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Sailfish Fishing Techniques
Captain Sheriff, a Rhode Island fishing charter captain and owner of Captain Sheriff's Fishing Charters, fishes the Florida Keys frequently during the winter months. The Florida Keys inside and outside reefs are abundant with bait fish in the winter months and this is the ticket for hot sailfish action.
There are several live baits that are effective for catching sailfish. The most prevalent bait available is ballyhoo and the key to successful sailfish hookups is getting live ballyhoo. This is done by anchoring up on the outside of a patch reef, just ahead of the reef making sure you are not anchored in the fragile corals. You will need to check the current and wind to see where you anticipate your chum is going to end up because you would like it to over a large section of the reef where the ballyhoo should be. The chum can be purchased from your local tackle and bait store which you will put in an open mesh chum bag to be tied to the boat. In some cases, you may have to move to another reef if ballyhoo does not show up in your chum line after about 20 minutes. The most effective way is to catch ballyhoo is with a cast net. If you do not have one or know how to effectively throw a cast net, they can also be caught on very small hooks tipped with squid or shrimp using an ultra light spinning tackle
Tackle & Rigging
I prefer utilizing spinning tackle with 7 foot rods with medium action tip and quality bait runner reels holding approximately 300 yards of 25 pound test line. The hook size is 3/0 to 7/0 depending on the size of the ballyhoo or baits being utilized. The main line of 20-25 lb. test is tied to several feet of bimini twist shock leader. The other end of the bimini twist leader is attached to a few feet of 30 -40 lb. test monofilament leader. The 3/0 – 7/0 hook is then attached to the leader complete the rig.
Once you catch what you feel is an adequate amount of bait, venture out to the edge of the outside reefs in the 60 - 180 foot depth such as the Elbow Reef, French Reef, Alligator Reef and many other outside reefs along the Florida Keys. Sailfish prefer clear water, so keep an eye out for water clarity. Wrecks are another key holding area for sailfish and always look for frigate birds, commonly known as man-o”-war birds circling or diving. The edge of reefs will sometimes explode with bait fish being pushed up by sailfish. Short bursts of baitfish being pushed above the surface are typically due to cero and king mackerel but prolonged sessions of bait being pushed out of the water are key signs of sailfish in hot pursuit.
Slow troll by bumping the engine in and out of gear or even drift if you think you are on fish. Outriggers can be utilized as well. Make sure you set the clip tension very loose. Keep the bait runner reel in the position that lets line out very freely with little tension. Sailfish hit the bait with their bill in an attempt to kill the bait before coming back and eat it. Any tension or unnatural look of the bait will deter the sailfish.
When you hook up with sailfish, hang on, sailfish will put on an aerial show and take a lot of line in a very short time. You will probably need to run then down with the boat so you do not get spooled. A center console boat is nice because you can go forward and not have to back down on fish.
The video tab on this website has a couple videos of sailfish action I encountered while in Key Largo, Florida. The first sailfish was caught and released in about 30 minutes. The other sailfish was released after a one hour battle. We caught and successfully released four sailfish that day. After that, we caught five mahi, two kingfish and lost a marlin after a few seconds since spooling the reel.