Capt. David Grubbs couldn’t believe his eyes. Scores of sailfish were surfing down the face of every wave in 4- to 5-foot seas. But on this day, Grubbs was not fishing such sailfish hot spots as Costa Rica, Panama or Isla Mujeres, Mexico. He had his boat, Grand Slam, off the east coast of Florida, just a few miles from where rockets launch into space.
The teams competing in the Pelican Yacht Club Invitational Billfish Tournament out of Fort Pierce, Florida, began the week hopeful to catch a dozen or two sails each. They closed the event celebrating broken catch records, not only for this tourney, but also for sailfish tournaments throughout the Atlantic and beyond.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Dave Berard, an angler aboard JT, which caught a record 41 fish in one day, led by Capt. Mark McDevitt. A longtime charter captain, Berard has fished Florida waters since he was 12, working mostly out of Fort Pierce.
“I think it’s incredible what these guys have done here,” says Capt. Chip Shafer, an International Game Fish Hall of Famer and longtime charter skipper. “The techniques they are using are better for catching sailfish than we used back in the day, but the sailfish population is way better off than it used to be, too.” Shafer, who has won the Pelican Yacht Club tournament four times, for years has run Nick Smith’s Old Reliable boats. Smith is one of the most accomplished anglers in the world, with more than 10,000 releases.
Fishing three of four days early this year, the 30 boats in the 39th annual Pelican Yacht Club Invitational Tournament fleet notched some eye-popping numbers. There were 969 total sailfish caught and released (an unofficial record for a dead-bait sailfish tourney) and 712 sailfish caught in one day, with 27 boats fishing (an unofficial record for an Atlantic tournament, live or dead bait). The team aboard JT released a tournament record 41 sails in a single day, and 13 boats had at least one day with more than 30 releases, with a daily average of 10.76 per boat. The team aboard Grand Slam released 73 sails during its three days of fishing, another tournament record.
Florida’s 2018-19 sailfish tournament season began slowly. Dead-bait tournaments in December were won with catches of six or seven sailfish over three days. Then came the 39th annual Pelican Invitational. Sailfish historically have shown well during the second week of January off Florida’s Treasure Coast and Space Coast. And boy, did they show this year.
“In just a couple of days, we went from some of the worst fishing of the year to the best fishing we have ever seen,” says Capt. Mike Brady, who skippered Cowpoke to 40 sails on one day and a total of 66, for second place. “In the first two days, we probably saw over 150 sailfish in our bait spread.”
JT owner David Johnson was also impressed. “The sailfishing was fantastic. It was by far the most sailfish I’ve ever caught off Florida,” he says.
The 73 sails released aboard Grand Slam were 16 fish better than the tournament record, set in 2012 by Bone Shaker. Cowpoke, with 66 sails, and Champagne Lady, with 58, also bested the tournament’s 57-fish record.
Grubbs is credited with initially finding the fish. “We could hear him on the VHF radio calling in his catches,” says Capt. Josh Chaney, who skippered Chapagne Lady. “When we moved several miles north to where he was fishing, we couldn’t believe it. It was like all the sailfish in the ocean were in one spot.”
The fish were concentrated in an area about 20 miles off Satellite Beach, a 50-mile steam for the tournament fleet. The boats typically find sailfish within 20 miles of Fort Pierce Inlet, so reaching them this year meant giving up more than an hour of fishing time.
Grubbs tapped instinct and intel to find the sailfish. “There had been few fish caught close to Fort Pierce, and prefishing near there wasn’t very good,” he says. “I had heard through the rumor mill that the commercial kingfish guys off Port Canaveral were talking about how many sailfish they were seeing. When we were coming down to Fort Pierce from New Smyrna Beach the day before the tournament, we saw quite a few free-jumpers.”
Grubbs and his crew kept tight-lipped about their findings, and the boats that used the first day of the tournament as a lay day realized they had made a mistake. However, Grand Slam’s 38 sailfish on the first day stood as a single-day tournament record for just 24 hours. As good as that day was, with 18 boats catching 132 sailfish, the second day was unlike any that the veteran crews had seen: 27 boats released 712 sails.
The only other Atlantic sailfish tournament that comes close to those numbers is the 75th anniversary West Palm Beach Silver Sailfish Derby in 2012, when a 46-boat fleet caught a whopping 1,174 sails from Jan. 5 to 7. On the first day of the tournament, the fleet released 659 sailfish — a feat no one believed would be topped. That is, until this year.
Ed Killer is the outdoors columnist for TCPalm.com and Treasure Coast Newspapers. He is one of the last remaining outdoor writers for a daily newspaper in Florida, covering everything from sailfishing to snake hunting and lobster diving.