February 03, 2023
By Doug Olander
I confess that I’m fond of calm-weather fishing. It’s just so easy and comfortable, and life at the ocean’s surface is so visible. But a foray to blue water off Miami last May called for wind, and wind we got.
For our first day out, we had a manageable 15 or so knots. On the second day it blew a puffy 20 to 25. The gusts made our skipper—Capt. Jimbo Thomas aboard his Thomas Flyer (www.thomasflyerfishingcharters.com)—smile.
Jimbo’s a kite guy. Anyone who’s ever been told to “Go fly a kite” knows it takes a decent breeze, at the least, to get that piece of fabric up and keep it up. I couldn’t see that would be a problem on this trip.
FIRST CHALLENGE: CATCHING LIVIES
In fact, a stiff wind is widely associated with Florida sailfish action, particularly in the winter and spring, when out of the north. This wind was more easterly, but still, any wind can produce, if not sails then other pelagics. And can do so any time of the year. But our visit in May put us in a peak period. Jimbo says best sailfishing months used to be January, February and March, but a changing climate has meant April and May nowadays can be at least as good.
Jimbo and his bro (literally, his bro) Rick—who would be our first and only mate—were on board the Thomas Flyer, a highly customized 42-foot Post, at Bayside Marina in downtown Miami at 6:30 a.m. ready to rock and roll. To say the Thomas brothers are experienced at this would be an understatement since they’ve been taking anglers out to catch gamefish off Miami since 1981, the year Jimbo acquired the Thomas Flyer. Joining me were Floridians Paul Macinnis, a keen angler of Merritt Island, Jason Arnold of Ft. Lauderdale, and Scott Salyers of Miami.
There are days when getting enough good live baits can be more difficult than getting gamefish bites, and this was one of those. We spent at least a couple of hours running from spot to spot trying to find the baitfish that, just a couple of days ago, had been thick. We stopped around markers in 15 or so feet of water, and all hands were quickly on deck to drop sabiki rigs. With bait scarce, we couldn’t keep Rick as busy unhooking live baits into the baitwell as we would have liked. But over time, we managed, with quite a few large herring. Those, Jimbo says, are the bait of choice for most everything. But Rick gladly shook off into the well other species that we caught, notably goggle-eyes (scads), cigar minnows, pilchards and small blue runners. All work well enough. Small grunts, that were abundant, not so much; those went back over the side. Just in case, Rick cast-netted a good batch of ballyhoo. But ballyhoo, Jimbo says, aren’t particularly good for kite baits. “They’re not strong enough swimmers to keep themselves in the water (as herring will).”
When our perseverance prevailed, and we finally had—while far from a full baitwell—enough live herring and other schooling prey species to go fishing. Jimbo and Rick have been kite fishermen for decades, well before it was all the rage; in the cockpit, Rick stays busy keeping kites up and baited, while at the helm, Jimbo keeps the boat straight.
Smaller, open boats (center consoles) typically drift-fish, using a sea anchor to stay abeam the wind and fly kites off one side (facing the drift), while deploying flat lines (top and bottom) off the other side (facing the wind). However large inboard sportfish vessels, such as the Flyer, stay nose-into-wind and fly kite lines off both sides of the boat, deploying flat lines off the transom.
Soon I could see two kites up. And two drop lines off each line.
In short order, I could see two kites up and two drop lines with baits off each kite line, easily visible thanks to a bright orange or green unweighted float attached to the drop lines well above the water. A small (usually ½- to 1-ounce) egg sinker below the float helps keep the bait in the water and not dangling above the surface. (The Flyer has kite lines rigged to take up to three kites each, but typically, Jimbo says, they’ll stick with two kites per line, as on this day.) Barely after Rick had the fourth bait out, one of the lines went off, yanked out of the clip that attached it to the kite line, by—what? Paul had a good fish, one which proved a handful with the Daiwa Saltiga lever-drag outfit spooled with 20-pound mono that the Thomas brothers favor. The fact that the fish stayed down, fighting with brute power and a telltale vibration told us it was a blackfin tuna, as indeed it was—and a good one at 20 to 25 pounds. (The blackfin, Thunnus atlanticus, is found in warm western Atlantic waters, and is Florida’s most popular tuna species; the world-record 49-pound, 6-ounce fish came from the Florida Keys in 2006.)
Spring is definitely blackfin time, Jimbo explained from the bridge, as Rick held up Paul’s prize, in the cockpit.
CATCHING ROYALTY: A QUEEN AND A KING
While Jimbo bumped the engines forward just enough to keep the bow into the swell, I dropped a slow-pitch jig to bottom (about 100 feet below). But we weren’t fishing the kite baits over any specific structure, and the smooth bottom produced little action. I did get one hard strike, at one point, and came up with a prize of sorts: a large and magnificently colored queen triggerfish. Queen triggers are common in the Bahamas, but pretty infrequent along Florida’s coast.
While I was jigging in the starboard corner, a weighted flat line on the port gunwale started bouncing. Paul, always ready, grabbed it and came up with another species of coastal pelagic: the omnipresent kingfish (king mackerel—Scomberomorus cavalla). The speedy fish made a couple good runs before succumbing to Rick’s quick gaff job. Clearly, Rick had toothy kingfish in mind when he put out that flat line since he used a wire leader and a treble hook—a standard rig for kings. As with the blackfin, we bled the king and put it right on ice; later, at home, I would turn it into golden-brown, alder-smoked chunks.
Had the wind died out—windless days are not unusual off South Florida, particularly in the summer—Rick could have kept kites up with helium. On such days, it’s common to see kites high over boats, buoyed aloft by very large yellow helium-filled balloons, though Jimbo says, “We don’t usually bother with helium, unless we’re fishing a tournament.”
The opposite situation—too much wind—is unlikely. “If we can make it out there [in rough seas], we can fish the kites,” Jimbo laughs. Fortunately, kite makers offer kites designed for high winds (so, for example, SFE offers a model with 40 small-diameter holes designed to fly in winds of up to 30 mph). Jimbo says they use such kites with at least 100-pound braid on the kite line (but go down to 50-pound with light winds/light kites); they can also adjust kite bridles to accommodate stiff winds.
About the only time other than flat-calm days when the Thomas Flyer doesn’t have a kite up is on rainy days. “If it’s raining,” Jimbo explains, “the kites won’t fly: They get wet and heavy, and go for a swim.”
When the next strike came it was again one of the kite lines. From his vantage point on the bridge, Jimbo hollered, “Sail on a kite bait, left side!” I strained to see it but couldn’t. Apparently, it missed the livey but then rushed another bait, frantic at the surface nearby. I knew it had clobbered that bait when the float started heading down after the clip let the main line go. The circle hook did its job as I snatched the rod out of the gunwale holder.
Almost at once, the big sailfish went into its dance, leaping out of the marching swells, to the delight of all. Once boatside, the fish received a spaghetti tag and was sent on its way. So we now had a coastal-pelagic slam of sorts, with a tuna, king mackerel and a sailfish.
As much as I hate to ruin any suspense, no: We caught no additional major species that day. Of course, it’s pelagics that patrol the upper water level—sails, mackerel, tunas, mahi, wahoo—that are the likeliest kite candidates. But make no mistake, Jimbo says: Everything will eat kite baits.
“I’ve caught grouper on the kite,” he says. He mentions a large black grouper in 120 feet of water that grabbed a live bait under the kite, right on the surface, and says he’s caught mutton snapper, amberjack, cobia and more species with kites. “Those aren’t regular catches, but they’re definitely not unheard of.”
The Thomas Flyer is a Miami charterboat very much in demand; it’s out fishing offshore many more days than it’s at the dock. Any of those fishing days when kites are not flying overhead are few and far between. Almost always, whatever sort of fishing the brothers are pursuing, “We’ll have kites out,” Jimbo says. You can be sure there’s very good reason for that. FS
5 KITE-FISHING TIPS:
- Instead of the commonly used small balloon on kite spar, used to keep it afloat if it hits the drink, try a small section of pool noodle. No need to blow ‘em up each time; put them on and leave them on your kites.
- Keep clip tension tight enough so lines don’t pop out unexpectedly or when you’re shaking off seaweed.
- Don’t hesitate to put on thin (No. 5 stainless) steel bite leader when kings or wahoo are about unless you’re after blackfin. Other than tuna (and not always tuna), other pelagics aren’t put off by thin wire (and of course most of your leader will be above the surface, anyway).
- Avoid long dropbacks after a strike; too many anglers drop way back and feed the fish too long.
- Make sure the boat is kicking slightly ahead as you deploy a livey, so it can’t simply swim right back and hide under the boat.
Published Florida Sportsman Magazine February 2022