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June 15, 2011

Kite Fishing Tour

Seven great kite fishing spots coupled with local experts' tricks that you can employ for success

On any cool winter day off South Florida, brightly colored dots speckle the horizon offshore. If it’s sailfish season, it’s kite time. But kites — no longer limited to the domain of sailfish anglers — now find use for tunas (bluefin, blackfin and yellowfin), swordfish, striped bass, tarpon, redfish, roosterfish and more. Wherever fish snack near the surface, kites bring bites.

Here, pro captains share more than a dozen tricks in fisheries where kites might not be common but can solve specific problems and raise the odds for success — from inshore to blue water, coast to coast — techniques that might have broad applicability for many species in many waters.

Massachusetts Bluefin Tuna
In part, interest in kites has proved so contagious because the bites are mesmerizing. “It doesn’t even look real,” says Capt. Brett Wilson of giant bluefin tuna leaping out of the water after bluefish or bunker dangled just at the water’s surface. “It’s like you’re watching something out of a movie,” he says. “A 1,000-pound fish is coming completely out of the water. You think it’s a freaking submarine.”

Wilson ( runs charters out of Miami through the winter and then from Cape Cod over the summer. Last year, he caught 54 bluefin tuna in 10 weeks ranging from 400 to more than 900 pounds while kite-fishing. (Many of those hit the kite baits, and others were lured to the kite baits and then whacked livies fished just below.) Despite the surface fireworks, clearly the kite isn’t just for entertainment. “The baits are up high. I don’t have a bunch of line in the water, so I can use heavier leader,” Wilson says. He puts 300-pound fluorocarbon leaders on kite baits, but 200-pound or less otherwise. “I’ve caught 1,000-pounders on 180-pound leader, but with 300 they’re a lot less likely to chafe off.” He also says that less line in the water with a kite results in cleaner bites with better hookups.

Wilson’s drop-line technique should be of interest for tuna enthusiasts but might also have broad applicability in other fisheries as well. It minimizes slack in the line once a fish pulls a line from a kite clip. The drop line also lightens the load of 130-pound mono the kite has to hold aloft. Instead of using a clip for the long kite bait, Wilson ties about 60 feet of Dacron to a swivel in the kite line. He doubles two #64 rubber bands and attaches them to a loop spliced in the other end of the Dacron. He places another rubber band on his fishing line about 25 feet from his bait, securing the rubber band around the line by passing it once through itself. Those rubber bands are tied together with a simple square knot. “The single rubber band on the fishing line is always the one to break.” Wilson says, thereby avoiding a knot of rubber on his fishing line. If he uses bait smaller than a bluefish, Wilson cuts through one leg of that rubber band to make it break with less tension. He adjusts the height and distance of the kite as well as the placement of the rubber band along the main line so his bait stays right on the surface. Completing his drift spread, Wilson’s short kite bait runs through a Blacks clip as customary for kite-fishing, and he drops a third line in the water with no weight and a balloon attached about 50 feet above the live bait.

California Marlin/Pelagics, Kelp Bass in Close
Understanding what kites do best and why can reveal hidden opportunities to hook fish from the sky. “The drawback to kite-fishing is you lose mobility,” says Joe Neber, president of Contender Boats ( When kite-fishing, “you want to fish structure, something that causes eddies or rips that hold bait, places you’d expect to have pelagic action,” Neber says. In 2007, he and Capt. George Mitchell, both experienced Florida kite-fishermen, went to California for the Contender Avalon Billfish Classic. “The wind was howling,” Neber says. “Guys out there normally sight fish for striped marlin, but on that day, they couldn’t. It was so rough, they couldn’t stand up.” To Florida fishermen, that’s when sailfishing is best. Calling upon those heavy-weather kite skills, the two worked charted seamounts. “The kites gave us the ability to put more baits in the water, six on the kites and two flat lines,” Neber says. “If there are marlin under there, they’re going to come up and eat.” And eat they did. Mitchell’s Contender, Snake Dancer, secured second place in the tournament.

West Coast captain Barry Brightenburg ( stumbled upon kite-fishing in the early 1990s, when East Coast kite-fishing techniques found their way to the long-range boats for yellowfin tuna. “Kite-fishing began here on the West Coast for the big bluefin tuna, but we lost track of it for 100 years.” Brightenburg’s comment refers to records of the Tuna Club in Avalon that show Capt. George Farnsworth catching tuna on kites around the turn of the 20th century.

“Now it’s come full circle,” Brightenburg says. His favorite kite trick is snatching fish from the top of kelp ­aggregations (“paddies” in Southern California parlance) that break free from the bottom and drift into deep water. “They get a lot of pressure. In the past, if I saw three or four boats on a kelp, I wouldn’t bother going there,” he says. “Now I’ll slow-troll a live bait from a kite, and I can still scratch out a good day.”

For marlin and bluefin or yellowfin tuna, Brightenburg slow-trolls live mackerel, sardine or squid on 7/0 circle hooks within a few hundred feet of the paddy. The kite keeps leaders and hardware above the water, and presents baits farther from the boat where they entice bites from overworked fish. Mahi and yellowtail eat much closer to the kelp. “I can put that bait where I want it,” Brightenburg says of the kite. “Sometimes I’ll skip it right on top of the kelp; the circle hook won’t snag the kelp.” Other angling applications are obvious — boat-shy mahi on debris, sargassum weed lines or kelp paddies, or to make fishing feasible when omnipresent weed constantly fouls trolled baits.

Brightenburg follows the same prescription to catch big kelp (calico) bass close to shore, using kites to drop baits where boats can’t go. “The big calicos live in very shallow water, less than six feet,” Brightenburg says. But jagged rock formations and thick kelp keep him from safely getting within casting range. Dropping a bait from above seems simple enough, but the Brightenburg has a slick secret he reveals: a rig for retrieving hooked fish through a jungle of kelp. He uses 30- to 50-pound Spectra and less than a yard of fluorocarbon tied between the Spectra and a 3/0 to 7/0 circle hook. “A kelp stalk is about the size of your pinky. It fits right into the bend of a J hook, but the design of the circle hook prevents that, and the Spectra cuts right through the stalks,” Brightenburg says. “We wind the bass right through the kelp.” Braid also weighs less on the kite in Pacific zephyrs, and it creates less drag in the water resulting in livelier baits.