Extreme weather conditions tested the 39 boat fleet fishing in the West Palm Beach Fishing Club’s 77th annual Silver Sailfish Derby held January 9-11. The tournament fleet, headquartered out of the Sailfish Marina on Singer Island, registered a total of 220 sailfish releases during three days of fishing. By comparison, the fishing was far off the mark from any of the record setting events the fleet has enjoyed in recent years. However, the 2.0 sailfish per boat day average was an improvement over last year’s event and higher than the Derby’s historical average of 1.4 sails per boat day. “Considering the rough sea conditions, I’d say the catch rate was pretty good,” commented WPBFC Chairman and Derby radioman Pete Schulz.
December was one of the warmest months on record resulting in lackluster sailfishing prior to this year’s Derby. However, a few days prior to the start of the tournament there was hope that a passing cold front, influenced by a polar vortex that had much of the country in a deep freeze, would provide the spark needed to turn on the sailfish bite. Unfortunately, the cold front was short lived and the fish never showed off Palm Beach. “The best bite was from the Stuart Inlet up to our northern boundary line off the St. Lucie Power Plant. But the bulk of the sailfish are still north of that area. We just haven’t had any significant cold fronts yet this season to push the fish out of their comfort zone and further south,” said Schulz.
On the Derby’s first day the fleet was greeted with what many seasoned captains call "victory at sea" conditions. A falling tide bucking a northeast swell made for extremely rough seas outside Palm Beach Inlet. Because the Derby allows boats of all sizes to participate, the tournament is a ‘captain’s choice’ event regarding the decision to fish or not fish any given day. Six boats decided to stay off the water. Two others only fished a half-day. A strong northeast to easterly wind whipped the waves up to eight feet the entire day, with some occasionally topping ten feet or more. The confused sea challenged even the biggest of boats, some over 70 feet. At the conclusion of the first day it was Lantana based ‘ProPayroll’, captained by Jamie Ralph, who earned top daily boat honors with 6 sailfish releases. Teams ‘Reel Control’ and ‘Wrenegade’ finished the day with five releases each rounding out the top three positions on the leader board. ‘ProPayroll’ angler John Duval claimed the top daily angler award with 4 released sails. Andrew Stewart of Palm Beach caught the heavy weight fish on the first day. His 33.5 lb. dolphin caught aboard the ‘Anita L’ remained the heaviest fish recorded during the three-day contest and earned the Grand Champion Weight Fish Trophy. “Since it was the very first fish weighed in during the tournament we were on edge for three days hoping the fish would hold up. I’m thrilled it did,” said Stewart. A total of 59 sails were released on the Derby’s first day.
Sea conditions subsided a little on the Derby’s second day, but by all accounts it was still rough. The word was out that the best sailfish bite was occurring in the waters off Stuart near the tournament boundary line. Team ‘Doing It All’ was among the boats who traveled north. The West Palm Beach based team lead by Mark Lamb was eager to fish. Their boat had experienced a steering failure that cut their first day of fishing short and required navigating their triple outboard center console through Jupiter Inlet using just the throttles to steer. “We waited for slack tide before attempting to run the inlet. It was pretty crazy. We got the steering pumps replaced overnight and we were back in the game on the second day,” commented Lamb. Evidently the fish gods were with them. ‘Doing It All’ earned top daily boat honors on day two of the Derby with an impressive total of 12 sailfish releases and climbed to the top of the leader board. High angler on day two was Rick Burton of Wellington who tallied 6 sails aboard ‘Doing It All’. Heavy weight fish honors went to Boyd Youngblood of Lake Como, New Jersey, who landed a 14.4 lb. dolphin aboard the Team ‘Lumitec’ boat. A total of 98 sails were released on the second day bringing the tournament total to 157 releases. The Derby leader board began to tighten up with five boats, ‘Jichi’, ‘Wrenegade’, ‘ProPayroll’, ‘Double Diamond’ and ‘Miss Annie’ all within reasonable reach of the leader. It was still any team’s tournament to win.
The weather gods were not finished punishing the Derby fleet on the final day. The wind clocked around to the due south and blew a sustained 25 to 30 mph throughout the entire day. Despite the wind, few had trouble running with the sea as they headed to the northern boundary line where the fish were. Within the first ten minutes of fishing, sailfish were being reported to Derby headquarters. A real horse race developed several hours into the final day. After catching two more fish in the morning, ‘Doing It All’ held the slimmest of leads based on the time of their last release with a tournament total of 14 sails.Meanwhile, Team ‘Miss Annie’ was having an excellent day adding 6 more releases to their score for a total of 14 sailfish as well. Six other boats were within just four fish of the lead with just a few hours remaining in the contest.