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October 26, 2001

Tailing Sails

How-to's on sight casting for sailfish in the Florida Keys.

Although I've fished the Florida Keys for more than 30 years, my heart still pounds when conditions turn favorable for tailing sailfish. One morning last spring, a strong and falling east wind provided the right conditions. I positioned the Sea Boots on the blue-water side of the color change in 280 feet of water as my new mate, Capt. Carey Evans, put out two live ballyhoo on 20-pound spinning tackle. From the tuna tower, 25 feet above the water, I spotted the first sign: schools of bonito tailing along the green/blue edge of the color change, closely followed by a scalloped hammerhead shark just inside the color change in the green water.
"Be ready - it's going to happen," I said. The words weren't out of my mouth when eight sailfish came tailing down-sea, right at us, just 20 feet from the boat. Evans wound in the baits and I spun the boat to chase the wolf pack. As we pulled alongside, Evans' accurate cast dropped a live bait 10 feet in front of the lead fish. A 7-foot, 60-pounder threw up its dorsal fin, lit up electric-blue and began to circle the struggling bait. The ballyhoo tried to escape but couldn't match the lightning speed of the sail, which ran down the bait and took it.
Adrenaline surging, I yelled, "Hit 'em, hit 'em, hit 'em!" The angler wound down tight and set the hook with several firm pumps. For a few seconds the dazed billfish slashed its head back and forth at the surface, then came unglued. Standing on its tail, the sail rocked from side to side in an airborne arc covering 50 yards that brought it right back toward the boat.
A cloud of black smoke rolled across the cockpit as I powered up, first to keep the sailfish out of the cockpit, then backing down hard to keep from being spooled as the sail dumped 200 yards of line. After a 20-minute aerial battle the sailfish finally settled down and Evans was able to reach the leader and release the fish. That was the first of 10 sailfish we caught that day, out of 60 tailers we baited.

Spring Is Best
Tailing conditions that allow anglers to sight-cast to multiple sailfish develop along the Keys from Islamorada to Key West, usually in March and April. The adventure above took place in March l996 off Summerland Key in the Lower Keys, the first of 50 days fishing for tailing sailfish. During that two-month period aboard the Sea Boots 34 and the Sea Boots 43, our anglers caught and released over 300 sailfish, averaging six sailfish per day per boat. We released without harm all the sails and recovered and released one tagged sailfish.
Many species of game fish will "tail," given the right conditions. Seasonal migrations compel game fish to travel against strong currents. At the same time, when a strong wind pushes against the current (in the direction sailfish want to travel), they'll use the waves to propel themselves forward into the current. That's when they can be seen gliding down the front of waves like surfers. Those fish using the surface motion of the waves to travel effortlessly into the strong current are called "tailers" because often you see just the tail as the fish surfs down the seas.

Tackle and Rigging
Sight casting to sailfish requires that the angler not only see the fish, but also make a successful cast and presentation of the live bait, often casting live baits 30 to 75 feet into the wind while standing in the cockpit of a moving boat in rough seas. Spinning tackle lends itself well to this task, offering the angler the necessary casting distance and the ability to free-spool (drop back) to the billfish prior to the hookup. But plug-casting tackle also works very well for anglers with the skills to use it. (Capt. Ken Harris has had success with Shimano Bantams filled with 15-pound line.) A bait caster's revolving spool and disk drag offer superior drag control and effectively reduce fighting time on each fish.
In general, I recommend 20-pound spinning tackle with reels holding no less than 175 yards of 20-pound-test mono. Aboard the Sea Boots we use the Penn SS series 650, 750 and 850 spinning reels on 20-pound rods. Spinning rods should have a fairly hot tip but good backbone. The fairly "hot" (action) tip allows the angler to make the long cast, and the backbone helps raise sounding fish.
Twelve-pound spin tackle offers experts a challenge. However, I don't recommend lighter tackle for the average angler because prolonged fights reduce billfishes' oxygen levels below their ability to survive after release.
For rigging, a Bimini twist forms the main double line, which I make about a foot for every 10 pounds of test - 2 feet in the case of a 20-pound main line. This acts as a shock absorber under sudden stress. Add a 15-foot section of 50-pound monofilament with a Sharpe's Albright knot to the double line to form the leader. Tie a 5/0 to 7/0, Mustad #9174 live-bait hook (matched to the size of the bait) to the terminal end of the leader. The double line and leader will wind right on to the spinning reel, leaving the angler 2 or 3 feet of line from the tip of the rod to the bait for casting.
Knots must be tied and trimmed close so they do not hang up as they pass through the guides on the cast. Anglers not so sure of their knots can apply a little head cement of the type used in fly tying to them.

Live Baits for Tailing Sailfish
Selecting live baits for tailing sailfish differs from baiting sails that have settled in for the winter, feeding on a variety of baits. Tailers will only go after a very lively bait placed right in their path. Often they lose interest even when everything is perfect.
Although most professionals agree that the bait must be very lively, their opinions differ on which species make the best baits. I prefer ballyhoo or threadfin herring. Unfortunately, both can be almost impossible to catch at the time of year when sailfish tail. Large razor-belly pilchards, fairly easy to catch at this time of the year, make a good alternative. Blue runners and goggle-eyes make excellent baits but again can be difficult to catch. Grunts, yellowtail snapper and pinfish can be used in a pinch.
Baits should be hooked near the head to ensure they do not spin - when retrieved, baits should swim naturally. Some captains like to pass the hook from side to side near the nostrils, others pass the hook up or down in the same area. In the case of ballyhoo, the hook is passed through the lower bill and secured with copper wrapping wire or a cocktail straw.

Fishing the Color Change
Having a boat with a tuna tower or flying bridge is a great advantage in this sport, but sight casting can be done from any boat. Most captains prefer to position the boat in the blue water along the color change, looking inshore toward the powder-blue to green water. Sailfish will tail along the entire edge of the color change, swimming into the current, but are best seen in the powder-blue and green water.
Watch for schools of bonito moving into the current along the edge of the blue/green - sailfish will tail in the same place. Hammerhead sharks also indicate the inner edge of the current and of sailfish tailing activity.
Keep outriggers in the up position, no lines in the water and one live bait hooked on a 20-pound spinning rig in the live well ready to throw. Anglers and crew must be in the ready position with extra 20-pound rigs in case one tangles.

Visual Contact, Cast and Hookup
When the captain spots a wolf pack of sails tailing down the edge of the color change, he spins the boat and follows alongside the fish. Ideally, he positions the boat down-wind, maintaining about a 100-foot distance slightly behind the pack. The angler positions himself or herself in the starboard stern corner of the boat and yells out when ready to throw. Then the captain angles the boat toward the pack, still remaining down-wind and slightly behind, and closes to within 50 to 75 feet of the pack.
When the angler sees the pack, he casts the live bait to a point 10 to 15 feet ahead and in the path of the billfish. From his vantage point on the flybridge, the captain instructs the angler to adjust the bait's position if necessary by calling out, "Wind it to you!" "Free-spool!" or "Stop the line!"
Getting one out of three tailing sailfish to eat is average. When one gets ready to eat, you will see it light up, fins erect. The sail will circle and then attack the bait. The angler keeps the bail of the reel open with the line held lightly on the tip of the pointing finger of the right hand so the sail can easily pull the line off the finger.
Once the sail's taken the bait and you've flipped the bail, check to make sure the line is positioned on the spinning reel correctly and not wrapped around the handle or the spool. When the line tightens, count to five and wind quickly until the line comes tight. As the rod loads, pump the rod four or five times firmly to set the hook.
Once the hook is set, the sail will first go airborne - often for two or three minutes - then make a 150- to 200-yard line-blistering run. During the jumps, keep the rod tip up at a 45-degree angle and keep the line tight by winding, not pulling back on the rod. During the long runs, lower the rod tip to 25 degrees to reduce friction on guides and do not wind.
Sight casting to game fish may be the most exciting form of sport fishing, combining the thrills of fishing and hunting, but conditions must be right. Over the years we have used sight-casting techniques to catch most of the game fish found in our waters, but the sight of tailing sails will always make your heart pound.