“Keep It Simple and Catch More Sails”
Bright blue skies, calm seas and no fish can turn even a beautiful day in Costa Rica into a frustrating experience. After trolling for four hours we hadn’t seen a bird, a baitfish or any sign of life let alone the object of our pursuit — the dynamic Pacific sailfish. You could swear that the sea was empty. As the sun rose higher the sea got flatter and an oppressive tropical heatwave permeated the boat. The El Niño generated sea temperature hit 88 degrees which is pushing the comfort-zone of most gamefish to the outer limit. Fortunately fish can adjust by spending more time below the thermocline where cooler water exists. The challenge is that fewer fish may be found on the warm surface as the forage species seek the cooler and more nutrient-rich depths as well.
“If this were land it would be in the middle of the Sahara Desert”, remarked Fred Stephens of Adventure Sportfishing. As we approached Cabo Blanco at the tip of the Nicoya Peninsula we spotted something that appeared like a mirage in the shimmering humidity. A large purple-black dorsal fin was unfurled and also unmistakable. “Sail!” Everyone yelled in unison as lethargic bodies now scrambled for action. The skipper, not wanting to scare off our only fish of a meager day, was careful positioning the array of trolling lures close enough for the sail to see them while keeping the boat at a comfortable distance.
The big sailfish was clearly not excited about the project. Appearing listless, it simply turned in a slow circle with a few effortless swipes of its protruding tail. It tracked the lure spread without giving a hint of attacking. We dropped back rigged dead mullet also to no avail. At least the sail didn’t leave as it was clearly too lazy to do much that required effort. One of the fastest fish ever documented, this individual belied the data.
Casting popping plugs near the fish only served to lower its sail momentarily. As I mentioned to the skipper to cut the engines I kept casting as we came to a dead stop. A rigged mullet remained on one of the trolling lines and slowly sank out of sight. The sail soon disappeared as well. The clicker on the trolling reel started making noise and accelerated as I grabbed the outfit and set the hook. A wildly thrashing sailfish was the result. The now energized fish took over an hour to bring alongside for release on the 20-pound tackle. It remains as one of the largest and strongest I’ve caught at an estimated 160 pounds and one of the most improbable. All of us just shook our heads at the episode. Anglers often outsmart themselves with complicated techniques when this “ sophisticated” gamefish just wants an easy, natural meal most of the time, El Niño, or not. The guy who said, “Keep it simple, stupid”, was not far from the truth when it comes to sailfish. This lesson was valuable because subsequent, stubborn sailfish have also fallen for similar tricks. It’s just one of many sailfish solutions you can try from Baja to Central America and throughout their range worldwide in tropical seas.
Sailfish strategies and techniques need to be adjusted to local conditions. Variables include levels of abundance, (scattered, or in big schools); whether they are aggressive or passive; amount and type of natural forage in the area; mixed sizes , or consistently of a certain age and weight; sea conditions; and the type of fishing boat and equipment at your disposal can all play a role in how you pursue sailfish.
When sailfish are found in good numbers trolling live bait is an almost can’t miss proposition. In lower Baja waters, big numbers of sails often arrive in August and feed through October. The months and abundance vary depending on sea temperature, currents, forage and other variables. Sardines (sardines), mullet (lisa), Pacific mackerel (macarela), bigeye scad (caballito), green jack (cocinero), figate mackerel (mulcaté) and small skipjack are among the baits commonly used in Baja. These baits can be slow-trolled simply by lip-hooking as with mullet, nose-hooking in front of the eyes with most baits or in front of the dorsal ridge for deeper swimming. Most sailfish in Baja run 60-to 100-pounds and are more easily hooked with bait less than 12-inches in size. If the sails are running large, black skipjack or other baits up to three or four pounds or more can be effective. In Panama, where sailfish may average 120 to 140 pounds at times, even larger baits may be used. With baits exceeding a few pounds it is more effective to bridle -hook them forward of the eye sockets so that they swim naturally and live longer but that’s getting away from our “keep it simple” concept.
Trolling live bait is a fairly slow, two-to five-knot process, especially when using downriggers, so it is most effective when sails are abundant and you don’t have to search for them in a wide area. If we had started off trolling live bait on the day previously noted in Costa Rica we never would have traveled far enough to find a sail.
The baits can be trolled directly from the rod tip with just enough drag pressure to keep the bait from pulling line off the spool. A lever drag reel, such as the Shimano TLD 15 or TLD 20 simplifies this task by allowing the angler to lower the lever to the point where there is enough drag pressure to hold the bait in place while not changing the pre-set drag pressure. With a star drag reel the clicker alone won’t be able to hold a larger bait so the line pressure will need to be relieved by using more complicated outriggers or transom clips for the line. The star drag can also be readjusted to a lighter drag pressure but will need to be readjusted “blindly” to the proper fighting pressure once you are hooked up. Inexperienced anglers may have some difficulty in remembering how far to tighten the star drag once it has been backed off. Keep it simple and get a lever drag reel.
When a sailfish approaches a live bait it may grab and swallow it in a rush, a feeding style often referred to as “crashing” a bait and the angler can set the hook quickly. It may also go through a prolonged ritual of slashing it with its sword-like bill and then re-attacking from different angles. When this happens grab the rod and put the reel in freespool with your thumb on the spool to hold the line. Watch the sail and after it swats the bait lift your thumb lightly and drop the bait back in the wash. As the line is freespooling out at a steady rate it may pick up speed, go dead or feel erratic as the sail picks it up. When the line accelerates off the spool under heavy pressure engage the drag and crank the handle hard with the rod at a low angle until line peels off the reel under pressure. You’re now hooked-up and you can start fighting the fish with rod tip up to apply more resistance.
Live bait is also very effective when drifted, cast or dropped back. At times, drifting a sardina, mullet, green jack or other bait with the boat positioned over a seamount, rocky pinnacle near deep water or near a concentration of sails is highly effective. To make the bait dive deeper without using a sinker, hook it in the vent or belly area. Nose hooking and dorsal hooking are most common. Hand hold the rod and control the line in freespool mode. If placed in a rod holder keep it in freespool with the clicker engaged or under light lever drag pressure. When a fish takes line let it run until the line feels “heavy” under your thumb pressure. With a small sardina the hook can be set almost immediately but it usually takes several seconds, at minimum, for a sail to secure a strong green jack. When a bait is taken below a drifting boat be prepared for a spectacular surprise for the sail may break the surface very close to the boat.
As with striped marlin, lobbing or casting a live bait from the bow to a feeding or visible fish is an exciting and highly effective technique. Lighter tackle, such as a Shimano 400 reel and CL-715MA rod, or Shimano 700 with a CL-730MA rod are well-suited for sails. When sailfish can be spotted on the surface try approaching them with caution and no closer than a comfortable cast away. Your skipper should know your casting ability or you can instruct him when you have reached casting position. Avoid casting the bait so that it makes a noisy splash close-to and behind the sail as it may startle the fish causing it to disappear quickly. Place the bait in front of the sail at about a 15-foot distance. Putting it “right on its nose” may look good but it can also spook some fish. If you’re lucky you’ll see the fish light up in brilliant blue, purple and greenish-tan glow as it pursues your bait. Baits aren’t totally stupid and it may race back to the boat to seek refuge. Try to keep the line clear as the sail wreaks havoc under the hull. If this happens, give the sail a little more time to take the bait away from the boat before setting the hook.
If you have live bait onboard but the sails are scattered or otherwise difficult to locate, trolling lures is a better choice to find the fish. Dropping back a live bait when a sail appears is a good tactic and will be covered under the Bait and Switch section.
When it comes to sailfish dead bait may be better than live bait in certain situations. Whole dead bait can be trolled faster, belly strips cut from a tuna or skipjack can be very enticing and if all else fails, baits can be chunked from a drifting boat to get even stubborn sails to bite.
Trolling dead bait can be fairly simple or refined almost to an art form. Some high seas mates are notoriously meticulous about rigging dead baits, such as ballyhoo, replete with chin-weights, belly hooks and careful sewing procedure. That will not be covered here. When using dead bait it is important to keep the mouth closed tight so that the flowing water pressure will not make the bait spin unnaturally. This can easily be accomplished by inserting the hook upward through both lip membranes as with mullet. The bait can also be bridle-rigged with the mouth sewn shut. It’s easier to troll a slim-profile bait than a deep-bodied bait such as a large sardina. A broad-sided bait will have a tendency to skip on its side, which will also attract its share of sails, but it won’t be a natural swimming motion.
Follow a similar hook-up procedure as with trolling live bait. Dead baits may be taken faster than a frisky live bait so be prepared for a quicker hook-set. They can be trolled at five to eight knots which is approaching typical lure trolling speed.
My favorite sailfish attractor is the belly strip or Panama strip. It can be rigged by sewing the cut bait to form a taper close to the hook shank or simply by cutting a taper and inserting the hook at the trolling lead. I prefer the latter because its fast and easy. In fact, during a July morning trolling off Punta Pescadero a striped marlin came up on the lures and was clearly visible as it surfed the large swells about 50-feet from the transom. It wasn’t interested in plastic so I started cutting a belly strip from a black skipjack we had caught earlier. After a few minutes of rigging the bait, occasionally looking up to see the marlin was still with us, I dropped it back and jigged it slightly in front of the fish. The baits split tail made a splashing vibration and its fresh smell did the job as the marlin soon crashed it. Without that bait nothing would have happened so always keep a few skipjacks or bonito onboard.
No rigging needle, thread or other paraphernalia is needed. Simply carve the belly section by tapering the tough forward or breast portion and cut the tail piece into two v-shaped patterns. Filet the meat out of the tail at an angle so that only skin remains on the last inch or two. Push the hook through the forward section. If you want to add color to the rig, place a plastic squid shirt above the hook so it drapes over the front portion of the bait. This will also keep the bait from “washing out” sooner. This bait swims and flutters on the surface and gives off more scent than a whole bait. It attracts sails, marlin, dorado, and many other species. When a fish hits feed line for a moment in freespool before setting the hook.
Chunking bait is most effective from an anchored boat or on a slow drift over proven sailfish water. Chunking will also attract yellowfin tuna among the many species that want an easy meal At times, stopping a troll when the sails are plentiful but won’t come to the lures and chunking will create a feeding frenzy. Drop various sized chunks from quarter-inch morsels to occasional three-inch snacks overboard in a steady stream. Hook a chunk so that the hook shank is covered and let it drift without weight into the depths at the same rate of speed as the free-falling chunks. If the sail(s) is near the boat slurping chunks with other fish try lobbing a chunk close to it in order to avoid hooking a different species such as a scavenging dorado. Once the bait is taken reel quickly until you come tight and then start using the rod action more to fight the fish. Avoid a long drop-back to keep from gut-hooking the sail.
Artificial lures are a great way to attract and catch sailfish. From large billfish skirts to small feather jigs, sailfish will take a variety of artificials and have surprised many anglers looking for other gamefish. Lures can be trolled faster than live or dead bait and are at their best when a large area needs to be covered when looking for fish. However, unless the sailfish are particularly aggressive, lures have a tendency to raise sailfish more than catch them. Many sailfish skippers prefer softhead-type lures, such as the Moldcraft Super Chugger series, because sails tend to hold them longer and this gives the angler a better chance at setting the hook. You can also spice up a lure with a thin strip of bait on the hook to encourage a better take. As when trolling bait, the lures can be run directly from the rod tip or with outriggers, downriggers or transom clip-release. It’s standard practice to troll lures with the drag on “strike” position for a quick hook-set, however, I prefer using the softheads with a light drag setting even when run from an outrigger. This allows the fish to turn with the lure in its mouth before feeling pressure and the angler can monitor what the fish is doing before engaging the drag and setting the hook.
Flyfishing for sails has become increasingly popular as well as casting surface-poppers to visible fish using light tackle. However, these techniques usually rely on a trained crew, teamwork, teasing fish to the boat, specialized tackle and rigging which is not in the “simple” category covered here.
BAIT AND SWITCH
When a sailfish shows itself in the trolling spread but won’t take a lure or behind a teaser, the bait and switch method comes into play. Simply put, just drop back a live or dead bait near the pursuing fish, wait for it to leave the artificial, let it eat the bait and set the hook. In reality, daily experience with a wide variety of sailfish demeanors and other variables will place a great deal of importance on teamwork, practice, tackle familiarity and communication that threatens to make this style of fishing very complicated. Some charter crews, such as the outfits in Guatemala that rack up big release numbers, rely heavily on the bait and switch method to increase their hook-up ratios.
Unlike conventional trolling, this method relies more on angler skill to be successful. When an interested sail becomes visible, the angler quickly picks up a pre-selected outfit with a per-rigged bait attached. Drop the bait back either behind the teaser or lure or in front and to the side. Sometimes the angler can keep the bait closer to the boat and the mate will bring the teaser to the bait. When the bait is behind the teaser the strike impact will be greater because the two entities are going in opposite directions and the angler needs to avoid a backlash. This is probably the trickiest aspect of fishing this way and an “educated thumb” is nice to have. Since the captain usually has a better view of things than you, unless perhaps your fishing from a panga, listen to any instruction given to improve your chances. One thing the crew can do to help is to bring in all extraneous lures and teasers before you start a drop back. Otherwise the fish may go “ window shopping” among the spread and present a difficult moving target to drop a bait to. It’s not unusual to have to move quickly from one corner of the cockpit to the other so keeping the deck free of clutter and people is important for safety and efficiency.
PLACES TO GO “SAILING”
Sailfish are found worldwide in tropical and sub-tropical seas. Good news for anglers is that sailfish are found in greatest abundance near offshore islands, on the continental shelf and close to the mainland so they are a fairly accessible billfish species. The Indo-Pacific sailfish provides great opportunities using a variety of fishing styles in many traditional as well as exotic regions. Some of these, including peak seasons, are:
Los Cabos and the East Cape of Baja (August to October)
Mazatlan (June to November)
Puerto Vallarta (September to December)
Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo (December to May)
Huatulco (April to December)
Iztapa, Guatemala (all year)
Flamingo, Costa Rica (June to October)
Quepos, Costa Rica (January to April)
Coiba Island, Panama (December to May)
Piñas Bay, Panama (January to June)
Fiji (June to September)
Phuket Island, Thailand (July to January)
Malindi, Kenya (October to January)
Broome, Western Australia (June to October)
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The Roving Angler