A cold snap brings strong northeast winds that whip the western boundary of the Gulf Stream into a rolling countercurrent. Small craft warnings are raised, and locals used to warm-weather pampering scurry to find appropriate clothing.
This is the time of year when generations of anglers descend on South Florida for the winter sailfish season. During the following three months, fishermen from Fort Pierce to Key West will brave the brisk air and challenging seas to participate in one of bluewater fishing’s most iconic and enduring traditions.
Recreational billfishing was born here, and for decades, the pursuit of sailfish has enamored devotees of the species. The true believers include Nick Smith, one of the most accomplished billfish anglers in the world. He’s 77, and he’s been at it since he was 15.
“My father hired Capt. Bob Hayes, skipper of the charter boat Adventurous out of West Palm Beach,” Smith says, recalling how he’d only ever caught fish from a dock. The captain’s son “explained how I was supposed to sit in the chair, hold the rod with my thumb on the reel spool and feel for the tap that would signal a bite. Then feather the spool to drop back the bait so the fish could eat it, put the reel in gear and get hooked up. My first bite went off like clockwork, and what ensued was the greatest thing I ever saw. The fish began jumping, pulling drag, putting on a display. It was incredibly exciting, just spectacular! The fish was so beautiful, it took my breath away.”
More than a few anglers have similar memories — some from a lifetime ago, others from a year ago — which is why enthusiasm for chasing sailfish remains so strong in this part of the world. Atlantic sailfish are found in subtropical and tropical waters, with higher concentrations near continental shelf areas. That description fits south-central Florida’s coastline, where the shelf is narrow, the blue water is close and the sailfish are within sight of shore. It’s an ideal habitat, especially when you factor in the effects of the Gulf Stream, along with the variety of baitfish that migrate through these waters as fall slips into winter. Florida at this time of year is sailfish central.
Vast schools of mullet, ballyhoo, goggle eyes and greenies constitute a buffet for sailfish to gorge on as they move through the region. When conditions are right, sailfish exhibit their signature pack-hunting technique. Groups of them use their flowing, oversize dorsal fins to corral schools of prey into tight balls before individual sailfish charge through, cutting out a few unfortunates and making easier targets for the rest of the pack. The technique is not unlike that of wolves working a herd of prey to segregate the young or the weak for the kill.
Under cold-front conditions, bait movements can be so massive that sailfish numbering in the thousands hunt the edges of the reefs, often resulting in an epic bite. Anglers can rack up double-digit release numbers in a matter of hours, scrounging to find enough release flags to fill their outriggers.
Imagine fishing a stone’s throw from the beach with live baitfish suspended beneath kites dancing on the surface. Sails pop up from all directions to assault them. Boats jockey for position, working double and triple hookups as sailfish dance in the sun, running in different directions, screaming drags on light tackle. Captains throw their boats to port, then to starboard, backing down at speed as they attempt to keep the action under control. Few fishing experiences can match the frenetic pace that has enticed anglers to chase sailfish here for more than a hundred years.
Sails have been a driver of winter tourism in Florida since before the turn of the 20th century. Their magic helped build the early vacation towns of the state’s central and south Atlantic coast. Palm Beach was at the epicenter of early popularity, with much credit to millionaire industrialist Henry Flagler, his railroad and his vision to develop Florida into a destination that rivaled the French Riviera. The tourist season he promoted just happened to coincide with the winter sailfish run, and interest in catching the billfish became a reason for rich snowbirds to flock here.
In 1914, a group of wealthy anglers formed the Sailfish Club of Florida, which exists to this day on the island of Palm Beach. But the sport did not remain the exclusive domain of the rich. After the Great Depression, in 1934, the decidedly more blue-collar town of West Palm Beach saw the formation of the West Palm Beach Fishing Club. “The club was formed with the town’s encouragement and help,” says club president Tom Twyford. “The early members built their clubhouse across the street from the municipal dock where the charter fleet plied its trade, with the goal of stimulating the local economy through the promotion of sport fishing to the winter tourists.”
In 1935, the club introduced the Silver Sailfish Derby, a monthlong tournament that attracted the attention of John Rybovich Jr., of the family that’s synonymous with one of Florida’s premier builders of sportfishing boats. He’s the one who devised the broken-sheer that created a cockpit with lower gunwales for fishing, a design still utilized on sportfishing yachts. He also is credited with developing the earliest outriggers and the initial iteration of a fighting chair.
“The club quickly came to understand how important the sailfish was to fishermen, tourism and the economy of South Florida,” Twyford says. “In 1938, we instituted the first release trophy and introduced the practice of using small red pennants flown from a boat’s outriggers when returning to the dock, to showcase a team’s prowess at catching and releasing sailfish during the event. The Silver Sailfish Derby became the first tournament to transition into an all-release format, in the 1960s, adding to the club’s efforts to promote sailfish conservation.”
One of the oldest perpetual trophies in billfishing, the Mrs. Henry R. Rae Trophy, remains on display at the West Palm Beach Fishing Club, complete with the names of each year’s winner on the base. In the 1950s, Ernest Hemingway, a billfish aficionado, became a club benefactor and established the Old Man and the Sea Trophy. The prize was a set of silver sculpted bookends with an autographed copy of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel set between them.
The popularity of the winter sailfish run spawned billfish tournaments — some now 50 to 80 years old — up and down the Florida coast. “Every year I can’t wait for winter and the start of the sailfish run,” says Capt. Ray Rosher, a veteran Miami sailfish skipper who runs the Miss Britt fleet. “To say it’s a tradition would be an understatement.”
By mid-November, boats from as far away as New Jersey, Maryland and North Carolina start pouring into South Florida marinas. Convertible battlewagons and scads of high-powered center consoles add to the urgency in the air. “Man, we start planning our sailfish tournament schedule in mid-August,” says Eric Hall, owner of the Bahama 41 center console Good Call. “I love fishing, but sailfish are just a whole other dimension. It’s a team sport, and we practice for the tournaments a lot, which means plenty of time on the water honing our skills and making sure we work together flawlessly.”
Hall’s team prefers to kite-fish using live bait. “It’s so visual, and the bite is just awesome,” he says. “Watching a sail light up as it chases down the bait on the surface so close to the boat is incredibly exciting, and there’s nothing better to do it from than a center console. When we’re fighting a single fish, the angler moves to the bow, and my captain, Matt Alligood, can track the fish as it runs. When we get multiple hookups, which is a lot, our team knows just how to work around the boat to give us the greatest chances of getting a release on every fish.”
In sailfish tournaments, prize money can be serious, but many teams are in the game for that and something more: the tradition of sailfishing that has been passed down for generations. “My crew and I would prefer to see more tournaments go back to just trophies,” Hall says. “My team’s biggest goal isn’t to walk away with the most money, but to win the ultimate prize: our names on the Silver Sailfish Derby Mrs. Henry R. Rae Trophy. What an accomplishment that would be, to be a recognized part of that tradition.”