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School for Sails, by Capt. Cary Hanna

Gorgeous, acrobatic, and lit-up, Sailfish rank as the # 1 sporty catch of south Florida. But there is a lot involved in the catch and release of these sought after game fish, after all their not the best table fare. How much vacuum packed smoked Sailfish can you eat? So what's involved in catching the Sailfish? What kind of bait? What is the best rod and reel set-up? What are some of the techniques to use on the water? Let's start out and learn from the end result and work our way to the beginning.

The fact is Sailfish fight their heart out, displaying themselves in full view acrobatics over and over again. Did you ever run the 100 yard dash in high school? What happened when you finished? If you were like me, you stood there with your head between your knees and tried to catch your breath. A Sailfish doesn't have the luxury of sitting there and catching his breath, they will sink. So what do you do when you get a Sailfish that looks half dead at your boat side? You need to resuscitate him! Put on your gloves, grab his sandpaper like spindle beak, remove your hook and hold him boat side, preferably with the boat in gear. You need to revive him for 5-10 minutes before you let him go. This might take some patience, but the reward is great when your prize catch swims away in good health ready to fight another day.

The above scenario is a bit traumatizing for the Sailfish, don't you think? Not to mention a little novice. Most cases when a Sailfish has to be resuscitated it is because the fight was prolonged. Fighting your Sailfish on anything less than 20 lb. test will prolong the battle unless you chase down your fish. Personally I prefer to fight my Sailfish with no help from the boat, but I also have that luxury since I fish from a center console. My clients have on numerous occasions commended me for not chasing down their fish, they appreciated catching their fish all on their own. As an example, if your using a 12 lb. set-up, you will need to hold at least 400 yards on your reel, and you might still get spooled from your average Sailfish if you don't chase him down. Even if you don't get spooled what fun is it seeing your fish jumping 300 yards away from the boat not to mention all that line dragging in the water increasing the risk for it to break. And finally you might have your fish boat side an hour or so later.

Fast reels, Hot baits

One of my favorite set-ups for Sail fishing is a Shimano TLD 20, spooled with over 400 yards of Berkley Big Game 30 pound test, accompanied with a seven foot, medium action Oceanmaster rod. This rod and reel set-up has caught tons of Sailfish over the years and remains unbeatable offshore. Keeping 4-5 pounds of drag set in the strike position, most Sailfish stay inside of 150 yards from the boat and are brought to the stern within 20 minutes. I use Berkley Big game fishing line on most reels, it doesn't have a lot of stretch or memory and is easy to tie with, it also is abrasive resistant. With experienced fishermen on board I'll tie a 5/0 Lazer sharp Eagle Claw Salmon hook directly to the main line. You can bring in the fish within 20 minutes and the line holds up very well, and you get a lot more hits that way. You will need to retie your hook after each fish caught to be safe from any nicks or chaff on your line.

Putting the right bait on your hook is critical to your success. I have caught Sailfish on Ballyhoo, Pilchards, and Threadfin Herring, but my best success is the valuable goggle eye. ( Literally at $50. to $100. a dozen) They are a soft bait with big eyes and strong swimmers making them great baits for all techniques. You can catch this bait on size 12 sabiki rigs but only at night, that's when the Goggle-eye becomes active. You can find them around structure up to about 80 feet of water and around anchored ships. As soon as the sun comes up the bite is off unless there is a full moon setting as the morning light breaks, then the bite will last just a bit longer. So prepare to fish for these Goggle-eyes 2-4 hours before sunrise giving yourself time to find them first.

The Technique

Setting up on the drift.

As mentioned earlier, on my flat lines I like to tie the hooks directly to the main line, otherwise I'll tie a short bimini to the tag end and attach my leader, 10 feet of 40 pound test Seaguar Fluorocarbon with an Albright knot. This knot takes practice, but once you get the feel of how this knot works you will never change. 2 to 3 flat lines are usually deployed at 50, 80, and past 100 feet away from the boat. 2 down lines are deployed at 40 and 80 feet down. The down lines are rigged different since weights are attached and the baits make more line twist, therefore I attach a stainless steel ball-bearing swivel to my Bimini and then 8 feet of 40-50 pound mono attached to 1 foot of # 4 wire Kingfish rig. You might not want Kings, but sooner or later your drift is going to take you over their zone, so be prepared for cut-offs. Most of the time I tie wire to all the rigs because the Kings bite on all lines. I use 4-6 oz weights on the down lines. The weight can be attached a few different ways. I like to insert the Bimini twist into the weight then tie on my snap swivel. You can also take a piece of dental floss, attach it to the weight and leave a long enough tag end to tie to the swivel. You can also use the breakaway technique where you will lose the weight. You take your line above the swivel and insert it through the weight so a loop appears on the other end, then take a rubber band, put it through the loop a few times and pull the mono slowly so the rubber band gets stuck inside the weight. When a fish strikes, the pressure on the line will release the weight. Setting your lines for the kite is the same as the down line without the weights. Tie your bimini, attach your ball-bearing swivel rated for 75-100 pounds, tie 8-10 feet of 50 leader material to the swivel and attach your tag end if you prefer, to 1 foot of # 4 wire leader attached to your hook via a haywire twist. Then I will take a 2 foot strip of red or orange ribbon and attach it to my swivel on the Bimini end, that way I can monitor my baits much easier.

Slow trolling

This technique is more advanced than drifting. It requires dropping your baits back on the strike. Sailfish are very sensitive as they pick up your bait, if your bumping in and out of gear a Sailfish can come up on your bait, mouth it, and if your drag is tight the boat will pull it from his mouth and he might not come back. I prefer to keep my drags in free spool with the clickers on, or on a spinning outfit I will leave the bail open, attach a piece of copper wire to the arm that is attached to the rod and make a small hook to hang the line on, with a gentle tug, the sailfish will pull the line from the tiny hook in the copper wire and put this reel into free spool as it runs with the bait. Let the fish eat for at least 5-10 seconds, or until he takes off speedily, then put your drag lever in the strike position and reel down until line starts peeling off the reel. When the kite bait gets hit, the Sailfish needs time to eat just like above, as you reel down on the fish the line will pop off the clip, so reel fast to get tight before he jumps. If he jumps before you get tight, chances are you missed him.

Prime time for south Florida Sailfish starts from November through April when these fish are concentrated in 100 to 200 feet of water. On winter days as the wind comes out of the east it is not unusual to get 4-5 releases in a days fishing out of Ft. Lauderdale, 3 or more releases constitutes a good day. During the winter season be sure to present plenty of baits down deep, at least 50 feet or more down. We catch a lot of sails this way, it seems the top part of the water column is a bit too cold for them especially on those days when the winds are blowing from the north.

When targeting Sailfish, look for the edge where the cobalt blue waters meets the green water. This is where the bait usually winds up as these two currents move against each other. This edge always changes, sometimes you will not find blue water past 700 feet or so. Don't neglect this area, many times I have put lines down from 75-100 feet and came up with a beautiful tail walker. Pay attention to the current as well, a good 2 knot north current produces some of the best bites.

Captain Cary Hanna fishes the offshore waters off Ft. Lauderdale beach from the Hillsborough inlet south to Haulover. He pursues Sailfish, Kingfish, Dolphin, Tuna, Sharks, and Swordfish aboard his 2004 Donzi 32 ZF center console, powered with twin 225hp. Mercury Opti's. He can be contacted at 954-907-0967 or visit his website for the latest fishing report at www.newlattitude.com

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