Florida’s billfish frenzy is once again in full-force and with the procession of winter cold fronts and coinciding baitfish migrations, anglers of all skill levels will be staged along southeast reef lines in hopes of another banner season.
Miraculously, top tournament competitors often pull a rabbit out of the hat and score double-digit releases when typical weekend warriors fishing the same general area can’t seem to buy a bite. Part of this consistent sailfish success relies on years of experience and keen observations, although being outfitted with a variety of fresh and frisky offerings certainly helps the cause. Whether or not you clear the nearest inlet hoping to end the day on top of the leaderboard or you’re simply trying to improve your skills and create lasting memories, you should know that there’s no secret technique or magic live bait that will consistently seek the results you’re after. While supercharged sailfish are indeed opportunistic feeders they can also be extremely fussy, which is precisely when an array of live enticements will help put you on top.
While these majestic game fish make angling dreams come true on nearly every given day, they’re also capable of crushing your hopes like no other. Sometimes the sailfish bite will be off the charts and it will be tough to keep bait in the water, while on other days the fish will be so finicky that you’ll cherish a single release. When curious spindlebeaks are over particular they will painstakingly scrutinize your offerings before either settling on a worthy source of protein, or simply taking off in the opposite direction. There’s no real understanding as to why these brilliant predators are gluttons on some days and slothful on others. While water clarity, prevalence of forage species and terminal tackle presentation all play a role, sometimes their reasoning is beyond the scope of even the most successful sailfishermen.
If you’ve ever competed in or strolled the docks before a big money sailfish tournament, you’ll notice how meticulous top crews are in caring for and transporting live bait. Dip-netting 100 threadfin herring one-at-a-time is no doubt a chore for the first mate…and catching a quality supply is another story altogether. Glance at the cockpit of any tournament ready battlewagon and you’ll likely notice removable bait tanks in addition to built-in livewells. You may ask yourself why a single boat would need 300-gallons of livewell capacity? The answer relies on the fact that experienced crews understand the importance of having multiple species of baitfish at their disposal to satisfy whatever daily flavor the sails have a taste for. Seasoned vets know these cherished game fish can be as picky as a 6-year old with hard-to-please eating habits. And while weekend warriors simply looking to improve their skills don’t need to segregate species, heading out to sea with a variety of offerings will certainly lean the odds in your favor.
Although some baitfish outshine others under specific scenarios and atmospheric conditions, day in and day out “gogs” are impossible to beat. Best when dangled off a kite, this hardy baitfish has the strength and stamina to last for hours. Another reason they are so effective when presented on the surface is that their size makes them the perfect choice when additional weight is needed under blustery conditions. By keeping your circle-hook fully exposed, bridling is an extremely effective way to present your tempting morsel in the most enticing manner. When destined for a kite the most ideal location to place the bridled hook is in the baitfish’s back, directly in front of the dorsal fin. This will enable your super scad to dig and display itself in the most lifelike manner.
Scale baits like threadfin herring, commonly referred to as “greenies,” are popular enticements and on some days just what the sailfish doctor ordered. Aptly named due to the long thread-like fin that extends behind the dorsal, these fragile baits resemble pilchards although they’re more desirable because they grow much larger. Effective when fished off kites and flat lines, no matter how you plan on fishing these baits it’s important you keep them happy in an adequately circulating livewell. However make no mistake—these are not hardy baits and will quickly float belly up from the result of overcrowding or mishandling. While baits destined for flat lines are typically hooked through the nose, you’ll want to bridle your threadfin just behind the head. This will cause the greenie to frantically swim up and down throughout the water column.
Every winter ballyhoo gravitate to the warm ocean water from Florida Bay and hungry sailfish are eager to take advantage of the frenzy. Ballyhoo are some of the most commonly encountered baitfish species along the reef line so it makes perfect sense that they are many captain’s go-to sailfish bait. This is especially true across the Florida Keys. When rigging a ballyhoo for a flat line you’ll want to insert the hook in the soft spot of cartilage in front of the V on the bottom jaw. Insert your hook from the top down so your hook shank rests parallel to the ballyhoo’s bill. The hook should not go through the upper lip. Attach a piece of monel rigging wire to the eye of the hook and wrap the hook shank to the bill. While you can catch ballyhoo with a cast net, if you use a small gold hook they will survive in your livewell much longer. Forage fish are fragile and baits caught in a cast net often perish do to the loss of scales and slime coat.
Double The Fun
Sailfish are incredible predators and have a remarkable ability to locate baits in a seemingly desolate stretch of water. Often popping up in doubles and triples, if you can capitalize on the bites you can almost guarantee chaos in the cockpit. When you find yourself in a heated battle with multiple fish hooked up, it is absolutely critical that the anglers follow their fish. While it is up to the captain to position the boat so everyone has the best shot at scoring a release, proper fish fighting skills do play a large role in the ultimate outcome of any multiple hook up scenario. When fishing from a center console it’s easy to follow your fish if it heads towards the horizon. Fishing from a convertible sportfish presents a different situation altogether. I can tell you from personal experiences in numerous sailfish tournaments that when money is on the line anything goes. While I’ve witnessed some pretty hairy maneuvers, perhaps the greatest was during last year’s World Sailfish Cup fishing aboard Sandman. With one fish heading off the bow and the other straight off the transom, to say the anglers were stretched out was a vast understatement. With much needed points on the line the angler with the fish off the bow walked to the front deck of the tricked-out Spencer and literally took a seat in the anchor locker. This gave him the opportunity to safely fight the fish in the sporty 6 to 8-foot seas. While you probably wouldn’t risk this on a weekend outing with family and friends—when money is on the line every fish counts. One thing to certainly avoid is tightening your drag or thumbing the spool in an effort to turn a fish’s head. Certainly keep your line tight, but don’t apply too much pressure. Follow your fish during directional changes and you will control the fight. If hooked sails happen to cross paths put the rod tips together and sort out the tangle.
Circle Of Life
While the use of non-offset circle-hooks is required in all sailfish tournaments, you should exercise sound conservation practices every time you hit the water. Part of the effectiveness of circle-hooks relies on the use of bridles that keep the hooks exposed for greater hookup ratios. To connect the rigging band to your hook, simply loop the band through itself and pull tight, creating a loop around the bend of the hook. Next, place the loop of the rigging band in the open eye of your rigging needle. When it comes time to bridle a bait insert the needle through your victim in the appropriate location related to the bait’s intention. Now place the hook point through the open loop and twist the hook until the bend of the shank sits snug against the bait. Proceed to thread the hook point under the bridge formed in the twisted band and you are ready for action.