Durante turned to a page in his log and recalled a winter day off Stuart a few years ago. He was running north of the inlet to a set of numbers where the charter fleet had caught fish the day before. "I passed some terns working in 60 to 70 feet. I stopped for a moment but figured it was too shallow, even though I saw and smelled a bait slick. The water temperature was 68 degrees, so I thought it was too cold. Well, I went on by and, sure enough, everyone who caught sailfish that day caught them right in that area. I should have paid better attention to the presence of other signs such as bait and birds."
Bait and birds are always positive signs for sailfish. Frigate birds are good messengers, but there aren't many frigates in Sailfish Alley. During the winter months especially, the two types of birds to pay close attention to are gannets and terns - especially terns when they circle and swoop, because that tells you they're over bait.
A plankton edge or weed line in conjunction with a good current edge offers another can't-miss sign. If you see a current edge or rip with plankton in it, stop and put out the baits.
Of all the sailfish signs, depth seems to be the least important. "Sailfish are often scattered throughout the alley, which is a lot of water to cover," Durante says. "If you can find a combination of things - such as bait and birds working, followed by color changes and temperature, the presence of plankton, and high-profile bottom contours that create rip currents and upwellings that concentrate baitfish - your chances are high for encountering sailfish."
If good sailfish signs are hard to find, stay tuned to your radio for word of free-jumpers. "The radio is especially important on days when fish are scattered," says Durante. "Even if I'm set up with kite baits, if I hear reports of free-jumpers, I'll pick up and run to that area."
To increase mobility on slow days, Durante minimizes the number of baits he puts in the water. "I'll start out with two or three baits until I can put together a pattern. That way I can pick up and move quickly." Dead bait often is the most effective on such days, he adds.
Most of the time Durante fishes live goggle-eyes, frigate mackerel and pinfish, but frequent tournament winner Capt. Chip Shafer of the Temptress prefers catching sails in Sailfish Alley on rigged ballyhoo and bonito strips with or without 1/4-ounce blue-and-white and black-and-white Sea Witches. The skirts are always trimmed so they don't flare.
The Carolina native fishes a Carolina-style spread of seven baits with two teasers. If there is a secret bait, Shafer says, it's the teasers. On the port side, he runs a daisy chain with a 6-inch fluorescent squid at the lead, followed by several 3-inch plastic squids. A large 8-inch lure at the tail end of the chain gives the appearance that it's chasing the fleeing squid. Hooker-style lures are sometimes substituted for squid. On the starboard side, a string of five fresh, deboned mullet swim and dive, each rigged with an egg sinker under its chin to create a lot of commotion.
Although 75 percent of the time Shafer trolls dead bait, he always carries a dozen or so live baits for insurance. Explains Shafer, "I fish live bait when competing with live-bait fishermen, but I'd rather not because it kills more sailfish than dead bait."
Shafer spends his day listening to what other fishermen are seeing and doing, and looking for that "pretty water" he knows sailfish desire. "I'm looking for blue-green water with a deeper hint of blue, and 76- to 79-degree water temperature," he adds.
Go With the Wind
Capt. Jack Whiticar used to claim that sails hit best three days before and after a nor'easter. That pretty much dovetails with Durante's assessment about winter wind patterns in the alley. "I've caught sailfish in every wind direction, but during the winter especially, it's best when the wind is blowing out of a northerly quadrant. Westerly winds make for calm seas close to shore, but we get no protection from a northeast wind, which produces a short, mean chop."
Asked to give a description for one of those "have bait and be there days," Durante likes a day after a stiff front has moved through. "I want the weather to be moderate because it's a lot easier to fish live baits on calm days, so a northerly 10-knot breeze on the north-flowing Gulf Stream current would be nice. There would be a pronounced blue-green edge for the sailfish to tail down sea; better yet, there would be two pronounced color changes: a powder-blue edge along the green inshore side and a deeper, dark blue change on the offshore edge. If you find those conditions, you can rack up a double-digit day."
Ideal conditions are not unusual to find in the winter in Sailfish Alley, especially the last two years. "If anything, conditions and sailfishing are as good or better than I've ever seen," says Durante, who experienced his best day ever January 30. Fishing once again with Nick Smith, this time aboard a new incarnation of Old Reliable - a 36-foot Knowles - on one of the coldest days of the winter, they caught and released an astounding 30 sailfish out of the 50 hooked up.
The bite was almost that good the week before when anglers on one charter caught 13 of 23 sails they raised as one of the season's stiffest cold fronts roared through. On the same day, Durante was fishing straight off Palm Beach Inlet. "We had a 20-knot northwest wind and a good northerly current, but because of the way the land protrudes into the Gulf Stream, it made for fairly calm 3-foot seas," recalls Durante. Fishing a narrow strip of ocean between 190 and 240 feet deep where sailfish were concentrated along a temperature edge, they caught tailers, free-jumpers and two sails from schools that were balling bait. The next day was almost a repeat, with 15-knot northerly winds and 17 out of 27 sailfish releases tallied.
"To show you how winter fishing can get even better as winds lay down after a northeaster, the third day after the front, January 20, I had only one angler," says Durante. "He'd never fished live bait so I kept things simple with two baits in the water. We had those ideal light northwest winds and calm seas, but no current. Nonetheless, fish were concentrated between 170 and 200 feet, and he caught nine out of 13 sailfish."
Days like that are reminiscent of those of 15 to 20 years ago, when anglers would often see school after school of sailfish balling baits. On just such a day in the early 1980s, anglers with Capt. Albert Johnston of Sebastian caught and released 83 sails in Sailfish Alley, and I was at the dock when the boat returned. Next day I fished with Johnston and we released over 40 sails, as did many other boats.
Sailfish Alley has been one of the world's most dependable winter hot spots, yet not many people outside Florida are aware of it. But one thing's for sure: As cold fronts move through and winds kick around from the northeast and settle northwest this winter, hordes of sailfish will be frolicking again in the 80-mile swath between Palm Beach and Sebastian Inlet.