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Sailfish North

Leaving the narrow corridor of South Florida reef, anglers find surprising concentrations of sailfish to the state line and beyond.

Tag stick is readied for a sailfish caught during the El Pescado Billfish Tournament in October 2013. The annual event has been held out of St. Augustine for 25 years.

Fifty miles off St. Augustine, we were trolling in dark, green water, praying for a stray bite. I’d spent the day in a heavy jacket, trying to salvage my trip by trolling up and down the 28 fathom ledge. I was hoping for a wahoo, but expecting an amberjack attack on our planer rod. As we brought the planer up for a check, I looked down from my tower. There, swimming on either side of the 31⁄2 Drone spoon, was not amberjack, but two curious sailfish.

Years ago, I would’ve found those sailfish very surprising. From as far back as my teenage years, I have fond memories of traveling 200 miles south down the Florida coastline to fish out of Fort Pierce. At the time, we figured our Northeast Florida trolling was over by December. The relative ease of catching sails 14 miles off the beach in Fort Pierce, in warm Gulf Stream waters, made our long winters a little more tolerable.

Today, however, it seems that more and more of our sailfish are crossing the Mason-Dixon heading north every year, and they’re staying up there longer, sometimes all winter. Captains I’ve spoken to, from Jacksonville to New Jersey, have reported seeing— and catching—sailfish later and later in the season.

Jacksonville-based Bree works a bait-rich zone during the El Pescado event.

Captain Greg Bogdan, who runs the charter boat Permitted out of Palm Beach, well remembers a time when sailfish were almost unheard of off his childhood home in New Jersey.

We fished tuna, bluefish and striped bass. It was probably 20 years ago we started encountering the occasional sailfish on our way to the tuna grounds. There were probably 50 caught out of Sandy Hook alone last summer [2013]. There’s also more wahoo and marlin than we used to see, but every year is a little different. Many variables to consider.” Bogdan, who has a degree in marine biology to go with his captain’s li- cense, has a theory as to why those sailfish and other fish are gradually moving north.

“Sailfish are all about bait. It seems like these days New Jersey sabiki rigs are filling up with cigar minnows, blue runners and, incredibly, even tiny goggle-eyes. If you find blue runners and cigar minnows, sailfish aren’t going to be far behind.”

In my current home port of St. Augustine, I’ve seen a steady shift in the number of fall sailfish encounters. It has gone from a summertime fishery with a flurry in September and October to a true fall and winter fishery.

There’s little doubt the last 15 to 20 years have seen a decided spread to the north for numbers of sailfish encounters. Captain Thom- as Wood of the Dancing Outlaw from Morehead City, NC, says the increase in sailfish during the fall is unmistakable.

We always saw sailfish in August and September with a few hanging around into October.”

Now, Thomas says when the weather allows the fleet to fish, double-digit release days in December are pretty common.

Bogdan said that the sails were still off Frying Pan Shoals, NC, in February of last year.

“The Carolina kingfish boys were catching them when and where we never used to see them,” he said.

Hookless ballyhoo teasers for a dredge system.

The Gulf of Mexico may be seeing a similar northerly range expansion of sailfish. Tom Putnam from Half Hitch Tackle in Panama City, FL, said that when he was a boy, a sailfish was big news off the piers in the Panhandle of Florida. Incredibly, there was a stretch last fall when each pier between Panama City and Pensacola was averaging three sailfish catches a day!

Could there be some connection to ocean warming? It would be an easy answer to say bluewater pelagics are moving north because rising water temperatures—if in fact they are rising—are moving bait, and the fish that eat them, steadily up the coast. Oceanographic climate expert Dr. Mitch Roffer said that doesn’t appear to be the case.

“Sorry, no deal,” said Roffer (www.roffs.com). “Using three independent databases and two separate statistical techniques, a tidy result is not forthcoming. For the Florida coastal zone, the most plausible conclusion is that air and sea temperature change during the past century is minimal.”

Release flags are flying as a tournament boat returns to St. Augustine.

Clearly, there are still excellent sailfish catches occurring in Florida’s traditional winter fisheries off Fort Pierce, Palm Beach, Miami, and Islamorada, for instance.
Might the improved sailfish success rates of anglers north of these areas be partly attributable to rising forage abundance? In a recent conversation with veteran sailfish researcher John Jolley, I mentioned those reports of blue runners and cigar minnows being caught along the Jersey shore.

“The forage species are critical to billfish, especially sailfish,” Jolley said. His background includes sailfish life history and diet studies for the Florida Dept. of Natural Resources (precursor to the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission) in the 1970s. Jolley is also a veteran angler and currently serves on the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council. He elaborated some:

“Is the bait supply greater today, as some fishermen are suggesting? Well, fishermen likely see such things first because they are out on the ocean while scientists are back in their labs. If fishermen see enough of this throughout a broad geographical range, it’s anecdotal, but probably true. If science gets in- volved long enough, maybe they can prove it. Additionally, the pervasive release ethic, circle hooks, shorter fight times, and banning of longlines in the Florida Straits all add up to greater survival and successful reproduction in the future.”

While anecdotal evidence seems to agree that U.S. anglers are seeing an overall increase in Atlantic sailfish, Randy Blankinship from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration Highly Migratory Species Division, was quick to throw in a word of caution.

Northern Gulf of Mexico anglers like Barrett Fine (fighting a sailfish off Navarre Beach) are hoping for another banner summer.

“Sailfish are highly transient,” he explained. “While manage- ment measures and ethical anglers may well be helping stocks increase locally, it’s doubtful many sails spend their entire lives in the United States Exclusive Economic Zone [within 200 miles of the coastline, in most areas]. Once sailfish migrate outside our management, no telling what the mortality is.”

As to the movements of these fish, Roffer reminded me that there are more factors than water temperature that determine north-south migrations. Wind and length of daylight hours also
determine when and where sailfish move. Personally, I live for the howling northeasters of fall. That means, for whatever the reason, not only are the sails boogeying down from northern climes, they seem to love surfing down-sea in plain sight.

Also, periods of steady easterly wind bring us blue water, weedlines, current rips off the Gulf Stream and bait.

No two years are the same, and after 50 years of offshore fishing I’ve got few answers and a whole lot more questions than I did when I started. One thing I’m certain of, however: I’ve gotten skunked on every trip I didn’t make. Give me a calm day in any month, and I’ll be out there waiting on that next beautiful purple shadow to show up behind my boat. FS


Locating Sailfish: Northeast Florida

If you have high confidence that sailfish are congregating in a particular zone, it’s hard to beat live-bait fishing. In recent issues we’ve covered tactics for sight-fishing color changes on the Florida Keys reefline. We’ve also looked at kite-fishing and slow-trolling along the dropoff in the Miami region. Here, as in much of their range, sailfish primarily feed near the surface of water that’s 50 to 300 feet deep. Goggle-eyes, sardines, ballyhoo, speedos and other local baits are excellent for attracting strikes—but the key is getting a bait in front of a fish.

Keeping a tight line is the key, once you've found fish and are hooked up.

North of about Stuart, the playing field changes. In my home waters off St. Augustine, for instance, it’s 20 miles from 100 to 300 feet of water. That’s many miles of sailfish habitat to cover. Here’s a quick look at the system we use for finding fish:

Dredge Teaser: This is a cluster of hook- less baits rigged on an umbrella, usually behind a 48-ounce trolling weight. Most of the pros rig a couple dozen mullet or ballyhoo on their dredges, but rubber, paddle-tailed imitations work, too.

Ballyhoo and Circle Hook: The best bait I’ve found for hooking sailfish while trolling is a small ballyhoo with no skirt. For this application it’s best to rig a circle hook so that the point and bend of the hook are fully exposed. I use copper wire to anchor a small swivel to the head of the bait, and then drop the swivel over the hook point. Others use a rubber O-ring in similar manner, or stitch a series of Xs using rigging floss, affixing the hook under the thread.

Baits and More Baits: Sailfish follow schools of bait. When you’re trolling, the more teaser baits you can hang off a dredge, the more likely you are to attract sails. A friend of mine recently did very well tournament fishing pulling four dredges off each side of his boat. Downriggers work well for pulling even heavy dredges. Using a fish-shaped or torpedo shaped weight of at least 5 pounds ahead of the dredge should do the job. I like to run mine just below the surface, where I can still see it. In my perfect spread, I would have 2 dredges, and 2 daisy chains skipping over the top of them.

Adjust the Speed: I get asked about speed all the time, and you can’t put a number on it. Some days I’m making 3 knots upcurrent, and 7 knots downsea. Pull only so fast that those small, naked ballyhoo aren’t popping out of the water. Don’t ask me why, but I like the way my baits look trolling downsea, and it sure seems like we catch more fish trolling that way. Caution: Dredges don’t only work on sails. Barracuda, bonito, amberjack, and every other critter around will be all over your spread.

Where: We’ve done well on sailfish off North- east Florida working around areas holding bait. We concentrate on areas where we mark schools of cigar minnows on our sonar. Also, numbers of flyingfish are a good indicator that sailfish may be near. Fishing a quarter of a mile off to the side of a wreck is one way to stay in a dependable baitfish concentration, but get too close to the wreck and the barracuda and amberjack will tear up your baits and dredges.

First Published Florida Sportsman March 2014