Travel Destinations

Fishing for Sailfish in Florida


Winter cold fronts send chills up the spines of those who live in colder climates of the country. These same fronts play a major role in the winter fishing activity off the Florida Keys where during the months of December through March sailfish are the prime target. Key Largo lies at the doorstep of the Florida Keys where the Overseas Highway begins its 126 mile picturesque journey to Key West. The northernmost Key in this fragile island chain, Key Largo also offers some of the best sailfish action in the Keys.

Sailfish are great light-tackle billfish and 20-pound class spin or conventional gear is all you'll need. High-speed reels are preferred so line can be retrieved in a hurry when a feisty sailfish turns to the boat. The leader system is simple and includes a five-foot Bimini Twist to which a 15-foot, 40- or 50-pound test fluorocarbon leader is attached with a Yucatan Knot. Non-offset circle hooks have played a major role in the ever-growing sailfish population as nearly all sailfish are released alive. Depending on the size of the bait, choose anywhere from a 5/0 to 7/0 and use a Snell to affix the hook to the leader.

In the Keys it's mostly a live bait fishery for sailfish where pilchards, sardines, ballyhoo, and goggle eyes are the primary bait. Many pros catch and pen their bait for the entire season though weekend anglers may find it easier to buy bait from boats which congregate around the marinas or can be hailed on the radio. A visit to any of the popular tackle shops in the Keys can yield information on where to obtain bait. While slow-trolling live ballyhoo offers the best shot at a sailfish in early winter, look for goggle eyes and pilchards dangling from kites to draw more strikes during January through March.

Sailfish do have their preferred haunts where they can often be found in numbers. Look for deep blue water, birds, bait, rips and color changes.Wrecks and reefs in water from 150-300 feet deep are a good starting point and it's a short run to this structure when fishing out of Key Largo. Once on the reef, consider a four-rod spread with two lines in the riggers placed 75-100 feet behind the boat and two flat lines placed anywhere from 30-50 feet behind the boat. Reels, whether conventional or spinning, are in free spool and conventional reels have the clicker on while spinning reels use a piece of rigging wire to secure the line yet allow it to free spool once the bait is picked up.

Kites offer a distinct advantage on windy days as they keep the bait right on the surface where it frantically sends  distress signals through the water. Most sailfish pros utilize two kites run through the riggers to widen the spread. Release clips are placed 75 feet apart on the kite line and depending on wind conditions kites should be 75 to 200 feet behind the boat. When using kites it's all in the presentation as the live bait sits perfectly on the surface. Conventional reels are set in free spool with the clicker on and spinning reels are set with bail open and rigging wire positioned to hold line on the spool. Fluorescent line markers, also called kite floats, or colorful ribbons tied to the fishing line are set about 15 feet above the  bait so the angler can see where the bait is on the surface. Often from the bridge or tower it's possible to see the fish eat the bait and all the angler needs to do after a five count is close the bail or engage the reel and let the circle hook sink in the corner of the mouth. If it's a blind bite, a short drop back is all that's required and once line starts coming off the spool the angler should be prepared to engage the reel because the fish's mouth is closed, it's swimming away and has eaten the bait.

Sailfish season is here and tackle shops and marinas in the Key Largo area can provide additional information on the finer points of catching spindlebeaks including some of the tips, tricks, tactics and techniques space limits us from including here.

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