As opposed to some places where sails forage primarily on baits such as ballyhoo and cigar minnows, those feeding in Sailfish Alley have a more varied diet. Stomach contents taken from more than 250 sailfish for a Florida Department of Natural Resources study indicate that their most popular table d'htte are small tunas, jacks and squid, followed by paper nautilus, ballyhoo, halfbeaks, cutlassfish, pinfish and herrings. To a lesser extent, sailfish in the alley enjoy triggerfish, filefish, sea robins, puffers, octopuses, anchovies, mullet, flying fish, dolphin, bluefish and needlefish. Although they catch mostly ballyhoo and flying fish near the surface, sails find a majority of the rest of their forage from mid-depth to the bottom. Thus, offering baits that cover the entire water column works most effectively for catching sailfish.
The winter migration of herrings - pilchards, sardines, cigar minnows and anchovies - attracts hordes of sailfish to southeast Florida. When water temperatures register 68 to 73 degrees, a plankton hatch takes place that nourishes herrings. Nipping at their fins are pods of sailfish.
The term "balling the bait" was coined by the late Capt. Jack Whiticar while fishing off Stuart. He and other fishermen noted that sailfish frequently herd small baits into compact schools by working in teams of three to as many as 30 or more fish. The sails swim in concentric circles, tightening the noose around the bait schools. Once the bait is densely packed, they break ranks and swim through the ball, slashing with their bills to kill and maim baitfish. The sails then slurp them up before reorganizing to ball more bait.
Although goggle-eyes have become the preferred live sailfish bait among many fishermen in the alley, Durante has found others that often work as well or even better. "I like to have a variety of baits on hand because you never know what they might prefer. During a two-week span last winter, sailfish blew past goggle-eyes to get at the pinfish on my flat lines. You wouldn't think sailfish would prefer a bait that spends much of its life on the grass flats, but that definitely was the case."
All Eyes on the Temperature Gauge
Conditions along Sailfish Alley tend to vary more widely in a given hour or half-day than they do off Miami and the Keys, observes Durante, which is why fish here will spread out over a broad area. To best narrow the search, locate the conditions sailfish prefer, such as subtle temperature changes at current edges. "I've had days when I couldn't see an edge, but by watching my temperature gauge I could find it. Even two-tenths of a degree will make a big enough difference."
Although Durante looks for temperature changes and current edges first, other conditions also favor the presence of sails in portions of Sailfish Alley. Whenever current flows against a light north wind, it creates a chop that attracts baitfish and predators. Normally, when these conditions develop you'll encounter cooler water temperatures on one side of the edge.
One variable that seems to hold true most days is that the current runs stronger on the bluer side of an edge in the Gulf Stream as opposed to the greener side. The blue side is usually the most productive, and when fishing it Durante slightly increases his trolling speed to encourage more strikes.
Although water temperature is a factor that often determines when sailfish are feeding, Durante has found that sailfish have a wider range of temperatures in which they feed than other billfish. "I've caught sails in 70-degree water and I've caught them in 88-degree water," he says. "However, in December, January and February, I'm looking for the mid-70s as the best range." While 76 degrees is considered optimum, Durante concentrates on finding the warmest water temperatures next to a current edge or color change.