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Mauricio Handler/National Geographic Creative
Mauricio Handler/National Geographic Creative

Keys Sailfishing: Well Worth the Fight

Known as the acrobat of the ocean, sailfish once again entertain as the season for catching these charmers begins in November throughout south Florida and the Florida Keys. During the season, sailfish are plentiful enough to bet on a strike. A thrill and challenge is getting your bait on the fish and landing the fish in your boat. Florida’s state fish can reach speeds over 65 mph. Hook one up to enjoy the fishing fight of your life.

A real thrill is watching them perform magnificent acrobatic jumps with head shaking attempts to spit the hook. A typical sailfish solidly hooked in the jaw will usually make a sudden, drag-scorching run followed by lots of jumps. You can never guess in which direction one will land. So it’s important the angler be prepared to reel up line quickly. Sailfish are known to barrel straight toward the boat. Captains must be prepared to make evasive maneuvering to avoid a fish jumping into the boat.

The action can start close in at three to five miles offshore near the edge of the reef at 20 to 150 feet deep. An experienced charter captain can “sight fish” inside the reef from his tower high above the deck. Sailfish are often seen in shallow water, however the ideal depths are found five miles offshore near the Gulf Stream.

Once you have baits to the targets, your next challenge is getting them to the boat. They may seem slow and awkward when trying to eat your bait, but sailfish are explosive and run like race horses. Determined fighters, sailfish will challenge your tackle, your angling skills and the ability of the captain.

For the most fight and excitement, light tackle at 12 to 20 lb. test have produced the best fights. Good sailfish reels hold 300 to 400 yards of line; a fish on a hot run can take it all. The captain has to be ready to chase down a really wild fish.

The consistency of bait flow along the reef provides feeding for a nice variety of game fish. This bait frenzy attracts good numbers of kingfish, tuna, mahi-mahi and snapper. Sailfish love to feed on blue runners, pinfish, mullet, scads, ballyhoo and squid. From Key Largo to Marathon, the lottery is hitting bait pods of ballyhoo as shallow as 70 feet. Live ballyhoo are one of the easiest baits to fish with. Sailfish also like to strike trolling lures and rigged dead trolling baits, though live baits really increase your odds to land a ferocious, acrobatic warrior.

During the summer months, sailfish spawn near shallow water, remaining near the surface. Females are slow swimmers extending their dorsal fins above the water during spawning, and followed by one or more males. Voracious feeders on small fish, sailfish grow very rapidly 4 to 5 feet long in their first year. The sailfish record at 126 pounds, was landed near Big Pine Key south of Marathon.

Sailfish are all about catch and release. Always consider the safety of the fish. They tire quickly due to their exciting and intensive fights. It’s important to revive and care for a sailfish gently to ensure its survival. A picture in the water is the best way to remember your catch of a lifetime; or you can order what’s called a release mount, a fiberglass replica of your fish, custom painted to look just like yours.

Head to the Keys for the fishing experience of your life.

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