Outdoors

The sailfish swimming south to avoid the cold weather. And anglers are the big winners

Capt. Skip Dana prepares to release a sailfish caught by Glenn Sapir.
Capt. Skip Dana prepares to release a sailfish caught by Glenn Sapir.

South Florida anglers get excited about the Super Bowl not because they like football, but because that’s typically the best time of the year to catch sailfish.

The days leading up to the big game are when boats commonly catch and release 10 or more of the acrobatic, hard-fighting fish in a day.

“It’s the most organized chaos of any kind of fishing,” says Capt. Dennis Forgione of the thrill of having four or more sailfish hooked up at the same time.

Cold fronts are the reason the sailfishing is so good this time of year. Just like snowbirds who flock to Florida to escape cold weather up north, sailfish swim south in search of warmer water.

A week ago, the sailfish were off Cocoa Beach. That’s where 27 boats caught and released a one-day record of 709 sails in the Pelican Yacht Club Invitational Billfish Tournament out of Fort Pierce. That’s an average of more than 26 sailfish per boat. The top tournament boat that day had 41 releases and two other boats each released 40 sailfish.

Since then, the sailfish have moved south, but the bulk of them were still north of Stuart. The next strong cold front is all it would take to push those fish to Palm Beach. By the time the Super Bowl teams, fans and media invade Atlanta for the game, the waters off Miami-Dade County could feature the best sailfishing in the world.

Forgione, whose Free Spool Sportfishing runs charters out of Haulover Marina in North Miami Beach, can often see the sailfish as they pour through just offshore, a phenomenon known as tailing.

“If they’re tailing, I like to be in the tower chasing them, pitching baits to them,” he says.

“I would make sure I had some form of live bait, starting out with threadfin herring if they’re available. If they’re not available, then pilchards. If pilchards aren’t available, I’ve caught plenty of sailfish on pinfish out of a kite.”

Herring and pilchards, as well as other popular sailfish baits such as goggle-eyes and sardines, aren’t always easy to find or catch. But Forgione says anyone can catch pinfish.

He targets them on grass flats in Biscayne Bay. He’ll put out a chum bag to attract the pinfish behind his boat and fish for them using a small gold hook baited with a piece of squid, bonito or shrimp.

Once he has several dozen pinfish in his livewell, he heads out Haulover Inlet. If he doesn’t see sailfish tailing, he’ll set up on a color change, where the water goes from green to deep blue. That change in color is where bait will be, and that’s where the sailfish should be.

Forgione puts up two fishing kites, each with two or three lines. He puts the pinfish on 7/0 circle hooks and keeps them splashing on the surface. That commotion attracts sailfish, as well as other species such as dolphin and kingfish. Keeping a bait at the surface, instead of six feet under it, also prevents a sailfish from getting its long, sandpaper-like bill tangled in the leader. More often than not, that results in a broken leader.

Sailfish often travel in schools or packs, so when the first one is hooked, Forgione keeps the other lines in the water and has the angler fight the sail behind the boat. The chaos begins when additional sailfish get hooked. That’s when Forgione has to choreograph his anglers on the deck below him to determine which fish to pursue and to avoid crossed fishing lines.

“If we have four fish on, we always go for the closest fish first,” says Forgione, whose mate, James Baker, will grab the leader to make a catch official, then release the sailfish. “If the fish are crossing lines, I’ll tell my guys they have to switch sides.”

Even if things are going smoothly and the fish and his anglers are behaving, Forgione says that the situation can change dramatically when a big, beautiful sailfish starts jumping.

“A problem is that when people can actually see the fish, it creates more panic,” says Forgione, explaining that when his anglers are reeling in a big kingfish, they remain calm during the fight because they don’t see the fish until it’s alongside the boat. “With sailfish, that excitement is contagious.”

And unlike the Super Bowl, which could be a close game or a blowout, that excitement is guaranteed.

Of note

Forgione and Capt. Bouncer Smith will be the featured speakers at a Hollywood Hills Saltwater Fishing Science and Social Club meeting Feb. 6 at Shenanigan’s Eastside Pub & Barbecue in Dania Beach. Their presentation on true, never-before-told charter fishing stories, which will be emceed by yours truly and Eric Brandon of the Nautical Ventures Weekly Fisherman radio show, starts at 7 p.m. and is free and open to the public. The club posts its meetings at www.meetup.com.

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