Here in Florida, we’re familiar with the clusters of thunderstorms coming off Africa that turn into the tropical depressions finding their way across the Atlantic Ocean, but on the West Coast of the United States anglers have been focused on a historic El Niño event that’s been driving warmer than average water temperatures to their local waters. While El Niño provides increased action with pelagic fisheries that are not commonly within reach of California anglers, you may not realize that this cyclical anomaly alters weather patterns across the country and can dramatically impact the migrations of winter fisheries and species in the Atlantic, particularly sailfish.


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Photo: Pelagic Gear

Florida has numerous game fish both inshore and offshore that have reached trophy status, and many more that have not. However, of the diverse species found in our region sailfish have one of the most widespread distributions and scale of seasonal movement patterns based on prevailing weather conditions.

During typical weather patterns trade winds along the Equator push warm water away from the West Coast, but during El Niño the winds diminish and sometimes reverse, enabling bands of warmer water to push into the central and east Pacific.

The heaviest concentrations of sailfish along the Atlantic Basin occur in the Gulf of Mexico and off the Yucatan Peninsula, East Coast of Florida, and off the coasts of Brazil and western Africa. During prime seasonal migrations South Florida sailfishing goes absolutely insane, with boats posting dozens of releases on any given day, rivaling that of nearly any tropical destination on Earth.

Depending on the severity and breadth of winter cold fronts training south, the conditions could be epic, or they could be awful. Sailfish are commonly found along the warm waters of the Gulf Stream and their migration patterns and timing are in direct relation to the changes in water temperature along the coast.

On the other side of the country with the chance of creating havoc here, El Niño is the warm-water phase of a Pacific Ocean cycle called the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and refers to a warm band of water that spreads out along the Equator east of the International Date Line. During typical weather patterns trade winds along the Equator push warm water away from the West Coast, but during El Niño the winds diminish and sometimes reverse, enabling bands of warmer water to push into the central and east Pacific. This stretch of water as measured by sea surface temperature and altimetry is accompanied by high pressure in the western Pacific and low pressure in the eastern Pacific.

Typically, the El Niño anomaly occurs at irregular intervals between two to seven years and may last just as long, with the current cycle predicted to extend into the spring of 2016. The opposing cycle of cooler ocean water is called La Niña, but both patterns dictate noticeable global changes in both temperature and rainfall. As a result of El Niño, developing nations that ring the eastern Pacific Rim experience drastic affects in terms of agricultural production with increased rainfall and warmer surface water limiting the upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich deep water. The reduction in upwelling leads to mass fish kills, while spurring a domino effect over agriculture and other land-dependent industries, not-withstanding corresponding fisheries.

In SoCal, El Niño has been responsible for some of the best local fishing seen in decades with both yellowfin and bluefin tuna, as well as dorado, yellowtail, and striped marlin just mere miles from most marinas. While a common catch in the waters off Mexico and southern Baja, these pelagic game fish are rarely captured north of the border. The delivering of warmer waters to the California coast has since ignited the bite, with anglers catching big tuna and more only a few miles off the coast.

El Niño’s more significant impact on weather patterns for the U.S. will occur from late fall through winter due to the season’s propensity toward larger weather-related influences. Bound to happen is a cooler, wetter season in the South as the Pacific jet stream stays southerly making for warmer, drier air to the west, north and down the East Coast.

Weather has dominion over all things, and fishing is no exception. Florida’s east coast is ground zero for the best sailfish action in the country, and may have much to thank El Niño for. Cooler days up the seaboard prompt more sailfish action than not, as the great billfish drive south herding prey with their sails and bills. With current predictions, warmer  water might linger off Jacksonville and Daytona, with sailfish and other species less inclined to move south. As a result, anglers along Sailfish Alley may see less action this upcoming season, but only time will tell.

In South Florida seasoned captains and anglers need only steam within sight of the beach to encounter a bite that becomes more active when cool winter temps set in up north and the offshore breeze blows hard. Could drier, warmer winters in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast as a result of El Niño in the Pacific be responsible for warmer water up the Eastern Seaboard, inhibiting forage species from making more southerly travels? Or, is South Florida fishing immune to patterns of weather coming east given the Gulf Stream’s warming swing to within miles of the beach, and the continental shelf’s nearby drop off with its abundance of nutrient-rich water, bait and pursuing sailfish?

While studies haven’t been conducted to answer these questions as of publication, what is agreed is that cooler water is more nutrient-rich which then attracts baitfish schools, giving sailfish and other species more of an opportunity to chase their prey wherever that prey is headed. For purposes of argument, certain conditions have to be met, be they weather, abundance of baitfish, water temperature and migration patterns in order to locate sailfish populations. Confusing is the effect of the species’ preference for warm water but its need of baitfish schools that prefer cooler, more nutrient-rich water.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued an El Niño update that said current conditions continue to move ahead. NOAA forecasters have predicted this event could last beyond the fall, with an 85 percent chance of continuing through this winter. As measured, sea surface temperatures were all up across the tropical Pacific that will inevitably inundate the southern U.S. with heavy precipitation and more noticeable weather. This results from the position and strength of the jet stream, which is heavily dictated by El Niño events.

Whatever the case, El Niño is likely to keep the winter warmer and drier in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast leaving the water no other option but to rise above average in temperature. That being said, sailfish and other warm-water species might be more apt to keep north making annual migrations to the southeast less desirable when winter arrives.

If predictions and forecasts are correct concerning the influence of El Niño on East Coast fisheries, sailfish and other warm-water game fish species might be comfortable overwintering off the Carolinas. Mother Nature has a strange way of leveling playing fields, where one such plateau can benefit after years or seasons of inactivity. With El Niño’s global influence, Florida’s fisheries as a whole may seem unaffected with notably warmer sea temperatures year round, though other locations bordering the East Coast could very well see an up-tick in fishing bite and baitfish presence.

Scientists are calling for the strongest El Niño in 50 years, but it’s important to remember there is great variability in seasonal weather patterns and only time will tell if the Pacific may truly have some sort of control over fisheries here in the Sunshine State. Whether you prefer to troll or live bait for sailfish, let’s hope for northwest winds, dropping pressure and tailing conditions offshore.