Sight-fish Sailfish Like a Pro

By Willie Howard
Sight-fishing for sailfish: Tricks of tournament pros.

sight-fish sailfishOff Southeast Florida, days are made, and tournaments won, by watching for the black shape of sailfish cruising on rough seas.

Captain Art Sapp knew he had to try something different to climb up the leaderboard during the 2016 Silver Sailfish Derby, a longstanding sailfish release tournament hosted by the West Palm Beach Fishing Club.

Sapp’s team on Liquid had released only two sailfish on the first day of fishing, January 7, leaving the team well behind Capt. Chip Sheehan and his crew on Reel Easy, which ended day 1 with seven releases.

With little wind available to fly kites on day 2, Sapp decided to slow troll live baits and run the boat to sailfish spotted from the tower of Liquid, a 39-foot Sea Vee.

The run-and-gun approach paid off. The Liquid team released nine more sailfish on day 2 to edge out Reel Easy by one fish and win top boat in the 79th annual derby with a two-day total of 11 releases.

And here’s the thing:

All but two of Liquid’s derby sails were caught sight casting live baits, mostly threadfin herring, using spinning rods rigged with 20-pound-test line, 30-pound fluorocarbon leader and 6/0 non-offset circle hooks.

Sapp said the agility of the center console allowed his team to respond quickly to “sprays” of small flyingfish rising from the surface and to free-jumping sails.

Also, the ability to move 360 degrees around the deck gave his bait-pitching anglers an advantage over those fishing on larger sportfishing boats, Sapp said.

Presenting live baits to sailfish on the surface isn’t always successful. The fish might be feeding on baits far smaller than those available in the livewell. And fish cruising on the surface in clear, Gulf Stream water can be picky.

Sheehan, a Boynton Beach charter captain who ran the Reel Easy during the Silver Sailfish Derby, said a light presentation is important when pitching to sailfish on the surface. That means light leader and small hooks.

“It’s got to look natural,” he said.

Sailfish tournament veteran Mark Wodlinger of Naples said a spinning rod holding 15-pound monofilament line and 30-pound fluorocarbon leader is standard for a sailfish pitch rod.

To find surface sails, Wodlinger looks for “sprays” of baitfish emerging from the surface, free-jumping sails and frigate birds. Each sailfish is different. Wodlinger said surface sailfish might be feeding on 1-inch baits, and it can be hard to entice them to switch.

sight-fish sailfishCone tells his anglers to cast to the spot where the baits are coming out of the water. Sailfish might be 10, 20 or even 50 feet behind them.

His favorite pitch baits: Spanish sardines, followed by pilchards, threadfin herring and, in the Keys, ballyhoo. Pitching live ballyhoo to sailfish is a staple of Keys fishing during the winter months, when cold weather pushes schools of ballyhoo out of Florida Bay into warmer ocean water. Captain Brian Cone of Contagious Offshore Fishing in Islamorada finds sailfish chasing schools of ballyhoo over the reefs in 15 to 80 feet of water during the cold months.

Cone fishes wherever the ballyhoo schools congregate and has led his clients to sailfish in water as shallow as 9 feet off Pickles Reef.

The Contagious team won the Islamorada Junior Sailfish Tournament a few years ago by pitching live ballyhoo to sailfish that kept coming back to the same school of ballyhoo near Alligator Lighthouse.

Cone’s crew of junior anglers released six sails from the same area using medium-action spinning rods rigged with 12- to 15-pound line and 30-pound mono leader.

Cone prefers monofilament leader because it’s softer than fluorocarbon. He uses a 5/0 non-offset circle hook pushed through the elongated bottom beak of the ballyhoo or fastened to the bottom beak with soft copper wire if time allows.

Spinning tackle is not only sporting, it’s necessary to cast ballyhoo far enough to reach sailfish without spooking them in the feeding zone, which is often in clear, shallow water. Cone stays 80 feet or so away from the action with his 33-foot World Cat.

Cone tells his anglers to cast to the spot where the baits are coming out of the water. Sailfish might be 10, 20 or even 50 feet behind them.

“A good cast is important,” he said. FS

First Published Florida Sportsman Magazine November 2016