A few years ago, I took a close look at the careful catch records kept by the West Palm Beach Fishing Club from their 77-year-old Silver Sailfish Derby. That data matches up with what just about every sailfish expert in Florida says—the fishing has never been better—probably because of wise conservation laws and policies, as well as a voluntary catch-and-release ethic uphold by most anglers. Just for fun, I compared the numbers with my own logbook, and I noticed that indeed the number of sails I’ve caught has increased over the past decade, and increased significantly. It’s kind of weird to be surprised by your own records, but I couldn’t believe the number of sailfish that we’ve been catching in the summer months.
From roughly Sebastian to Key West, sailfish are the most popular and targeted offshore species from November through March. Ideal sailfish winter weather involves north/northeast winds and big swells. The prevailing thinking is that these conditions lift the bait off the bottom and the sails rise after them, riding the waves, often visibly, in the clear blue waters. Flat water is the last thing we hope for when planning a sailfish trip.
But almost all the “summer sails” we catch are caught in millpond conditions. We often spot them first lying still on the surface, apparently sunning themselves. Two summers ago, I coaxed two of them into chasing down a fly, running a big baitfish streamer past each fish’s bill. They each took the fly, but they took it coming straight on—an angle that makes it almost impossible to get a good hookset. Still, it was exhilarating to watch them jump before throwing the fly.
Live-baiting sailfish in the summer is the way to ensure an official release, which involves the mate or someone onboard touching the leader. Fortunately, live bait is generally readily available during the summer. And we use circle hooks, which almost always find a solid home in the corner of the sail’s mouth, where it is difficult for the fish to shake loose but easy to remove with a de-hooker or pliers. You will probably catch other species including king mackerel, mahi and little tunny, in the process.
The area between the North Lake Worth Inlet, in Palm Beach County, and the waters off Sebastian Inlet, tends to hold a lot of bait and hence a lot of sailfish during the summer months. I suspect that the coldwater upwellings that occur frequently in July and August force both the bait and the billfish to the surface, where the fish are most likely to strike. However, you can find sails in the bait balls of the Keys year round as well, and plenty of fish are caught off Miami.
Summer offers calm conditions offshore, and great fishing for sailfish and many other species. If you’re new to offshore fishing, it’s a great time to get your sea legs. And it’s a great time for anglers of any experience level to hear that drag sing!