Before heading out for a fishing trip, most anglers monitor the weather closely, hoping for calm seas and light winds. The same cannot be said for those who target winter sailfish in Florida. These anglers pray for blustery cold fronts with winds cranking out of the north-northwest and a drop in temperature that will have you donning extra layers underneath your bibs and rain boots.
Whoever says it never gets cold in Florida is dead wrong. Windswept spray on a 45-degree day will send a shiver down anyone’s spine. And when it does cold, a switch flips and the sailfish action heats up.
The Atlantic sailfish is not a true offshore billfish like its white and blue marlin cousins. This wily creature prefers to hunt on near-shore reef edges as it makes its winter migration south, heading for the warmer waters of the Florida Straits and the Yucatan Peninsula.
As sailfish push south along Florida’s east coast starting in late November, they hit a natural bottle neck from Fort Pierce to Palm Beach. Along this stretch of water, known as “Sailfish Alley,” sails are boxed in by the Gulf Stream, which is less than 10 miles offshore. Colorful sails congregate in large packs and prefer to hunt on the tail end of a cold front, using north winds for extra speed, rolling south and hammering baits as they surf down-sea. When you find a mass of sails, it’s possible to rack up double-digits in just a few hours. Sailfish also can be encountered to the north, but in those areas the Gulf Stream is farther offshore and the bottom drops off more gradually. The fish spread out and are more difficult to find.
Last year’s sailfish bite off Fort Pierce and Stuart was average at best, with one exception: the Pelican Yacht Club Invitational Billfish Tournament. Thirty boats released 969 sails during the four-day tourney, and the majority of fish (844) were caught in a two-day stretch that went completely off the Richter scale.
Leading up to the tournament, sailfish were as hard to find as a restroom in a Las Vegas casino. Capt. Mike Brady, who runs the 57-footer Cowpoke, and Capt. Glenn Cameron, who operates Floridian, have more than 60 years experience fishing the Treasure Coast, as this part of the Sunshine State is known, and they agreed that the fishing had been some of the worst they’d seen in a long time. The mild winter weather hadn’t pushed the sails south, they surmised. “There just weren’t any fish around, or they were all in one spot,” Brady says. Turns out, they were all in one spot.
Capt. David Grubbs aboard Grand Slam is credited with finding the fish in a pocket of water with live bottom way north of the tournament’s historically good grounds. The news spread, and the fleet ran north at full throttle to capitalize. Grand Slam went on to win the tournament with 73 releases n three days of fishing.
On the second day of the tournament, Brady started fishing two miles south of Grand Slam. The Cowpoke crew set out a classic dead-bait trolling spread consisting of two mullet dredges and four naked ballyhoo. “We set up working up-sea and hooked one,” Brady says. “I turned the boat down-sea, and when I looked back, in the waves, there were sailfish everywhere. I saw 10 on each dredge, a fish on each bait and 20 more in the water around the boat.”
He had stirred up a hornet’s nest of hungry sailfish, which were bunched up in a 3-square-mile area of green, nasty water. “A normal person wouldn’t stop there,” Brady says. “You’d think there weren’t any sails within 100 miles, the way that water looked, but an old captain once told me that sailfish are not connoisseurs of water color. Something had them held there.”
For two hours, Cowpoke and Grand Slam had the fish to themselves. “In all of my years, I’ve never seen anything like it,” Brady says. “It was pretty special.” Cowpoke caught 40 fish on the day and went on to tally 66 in the tournament.
The Pelican Yacht Club tournament typically imposes a 25-mile boundary for the fleet, but when the fishery shifted north, organizers decided to drop the confines. This record batch of fish was off Satellite Beach, a 50-mile steam from Fort Pierce Inlet.
“The Pelican was the only light of the season,” says David Berard, who fished aboard JT, a 58-foot Viking that set a tournament record, with 41 sails released in a single day. (They caught 42 fish but had to disqualify one because it ate two hooks.)
Berard got into the winter sailfish game when he was 15 (he’s now 60), and he believes the fishery runs in weather-related cycles. “When you have a milder winter, the fish are spread out anywhere from Key West to South Carolina,” he says. “The colder weather groups the fish up with the bait inshore.”
On a typical day, dead-bait crews troll along depths of 75 to 240 feet. South of Miami, most boats fish live baits using kites, but they set up in similar depths and pinpoint areas that have good current, bait presence and maybe a rip line or color break. When the bite slows, boats venture into new areas.
“Last year we did not have much season to speak of,” Berard says. “It was the strangest thing. It was a two-day bonanza. By the final day [of the Pelican tournament], the bite started dying off, and the wind was blowing good and hard out of the northwest and north.”
In this game of cat and mouse, the wild card has always been Mother Nature. “The fish are somewhere between Jacksonville and Miami — you just have to find them,” Brady says. “The sailfish should be pushing down, but the last few winters that stretch between Canaveral and St. Augustine has been holding fish.”
Several weeks after last year’s Pelican, the sailfish were found even farther north. A boat scored more than 40 releases in a single day off St. Augustine. Could this be the start of a new hot spot? Probably not, but if there’s another mild winter, odds are you will see more boats heading north come tournament time in Sailfish Alley.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Anglers Journal.