- Black sea bass have dangerously sharp spines on their dorsal fin that can puncture human skin.
- The all-tackle world record for black sea bass is 9 pounds, 8 ounces.
- When hooked in deep water and brought quickly to the surface, a black sea bass will often regurgitate its stomach contents.
Some say it’s the most beautiful fish in the ocean, and others state it’s the fastest animal in the briny as well. But no one will deny that a treasured moment in angling takes place when it’s on the end of your line. To witness its majestic leaps and awesome tail-walks is a thing of dreams.
Yep, we’re talkin’ sailfish! And if ever a species was designed for speed, this one has it all: a sleek, smooth body striped in iridescent blue, a powerful forked tail, a wicked bill, and that oh-so-distinctive flowing dorsal. Put all the components together and it allows Mr. Sail to blow through the water like an F-18 Hornet. And pity the poor baitfish in its path.
Now that cold fronts are beginning to push their way from Canada, US anglers can leave their passports at home and head to Florida sailfish hot spots such as Stuart, Palm Beach, Miami and the Florida Keys. Huge schools of blue runners, ballyhoo and other baitfish congregate along the reef line just a few miles offshore. Pods of sailfish work schools of bait relentlessly, corralling them into tighter and tighter balls until one of the sails blasts into the melee, swinging its bill every which way to stun as many fish as possible. The pod then moves in to slurp up the dazed dinners.
Set Up For Sails
Although sailfish can at times be caught in late spring and summer off south Florida, they’re more commonly targeted November through March—particularly right after a cold snap. A time-proven method is trolling with ballyhoo, lures or a combination of both, although natural baits put more scent in the water. The difference in catching more sails while trolling dead baits involves how you set the hook. Fish such as dolphin set the hook themselves, but a billfish will often attack just to “kill” the prey with its bill, then circle back to swallow it headfirst. Therefore, drop back when a sail strikes a trolled bait and free-spool the line, allowing the bait to suspend its forward movement. This often dupes the sail into believing it’s stunned your bait and which is now free-falling and waiting to be slurped up.
From December through March, leaping sails are a common sight to South Florida anglers who fish the reefs just a few miles offshore.
A mullet can also be trolled after the backbone is removed, which allows it to swim more naturally. Put a 2-ounce egg sinker atop the hook at the nose of the mullet to keep it just under the waves when trolled. Mullet put a lot of scent in the water and often attract sails into your spread that end up attacking another trolled lure or bait.
Eight feet of #8 stainless-steel leader wire is suitable for trolling a ballyhoo or mullet. Double hook the ‘hoo with two 7/0 hooks (if a medium-size bait) and use a single 9/0 hook for the mullet. You can try various colors of skirts on the ballyhoo rigs, but blue-and-white and red, green or pink skirts seem to be favorites.
Most anglers use 30-pound monofilament line on conventional rods with a 30-size Penn or Shimano reel. However, trolling artificials on medium-heavy spin outfits such as a BG30 or Penn 750 with 20-pound test has taken many sails. To be even sportier, use a medium-spin outfit with 12-pound test or even lighter. These rigs are often used to cast a live bait when a sailfish is sighted near the boat. With light gear, the end of the line is doubled with a Bimini twist and tied to monofilament leader, which in turn is connected to a live-bait hook. You can use heavier leader and tackle when trolling because sails usually come up and strike from the rear, whereas when live-baiting with light tackle you need to keep the terminal tackle as unobtrusive as possible.
Sight-casting combines all the exciting aspects of hunting and fishing. The skipper, high atop the tower, looks for the dark bodies of sailfish as they dart over light-colored bottom such as sand. When that occurs, the mate tosses live ballyhoo, pilchards or other baitfish into the water behind the boat. Some mates clip the top tails of ballyhoo before dumping them overboard or they glance pilchards off the transom or engine cowling to injure them slightly so the baits send out distress signals and become more tempting targets. If the skipper sees the sails zeroing-in on the free offerings, the angler tosses a hooked live bait amid the fray.
Another good method is to move in quickly if any free-jumping sailfish are spotted nearby. But the most exciting action on the reef takes place when a bait shower occurs. This happens when sails make a mad dash into a ball of bait, causing the frightened school to leap above the surface in unison to get away. Casting a live or even dead bait into a shower is a sure bet for a hook-up.
Great fun is using fly gear, especially when a pod of sails come up near the stern. This can be accomplished when a sail is spotted by the mate while quickly tossing out several live baits. Teasing is even more exotic offshore. It involves using hookless, trolled baits to first attract sailfish to your spread, then letting them taste the bait briefly before pulling it away. This cat-and-mouse game continues until the sail is near the stern of the boat, then the bait is snatched out of the water and into the boat precisely at the moment the angler’s fly lands at the same spot in the water where the bait exited. The fired-up sail now sees the fly instead and transfers its hunger to it, and the strike occurs. About a 10-weight works well with large blue-and-white poppers or multi-colored streamer patterns.
Kite fishing for sailfish has been effective ever since the late Capt. Bob Lewis of Miami popularized the idea nearly 40 years ago. A small kite is sailed from behind the boat with outrigger clips on the line. The fishing lines go to the clips and then straight down to the live baits, such as blue runners or goggle-eye jacks. The kite keeps the baits kicking near the surface where it’s easier to spot by a sailfish.
South Florida winter sails normally aren't enormous specimens, but they do qualify as tremendous light-tackle sportfish, maybe even the best in blue water.
Deep jigging for sailfish can also be very successful because most sails tend to cruise at mid-depths rather than at the surface or bottom. For the same reason, trolling for wahoo or kingfish with downriggers has brought up many sailfish as well. A large jig is rigged to a dead ballyhoo and dropped below the drifting boat. The rod is pumped up and down to hop and swim the ballyhoo deep below in the hopes of attracting sailfish attention.
Just remember when playing a leaping sailfish on light line that you must create slack when it jumps. Bow the rod toward the sail when it comes out of the water; the slack keeps the line from breaking from the sailfish’s weight if it falls away from you or onto a taut line.
Sites And Sizes
Sailfish chase schools of ballyhoo and other baitfish into the shallower water near the reef to make it easier to corral them. And, like other billfish, they often frequent the very deep waters of the Gulf Stream to feed on flying fish. However, most sailfish caught off south Florida range in depths 50 to 250 feet deep. Party boats often land sails by fishing near productive inner reefs while anchored in only 50 to 90 feet of water.
But you aren’t likely to catch a world-record Atlantic sailfish (Istiophorus platypterus) off south Florida. A really great catch will exceed 50 pounds, with a few breaking the 60- and even 70-pound barrier once in a while. Most of the world-record giants are caught off the mid-western coast of Africa, where fish over 100 pounds are often landed—the biggest being a 135-pound, 5-ounce monster off Lagos, Nigeria, in 1991 on 50-pound tackle. Even so, James Frasier managed to best a 105-pounder off Key Largo in 1986 on 16-pound test , and another 105-pound, 4-ounce beauty was taken in 1993 on 8-pound test off Key West by Christain Martin, which is a current IGFA world record.
A sailfish should be released alive. Do not gaff it. If your crew is skilled, they should grab the leader, take the bill of the sailfish with a gloved hand, carefully remove the hook and send the fish on its way. If you’re not accustomed to releasing a billfish, it’s safer to cut the line as close as possible to the bill. There is no need for sliding the fish over the side or bringing it into the cockpit because the injuries incurred while flopping and jumping may kill it even if quickly released thereafter. If a mount is desired, give the approximate measurements and a picture to the taxidermist, who doesn’t need your dead fish parts to provide a beautiful facsimile.
I hope you have a chance this year to play a sailfish, especially if you’ve never caught one before. Its beauty, speed and acrobatics will leave you in complete agreement that the majestic sailfish is perhaps our greatest offshore game fish.