Come Sail Away
Taking on Florida Keys sailfish a slice of Blue Heaven
Sailfishing along Florida's reef system is a bucket list endeavor. (Heidi Suchan photo)
ISLAMORADA, Fla. -- Winter showers bring ... sailfish.
A "shower" of baitfish guides anglers to fish, and the first seen by the crew on the Blue Heaven set the boat into fast forward.
The distinctive sound of a sailfish dragging line off the spinning reel sends Capt. Skye Stanley and first mate Daniel Attales into motion.
As Stanley, up in his fly bridge, gives the call and before Attales can even pull the rod out of the holder, another reel sounds off. Then another.
A slow day of trolling has turned into choas. With only four aboard, including two greenhorns who sorely need help, there's really not enough hands to effectively battle three of the hard-fighting, high-flying fish.
One comes undone, and the newbies and first mate smile with glee as the fish head off in different directions, peeling off more line, jumping multiple times. It's an exhilarating start to an hour battle, which turns to a deep-water standoff before resurfacing several times.
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The sailfish, with its colorful sail that makes them susceptible to becoming a wall hanging, was adopted as Florida's state saltwater fish in 1975, when 14,000 had been tagged and released there in the previous 25 years. Sailfish congegrate along Florida's reef system each winter, using their sails, bills and 60 mph speeds to munch on ballyhoo and other baitfish, and make the waters around Islamorada a bucket list fishing venue.
Don't cut bait to fish
Sailfish are somewhat finicky eaters, Stanley says, so presentation is key.
"The bait is the most important thing," he says as he anchors the Blue Heaven, his 32-foot center console Regulator, in 16 feet of clear water of the reef flat. "They want it live and moving."
Attales sticks a frozen block of chum into a mesh bag and places it over the side, sloshing it around every so often and finishing with a snap of the wrist to release bits and oils. A slick forms, and soon baitfish arrive, only to be pulled up three or so at a time with a sabiki rod, a rig with numerous little hooks that reel inside the blank.
Cigar minnows are dropped into one tank while Stanley arranges the cast net he hopes to toss over a school of skiddish ballyhoo, a long-snout baitfish and the favorite of sails. They come and go at the chum in waves, and Stanley times his fling to their movements to capture as many as possible.
Ballyhoo number around 50 in a second tank before Stanley is satisfied and decides to head to the reef in search of sails.
You need a shower
Florida has North American's only living coral barrier reef, and it's the third largest in the world. It hosts a myriad of fish species, with sailfish among the top predators. Sailfish mainly cruise the reef wall, where water depth increases to more than a hundred feet.
At times, sails follow the baitfish to the reef tops. Finding where the baitfish are each day is the key to finding sailfish.
"Optimal conditions are when we have a lot of bait on the surface," Stanley says, scouring the skies for circling Frigate birds that indicate baitfish below, and hopefully nearby sailfish. "You can really just work up the reef line."
As they travel along the reef, the crew keeps a sharp eye on the water for "showers," the best indicator of sailfish pursuing ballyhoo.
"The school of ballyhoo jump to get away and the water looks like a rain shower," Attales says. "It's thousands of them doing that all at once."
At times, Stanley can run near the shower and cast in front of the sailfish, which from a distance look like black plastic garbage bags lurking beneath the water's surface.
"On showers, nine times out of 10 we just sightfish," Stanley says. "In the winter, the fish do come and go. The fish are contingent on the temperature. When North winds blow, we get some new fish in town."
A recent cold front has pushed more new fish down the coast, and they forage around the reef that extends the length of the Keys. Stanley says these uneducated fish are ripe for the picking.
"Sailfishing is good from now until March," he says. "These first pushes of the year — there's all these fish coming and they're not used to being fished and bite more aggressively."
Stanley admits this season has been slower than most. Just north around the mainland, tournaments haven’t had great success, mainly due to the lack of cold fronts pushing down the fish.
“Sailfishing has been up and down this season, but to tell you the truth, I have seen a lot,” Stanley said. “They are very boat shy I think because of being caught so much. Overall it seems like we see larger numbers of fish with the cold fronts most of the winter, and it has been extremely mild temperature wise.
“Just recently it has gotten a little more chilly it just doesn't stay that way long. We will probably have an earlier dolphin season since the water temp isn't dropping.”
Stanley, 35, who grew up on the island, cut his teeth in sailfish tournaments. He went from washing boats as a teen to being first mate for nearly two decades to venturing into the guide business with his own boat several years ago.
"It’s a day-to-day thing," he says of sailfishing..
Besides the birds and ballyhoo, Stanley relies on a network of other guides and anglers who help clue each other in as to where the activity has moved. A report on the radio sends him on the move from Pickles Reef, where his wife landed her first sail, toward Conch Reef.
Huge yellow buoys mark the off limits of the Conch Reef Sanctuary Preservation Area, where an underwater habitat allows scientists to stay for days at a time to study the marine ecology. The area is also popular with scuba divers, and apparently sailfish.
"It's a real lively spot," Stanley says.
A shower spotted by Attales shows the sailfish are attacking ballyhoo within the preservation area confines, leaving the Blue Heaven no choice but to just troll past.
"It seems like (the sailfish) are all in there," Attales says.
The activity encourages Stanley, who heads back inshore to the flats to gather more bait then quickly returns to the spot. Attales rebaits a teaser with numerous live fish to attract attention, and he again carefully rigs ballyhoo, wrapping the leader around their lower jaw that extends out more than an inch.
Within moments of setting out the spread, the sailfish find it.
As Attales moves to grab the rod and keep the line taut for the anticipated first jump, another reel screams. He barely has time to reel in the slack and hand it to a client before a third sailfish bites.
Sailfish are known to team up, using their sails to corral fish between them. They also utilize their bills to swipe at baitfish then come back to feed on their stunned or sliced quarry. Their bills also make them tough to bring in, as they combine with their high-flying antics to break off.
One fish accomplished this, as another early in the day had on its first set of jumps.
But two are on, and the greenhorns are assured it's a good thing they've headed off in opposite directions ... for awhile. They eventually reverse course and threaten to cross lines.
"Put your rod tips together," Stanley and Attales instruct. "Now cross over ... Go to the bow."
Attales instructs to slowly pull up on the rod and to bring the fish closer, then reel in 3 or 4 cranks when you bring the rod down. Both say to be prepared for jumps, when fast reeling is needed to bring in all the slack.
Stanley and Attales would see the line rising and on the jumps and yell, "Wind, wind, wind!!!"
A loose line can mean a lost fish.
The anglers dance about the deck for 45 minutes, following instructions, especially this one from Attales: "You don't fight the fish with a 6-inch handle, you fight it with a 6-foot rod."
Both fish were fought to the boat, the longest for an hour with one brought aboard for photos.
Stanley enjoys putting people on sailfish, especially when it's their first, but the young captain is well-versed in chasing most species in the waters off Islamorada.
"That's the thing about the Keys," he says. "As soon as you get tired of catching one species, the season changes."
To contact Stanley for a charter on Blue Heaven, call
(305) 481-0697 or email him at email@example.com. For more on the
Florida Keys, visit Fla-Keys.com