When you think of winter big game fishing in the keys, the sailfish has to be near the top of any anglers list. What could bring more excitement than having a fish capable of long blistering runs, spectacular aerial displays, including long gray hounding tail walks, practically in your own back yard? For most anglers with a boat capable of traversing the five miles or so from shore to the reef line safely, sailfish is a definite possibility.
To the uninitiated sail fishing can seem quite daunting. Visions of the Old Man in the Sea come to mind, large sport fishing boats loaded with fishing reels big around as your thy were common in the early days of the sport. For better or worse the sport has evolved. Now days you are more apt to find a twenty something foot open fisherman loaded with spin or light conventional tackle of thirty pound or less, plying the near shore sail fish haunts than the large battle wagons loaded with the heavy stuff.
When you choose to target sailfish, you must choose between large arrays of options. The available list of bait alone is enough to make your head swim. Bait choices include artificial, live, and dead baits. Artificial lures have caught more than enough sailfish to prove their value, and most incidental sail catches are on trolled dead bait, but most knowledgeable anglers targeting sails prefer to use live bait. For the rest of this article we will discuss some of the basics of live baiting sails.
The list of bait fish that a sailfish will eat is probably longer than the list of things it won’t eat. The abridged list includes, goggle eye, blue runner, ballyhoo, pilchard, flying fish, pinfish, mullet and even squid. Bait du jour most often consists of what is most readably available to the angler. Due to their ability to survive in captivity, for reasonably long periods of time, bait shops normally only stock pinfish, and occasionally mullet during tarpon season. If you want bait other than those, you will probably be catching your own live bait. The subject of catching live bait could fill volumes, but in general you will either be trapping, netting or hook and lining your bait. Methods of catching overlap for many species of bait. But unless you are skilled with a cast net, you will probably be using light tackle and a hair hook to acquire bait. Baits caught with hook and line are usually hardier, and in better general condition than netted baits. A chum slick will draw many species including pinfish, pilchards, blue runners and ballyhoo. You can then either use small pieces of squid or other durable baits drifting them back into the chum slick to the baitfish. You can also use a sabiki rig. For those of you fresh water transplants not familiar with sabiki rigs, they are akin to a miniature trot line made up of small trout flies. The rig is weighted at the end and jigged up and down through a school if bait. Sabiki’s work well when the bait is holding deep on structure and is well concentrated. Baits should be immediately deposited into an open circuit bait well. It is often better advice to take only an uncrowded live well full of baits as the baits will do better that way and the less time you spend finding bait the earlier you can get out and start fishing.
During some conditions it is possible to sight cast for sails. The conditions include tailing, showering, and balling. During tailing conditions sailfish can often be seen cruising down the edge of a sharp current line usually within the significantly more turbid
water on the inshore side of the rip. Showering conditions usually occur from middle keys north east toward Miami and are when sails or some other predator push into shallow water over the reef edge to attack schools of ballyhoo. The school of bait fleeing in unison or in great waves out of the water resemble a shower of bait.
Balling of bait occurs offshore when a group of several sails herd a school of bait into a tight ball and then take turns rushing into and feeding on the school. It is in this type of feeding behavior that the purpose of the fish’s extraordinarily large dorsal fin comes into play, as it helps to form a barrier to assist in herding the baitfish. During any of these situations the sailfish can be presented a bait by casting in front of and slightly beyond the fish’s path.
Most often you will be looking for sails scattered over a larger area and will need them to find your bait. All year long the sailfish can be found scattered from just outside of the reef line on out to Timbuktu . During the winter months, however the northerly winds generated by a passing cold front will concentrate the sails nearer the reef line as they gather to ambush bait being blown offshore over the reef by the winds.
Weather sight casting, kite fishing, or slow trolling, the size and configuration of your terminal tackle will depend upon what type of fishing you will be doing.
Most terminal tackle for sail fish usually revolve around six to eight feet of fifty or sixty pound mono or fluorocarbon leader.
Hook choices vary greatly depending on bait size, bait species and fishing method. Circle hooks are quickly gaining favor in bill fishing due to the fact that when properly used they tend to hook into the corner of the jaw as opposed to the stomach throat or gills. Circle hook size varies greatly from manufacture to manufacture however. Depending on the size of the bait, a hook between 10/0 and 12/0 Mustad will suffice. For other brands you will have to do your own size comparison. The major difference between circle hooks and conventional hooks is in the way that you set the hook. When using the circle hook you do not set the hook like you would with a conventional hook, you simply allow the line to come tight and the hook sets it self. In situations that you want to use a conventional hook, a 4/0 Mustad 9174 give or take a size, depending on your bait is a good choice. In either hook style great attention should be given to sharpening the hook, as setting hook on a sailfish has been compared to trying to set hook on a concrete block.
To connect your leader to your line most situations call for a swivel in about fifty or sixty pound class. Personal preference and budget will dictate weather you use a barrel or ball bearing swivel. In either case you should use a black swivel to help avoid strikes from mackerel, which could sever your line. And speaking of mackerel, they enjoy the same bait as do sailfish. If you wish to tangle with them as well, you need only attach a four to six inch trace of #5 single strand wire to directly in front of your hook and attach it to your mono leader with an Albright special knot. If you do not wish to tangle with toothy critters simply keep the leader and the hook connection direct, and sacrifice the hook to the toothy ones.
In order to cast for sails it is easiest to use a leader that will cast through the guides of a rod, forgo the swivel and tie your leader directly to your line with an Albright special.
If you are going to fish from a kite you may add a piece of surveyors tape to the line at the swivel in order to keep an eye on the depth of your bait. You can use different colors
on the leader and then tie the corresponding color of tape to your rod where it will be easy to tell at a glance which rod is in need of attention. Placing up to an ounce of weight on the line helps keep lighter baits in the water and some of the belly out of the line.
Hook placement in the bait is very important. In general if you are pulling the bait through the water most baits do better if hooked in the mouth. If you are hanging a bait from a kite the shoulder is better. For casting a bait you will need to hook the bait wherever it will have the strength to remain on the hook even after a significant heave.
For most of the season you should start your search for sailfish between one hundred and two hundred fifty feet of water. Start your drift or slow troll where it will take you across those depth lines. Do not limit your self to those depths only. Keep your ears to your radio. If you hear of fish being caught deeper or shallower, expand your drift or slow troll to go through those depth lines also.
You can also do a combination of fishing methods while looking for sailfish. There is nothing stopping you from putting out a kite up wind of your drift while dragging slow trolled or drifted baits behind you. Also keeping a casting rod with a bait ready to go will have you at the prepared, incase a fish shows up but is ignoring the baits that you have out.
Sailfish at the boat can be dangerous if handled carelessly. It is recommended that they be handled minimally and all photos be taken with the fish controlled at boat side. You should use a gloved hand to control the fish by the bill. Be careful to never let the fish point at you. If it surges you do not want to do an impression of a shish kabob. If the hook is visible it should be carefully removed, if not cut the leader as close to the hook as possible. It is no longer necessary to kill a fish to have a great mount. Modern mounts are created using existing molds made from real fish in every size, in at least one inch increments. All you need do is take a quick measurement of the fish, by marking the side of your boat with a pencil; you can easily measure the marks after the fish has been successfully released. Most any bait shop or professional captain will be happy to place your order with a reputable taxidermist. To complete the release simply tow the fish slowly alongside the boat until the fish regains a little color and tries to pull its head free. All there is left to do is let go of the fish’s bill and watch your prize swim off.
While these techniques are especially suited to sailfish, there is also a myriad of other game fish that can be taken with the same techniques. Opportunities to include Wahoo, Tuna, Mackerel, Cobia, Barracuda and Dolphin can present themselves at any time.
Captain John Sahagian