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Poor Man’s Sailfish

Here is a cheap way for the small boater to catch sailfish in South Florida


Photo © and used with permission from Bob Smith

Bob Smith Sailfish

Photo © and used with permission from Bob Smith
Oh what a day on the water! We were looking for sailfish off the southeast coast of Florida. The wind was northeast, as it is after a cold front moves through the area, and the seas were running about three to five feet – not a great smooth sea, but definitely fishable.

Fishing Weather

I have always found that I catch more fish on a day where the seas are moderate versus a day when they are slick calm. Of course there are always exceptions, but in general it’s been my experience.

Where We Fished

We ran out of boat ramp at the Florida Power and Light Turkey Point power plant. My partner was an employee, and we were able to get in and use the employee park and ramp. What a relief that was from the public ramp in Homestead!

Coming around the south end of Elliot Key in Biscayne Bay, we stopped over the reef just before we got to the Pacific Light tower outside Caesar’s Creek. I had already mixed a batch of oatmeal and water, and as my partner slipped the anchor over the bow, I began chumming the water with the oatmeal mash. We were looking for ballyhoo.

Catch Your Own Bait

After about fifteen minutes, we had a large school of ballyhoo working about in the cloudy water behind the boat. The oatmeal is an excellent chum, and it does double duty by making the water a bit cloudy. That less than clear water masks our outline as we stand on the gunnel of the boat to throw a cast net.

I have used other chum – chum bags, etc., and they do draw the ballyhoo. But, as soon as you stand up and make a high silhouette, the hoo’s will sink and withdraw, making netting them difficult at best.

My partner made about five casts with the 12 foot cast net and put plenty of live ballyhoo in our live well. Today would be all about live baiting sailfish.

Trolling or Drifting?

We troll a lot for sailfish with outriggers, using artificial and natural baits in the winter. Sometimes we free line live baits under a kite rig. All of these methods work, and the trolling does allow you to cover more territory. But in today’s economy with the expense of outriggers, specialized kite rigs, and ever more expensive fuel, we thought we would try a “poor man’s approach” to catching sailfish.

The Hot Spot

Sails populate south Florida waters year round, but they are particularly numerous in the winter. Palm Beach prides itself as America’s winter time “sailfish capitol” and rightfully so. Charter trips that catch and release double digit numbers of sails are common out of that area in the winter. But, South Florida and the Keys are also crawling with sails this time of year.

We took our live ballyhoo bait and eased out beyond the reef just north of Pacific Light. There is a hump there, east of the reef edge that comes up from about 200 feet of water to 130 feet. It’s a place the sailfish like to frequent.

Setting a Drift

I like the northeast or north wind when doing this fishing. The gulfstream runs as close as right next to the reef at times, and the current in the stream runs north at around 5 knots. Even if the stream has meandered farther off the reef, the influence of that current is present, and you will drift north. The north wind has the effect of slowing or even cancelling that drift, allowing you to remain over a productive are for a longer period of time.

We watched the GPS tracker and the depth finder as we stopped over our hump. The drift was minimal to the north. This allowed us to fish the hump with the baits moving out from the boat toward the north. The current running north was faster than our drift because of the wind. Perfect.

Live Bait Problems

We had two live baits out, free-lined and swimming just under the surface. You can tell when a fish is near, because the baits start getting nervous and flitting about. Both baits were nervous as we watched.

To our amazement, a school of gray trigger fish showed up on the surface. These fish are good eating, but they are generally bottom dwellers – or at least mid-depth. What brought them to the surface we do not know, but they began attacking our live baits. They would bite the ballyhoo in half, and feed on the pieces. We never could hook one, and really did not want to.

I reeled in the baits, grabbed about ten ballyhoo out of the live well and cut them up into chunks about an inch long. As I moved the boat back over the hump and put the lines out again, I kept that small bucket of bait chunks close by. Before I put the live baits out, I pitched a handful of bait chunks out to the side and away from the boat. They were far from where our live baits would be.

This tactic worked to keep the triggers away from our live baits, and allowed what turned out to be two sails in the area find our bait. They weren’t huge, only about 4 or 5 feet long, but on light tackle they fought really hard. But we did catch them!

Bottom Line

We spent nothing on bait, very little on fuel, and used standard spinning rods and reels with 30 pound test line. A ten foot leader of 60 pound test fluorocarbon leader and a 10/0 circle hook finished the rig.

If you go to south Florida in the winter and you take your boat, you can easily catch a sailfish or two – and it won’t cost you an arm and a leg. Try live lining ballyhoo.

Oh yes – don’t have a cast net? You can catch those ballyhoo in your chum line on a small number 10 hook and light pole. It’s one at a time, but it’s free, and it works! Hope to see you on the water this winter!

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