Sailfish Success in One Day

Instant results! Two easy day trips for South Florida sails.

Captain Eden White bills a Palm Beach sailfish for road-tripper Melinda Buckley. In mild weather, this region offers a short, comfortable run to world-class fishing.

As November winds usher in another winter, what could be better than planning a day trip for sailfish? On clear, warm waters, using light tackle, you can test your endurance against a powerful, stunning billfish that can top 100 pounds.

This time of year, a great bluewater adventure, surprisingly affordable, lies within a one-day drive of most Floridians. Many of us can enjoy terrific action on our own boats. With a little planning and flexibility, you won’t need a passport or a 50-foot sportfisher.

Let’s go!

In most years, populations of Atlantic sailfish bounce around from Sebastian Inlet to Key West from November through February. The fish tend to move south as water temps dip into the low 70s, but curiously enough, on the warming side of the calendar, February through May, they seem to keep moving south. You’ll notice the tournament schedules do the same thing, not by coincidence. May through November, sailfish are scattered along the entire Gulf and Atlantic coasts of Florida, but in some areas the run may be 50 miles or more.

In winter, charter fleets based at all the inlets along the lower Florida peninsula and the Keys offer reasonable rates for what can be world-class action. For an 8-hour day, center console boats generally hire for $500 to $950, while flybridge sportfishers range to $1,500. Split that among two or three buddies, throw in a few nights at a hotel, a good dinner, and you’re looking at a super weekend for less than a grand.

And if you’re heading south for business or to visit relatives, that day of sailfish action gets mighty attractive. Plus, you’re likely to catch tuna, dolphin and other edible fish.

What’s even more compelling to many anglers—the main subject of this article—is to set up a trip on your own trailerable boat.

For the sake of discussion, let’s limit “trailerable” to vee-hull vessels of at least 18 feet. That covers a wide gamut of fishing craft. In the interests of safety we’ll leave at home low-freeboard flats and bass boats, pontoons, most deckboats, and pretty much anything with a deck that isn’t self-bailing, flat bottom, or an engine that isn’t in perfect working condition. (Yes, they catch sailfish on kayaks and inflatable innertubes, and Dreamcatcher nails ‘em off Haulover on a 14-foot aluminum skiff… but that’s them, and not you.)

On the other end of the trailering spectrum, I’ll assume you’re not hauling a 30-footer, and would prefer to minimize open-ocean runs. Fort Pierce and Stuart see incredible sailfish action in early winter, but for small boats the weather window is somewhat narrow. Winds over 10 or 12 knots, coupled with a (typically) 6- to 12-mile run to the fishing, are tough on a 22-foot center console.

The ultimate one-day trailer boat sailfish trip would be somewhere between Palm Beach and Miami, where the run to 100 feet of water is at most one-and-a-half nautical miles. (As a matter of record, I live in Stuart, and occasionally trailer to Palm Beach, precisely for this reason.)

There’s a “hitch” to South Florida trailer boating however: This now-urbanized coastline long ago abandoned its beachy, low-key roots. Streets are terribly congested, boat ramps perilously crowded on weekends, and few hotels offer space for trailers. Theft is also a constant concern. It’s bewildering pulling into town from upstate, hoping to launch your boat and catch the fish of your dreams.

And yet, it’s doable, if you follow my plan.

To minimize headaches and backaches, let’s pick a weekday, a weather forecast of winds no greater than 15 knots, and load the boat in the wee hours of the morning.

Tackle and bait? You’d be surprised how easy it is. First let’s get to the water.

Orlando to Palm Beach:

2 ½ to 3 hours

Palm Beach County has several good boat ramps and reliable sailfish action November through March. A new one we visited this year is Lake Park Marina: From I-95, take North Lake Blvd. east to U.S. 1 (Federal Highway), then south to Cypress Drive. Lake Park is very convenient as it’s far enough north of the urban center to minimize traffic snags. And yet it’s just minutes from Lake Worth/Palm Beach Inlet. The ramp has four lanes, and there’s a tackle shop with ice, frozen bait and any necessary tackle you might have forgotten. There’s also 24-hour parking for vehicles with trailers: something to consider if you’re holing up for a few nights of Palm Beach attractions (while nowadays it’s difficult to find hotels offering trailer storage, waterfront resorts such as Sailfish Marina do rent boat slips for extended periods). Daily launch fee is $10. Right across the street is Willie’s Custom Baits.

On the run south to the inlet, you’ll pass Peanut Island, a spoil island with major ecological enhancements, including mangrove channels that function as bait factories. Pilchards and mullet ganged up along the shores make tempting castnet targets, but they thin out in winter. Otherwise, local bait boats sell goggle-eyes ($100 a dozen!), or you can troll up small blue runners on jigs along the oceanside beaches, or chum up ballyhoo to castnet on the shallow reefs. Before parting with your hard-earned cash, remember sails are omnivores with bellies full of squid, puffers, jacks and all sorts of whatsits. Any small, legal-size fish you can catch are fair game for bait.

Four key advantages to Lake Worth Inlet versus inlets to the north: One, the coastline here is more directly oriented to the north-and-south—slightly southwest, in fact—which puts a lee between your vessel and the post-cold front northwest wind fetch. Two, Lake Worth is very close to deep water, meaning a short run to the fish. Three, the inlet is over 30 feet deep and 200 yards wide, never a problem with shoaling. Four, there’s just something marvelous about fishing off the famous Breakers Hotel on an open boat, reveling in the warm salt air.

Eden White, a local captain and longtime FS contributor, takes charters year-round on a 23-foot center console here. It’s one of the few places in Florida where a skipper could carve out a legitimate bluewater program on a vessel of this class. Like many captains, Eden also offers an hourly rate to run your vessel, using his tackle or yours. It’s a cool arrangement, one many captains will negotiate, if asked.

On a recent trip, my friend Capt. Melinda Buckley and I rounded up with Eden at Lake Park Marina. We brought the boat, Eden brought his gear. We cast-netted bait on the way to the inlet, and within minutes we were fishing.

Eden knows the Palm Beach seascape like his backyard. Expecting a free ride back to the inlet courtesy of the north current, he had us run south past The Breakers, where we set up a drift in 200 feet of water, planning to drift into 90 or until we found fish.

The seas were a bumpy 2 to 4 feet—no big deal for our 23-foot Dusky, just sporty enough to make us thankful for the short boat ride. Eden hitched a collapsible sea anchor to a midship cleat, and we set out four lines with a mix of pilchards and finger mullet.

Adept at all types of fishing, including the kite, Eden also knows when to keep it simple: A few nose-hooked baits on flatlines (no sinker), others hooked in the dorsal with a ½-ounce sliding egg sinker above a swivel. Monofilament leader of 30-pound-test or more, 20-pound-test line, heavy baitcasting outfits: That’s all it took on this trip.


Lead a hooked sailfish astern, still moving forward, for release.

Not only did we chalk up a sailfish release for Melinda (a backwater guide by trade), but we hit a 10-pound blackfin tuna for supper and a couple of drag-burning bonitos for kicks.

My liberal travel expenses for the day, including ice, food, boat supplies, fuel and fifty-cents-per-mile highway mileage, came to a little over $300… and that’s counting $30 worth of sabikis and at least $100 worth of boat fuel and oil we didn’t use!

For less than a hundred bucks apiece, a friend and I had a memorable road trip to Palm Beach. Had we really hit the jackpot, we may have landed 10 sails, not unheard of during peak season.

Fort Myers, Naples to Miami:

2 ½ to 3 hours

It’s hard to pass up Palm Beach if you’re heading down I-95 or the Florida Turnpike, but for anglers taking the southern route across Florida, Miami-Dade County is the best bet. There are ramps in Broward County, but generally live bait is harder to come by there, and the fishing is less reliable. I’ve been there, done that, on both sides of the county line.

Time your approach carefully: It’s at least a 21⁄2-hour drive from Fort Myers, across Alligator Alley, to the first boat launch in Miami-Dade County, Haulover County Park. It’s a bit farther to Watson Island Park, on MacArthur Causeway (I-395 to Miami Beach).

That’s if you don’t hit rush-hour traffic, which lasts from 7 a.m. till 10 a.m.

Either plan to be at the ramp before 7 a.m., or be there around noon. (The afternoon bite, in all these destinations, can be terrific—you fish till dark, grab dinner while rush-hour traffic subsides, then peg your return home before midnight.)

The inlet at Haulover has a bad reputation for swamping vessels, and the whole area is sort of seedy (best skip the north-side clothing-optional beach), but the marina is safe, open 24 hours, and the fishing can be spectacular.

The trick to the inlet—like many inlets along this coastline—is to avoid periods of strong high-pressure resulting in sustained winds from the northeast to southeast. Ideal scenario is light winds (12 knots or less), especially from the northwest quarter of the compass rose. If you do happen upon onshore winds, timing your return with an incoming tide helps smooth the ride. I fished it for years on a 17-footer, with no problems.

The sailfish ate a live pilchard caught nearshore.

Livebait boats sell pilchards and others near the inlet ($10-$20 dozen), but many days you can castnet mullet and/or pilchards around the spoil islands close to the Intracoastal Waterway. Watch for pelicans or terns. A No. 6, green-head sabiki rig with a 2-ounce sinker will get threadfin herring along the beach south of the inlet. Bring a frozen chumblock and set it to thaw in a meshbag at the transom.

Even more dependable live bait is available out of Government Cut, the much larger inlet 9 miles south of Haulover. Here, a good ramp for a weekday trip is Watson Island Park, on the north side of the MacArthur Causeway.

The tilted range marker on the south side of the Cut usually has herring and/or pinfish. Green marker 19 at the eastern terminus of Dodge Island often has herring nearby, while bottom-hugging pilchards may be identified on a fishfinder along the length of the Cut.

As in Palm Beach, the easiest way to catch sailfish off Miami is to set up a drift and deploy live baits, staggering them at 40 to 100 feet from the boat. Always rig at least one with a sinker; it’s quite common for sailfish to travel deep. For large, especially active live baits, a foam float helps you keep track of the bait.

On slow-current days (sometimes the kiss of death for the sailfish bite) it can pay to anchor on the county wrecks in 100 to 140 feet of water. Resident sails hole up near these structures. There are aggregations of wrecks due east of Haulover; about halfway south to Government Cut; and a mile or so south of the Cut, off Key Biscayne.

In addition to the sea anchor, it’s prudent to carry 300 feet of anchor rode—and that goes for any of the east coast inlets. Again, planning and flexibility.

What to Bring

•In addition to a vessel and game plan similar to that described in the main article, you’ll need:

•A skipper with some experience navigating ocean inlets—this trip would not be the ideal place for a bass fisherman to get his first whif of salt, for instance. If in doubt, hire a local captain.

•A crew of at least three: One to run the boat, a second to reel in a fish, a third to help land and release the fish.

•Gloves and a release knife to free the sailfish in the water. If you can’t quickly dislodge the hook, cut the leader, get the water flowing through the mouth and across the gills and release as color returns. A sailfish can live with a lip ring; it cannot live without oxygen.

•Fuel and ice in the boat before you hit the highway. You’ll sacrifice some fuel efficiency while towing, but the fewer detours you’ll need to make in urban South Florida, the better.

•Ballyhoo or other natural bait: Buy frozen bait locally (assuming supplies are trustworthy), thaw the night before. Call ahead for fresh bait.

•A $20 federal HMS Permit (www.hmspermits.gov) for your vessel, in addition to Florida fishing licenses for all aboard.

Lures and Rigged Baits

One option to buy time and possibly save money is to bypass the livebait program and simply troll a mix of rigged ballyhoo and small lures.

While Palm Beach and Miami have become known in angling circles as “livebait inlets,” the fact remains that a great many sailfish are hooked on the same kinds of trolling rigs they took 80 years ago. Kite-fishing with a bridle-rigged goggle-eyes may account for the majority of sailfish releases today, but for a newcomer it’s a complicated tactic that requires an investment in gear and time.

Small chuggers, feathers or jetheads (5 to 7 inches) catch plenty of sailfish, alone or rigged in combination with a small ballyhoo. In my experience, the best colors (in descending order) are green, pink and blue-and-white. Monofilament or fluorocarbon leader of 80-pound test is about right, with a 5/0 to 7/0 hook. Make sure the hook is positioned such that the point is even with the aft end of the skirt.

Even if you’re locked into a live bait source, it’s wise to bring at least one mesh pouch with a half-dozen pre-rigged trolling lures sized for your 20-pound-class livebait gear. If your bait supply is compromised, you’ll have a viable backup plan.

Originally Published Florida Sportsman Nov. 2010