Proven Techniques for Targeting Winter Sailfish

The fall and winter months are approaching, and, for most people, the excitement of the holidays is on the horizon. Maybe your favorite seasonal coffee just became available or you’re looking forward to crisp weather spent with loved ones. But, if you’re an offshore angler in Florida, this means only one thing: The water temps are cooling, and the most exciting offshore game species fishing is about to heat up. We’re talking sailfish.

Winter Sailfishing

Upon the first cold fronts of the year, sailfish can be targeted in the state anywhere from Key West to Central East Florida, and they usually stick around until March when temps begin to rise again. During these months, groups of fish move up and down the east coast, chasing ideal water temps and bait. Some of the best captains, from Fort Pierce to Key West, target them differently depending on their areas. Whether you’re a local Floridian or someone headed to the Sunshine State on vacation, you owe it to yourself to experience what these beautiful fish offer.

Before we get into the different ways to target these fish, let’s get into what sailfish are. They’re regarded as one of the fastest fish in the ocean and have been clocked upwards of 60 mph. Sailfish are distinguished by their large dorsal fin running the length of their body (which resembles a sail) and their elongated bill. Their lifespan is around 16 years, and they prefer water temps ranging from 70 to 82 degrees. These fish are challenging to target, beautiful, display acrobatic jumps once hooked and make long, fast runs. This is the perfect recipe for why they’re highly sought-after game fish. The best practice to ensure the release of a happy, healthy fish is to keep them in the water. Take a few photos boat side and remove the hook. Take the time to fully revive the sailfish, keeping the boat in gear while someone is making sure the fish kicks off strong before the final release.

winter sailfish

Starting in the southernmost region from Key West to Islamorada, sailfish can be seen as shallow as 20 feet but are often out to 150 feet, feeding predominately on ballyhoo. In the early season months, dead ballyhoo trollers are rigged to swim subsurface at about 6 knots with teasers to cover large areas of ground to locate the fish. Very similar to what many of you might be familiar with targeting mahi-mahi. Pretty much anything that swims offshore will not hesitate to strike ballyhoo. They can be caught using cast nets or individually with hook and line.

As water temps continue to drop into December, sailfish tend to move into shallower depths to target groups of baitfish that congregate from the bay to the edge of the reef where the water is warmer. In these shallow conditions, live ballyhoo is slowly trolled and, often, if the boat is in the right position, can be sight-casted with live ballyhoo as a group of sailfish corral schools of baitfish to the surface. This is called “shower fishing,” as ballyhoo explodes to the surface with hungry sails below. If the bite is slow, individual fish can be targeted over a light sandy bottom in 30 to 60 feet, with a tower boat covering much ground and keeping an eye out for their dark silhouettes contrasting against the light-colored bottom.

How to target winter sailfish

Come late season in the spring months of April and May, when an east wind coincides with an opposing spring tide, it results in a color change in the water, usually between 70 and 250 feet. When this occurs, sailfish are found “tailing,” swimming the edge of this color change down sea with the top half of their tails fully out of the water. The most important element in fishing the edge is all about the current. Find the current and you find the fish. The second most important factor is the bait. Always make sure your baits are fresh and lively to ensure bites from finicky sails.

Moving north from Miami to Pompano Beach, there’s one method of fishing for sailfish that stands out from the rest — and that’s kite fishing. Although many tactics from the Keys can be utilized to the north and vice versa, a definite favorite is using the kite method of dangling baitfish just on the surface of the water while drifting. Not only is this extremely effective, but it’s also extremely exciting because you see the fish approach and, hopefully, eat your baits. And just like sight fishing them in the Keys with live ballyhoo, seeing that bite is arguably the best part about targeting these fish. Historically, captains would use whatever baits they could get their hands on to throw up on the kite. Anything ranging from mullet to pinfish or pilchards. Nowadays, goggle eyes are the norm because of their hardiness, activity on top of the water while on the kite and the fact that sailfish love them. 

Kite fishing for sailfish

Kite fishing itself looks intimidating but actually is extremely simple and, like anything else, practice makes perfect. The devil is in the small details, like ensuring you have enough split shots on the kite to how the bait is rigged to the hook. Often, captains will fly two kites with two to three baits each. Using split shots on opposing edges of the kites ensures they separate in opposite directions. Baits are suspended throughout intervals on the main kite reel line using release clips. These clips are designed to release the line when under pressure. Kite fishing is an extremely interactive activity. Depending on fluctuations in the wind, the kite will rise and fall, changing the levels of the baits attached to the main line. This requires someone to man each kite and constantly pay attention to the levels of the baits, adjusting them to ensure they are right on the surface as the kite changes altitude.

Kite fishing for sailfish

Baits are traditionally “bridled” to the hook. In other words, a needle attached to a small rubber band is placed on the hook. The needle is then inserted into the back of the bait just in front of the dorsal and then twisted and turned back into the rubber band loop. This method of rigging the baits gives it the most natural presentation on the top of the water column and results in better hookup ratios on the sailfish. While the kites are in action with two mates manning each one to keep the baits on top at the perfect level, the captain’s job is to keep the boat as still as possible, keeping the bow into the wind so baits have the highest chance of looking natural and just swimming along.

Winter sailfish bait

Lastly, we have one of the best areas in the state, dubbed “Sailfish Alley.” This Treasure Coast ecosystem spans from Fort Pierce down past Stuart and into the Palm Beaches and is abundant with many pelagic species ranging from wahoo to mahi to kingfish and, of course, sailfish. Unlike the neighbors to the south, where the warm Gulf Stream current swoops in close to shore, here the depth of the bottom tends to flatten out, resulting in the current being pushed offshore farther and farther as you head north. Along the shelves are limestone reefs that affect the current and form rips where small baitfish and invertebrates congregate from the estuaries inshore. Although the Gulf Stream current tends to be 10 to 15 miles offshore, large natural and man-made reef structures hold baitfish in shallow waters close to shore, and it’s not rare to see sailfish just beyond the surf balling up bait. In this region, the roughest and most frigid days tend to produce the most epic sailfish bites.

As cold fronts push through the state and northern swells meet the Gulf Stream, baitfish are pushed towards the surface, enabling sailfish to target them in tight schools, working together in large groups picking off one bait at a time. Because fish here can be in many different areas, trolling dead baits is the most effective way to cover ground and locate fish. A combination of dredges, teaser spreads and small trolled dead baits is used to resemble a large group of baitfish. Once a sailfish is in the spread, the teasers and dredges are often removed from the lineup, so the fish focus gears toward the rigged dead baits. Unlike the southern waters, where many captains and anglers purchase their baits for the day, in this area, live bait is extremely easy to catch. This is due largely in part to the inshore estuaries and a large number of artificial reefs located just offshore. Cast nets are used in coalition with chum bags in the water, or sabiki rigs are used to capture enough bait for the day. 

Winter sailfish

Whether they are kite fishing or not, captains use live bait in a variety of methods. Flatlines are deployed often under a float and positioned near the transom of the vessel to get it out and far away from the boat, while down rods are set up at different depths during a drift until a group of fish is located and patterned. This gives the crew the best opportunity for bites if they’re in a general area where there are fish, but they don’t have them exactly pegged on their whereabouts.

In and outside of tournament fishing, it is highly encouraged to use non-offset circle hooks. These hooks almost always result in a hookup in the corner of the fish’s mouth instead of in the gills or stomach like traditional hooks often would. Not only are these hooks safer for the fish, but they also result in better hookups and, although anglers are allowed to harvest one fish per person over 63 inches, it is recommended to practice catch-and-release methods to ensure a healthy and stable population of fish to target for many generations to come. If you’re new to the angling scene or are just visiting Florida for the holidays, support captains and have them put you on some of these amazing gamefish. Joining local fishing clubs are also a great way to become educated and learn the ropes from well-seasoned locals.