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Catch a Sailfish from Your Boat

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The K.I.S.S. Principle

Use your own boat and tackle to go after sailfish with a no-frills technique.

Rig your baits properly to entice Florida sailfish.

Rig your baits properly to entice Florida sailfish.
Photo by Gary Caputi

Offshore anglers agree: The arrival of winter in the southern latitudes means it’s time to go looking for Atlantic sailfish. But you don’t need a professional tournament team on your boat to enjoy a successful day of fishing for these speedy members of the billfish clan, especially when you realize how abundant they’ve been in Florida waters the past few seasons. 

Among the charter and tournament crowds, the two most popular methods of fishing for sails are trolling and kite fishing. Trollers pull a full spread of rigged ballyhoo using massive teasers called dredges that have dozens of intricately rigged ballyhoo or mullet attached to them for an attraction that resembles a whole school of bait. The kite crowd uses live bait and a complicated system of kites with multiple release clips to suspend up to a dozen baits splashing on the surface. Both are extremely productive techniques if you are fishing with an experienced captain, mates, and anglers. But what can you do if you just want to take your boat out for a day of fun billfishing? Remember the K.I.S.S. principle and just Keep It Simple for Sailfish.

A few years ago I fished aboard a factory-demo Ocean 54 out of Lake Worth Inlet in Florida with Capt. Gene Hawn. The boat was in town for a show and hadn’t been rigged for fishing yet, so we used a simple technique that borrows from both the trolling and kite methods to get in on the action. All we had to work with were four 30-pound trolling outfits, outriggers, and a livewell, along with a selection of circle hooks, some 60-pound fluorocarbon leader material, and mini-barrel swivels for making rigs.

How to bridle a goggle-eye

See a video showing how to bridle a goggle-eye.

We picked up a couple dozen live goggle-eyes from one of the local bait shops on the Intracoastal and headed south to a spot where we had heard fish had been caught the day before. But we didn’t want to rely exclusively on day-old information, so on our way out we kept a watchful eye on the water for color changes and rips while looking for bait schools on the depthfinder. About six miles south of the inlet, and a half-mile off the beach, we found pretty water and marked balled-up sardines. 

We had rigged each rod with a swivel, a 6-foot leader, and a 7/0 circle hook. We used a rigging needle and rubber band to bridle each bait, which is a setup that, because the hook is entirely clear of the little fish’s body, leaves the bait free to swim and the hook point at the ready. We then proceeded to run one off each outrigger clip set back about 75 feet behind the boat, and the other two in the aft holders, directly off the rod tips set back about 50 feet. The drag levers on the reels were set with just enough pressure to keep the spool from backlashing if a sail attacked, but light enough so a fish could take line and eat the bait. 

Hawn slow-trolled, putting one engine in and out of gear, moving just fast enough to keep the baits in line behind the boat and near the surface while covering a little water around the bait schools. 

Diagram of a trolling spread

See a diagram of the trolling spread here.

It didn’t take long before a feisty sailfish hit one of the outrigger baits. A quick reaction had the rod out of the holder, the angler’s thumb lightly on the spool, and the reel in free-spool for a few seconds as the fish ran with the bait. Then, with the rod pointing at the fish, the drag lever was pushed up to strike, the line came tight and popped out of the release clip. The angler reeled like hell until the circle hook did its stuff, and we were into the first of four sailfish we caught and released that morning.

This is simple, no-fuss, no-muss fishing that anyone can try with a minimal investment in tackle, a few live baits, and a little bit of practice. And best of all, the practice is all part of the fun.

This article originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.