A Season-by-Season Guide to Catching Sailfish
The right places and right times, for catching the bluewater’s most celebrated billfish
Folks call the patch of ocean near where I grew up, “Sailfish Alley.” That’s because for as long as the warm Gulf Stream current has flowed past southeast Florida, a wintertime migration of “spindlebeaks” has funneled south along this rich coastline. As early as the 1920s, charter fishing for sailfish began providing a unique cultural and economic boon for our region. The fishery became so important, it gave rise to a saltwater sportfishing code of ethics that includes fair chase with light tackle, and a deeply rooted dedication to conservation. Though you are allowed to harvest sailfish, the fleets have voluntarily adopted catch-and-release policies.
Indeed, the Atlantic sailfish (Istiophorus albicans) and its Pacific cousin are held up as totemic species wherever there angler’s fish for them, domestically or abroad. In terms of tactics and tackle, the species constantly challenges our creativity. There are fewer fish that fight harder or more acrobatically. Most importantly, sailfishing brings out what’s best in us as anglers—a spirit of camaraderie through teamwork, sportsmanship, and stewardship.
My friends and I have put hundreds of anglers on their first sailfish. The priceless, stunned look on an angler’s face watching a hooked fish tail-walk dozens of yards across the water never gets old. As always in fishing and hunting, it’s vital to be in the right place at the right time. To that end, and in the spirit of you having the best possible experience, here are some of the top U.S. sailfishing destinations, what’s unique about each of them, and when they fish best.
Where to Find Sailfish in the Winter
Between November and March, head south to the Sunshine State, specifically southeastern Florida. Most of the activity occurs between Fort Pierce and Key West. Stuart, Florida, where I live, bills itself as the Sailfish Capital of the World, and for good reason: Two large estuaries produce ample forage while the northernmost stretch of coral reef produces temperature breaks and reef lines that attract bait for the migrating fish. From Stuart northward, trolling naked ballyhoo behind dredges of hookless baits is both art and religion.
From Palm Beach County southward, kite fishing is king. The Gulf Stream comes right to the beach, so anglers benefit from short runs, less water to cover, and more time dangling live baits from kites.
Palm Beach County is rich in sailfishing history. The West Palm Beach Fishing Club deserves recognition for running the Silver Sailfish Derby since 1935, the longest consecutive-running billfish tournament in the nation. The Club also developed the sailfish release pendant as part of the sport’s pageantry. When a fish is released, or tagged and released, a white or red flag is run up the outrigger. The system was invented as a conservation-minded alternative to bringing dead sails back to the dock to demonstrate a captain’s prowess to potential customers.
Miami and the northern Keys also benefit from the vast Biscayne Bay estuary and Great Florida Reef Tract. The reef is just a short run offshore, and the sailfish typically migrate along it.
Farther south, tidal exchanges from Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico sweep forage through the cuts and passes through the Florida Keys and out to the Florida reef, which the fish keep following south from Miami.
Again, the season typically starts around mid-November, but winters are getting warmer, water temps are dropping later in the year, and so in more years than not, the fish arrive later than was historically the case. You can’t miss with a holiday sailfishing excursion to southeastern Florida, and the action remains hot until the ides of March.
Where to Find Sailfish in the Spring
Spring remains my favorite time to fish offshore of southeast Florida. You never know what will bite next. As the days lengthen, and temperatures rise, a suite of species begin the northward migration along the western edge of the Gulf Stream. They include marlin, wahoo, and mahi, several tuna species, and of course, sailfish. They may not all be migrating through the same depths or distances from shore.
Marlin, wahoo, and mahi are pelagic species—species that spend their lives hunting the vast deserts of the blue open ocean. They’re more likely to be farther offshore.
Conversely, Atlantic sailfish are coastal pelagic species—they typically are found closer to shore, usually on the continental shelf. (One of the best days of sailfishing I’ve ever experienced took place less than 100 yards from the St. Lucie Inlet, in Stuart, in about 20 feet. They’d followed a giant ball of sardines inshore.) But as the old saying goes, there are no high fences in the ocean.
There are, however, places that perennially attract more fish than others. If you’re planning a spring break fishing trip, you will score springtime sailfish and many other species anywhere you book a charter in the iconic Florida Keys.
The oldest city in America isn’t widely considered a great fishing destination, but St. Augustine should be. It’s the closest port of call to the legendary “ledge,” a high-relief structure toward the edge of the continental shelf about 45 miles offshore. Even that far offshore, sails are in the mix. Captains often spot schools closer to the beach while running out or back. In relatively recent years, a cadre of charter operators out of northeast Florida has focused in earnest on the species.
Traditionally, the offshore trolling season began in April, peaked in May, and bottomed out during the summer doldrums. It picks back up again in September and early October. But just as winter seems to arrive later and later, spring seems to arrive sooner. A warm day in March could produce sails as well as other migratory pelagic species.
Port Aransas, Texas is the epicenter of billfishing in the western Gulf, mostly by virtue of it being just a few hours from the big money in Houston. But I’m partial to the rugged beauty of southeastern Texas—another destination that goes largely unrecognized as a bluewater sportfishing hotspot.
Productive sailfishing waters generally share common geographic and oceanographic characteristics. Like Southeast Florida and Florida’s Panhandle, southeastern Texas shares similar traits. The continental shelf is narrow, so water depths drop off quickly. Nearshore and offshore waters are clear. Barrier-island-bound estuaries—here the Lower Laguna Madre, North America’s only hypersaline lagoon—produce and attract forage fish. And, there’s a combination of natural and manmade structure that holds bait.
In southeastern Texas, you may catch sails within casting distance of the South Padre Island National Seashore, or find them around buoys, rigs, wrecks, and salt domes. It’s a fascinatingly rich and beautiful patch of coastal ocean, and the fish linger there through summer and into early fall. Port Mansfield is closest to productive waters. It’s about a 1.5-hour drive from South Padre Island, if you happening to be vacationing there.
Where to Find Sailfish in the Summer
No one knows precisely why, but in certain areas sails seem to be more abundant and less migratory. For example, in the ’80s and ’90s, catching a sail during the summer off southeast Florida was a relative surprise. These days, you can just about count on catching several anywhere from Fort Pierce to Key West on the Atlantic side.
Anglers fishing out of Florida’s panhandle vacation destinations, including Panama City Beach, Destin, and Pensacola also enjoy great summertime sailfishing generally very close to shore. (Some people are catching them from kayaks launched from the beach.) If you’re determined to catch a sailfish on your own and have little or no experience with saltwater big-game fishing, I strongly recommend summer sailfishing destinations where you can find fish close to the beach. Panama City Beach and Destin are among the easiest and safest places to score. Still, I recommend hiring a captain. PCB and Destin are home to some of the best captains I’ve ever had the honor to fish with.
Mid-Atlantic waters also offer relatively good sailfishing. If you’re summering on the Outer Banks, talk to the captains about the prospect of catching sails. They’ll generally want to run far offshore for tuna, wahoo, and marlin. But if they know you’re itching for a sail, they’ll chart a course over shallower areas where the fish are likely to be feeding. Anglers fishing out of Virginia Beach and Ocean City, Maryland consider sails a “bonus,” but plenty of sails are caught out of those fabled ports during the summer and into early fall.
Where to Find Sailfish in the Fall
The first few cold fronts prompt southward migrations of coastal pelagic and pelagic species. Sails are on the move, searching for bait-rich areas within their preferred water temperature envelope–north of 70 degrees.
The fronts also prompt migrations of forage fish along the southeastern seaboard. Off of Florida’s East Coast, the mullet run can be a determining factor in where to find sails, especially when the bait moves a bit offshore. Menhaden also matter, especially in the central and northern parts of the state. Offshore, bullet and frigate mackerel, as well as small tunas, are on the sailfish’s menu.
Elsewhere, the same destinations that fish best in the spring fish well in the fall, including the Outer Banks, southeast Texas, and St. Augustine. And the seemingly “resident” fish stick around into the fall off southeastern Florida, the Florida Panhandle, and the Florida Keys, while migration frontrunners arrive in South Florida.
Days of calm water become few and far between. Truth be told, sailfishing is better when it’s rough, so don’t be afraid to book a trip even if the ocean looks a little snotty. The last time I fished with a tournament team it was so damn rough that I came home with hips and ribs so badly bruised from impacts with the gunnels that my wife asked me if someone had kicked my butt for running my mouth at the dock. We released 17 fish that day.
The prevailing “wisdom” is that rough waters drive the bait to the surface and the sails follow them to feed. It may also be the case that their sight and other senses aren’t quite as sharp in rougher waters, so sails feed a bit less cautiously. Regardless, fall marks the end of the summer doldrums and the beginning of the migration of the species that has flourished because of our passion for it.
How to Go It Alone for Sailfish
Unless you’re an experienced mariner, I strongly encourage you to hire a local charter captain that specializes in sailfishing. You’ll wind up learning more, saving money, and catching more fish.
But if you really want a DIY sailfishing experience, please stick to places where you can find fish close to shore in the calm summer months. Rent a boat from a local boat club that has some freeboard and a good working livewell. Bring along four or five spinning rods in the 20-pound class, preferably with reels that have a baitrunner setting. Build a leader of double line that’s about 15-feet long. Tie on a swivel. Attach six to eight feet of 60- to 80-pound leader to the swivel. Rig one rod with a three-ounce sinker above the swivel. The other lines will remain on the surface. Make sure to use 7/0 inline circle hooks. I prefer to use a Homer Rhode loop knot. If you’re getting cut off by kingfish and other toothy critters, tie on the shortest piece of light wire you can twist.
You can spend time castnetting your own bait or catching it with Sabiki rigs. But it’s easier to purchase four or five dozen live baits from the local bait guy, and ask him where you might find a sail. The sea buoys out of Destin and Panama City Beach are good places to start. Otherwise fish around wrecks and reefs, or color changes and weedlines. Pay attention while running. Sails often give themselves away by sunning their dorsal fin out on the surface, or by free-jumping. When you stop to fish, put two baits pretty far out back at staggered distances. Keep one right behind the boat, no more than 15 yards back. Drop the weighted bait down to the thermocline, or to the depths where you’re marking bait on your sonar. Bump the engine(s) in and out of gear. Move ahead when the lines slacken until they’re taught and then travel for a couple of minutes. This tactic causes the baits to rise and fall in the water column, so you cover more water vertically.
When you get a bite, simply reel down until you come tight. Do not set the hook or you’ll pull the circle hook every time. If you hook a mahi, give that fish ample time to swallow the bait. They’re about the only species I know of that seems to specialize in throwing a circle hook.
When the sail comes broadside, grab it with gloved hands by the base of the bill, take a picture with the fish in the water, and revive the fish thoroughly before releasing it. Bringing a fish aboard will dramatically lower its chances of survival. Furthermore, you need a federal pelagic fish permit to bring a billfish aboard and/or harvest one.
The First Mate Can Make or Break a Good Charter Boat
If you charter a boat, you’ll quickly realize that the mate is the busiest person onboard. Mates come in all shapes, sizes, and personalities. The best of them think of themselves as teachers. The worst are only thinking about how many flags they can run up the rigger. Too many captains and mates will want to hook the fish and then hand off the rod, which deprives the angler of the complete experience and the opportunity to learn new skills.
My buddy, Capt. Nick Cremasco is the guy I think of when it comes to great mates. During tournament season, he’s in high demand from the best boats in the fleet. The rest of the year he works on a number of family vessels, teaching parents and kids the art of billfishing while almost invariably putting them on fish. While the crew awaits a bite, Nick shows his clients how to feed and hook a fish. He shows them how to rig baits. He explains the physics and the conservation rationale behind using circle hooks. And he does these things in ways that are humble and hilarious. I’ve benefitted greatly from his advice.
When you climb aboard, introduce yourself to the mate, and explain to him or her what you hope to get out of the charter. You have to make sure not to distract from the business at hand. But there’s usually plenty of time between bites for the mate to show you the ropes and answer questions. And always please make sure to tip a good mate well.