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Fishermen's Journal

SWORDFISH AND FISHERMEN SEE THE LIGHT
CHEMICAL LIGHTSTICKS IN ACTION

By Walter P. Flanagan

 

Fishing with chemical lightsticks is perhaps one of the most interesting developments of modern fishing, especially when it come to swordfishing. They are almost as indispensable as the hooks and bait. Ask any successful swordfisherman around the world and you will get the same answer. Like economists they will disagree on just about everything, hook type and size, leader length and depth, size of bait, and colour of lightsticks, but suggesting to a high producing swordfish captain that he leave the dock without lightsticks is like suggesting that he fish with bare hooks and not bother with putting ice in the fishhold.

 

Certainly there are places around the world where swordfish are caught without lightsticks but they are exceptions, not the rule. The standard for swordfishing is fish the period of the full moon, using a big squid (about a half pound or bigger - 175 to 200 grams), and a lightstick of choice. But "thereís the rub" because there is no set agreement on either size or colour. Green lights, four inches long, however, are the most popular. More on this later.

During the mid-70ís off the coast of Miami, Florida, Cuban longliners were using floating, amber burning kerosene smudge pots, primarily to keep track of the drift of their relatively short long lines. They quickly noticed that more swordfish were being caught directly beneath the lighted pots. Shortly thereafter other fishermen started using small battery powered Japanese lights and at the same time the somewhat new Chemical lightsticks that had been developed by the American Cyanamid Company, Swordfishing in the Straits of Florida became a Gold Rush.

Chemical lightsticks were actually developed by American Cyanamid with the help of the United States government in order to have a low heat, non flammable light which could be used in areas where the possibility of fire was highly likely. Coincidentally, the design of these lights also allowed them to be easily used under water. The light in lightsticks is created by the interaction of an oxalate ester and an activator. One of the chemicals was contained in a glass ampoule inside of a plastic tube. When the plastic tube is bent or squeezed, the glass ampoule breaks, allowing the chemicals to interact and create energy which is emitted as a light source; green, yellow, blue, pink, white, or violet, to name the most common. When exposed to light and, or moisture these early lights lost their ability to activate and produce any light, and as a result needed special packaging. These lights were individually wrapped in tin foil, or in metal buckets containing three hundred or more lights in a dark plastic bag. These storage requirements and the monopoly guaranteed by the Cyanamid patents made these original lights very expensive, costing a US dollar or more. None-the-less fisherman used millions of these lightsticks in a variety of ways which increased swordfish catches way beyond what many fisherman expected.

Sometimes they would be placed inside the bait and at other times they would be placed at various lengths above the bait, anywhere from a meter to several fathoms. Captain Jim Hardee, one of South Floridaís top swordfisherman insists that about one fathom above a 200 to 300 gram squid is perfect. On a two week trip with him not too long ago, I witnessed swordfish after swordfish come aboard, many with lightsticks in their mouths. Knowing when and where to fish are also important. Currents, counter currents, temperature breaks, and water colour changes all effect fishing success. Finesse is probably the proper word for describing a successful swordfisherman. Use fewer baits, but make sure each and every one is perfect. Jim doesnít seem to have a favorite colour but as with most places around the world he uses green most of the time and from time to time pink and blue. Colour preference sometimes is based on fisherman preference as much as it is based on fish preference.

Arguments seem to centre around light intensity first and colour second. After the basic patents held by American Cyanamid expired, several companies entered the market. Omniglow, World Plastics, and Lindgren-Pitman, Inc., the newest entry, all have added improvements over the original lights. Because of this competition, both light and colour performance continue to improve. Lindgren-Pitman, by using two glass ampoules instead of one inside the plastic tube, has created a lightstick with considerable more shelf life than was previously possible, perhaps as much as 5 years. Furthermore, Lindgren-Pitmanís clear plastic provides for as mush as a 30% increase in light output and its new patented attachment which eliminated the need of using rubber bands for attaching the lightsticks to the line have made this light one of the best available. All of these innovations have led to more competitive pricing which is less than half of what it was several years ago. This saving has allowed fisherman to use more lights and experiment in newer ways in order to find the perfect combination.

All of these changes and the existence of competing products has fostered fisherman generated demand for higher quality and more diversified lightsticks. Varying the types and quantities of the chemicals can create lights which give off different intensities of light for varying period of time. For example, some lights initially burn very brightly but fade rapidly. Others seem to last longer. The goal is perhaps to have a light which burns with a steady intensity over a six to eight hour period, the normal period during which a long line is soaking. Another simpler way to vary light intensity has been to simply change the size of the lightstick of the amount of chemical in the tube.

 

Concerning this about three different sizes exist - three inch lights, four inch lights, and six inch lights. The four inch lights are by the most popular, however, in warmer more tropical climates the six inch lights prevail. Gill net fisherman, particularly those fishing in Chilean waters seem to favor the larger lights which are attached directly to the nets at various locations. In contrast, the four inch lights are much more popular in colder water regions, where the lights are sometimes use a second night after being kept in ice or the freezer between used. There four inch lights are also used for Big Eye Tuna in several locations, most noteworthy are Venezuela and Uruguay.

 

Smaller three inch lights may allow for newer breakthroughs. Because of the physical properties of light and the way it dissipates in water, making lights larger to create more light doesnít offer very much promise. However, by using two or more smaller lights, the effective lighted area can be increase much more than by using a bigger light. For anyone interested in pursuing this in more depth;, they should refer to FISHING WITH LIGHT by Ben Yami, available from Fishing News Books, Ltd. Although this book contains absolutely nothing about fishing for swordfish, it discuss the historical use of lights from the beginning of time for about just about every species that most of us might be able to name.

Ben Yami explains it as follows:

Evidently the extinction of light in water is many times stronger than in air and a fishing lamp which can be seen from miles away will be undetectable underwater at a distance, at most, of a few tens of meters. This is due to the higher attenuation in water. Attenuation consists of absorption, scattering and reflection. Absorption is the conversion of light into another form of energy, e.g. heat. It occurs in the water itself and in particular at the particles suspended in it. Scattering and reflection are due to the same particles which also determine the transparency of water. Scattering occurs even at the molecules of the water itself.

The different wavelength of colour may help explain why using different colored lightsticks may affect fishing success. Infrared (a long wavelength) is absorbed and converted to heat very efficiently and therefore travels only a very short distance in water. Red (a slightly shorter wavelength) travels only a little farther. Therefore longer wavelengths (red and infrared) will have only a small sphere of visible light from an underwater source. The colours in the middle of the light spectrum, green, yellow, and blue travel the best in water. At the other end of the spectrum, ultraviolet (a short wavelength) is largely reflected at a surface and is reflected, scattered and absorbed when introduced from a source below the waters surface. Violet light (a slightly longer wavelength than ultraviolet) also will not have a large sphere of visible light under water although it will be better that red light. So what does all of this mean? At least theoretically, and if a large sphere of visible light is important, the following colors should work in descending order (most light to least light) green, yellow, blue, orange, pink, and red. This in part is born out by current usage. Through out the world, green lightsticks are used twice as often as the next most popular colours, blue and pink which are used almost equally. However many fisherman will attest to the fact that under certain conditions, some of the other coloured lights will out perform all of the others. Experimentation is constantly needed in order to optimize fishing success.

Can swordfish actually see is another question which is still debated from time to time. They have the rods and cones in their eyes which indicate they should be able to see colors. One thing is certain, they have great big eyes, big mouths, and big appetites.

In concluding it is worth mentioning that, success with lightsticks is also correlated with moon phases. Fishing success seems to pick up at an increasing rate as the moon rises, with the fish feeding deeper and deeper. Upon the arrival of the full moon, fishing drops off dramatically. As the moon begins to wane, fishing picks up again, with the best fishing closer to the new moon and the fish being caught with shorter leaders.

Water temperatures and thermoclines have not been discussed although they are as important as any other factor in swordfishing. Moreover the age of question of why do lightsticks work still hasnít been answered. More to the point. Do lightsticks attract swordfish directly or do they attract baitfish, which in turn attract the swordfish. Probably both, but donít forget that if you happen to catch a few swordfish from time to time and you are fishing during the daylight hours, try fishing at night with lightsticks and you may just discover a new fishery resource just like the ones discovered in Hawaii, Uruguay, Reunion Island, and the Seychelles.

Reprinted from

World Fishing August 1996

 

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