Catch a Sailfish the Easy Way
Mount a sailfish.
Sailfish are legendary marine animals, worshipped by ancient cultures as sacred fish and pursued around the world by famous anglers such as Ernest Hemingway, who chased Sailfish off the Florida Keys and Cuba, catching quite a few in the process. There's something magical about that big blue sail that draws anglers in. And of course, a majestic Sailfish specimen hanging on your wall in the den is something that most of us would love to show off and brag about. However, before you can hang that trophy Sailfish on the wall, you have to catch one. This article is designed to help you in that pursuit.
First – A Few Key Facts on Sails
Sailfish are considered by many as the ultimate game fish. One primary reason anglers target Sailfish is that the population of this fish is considered stable, and in most waters – including Florida's -- the season is open year-round. (Sailfish have a 57-inch minimum size limit and a one-per-day bag limit). Sailfish pose a great challenge to anglers with their amazing speed and acrobatic jumps from the water. They are very powerful and will fight vigorously when hooked.
Sailfish are year round residents in the Florida Keys. They migrate northward along the Atlantic coast in the spring and return in the fall. Some Sailfish also migrate north in the Gulf of Mexico and a summer fishery exists off the Panhandle coast. These fish travel generally far off-shore and are only occasional catches for anglers along the central and southwest coasts. Trolling in the Atlantic along the line marking the edge of the Gulf Stream is the place to look for sailfish.
The fish's sail is normally kept folded down and to the side when swimming, but it may be raised when the Sailfish feels threatened or excited, or is herding baitfish. Sailfish can display a startling array of colors, from subdued browns and grays to vibrant purples and silver. Their body colors are often highlighted by stripes of iridescent blue and silver dots. Sailfish can change their colors almost instantly -- an adaptation controlled by their nervous system. The Sailfish can rapidly turn its body light blue with yellowish stripes when excited, confusing its prey and signaling its intentions to fellow Sailfish.
Baits and Lures for Sailfish
Baits -- There are many baits for Sailfish. One of the most popular baits for trolling is the small Ballyhoo rig. It's good to have a cooler full, rigged and brined. Some anglers break the beak off for easier rigging. If you cannot catch any, you can buy them pre-rigged. Another is the "Panama strip" (or belly strip), which consists of a false albacore, or is made from the belly of a bonito tuna. To get the best results when Sailfishing, you should have a variety of live baits.
You should have some blue runners, cigar minnows, goggle eyes, large pilchards, speedos and one of the Sails favorite snacks, large sardines. The blue runners, speedos and goggle-eyes make for good kite baits, or presenting a bait to surface-feeding sailfish. On the other hand, the smaller baits such as the Ballyhoo rigged trolling bait, pilchards, sardines and cigar minnows work well for sailfish that are swimming deep down in the water.
All of these baits can be slow-trolled simply by lip-hooking as with mullet, or nose-hooking in front of the eyes with most baits, or in front of the dorsal ridge for deeper swimming. You can also use dead baits, but be sure to close the lips so it does not "spin" unnaturally in the water. You can sew it, or simply hook it tight through the lips.
To use the popular "Panama strip," simply carve the belly section by tapering the tough forward or breast portion and cut the tail piece into two v-shaped patterns. Filet the meat out of the tail at an angle so that only skin remains on the last inch or two. Push the hook through the forward section. If you want to add color to the rig, place a plastic squid skirt above the hook so it drapes over the front portion of the bait. This will also keep the bait from "washing out" sooner. This bait swims and flutters on the surface and gives off more scent than a whole bait.
Lures -- You can also troll with plastic lures, especially when no Sails are in sight as it saves the bait for when you need it. Lures can be trolled faster than live or dead bait and are perfect for when a large area needs to be covered when looking for fish. However, unless the Sailfish are particularly aggressive, lures have a tendency to raise Sailfish more than catch them. Many Sailfish skippers prefer softhead-type lures, such as the Moldcraft Super Chugger series, because Sails tend to hold them longer and this gives the angler a better chance at setting the hook.
Your lure selection should include a wide range of teasers such as Seawitches (skirts) and soft plastic baits such as squid, ballyhoo and mullet. These are used in a combo with frozen and live baits pulled with spreader bars, dredges, umbrella rigs and daisy chain teasers. You can also spice up a lure with a thin strip of bait on the hook to encourage a better take.
Hooks – It is a must to have various hooks in sizes and styles when pursuing Sailfish. When trolling small baits such as a "dink" Ballyhoo require a short-shank hook like the Matzuo #130014. When using larger baits use a Mustad #7766 because it has a long shank so it can go further back in the bait. Whether using a short or long shank hook, the sizes will range from 5/0 to 8/0. Non-trolling methods require both J-Hooks and inline circle hooks. These sizes should range from 4/0 to 7/0. High-quality hooks that are super-sharp out of the package is the key to getting Sailfish to your boat. Do not settle on a lesser priced hook that needs to be sharpened out of the package.
Rods and Reels -- Since Sailfishing usually involves trolling and live-baiting, a few types of rods and reels are required. Trolling is best with a good conventional reel and lever drag, with 300 yards of 20-lb. mono line in a high-vis color. You can use any stand-up rod that is about 6-feet long, with a line rating of 15-30-lb. class, a fast taper and sensitive tip.
For Live-Baiting – Use a 7-foot boat-spinning rod in medium-heavy to heavy range, and an 8000 size spinning reel. On the reel, use 30-40 lb. braid. You should use a long fluorocarbon leader which can be as low as 30-lb. test if bites are few and far between, or as high as 80-lb. test if you're getting broken off.
Where to Go and How to Find Sailfish
If you are Sailfishing in the Atlantic, you should schedule your expedition between the months of November to May, with January and February being the best months. During this period, Sailfish actively feed especially when the winter cold fronts start to blow through the Atlantic region. Of course, you will have to wear some cold weather gear but you'll have a great chance of catching up to 30 Sailfishes on a single outing.
When trying to spot Sailfish, most anglers look for color when watching the spread treading through the water. But the Sails are not always full of bright color when they're in the water. Often if you see a big dark object moving in the water, it is most likely a Sailfish.
One of the keys to finding Sails is to remember they're pelagic and always on the move – you have to go where and when the bite is hot. If you don't have a recent report to go by, go where there is structure – reefs and wrecks – and that is where the bait will be. If there is no bait – there won't be any Sailfish. You can look for birds, but sometimes the bait can be down 40 feet and you won't see them.
Sailfish are lots of fun in rough water – they love to play in it. They are very tolerant of water colors and water temperature. If you find suitable water temps, good currents, water clarity, and baits -- you'll hit a home run.
Hundreds of sails will get together in Jan. and Feb., and just surf the swells on the ocean. The winds will come from the north and usually there's a south current – together they create big ocean swells. The Sailfish will surf the swells, just like a Beach Boy, surfing down the waves, always heading south. Once you find them playing in a specific area, you can anchor up and chum them, and then lob your baits out at them.
Catching Sailfish – Laying Out the Spreads
You don't need outriggers with monster Ballyhoo and mullet dredges; or spreader bar teasers on massive electronic bridge reels to catch Sailfish. In fact, a recent million-dollar tournament saw a 65-foot Hatteras have a major breakdown of their fancy equipment, which allowed a little guy on a 31-foot Bertram with 4 single-pole outriggers operated by hand, win the tournament. Simple is good, especially if you don't have a large professional crew.
A spread is basically a number of baits lines "spread out" so you can entice your quarry with various baits or a larger quantity of the same bait. Spreader bars don't have to be a hassle – many spreader bars are equipped with a ball bearing swivel in the last lure where you attach a release clip. Simply tie the spreader off to a T-Bar or cleat on the boat, then run the line from your rod through the release clip on the back of the spreader. Once you get a strike the line breaks free and you fight only the fish, not the bar.
*(Some anglers use kites to aid in the hunt for Sails but we'll address that in an advanced article later on because that's an article on its own).
Trolling live bait is best at a speed of two-to five-knots, especially when using downriggers, and is most effective when sails are abundant and you don't have to search for them in a wide area. The baits can be trolled directly from the rod tip with just enough drag pressure to keep the bait from pulling line off the spool. A lever drag reel, such as the Shimano TLD 15 or TLD 20 simplifies this task by allowing the angler to lower the lever to the point where there is enough drag pressure to hold the bait in place while not changing the pre-set drag pressure.
Live bait is also very effective when drifted, cast or dropped back. Casting a live bait from the bow to a feeding or visible fish is a highly effective technique for catching Sailfish. Lighter tackle, such as a Shimano 400 reel and CL-715MA rod, or Shimano 700 with a CL-730MA rod are well-suited for Sails. When Sailfish can be spotted on the surface try approaching them with caution and no closer than a comfortable cast away. Avoid casting the bait so that it makes a noisy splash close-to and behind the sail as it may startle the fish causing it to disappear quickly. Place the bait in front of the Sailfish at about a 15-foot distance.
When Hooked Up – Getting Them to the Boat
When you do hook a Sailfish, the next challenge is getting it to your boat. Remember that while Sailfish can be very slow and awkward in eating your bait, this species can be very powerful even when hooked. When a Sailfish approaches a live bait it may grab and swallow it in a rush, a feeding style often referred to as "crashing" a bait and the angler can set the hook quickly. It may also go through a prolonged ritual of slashing it with its sword-like bill and then re-attacking from different angles.
When this happens, grab the rod and put the reel in free-spool with your thumb on the spool to hold the line. Watch the sail and after it swats the bait lift your thumb lightly and drop the bait back in the wash. Let the circle hook do its job and set itself. As the line is free-spooling out at a steady rate it may pick up speed, or feel erratic as the sail picks it up. When the line accelerates off the spool under heavy pressure, engage the drag and crank the handle hard with the rod at a low angle until line peels off the reel under pressure. You're now hooked-up and you can start fighting the fish with rod tip up to apply more resistance.
Once you have handled the fish, you would surely be excited for a photo opportunity. Make sure, however, that you wear good quality gloves before posing for the cameras. Lean over the side of the fish, holding its bill and pulling it through water slowly. Once you have captured and taken your photo with the sailfish, let it go and try catching another one! Unless of course you want to keep it, in which case you should have two helpers to aid in getting the sailfish onto the boat without much damage to the fish (for mounting) or the crew.
Catching a Sailfish can be a very fun and exciting activity not just for experienced anglers but also for someone who has never done it before. A successful Sailfish expedition is not only about having the right baits, rods, and reels but also timing your tour and picking the right spots to fish so you can have a truly enjoyable Sailfishing trip.
NEW NOTE: 11/04/14 - "Sailfish have started showing up just off the reef line. While not in big numbers yet, most boats that choose to target them this week were met with some measure of success. While targeting the sails, most boats also caught bonito, small blackfins, big ceros and a few kingfish of mixed sizes with live ballahoo, pilchards or hard tails."
Captain Mike Makowski - Florida Keys
Supplement: "Sailfish Within Sight of Sarasota"
A True Captain's Tale from 2012
Historically, Sailfish can be caught off Florida's west coast if you're able to spend three or four hours running west out to the Gulf of Mexico's area called Florida Steps. But finding them nearly within sight of the Sarasota skyline is unheard of. Until recently.
The reasons, as with most dramatic changes in fish populations are hard to pin down. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill was thought to be one factor in changing fish migration routes. The southwest coast of Florida definitely had more large tarpon thrashing the surface lately than any season in recent memory. Wahoo, and other pelagic monsters, also have been swimming in a lot closer than previously.
"Changing patterns," was another factor cited by Captain Chris Seegar, who routinely runs his 40-foot Tight Lines 2 out of Sarasota into the Gulf's deep water.
"We usually catch our Sailfish on the county reefs that are 7 to 10 miles offshore, where the sardines are," Seegar said.
"Typically, we'll catch a dozen Sails a year, running 50 to 60 pounds -- which is quite a bit bigger than the fish on the Atlantic side (of Florida), that run 30 to 40 pounds.
"But, I think the patterns change every year. The fish go through cycles, and this year the sardines came in closer."
Captain Brian Martell, of Midnite Son Charters, agrees that Spanish sardines have been the bait of choice for Sailfish.
"Especially if we're bottom fishing," Martell said. "We'll hang out a small piece of sardine for the Sails to eat. The real key is the water clarity. It's very unusual to have crystal clear water so far out. Once you get beyond four miles offshore, the water's really clean. We've been working the M Reefs. But we've also caught some Sails on the D Reefs, and around the weather buoy."
If you're interested in trying to nail a Sailfish with a fly, rather than bait, try trolling a strip of ballyhoo belly behind the boat as a "teaser." Rig the teaser without a hook, and let the Sailfish get a taste of the ballyhoo before yanking it away. Do that several times, until the sail is enraged, then when it charges the bait again, quickly shoot out a five-inch or six-inch ballyhoo or sardine fly pattern -- preferably tied "keel-style" -- with the hook pointing up. Sailfish have a softer spot on the roof of their mouths, so the upturned hook has a better chance of penetrating.
Bonus: Sailfishing the Keys in the Winter
Known as the acrobat of the ocean, sailfish once again entertain as the season for catching these charmers begins in November throughout south Florida and the Florida Keys. During the season, sailfish are plentiful enough to bet on a strike. A thrill and challenge is getting your bait on the fish and landing the fish in your boat. Florida’s state fish can reach speeds over 65 mph. Hook one up to enjoy the fishing fight of your life. A real thrill is watching them perform magnificent acrobatic jumps with head shaking attempts to spit the hook. A typical sailfish solidly hooked in the jaw will usually make a sudden, drag-scorching run followed by lots of jumps. You can never guess in which direction one will land. So it’s important the angler be prepared to reel up line quickly. Sailfish are known to barrel straight toward the boat. Captains must be prepared to make evasive maneuvering to avoid a fish jumping into the boat.
The action can start close in at three to five miles offshore near the edge of the reef at 20 to 150 feet deep. An experienced charter captain can “sight fish” inside the reef from his tower high above the deck. Sailfish are often seen in shallow water, however the ideal depths are found five miles offshore near the Gulf Stream. Once you have baits to the targets, your next challenge is getting them to the boat. They may seem slow and awkward when trying to eat your bait, but sailfish are explosive and run like race horses. Determined fighters, sailfish will challenge your tackle, your angling skills and the ability of the captain. For the most fight and excitement, light tackle at 12 to 20 lb. test have produced the best fights. Good sailfish reels hold 300 to 400 yards of line; a fish on a hot run can take it all. The captain has to be ready to chase down a really wild fish. The consistency of bait flow along the reef provides feeding for a nice variety of game fish. This bait frenzy attracts good numbers of kingfish, tuna, mahi-mahi and snapper. Sailfish love to feed on blue runners, pinfish, mullet, scads, ballyhoo and squid. From Key Largo to Marathon, the lottery is hitting bait pods of ballyhoo as shallow as 70 feet. Live ballyhoo are one of the easiest baits to fish with. Sailfish also like to strike trolling lures and rigged dead trolling baits, though live baits really increase your odds to land a ferocious, acrobatic warrior.
During the summer months, sailfish spawn near shallow water, remaining near the surface. Females are slow swimmers extending their dorsal fins above the water during spawning, and followed by one or more males. Voracious feeders on small fish, sailfish grow very rapidly 4 to 5 feet long in their first year. The sailfish record at 126 pounds, was landed near Big Pine Key south of Marathon. Sailfish are all about catch and release. Always consider the safety of the fish. They tire quickly due to their exciting and intensive fights. It’s important to revive and care for a sailfish gently to ensure its survival. A picture in the water is the best way to remember your catch of a lifetime; or you can order what’s called a release mount, a fiberglass replica of your fish, custom painted to look just like yours. Head to the Keys for the fishing experience of your life.
Written by Alex Hill for The Online Fisherman
Good Luck, and Tight Sailfish Lines!