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October 26, 2001

Dead-Bait Sailfish Revival

Leave the Cast nets at home and return to the basics of of proven trolling techniques.

Live bait takes plenty of sailfish - no one will argue that. But many experts believe that time-tested trolling techniques with dead bait often represent the best method to catch sails. In a dead-bait-only tournament last year off Stuart, Florida, an incredible 382 sailfish were released in one day.
The debate on whether to use live or dead bait cannot be better illustrated anywhere than in the 38-mile stretch of Gulf Stream known as Sailfish Alley between Palm Beach and Fort Pierce, Florida. The northward flow of the warm Gulf Stream in this area holds enormous schools of baitfish during the cool months of winter, a fact that sailfish - and anglers - are well aware of. Sometimes so many sails congregate off Palm Beach in the winter that anglers can catch them merely by trolling dead baits out the inlet or near the sea buoy only a mile offshore - a proposition that can be difficult, however, due to heavy boat traffic. In any event, the dead-bait trolling techniques perfected for sails here can be adapted for use anywhere in the world.

Width of the Hot Zone Makes the Difference
Many sailfish pros in the northern half of Sailfish Alley troll dead ballyhoo, while their counterparts to the south prefer live baits. "The reason for that is simple," says Capt. Dennis Steele, a charter-boat skipper from Stuart. "Sailfish along this part of Florida tend to congregate in about 100 to 200 feet of water. Off Palm Beach, the sea bottom drops off in such a way that this preferred sailfish range is less than a mile wide; off Stuart the drop-off isn't as pronounced, and the same preferred depth range is about 2 miles wide. A little farther up the coast around Fort Pierce, that same 100- to 200-foot zone gets to be around 4 miles wide. The only way you can effectively fish these larger areas for sailfish is by trolling."
Other experts eschew live baits for varying reasons. Capt. Chip Shafer of the charter boat Temptress out of Fort Pierce says using live baits for sailfish is just as unsporting as using decoys to shoot ducks that land on the water. "Besides, if you take 100 boats trolling ballyhoo for sailfish, the average angler has an equal chance at catching as many fish as professional boats, but those same anglers stand no chance against the pros when live bait's allowed," he says.

Rigging Up for Trolling
"It's important to know how to rig and use several types of dead baits, because fishing conditions can change quickly and you need to match your bait to what sails are currently eating," says Smith. "If you don't, and the boat next to you does, he's going to catch your fish."
Match the hook to the size bait you're going to use (generally between 3/0 and 6/0), not the size of the sailfish you're hoping to catch. Smith cautions that hook sizes aren't standardized - one manufacturer's 4/0 may not be the same size as another's. Many experts use a short-shank hook tied with a clinch knot or other favorite.
Most skippers such as Steele rig ballyhoo with a single hook. "Even though sails may grab the ballyhoo tail-first or sideways, they swallow it headfirst," he says. "Sailfish often refuse to eat a double-hooked bait, perhaps because it looks too unnatural; plus, a second hook can hinder the sail's swallowing a bait."
Once the leader is attached to the hook, Steele ties a 12-inch piece of copper or monel wire to the hook eye and then threads the point of the hook under the ballyhoo's gill cover, piercing its belly very close to the rear of the gill. He likes the hook as far forward in the ballyhoo's belly as possible, with the shank of the hook resting under and behind the lower jaw and the eye of the hook below the fish's eye. Once the hook's in place, he wraps the wire through the lower portion of the eye socket four or five times and then around the base of the bill to hold the ballyhoo's mouth shut.
"Once it's rigged, you want the leader pulling on the wire and not the hook," Steele says. "If the leader pulls on the hook, the bait will spin."

The Ballyhoo Factor
A compelling reason for favoring dead baits over live is the cost. Fresh ballyhoo currently run $8 to $15 per dozen, depending on supply and demand. Frozen, unrigged ballyhoo cost $6 to $10 per dozen, depending on size (small, medium and large), while large horse ballyhoo can run $15 or more per dozen. Compare that with $50 to $60 or more for a dozen live baits such as goggle-eyes.
You can avoid the high cost of live bait by catching your own, but that takes away from fishing time and sometimes just isn't productive. Taking along pre-rigged baits lessens the pressure of finding and catching live baits and allows anglers (and crew) to get right into the fishing.
In dead-bait-only tournaments, ballyhoo is almost universally the bait of choice, especially small to medium 'hoos that do well on the typical 30- to 40-pound sails encountered along Sailfish Alley. However, the prepared skipper will also carry frozen mullet, blue runners, cigar minnows, speedos, flying fish or other baits; on the rare occasions that sails turn up their beaks at ballyhoo, trolling something else sometimes draws a hit.
Most ballyhoo come from netters in the Florida Keys, who claim that new restrictions on netting make it more difficult to catch baitfish.
To keep up with demand, bait suppliers such as Calcutta Baits in Clearwater, Florida, also provide flying fish as well as brined and vacuum-packed mackerel.

Dead-Bait Trolling Techniques
"In most tournaments we're limited to fishing no more than four baits at a time, but when we charter, we often pull six to eight to give sailfish more choices and give our anglers a better chance at hooking up," says Steele. His spread of eight baits consists of two flat lines, two short riggers, two long riggers, a shotgun line far down the middle and perhaps a wire line deep. The distance of each line from the boat varies depending on what Steele thinks "looks good" and on the weather - when it's windy, he spreads out the baits more to lessen tangles.
Most skippers troll at about 4 to 5 knots and keep the ballyhoo naked (with no skirts). However, Shafer sometimes uses a 1/8-ounce pink, blue or blue-and-white Sea Witch. Steele attaches a blue-and-white plastic skirt to a rigger bait on windy days because "it's helpful to have some color on one of the far rigger baits so you can tell which is getting bit."
Once a sailfish eats a bait, Shafer has the angler immediately pick up the rod and place the drag in free-spool while lightly thumbing the spool to prevent a backlash. He then calls out, "Let it go!" three times, which takes four to five seconds, after which the angler is instructed to push the drag lever to the strike position and then crank the handle to set the hook.
At Mexico's Cancun and Isla Mujeres, local operators disdain the use of live baits and allow only dead-bait trolling. However, thanks to the region's huge migration of sailfish each spring, that prospect doesn't deter many sailfishers from Florida - such as Harry Vernon, owner of Capt. Harry's Fishing Supply in Miami - from enjoying the sensational action. "It's not uncommon to catch 20 to 30 sailfish a day trolling with dead ballyhoo," Vernon says. "But you troll for sails a lot slower there than off Florida, sometimes with the boat barely moving forward.
"Also, the Mexican boats rig half their baits with 1-ounce egg sinkers. When schools of bait are spotted at the surface, the boats turn sharply so the ballyhoo on the inside of the turn will sink near the school of baitfish as the outer baits speed up. If the school of bait goes deep, the boats often stop and let their rigged ballyhoo sink too, since it's likely that sails may follow as well."
As winter cold fronts invade the Palm Beaches, sails bunch up in the prime 120- to 180-foot depths where a good many live baits end up in their mouths. But in areas where sailfish are less condensed and more dispersed, such as off Fort Pierce, trolling with dead baits allows you to cover more territory and increase your chances of a hookup. Even the dedicated live-bait sailfisher will be prepared to pull some dead baits when conditions for livies aren't the best.