swordfish). The first place fish belonged to Anthony’s good buddy Captain Jeff Wilson.
Our first drop was squid bitten… Cannibals.
Our second drop was not on the bottom for 10 minutes when the rod thumped. It was a bill strike… Free spool for a bit… crank until tight. Then nothing.
We free spooled it a bit again and engaged the reel. The rod doubled over and I cranked until we were tight. The rod bowed, Anthony put the boat into gear and we were on.
Get Tight Sucka (as someone once said when swordfishing in Texas)
Keeping your line tight is the name of the game when it comes to fighting a swordfish. Tension keeps the hook engaged, slack allows it to work itself out.
When the fish is not pulling drag, the angler’s job is to reel fast enough to keep the line taught as he or she brings the fish to the boat. When the fish is up and down, the rod pulls the fish up and the angler reels down to keep the fish coming. The round weight exerts downward pressure that induces the fish to swim toward the surface.
Our first fish provided a great introduction into the art of Texas swordfishing. It alternately took runs and held its own on long periods of standoff. During one standoff Yoboy joked about jumping in and spearing the thing.
With a laugh we suggested that if he tried, he might come back with two buttholes (after the thing speared him). After an hour and 45 minutes we had the fish to the gaff.
It was a good one, measuring 77 inches short length (from the tip of the lower jaw to the fork of the tail). It took some heaving and grunting and all four of us to pull her over the gunnel.
The fish was somewhere around 250 pounds–the biggest sword I had caught. I was fired up.
After getting this fish situated, we dropped the next squid. It was Yoboy’s turn on the rod. It didn’t take him long before he was on. After 20 minutes, we had a 70 pounder to the boat.
We caught a third sword on our fourth and final drop of the day. It was another keeper-sized sword.
One of fishing’s greatest charms is a calm, peaceful night spent fishing offshore (When it’s rough, fishing at night kind of sucks). Before spreading out the bean bags and making dinner, we watched the sunset as we deployed two rods for some night time swordfishing.
Night timing takes place over the same bottom, but the baits are deployed to 200 rather than 1,400’. The small weights and light sticks are attached to the rods and down they go. Kyle had no sooner turned around to walk away from the first rod he deployed, than it lurched forward.
After politely trying to sucker someone else into cranking on it, Kyle made short work of another keeper. Four swords and it wasn’t even completely dark yet. What a day.
For dinner it was brisket sandwiches and Dr. Pepper. What the hell else would you eat for dinner while swordfishing in Texas? Wondrous.
We spent the largely uneventful night listening for clickers, watching shooting stars all the while sacked out in bean bags.
Texas Swordfish Day Two
We got the first line to the bottom around 8:30. It was our last chance to find Large Marge and try to contend in the Mongo. It was another good day of fishing. We caught three swords by 2:00.
The biggest was a solid 66-incher. A nice one, but not Marge. Kyle dumped a couple of Bud Lights into the ocean, making the sign of the cross as he poured. We were pulling out all of the stops.
About 2:30 we made our Hail Mary drop. After about 30 minutes, we decided to motor slowly over to the other side of the ridge that we were fishing. I put the rod in back port holder.
As we chugged slowly, the rod bent over. Line started peeling off of the Tallica. None of the other fish pulled anywhere near this much drag at any time of the fight, much less when the bait was fully deployed.
I brought the reel from the back corner to the near the console. We would fight her from here, where Anthony could best see and drive on the fish. Something about this situation was different.
Dancing with Large Marge
Were this to have happened in the same place in 1943, you might have thought that we hooked a German U-Boat. The fish made lots of extended runs.
The power and tempo of its runs were entirely swordfish. None of the run-like-a-cut-snake stuff that big tuna do. None of the sky is falling freak out type deal employed by blue marlin.
The fish started with slow and deliberate, turn and go wherever in the Hell I damned well please tempo. It would sound before scoping up to the surface. We got the leader the first time around the 45 minute mark.
Kyle took the weight off. We were direct. At about an hour and 10 minutes things got interesting.
The fish was on the surface, well within the 70 feet of wind on leader. We could see the lights attached to the leader above the hook. We could see the where the fish was, but could not see her.
Blacked out and swimming up right, the fish showed her immense strength. The color and flashes you often see result from fish turning on their side and flashing the brilliant white of their bellies. Marge was doing nothing of the sort.
Anthony Lopez drives a hell of a boat on a hooked fish. I told him that I could keep up and to do whatever was best to catch the thing. Before long, we were driving circles at eight knots around the fish.
“You Sure You Want to Do This, Boys?” asked Large Marge
I was cranking my ass off to keep the line tight. Neither impressed nor scared— the great fish just kept in the middle of the circles. After four or five attempts to induce a mistake that might give us the chance to stick her with the flying gaff (no harpoons in the Mongo), she pointed her business end toward the depths and sounded.
The fish sounded five or six times over the course of the battle. Each time, she would pass the 1,000’ mark in the line where the second wind-on (that could be used to deploy a buoy to fish a second rod) sat. She drug us in giant loops and over more than eight miles of ocean.
I thought about telling Anthony that if I stroked out and died while on the rod, not worry—just get the fish. My wife would probably not be too surprised– she’s always warning me not to do any dumb redneck shit that she thinks might get me killed (like picking a fight with a sea monster). There would be no hard feelings.
At one point in the time the great fish took us two miles into the middle of nowhere—and sounded on top of a hump that came up 700 feet off the bottom. As though this space were her lair, she kept coming back. Wild stuff.
We hooked this brute at 3:10 in the afternoon. At about 4:30 we pushed the drag from 18 pounds at strike to 25 pounds. We’d let the rod work on her in hopes of bringing our encounter to a head.
Four hours later and darkness was descending on us and the fish. The spreader lights illuminated when the fish was trying to get under the boat and when we should turn on her.
As the fish came to surface, we could now see the greenish blue glow of the lights that were attached to the line 20 feet or so behind the monster. It may well have been iridescent smoke trail emitted from a dragon. Things were getting serious.
The monstrous Texas swordfish sounded again. By now she was beginning to become erratic. Violent head shakes would precede launching herself boatward—in the hopes that my reeling arm might by now have fallen off.
As nerve wracking as this wildness was, it was also a good sign. Maybe she was tiring. Perhaps an indication that she was desperate and aware now that she couldn’t keep kicking our ass forever.
Once we were tight again, back to the stand still, we all looked at one another. Nobody needed to say anything.
On The Leader One Last Time
With the increasing wrecklessness of the fish, Anthony decided we might be able to take our shot. The next time she was up on the leader, Kyle would grab it and pull a bit—no wraps, just hand over hand stuff. We’d try to coax her to the boat.
We got the leader half way on the reel. The fish was 30’ from the boat. We had seen shadows, but still not gotten a good look at her.
As Anthony maneuvered the boat and Kyle held the gaff, I cranked. We were close…
Then, with all of the suddenness with which we had hooked her, she was free. The hook pulled.
Nothing bad happened. Nobody screwed up, no backlashes or line in the motors– the terminal tackle held, the hook was in good shape… no nothing. Just a giant of a fish left to be free once more. Some things are too noble to be killed.
We were all silent. I apologized for losing the fish. They wouldn’t accept this apology, but it is the type of thing that goes with the territory.
We were all sorry, just as we were all amazed. As disgusted and heartbroken as we were to lose the fish of a lifetime (especially one that would have been worth $21,000 in the Mongo), we were all thankful to have been a part of experiencing it.
Real Shakespeare shit.
“So, Kyle, I think you’re right about the swordfish being Davey Jones guard dogs thing,” I said a bit later. “Yeah man, and we just wrestled with the gatekeeper,” he said.
It’s only been a week, but I’ve gotten a pretty good look at her in my dreams every night since it happened. Anthony says that he has too. I’m not sure if this is classified as haunting or inspirational… maybe it’s just fishing.
Around the world, there are plenty of other people with similar swordfish stories. How wonderful is that?