The fight lasted perhaps a millisecond, but the impression the fish imparted on me never faded. I was visiting my father in the Florida Keys, where he had a fifth-wheel estate in a ramshackle trailer park. His trailer was actually pretty cool, full of fishing flavor and tacky bachelor decorations — old car dealership signs, broken propellers — affixed to the walls. But the best part about the place was the location: waterfront on the Atlantic side of Plantation Key, a bit north of famed fishing town Islamorada.
The trailer park had a small marina, a saltwater pool that changed levels with the tide and its own inlet, which required some Conch Republic muscle to remove debris that came in on the heels of a storm and prevent the local fleet from bumping bottom. Dad kept a 20-foot Aquasport in the marina, and we got around in a golf cart. There’s something special about using a golf cart for transportation. If you’re getting from point A to point B at the helm of a gas-powered cart, odds are you’re in some sort of tropical paradise. The locals had colorful names like Boilermaker Bill and checkered pasts. I could spend hours listening to their rum-filled tales.
We mostly split our time between trolling rigged ballyhoo at the Islamorada Hump for mahi-mahi and anchoring out to chum up yellowtail snapper, usually in the cool, low-light hours of early evening. It was during one such evening of chum-induced revelry that I saw my first Atlantic sailfish. We were situated well inside the reef edge when its telltale dorsal fin crested the surface and cut through the water like a surfer.
“What the hell was that?” I asked Dad.
“Looks like a sailfish,” he said. “I don’t know what he’s doing here.”
I made a cast toward a splash of water the sailfish had just flung at the boat with its tail. I was fishing a quarter-ounce lead-head jig with a piece of cut bait. My dad shook his head at me. He didn’t have to say what he was thinking. I knew from his facial expression. I’d seen it my entire life. His rolling eyes and pierced lips were saying, Why the hell did you do that?
Just as my jig hit the surface, the 3-foot sail munched it. I heeled back on the light rod and somehow came tight. The fish erupted out of the water, swung its bill like a flag-carrying member of the color guard, and snapped the 20-pound leader as if it were thread. Gone. I jumped up and down with teenage enthusiasm and asked if we could pull up anchor and chase the fish. It was the coolest creature I’d ever tangled with. And that’s how the sailfish caught me.
You don’t need a big boat or a big budget to fish for sails. You don’t even need a passport. In Florida, sailfish run up and down the coast all year, with November through February reigning as prime time. You can target them trolling rigged dead bait and teasers, fishing live baits off kites or bait-and-switch them with fly rods. They’re everyman’s billfish.
But the best thing about sailfish is not their speed or the fact that they like to stay much closer to the coast than marlin. What makes sailfish special is their beauty. The long, tall dorsal is lined with spines and tends to breach swells as the fish waves hello. Blues, silvers and deep purples radiate from its flanks. They have an uncanny ability to dance across the water and cartwheel like an acrobat.
I love catching sails on light tackle — watching them cut and turn after a live bait or storm the spread like a soldier. And more often than not, they ignite a passion inside the angler that leads to venturing farther afield in search of bigger specimens.
I’ve never been a fan of big, flashy fish mounts, but I do have a sailfish mount on the outside of my house by the patio. It’s not big, but it sure is pretty. I look at it every day and think back to that wayward fish that pulled on my line so many years ago.