The sky awoke from its dark slumber as scarlet hues broke on the western horizon. I recalled the old mariner's saying: Red sky at night, sailor's delight; red sky at morning, sailor take warning. Sure enough, the afternoon would be filled with 6- to 9-foot waves to turn our sailfish outing into a wild ride. The spectacular action that would precede the rough seas would prove well worth it, however.
I was aboard Old Reliable, a custom-built 30-footer owned by Nick Smith. Also along: Capt. Angelo Durante. It's a 40-minute, no-wake chug on the Intracoastal Waterway from Smith's home in North Palm Beach, Florida, to Sailfish Marina, where we would rendezvous with a bait boat for a $120 delivery of three-dozen live goggle-eyes. The plan was to hunt for sails in Sailfish Alley, a broad area that stretches offshore from Sebastian Inlet to the north and south off Palm Beach - an 80-mile expanse that has consistently produced great catches of sails during the fall for 30 years or more.
Fishing with Smith and Durante off southeast Florida is like playing golf with Tiger Woods and Greg Norman at the Masters - you won't find a better duo. Smith has won countless sailfish tournaments and frequently places first in the sailfish category of the Metropolitan South Florida Fishing Tournament with 100 or more releases during the six-month event. Durante was bitten with the sailfish bug as a youngster, and the disease is still with him - a lifelong passion that's enabled him to perfect his sailfishing techniques. I was eager to learn how they and others have scored so many spindlebeak releases over the years in Sailfish Alley.
Beat the Benchmark
Durante and Smith networked on the radio with charter captains to catch up on who was catching what, where. As we approached the marina, Smith slowed the boat so he and Durante could count the red sailfish release flags flapping from the outriggers of the charter fleet. These "red badges of courage" are the local form of bragging along Sailfish Alley, and everyone takes notice.
Durante pointed to a string of 13 flags whipping from a Merritt boat. "He'd only caught seven when we turned to go north yesterday," he says. Those 13 flags became our benchmark goal for the day. Could we do better?
Sunny skies gave way to gray before noon, and 30-knot winds turned the seas into a turmoil. We maintained a north heading in search of sailfish concentrations, but we soon gave up slow-trolling in favor of sight-casting live baits, which was anything but simple. We discovered several fast-moving pods of super-charged sailfish, but they appeared in seconds and then quickly dissolved into the blue of the Gulf Stream. Smith and Durante were up to the task, however, and at one point they saw the same pod of fish and simultaneously made lightning casts. Both hooked up, but - as rarely happens with these pros - both lost their fish.
Smith soon scored on a high-flying sail that led him on a slip-sliding chase around the cockpit. As the boat came off a huge wave, he sprawled and nearly bounced off the bow. Moments later Durante was also locked in combat. Eyes tearing from the cold, I felt grateful that I had the wheel to hold onto.
While most others would have headed back to the dock - and no one would have blamed them - we fished relentlessly on. I'll always remember Durante removing nine red flags from a drawer and stringing them on the outrigger as we finally passed the dock at Sailfish Marina at around 9 p.m. We didn't beat 13 releases, but no one hung his head in shame.
Alley in the Stream
The dominant current off southeast Florida is the Gulf Stream, which flows north at a rate of 1 to 5 knots. Off the Palm Beaches, deep blue tropical waters sweep along the 120-foot-depth contour that roughly follows the edge of the continental shelf. The stream continues northward beyond Jupiter, arching 5 to 7 miles from the St. Lucie Inlet off Stuart and 8 to 10 miles off Fort Pierce.
This 120-foot edge along Sailfish Alley that parallels Palm Beach to Sebastian Inlet has dramatic bottom structures easily discerned with depth sounders. Logically, Durante concludes 120 feet is a good place to begin the search for sails in Sailfish Alley. Sonic tagging experiments have shown that depending on the conditions, sailfish concentrate on either side of the confluence where clear, warm, deep-blue waters of the Gulf Stream meet turbid, green coastal waters. While this confluence or "edge" can happen over a broad expanse, statistics indicate sails are most likely to be located along the 120-foot edge.
Like many game fish, sails are structure-oriented because of the presence of baitfish. Rather than the steep drop-offs found elsewhere, structure in the alley is scattered in depths from 60 to 400 feet, including reefs and rock patches where baitfish congregate. All these sailfish-attracting features explain why 80-mile-long Sailfish Alley is so productive. The width of Sailfish Alley narrows as you go north, starting from about 3 miles off Palm Beach to 8 miles off Stuart, 15 off Fort Pierce and about 19 off Sebastian Inlet.