May 16, 2011
By David Trafton
Gearing up for the winter bite or just enjoying the summer calm? Here's how to catch South Florida sailfish now.
By David Trafton
Just over a mile off Key Biscayne, a sailfish is posed before release.
One of the best reasons to target South Florida sailfish in summer is that very few other boats will be doing it. Most will be running and gunning well offshore in search of dolphin and tuna, leaving the fishing grounds known as “the edge” just outside of the reef (normally a parking lot on weekends during the high season), a desolate tract of ocean all to yourself. Don't get me wrong, I love chasing birds and scouting the open ocean from Government Cut to The Bahamas just as much as the next guy, but with the rising cost of fuel, and the time commitment involved, sometimes it's nice to only run a couple of miles, shut the engines down and drift the edge on a calm summer day. From what we've seen the last few years in Miami, that means a chance at a summertime sailfish.
There is no mistaking their presence. Some experts believe our year-round sailfish prospects signal an increase in the stocks. It's hard arguing with that. Captain Ray Rosher, a tournament-winning Miami charterboat skipper, summed up this theory pretty well: “Every year it seems like Miami is having a better season than the season before, and that carries over into the summer as well. A good barometer to draw an idea of where the population is heading is looking at the number of sailfish releases that are winning tournaments. It has more than tripled in the last 20 years. It's a combination of better anglers along with an increased awareness in release techniques that makes up these numbers. However, you can't overlook what improved conservation practices are doing for the population.” The day I spoke with Rosher, a National Marine Fisheries Service biologist was actually on his charterboat, Miss Britt, hoping to place satellite tags in sailfish to better understand their movements in late spring and summer
The most obvious difference between winter and summer in South Florida is the wind. It blows hard in the winter and typically out of the north, while in summer we have, for the most part, a light breeze from the southeast or no wind at all. I asked Rosher if he thought flying the kite was a necessity in the summer when targeting sails. “A kite is great, but not a necessity. Basically, a few flatlines and a few deep lines would cover it. The biggest difference in summer is that you're faced with a lot of calm days, so helium becomes a bigger issue if you really want to fly the kites. You have to be prepared for that.”
On calm days, it can pay to deploy a fishing kite with helium balloon attached.
I first happened across a summertime sail while bottom fishing a wreck in about 125 feet of water off of Key Biscayne. Our target was mutton snapper and grouper that afternoon. Small pilchards were sent down to entice a bite. After several drifts, watching my two buddies pull up a couple of snapper and one undersize grouper, I decided to rig a flatline to deploy on the next drift simply out of boredom. As we passed close to the wreck my buddy felt a strike while dropping his rig down. It felt like a big kingfish that pulled hard for a second or two then the line went slack. Thinking his line was cut, he began retrieving it while uttering a few choice words under his breath. Suddenly the surface exploded as a feisty sailfish shot skyward, tail over bill, head shaking back into the water. I told my friend to reel hard, that the fish was still on. As he was cranking with a vengeance to come tight on that fish, the flatline that I had forgotten all about began peeling off line. I quickly picked up the rod and with one turn of the handle the fish went airborne; sail number two on. There it was; a doubleheader of sailfish while bottom fishing in the dead of summer.
Catching threadfin herring inside Government Cut.
This leads us to our next tactical change that should be considered when targeting sailfish in the summer. Most local anglers know that in the winter and spring the bite could be best at any stretch of water along the edge. It usually corresponds to bait movement, water color and current. In summer, we don't have the same bait schools migrating along the reefline. This is when wrecks are especially viable for sailfishing. Like any type of fishing: Find the bait, you'll find the fish, and a wreck is a great place to start. Miami-Dade County hosts the largest numbers of wrecks of any county in the state. The government tally of charted wrecks does not take into account the “private” structures strategically placed with frequency throughout the 1970s and '80s. While many of these wrecks are a bit too shallow to attract sailfish, there are plenty of them from Bakers-Haulover Inlet on the north end to Triumph Reef on the southern end that are right in optimal sailfish depths. That range is from 100 to 180 feet of water. These are simply the most active depths and by no means the rule.
Locating sailfish solely based on water depth can be tricky. During the winter I have caught sailfish in as shallow as 35 feet, and last April during the Miami Billfish Tournament, by the second day the color change had pushed out to over 300 feet and that's where the bite was. However, that was very unusual for that time of year. As a guideline, the sails will be found shallower in the winter than in the summer. Rosher qualifies this in his assessment, “I would say that most of the time in the summer, you're going to find fish in deeper water depths than you would in the winter. There are days in the winter when we're catching them up in 50 feet to 100 feet, especially when there's hard current, blue water, north wind; they're tailing, trying to get out of the current, they're in tight. Since you don't have those conditions [in summer] you'll want to shift your approach to mostly between 150 and 300 feet.” The actual depth you target should be determined by the conditions of the water. “Obviously, zero current and dirty water are the worst two conditions. The fish become very lethargic, but in the summer don't be afraid to fish as deep as 400 feet or more.”
Nothing can compare to the acrobatics of a sailfish.
This brings us to the most crucial tactic to targe
ting summertime sails: flexibility.
|Summer Sardine Schools|
|Each year, usually beginning in August and continuing into September, schools of sardines mass well offshore in 1,000 to 1,200 feet of water. This may occur anywhere from Miami to Islamorada and beyond. You would never know it if you didn't venture out there, but packs of sailfish are often way out in the deep water balling and gorging on these baits. At times it resembles the fishing videos you see from Mexico. Capt. Ray Rosher has tapped into this situation with some measure of success. “It is not uncommon in August or September to go out to 1,000 feet and catch several fish off of one pod underneath the hawks [frigatebirds].” He does caution that a stealthy approach will yield better results, and often you'll find yourself sitting in the middle of the bait school with the sails slashing through. “This is a great opportunity at attempting to catch a sailfish on a fly rod. It has to be calm, and the conditions have to be right, but I actually have people that book me during August and September hoping for exactly that condition.” —D.T.|
You have to be able to change your game plan if something is not working. Too many times I hear anglers say, “Yesterday there was a great bite in 160 feet, so that's where I'm planting my boat today.” This unwillingness to adapt will send many boats back to the docks without seeing a fish. Gather as much information as you can about the previous days of fishing: the when, where, what depth, what bait, water conditions and temperatures, and current strength. Use this information to formulate a plan, but be willing to change if it is not working for you. If your starting point was going to be a wreck in 120 feet and you show up to discover the water is greenish-blue with just a trickle of north current, maybe stay for a drift or two. Give it a shot, but understand the water conditions will probably be better a little farther out. Perhaps a better idea would be to continue east until you find the real edge; dark blue water and a stronger current. Take notice if there is an eddy or rip formed anywhere along this point. Now you can go back and try your wreck, but you have a back-up plan if the fish are not holding on your wreck.
Another misconception I hear all too often is where the good bite is: “The fish are all to the north today,” or, “The fish are all south of Fowey.” Don't get stuck in a rut thinking the fish will always be in one particular zone or another. I found myself doing just that my first season in Miami. For a number of days I kept running south out of Government Cut simply because that is the area I felt comfortable with. I had caught a fair number of sailfish to the south and the rest of the charter fleet was stacked up in this area as well, with most boats concentrated from Key Biscayne to Fowey Light. After a day or two with marginal results, I ran to the north, halfway to Haulover Inlet. We were the only boat around for miles and released twice as many sailfish as any other boat that day. Lessoned learned: Don't always follow the crowd and be flexible.
A bent rod like this is what it's all about.
As you'll note from my earlier description of catching a sailfish while sending a rig to the ocean's floor, the bite will not always be on the surface. This is a very important point to consider when fishing in the heat of the summer. Pelagic fish are much like us (wimpy) humans; when the sun is blazing we seek a cooler comfort zone. For us, it may be the refuge of shade provided by the T-top or the cabin. For sailfish, it means cruising or holding at deeper depths where the water is cooler. Go ahead and deploy your typical spread on top, but include a weighted line that will cover a middle depth and a more heavily weighted line on or near the bottom. A rubber-core sinker or small sliding egg sinker is useful for mid-depths; to get really deep, a breakaway system is useful—perhaps a 3-ounce egg sinker with a loop of leader pushed through, snugged temporarily with a rubber band. A downrigger is also useful for slow-trolling, another good approach in summer.
The extreme heat of the middle of day will have most fish taking a siesta, and it's not a bad idea to join them. With this in mind, it is best to choose the morning or evening hours to target your sailfish. Rosher explains why he concentrates on the late afternoon to evening bite when targeting sailfish in the summer. “In this case they will be less active in the middle of the day. They become more prone to feed in the morning and evening beginning in the late spring and through the summer and early fall. From my experience, they're more active later in the day.” He went on to point out that it works out well to concentrate on dolphin and bottomfish during midday hours, and at around four o'clock in the afternoon, put the kites up and focus on sails. This is good news to those who don't always like to rise with the roosters. With the extra few hours of sunlight in the summer, you can start your day at noon and still get a good eight hours on the water.