What You Need To Know: Fishing Florida's Winter Sailfish Tournaments

January 18, 2018


As told by Capt. Charley Bartholomay, a 25-year pro tournament fishing captain and Yacht Broker at Sovereign Marine in Stuart, FL.


It’s the middle of winter in South Florida, and that means only one thing to passionate Florida anglers…sailfish! Cooling sea temperatures and the northerly winds of cold fronts act on the sails to migrate south along the western edge of the Gulf Stream. As the billfish work their way down the coast, the area of desirable habitat decreases significantly, resulting in the highest concentration of sailfish in Florida waters over the entire year. In such concentrations the sails become more aggressive, hunting in packs as they prey upon the bait schools and surface flying fish. Solid preparation, properly presented bait spreads, and good fishing area selection can often provide 20-30 shots a day at catching the acrobatic sailfish – considered by many to be the fastest fish that swims the sea.



The tournament schedule works closely with the winter showing of sails, and there are tournaments going on every week between Thanksgiving and Easter. Winning a tournament is all about catch and release; you simply catch the most fish during specified fishing hours. In terms of conservation and protecting fish stocks, all tournaments will require the use of circle hooks which greatly reduces the harm and stress on the fish. That, however, is where the similarities end.


Some events may be limited to trolling dead bait only; no live bait or chumming. Other contests may allow for the use of live baits and kites or simply a combination of the two where extra points are given for “dead bait” releases. There are a few tournaments promoted as “anything goes,” where anglers can trade rods, pro captains, and mates can compete alongside amateurs, and the customary rule book is routinely tossed over the side. This level of competition appeals to a broader range of fishermen in that entry fees are minimal and there are many opportunities to score prizes and cash other than just numbers.





On the other hand – the older, longer running, and more prestigious tournaments will always bring out the highest level of competition. If you aim to succeed at this level you will have to bring your A game, beginning with a well-constructed sport fisher, a seasoned crew, and team of anglers capable of hooking and releasing 75% of the fish showing up in the baits. These tournaments will be predominately dead bait trolling only, where bait and teaser preparation demand the greatest level of skill in preparation. Fishing teams are allowed four lines in the water along with two to four hookless teasers to further entice the sails into the bait spread. Every angler must hook and fight the sailfish to the point of release unaided. Even if a crew member accidentally touches a rod on which an angler is working a fish, that fish will be disqualified. We will get back to trolling dead bait in a moment.



Because of the very narrow continental shelf that exists between Palm Beach and Key West, live bait has become the rule in virtually all sailfish tournaments fished in these locations. Ballyhoo, goggle-eye jacks, pilchards, greenies (or threadfin herring), and lollipop-sized blue runners are a few of the more popular choices for live baiting sails. Also – definitely expect kites to come into play. The kite, flown high and away from the boat will act as an extended outrigger with the same clip(s) found in use with regular outriggers and flat lines, tied in to the kite line itself. The flying kite effectively takes the live bait away from the boat, while at the same time greatly restricting the bait’s movement to the ocean’s surface below. The multi-kite presentation is highly successful and widely used from far south Florida to Key West. Pro teams in the premier tournaments will have their high capacity live wells stocked full with bait prior to lines in each day. They either buy it from a bait vendor or have their own boat to catch it in the off hours as catching bait is usually not allowed during fishing times.

The recreational angler and weekend warrior in most cases will catch their own live bait prior to heading offshore to sailfish waters. If you are lucky enough to find good bait schools in shallow water and are fairly adept at throwing a ten foot plus diameter cast net, by all means let fly! Often times you will have to drop down to the bait you have painted on your color sounder, and then it’s time to break out the leaded chains of quills, small gold hooks and sabiki rigs that come packaged and ready to use for light jigging in the bait schools.


The preferred dead bait for trolling is ballyhoo, with silver mullet being a distant second. Common to both live and trolled dead bait is the use of a 15-foot 60-pound monofilament leader joined to five feet of double line, incorporating the use of a 6/0-7/0 circle hook. The leader is usually sectioned by a snap swivel which makes bait storage and leader replacement a much easier and quicker task when chafe from the sailfishes’ bill requires the weakened mono leader to be replaced. The fishing line itself will usually be a required 20-pound, or in some cases 30-pound test. If money is no object, many pros opt for all fluorocarbon leaders.



Teasers are not integral in live bait presentations as the vessel is, for the most part, stationary in the water. When trolling dead baits in tournament competition, teasers become critical to the overall performance of the bait spread. At the highest level of all billfishing competition, dredge fishing has become the choice of 99.9% of all pro fishing teams. For the few of you out there who are not familiar with dredge fishing, imagine an umbrella without fabric with two or three holes on each arm able to connect to a pre-rigged mullet or ballyhoo with no hooks. Say you have 16-20 fish hooked to this umbrella frame, and when held up it looks somewhat like a chandelier dangling fish. Connecting a second or third dredge to the original, it now resembles a ball of fish hanging down from the top frame. When heavily weighted with lead and an even heavier towing lead, this chandelier now becomes a ball or small school of bait moving subsurface through the water. This kind of teaser has proven time and again, to be of superior value in raising sailfish into the trolling pattern. Pro teams will fish a double, maybe triple dredge on each side of the boat with squid chains running over them on the surface. With that much presentation in the water and multiple hookups of sails going crazy behind the boat, the speed, precision and harmony between crew and anglers working together is usually the difference between a good fishing day and winning the tournament. That A game thing.







What then are good indicators of the presence of sailfish? In winter, warm, clean water is most important – particularly if it is part of a color change from green to blue. How sharply defined is that change? Is it a well-defined edge or line, or is it a gradual blend? What is the temperature of the bluer water? We see most of the peak sail activity in water temps between 74-78 degrees. Again, is there a sharp break in temps or is it a gradual shift? Offshore, the more defined a condition is observed, the higher the probability of fish being present. As always, birds like royal terns and frigates can lead you to fish – particularly when working over flying fish and ballyhoo. If your color machine paints good layers and/or balls of suspended bait 20-60 feet deep and the water temp is acceptable, this will hold sails as well. With the resolution and clarity of today’s color depth sounders, fish take on readily identifiable signatures. Tight bait balls of smaller fish will appear red into orange and yellow, while layered larger herring and runners might appear yellow or green. If the sails are in there on the bait, they will mark larger, and more spaced apart as distinct blue checks.


Along with peak sailfish action, wintertime brings sea conditions that are not always kind to anglers. Sailfish like to feed in rough water – and a stable, strong platform is absolutely required on most days. Regulator can be proud of their 41 and its earned reputation for its seakeeping ability and strong construction. The 41 just competed in the oldest sailfish tournament in the country, The Stuart Sailfish Club Light Tackle Tournament, in what would be described as very sporty seas. A third place finish by the Regulator 41 in the amateur division was pretty impressive when stacked against a majority of 50-70-foot sportfishing boats in the competition.