Baitfish Profiles: Best Baits for Sailfish Season

After the first few cold fronts of the winter graced the Sunshine State in the last few months, the first two months of the new year will provide similar conditions. In southeast Florida, this means sailfish season will peak, and anglers throughout the region are gearing up to make the most of the southward spindlebeak migration. While your knowledge of the fishery and being in the right place at the right time is crucial, in this neck of the woods, nothing happens unless you’ve got the right baits.

Notice that I said “baits,” plural. Sailfish can be finicky feeders and this time of year, with so many different forage options roaming our waters, it’s important to match the hatch. I realize that it’s not always easy to find a variety of baits to stock up on before heading offshore, but the more options you equip yourself with, the better.

best baits for sailfishing
PHOTOGRAPHY: pete milisci

Whether you’re on a tiny center console braving the northeasterly breezes after a front or enjoying the cockpit of a large sportfish yacht, your presentation matters. I’m going to let you in on a little secret: The sailfish don’t care how expensive your gear or boat is. The anglers who find the most success this time of year are the ones who put themselves in the direct path of the sailfish migration when the right conditions present themselves, deploying immaculate spreads of lively baits. The recipe is simple, but the execution can be tricky.

First of all, regardless of the bait you’re using, you need to make sure that your presentation – meaning leader, hook and bait – looks natural to feeding sails. There’s a lot of bait around out there and these fish are moving south quickly, so you can bet they’re not going to settle for a snack that doesn’t seem right. Furthermore, you likely won’t be the only boat out there on any given day, so you need to make sure you do the little things right and stack the odds in your favor. Depending on the clarity of the water and the general aggressiveness of the fish, your fluorocarbon leader presentation should vary between 30 and 40 lb. test. However, on slow days when it seems like I can’t buy a bite, I’m not afraid to drop down to 20 or 25 lb. fluoro. Just make sure that when you do this, you adjust your drag accordingly while you’re fighting a fish.

Florida sailfishing
PHOTOGRAPHY: Capt. Matt Arnholt

The same consideration goes for hook size. Whether you’re kite fishing or flat lining, you should be using non-offset circle hooks. The size of the hook, however, can vary a bit depending on the size of the bait you’re using. For larger offerings like goggle eye and blue runner, a 5/0 hook should do the trick. However, hook size ratings are different from one manufacturer to the next. So, a 5/0 circle hook from VMC may not be the same size as a 5/0 from Mustad, for example. For smaller baits like pilchard, you may need to drop down to a 3/0. Remember, the goal here is to make the bait look as natural as possible and using a hook too big will inhibit your bait’s ability to swim freely. Conversely, using a hook that’s too small on a larger bait will allow the bait to swim naturally, but you may miss more bites. Sailfish aficionados know this, but for those of you novice anglers looking to get into the sailfish game: Bridle your baits. It may seem tedious, and it takes a little practice, but all you need is a small, inexpensive kit consisting of bridling needles and rubber bands. Bridling your baits not only allows them to swim more naturally and gets you more bites, but it also leaves the entire hook exposed, leading to a better hook-up ratio.

Finally, let’s get to perhaps the most important part of the whole equation – the baits themselves. Variety is your best friend here, as you never know what the hot ticket item will be until you get out there. Fishing reports from fellow anglers from the day before can be helpful, but these fish seem to change their minds in the snap of a finger. I’ve had days when a livewell full of big, healthy pilchard and goggle eye did me no good, but those fishing Spanish sardine and threadfin herring had enviable success. Conversely, there are days when the fish are keying in on smaller finfish, making the large goggle eye undesirable, but the lowly pilchard a great choice.

My suggestion would be to not only gather as many different bait species as you can, but to also make sure you don’t overcrowd your livewell and take extremely good care of the baits. Bait health is often just as important as the species of bait. Even if all you can muster up is a few dozen pilchard, some cigar minnow and maybe even a few blue runner, it’s better than heading out with just one option. Furthermore, when you’re setting your spread, mix things up and make sure you have a few different baits in the water at the same time. After a few bites, if it seems that the fish are only keen on a certain species of bait, make that the star of the show.