Two Experts Share Pro Tactics for Fooling Finicky Sailfish

Sailfishing is the sport of kings. There is nothing more exciting than hooking, fighting, and releasing a billfish. Unlike other billfish, sailfish often swim closer to shore, putting them in reach of almost any angler. Whether you’re on a trip to a premier sailfish destination or luck into a sail on your own, you’ll want to remember one thing to successfully snare one of these wily predators: don’t let the fish make a fool of you.

Fish coming up out of water

Like other billfish, sailfish use their bill to stun their prey before swimming off and eating it. The challenge for anglers is to simulate a stunned baitfish until the sail swallows the bait, then come tight on the line to drive the circle hook home. It’s harder than it looks.

Captain Dennis Forgione, a third-generation waterman, has been charter fishing out of Miami’s Haulover Inlet for over 30 years. To target sailfish, Forgione dangles live baits from a kite. His spread includes three kites, each hosting two baits, plus two down lines he fishes off the stern. With eight lines in the water, the captain has a lot going on. To manage the chaos, Forgione has developed a simple system for sails.

Forgione starts by describing his live bait rig. He uses a 12-inch length of No. 4 wire with a 4/0 to 9/0 circle hook. “The wire is slick so it passes through the fish’s bill for a better chance of hooking up,” he explains.

When he sees a fish approaching the bait, Forgione takes the rod in hand, reel out of gear, and thumb on spool. “The sail will often T-bone the bait,” he says. That’s when he takes his thumb off the spool and lets the line pay out while the fish swims away with the bait. “I tell people to use a slow five to 10 count.” Forgione times his drop back depending on how aggressive the fish is eating. 

Close-up of fishing reel

While the angler is feeding the fish, Forgione bumps the boat forward to tighten the lines. Once the fish has eaten the bait, the angler pushes the lever drag to strike and the line pops out of the kite clip. Forgione uses the new PENN Fathom Lever Drag 40 Narrow High Speed with Dura-Drag washers that allow him to slowly put pressure on the line so the fish doesn’t know it’s hooked until it’s hooked.  “It’s important to take in the slack quickly and keep the line tight,” he insists.

Once the angler is hooked into the sailfish, Forgione works to keep the line tight. “The only thing the angler needs to do is crank fast and hold on,” he says. Cranking speed is crucial to hooking a sailfish. PENN’s Fathom Lever Drag High Speed reel has a 7.1:1 gear ratio to bring in 60 inches of line each turn of the handle. When you’re giving it all you got and the captain yells, “Crank faster!” the Fathom gives you another gear.

If Forgione has more than one sail dancing behind the boat, he chases the closest fish and keeps the rest of the party in the clear. “There isn’t a lot of backing up,” he insists, instead he keeps the fish behind or to the side of the boat so he can drive to it.

Downward angle of fish coming out of water

Forgione is a master of the fine art of slow trolling live bait for sailfish. But most anglers troll rigged ballyhoo for sailfish. Hundreds of miles to the north of South Florida, PENN Fleet Captain Rom Whitaker often encounters sailfish while trolling dredges, teasers, and circle-hook ballyhoo off Hatteras, North Carolina. Since dead bait requires a faster trolling speed, up to seven knots, a sailfish bite happens quickly requiring the angler to anticipate the billfish’s moves.

“The best anglers never take their eye off the bait,” Whitaker says. To prepare, he recommends the angler hold the rod with the tip pointed ninety degrees to the boat. Keep your thumb on the spool and the reel out of gear.

When a sailfish attacks, Whitaker stresses the importance of timing the drop back. Don’t let the line out until the fish hits the bait. “Otherwise, the bait will go right by the sailfish and end up hooking it in the side of the head.”

To time it perfectly, when the fish makes contact with the bait, Whitaker takes his thumb off the spool and lets line feed out. “Ideally, the line will pass through the rigger clip,” he says, adding he keeps his halyards at 2/3 mast for less slack in the line and a more solid hook-up.

Whitaker recommends a three to four second drop back. Then he pushes the drag up and reels the line tight while holding the rod tip low and sweeping the rod back to 90-degrees.  “You either got him or you don’t,” he says. If the bait comes free, Whitaker holds the rod tip high and lets the bait skip on the surface. “The fish will usually come back to it,” he says. Whitaker stresses the value of second chances.

When a sailfish bites, things happen fast. The PENN Fathom Lever Drag 40 Narrow High Speed pairs well with a Carnage II rod that uses SLS3 spiral construction with thin layers of carbon fiber and fiberglass. The fiberglass provides smooth power while the carbon fiber offers sensitivity to feel what the fish is doing with the bait. The combination allows the angler to feel the fish eat the bait and then swim away, signaling it’s time to set the hook.

View of fish coming up out of water

With the first fish hooked Whitaker throws the boat in a wide turn making a loop with the fish on the inside. “Keep trolling for a second or third bite,” he stresses. Whitaker will move the outside long rigger to the inside, pull the dredge in, and bring his inside squid chain halfway up. As more sails pile on, he keeps the fish to the inside of his turn. “After I make two complete turns, I’m close enough to the first fish to drive over and get him,” he says.

When it’s time to retrieve the fish. He can pull in the baits and teasers then chase down his catch. “We don’t spend a lot of time backing up,” he says. But Whitaker will let one sailfish run off line while he chases the closest fish. Packing his PENN Fathom Lever Drag 40 Narrow High Speed with Berkley ProSpec Braid and adding a topshot of ProSpec Chrome monofilament gives the fish plenty of room to run. With fish jumping in every direction, Whitaker focuses on maneuvering the boat to keep the action off one side of the boat. “I try to stay upwind so the boat drifts towards the fish.”

As each fish comes to the boat, Whitaker’s mate reaches out with a line cutter and sets the fish free. “I don’t like pulling on the line to break off the fish,” he insists. Not only does yanking on the hook hurt the fish, tackle and hardware can fly back and injure the angler. “I’ve seen mates get stitches when a swivel cut through their hand,” he warns.

Fisherman standing in front of several poles

Sailfish might be the most perfect sportfish. Watching a sail cut the water before the bill pounces on the bait will get your heart pumping and the blood rushing to your head. Then, it takes to let the fish swim off while waiting for it to eat. You only get a chance to breathe when the line comes tight and a five foot long, brilliant blue and silver missile launches from the water.  Once on the hook, sails are famous for long runs, spectacular aerials, and arm-melting charges. But, victory only lasts long enough for the angler to admire the pulsating fish, glowing neon purple, before it swims off into the deep blue.

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