Most don’t realize how lucky we are to live where others vacation, but the true locals are fully aware of the world-class fisheries that make the Sunshine State so special. The influx of snowbirds escaping winter’s harsh grasp and the summertime scare of unpredictable tropical cyclones surely aren’t admirable traits to be exploited by the tourism board, but those in the know are well aware of the beneficial attributes that come along with living in such a southern latitude…most notably the epic sailfish migration that takes place just a mile off the beach. And although some of the world’s most competitive tournaments take place right in our own backyard, you don’t need a big boat or big budget to catch sailfish off our coast. All you really need are some basic skills and the right approach. However, this is a proactive fishery and you can’t expect to sit back and wait for the rod to bend over. Like many fisheries in Florida, you get out what you put in.
Considering the history of sport ﬁshing and how archaic tackle was in the early years, and how anglers still returned to the dock with great success, we’ve taken considerable steps to make it more challenging for ourselves, yet the end goal remains the same. Even though the newest tactics have greatly increased competition and catch rates, it’s important that novice crews don’t overcomplicate matters and perfect the fundamentals before attempting more expert techniques. Sailfishing is only as challenging as you make it, so keep it simple and enjoy your time on the water.
While tournament anglers are required to fish non-offset circlehooks during all billfish events in Atlantic waters, recreational anglers looking to catch fish on the troll should also be fishing with tournament approved circle-hooks…practice how you play.
Some anglers aren’t content until they reach double-digit releases for the day, but others take great pride and joy in seeing novices catch their very ﬁrst billﬁsh, and it can all be a real possibility while ﬁshing for just a few hours and never losing sight of the coastline. Widespread conservation measures and protection of sailﬁsh, coupled with seasonal abundance and accessibility, make South Florida a prime zone for tackling these acrobatic game ﬁsh with great consistency. Oﬀ the coast of South Florida, top tournament teams hold position in the current and present live baits beneath kites, although trolling represents a highly successful and time-tested approach that enables anglers to dial in the ideal depth while also covering much more water in their search for southbound spindlebeaks.
Trolling is typically accomplished with J-hooks, but a new age of anglers has found great success by trolling with non-offset circle-hooks. There are two critical factors to successful trolling with circle-hooks including keeping the hook exposed and giving the ﬁsh ample time to eat before slowly engaging the lever drag.
While tournament anglers are required to fish non-offset circle-hooks during all billfish events in Atlantic waters, recreational anglers looking to catch fish on the troll should also be fishing with tournament approved circle-hooks…practice how you play. These hooks are certainly better for the fish, but once the hook pierces the bony jaw of a sailfish it’s unlikely it will come out. In fact, once you become confident and proficient with circle-hooks you’ll actually see your catch ratio soar.
When trolling for Atlantic sailﬁsh, most crews rely on naked “dink” ballyhoo rigged to skip and swim. These baits are slightly smaller than most and are often rigged weightless so they skip on the surface, and also with the addition of a small chin weight so they swim just below the surface.
When setting the spread, ﬁsh the swimming ballyhoo outfitted with chin weights on the long outrigger positions. If the baits are jumping out of the water either set them further back in the spread, or lower the outrigger halyards so the baits remain in the water. The skipping ballyhoo should be fished out of transom flat line clips and regularly break the surface, but not spend too much time out of the water.
If you’re serious about catching sailﬁsh on the troll you need to be ready to put the reel in freespool once you spot a fish in the spread or line pops out of the outrigger clip. If the fish feels any tension at all it will drop the bait and swim off in the opposite direction. Minimizing resistance on the drop back is key and will be enhanced with an outrigger release clip that is set to pop under the slightest tension. The goal is to be vigilant watching the baits and hopefully beat the fish to the rod!
Although dredges have largely influenced the increasing effectiveness of dead bait trolling, novice crews lacking the time or deckhands needed to keep a natural bait dredge rigged and ready to go should look to simple squid chain teasers to increase the appeal of their spread. While logic says to pull more baits to catch more fish, producing consistent catches on the troll requires much more than simply increasing the number of hooks in the water. A streamlined four line spread with two hookless squid chains that is watched like a hawk will be much more effective than an eight line spread that results in chaos when a fish enters the equation.
The last consideration is trolling speed, of which there is no magic number. Depending on the prevalent sea state, distance lures are pulled behind the transom, whether you are heading down sea or right into it, and the type of wake your boat produces will largely influence the best trolling speed. With that being said, 5-knots is a good starting point, and when you finally entice fish to your spread be sure to log the engine rpm, ocean conditions and specific bait positions within the spread so you can replicate the results.
Rod: 6’6″ trolling rod
Reel: 20 or 30-lb. class conventional reel Terminal Tackle: 50 lb. fluorocarbon leader, 5/0 in-line circle-hooks
Trolling Speed: 5 knots