Billfish Bonanza

By: Doug Kelly

When it comes to targeting sailfish, Florida ranks as one of the world’s premier destinations.

On a nippy December day in the early 1990s, a few buddies and I headed offshore of Islamorada in the Florida Keys aboard the How 'Bout It with Capt. Skip Nielsen. Bundled up and more resembling ice fishermen than suntanned Floridians, we chugged offshore with the usual anticipation of a good day of sailfishing. Little did we know it would be an extraordinary experience.

Upon reaching the reef, Nielsen, standing on the bridge above, shrieked like he won the lottery. "Oh yes, yes, yes. This is it," he hollered. Nielsen knew the cool north wind increased the odds of good sailfishing, but another rare condition was present: a powder-blue hue in the water.

The current of the nearby Gulf Stream was hugging closer to the reef than usual, and that always portends non-stop sailfish action. Non-stop, indeed. We caught and released one leaping sail after another in a frantic morning of utter elation. And at one point I witnessed a once-in-a-million sight: three sailfish were hooked up at the same time, with two tail-walking toward each other and the third making a perfect rainbow jump directly over them as they crossed behind the boat. Not even Spielberg could have orchestrated better timing.

Billfish inhabit the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, and also prowl the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean. But traveling long distances and overlooking what's close at hand reminds me of Easter egg hunts as a kid: Some sneaky adults hid lots of eggs near the starting point and we'd run right past them. Now that I hunt billfish instead, I know it's not necessary to scour distant continents when outstanding action is available off Florida.

Besides the convenience of proximity, in the good ol' U.S.A. you don't have to worry about questionable facilities, delays getting through Customs or other maladies that often befall those visiting third-world nations. And around our tourist-savvy state, resorts and hotels seldom disappoint, charter fleets maintain high standards to remain competitive and you don't have to plead with skippers to release all catches unharmed.


It's tough to beat the Florida Keys for any style of saltwater fishing, and same goes for billfishing. Which is just fine to Capt. Jim Sharpe, who charters the Sea Boots out of Summerland Key. "You can catch sailfish year 'round, but the best time is November through January," says Sharpe.

He further explains that sailfish get their name because they spread their big dorsal fins into a sail and work in teams to corral hordes of bait fish, forcing them into a tight ball. Next, they dart into the ball, swinging their long bills like a lawn mower blade, stunning dozens of victims. The team then moves in to leisurely gobble up the injured baits.

"All that cool-weather activity makes sailfish very aggressive to trolled baits or sight-casting live baits at them," Sharpe says, adding that this past Christmas Eve, his two anglers that day - a married couple in their 70s - caught and released 23 sailfish.

"And let's not forget blue marlin," he says. "It was in July some years back when we released a giant blue marlin that measured 14½ feet in length and weighed somewhere around 850 pounds - we don't know for sure because we release all billfish."


When it comes to targeting sailfish, Florida's central east coast ranks as one of the world's premier destinations. And that's precisely where Capt. Scott Fawcett, skipper of the Bone Shaker in Stuart, Florida, goes after spindle beaks. He's found that the best opportunity arrives right after a cold front moves through. Fawcett also looks for color differences in the water and temperature changes.

If trolling rigged baits such as ballyhoo, he usually puts out a "dredger" teaser, which consists of two umbrella-shaped offerings of lures or baits without hooks, one behind the other. It's designed to raise sailfish nearer the surface so they switch attention to the hooked baits. Fawcett often employs a fishing kite, which is exactly that: a kite flown behind the boat from which three live bait are kept hopping and jumping at the surface - a technique that really gets sailfish fired up.

One of Fawcett's anglers released a white marlin just before Christmas. And in January, anglers aboard a local boat caught a grand slam: a blue marlin, white marlin and several sailfish on the same day. Over the last few years double-digit days have been common, and some days, you may see over 50 sails in a day.


Swordfish - which had all but disappeared until recent years - now make up a dependable sport fishery off all of south Florida in addition to the northwest. It involves fishing at night in deep water and dangling fishing lines at various depths. Chemical light sticks just above the live baits attract more attention.

No matter where off Florida you go in search of billfish action, keep your eye on the sky - that just might give a clue to what's under the water's surface. Frigatebirds, often mistaken for albatrosses, circle high over deep waters. Miami's Al Pflueger (pronounced FLEW-gurr), a legendary angler who's traveled the world catching billfish but now concentrates off Florida, recommends taking particular note when frigatebirds get close to the water's surface.

"That could mean a big marlin or a team of sailfish has trapped or balled bait near the surface," Pflueger says. "Frigatebirds love to pick off baits leaping in the air to escape the attacks from below or to grab the scraps left when billfish start the feeding mayhem."

If you're still wondering what all the hoopla is about over tangling with these pointy-nosed fighters, just try stepping into the ring with a tail-walking sailfish, leaping blue marlin or jousting swordfish " you'll never be quite the same. The experience captures your soul and becomes so infectious you cannot resist the urge to come back for more. And with so many close-to-home billfishing opportunities available off Florida, that's an itch that's easier than ever to satisfy.


If big-game billfishing action lights your fire, take note of the following Florida records for billfish compiled by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, including the rare longbill spearfish. Keep in mind, however, that nearly all billfish are released unharmed these days, so most of the actual record catches are still swimming around.

Blue marlin: 1,046 pounds; Panama City, 2001
White marlin: 161 pounds; Miami Beach, 1938 (one of the oldest records ever)
Swordfish: 612 pounds, 12 ounces; Key Largo, 1978
Sailfish: 126 pounds; Big Pine Key, 2009
Longbill spearfish: 61 pounds, 8 ounces; Islamorada, 1981

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