You’ll often hear Florida referred to as the “Sportfishing Capital of the World.” The moniker is well deserved as Florida is home to one of the most abundant saltwater fisheries in the United States.
Anglers flock to the Sunshine State every year to get in on the action, but of all the fish you can catch in Florida, the Atlantic sailfish is one of the most popular to target. I guess that’s why the sailfish is the state’s official saltwater fish.
Both tourists and locals chase sails because the fish thrive close to shore off of south Florida, they put on an acrobatic fight, they’re the perfect size for any angler (man, child or woman) and for most fishermen, the sailfish was their first billfish ever caught. They’re also beautiful and a challenging fish to catch, but the real beauty about catching a high-flying sailfish is that anyone can do it.
Florida Sailfish Season
You can find sailfish at any time of the year off the coast of south Florida, but the peak of the season typically starts in late November and runs full speed through April.
“The good news is the sails are around for a long time,” says Peter Miller, who has been fishing sailfish tournaments in Florida for the past 22 years and currently hosts Bass2Billfish (www.bass2billfish.com), a television show on NBC Sports Outdoors. “The best time of year to target sailfish runs from November all the way to May.”
You can catch sailfish any time during the annual run, but certain conditions really kick the bite into high gear. Sailfish start to actively feed around the winter cold fronts that blow through the state. You may need to wear some foul-weather gear, but the payoff is a double-digit day with sails —you could catch anywhere from 10 to 30 or more fish on a single outing.
“My favorite condition is right after a cold front in a good north wind,” says Miller. “The sailfish actually surf down the face of the waves and you can sight fish for them.”
As the fronts bear down on Florida, the barometer will drop and the winds will pick up. As the weather builds, the wind might start blowing from the southwest, this is the worst-case scenario for sailfishing, but don’t fret, it’s going to get better. When the wind shifts and blows from the west the bite will start to improve. Once it starts blowing from the northwest, you should see more sailfish behind your baits. The sails will aggressively feed on through a northeast wind. When these conditions combine with a good abundance of local fish, the bite can go insane.
In the 2011 Mayor’s Cup tournament held in Miami, a cold front blew through right before the event and the sailfish got frisky. On the first day of the tournament the fleet released 256 sailfish! The top boat, Get Lit, captained by Quinton “Q” Dieterle won the top spot with a total of 29 sailfish releases in the event.
The best bite ever recorded in a Miami sailfish tournament took place in the 2005 Sailfish Kickoff. Participants caught and released 400 sailfish in one day of fishing, which translates to a caught fish every minute and 10 seconds.
“The number of fish you can expect to see depends on conditions,” says Capt. Quinton Dieterle, who operates a charter boat out of Miami (305-361-9740; miamicharterfishing.com) and also fishes with the Get Lit team. “On an average day with fish tailing in a north wind you could see probably 10 to 20 fish. But on a phenomenal day you could see twice that many fish. We’ve had days where we caught 33, all on live bait.”
You don’t need to travel very far offshore when heading out of Miami’s Government Cut to find sailfish. Most captains fish the reefs and ledges in water depths from 150 to 300 feet, which is typically within sight of land. Fishing live baits off of kites is the most common technique that experienced South Florida captains employ to hook up with sails. You’ll see boats drifting up and down the reef edges with kites flying high.
It may sound a bit odd to use a kite when fishing, but it works like a charm. Most boats will set out two kites, one from the bow and one off the stern. They then hook a live bait and toss it in the water. They take the line that has the bait and attach it to a clip on the kite line. The clip will pull the fishing line out towards the kite. This allows you to spread your baits far out from the boat. When you get a bite, the line pulls out of the clip.
It’s easy to get caught up in the sailfish frenzy, run down to Captain Harry’s Tackle Shop and drop thousands of dollars getting yourself outfitted, but if you’re just starting out, that’s really not necessary. My suggestion for anyone getting into the sport is to go fishing with a local, experienced charter captain such as Dieterle. Miami is a great spot to charter fish as some of the sport’s best guides call this area home. Capt. Bouncer Smith (www.captbouncer.com; 305-573-8224) and Capt. Ray Rosher (www.missbritt.com; 305-596-0419) are two other top Miami captains who have decades of experience. If you book a trip with any of these captains and tell them that you’re new to the sport and want to learn how to fish for sailfish, they’ll show you the ways. Listen to the mates and the captain, do what they tell you and you’ll be catching fish in no time.
Most every crew fishes with light tackle for sails, that’s what makes this fishery ideal for youngsters and novice anglers. You won’t be battling with a giant reel, you’ll probably be using a 12- to 20-pound outfit that will feel comfortable in your hands. And, you don’t need to put a ton of drag against a sailfish to catch it. The more drag you use, the more pressure the angler feels.
Sailfish fight hard for sure, but they don’t have the shoulders of a big blue marlin or even a grouper. Anyone can fight a sailfish and enjoy the triumphant experience of landing one. Trust me, you’ll treasure that photo of you leaning over the boat with your hand on the bill of your first sailfish.
Using live bait is the key to catching sailfish. Acquiring live bait is a science in and of itself. Many crews spend just as much time catching bait as they do chasing sailfish. Baitfish may only be the size of your hand, but finding them can be one of the most frustrating parts of sailfishing.
“Live bait is critical here in South Florida to score big numbers of sailfish,” Miller says. “We use blue runners, threadfin herring, sardines and goggle-eyes. These can all be purchased if you have the funds. If not, you can go out and catch them yourself.”
You’ll see crews jigging what are known as sabiki rigs in the channel and around markers and wrecks to find bait. Sabiki rigs are very inexpensive and usually have six small hooks with a little feather or mylar strip on each hook. You put a weight on the end of the sabiki rig and jig it up and down till you feel the bait come tight. Knowing how to use your fish finder is critical to finding bait concentrations.
“There are a few really good baits that we like to have,” Dieterle says. “Tinker mackerel, sardines, threadfin herring and goggle-eyes are probably the best. If you don’t have time to catch or buy those baits, pilchards and blue runners are easy to get and will catch fish too. On some days the sailfish bite better on one type of bait. In that case you want to identify the bait the sails are keying in on and use it — if you have that luxury.”
More often than not, the key to catching a bunch of sailfish is being at the right place at the right time. And for a winter-time bite, few places can hold a candle to Miami. Even if the fish aren’t right outside Government Cut, you can easily head south and fish off the Keys, or run to the north if the fish are up by the Palm Beach area. No matter where the fish are, Miami serves as ground zero for finding Atlantic sailfish.
“South Florida is by far one of the best places on Earth to target sailfish,” Miller says. “The fact that you can catch sailfish within eyeshot of land and then be back at the dock in 20 minutes for a gourmet dinner on South Beach is pretty cool. There are not many places in the world like south Florida for that kind of schedule.”
Photos courtesy of Peter Miller. To see Peter in action watch for his TV show “Bass 2 Billfish” or visit www.bass2billfish.com.
Fishing Florida’s Sailfish Tournaments
There’s a sailfish tournament just about every weekend somewhere in Miami from December through April. These events are a great way to meet other active anglers and compete with some of the best fishing teams in the state. You can also win a big, six-figure payday.
“For anyone that wants to start fishing tournaments, I’d say practice makes perfect,” says Peter Miller who has won several tournaments in Florida fishing on the Get Lit. “Go out there consistently and ask lots of questions. Go to seminars, watch videos online and practice, practice, practice.”
Just about all of the tournaments have a basic entry fee and then several optional jackpots. To get into the big payouts, you have to enter all of the various daily jackpots.
“When starting out, don’t go into the big bets, start slow and work your way up,” Miller says.
Miami Sailfish Tournaments
Sailfish Kickoff: www.sailfishkickoff.com, (305) 461-2700
Mayor’s Cup: www.mayorscuptournament.com, (305) 461-2700
Yamaha-Contender Miami Billfish: www.miamibillfish.com, (305) 598-2525
Capt. Bob Lewis Challenge: www.billfishchallenge.com, (786) 395-0395
The Sailfish Challenge: http://www.bluewatermovements.com/salifish_challenge, (954) 725-4010