The state saltwater fish for the state of Florida has been the Sailfish for over 30 years. This is because there are so many fish in the waters off the coast during the year, especially at the end of the year and the beginning of the new year. Fishing for Sailfish in Florida, explicitly fishing in Miami, is one of the most exhilarating feelings an angler will ever feel.
The Sailfish is one of the smaller billfish, the average size and weight for these prized fish in Miami are typically around 5 feet in length and weigh approximately 50 lbs., but they can weigh as much as 130 pounds.
They are one of the most eye-catching fish in the ocean. They have beautiful blue, silver and black colors that can change to confuse prey, an impressive dorsal fin shaped like a sail that can be raised and lowered to ward off predators and confuse prey, a long sleek body built for speed, and their long bill is used to capture prey. Along with their beauty is the fact that they are the fastest fish in the ocean and have been clocked at 68 mph, which is only one or two mph slower than a cheetah. These two factors and the thrill of seeing it acrobatically jump and dance on the water make it one of the world’s most recognized and sought-after trophy fish.
Sailfish are found in South Florida waters throughout the year, but they have a season where your chances of landing one or more on any given day are higher. From late November to the end of March, there are numerous fish in the waters off the Miami coast and fishing in the months of December to February is some of the finest fishing in the world with action and excitement that can’t be beaten. The winter months are so great because baitfish migrate south from the north as northern cold fronts come in. They are looking for warmer waters, as are the Sailfish. Sailfish like waters with temperatures of 70 – 80 degrees. With the baitfish coming, the predators like the Sailfish flock to the reefs. Because of the sheer number of fish in the seas, it is not unheard of to land 20 – 30 or more on one trip.
Sailfish can be found anywhere and everywhere in the water. While usually cruising in 100 – 200 ft. drop-offs, they can dive to over 1000 feet. They can be seen on the hunt as close as 150 feet from shore or way off in the deep blue. They feed on the surface as well as under the water. They follow the currents and the wind. Currents from the north push onto the reefs, bringing large numbers of Sailfish and other predatory fish like Mahi Mahi, Wahoo and Tuna. The other factor used to find Sailfish is the wind. North-northwesterly winds are what anglers fishing in Miami look for. These winds are optimal. They run against the current and force the fish to migrate south. These winds also bring excellent tailing conditions, which is when a choppy sea leads to the Sailfish riding down the waves. This can mean a day with numerous hook-ups and landings. Sailfish enjoy choppy water, so where there are light to moderate northerly winds and a current from the north, this can mean the perfect conditions to reel in multiple fish.
There are a few techniques for hooking a Sailfish. The techniques of choice are Kite Fishing and Dredging.
Kite fishing consists of two kites with three clips attached to each one. This means six baited hooks. Hanging on these hooks are live bait. Usually, when fishing for Sailfish, the baits are Ballyhoo, Mullet, Pilchard, or Googly-Eyes. The bait is suspended on the water’s surface, and its movements and vibrations attract the billfish. They first circle their prey, then BAM! they engulf it, the line breaks, and the fight is on.
The other method is dredging. For dredging, a dredge that looks like an umbrella is baited with 10 – 12 hooks up and down it. Each is either baited with live bait or artificial bait. The dredge is cast into the water and trolled along behind the boat. This group of bait looks like a school of fish in the water, and this method fools them into taking the bait. Then just reel them in. Some fishermen swear by live bait, while others think artificial is better. However, if you are fishing near another boat and you are using artificial, and they are using live bait, there is a good chance that they will outperform you.
Another method that captains use is sight fishing. Here the captain is high up in the tuna tower looking for Sailfish tailing in the water. It may take a while before you see anything but this method can be very effective. There are 1 in every 3 Sailfish hook-ups on average, but because they run in packs, you can see 30, 40, or even 50 in one day, which makes for a busy and fun day!
There are a few techniques that combine sight fishing and kite fishing. Baiting jumpers is a tricky technique. When you see a Sailfish jumping out of the water, you try to move your kite to its south. Also, if not kite fishing, you can throw a bunch of live bait on spinners as you troll along the waters. Chumming live bait is another method. When chumming, you first need to get your kites out in the air. Then scoop the live bait like Ballyhoo or Pilchard into the water. This method can attract a lot of fish, maybe even up to 20. You want to move the kite towards the chum line. Or if you want to, you can pitch some spinners in the water after the chum.
One more that combines two or more techniques is bait ball fishing. Sailfish like to corral large schools of fish into balls. They circle their prey, and eventually, one of them will dive through the ball, and the others eat all the scattered fish. You have to search for one or two things to use this technique. First, you can search for Frigate birds. When there are birds diving in the sea, that usually means there is bait in the water, which probably means there are larger predators. Second, you can look for smaller baitfish jumping out of the water to escape the larger predators. When you can get to this feeding frenzy that is going on, your line can easily be disguised as one of the stragglers from the ball and get engulfed quickly. And then action! Even if you do not get hit, watching the Sailfish in their element as they jet to and fro through the bait ball is worth the ticket of admission.
Finally, we have trolling. Trolling is not a technique that is done that much when trying to catch Sailfish. It is more a technique used for Marlin fishing. The big reason it is not utilized is it is very labor-intensive. You have double-tier dredges with up to 30 hooks, as well as a few daisy chains and some teasers. Although it is not a method of choice, it can definitely work if used.
The beauty of sail fishing is that along with hooking up with the fastest thing in the water, you can land many other predatory fish. Most if not all of these techniques can attract Mahi Mahi, Wahoo, Tuna, and Marlin.
To go after Sailfish, you obviously need a boat. These are not fish you can fish from shore. While you can try it yourself, you really need to be experienced and have an experienced crew. Also, it would be best if you had special equipment for fishing that we have mentioned; kite, dredge etc. This is why we always recommend a fishing charter with a captain that is experienced in sail fishing. There are many to choose from, so do your research or, better yet, contact one of our vetted guides. They will take you out for an experience you won’t forget.
Miami is one of the premier spots in the world for the action-packed excitement of bill fishing. There are numerous fishing tournaments hosted throughout the season, but the two main ones are The Miami Billfish Tournament and The Quest for the Crest Series. The Miami Billfish Tournament is a VIP invitation-only tournament with over $100,000 in prizes. The Quest for the Crest is actually three days of tournaments in three different cities; Palm Beach, Ft. Lauderdale, and Miami. This is the ultimate tournament for Sail Fishing in the world. There is over a 2 million dollar cash purse. The winner has bragging rights as being one of the best boats globally and, most notably, the coveted burgundy jacket with the crest of the tournament. This jacket represents the highest level of achievement in Sail Fishing, and it is viewed as the highest accolade bestowed upon a team.
People flock to Miami for the party lifestyle and the gorgeous beaches with the beautiful people. But for anglers, the waters teeming with Sailfish is what draws them to the Sunshine State. There is nothing like the thrill of watching a Sailfish leap out of the water trying to throw your hook as you slowly reel it in.