Get ready…Get set…Go for Florida’s state saltwater fish!
It’s finally here: November, start of sailfish season in South Florida. You wake up one morning and there’s a cool wind out of the north. Out on the reef, packs of spindlebeaks are heading south, black etchings in vivid sapphire seas. It’s the time of year when acrobatic billfish gyrate against the bluebird skies of our daydreams.
Truth is, November is a little early. For years, the traditional herald was the Fort Lauderdale Billfish Tournament, always held in November. Now they’ve moved it to late February, right in there with a boatload of other events, all hoping to grab headlines with record catches.
It’s a fact that peak Atlantic sailfish season—south of Fort Pierce, at any rate—really doesn’t begin until after the first of the new year. This coincides with a time when the passage of cold fronts settles into a 5- to 7-day rhythm. Ideal scenario, pretty much from Stuart to Key Largo, is northwest wind in the 20-knot range, clocking north, then northeast and settling down to something manageable for the fleet, say 15 knots or so. Usually this takes place in a span of 72 hours following the passage of a front. Some big boys fish right through the 20-knot northers, notching double-digit releases, but for anglers on vessels smaller than 30 feet, that kind of wind on the Gulf Stream kicks up waves challenging and dangerous.
Elsewhere in Florida, there are flurries of good sailfish bites during the summer along the Panhandle and West Central coast. The northeastern coastline, Jacksonville to Daytona, sees some great days in the fall. It’s our official state fish, after all. Still, the preponderance of headline-grabbing days occur during the winter in South Florida.
For anglers sitting on the sidelines, or perhaps awaiting trailer-boat weather on the Gulf side of the Florida Peninsula, it’s worth noting that a lot of sailfish hoopla is organized around maximal numbers of fish. There are guys who spend fantastic sums on boats and gear, not to mention baitfish. In reality, just catching one or two sailfish for simple enjoyment is no more difficult than baiting an oversize largemouth bass.
The real challenge is twofold: one, getting your baits to the fish, and two, getting the fish to your boat.
Getting to the sailfish is largely a matter of timing—either timing a good bite, or putting in the time to catch scattered fish. Bodies of sailfish seem to show up simultaneously at different points along the southeast Florida coastline. There may be a hot bite reported north of Fort Pierce, while at the same time boats off Key Largo are into action of their own. In between, anglers may be quietly picking away at isolated fish. In an 8-hour day, on any given stretch of southeast Florida, between December and April, releasing a sailfish or two is expected.
To locate those flash points where you might catch 10 or more, it pays to keep an eye on Internet reports, such as the Florida Sportsman Forum.
Be mindful of the cyclical nature of the bite. I’ve found that if I hear it’s been hot for the last couple of days, odds are it’s on a downswing. The trick is identifying the scenario that led up to the action, and then watching the weather for a repeat.
Depth is a figure widely bantered about, but anglers who insist on finding a specific range may miss out on opportunities. Jupiter Inlet skipper George LaBonte, in his book “Sportsman’s Best: Sailfish,” proposes a triangle of factors to evaluate when looking for winter sails: water quality, structure and bait. I think that’s the best theory I’ve seen. If you haven’t read the book, and just want to toss out some baits and try your luck, 90 to 200 feet is a good bet. From Stuart north, and Key Largo south, the shallow end may start in 70 feet—some days shallower, depending on the presence of bait pods (sardines to the north, ballyhoo to the south). In between these points—say between Palm Beach and North Miami—baitfish aren’t generally as abundant, and the sails tend to groove in a highway just outside the outer reefline, often demarcated by a transition from green to blue water. No surprise that the urbanized coastline, with diminished acreage of reefs and estuaries, sees less in the way of baitfish.
Which brings me back to the bait issue. Assuming you didn’t quit reading when I poo-pooed your favorite baits, here’s the deal.
Sailfish will strike artificial trolling lures, and thousands are landed each season on rigged dead trolling baits. Success here requires either a little bit of luck, or a lot of skill on the part of captain and angler.
Live bait requires only the allocation of time—some days, not much time at all.
Goggle-eyes (which you’ll hear about every day from now till April) are worth their weight under two conditions: one, kite fishing for numbers is your main objective, and two, no other supply of similar baits is readily available.
Goggle-eyes are extremely hardy baitfish, so much that tournament anglers pen them up for days, even weeks, feeding them to fortify them, building an iron-clad slime coat. At tournament time, these uber baits thrive in a round or oval livewell, and kick like crazy beneath a fishing kite. At the same time, they require lost sleep to catch—or lots of money to procure.
Blue runners of about 6 inches—not the big monsters—are a close second, followed by larger pilchards and herrings. The very small pilchards (4 inches or so) are acceptable flatline baits, but for the kites, you want something a bit heavier. All these guys you can catch on sabiki rigs at local “bait stops,” or purchase from livebait boats stationed near area inlets.
Now, for flatlines or deep lines, pretty much anything that kicks will do. I may be accused of heresy in saying this, but a kite is really unnecessary for winter sailfishing. If you’re into big numbers, yes, but if catching your first is the goal, the kite is optional. Baits fished right out of the rodtips catch plenty.
Sailfish nearly always hunt straight into the current—which means most days on the Gulf Stream, their long noses are pointed south. If you have a strong north wind, your flatlines—baits fished right out of the rodtips—will lie to the north. That means they’re the baits fish are likely to see first.
On days with winds below 10 knots, when the sails may be cruising deep, a line rigged up with a sinker often gets hit first. I always start a spread with a bait behind a 2-ounce egg sinker, about 40 feet beneath the surface. I push a 3-inch loop of shock leader (see sidebar) through the sinker, then stop it with a segment of rubber band. The sinker falls off at the strike.
In the absence of anything too unusual (a pilchard dragging a 5-pound blob of weeds comes to mind), what a sailfish sees, it tends to eat. Or at least attempts to eat.
My current boat sits in a dead-end canal, far from the inlet, and every morning there’s a school of mullet right there. Two tosses of the castnet, and we’re sailfishing. I can’t help laughing as we clear the inlet, listening to the radio as folks ask where the greenies are, or who’s selling baitfish today. Drive a 5/0 to 7/0 hookpoint up through the lips of a mullet for drifting or slow-trolling, and you’re in business. The best mullet for sailfishing tend to be 6 to 8 inches in length; much bigger than that, and the fish have a hard time swallowing them.
Live ballyhoo, too, are super easy to fish. In the Florida Keys, ballyhoo fishing has reached the status of art form, but the sleek baits work anywhere they are found.
Broward County, for instance, has a series of reefs just off the beach, in 15 to 30 feet of water, that tend to hold ballyhoo in winter. That county also has a 7-foot castnet limit, which may be silly, but it’s the law. You can anchor up—or tie off to mooring buoys—and start a chumslick with block chum. When the ballyhoo fill in, they’re easy to catch on tiny (number 12 or so) longshank panfish hooks, often called hairhooks, tipped with a bit of cut shrimp. If it’s calm you may need a little bobber to float your bait away from the boat; when it’s windy, you can sort of “sail” your hair hook back to the ballyhoo. It’s fun. Once you have a dozen or so, a good way to fish a live ballyhoo is to slide a 1-inch segment of plastic soda straw on your leader; pin the hook down through the lower jaw, then slide the straw over hookshank and bill.
Hooked mullet and ballyhoo sometimes aren’t as active as pilchards, goggle-eyes and the like. If your drift is such that you aren’t getting separation between your baits and your boat—and the baits are lollygagging—it can pay to use the engines to “bump” forward now and then. On the other hand, if the drift is really screaming along, or your boat tends to drift uncomfortably stern-to in the chop, a collapsible sea anchor hitched to a forward cleat can bring things under control. For baits that tend to dive, or run beneath your hull (runners and jacks come to mind), peg a foam float in place about four feet up the leader.
Once you have baits to the sailfish, you have to think about getting sailfish to the boat. For as slow and awkward as they may seem when trying to eat your bait, sailfish are explosive, determined fighters that will challenge tackle, angler and helmsmanship.
Hooking one all but requires a dropback (see sidebar), and you’ll need teamwork among angler, mate and captain. A typical sailfish that’s solidly hooked in the jaw will make a sudden, drag-scorching run, followed by lots of jumps. You can never guess in which direction those antics will take them, and so it’s vital that the angler be prepared to pick up line quickly in the event the fish comes at the boat. It’s also vital the captain be prepared to take evasive manuevering, to avoid a fish in the boat. Similarly, the skipper has to be ready to chase down a really wild fish. There’s a reason why sailfish reels hold 300 or 400 yards of line—an unattended fish on a hot run can take it all. Here again, the angler has to keep a tight line.
Nowadays most anglers agree that a quick end-game is best. That means getting “on the fish” as quickly as possible. A plastic-handle “safety knife” or other sharp tool can be used to quickly cut the leader close to the fish. A tired sailfish, or one that’s detained for a boat-side photograph, may be dehooked with pliers, once you safely have gloved hands on its bill. Revive by pulling the fish forward just above idle, then release away from the boat. Always—always—focus on keeping the fish’s head in the water. That keeps the fish oxygenated, and keeps the sabre directed away from your own vitals.
When a sailfish gets his wind, there’s no telling where he’ll go.
A Sailfish Outfit
When chasing a fish that can swim 60 mph and weigh 100 pounds, line capacity and drag quality are big considerations. A typical sailfish reel is a graphite-body leverdrag reel costing just shy of $200. Spinners fall into the same price range. Rods are 6 to 7 feet, rated for 10- to 30-pound-test line. Most anglers fish 20-pound-test monofilament. A few tournaments require 12-pound.
Terminal Leader: 6 to 15 feet of 40- to 80-pound-test monofilament “shock leader.” Some use fluorocarbon on slow days. Tie to your main line by way of: 1) First making a Bimini twist or spider hitch in the fishing line, followed by a low-profile knot such as the “No-Name,” or 2) Tie directly to the line with the strongest knot you can master, such as a back-to-back uni. The long shock leader is necessary to protect against line-breakage from that abrasive bill and tail. It also provides a hand-hold at boatside. Knots are better than swivels because you can reel the leader through the guides, directly onto the reel.
Dropbacks and Circle Hooks
Whether you’re fishing a pilchard you purchased, a mullet you cast-netted, a ballyhoo you hair-hooked or some other bait, one technique you’ll need to consider is the dropback.
A leverdrag trolling reel comes with a built-in dropback—you back the drag off and engage the clicker. When a fish takes the bait, let him run a few seconds, pick up the rod, get the tip pointed in his direction, then push the lever to strike. Reel up tight before driving the hook home. Disengage the clicker while fighting.
Spinning rods need some sort of line-holder near the reel seat. You can use a strap-on gadget such as the Du-Bro line release, or a wrapped piece of copper wire, with a crook in the end. Fish with the bail open, and the line held just tightly enough to keep the bait in position, but loosely enough that a strike will pull it free.
The trouble with the dropback is, too little time means missed hookups; too long, a potential gut-hooking. For this reason, circle hooks are now popular among the tournament and charter fleet, and there’s really no reason for a casual angler not to use them. Generally it’s best to size up from a J-hook—say a 7/0, for baits you might normally use with a 5/0 shortshank J-hook. Remember not to jab with the rod when setting up on a circle hook.
Treble hooks, as commonly used in “kingfish rigs,” are prohibited when targeting billfish with natural bait.
For small, soft baits such as pilchards, you can hook them directly with the circle hook—through the nostrils or up through the lips. For larger baits, it may be best to bridle-rig with either a tiny rubber band or rigging floss.
In the event you wish to keep a sailfish, you must possess a Highly Migratory Species (HMS) vessel permit and report your landings at (800) 894-5528. These cost around $26, and are available online at www.hmspermits.gov or by calling (888) 872-8862. Even if you don’t want to keep a sail, you should buy a permit each year, in case you land a yellowfin tuna, swordfish or other federally regulated species.
Size limit for sailfish is 63 inches, measured from lower jaw to the fork of the tail. Florida daily bag limit for all billfish is one per person.
Sailfish for Everyone
How can you see all this, if you don’t have your own boat?
One way is to hire one of the hundreds of charterboats between Fort Pierce and the Florida Keys.
Volunteering as an unpaid observer at a South Florida tournament is another great way to see all the skills in action.
You might also chime in on one of the regional groups on the Florida Sportsman Forum. Because of the team nature of sailfishing, many boat-owners are happy to bring along a newbie to help out. You might become a kite-fishing master by offering to scrub the deck.
With populations of these spectacular billfish continuing to rise, and numerous opportunities to enjoy them, there’s no wonder why sailfish remain Florida’s official state saltwater fish.