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.
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;
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.
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.
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."
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.
"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.
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.