Broadbill Swordfish – Xiphias gladius – common in New Zealand waters

Broadbill Swordfish - Xiphias gladius. This is a fibreglass mount made by well known Canterbury Taxidermist Peter Ritchie of a broadbill that was washed ashore near New Brighton Beach, Canterbury.
Broadbill Swordfish - Xiphias gladius.

Broadbill Swordfish by Dick Marquand

Common Name: Broadbill Swordfish
Other Names: Swordfish, Broadbill
Scientific Name: Xiphias gladius

Identifying Characteristics:

The broadbill can be immediately identified by the long flattened sword that protrudes from its head. The large eyes, which are indicative of the deep water and nocturnal feeding habits of this species, lie well forward in the head.

The photograph at top of this page: Broadbill Swordfish – Xiphias gladius. This is a fibreglass mount made by well known Canterbury Taxidermist Peter Ritchie of a broadbill that was washed ashore near New Brighton Beach, Canterbury.

The body is heavily built and more rounded in cross-section than that of a marlin. The high sickle-shaped dorsal fin is rigid. There are no pelvic fins and the semi-rigid pectoral fins are in a more central position than those of the marlins. The second dorsal fin and the second anal fin are very small and lie on the upper and lower surface, just forward of the tail. The upper and lower lobes of the tail are concentric and on the wrist of the tail (caudal peduncle) are a pair of large caudal keel stabilisers. The broadbill is the only species of billfish with a single pair of these keels. There are no scales on the adult fish. The lateral line is not visible to the eye.

The colouration of the upper surface of the body can vary from a purplish-grey to a metallic blue or blackish blue, and even brown or bronze. The sides fade and the lower surface is a silvery-white, dirty white or light brown. The eyes are blue.

Temperature Range: The broadbill has the greatest temperature range of any billfish and has been recorded in waters varying between 5deg. C and 27deg. C. The preferred temperature range appears to be between 13deg. C and 22deg. C.

Broadbill swordfish being unloaded from a commercial fishing boat at Kaikoura. I believe it was accidentally caught in a fishing net as bycatch. Photograph: Kaikoura Marine Centre and Aquarium
Broadbill swordfish being unloaded from a commercial fishing boat at Kaikoura. I believe it was accidentally caught in a fishing net as bycatch. Photograph: Kaikoura Marine Centre and Aquarium.


The broadbill is found worldwide in temperate and tropical waters. This species has been recorded throughout New Zealand waters, especially during the summer and autumn months.


Broadbill swordfish grow to a maximum weight of around 680kg (1500lb). Large fish are females, as the males rarely exceed 90kg (200lb). Females reach sexual maturity at a length of around 70cm (28in.), males at 100cm (39in.).

The International Game Fish Association All-Tackle World Record stands at 536.15kg (1182lb), landed by Mr Lou Marron on 60kg gear from the waters of Iquique, Chile, on 7 May 1953.

At the time of writing, the New Zealand All-Tackle Record stands at 305.27kg (673lb) landed by Mr Huntingdon White-Wickham on 60kg gear in the Bay of Islands on 9 January 1928.


Broadbill swordfish can be found offshore from the surface to depths of more than 500 fathoms. Adults appear to prefer cool deep waters off the continental shelf near submarine canyons, banks and peaks.

Occasionally, broadbills may be observed “finning out” on the surface. It is possible that this species may be found around our southern offshore waters all year round.

The broadbill feeds on a wide variety of marine inhabitants, mainly bottom-dwelling fish, squid and crustaceans. Crabs, crayfish, schooling fish, reef fish and sharks have been recorded taken as food.
It is believed that the bill is used both for defence and for stunning its prey.

Fishing Methods:

Good, quality fishing tackle is required when fishing for this species, usually in the 37kg I.G.F.A. line class. Broadbill swordfish are usually caught while deep drifting dead baits over submarine canyons, banks and peaks during the hours of darkness.

The most effective rig is a single or double hooked squid bait on heavy monofilament nylon leader of between 270kg and 450kg breaking strength. A Cyalume light stick is activated and attached to the leader or concealed within the bait. Ideally, three outfits rigged this way should be used, one close to the surface, one at a medium depth, and the other well down, perhaps at 60 metres.

Balloons can be used to regulate the depth of each bait. An activated light stick placed into each balloon assists the crew to determine the whereabouts of each balloon in relation to the boat
Some anglers prefer to fish during a big moon while others prefer no moon. If weather conditions dictate, a sea anchor will keep the bow of the boat into the wind. This method of fishing has proved very successful overseas and has been used with some degree of success offshore from the Poor Knights Islands, Northland.

On occasion, broadbills have been “known to suddenly turn up and accept either a “swimbait” or a “skip bait” being trolled for marlin. Sometimes, a broadbill is seen “finning out” can be coaxed into accepting a bait, however, these fish are generally very spooky. When an attempt is made to place a trolled bait in front of a broadbill, the skipper of the boat should ensure that the motor revs are not altered.

It is also important to ensure that the bait does not approach from behind the broadbill as these fish appear to be very nervous about such an occurrence. We blew our chances of a Fiordland broadbill some years ago when the fish turned and the bait came up from behind our quarry and spooked it. The mako shark generally approaches a broadbill from behind and immobilises the fish in a swift and savage attack on the tail.

There are two schools of thought on when to strike a broadbill. When night fishing, the angler will feel the broadbill strike the bait with its sword before a bite is felt. Then immediately as the fish starts to run, it should be struck. This will generally hook the broadbill in the mouth.

The other method described by noted game fishing author Peter Goadby is as follows. When a broadbill is sighted “finning out,” the boat is used to present the bait in front of the fish and the bait is allowed to sink. If the fish hits the bait, about 50 metres of the line is pulled off the reel by hand. After a pause, the broadbill will move away faster and it is then struck by the angler as the boat is gunned ahead.

If the initial take is jerky, the broadbill must be allowed to take 200-300 metres of the line without drag. If the broadbill whacks the bait, wolfs it down and moves off at speed, it should be struck after only 100-150 metres of the line has left the reel.

Fishing Characteristics

The broadbill swordfish is a powerful and dogged fighter, reputed by some to be the toughest opponent that a blue water angler can encounter. It is not unusual for a fight on heavy gear to go on for more than five hours. On 21 January 1968, Don Heatley lost what was believed to be a huge broadbill off Mayor Island after a fight lasting a gruelling 32 hours. Monster swordfish caught by Kiwi smashes world records.

The mouth and throat of the broadbill swordfish are very soft and as a consequence, many are lost during the fight when the hooks tear out. Of the fish that are landed, many are in fact foul hooked, often after the hook has torn free from the mouth.

Authorities such as Peter Goadby claim that when a broadbill is hooked; it should be fought as close to the boat as is possible. The fight can be a dogged affair which can result in the angler and crew not seeing the fish until it is close to the end of its strength, or it can be an explosive fight with long line stripping runs and leaps clear of the surface.

One thing is certain, the broadbill is a tough opponent that will tax the strength and skills of even the most experienced angler.


Without a doubt, the broadbill swordfish is the overall favourite of the blue water angling fraternity. This species is recognised as a game fish by both the International Game Fish Association and the New Zealand Big Game Fishing Council. 

In 1926, Zane Grey landed the first broadbill swordfish taken in New Zealand waters. It is recorded in his fishing classic Tales of the Angler’s Eldorado” as weighing 181kg (400lb).

Grey stated: “To find and stalk old Xiphias gladius, to induce him to look at a bait, to hook him when he does not strike and to fight him hour after hour until he is beaten by strength and endurance – this has become recognised as the supreme test of an angler. “

It is obvious that broadbill swordfish are a lot more common around New Zealand’s waters than the majority of anglers can imagine. Some years ago, Japanese tuna longliners accounted a bycatch of 9000 broadbills in a single season.

There are many instances of broadbill swordfish driving their swords through the sides of boats. On 6 July 1967, the research submarine “Alvin” was rammed by a broadbill in 610 metres of water.

At a meeting of the Southern Sportfishing Club, noted New Zealand fishing author Sam Mossman mentioned that there appear to be two types of broadbill swordfish, transient broadbills and resident broadbills.

The transient broadbills which move around the Pacific following temperature lines are both longer and heavier specimens. The resident broadbills are both shorter and fatter, and appear to live near the submarine canyons where they remain for most of the year.

The need for scientific research involving D.N.A. analysis is obvious. The flesh of the broadbill swordfish makes excellent eating and overseas, commercial fisheries have been based on this species.

Saltwater Game Fishing in New Zealand, Fred Wilkins and E. V. Sale, A. H. and A. W. Reed Ltd, Wellington 1982.
Big Fish and Bluewater, Peter Goadby, Angus and Robertson, Sydney 1970.
Saltwater Gamefishing – Offshore and Onshore, Peter Goadby, Collins, New Zealand 1991.
Billfish-Marlin, Broadbill, Sailfish, Charles Mather, Saltaire Publishing, B.C., Canada 1976.
Fighting Fins-Big Game Fishing in New Zealand Waters, Neil Illingworth, A. H. and A. W. Reed, Wellington 1961.
1993 World Record Game Fishes, I.G.F.A., Florida, U.S.A.
Tales of the Angler’s Eldorado, Zane Grey, Hodder and Stoughton Ltd, London 1926.
1993 New Zealand Record Big Game Fishes, New Zealand Big Game Fishing Council.
Successful Ocean Game Fishing, Frank T. Moss, International Marine Publishing Co., Maine, U.S.A. 1971.

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