Looking out into the Gulf Stream, Florida’s Treasure Coast is perfectly suited for amazing offshore fishing. This part of the Sunshine State attracts ridiculous numbers of pelagic game fish to its doorstep, and none more so than Sailfish. And thanks to a unique underwater passageway called Sailfish Alley, these acrobatic Billfish are pretty much regular guests in the area. Today, we’re going to show you how one visit to Sailfish Alley can turn into an unforgettable angling experience.
Where is Sailfish Alley?
Running along the Treasure Coast, Sailfish Alley spans from Fort Pierce in the north down to West Palm Beach in the south. This gives you around 60 miles to explore pretty much any fishing tactic you can think of. They might not get as big as the Sails down in Costa Rica and Mexico, but these Billfish sure make up for it in sheer numbers and fighting spirit.
The best part? While most other destinations require you to go tens of miles offshore, Sailfish Alley has got a boatload of these babies swimming almost right in front of your nose. No wonder Sailfish were named Florida’s state fish.
There’s no better place to start your hunt than the Sailfish Capital of the World, Stuart. Heading south out of St. Lucie Inlet will put you on Sails within just half an hour from the coast. Of course, there’s a number of other fishing towns you could set out from. Fort Pierce, Jupiter, West Palm Beach – these are all great choices for Sailfish anglers.
In its southern parts, Sailfish Alley is closer to shore than up north. Here, the fishing grounds are just 3 miles away from the coast. As you go up the coast, Sailfish Alley moves further away, but it’s always within a 10-mile ride.
As you might expect, there’s no shortage of experienced fishing guides in the area. These guys probably see more Sailfish in a season than other guides do in five, so you can bet that they know how to land one!
Why Sailfish Alley?
Florida’s Treasure Coast owes pretty much all of its offshore bounty to the proximity of the Gulf Stream. For those of you that don’t know, the Gulf Stream is a warm water Atlantic current coming from the Gulf of Mexico. Think of it as a giant river in the middle of the ocean. Every winter, this river carries a stream of warm water up Florida’s east coast.
On its way, the Gulf Stream stirs up a wealth of nutrients around the Treasure Coast. As the warm water stream meets the denser, colder water, they create what anglers like to call a “color change.” What’s actually going on here is that the colder nutrient-rich waters move below the warmer stream. These nutrients become available to plankton, which in turn, feed bait fish like sardines and herring.
On a clear winter day, you can often see the edge of the Gulf Stream moving along the colder inshore waters. Its hues of brilliant indigo-blue are a sharp contrast to the near-green waters closer to the shore. When bait fish enter the temperature zone Sailfish like to swim in, this makes for a feast Sails just can’t say no to.
That’s not to say that Sails are in season only during the winter. There’s a good summer bite in these parts as well.
When to Catch Sailfish
While there are small differences in seasonality depending on where you are on the Treasure Coast, one thing’s for certain – fishing for Sailfish is amazing during the winter. From November through February, the Gulf Stream is in full sway, and Sails are parading through Sailfish Alley like it’s the Fourth of July.
Sailfish are predominantly active after cold fronts, so this is when most anglers decide to wet their lines. During this time, schools of bait fish move to the south, and Sails typically follow them.
That said, the last decade has shown a remarkable revamp in the summer Sailfish reason. Thanks to stricter regulations, and the rising popularity of catch-and-release fishing, Sailfish populations have experienced a big rise. As a result, fishing for Sails has really taken off in recent years, and anglers are now hooking these bad boys during mid-summer, too!
How to Catch Sailfish
Now, here comes the fun part. As we mentioned, you’ll have a variety of options when it comes to catching Sailfish. Some are better suited for beginners, some are for experts, and some are good for pretty much any angler. One thing’s for sure, however – they all work.
Trolling Dead Bait
The number one tactic for catching Sailfish is trolling. For the longest time, trolling was the only way to get a reliable Sailfish bite. Even with new techniques emerging, trolling remains the go-to option for Sailfish anglers. Nothing lets you cover ground as well, and for a large fishing “spot” like Sailfish Alley, you can’t argue with the choice.
Modern trolling techniques employ the use of dredges. If you don’t know what a dredge is, think umbrella wires set up with a large number of live or dead baits. The dredge is dragged slowly through the water to simulate a school of swimming bait fish. For Sailfish, this is like ringing the dinner bell.
Because Sailfish have small mouths, slender bait like ballyhoo tends to work best. Small ballyhoo are very abundant during the winter, which makes them an ideal choice for trolling. Of course, you don’t need to limit yourself to just one dredge. However, you shouldn’t use more than you can keep an eye on.
Once a Sailfish gets a glimpse of your dredge, it will likely give chase. This is when the fun starts.
As the Sail approaches, you should pull the dredge from the water, and immediately replace it with a Ballyhoo rig. This requires a bit of skill, but if you’re fishing with a good captain, they’ll tell you when to deploy, so that you get that Ballyhoo right into your Sail’s beak.
Time things right, and you’re in for an instant jolt of adrenaline. Upon biting, the Sailfish will pull the line with force, and you’ll hear the reel scream. When the line tightens, the Sail will almost immediately leap into the air. It’s an angler’s dream.
For this technique, you should aim for water depths between 90 and 300 feet. Color changes, wrecks, or rips all hold a good number of bait fish, so this is where you should look.
Kite fishing for Sailfish is more of an art form than a fishing technique. The idea is to suspend live bait from above, and keep it just underneath the water surface. This serves two purposes. One: the bait swims naturally just below the surface. Two: your terminal tackle is above the water, meaning that the Sailfish can’t see it.
Live bait works best for kite fishing. Anything from mullet and blue runner, to goggle-eye should do the trick. You can catch bait inshore, or save time and buy the amount you need in the marina. To ensure that your bait is live and kicking by the time you throw it in, consider bridling your bait.
When the Sailfish bites your offering, the first thing you should do is pull any extra line you have in the water. This will ensure that you don’t get your line wrapped around the Sail’s bill. Once you do, proceed to release the line from the kite. From then on, it’s you vs. the fish.
Try to keep your rod tip aimed towards the Sailfish as you reel. When the line becomes tight and the fish tries to make a run for it, this will ensure that the hook lands where it’s supposed to.
Sight Fishing with Live Bait
Another exciting way to catch Sailfish includes finding a “shower of ballyhoo.” A shower of ballyhoo is essentially a large group of bait fish leaping out of the water in a desperate attempt to escape their predator. During wintertime, the predator, more often than not, is Sailfish.
From late fall onwards, ballyhoo swarm the waters near the Treasure Coast. With game fish at their heels, they will often move into very shallow waters, sometimes even exiting what’s known as Sailfish Alley. Either way, this is a great opportunity to get multiple Sailfish hook-ups.
Look for ballyhoo showers in the early morning or sunset. The sight of leaping fish, sometimes accompanied by frigate birds, and a Sailfish or two buzzing under the water is something you’ll remember for a long time.
To locate a shower of ballyhoo, you’ll need a boat with a good vantage point. Once you see the bait fish running from a Sail, wait until the group is close. Once the school and predator get close, serve your live ballyhoo a few feet in front of the Sail. To the Sailfish, this should appear as one fish lagging behind the group. Easy.
Again, using bridled ballyhoo is a good way to ensure that your bait is alive by the time you throw it in the water. One potential downside to this fishing technique is that you can’t cover as much ground as with trolling or even kite fishing. However, when done right, the risk definitely pays off.
The Perfect Place for the Perfect Game Fish
Sailfish are widely recognized as one of the best game fish on the planet and are a big reason why Florida is considered the fishing capital of the world. These Billfish are spectacular to fight, putting on a show with their leaping and diving trickery.
In Sailfish Alley, you’re likely to hook more of these acrobats than anywhere else in the world. This spot offers an unrivaled number of Sails, as well as a fantastic winter bite that no angler with a pulse can ignore.
Fishing for Sailfish in Florida wouldn’t be nearly as productive if it weren’t for years of conservation-minded practices. With the use of proper gear and sound catch-and-release practices, the Sailfish populations will remain strong. This way, we’ll be able to catch this incredible game fish for years to come.
And now, we turn it over to you. Have you ever hooked a Sail in Sailfish Alley? How did you do it? What’s your favorite thing about fishing for Sailfish? Let us know in the comments below.