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A Beginner's Guide to the Fundamentals of Kite Fishing

Here's a flight plan with everything you need to know to start kite fishing for sailfish and more.

A Beginner's Guide to the Fundamentals of Kite Fishing

In Southeast Florida, fishermen eagerly await the arrival of brisk north winds that push the main body of sailfish south of Stuart, where live baiting is the preferred technique. (Photo by Steve Dougherty)

  • Steve Dougherty is Managing Editor of Florida Sportsman magazine.

Late winter and early spring usher in windy weather to Florida, stirring up rough seas and coinciding with heightened nearshore billfish activity. From Jupiter to the Florida Keys, sailfish tournaments dot the weekends until the season tapers off in March. Despite some of the world’s most competitive tournaments taking place locally, catching sailfish doesn’t necessitate a large vessel or a crew of paid mates. Success lies not in the extravagance of equipment but in the mastery of fundamental skills and an assertive approach to this dynamic fishery.

Kite fishing, though appearing intricate, is a skill that can be mastered without insurmountable challenges. Armed with the appropriate gear, anglers can transform themselves into adept puppeteers. Kite rods, approximately 3 feet in total length from butt to the single guide at the tip, are designed to be compact and stiff. This construction enables them to withstand the intense pressure generated by aerodynamic forces on the kite.

In the early days of kite fishing, anglers manually cranked kites using a Penn Senator or a comparable conventional reel equipped with a large-diameter spool, ensuring optimal line retrieval. Today, power-assist reels like the Daiwa Tanacom 1000 and Hooker Electric 30-wide kite reels are favored for their superior efficiency. When the task involves bringing in the kite multiple times throughout the day, electric assist reels make a big difference. And that’s all this outfit is used for: deploying and retrieving the fishing kite.

First seconds of kite deployment demand special attention. Don’t forget to keep your hands on the release clips while letting out the kite. Black’s clips are available pre-drilled for a three-line spread. (Photo by Steve Dougherty)

The kite reel is spooled with braided line, and progressively larger barrel swivels are integrated into the mainline to trolley release clips at predetermined distances. Braided line is the preferred choice due to its minimal stretch, particularly effective up to around 25 knots of wind. However, in extremely windy conditions, monofilament is preferred because its inherent stretch becomes an advantage.

As the kite is deployed away from the boat, the first swivel, designed to navigate through two release clips with pre-drilled holes of progressively diminishing diameter, exits the reel and securely engages the first release clip, positioned approximately 100 feet from the kite. Next, a slightly larger swivel tied into the mainline passes through the closest release clip, effectively locking on and transporting the middle release clip. Finally, the largest swivel on the kite reel locks onto the short kite clip, establishing three release clips with an 80-foot separation between each.

You can assemble your own kite line and clip array, but you can also buy a fully rigged set up built to tournament standards. A recent recipient of the prestigious IGFA Tommy Gifford Award, Captain Ray Rosher, of Miami, sells pre-rigged kite line kits through his R&R Tackle company. The rigs are spooled on yo-yos comprising 80-pound braid with 80 foot spacing between three kite clips. Simply attach it onto your kite reel’s mainline and you are about ready for your first flight.

Fishing kites are constructed from lightweight fabric, featuring diagonal spars of carbon and graphite for structural support and optimal wind-catching capabilities. The Tigress all-purpose kite stands out for its versatility, ensuring stable flight performance across different wind conditions. SFE offers a variety of high-quality fishing kites, while Captain Jimmy Lewis’ kites are renowned for their reliability in maintaining steady flight in gale-force conditions.

Kites do not fly on their own; anglers need to assess the wind conditions and make adjustments to the bridle accordingly. Even a subtle 1/8th of an inch modification can significantly impact the kite’s altitude. Pulling the bridle away from the kite will dump wind and force the kite to fly higher in the sky. Conversely, pushing the bridle toward the kite will increase wind capture, making the kite to fly at a lower altitude. When the breeze falters, the introduction of a 36-inch helium balloon is the only option to keep the kite aloft. Depending on the attachment point of the balloon, anglers can influence the kite to bank left or right, a valuable skill when eventually progressing to flying multiple kites simultaneously.

fishing boat flying a kite
Attaching a helium balloon to the top right corner will force the kite to bank left. (Photo by Steve Dougherty)

In the past, we utilized intricate “kite thongs” or secured balloons with rigging floss and electrical tape. However, a recent practice involves directly tying the balloons to the kite spar, yielding excellent results. This method offers the advantage of easy untying with a single overhand knot, allowing for a couple uses of the relatively expensive balloons. Whether using helium or relying on ample wind, maintaining the kite at approximately a 25-degree angle above the water is crucial. If the kite rises too high, the reduced distance between baits increases the risk of them swimming into each other.

Center consoles allow 360-degree fishability and many captains choose to drift, deploying a sea anchor to orient the bow into the wind or allowing the boat to slide beam-to the sea. When employing a side-to drift, anglers can effectively present a spread of flat lines and weighted baits on the upwind side of the boat, while simultaneously allowing the kite to present live baits on the surface on the downwind side. This technique is favored during the summertime when the focus shifts from sailfish to species like cobia, mackerel, mahi, and blackfin tuna.

By keeping the bow into the wind, kite baits are strategically positioned out the stern. This enables the swift retrieval of the sea anchor, allowing the helmsman to maneuver the boat efficiently when hooked sailfish need to be released promptly. This approach is healthier for sailfish compared to dead-boating, as extended fight times can lead to exhaustion, increasing the risk of shark depredation.

A sea anchor helps slow the boat’s drift when wind overpowers the current. Trip line easily collapses the parachute. (Photo by Steve Dougherty)

When preparing to launch the kite, ensure you’re positioned where the wind is unobstructed. If you’re fishing from the stern of a vessel without a pedestal rocket launcher, place the kite rod in a rod holder, ideally mid-ship near the leaning post. Gradually back the drag with your hand, utilizing a lever drag with Hooker Electric Penn or Shimano, a star drag with Daiwa, and maintain tension on the mainline while gently holding the kite in your other hand.


Observe the angle and slowly release the kite, allowing it to distance itself from the boat. Keep a hand on the three release clips to prevent them from moving up the line. Avoid fully opening the drag to freespool; there must be continuous tension on the line to prevent the kite from falling out of the sky. A water impact is catastrophic since wet kites don’t fly.

As the first swivel on the kite reel approaches the first release clip, secure the ring from the long fishing outfit into the release clip. The release clip tension will vary based on wind strength and weight of the bait. Perform a test pull with your hands and adjust cautiously; only a ¼ turn or less at a time.

kite fishing tackle
The size of the bait and its fishing position (long, middle, or short) are key considerations in rigging. Heaviest weight goes on the farthest bait. For scale baits, a nose bridle is recommended. (Photos by Steve Dougherty)

Before continuing with the kite, it’s crucial to ensure the fishing reel is in freespool with the clicker engaged, and the hook is securely fastened to a guide foot or hook keeper. Gradually loosen the kite drag to the point where it starts slipping and watch the fishing rod to ensure there’s no tip wrapping or any other impediment that might hinder the release of line from the reel.

Some anglers opt to walk out two or three rods at once. They then bridle the baits and gradually skip them out to their respective positions, reeling in the belly of line until the baits hang straight up and down. While this is suitable under calm conditions, if you’re using a light release clip tension, it’s more advisable to bridle the baits and “fish them out” with the kite.

The positioning of the kite rod is critical to prevent tangles. It should always be farthest away from the long fishing rod and closest to the short rod. Once the kite is set and the boat is strategically positioned, the angler coordinates a symphony of three fishing rods, each hosting a live bait—ranging from goggle-eyes to sardines, threadfin herring, pilchards, or blue runners. As a standard practice, it is common to fish a heavier bait like a goggle-eye or blue runner in the long position to help stabilize the kite.

A full tank of threadfin herring. (Photo by Steve Dougherty)

An assemblage of 20-pound class conventional reels with high-speed gear ratios, high-vis monofilament and 7-foot rods with fast tips forms the backbone of this performance. At the terminal end, rigging starts with a 30-turn Bimini twist. Thread on a free-sliding solid ring that will connect to the release clip, an easily visible float, a small egg sinker, then a plastic bead to protect the knot attaching a snap swivel and 15-foot length of 40-pound leader material culminating in a 6/0 circle hook. The long leader helps to protect the 20-pound mainline, but also makes it easier for mates to stretch out and touch the leader, which is required to certify for most tournament releases. Fifteen feet is the longest permissible leader for line classes up to and including 20-pound test per IGFA regulations.

Baitfish are secured to circle hooks using rubber bands and open eye rigging needles, ensuring that the hook is fully exposed and cannot double back into the flesh of the bait. This is achieved by threading the band through either the eye socket or just forward of the dorsal fin. Rigging bands and needles are easily accessible, either online or at most tackle shops in Southeast Florida.

fish hooked
When a hooked threadfin herring bait starts cartwheeling under the kite, a strike is imminent. (Photo by Steve Dougherty)

Striking the right balance in bait and weight is essential. Excessive weight can impede the natural swimming motion of the bait and hinder your ability to drop back effectively. On the other hand, insufficient weight leaves the line vulnerable to the wind, making it difficult to keep the bait in the water. The key lies in adopting a progressive reduction in weight along the kite leaders for the long, middle, and short bait. A good starting point is a 1-ounce lead for the long bait, ¾-ounce for the middle, and ½-ounce for the short.

For vessels without multiple rod holders in close proximity, an aluminum trident offers a solution by converting a single rod holder into three. This set up facilitates the easy deployment and management of long, middle, and short baits. Vigilance is paramount as the kite rises and falls, demanding constant attention and ensuring every rod is within arm’s reach to keep live baits in the water and corks out of the water. The bright cork serves solely as a visual indicator and is not a bobber. If the cork is floating on the surface, there’s a risk of feeding sailfish getting their bills wrapped in the 15-foot leader.

As the excitement builds, a sailfish bite becomes inevitable. In the past, the drop back was considered a universal countdown, but sailfish may squish and hold a bait in their mouth for 30 seconds or engulf it suddenly and hightail it for the horizon. Every bite is different; the key is maintaining perfect tension, balancing patience and promptness. When the time is right, engage the drag and slowly reel while lifting the rod tip as the release clip pops.

Consider a scenario where the long bait gets a bite. Given that sailfish typically feed into the current and the wind is likely from an east or north quadrant, when the line pops out of the release clip, it may fall across the middle rod’s leader and funnel right into the gap of the circle hook. In a proactive measure, the angler dropping back on the fish should communicate to someone to lift the middle and possibly the short bait entirely out of the water. This allows the taut line with the sailfish connected to pass underneath the other hooks. Once clear, the other baits can be dropped back into the water, where there’s hope of hooking a second or third sailfish.

The Atlantic sailfish offers an ideal introduction to billfishing and kite fishing. Beginners can start with one or two baits, gradually progressing to more advanced kite deployment. Before long, anglers can confidently fish with two or three kites, each carrying three to four baits.

  • This article was published in the February 2024 issue of Florida Sportsman magazine. Click to subscribe.

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