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September 21, 2007

Florida's Smokin' Sails

Miami and the Florida Keys have had sensational sailfish action in recent years. Here's how you can get in on the game.


The thrill of hooking an acrobatic sailfish is no less for becoming more common.

Ten years ago, if you were looking to post a double-digit day on Florida sailfish you headed to the Palm Beaches or Stuart. Here, where the Gulf Stream swings in close to the coast and the reef line is distinct, the sailfish poured by every winter. If you wanted consistent sailfishing, this was the place to go.

That was up until about five years ago, when, for no apparent reason, Miami anglers suddenly found themselves cashing in on the same sort of consistency. Double-digit days were a reasonable goal to set on good day of sailfishing, where previously such a thing would have been unthinkable.

Florida's Smokin' Sails
Florida's Smokin' Sails
Florida's Smokin' Sails
Florida's Smokin' Sails
(left to right) Scenes of anglers fighting and releasing sailfish are familiar on the waters off South Florida as live-bait techniques are used in conjunction with a surging sailfish population.

The same thing happened at about the same time in the Keys. Historically, the Keys had provided better odds for catching sailfish than Miami. But when the change came, it came in a big way. Old expectations faded as the fishing picked up considerably on the sailfish grounds off Key Largo and Islamorada. Off Miami, the way fishing gets done has changed dramatically.

Live Bait Is Key

Twenty years ago if you went sailfishing, chances are you trolled a strip bait or a dead ballyhoo. Dead trolling baits came into vogue, eventually giving way to trolled live baits. These days you could troll a dead ballyhoo for weeks and not catch a fish, according to some local live-bait enthusiasts. And the fact is that live bait is the name of the game when it comes to sailfishing. Without it you might as well be playing pinball.

While live-bait fishing has been an evolution off Miami, this has not been the case in the Keys. Off Islamorada, live bait has been the routine for a long, long time, but the numbers of sailfish caught also have escalated in the past couple of years.

Captain Paul Ross ((305) 853-5436; www.relentlessfishing.com) runs the 48-foot Relentless out of Bud n' Mary's Marina in Islamorada. "As long as I've been fishing, we have done it the same way," says Ross. "We have always used live bait and fished the same places. There are definitely more fish now, and there have been for the past couple of years."

The Keys season starts around November, when ballyhoo gather inside the reef. Boats cruise and watch for "showers" of ballyhoo, which means the sailfish are coming over the reef to feed on the schools. This is classic Keys sight-fishing for sails. As the season progresses, sardines and cigar minnows move into the Keys waters and the fishing moves offshore.

"On into December," says Ross, "we fish out in 120 to 150 feet of water. If we are waiting for the fish to find us, sometimes we'll fly a kite. Otherwise we like to move around and find the fish." He explained that in the Keys, the bait - and consequently the sailfish - tend to hold over submerged structure, either reef features or wrecks. The trick is to load up on live baits and then find the fish.

Record-Breaking Action

Florida's Smokin' Sails
Florida's Smokin' Sails
Florida's Smokin' Sails
Growing numbers of sailfish are rising to anglers' baits, and many think it's because of all the baitfish in the water - a possible result of Florida's net ban. Fresh live bait is a key component of many captains' sailfish strategy, whether they catch them on quill rigs (top) or with a castnet (bottom).

Last February, Ross and angler Richard Lewis broke away from the fleet to look for bait and found a huge school of sardines hanging over a set of ledges in 180 feet of water. A school of sailfish had the baits balled up, and Lewis landed six before mate Bill Wood joined in. By the end of the day they had set a new Keys record: 24 sailfish in a single day! According to Ross, the fishing stayed hot for three weeks. Every morning the sailfish would ball up the bait and spend the day feeding on them. Boats fishing the bait school over that three-week period averaged five fish a day.

The tactics used in the Keys, once the fish are located, are pretty simple. Ross uses spinning rods spooled with at least 400 yards of 12- or 15-pound line and 30- to 50-pound fluorocarbon leaders, depending on conditions. Rougher water allows for heavier leaders. When it's calm, the lighter stuff helps draw strikes.

Ballyhoo are hooked through the chin, then the hook shank is wired to the beak with copper wire. Spanish sardines and pilchards are hooked through the nostrils. Once the baits have been deployed, Ross puts out a live-bait chain of teasers rigged with wire, but no hooks, to create more disturbance. Once the small teaser baits are out, he puts out a teaser, such as a "speedo" (red-tailed scad), a big blue runner or a bonito. This big bait makes the smaller baits nervous, and creates a chain of commotion that helps get the attention of the sails.

Ross changes baits every five minutes or so to keep them lively. He routinely goes through 400 or 500 baits a day, between hooking them up and chumming with them.

Small-Boat Tips

Central to this approach is mobility. With the larger charter boats, once the fish are located, the boat can be held in place at idle in order to work the school as long as the bite holds up. However, anglers on smaller boats need to adapt their techniques to fish in the same way.

One of the most accomplished small-boat sailfishermen in South Florida is Joe Neber. The owner of Contender Boats, Neber has made his reputation tournament fishing from the 36-foot Team Contender One, and he starts every season in the Keys. "We don't start fishing off Miami until after the first of the year," says Neber. "We fish a couple of the big Keys tournaments first."

At that time of the year, ballyhoo is the dominant bait, and Neber adapts his technique to accommodate the way sailfish feed on those baits. "In the Keys, we slow-troll live ballyhoo from the outriggers," he says. "And we adapt our style to be competitive with the big boats. We run Yamaha outboards, which can be idled down to 400 or 450 rpm. At that speed we have all the advantages the big boats do. Also, these motors have enough rumble to them to make the fish come up.

"I won't hesitate to put up a kite if we think it will work, but at that time of year there's a real advantage to mobility. You can react quickly and get inside to throw a pitch bait if you see a shower."

Florida's Smokin' Sails
More catch-and-release fishing and better release techniques also have played a role in the increase of sailfish.

Once Neber begins fishing off Miami, he employs an entirely different technique to stay competitive. Here, the name of the game is kite fishing. Off Miami - or "out in front," as local anglers refer to it - the general strategy is to find the depth the fish are holding in and then fish that depth. "Kite fishing is zone-specific," Neber explains. "First you have to locate the fish. We don't have a lot of time to pre-fish prior to a tournament, so we talk to a lot of people, fishermen who are out every day, to get an idea of where the action is. If we can't do that, then we start in areas that have produced in the past."

The standard approach off Miami is to fly two kites, with three release clips on each kite line. A sea anchor deployed off the bow slows the drift of the boat to hold the baits in the desired depth for as long as possible. It can be a complicated affair, so setting up quickly and efficiently is critical.

"If we think the fish are in 150 feet," says Neber, "we'll go out to 190 feet and put out the sea anchor. This gives us time to get the kites out and the baits set. Once that's done we put a line off the bow with a bait drifting back behind our line of drift."

The bow rod creates some management problems, Neber explains, because someone has to pay attention to it to prevent it from tangling in the sea anchor. But when prospecting for fish, it's worth the additional effort.

Florida's Sailfish Boom:
What Happened?

So what happened to make the fishing improve so dramatically off South Florida? Nobody knows for sure, and there are several different theories. One is that conservation measures and catch-and-release fishing has had a big effect. Boatside handling and release practices may have had a hand in it, too.

But one fact is acknowledged by everyone, and that is that there is more bait in the water than there ever has been. Again, nobody knows why. Some long-time observers speculate that the artificial-reef program off South Florida is responsible. Wrecks and reefs are becoming mature and creating stable and increased habitat for marine life, providing lots of places for bait to live. Once the bait is abundant, predators such as sailfish flourish in the same areas.

Another theory, and one that nobody disputes, is the effect of Florida's net ban, which was passed by referendum in 1994 and created a net-free corridor around the Florida coast. Bait schools all up and down Florida's east coast, which were once targeted by big commercial boats for fertilizer and cat food, are now free to migrate along the coast and gather around the reefs. Again, the more food in the water, the more sailfish will hang around.

- Glenn Law

"With the bow line out and the kites off the stern, we can cover different depth zones at the same time. If the bow line gets bit, that tells us we need to reposition so the kite baits are in that depth." Once the boat has drifted through the desired depth zone, the bow line comes in, along with the sea anchor, and the boat is idled back into position, towing the kites behind, for another drift.

The Contender team fishes conventional reels off the kite lines because of their increased line capacity. On a long kite bait, Neber explains, there may be 150 yards of line between the reel and the bait, and that's before a fish hits.

Plan Ahead

A big part of Neber's winning strategy (he and his team of Wayne Savage, Bill Cordes and Neber's son, Mathew, consistently place high in the tournaments they enter) is preparation. As soon as the boat stops, the fishing begins.

"We fish fresh line - 12-pound or 20-pound, generally, depending on the rules of the tournament - our kites are clean and dry, and our drags are in good shape. We adjust nothing once we start fishing, because it has all been done ahead of time. We have no down time; our fishing time is maximized.

"Once the sea anchor is out, we are very quiet, fishing in stealth mode, which is nice. And we listen to the radio. If we feel a bite is happening somewhere else, we take everything in and run for it. That's one of the real advantages of fishing in a center console. If a bite starts up 25 miles away, you can be there in half an hour."

The tournament scene is a competitive, highly refined game. Stakes are high and the winners are amazingly focused and good at what they do. But with the sailfish so plentiful off South Florida, you have a good chance of racking up releases, even without those rarefied skills, whether you are chartering for a day or learning the ropes on your own boat. The odds have never really been so high in the angler's favor as they are now.

Circle or J-Hooks?

The past few years have seen an increase in the popularity of circle hooks as a replacement for the traditional J-hook in live-bait sailfishing. The theory behind circle hooks is that they catch in the corner of the fish's mouth, not in the stomach or throat. A J-hook, once swallowed, is likely to catch on whatever it touches, which can be fatal to a released fish.

The downside to circle hooks, as is being discovered, is that they also tend to catch in the gill arches, which can be as damaging as gut-hooking. Captain Paul Ross on the Relentless favors J-hooks, though he says if the sailfish stay as numerous in the Keys as they have been in the past couple of years, he may begin using circle hooks more often.

According to Joe Neber, the jury is still out on the best kind of hook to use. When tuna are abundant, Neber prefers to use J-hooks, because he says that tuna are especially hard to hook on a circle-hook-rigged kite bait. Neber also feels that the average angler is less likely to damage a fish with a circle hook. However, he says that with some basic angling skill - knowing when to set the hook, prior to the fish swallowing it - a J-hook can offer just as large a margin of safety. Also, Neber admits that kite fishing with circle hooks is still in its infancy. While it can be effective, there is still a lot to be learned about it.

- Glenn Law

Fly a Kite

Kite fishing is a precise and effective technique, but it's not something you approach haphazardly. Captain Mark Houghtaling, (305) 253-1151, has been chartering his center console, Magic Fingers, for more than 25 years and has done as much experimenting on sailfish off South Florida as anyone.

"Kite fishing is a great way to catch fish, " he says, "but it's also fairly complicated. Now everybody flies two kites with two or three baits off each, which is a great spread, but you have to practice in order to fish with a setup like this. You have to work at learning how to effectively manage your kites and your baits."

You can catch fish on a single line off a kite, he says, but it's not the way to fully utilize the technique. The sea anchor is another recent development, and this too is an aspect that you have to work on to get good at. Kite fishing, and doing it right, is a pretty gear-intensive endeavor.

"You get a sea anchor, electric kite reels and kite rods - hand cranking a kite just doesn't cut it," says Houghtaling. "And you have a lot to learn how to use, not to men-tion a substantial investment in equipment."

For the equipment you need to set up for kite fishing:

Sea Anchors

PARA-TECH Engineering Co., (970) 876-0558 or (800) 594-0011;www.seaanchor.com

Electric Reels

Precision Auto Reels, Fish-Ng Accessories, Inc., (252) 353-8777 or (800) 720-FISH; www.fish-ng.com

Kristal Fishing, (305) 444-3010; www.kristalusa.com

Elec-Tra-Mate Electric Fishing Reel Systems, Inc., (336) 273-9101; www.elec-tra-mate.com

Kites

Fishing kites made by AFTCO, Bob Lewis Fishing Kites and S.F.E. are widely available at full-service tackle retailers such as:

Capt. Harry's Fishing Supply, (800) 327-4088; www.captharry.com

Finest Kind Offshore Tackle, (888) 777-9789; www.finestkind.net

The Fisherman's Center, (800) 765- 7637; www.fishermanscenter.com

Worldwide Sportsman, (305) 664-4615; www.worldwidesportsman.com