Plan B

With sailfish season upon us once again, anglers searching for supercharged spindlebeaks will be scouring near-shore waters in search of the perfect enticements. However, the sailfish that inundate South Florida during the fall and winter months aren’t here to stay, as they will eventually move on and continue their southward migration while fixated on schooling baitfish. And while volumes have been written about the effectiveness of goggle eye, herring and sardines, the best baits will at times be the ones that are most readily available.


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A cast net is the most effective means of capturing a solid supply of ballyhoo. Photo: Pat Ford

When talking consistent sailfish success you’d be hard pressed to ignore ballyhoo. Although commonly encountered in the frozen variety and found throughout bait freezers across Florida, live ballyhoo are extremely prevalent in area waters during the winter months and are absolutely irresistible to cruising sailfish. Even though trolled enticements will get you connected, fishing live ballyhoo is the way to go when millions of these streamlined baits occupy area waters. While many anglers choose to lose sleep chasing more robust baitfish, ballyhoo can be caught with relative ease during any hour of the day. They also make for a perfect substitute when other baitfish aren’t available. Simply outfit yourself with the right tools and you’re in the game.

Sailfish devour a variety of baitfish, but at times there’s only one thing on the menu.

Prevalent over most shallow patch reefs across the southeast and nearby Florida Keys, ballyhoo respond well to a steady flowing chum slick. In addition to a flood of fresh ballyhoo, you’ll likely have additional forage species race in to capitalize on the free handouts. That being said, once a healthy population of ballyhoo has invaded your slick there are a few ways to score. While a cast net will offer quantity, the act of netting and dropping baits on the deck damages scales and slime coat. This can substantially weaken and even end a ballyhoo’s life. However, if the ballyhoo schools are thick and you can hit them with a pancake you’ll be able to end your baitfishing endeavors in a matter of minutes. If ballyhoo are more scattered, then it’s all about quality and it will be well worth your time to catch them one at a time.

A Sabiki rigged with a float will tempt a few, but a better approach is to prepare an ultra-light spinning outfit with 6 lb. test. The light line is a must in order to avoid detection. Tie on a small, long shank gold hook and attach a tiny morsel of squid or shrimp. As you drift the bait back into the slick you should be able to watch it disappear upon a strike. From here slowly retrieve your line and avoid touching baits with your bare hands. Dehookers serve a useful purpose. Ballyhoo are also prone to jumping out of your livewell so be sure to keep the lid closed when you’re not transferring baits. Once you have secured a minimum of two dozen prime hook baits it is time to start fishing.

Although ballyhoo can be effectively fished off a kite, flat-lining or slow-trolling is typically the best way to go. When fishing ballyhoo for sailfish you’ll want to rig with a 6/0 non-offset circle-hook. Attach your leader and prepare a 4 inch piece of copper rigging wire. Insert the wire into the hook eye and make about seven or eight wraps around the hook shank just below the eye. The wire should now be secure with the tag end exiting the eye. Gently collect a lively ballyhoo from the baitwell and insert your hook into the soft cartilage in front of the “V” along its bottom jaw. Insert the hook from the top down so the shank of the hook is parallel with the bill. Do not insert the hook through the top lip. From here simply take the copper wire and wrap the hook shank to the bill to keep it secure. Four or five wraps will suffice. Make sure this is a speedy process because you don’t want to keep your ballyhoo out of the water for an extended period of time. The effectiveness of this rig is incredible and its quick rig attributes are equally important.

Sailfish devour a variety of baitfish, but at times there’s only one thing on the menu. With ballyhoo and sailfish invading area waters you are now ready to capitalize on light tackle billfishing at its finest. Be sure to provide frisky sails a healthy release to ensure the future of sportfishing in Florida.