May 16, 2011
Tournament anglers broke with tradition and stumbled into amazing sailfish action.
To many anglers, Fort Lauderdale may still seem like a little brother to the well-muscled sailfish centers of Stuart, Palm Beach, Miami and the Keys.
But look again. An aggressive artificial reef program centered in 90 to 300 feet of water has attracted massive schools of baitfish, and, combined with modern livebait kite tactics, success is just about assured for the Lauderdale charter fleet and recreational boats alike.
Best of all, the sailfishing is fairly easy duty. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to fly a kite, and fishermen who can't catch their own bait can always fork over $50 for a dozen goggle-eyes most any day of the season from the bait boats inside Port Everglades Inlet.
Sails are caught here year-round, although winter winds from the north and northeast can move more bait and sailfish into the area and into shallower waters, invoking the classic east coast sailfish bite. A good color change or current rip is what to look for, and, for lack of that, the artificial reefs provide a common sense alternative.
All that's well and good, but the truth is weekend warriors--like tournament anglers--can't always count on ideal conditions. Making do with what's out there--and keeping an open mind as to the possibilities_is critical to success.
That concept was driven home recently at the Fort Lauderdale Billfish Tournament, which I had the good fortune to fish.
Our captain John Wilson, a light-tackle guide from Stuart, had received instructions from an unnamed Lauderdale old-timer who informed in hushed tones, "Six hundred feet and forget the kite. Just flatlines and balloons."
Mike Bumpus and I thought it sounded pretty deep for sailfish, but that's where we were headed. Neither of us knew for certain whether the fellow was pulling our leg or offering honest-to-goodness advice, but we were a long way from the money and willing to at least test the suggestion.
As we later discovered, Deep Throat was right on target, and we had a better shot at winning the thing than we realized. Also, we weren't the only boat to engage in the supposedly covert operation. Indeed, one private boat of young weekenders and two out-of-town charterboats tallied 21 releases in a day's action in 600 to 700 feet. The three boats also swept the top spots.
Jimmy and Freddie David nailed 10 fish before the 26-foot Frick & Frack lost battery power. They drifted in to shallow water, where they lucked into another three fish while waiting for a tow.
John Dudas, captain of the 46-foot charterboat L&H based in Key Biscayne, led his anglers to a half-dozen fish far offshore that same afternoon--enough to clinch second plac--and he ended up dragging Frick & Frack and its crew of victorious brothers back to RJs Landing.
When the duo hit the dock, all eyes were on the release flags above Frick & Frack's T-top. They were festooned with more red than a Chinese Valentine's Day party.
For quite some time after the tournament, a popular item of discussion in sportfishing circles was "What in the world happened out there in the wild blue yonder off Port Everglades?"
Capt. Gary Dippold and Hillsboro Marine Fishing Team took third place with nine releases, five on the second day, and he was one of the first to cross the 600-foot line.
"What led me to the deeper water was the weather conditions," he said. "I fished the Mako Masters off Palm Beach a few years ago and we won it with 13 releases. On some days off that part of the coast, you hit 400 or 500 feet before the swells start to get big. Off Lauderdale, that same thing happened at 600 feet this year. We had a mild cold front pass over, and when we got out there it was d‚j… vu. We stopped to talk, looked down, saw three sailfish swimming next to the boat, and said, 'This is it!'"
Wilson, Bumpus and I found many of the same conditions in that deep water. As the line on our depthfinder approached the 600 mark, a fleet of flying fish skittered out from our path--the first we'd seen. Good sign, I remember thinking. Sails are tops among the handful of predators equipped with the lightning speed necessary for running down the glittering popsicles.
The water looked productive, too--indigo blue, freckled with scattered bulbs of sargassum and the odd piece of migrant flotsam. Even though the Gulf Stream was shuffling its unseen feet at no more than two knots, we'd at least found some localized, wind-generated current.
Dudas, Dippold and the Davids were fishing a little farther south of us and they chattered over the VHF all day, reporting releases to the tournament committee boat.
Our team didn't get anywhere near the top tallies, although we raised two fish and released one closer to shore, but we fished the same methods--drifting live baits on flatlines and under kites. We also used basically the same baits--pilchards and goggle-eyes. Quite simply, the other guys scored and we didn't. On the other hand, neither did several other viable contenders, including many members of the local charter industry.
Capt. Joe Kane, a 15-year veteran who runs the 36-foot Sandbob from the Radisson Bahia Mar Charter Fleet, was just one of many experts puzzled by the turn of events.
"The tournament was not consistent with the usual pattern here," he said. "We're usually in between 125 and 250 feet, looking for a color change, but we've had lots of south current this year, and that's thrown a monkey wrench into fishing by the numbers."
Normally, Kane catches lots of sailfish off Lauderdale in winter, with 5-release days considered good. His preferred method, used by many charterboats, is kite fishing with a live goggle-eye that's bridled to a livebait hook with floss or Dacron through the back between the pectoral and dorsal fins. Another favorite is a lower lip-hooked live ballyhoo slow-trolled off an outrigger. Other baits that he uses for kites and flatlines, depending on availability, are bullet bonitos, blue runners, pilchards, speedos and tinker mackerel, many of which can be caught with sabikis or small jigs near marker buoys and inshore structure.
"I like a hard current change," Kane explained. "Noticeable signs of current will have a color break, hopefully inside 200 feet. If it's outside 300, depending on conditions, more often than not I'll sit over the reef in closer."
Operating a large, twin-inboard-powered vessel, Kane powerdrifts with his nose into the wind. Smaller boats may deploy a sea anchor to help moderate the drift.
Although things do get flip-flopped, as with the billfish tournament, these tactics are proven off Fort Lauderdale. Sometimes the old guard gets caught off guard by a deeper bite, but even when that happens there's still a chance sails will pop up right where you'd normally expect
We spent a few hours in 600 to 650 feet with nothing to show but a 10-pound dolphin, so we closed up shop and headed for 140 feet to work our way inside with the easterly wind for kingfish. When we got there, we spotted a boat releasing a sailfish, and so we skipped the wire traces and sent out two more pilchards and our last goggle-eye on straight 60-pound monofilament under floating balloons. Over went the makeshift sea anchor--a 5-gallon bucket tied to a length of rope.
I figured the sailfish was a freak catch, so I rigged up a 12-pound spinning rod with a 2-ounce deep-jig and a double-hooked dead ballyhoo. Wouldn't you know it--as soon as the jig touched bottom I saw a purple shadow hovering beneath the farthest red balloon.
"Sailfish on the long bait!" I yelled, frantically retrieving line from my kingfish project, which then seemed a trifle silly.
Before John could grab the rod to feed any sort of dropback, the balloon took off zipping across the water, the line came tight and Whammo! the fish was on.
Ten minutes and several hundred yards of line later, Mike Bumpus reached over the side and leadered the fish--a real bruiser. We tagged and released our single in just 100 feet of water, then spent the remainder of the day listening to the VHF reports from lucky livebaiters outside.
"For Pete's sake, they're still at it!" John laughed.
The whole scenario stinks of something I once heard from Nick Smith, a Palm Beach sailfish master, at the West Palm Beach Florida Sportsman Fishing Show last year.
"So many anglers get bent out of shape when they don't see exactly what they've read about in magazines and books," he remarked in his seminar. Smith went on to describe various things such as weedlines, tidelines, thermoclines and all the other standard mumbo jumbo, but he finished his lecture with a simple summary: "But wherever you see a sailfish, that's where they are."
His comment was not aimed at insulting the intelligence of his audience, and they didn't take it that way, either. I watched many experienced anglers rub their lips and narrow their eyes in deep thought.
Is it such a gamble to leave fishless waters? When there's nothing to lose, heading a little farther offshore just might be the ticket.
Don't mistake my words: Nobody's saying that Florida's sailfish are moving into deeper waters permanently. To the contrary, they'll probably hang out over the Lauderdale reefs and color changes the rest of this winter, and you can bet Capt. Kane and other skippers will continue to rack up releases and keep this part of the coast high on the list of sailfishing destinations.
Fortune simply chose to smile on the risk-takers at this year's tournamant. They were in the right place with the right techniques at the right time.
On the other hand, there's no doubt there will come another day when the current is light, the reefs are empty and the radio is silent. You won't see any color change, flying fish, birds, weedlines or any of the usual signs of fish.
When that day arrives, hopefully you'll ask yourself the simple question: Is 600 feet really too deep for sailfish?
You'll never know what's out there until you have a look.
Try the Light Wire
On the subject of livebait rigging for sailfish, the new light-wire, offset, super-sharp hooks with upturned eyes merit some discussion. The design originated in salmon fishing, of all things, but it's ideal for sailfishing.
When you're fishing a delicate bait like a pilchard or threadfin, a heavy hook cripples the action. It also expedites the destruction of tissues in the bait's back or lips, depending on where you've pinned the hook. Personally, I prefer hooking flatline pilchards through the nose, and that's almost impossible with a chunky hook, especially with smaller baits. Live ballyhoo, too, swim much more naturally with the light wire stuck in their lower jaw.
Many captains fish Eagle Claw Lazer-Sharp L194s in the 3/0 to 6/0 sizes on 20-pound spinning tackle, and not one has complained of the hooks straightening under pressure, so I'm pretty keen on the little hooks. Owner and Mustad make similar hooks, and there are doubtless others, too. The hooks are sharp right out of the package, and the light wire penetrates easily with a minimum of hookset.