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October 26, 2001

Stoke Up the Sails

Choose the best live baits off southeast Florida to fire up a sailfish frenzy.

The sailfish crashed a live goggle-eye fished from a flat line, snapping 20-pound-test mono from the quick-release clip with authority. Even with two kites in the air and live baits dangling below, Nick Smith single-handedly steered his custom 36-foot Knowles, the Old Reliable, while simultaneously battling the feisty sailfish. After an exciting series of maneuvers by Smith that would even impress Richard Petty, the fish was released and the kites stayed untangled and aloft.
Smith, a North Palm Beach auto dealer, has been playing the sailfishing game since 1955. If his yearly sailfish release numbers were equivalent to big-league home runs, he'd be keeping company with Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire. Few anglers have refined live-bait sailfishing techniques to Smith's level.
While no secret technique or magic live bait exists, a combination of techniques, tools and baits will unquestionably improve your scorecard at the end of the day. Here's how Smith and other south Florida experts go about catching, keeping and presenting live baits when searching for sails.

Blue-Plate Specials
It helps to know the favored menu items of sailfish. Between 1970 and 1980, John Jolley of Boynton Beach, a former fisheries scientist, sampled the stomach contents of thousands of sailfish caught along the southeast Florida coast. "The most abundant animals in sailfish stomachs were the scombrids - tunas and mackerels," says Jolley. Exocoetids (half beaks and flying fishes) ranked second, while carangids (jacks and pompanos such as goggle-eyes, blue runners and cigar minnows) all placed third, according to Jolley. "Mullet, needlefish and herring were close behind those, and the most frequently found invertebrate was squid," he says. "And I've also found drum, sea robins, flounder, parrotfish, tripletail, rock shrimp and crabs in their stomachs."
Smith agrees that sailfish usually seem opportunistic rather than overly choosy. "I don't think there's much of a limit on what sails will eat, but we still use the best baits when they're available," says Smith, who's caught spindlebeaks on everything from moonfish to sergeant majors. Miami Capt. John Louie Dudas of the charter boat, L & H , who once even caught a sailfish on a sand eel, says: "When they're hungry, they'll eat just about anything."
Even so, some live baits do seem to perform better under certain circumstances. "It's awfully hard to beat a goggle-eye on a kite because of its endurance - significantly more than a blue runner," says Smith. "If you don't force the gog to splash consistently, you can get a half-day out of it." A goggle-eye's size also makes it ideal for kite fishing where heavier baits are necessary under windy conditions.
"A goggle-eye is the Popsicle of the sea," agrees Nat Ewer from Singer Island, who's been fishing for goggle-eyes commercially for over 22 years. "They're elusive during the day and hide in rocks, so when a sail does see one, it can hardly resist. A tinker mackerel is as good but a little harder to feed to a sail."
While goggle-eyes represent the preferred live bait for kites, smaller "scale baits" like threadfin herring (also called greenies) rank high when fished on flat lines or deep, which is why they're Capt. Angelo Durante's top choice. Durante, who skippers the Sight-Sea-Er out of Stuart, likes threadfin because "They're taken so well by sailfish; I just don't have as good a hookup ratio with goggle-eyes."
You also want to match the hatch and offer baitfish that sails are currently feeding on. "Down at Ocean Reef off Key Largo, there are times when sails eat nothing but ballyhoo because they're all over the reef," Dudas says.
Conditions can call for a switch in what to offer, too. "When it's rough, I feel that bigger baits will bring more bites, especially on the kite," says Smith. "I don't think it's as much a factor on flat lines."
Fishing live baits deep with a break-away lead or rubber-core sinker is an overlooked technique that's productive in most conditions but not in the presence of a lot of plankton. "The plankton gets on the leader and it doesn't look natural," Durante says.

Rigging Up and Techniques
Hook exposure is one phrase that continually surfaces when you talk to the pros. They all emphasize hooking the bait in a manner that provides the greatest possible chance for a solid hookup. With scale baits like sardines or greenies, make sure you swipe the hook-point after securing the bait to remove any scales. "When I'm drifting with greenies, I like to hook them far forward, just behind the head," says Durante. "My hookup rate isn't as good on a nostril-hooked bait vs. a back-hooked bait." Kite baits should be hooked in the back since they're tethered vertically.
Smith, who's experimented a great deal with hook sizes, rig designs and rigging methods for live-bait sailfishing, emphasizes sizing the hook properly to the bait and tackle you're using. For example, don't use a 7/0 heavy-wire hook for slow-trolling live ballyhoo or a 3/0 light-wire hook with a tinker mackerel. "Sometimes you can get away with slightly smaller hooks if you bridle the bait," he says. "Also, I think circle hooks have to be bridled to be most effective, although I'm still experimenting with them. They have a lot of potential, especially on deep baits."
"We use a lot of 5/0 hooks," says Dudas. The Mustad 9174 and the Laser Sharp Eagle Claw L256 live-bait hooks are two popular models. Most pros stay away from offset hook designs because they have more of a tendency to hook back into the bait rather than into the fish's mouth. No matter what type of hook you use, however, make absolutely sure it's extremely sharp in order to penetrate the bill or hard cartilage.
Twenty-pound spin tackle represents the most popular all-around outfit for south Florida sails. Smith uses Penn 8500SS spinning reels on stout custom rods, although he's quick to point out that spin versus conventional tackle is more of a personal preference than anything else. Most pros tie a Bimini twist at the end of their line and then make a direct connection from the double line to the leader with an Albright or Yucatan knot. Smith favors about 15 feet of 50-pound mono as leader because a long leader deters tail chafing and lets you cut back the leader a bit after releasing a fish without having to tie on a new leader.
The most stressful and potentially damaging period for hooked sails occurs near the boat. "That last 30 seconds of the fight, when you've got that fish on the leader, is when you've got a one-to-one pull on the hook," says Jolley. "That's when you'll tear muscles, rip gills or damage the optic nerve." To lessen the chance of that occurring, Jolley and other sailfish veterans cut the hook from the leader with a small bait knife to release the fish. "It's so much neater, cleaner and better for the fish in the long run," concludes Jolley.
In order to prevent gut hooking and allow a healthier release, a critical decision becomes how long you let a sailfish eat before setting the hook. Factors include the size of the bait, how it's being fished and the sea conditions, to name a few. As a general rule, however, drop back longer with big baits like tinker mackerel and shorter with scale baits like greenies. A five- to 10-count is a good ballpark rule.
Hook setting involves experience at handling a variety of situations. For example, if line is screaming off the reel or the fish comes up jumping, it's usually best to simply reel as fast as you can and come tight on the fish without setting the hook. While some experts like to give a couple of sharp sets to drive home the hook, others never set it. "If you're using a sharp hook, there's no need to set up; constant pressure works best," says Smith.
Spend a day fishing with experts such as Smith, Dudas, Durante and others and you'll quickly see that live-baiting for sailfish can be incredibly productive when fresh baits, proper rigging and good presentation come together, like a ball club bound for the World Series.