Off Stuart, dead-bait trolling and livebait sailfishing converge.
In the time it took to point out a fish on the teaser, three more came into view, and everyone on board knew we were going to be in the weeds. But that’s what you’re looking for with sailfish–multiple hookups and more commotion in the cockpit than the filming of Titanic’s water scenes. It’s the kind of action billfishermen thrive on–spontaneous, irregular and quick, but that doesn’t mean it’s confusing.
At the instant I pointed to a fish in the bait spread, everyone jumped to their assigned roles of feeding a rigged ballyhoo to one after another of the aroused sailfish. In less time than it takes to rig a ballyhoo, a quad of sailfish was in the air and peeling line.
We caught and released three of the fish within 15 minutes. The fourth fish became tail-wrapped, and labored for another 10 minutes before becoming untangled and released. The four-for-four ratio was pretty impressive for any outing, but it wasn’t going to make much of an impact in the tournament, since the leading boat released 22 fish that day.
Hooking multiple sailfish isn’t uncommon off Southeast Florida, but consistently attracting and putting a hook in multiples is one of the biggest keys to winning billfish tournaments in the area. It’s a tournament strategy just about every boat employs, and one that the Fort Pierce charter crews follow on a daily basis in order to compete with the livebait practitioners to the south.
When the sailfish are biting off Stuart, boats following the fish from Fort Pierce to the north, and Palm Beach to the south, meet to deploy their respective fishing techniques. Anytime large groups of boats come together to pursue a body or school of fish, the competition is going to be fierce, but when some boats are fishing rigged baits and others live bait, there’s sure to be more than a little tournament pride on the line.
In the early days of sailfishing, boats would target the species by trolling rigged baits exclusively, but once the feeding habits of the species became understood and bait-catching techniques developed, live bait became the technique of choice for luring numbers of fish to the hook. That isn’t to say that livebaiting is the best or most consistent means of catching sailfish. In fact, most of the boats that fish north of Stuart still troll rigged baits with excellent results. The same is true with many boats in the Keys.
Improvements in rigging techniques and bait availability have also advanced dead-bait trolling to a new level, and with the advent of natural-bait teasers, rigged-bait trolling can actually outfish livebait fishing in some instances. It’s when the two techniques come together, as they do each winter off Stuart, that the debates over each style of fishing takes place.
In dead-bait sailfish tournaments, the charterboat Temptress is a feared competitor. The crew pursues sailfish as a primary target the entire year–fishing off Fort Pierce from December through March, then off Cancun April through June and in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, during late summer and early fall. Chip Shafer is one of the more knowledgeable and successful sailfish captains in the country, and he strictly fishes rigged baits.
A good portion of Shafer’s success can be attributed to bait and teaser preparation. Mate Jimmy Grant starts the morning by rigging two mullet teaser chains with anywhere from three to six mullet on each chain. The mullet are generally 10 to 12 inches in length, small enough to attract the sailfish, but large enough that the fish will cautiously attack the baits. Each mullet is weighted with three to six ounces of lead to keep the baits below the surface where they’ll be easy for a fish to locate.
Each teaser is placed off the outriggers just outside the propwash to the corner of the stern. A flatline bait is stationed to the outside and just behind the teasers. As the fish attacks a teaser, it will usually move off to grab the smaller ballyhoo on the flatline, either thinking it’s one of the mullet or just a bite-sized bait. If the fish fails to see the ballyhoo or a fish has already eaten the flatline ballyhoo but another fish is attacking the teaser, another small rigged ballyhoo can be dropped in front of the fish and to one side of the teaser. In most cases, the fish will jump on the easy meal.
The same strategy works when fishing dredge teaser chains, which incorporate 15 to 20 rigged ballyhoo on a weighted spreader bar. Dredges more closely mimic a small school of ballyhoo, although like the mullet teaser, the dredge is composed of larger hookless baits. As fish come up to inspect the dredge, the smaller ballyhoo on the flatlines attract their attention. Once fish are hooked up and into their initial run, the rigger lines can be reeled up to the teaser or pitch baits dropped back to the other fish.
As with any type of fishing, there are tricks to the trade that dramatically tip the success rate in favor of the angler. The Temptress crew rigs all the ballyhoo with the hook placed stiffly in the chest of the bait just below the throat. This way, the hook will not spin to one side, or into the bait when the fish strikes. All the hooks are hand-sharpened and attached to the leaders with crimps. Steel wire pins that in the past were used to close the mouth of the bait are avoided because occasionally the pin may poke the fish in the mouth and cause it to drop the bait. Instead, all ballyhoo are rigged using Monel wire, with wraps through the eye socket and the wire poked up through the chin to seal the mouth shut.
Shafer will fish most of the ballyhoo naked, although he might add a blue-and-white skirt to one bait or put out a stripbait with a blue and white or pink skirt ahead of it. Half the ballyhoo are rigged for skipping, and half are rigged to dig a little and swim a foot or two below the surface by adding a 1/4-ounce weight and splitting the bill of the bait. The baits are constantly changed out and different patterns of skipping and swimming ballyhoo are moved around in the spread until the fish show a preference. In most cases, it’s good to have both types out, as the splash of a skipping bait will add more attraction to the spread and diving baits look like frail members of the subsurface teasers.
Sailfish migrating south along the eastern seaboard tend to adhere to specific water temperatures, and when those comfort zones attract massive schools of bait, it’s no surprise that the fish congregate in huge numbers. That’s particularly true in the waters from Cape Canaveral to Fort Pierce, where the continental shelf extends 25 miles or more out to sea and deep water follows a gradually developing edge. Sailfish accumulate along the drop, eventually converging into a huge body of fish as they locate pods of bait. If the forage is plentiful and the water has good color and clarity and is about 76 degrees, the fish can stay there for weeks at a time. In these areas, the bite takes place in 100 to 150 feet of water.
To lure a fish away from the food source, many veterans prefer to troll rigged baits from school to school. In most cases, the fast-moving dead baits are just as effective as live bait for pulling a fish off a bait pod. It’s a technique that’s highly effective because of the sheer numbers of fish in the area. As those schools approach the stretch of coast from Palm Beach to Ft. Lauderdale, where the continental shelf drops off only a mile or so from shore, their feeding behavior changes. The Gulf Stream has a stronger effect on the water temperature and bait tends to hold over natural and artificial reefs rather than current edges and breaks offshore. The bite here frequently occurs in deeper water, with the average around 100 to 300 feet.
When sailfish are holding over a reef or wreck, live bait will outfish rigged baits most of the time. That’s because the live baits can remain in front of the fish for longer periods, tantalizing the fish and allowing it to look the bait over before it decides to eat. The longer an easy meal remains in the strike zone, the better the chances it will get crushed, and that equation increases tenfold when the bait is struggling or swimming in a way that draws attention.
One of the most effective means of attracting sailfish to a live bait is to hang the bait from a kite, where it will slash and splash across the surface in the waves. When fish are feeding high in the water column, they have a hard time resisting the commotion above. The kite also keeps the bait away from the boat and in a small area, allowing the fish to easily catch and consume the meal.
There are times when slow-trolling or drifting with live baits is just as effective as using a kite. Those methods seem to work best when the fish are spread out. A drifting boat can cover more water by deploying both surface and deep baits. If there are enough rod holders on a boat, a kite can also be utilized to place baits on the downwind side of the boat, thus covering the gamut of fishing presentations.
Flatline baits typically swim only a foot or two below the surface, so one bait should be placed closer to the boat than the other. The farthest bait should be set about 100 to 125 feet from the boat, and another bait set at about half that distance. A 1- to 2-ounce rubbercore sinker placed just below the knot connecting the leader to the line will take a deep bait down about 30 feet. A heavier sash-style sinker can be attached to the line with a rubber band or piece of copper wire so it will break away when a fish strikes, yet get the bait 50 or 60 feet down.
Often, the sailfish school thins out as it reaches the deeper coastal waters off Palm Beach, affording better slow-trolling opportunities, but pressure from anglers is what tends to break the pods up off Stuart. There are days when a stretch of water looks like the condo line on Miami Beach from a distance because of all the boats congregated in one area. While a strong body of fish will still provide hookups even with the added boat pressure, after several days of working the school, the fish tend to spread out and range farther in search of food.
Whether the fish are traveling in large bodies, small pods or even as loners or pairs, one key to catching them with live bait anywhere on the coast is to use the species they’re currently eating. That may require catching several kinds of bait or locating and catching bait in the area of the fish. In general, offering up a scaled sardine when the fish are eating threadfins might get a bite or two, but it won’t get a dozen.
Live goggle-eyes seem to be the exception to the rule. They’re a favored sailfish morsel, and one that few fish will turn down, even when they’re targeting another bait species. Goggle-eyes are hardy baits that exhibit speed and splash when fished from a kite, and will last all day if the fish don’t bite.
Bait size is another consideration. In the winter months, the threadfins will run large, but the sardines are small. If a body of fish are on a large school of sardines, then threadfins, although in the same bait family, represent a noticeably larger food item than the fish are after. There are times when the larger meal will seem more attractive, but that’s rarely the case when the fish are focused on consuming quantities of small bait. That’s why many of the hardcore experts insist on catching their bait while actively fishing for sailfish.
Bait catching takes time, effort and familiarity with the local scene. Off Stuart, there is a strong winter population of threadfins in proximity of the St. Lucie Inlet. Sardines and cigar minnows can be found around the shoal buoys to the north, and on some of the artificial reefs. Goggle-eyes are occasionally mixed in with the other baits or are caught at night off some of the reefs. Blue runners are numerous along the beaches and at the mouth of the inlet. When the seas are too rough to catch bait in the ocean, mullet and pinfish can be caught in the Indian River.
When the sailfish bite gets hot off Stuart (sometime between late December and mid-January), it’s easy to locate the bait schools by looking for a congregation of charterboats along the beach just north of the inlet. Threadfins seem to hold in 30 to 40 feet of water along the tideline. Be sure to bring plenty of sabiki or bait-catching rigs, because sailfish and Spanish mackerel migrate through the area the same time of year, and there are days when the macks are so thick it requires sacrificing a number of rigs to catch a well full of baits.
In the time you spend catching your supply of livies, the boats pulling dead baits will have found the fish, and all you have to do is run out and join the fleet on the horizon. Often, the fish will be in the same area as the previous day, or a mile or so in either direction depending on the wind. Once you find the boats, it’s up to you to make your baits more attractive than the baits fished by the competing boats.
Trollers accomplish this by slowing down and going into a turn when they mark a bait school. The drop in speed allows the teaser chains to drop slightly in the water column, while the change in direction also lowers the baits and presents teasers and rigged baits at different angles. As the boat comes out of the turn, it powers up to normal speed, pulling the teasers and baits back to the surface–hopefully with excited sailfish in tow. Once a fish leaves the bait school for the teasers, the baits in the wake are the only game in town.
Livebait fishermen employ a similar tactic, working their baits around the outskirts of the schools so they look like struggling, disoriented prey. You can let a frisky herring or goggle-eye linger to one side of the school for as long as it takes for a hungry fish to maneuver to that side of the school.
Live baits should be fished at different depths to cover the entire water column. Fish feeding at 40 feet might not leave a bait school to rise to the surface to eat a lone goggle-eye, but they sure will move up to 30 feet to eat one, and if the fish is traveling with a pack, the others might follow and eat too. Downriggers are one way to get a bait down, but since the baits will be actively swimming around, they often tangle in the cable. Slow-trolling to keep tension on the lines can remedy that problem, but if you intend to drift, only one or two baits should be put down on the bait school using the rubbercore sinker or sash weight method mentioned earlier.
When the fish are concentrated, the action will get crazy and there will be fish in the air all over the place. Remember that boats trolling baits require more room to maneuver and any boat actively fighting or backing down on a fish should be given the right of way. The body of bait and fish will be quite large, so there’s no need to squeeze any other boats. In most circumstances, the boats that are hooking fish are the ones that are doing everything right and have gone the extra distance to make their spread of baits attractive. Do the same, and the rewards will be similar.
Rigging the Swimming Ballyhoo
The key to any successful dead-bait fishing is to obtain the freshest baits available. That usually means digging through brine solutions for the ballyhoo with clean, clear eyes and firmness to the touch. Most charterboat mates will not put fresh ballyhoo directly in brine, instead opting to place them in a cooler on a sheet of aluminum foil stretched on top of the ice. The baits are then covered with a liberal sprinkling of kosher salt to keep the outer skin tough.
Ballyhoo season runs from September through January in South Florida, and after that, frozen ballyhoo are the most readily available baits. Buyers of frozen ballyhoo should examine the package carefully to make sure the baits aren’t scarred and the skin isn’t broken. Blood in the package is also a bad sign, and ballyhoo should have a whole beak. Clear eyes are better, but sometimes, the eyes will cloud in the brine.
For sailfish, small ballyhoo in the 6- to 8-inch range are selected for the rigged baits, while ballyhoo 10 to 12 inches long will be used for the teasers. Many anglers feel that the eyes of the ballyhoo should be removed to avoid bulging, which may make the bait spin. Mates do this by punching a dowel or arrow shaft through the eye socket.
Next, empty the digestive cavity by squeezing the belly starting at the gills and working back to the anal vent. Without breaking the skin, gently flex the ballyhoo from one side to the other to separate the spinal column. This gives the bait more side-to-side swimming action. The terminal half of the ballyhoo’s bill is broken off and removed, and the remaining bill is split with a rigging knife.
Jimmy Grant, mate on the Fort Pierce charterboat Temptress, uses a 1/4-ounce sinker and a 6/0 Mustad 9175 hook which are secured to a 60-pound Jinkai leader with an aluminum crimp. A 12-inch trace of 20-pound Monel wire is attached to the leader just above the hook, and the hook is threaded through the gills of the ballyhoo with the point exiting in the middle of the breastplate. The sinker should rest under the chin and between each gill plate. The leader is then run under the chin of the ballyhoo and between the split in the bill. The eye of the hook rests beneath the chin of the bait, and the wire is then wrapped several times through the eyes, eventually moving up the bill on either side of the leader.
Rigging Live Baits
Ask any experienced sailfish anglers and they will tell you it’s the lively baits that attract the fish. The first key is an efficient livewell system, the bigger the better, which cleanses and aerates the water. Catching the bait with hook and line, such as the popular sabiki rigs, does the minimal amount of damage to the bait. Be sure to cull out any injured or bleeding baits that have been hooked in the gills.
Threadfins can be caught along the beaches, in the inlets, and along inlet tidelines during the last half of the outgoing tide. Goggle-eyes seem to bite best about an hour before dawn, while sardines and blue runners can be caught around buoys.
Hook placement is critical when rigging live baits, which is why many charterboats opt to bridle the baits to the hook with dental floss that’s of much thinner diameter than the hook. Surface drift baits can be hooked through the nostrils or eye socket, and if there is no current or wind, a bait can be hooked behind the anal fin and allowed to swim away from the boat.
Since light tackle is the norm, most anglers like to fish with 20-pound spinning or conventional gear spooled with at least 300 yards of line. A 10-to 15-foot 60-pound monofilament leader will draw more strikes than wire or heavier monofilament, and will usually hold up during the course of a fight.
Smaller baits require smaller hooks, and there should always be at least one runt in every bait spread. A 3/0 bronze bait hook is ideal for most small sardines, threadfins or pilchards, and a 6/0 better suits the normal 6- to 10-inch baits like blue runners and goggle-eyes.
Kite baits and deep baits should be bridled using a 6-inch section of dental floss or wax thread tied in a circle. The loop is attached to a rigging needle, run through the back of the bait ahead of the dorsal fin, and back through the loop. The point of the hook is inserted in the top of the loop, and the bait is spun several times to wind the thread. The point of the hook is then placed under the thread at the top of the bait.
Palm Beach sailfish aficionado Nick Smith has been utilizing circle hooks the last few seasons with excellent success. The hooks typically catch a fish in the jaw, increasing the chance for survival, and Smith says he’s noticed a better hookup ratio with them. Offset circle hooks will sometimes hook a fish in the tissue of the mouth and throat, so in-line hooks are the standard. Smith uses the light wire 7/0 Eagle Claw 2004ELG for most livebait sailfishing.