Atlantic Sailfish on Fly

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January 11  |  Fishing Stories  |   CaptainBrad

It’s late morning offshore of Contoy Island. The radio chatter is desultory, not much happening anywhere. With a high sun and a down sea troll it’s a perfect condition for sighting only there’s nothing to see, .idle thoughts but watchful eyes. The drone of the engines.. Wait! “There he is, lazy fish on the left rigger,” curious enough to follow but little else. We are pulling a spread of hookless ballyhoo teasers, hoping for a shot with the fly rod but this sailfish hardly acts like a “player”. Undaunted, the crew in the cockpit jumps to life. The left rigger is immediately “dumped”, the fish instantly darkens, flares up its sail and circles tightly on the falling bait. “He grabbed me” comes the excited call from the cockpit, “ok shorten up” I shout back. The line comes down out of the rigger pin and the rod bows momentarily, “keep winding” “here he comes” The fish is right behind the bait now, darkly colored, a lot more interested than he was just moments before, he’s still along ways back though. Bit by bit we coax him closer, alternately dropping the bait to give him a taste and then winding it away from him. At about 90′ behind the boat the fish’s attitude finally hardens to full pursuit, his tail lights up and his dorsal fin and bill cleave the surface as he chases hard, now things are happening fast, I pull the boat out of gear thinking as I do I probably should have given her just a little more turn to help the angler with the wind, “wind fast!” I holler to the mate, “get ready to cast” I offer to the angler who is staring intently while nervously fingering a section of fly line. Then, as all these vectoring elements converge, time seems to slow down again, frame by frame by frame we watch. The boat glides to a stop, the cast is made, the teaser snatched away and the fish rolls triumphant on the fly.

All of that transpired in less than a minute, would that we could spend more of our lives inside of such minutes! What a great tease! What a bite! Did we hook the fish? Oh yeah, but did he stay on? Did you catch him? I don’t remember, maybe he jumped off or broke the tippet, who cares; it’s really not about the catching. Blue water fly-fishing is coming on and Atlantic Sailfish represent one of the premier targets for the sport. Here then is the low down on Sailfish on the fly.

The right outfit to start with is a 12 wt. “tarpon” rod and reel. What is appropriate for handling tarpon works just fine for Sails. This outfit should consist of a 9 ft 2 piece rod, and a fly reel with a quality drag system, a large arbor, and the capacity to store 300 plus yds of backing in addition to a full length 12wt fly line. Reels by Abel, Tibor, Penn and Van Staal are all excellent.

Fly outfits are categorized by “weight”, essentially the size and weight of the fly line they are designed to cast. Fly lines themselves come in a multitude of configurations, floating or sinking at various rates, as well as various changes in thickness throughout their length. Flyrods and reels are matched to the size line they are designed to cast, just as conventional rods and reels are matched to the line class they are designed to fish. A “weight forward floating line” in 12wt which is appropriate for sailfishing with the heavier tippet classes (20, 16) is one which floats on the surface and which has a thicker diameter in the front 30′ of the line to facilitate casting. Years ago 12 wts were the largest category of fly outfit built. With the increased popularity of bluewater flyfishing and the targeting of the most powerful Bluewater species, (Tuna and Marlin) larger outfits including 15wt and even above are now built. It should be noted however that the largest tippet class (equivalent to line class in conventional tackle) that the IGFA recognizes for fly-fishing records remains 20lb. Therefore a 12wt fly outfit is roughly equivalent to a 20lb conventional trolling outfit.

Creating a leadering system between the fly line and the fly itself can be very simple if you choose not to abide by IGFA regulations or slightly more complicated if you do. Either way start with a butt section of straight 50-60lb mono, fluorocarbon is unnecessary. Attach the mono butt to the end of the fly line with a nail knot, don’t worry this is not a knot you will have to retie with any frequency, you can probably get the tackle shop to do it for you. At the end of the butt create a non-slipping loop. The surgeons knot is easy (double overhand). The loop should be large enough to pass a popper fly or large streamer through. This creates a system by which you attach your fly “loop to loop” to the butt section. To finish the simple leadering method take another 5′ section of 50- 60lb mono, make a loop in one end and tie the fly on the other end then connect this to the butt loop to loop. If you wish to conform to IGFA regulations you will need to build a leader. Start with about a 6′ section of the tippet class you wish to fish (one of the IGFA line classes from 20lb down) and make a double line on either end using the Bimini twist. Make sure that there is a minimum of 15″ of single strand “class tippet” between the two double lines. On one of the double lines make a loop for attaching to the butt section. At the other end you are allowed not more than 12″ of heavy shock tippet, which would typically consist of 80-100lb mono, measured from the single strand class tippet to the eye of the hook. This connection is accomplished using a Huffnagle or Albright special knot.

The IGFA fly leadering regulation has always been a severe handicap for anglers targeting billfish on fly. When the rules were first drawn up it never occurred to anyone that anglers might one-day attempt to catch billfish on fly. A 12″ shock tippet seemed a reasonable compromise for virtually any species of fish; not so of course for fish with 2 or more feet of raspy bill projecting beyond their mouths. For this reason I always recommend anglers new to the sport give themselves the option of using a leader less likely to result in a broken tippet at least until they get a few fish under their belt.

The choice of Sailfish flies boils down to two types, either poppers or streamers. Tandem hooksets using ultra sharp light wire hooks by Owner or Gamakatsu are the choice of most experts for either type of fly. Popper Flies employ a floating head usually of closed cell foam or cork which allows the fly to be “chugged” or “slurped” along the surface. The rest of the fly consists of a heavy dressing of extra long saddle hackles either attached to the shank of the hooks or more recently around a section of narrow diameter plastic “tube” which is then slid down the leader over a tandem hookset and topped off with a popper to create the fly. As for color, blue and white or hot pink is all you need for these so called “attractor” patterns. Streamers are designed to be fished sub surface, these “match the hatch ” patterns are usually beautifully constructed, including eyes and multiple types of fly tying material to accurately represent a bait fish such as a Ballyhoo, pilchard or flying fish. I strongly favor the use of popper style flies for sailfishing, as it is much easier to get the fish’s attention with this type of pattern. Even the largest streamer patterns tend to “disappear” once they sink below the water’s surface.

With the exception of a “balling bait” situation where a fly angler can motor up to the action and cast, sailfish must be “raised” and then teased within casting range from a moving boat. This can be accomplished using either dead bait teasers or live bait teasers. Artificial teasers rarely keep the interest of Atlantic Sailfish long enough for successful flyfishing.

In areas where seasonal abundance makes dead bait fishing effective such as Florida’s East Coast from Daytona to Ft. Pierce and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, dead bait teasing is the way to go. Day in and day out the best deadbait teaser is a fresh ballyhoo lightly chin leaded. Small to medium sized de-boned and or split tailed mullet as well as Bonita strips fill out the teaser repertoire. A simple ballyhoo teaser rig is created by crimping a loop just large enough to pass a ballyhoo’s head through in a short section of leader material. Slide a piece of monel or copper rigging wire into the crimp before swaging. To rig the ballyhoo, slide the loop over his head and under his gill plates, then rap the rigging wire through the eye sockets and around the bill as you would a hook bait. Finish by making several stitches using a needle and floss connecting the head to the body. A multitude of these teasers should be rigged in advance.

If the angler is a right-handed caster he or she will setup on the right side of the cockpit. The right rigger is kept in the up position to make room for the backcast. The angler should strip off a pre-measured amount of fly line that he intends to cast. Don’t strip off more than you intend to cast as the loose coils can create trouble after a hookup. The angler should make a bunch of practice casts to get a feel for these big awkward flies.

The easiest teaser outfits to use are 20-30lb spinning rods, which are quick to retrieve, and simple to recast. In addition to the teaser rods deployed, several others should be kept standing by with teaser baits attached for quick service. The basic teaser setup calls for 3 teasers at staggered lengths. The longest is fished off the left rigger, the shortest in the left flat position and the third about equidistant between the two in the right flat. You will need two people in the cockpit in addition to the angler to handle the teaser rods, one to perform the tease and the other to clear rods. If the fish is on the long teaser the shorter teasers must be moved out of the way, if the fish raises to one of the shorter teasers the longest teaser can at least temporarily be left out or even dropped further back out of the way.

A good tease requires experience and finesse. Have you raised a hot fish or a lazy fish? How do you react to each? Wind the teaser bait up too fast and he may not stay with you, let him have it too much and you may “hook ” him on the teaser, its all part of the challenge. Once the tease begins the boat can come out of gear sooner than is generally realized. Winding the teaser in provides sufficient “forward” motion and the reduction in white water helps everyone see more clearly, including the fish when the fly is cast. Timing is critical at the end stages of the tease. When the fish gets to the outer limit of the angler’s casting range the fly should go in the water. A cast straight out the back is better than directly at the fish as this will often cross the teaser line resulting in a tangle. Once the fish is drawn inside the fly, assuming he is still actively trying to bite the teaser the teaser is snatched out of the water and the angler gets the fish’s attention by striping the fly vigorously a couple of times, (this is where popper flies have a huge advantage) if all goes well the fish will spin around and eat the fly going away or at least sideways. Hookup rates are much higher for this type of bite than when the fish ends up behind the fly. Anglers using popping flies can facilitate the chance for a going away bite by moving the fly only enough to get the fish’s attention and then letting the fly lay motionless, if you keep stripping, the fish ends up behind the fly.

For anglers interested in flyfishing for Sails where live bait fishing is the predominate method, such as the area from Miami To Key West, the use of live bait teasers is the preferred method of raising fish. Any live bait that is routinely used as a hook bait in this area will serve although several characteristics of live ballyhoo make them the best choice. Ballyhoo are easy to rig live by simply securing them by the bill with rigging wire. When deployed they stay right on the surface where they can be closely observed, they also telegraph the approach of a Sail by franticly hopping out of the water. When fishing live ballyhoo teasers the setup is essentially the same as with a deadbait spread, you can always simplify by just fishing two at a time if you choose. Other live baits such as Goggle eyes, Pilchards, cigar minnows and Thread Herring are more difficult to securely bridle and tend to swim subsurface thus making it more difficult to detect the approach of a Sail until its too late. One way around this problem is to suspend the teaser bait from a kite; goggle eyes work particularly well this way. Attach a small snap swivel to your teaser rod and bridle the goggle eye to the snap with a flossed loop and needle. “Fish” the bait out of a tight kite pin. Position the kite slightly closer to the boat than you would if you were fishing with hooks. When a sail is raised, the fish is drawn within casting range by simultaneously shortening both the kite and the teaser bait, when its time to cast the bait is wound up out of the water.

So the next time you’re in the mood for something beside the same old, same old in the Sailfish game, give some of these tactics a try, its fun to watch even if you don’t score well.

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