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Fishing Sailfish Alley

Alley Oops!

What better way to get to know the methods of a world-class captain than invite yourself to fish with him off Palm Beach—in the heart of Sailfish Alley. Senior Editor Jason Y. Wood sets out to tie into some big game and learn something along the way.

Capt. Jon Duffie

“Smoker!” chortled Capt. Jon Duffie, as he surveyed the spread of baits dancing in the waves off the back of the boat. “You see that?”

Indeed I had, though it felt like the first time all day that I had seen anything he had. But this was definitely a streak of blue and silver arcing beneath the portside kite—it was a kingfish. If you asked me how far away it was from the transom of Agitator, a 36-foot Invincible center console, to this day I couldn’t tell you.

“Yup,” I gulped in reply as I moved into position, trying not to sound too excited, my hands rising uncertainly as I looked at the array of rods in the rack, wondering which one to grab. My eyes darted from the gleaming gold reels to the distant kite line, trying to gauge which of the three orange cork floats had been dangling over the devoured bait.

“Long rod,” Duffie intoned, helping a brother out. “That one.”

I grabbed the rod in question as I got into position behind the rack, as the mate, Capt. Abe Kuhn, stepped around to give me more room. I began turning the reel handle slowly as I shoved the long butt into the crook of my hip, deliberately bringing the tip of the rod and the reel into alignment to let the circle hook do its singular job. I cranked and cranked, the line finally dropping from the release clip to allow the king mackerel and me a direct connection. Fish on, simple as that.

Now began the next challenge. With this kite-fishing setup, six 20-pound-class rods tend baits off two banked kites off the stern, so there are quite a few lines in play. Also, for good measure, we had a sea anchor off the bow, its tripline tied to the portside spring cleat—a setup that kept the boat’s bow into the wind and made for simple, tangle-free kite flying. Stowed spinning rods in console-side vertical racks, a bucket with a bait net in it, the transom bait well spilling gallons of water into the cockpit as we pitched off the latest swell to come through—all of these obstacles were in the back of my mind as I set off in pursuit of my first kingfish catch. But first was that stubby kite rod in the gunwale rod holder. 

“You’ve got to get around that kite rod,” Duffie mentioned offhandedly.

“Pass the rod outboard of it,” Kuhn said, ready to offer a hand. But here’s where they had already helped out: The drag on that reel was set properly. So I didn’t have to worry about that king changing tack and giving that custom rod-and-reel outfit a yank—and ruining my day by losing it overboard. I simply let go of the reel crank with my right hand, swung the rod outboard of the short kite rod with its beefy electric reel, and took it in my right hand, and then continued on my merry way forward along the port side of the boat. Duffie met me at the bow, where the boat’s covering boards are very wide. He sprawled on the bow, and I handed him the rod, to pass it beneath that sea-anchor line. I sneaked by him and took it back on the starboard side, walking with the rod as I reeled the king closer. Another good run began as the fish itself spun the reel the wrong way and took back a bunch of line, the zing of the drag joyfully reminding me that this was why we were here.

Well, not exactly why we were here. We had set the spread—and by we, I of course mean Duffie and Kuhn—to try to eke a couple of sailfish out of less-than-ideal conditions off Palm Beach, Florida. Duffie, 33, is skipper of Billfisher, a brilliant 62-foot Spencer sportfisherman that he campaigns on the tournament trail, and he’s made a name for himself through his exploits, maybe most notably by releasing 57 white marlin in a day off Ocean City, Maryland, in 2010. He also racks up huge numbers of sailfish in annual trips to Isla Mujeres, Mexico.

Invincible 36 Open Fisherman

Better Boat: Fishing Features

And with sailfish in mind, there isn’t a much better place to try it than Palm Beach. We were in the sweet spot for sails, where the contour lines on the chart are stacked tightly from 100 to 120 feet, just a mile or two from shore. Those contour lines and the brilliant deep blue of the Gulf Stream’s waters are the chief reason why it’s called Sailfish Alley from here south to Miami, and even on a day like that Tuesday morning, when a steady breeze out of the south and consistent 4- to 6-foot seas buffeted the burly center console, there were a few convertibles out plying the waters in hopes of tying into a speedy sail or two.

The technique for a boat like Agitator can be as complex or simple as you like. The idea is to put out lively goggle-eye baits, bridled to circle hooks, right on the surface. Sailfish cruising that contour line will usually come up from a hundred feet down to have a look and hopefully a bite. Usually.

Fishing kites have been employed by anglers since the 1960s for the simple reason that they work. Improvements in their construction and use, from high-tech fabrics and superstrong struts, to electric reels to tend their flight, to braided lines and short, task-built rods, have made them more effective. 

Color-coded release clips have holes of different diameters through them, meaning the first swivel in the line to come off the reel passes through two release clips before grabbing the top clip on its way up. The next swivel will grab the next clip, and so on.

The author with a kingfish catch.

Lessons Learned

Of course those release clips will never do anyone any good without a line with a feisty live bait passing through each of them, and Kuhn rigged baits all day. I noticed when I shook his hand that morning that he had small black rubber bands on most of his fingers. What I took for an affectation were in fact tools of his trade to keep the live bait in the mix. Bridling those goggle-eyes has the double benefit of helping the bait survive longer (keeping the “live” in live bait helps) while also letting those wicked Eagle Claw circle hooks do their job, driving the point home in the corner of a fish’s mouth.

Of course, there’s an order to it being done properly, from getting the kite in the air and in the proper position all the way down to the bridle, and that’s what I found so remarkable. The efficiency with which Duffie and Kuhn work side by side is only matched by the good humor they keep as they work. It makes for a pleasant day out.

As I brought the king in close on the starboard side, Kuhn grabbed the leader and pulled it in as Duffie lunged to nail the fish with the long-handled gaff. Just like that they had the fish, my first smoker, throttling around the cockpit. Into the in-deck fishbox it went. Kuhn turned to the kite. Rigging time again.

Click to see more photos from the trip

See more pictures here

“The fish don’t like cloudy days,” Duffie said. “You know that, right?” I looked at the leaden sky as he continued his thought: “And we’re gonna get wet.” The squall line had become more defined toward shore.

We finished the drift and Duffie and Kuhn tripped the sea anchor to set another. As we motored back upwind and upcurrent, Duffie shared some more thoughts on the sailfish. “As you move north from where we are up to Stuart, those contour lines spread out more,” he explained. “The sailfish have more room at the depth they like. So if we were fishing up there, we’d be trolling, to cover more water. Here those depth contours are where the fish concentrate, so we use the kites.”

Much of what Duffie and Kuhn do is the top layer of a deep and vast pool of knowledge acquired through years of anglers pursuing game fish and passing on what they’ve learned. But there’s more to it than that. The knowledge must be applied properly. Like any kind of fishing, the information is there, but it only results in success if it’s wielded well. And the lessons stick just the same if they’re served up with a dose of humor and good times.

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