Outside of extreme southern Florida and the Florida Keys (where live-baiting is widely practiced for sailfish), trolling natural baits, lures or both together is the best option. The reason why is because anglers must cover greater bottom expanses to find sailfish.
Live-baiting for sailfish works best with compact targets like reefs, high profile structures and wrecks within 80- to 250-foot depths. These targets in southern Florida are washed by Loop Current, Gulf Stream offshoots, or Gulf Stream edges, steering sailfish to very particular spots that anglers can exploit.
There’s even a sporting sentiment to trolling. Some regions frown upon live-baiting and the increased risk of deeply hooking a fish. Many also contend that greater skill is involved in rigging lures and baits, establishing an appealing spread with daisy chain teasers and dredges, and dropping back to successfully hooking these billfish.
Side stepping the debate between live-baiting and trolling, check out these top baits and lures for sailfish, no matter your style of fishing.
Top Trolling Lures for Sailfish
Below are the top three trolling lures for Atlantic sailfish. These excellent producers work well naked, without baits. Two are regional South Florida and Florida Keys favorites, but they’re all available online. Similar lure styles will work across different regions, and wherever sailfish exist.
Top Three Pure Trolling Lures for Sailfish
Mold Craft Junior Wide Range
This long-standing international favorite continues to rack up sailfish releases. Frank Johnson, Sr., Mold Craft’s founder, developed the soft head concept so his lures would feel more natural to billfish. This fools them into holding onto the lures longer for better hookup ratios. The 4-inch lure features a ½-inch diameter, blunt head. Extremely versatile, the soft head tracks well over various speeds and in rough seas.
Capt. Harry’s Blue Boy
This 6-inch lure’s translucent skirt changes colors under various light conditions and water hues. It basically lights up like a panicked bait when a predator’s closing in — the natural illusion might be the key to getting a window shopper sailfish to strike. Its concave head generates an impressive smoke trail, even at slower trolling speeds, and bite size is easily contained by sailfish.
Islamorada Flyer (Original)
A realistic flying fish replica from the Florida Keys, the Original Blue & Silver Small Single Skirt lure is around 5 inches in length. Its small, semi-round head is not prone to interfering with hook sets. Soft, reflective wings also generate vibrations, adding to the lure’s potency. Flying fish is a natural forage of sailfish and numerous other pelagic species.
Rigging Artificial Lures for Sailfish
- Leader: Fluorocarbon, 80-pound test, six to 10 feet long
- Hook: Single, 7/0 to 8/0 O’Shaughnessy style, positioned just inside the lure’s rear skirt
NOTE: In-line circle hooks are standard when live-baiting for sailfish and trolling natural baits and lure/bait combos, as they greatly reduce deep-hooking fish. However, for trolling pure artificial lures, J-style hooks are still widely used; a sailfish is generally hooked in the mouth during the strike.
Lure and Bait Combos for Sailfish
Note: National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) mandates the use of non-offset circle hooks with natural baits for all billfish tournaments. This includes lure/natural bait combos. Purely artificial lures are exempt.
Tournament Tackle Ilander
It’s impossible to even ballpark how many sailfish, and other pelagics, the original Ilander has accounted for since Jim Kress introduced it in 1976 as the Hawaiian Eye. Whether solo or towing a bait, fish have a difficult time turning down the 8-inch long lure. For sailfish, add a small to medium size ballyhoo. The brilliance of the Ilander skirts, in conjunction with the scents and tastes of natural bait, make it a leading choice among serious offshore trollers. The Ilander 400 lure comprise many dredges and even daisy chains.
Tournament Tackle Ilander Junior
Unleashing the same subsurface, straight tracking and brilliance of the original Ilander, the Ilander Junior is more bite size at 6¾ inches. Small baits are best when exclusively pursuing sailfish. Add a small ballyhoo, bonito or mahi strip to this lure, and it’ll stack up against any other sailfish trolling lure/bait combo out there.
Boone Squid Skirts
When sailfish are keyed into small flying fish, ballyhoo or squid, raising them up to the surface requires you to match the hatch. Boone’s 4.25-inch Squid Squirt is perfect for slipping over pee wee and small ballyhoo and bait strips. Match skirt color to the primary hue of the most abundant bait. These skirted baits are light and will splash near the surface at even slow trolling speeds. If more ballast is needed, add a small egg sinker. In clear water, like the Florida Keys, drop down to a 50-pound-test fluorocarbon leader and smaller in-line circle hook.
NOTE: With lure/bait combos in billfish competitions or when exclusively pursuing billfish, the in-line circle hook rides in front of the lure head. This provides the clearest, non-obstructed path for it to successfully set.
Natural Baits for Sailfish
Small Skipping Ballyhoo
An all-time favorite sailfish trolling bait, a small ballyhoo skipping across the surface also comes with greater hookup successes. Credit this to its low profile, which is easily contained by a sailfish, and relatively soft body, which crushes easily and enables the circle hook to set without interference.
While a circle hook rides out front of, or on the head of most natural baits, when exclusively pursing billfish, one can be rigged in J-hook fashion on a small ballyhoo. An in-line circle hook trolls just as well as a J-hook inside a small ballyhoo.
Small Swimming Ballyhoo
For slower trolling and sub-surface presentations, a properly-rigged swimming ballyhoo resembles the real thing. Like the skipping ballyhoo mentioned above, this small profile bait can be rigged with the in-line circle hook in front of it, or with its bend and point protruding through the center of the throat in J-style hook fashion. A small egg sinker secured under its throat provides the weight.
Circle-Hook Rigging Ballyhoo For Sailfish
- Slip a small barrel swivel over the point of in-line circle hook, which, in turn, is secured to an 80-pound test fluorocarbon leader. (In this illustration, a crimp is used.)
- Attach a length of Monel wire to the swivel’s opposite eye.
- Push the Monel wire through the upper and lower jaws of the bait and pull the swivel tight to the bait’s upper head/jaw.
- Slide an egg sinker onto the Monel wire, and secure that sinker tightly underneath the bait’s throat (accomplished by taking a few tight wraps through the bait’s eye sockets and on both sides of the sinker). Run the Monel wire back up through the ballyhoo’s lower and upper jaws, tightly wrapping it a few times around the rear eye of the swivel and jaws, and also underneath the swivel to close the jaws.
Split Tail Silver Mullet
A silver mullet between five and 10 inches, de-boned, split-tailed and rigged to swim is a classic natural bait for sails. The narrow heads and bodies of silver mullet are preferred over the broader, blunter heads and bodies of black mullet; silvers swim much better and promote better hook up ratios. Use just enough weight to get it swimming and a wider gap circle hook on the bait’s head for the best results.
Squid for Sailfish
A 6- to 8-inch squid is an ideal sailfish trolling bait, which skirts enticingly at the surface and offers high hook up percentages (their soft bodies compress easily). An in-line circle hook can be positioned just behind the wings of the squid, with only hook bend and point exposed or with the full hook completely exposed and stitched to the bait (once its leader is run through the mantle).