Fishing for Sailfish
by Capt Phillip Mcginn & Marilyn Davis
The Atlantic sailfish is quite possibly North America's most recognizable saltwater game fish. The annals of sport fishing are literally stuffed to the gills with accounts of sailfish "balling" bait fish and slashing baits with their bills. Anglers have historically gravitated toward equipment that lets sailfish show their stuff. The fact is Sailfish fight their heart out, displaying themselves in full view acrobatics over and over again. Strutting their stuff or "Tail Walking" on the water can disguise their favorite method for shaking the hook out of their mouth.
Sailfish are definitely migratory, with the bulk of the run arriving off South Florida during the winter months just like our popular "snow birds". They're also found in the northern Gulf, where several have been landed from fishing piers.
At this time sailfish numbers seem to be on the rise in south Florida. Not so long ago there was a common opinion which led fishermen to feel that if you didn't keep a decent sized sailfish, they were probably going to die soon anyway, kind of like a salmon after spawning. Another situation that contributed to this mentality was the fact that all sailfish mounts in the early days required you to give the fish to the taxidermist to literally have it stuffed. Fortunately for the sailfish, those days are gone.
The biggest reason that we are seeing more sailfish on our Florida coast is because of generally increasing bait populations. Since Miami has more artificial reefs than any other area in this zone, we are seeing the creation of a great habitat for a lot of the bait that sailfish like to feed upon. This protected depth range on the artificial reefs saves many types of bait from netting that sailfish feed on.
With the creation of new artificial reefs this ever increasing habitat will hold the food longer, also creating an ever increasing the incentive for the sailfish to stay longer in our area instead of just migrating by us.
Bait for Sailfish - A Florida Department of Natural Resources study of more than 250 sailfish indicates that their favorite menu would consist of small tunas, jacks and squid, followed by paper nautilus, ballyhoo, halfbeaks, cutlass fish, pinfish and threadfin herrings.
The best, readily available bait for sailfish is generally ballyhoo, cigar minnows, and big pilchards.
To a lesser extent, sailfish enjoy triggerfish, filefish, sea robins, puffers, octopuses, anchovies, mullet, flying fish, dolphin, bluefish and needlefish . Some generally preferred rigs for catching sails consist of rigged ballyhoo and bonito strips with or without 1/4-ounce blue-and-white and black-and-white Sea Witches.
Some anglers keep bait fish with as many as five live wells, separating "pen baits" or flawless baits, from those that could be considered "day baits". "Day Baits" were those baits that were touched and will be great for the day but won't survive well beyond that day. Pen baits will usually have about a 95% survival rate in the bait pen and a 100% survival rate once they start eating and will live as long as they are fed.
Day baits will have a 5% to 20% survival rate if they are put into the pen. If touching is minor, occasionally the bait will heal, usually leaving a visible scar on the fish. Usually though, it is fatal to the bait, regardless of the species. Baits range from threadfin to pilchards to blue runners, whatever I happen to catch that morning.
Techniques for catching Sailfish - Allowing a sailfish time to swallow a bait is hardly a novel concept. Both illustrate a leap in angler consciousness, which coincides with the fact that in less than a century, sailfish have gained enormous popularity. Gorgeous, acrobatic, and lit-up Sailfish rank as the # 1 sporty catch of south Florida.
So what's involved in catching the Sailfish? In order to prevent gut hooking and allow a healthier release, a critical decision becomes how long you let a sailfish eat before setting the hook. Sight-casting live baits is anything but simple.
Keep a variety of baits on hand because you never know what they might prefer. Whenever current flows against a light north wind, it creates a chop that attracts baitfish and predators. Bait and birds are always positive signs for sailfish. Even if you're set up with kite baits, if you hear reports of free-jumpers, pick up and run to that area. To increase mobility on slow days, minimize the number of baits you put into the water. Start out with two or three baits until you can put together a pattern. Dead bait often is the most effective bait on such days. If there is a secret bait, it's the teasers. Although 75 percent of the time you will troll your dead bait, but always carry a dozen or so live baits for insurance.
Dead-Bait trolling - Of the various sail fishing techniques, dead-bait trolling is by far the most traditional. When Sailfish are not as plentiful, do troll dead bait. Sometimes other fish will pick up on your dead bait. In winter use live bait when they are plentiful.
Dead-bait trolling with any hope of success requires a good deal of know-how. We still catch plenty of sails on dead baits. The trick here is to first find the fish and then, to make the baits look as life-like as possible. When they're tailing down sea, we troll in the same direction and set the baits so they skip down the face of a swell. You could be missing over half of your spinner bait strikes if you're not using this technique.
Live-baiting trolling for sailfish can be incredibly productive when fresh baits, proper rigging and good presentation come together. The blue side of the color change is usually the most productive, and when fishing it, you should slightly increases your trolling speed to encourage more strikes.
A goggle-eye's size makes it ideal for kite fishing where heavier baits are necessary under windy conditions. While goggle-eyes represent the preferred live bait for kites, smaller "scale baits" like threadfin herring (also called greenies) rank high when fished on flat lines or deep. You also want to match the hatch and offer baitfish that sails are currently feeding on. When it's rough, bigger baits will bring more bites, especially on the kite . The sailfish crashed a live goggle-eye fished from a flat line, snapping 20-pound-test mono from the quick-release clip with authority.
Finding Sailfish - Bait and birds are always positive signs for sailfish. Frigate birds are good messengers; fish generally follow the birds & bait. That is to say they swim & eat. Hungry sailfish will go on the reef within a depth of 10 feet of water to get food.
If good sailfish signs are hard to find, stay tuned to your radio for word of
free-jumpers in the area where you are fishing.
Sonic tagging experiments have shown that depending on the conditions, sailfish concentrate on either side of the confluence where clear, warm, deep-blue waters of the Gulf Stream meet turbid, green coastal waters. Thus, offering baits that cover the entire water column works most effectively for catching sailfish.
There would be a pronounced blue-green edge for the sailfish to tail down sea; better yet, there would be two pronounced color changes: a powder-blue edge along the green inshore side and a deeper, dark blue change on the offshore edge
To best narrow the search, locate the conditions sailfish prefer, such as subtle temperature changes at current edges. Although water temperature is a factor that often determines when sailfish are feeding, he has found that sailfish have a wider range of temperatures in which they feed than other billfish.
Balling the bait - Birds can be seen above schooling sailfish balling up the bait for an attack. Sailfish frequently herd small baits into compact schools by working in teams of three to as many as 30 or more fish. The sails swim in concentric circles, tightening the noose around the bait schools. Once the bait is densely packed, they break ranks and swim through the ball, slashing with their bills to kill and maim baitfish. The sails then slurp them up before reorganizing to ball more bait.
Bait Rigging -
Fishing live baits deep with a break-away lead or rubber-core sinker is an overlooked technique that's productive in most conditions but not in the presence of a lot of plankton. They all emphasize hooking the bait in a manner that provides the greatest possible chance for a solid hookup. With scale baits like sardines or greenies, make sure you swipe the hook-point after securing the bait to remove any scales.
Circle hooks aren't the first controversy involving sail fishing techniques and the issue of gut hooking fish. Almost every day that we sailfish, we fish both flat lines and kites together and we have always used J-hooks.
Kite baits should be hooked in the back since they're tethered vertically. Sometimes you can get away with slightly smaller hooks if you bridle the bait. Most pros stay away from offset hook designs because they have more of a tendency to hook back into the bait rather than into the fish's mouth.
To lessen the chance of that occurring, many sailfish veterans cut the hook from the leader with a small bait knife to release the fish. Factors include the size of the bait, how it's being fished, and the sea conditions, to name a few. As a general rule, however, drop back longer with big baits like tinker mackerel and shorter with scale baits like greenies. Like many game fish, sails are structure-oriented because of the presence of baitfish. Rather than the steep drop-offs found elsewhere, structure in the alley is scattered in depths from 60 to 400 feet, including reefs and rock patches where baitfish congregate.-