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March 27, 2007

Dawn of the Dead Bait

Fort Pierce, Florida, crews respect tradition and still troll dead baits for sails.

Florida's Atlantic coastline enjoys a long tradition of excellent big-game and offshore fishing. During the 1940s and '50s, the Palm Beach area became known as the "sailfish capital of the world," and the famed Sailfish Alley stretched from Jupiter to south Miami. The fishing hung close to shore, and there were plenty of sails - and charter boats - to keep the tourists happy.

Ads began to appear in the big magazines of the day, with pretty girls catching sails in the Florida sunshine. These glamorous photos brought the people in droves and created a glitzy, hard-charging south-Florida charter fleet that became famous in its own right.

In the mid-'40s, a fellow named George Archer settled in Fort Pierce, Florida, just a few miles up the coast from all the action to the south. He bought himself a boat, named her the Victory Too and joined two other captains working the area, Si Thomas on the Lady Anne and Walter Ergle on the Port of Fort Pierce.

According to Don Raffensberger, the present owner of White's Tackle in Fort Pierce (a shop that's been in business since 1925), those original captains mastered the art of dead-bait trolling, catching sails on whole mullet or mullet strips. "Buck White, the original owner of White's Tackle, and Archer developed a product together called the Man-O-War," Raffensberger says. "It was really just a backwards feather made of really fine hair. It had a huge red bead at the back and a big lead, at least an ounce and a half - it looked a lot like a SeaWitch. They pulled that Man-O-War in front of a mullet strip - they didn't pull ballyhoo."

Dead-Bait Country
These first captains trolled dead baits because the area's prime fishing spots are widely separated and they needed to cover a lot of ground. Unlike in south Florida, where the depth can change from 100 to 180 feet in a few hundred yards, in Fort Pierce you can travel for three or more miles to cover the same depth range. In fact, the farther north you travel, the more spread out the prime waters become. The captains needed hardy baits that could withstand all that traveling.

"Archer never fully de-boned his mullet; he would just take a 1-inch section out of the backbone, right behind the head. He'd rig it on a single- or double-hook rig and would troll it fairly quickly on the surface at about 6 to 7 knots. A drop-back and a count to 10 was kind of the standard," says Raffensberger.

"When I was kid, my parents would charter Archer, and I only remember him ever pulling one teaser. He would attach a shiny piece of metal he cut out of the back of a headlight reflector to a 2-pound, teardrop-shaped plumb bob. He would run it right in the wash from a piece of braided nylon string. Every once in awhile, something would come up and grab that teaser, and when the fish finally let go, the whole thing would come flying back into the cockpit. He was lucky somebody didn't get creamed!"

Capt. Sam Crutchfield joined Archer as a first mate in the late '50s and learned all he could. "It was my first real job," says the now-famous crooning captain. "We were using Dacron line, #8 wire leader and a T-boned mullet rigged on an 8/0 or 9/0 Mustad 3407 ring-eye hook. We used Fin-Nors, and we were way over-gunned, but that was the standard of the day. It was like shooting a rabbit with an elephant gun, but we didn't know any better. We'd put out our swimming mullet and give them a two-cigarette drop-back. By today's standards, we were a three-ring circus, but we really thought we were doing something special. We were big-game fishing for 30- and 40-pound sails!"

But even with the big baits and wire leaders, crews back then still caught their fair share of sails. "The guys I grew up fishing with ran up some big scores, catching 30 or more sails in one day out of Fort Pierce. I've caught 32 in one day twice, and Capt. Chip Shafer on the Temptress did it once," says Crutchfield.

Also around this time, a bit of animosity began to grow between the Fort Pierce fleet and those to the south. "The sails would ball up the bait around here, and pretty soon the boats from Palm Beach would make their way up to get in on it," says Raffensberger. "They all had bigger, faster, more powerful boats, and they would back into the balls, hook up a fish, break it off and run up another flag. This was still a fairly poor fishing community, so there was a bit of resentment. After several years, it eventually boiled over into a live-bait versus dead-bait thing."

Tournaments Drive Innovations
Crutchfield calls Shafer "one of the best natural billfishermen who has ever lived." In the '70s, Shafer became one the first captains in Fort Pierce who targeted the sails during the winter months, trying to catch as many as he could in one day. Crutchfield and Shafer fished side by side for many years, pioneering many of the same techniques used today for sails, white marlin and small blues. And they also did a bit of live-baiting as well.

"There's no question that you can catch a lot more fish live-baiting than you can with dead bait," Shafer says. "During the late '70s and early '80s, I did a lot of it myself. I was just like a drunk with a bottle when I first learned how to live-bait. We used to troll until we found the fish and then hammer them with the live bait. Crutchfield showed me how to do that.

"But live-baiting just isn't good for the fish in general. Since you catch a lot more fish, you're going to hurt a lot more too. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not pointing fingers at the guys who have done it all their lives - we killed quite a few when mono first came out and we were feeding them ballyhoo with a J hook in it. I still think, however, that there would have been good dead-bait fisheries down in Miami and the Keys if the live-bait thing had never come along. Nowadays you've got to use live bait down there to compete, so I don't think there's much chance of it ever going away," says Shafer.

Several tournaments grew up in the area over the years, and events like the Blue Water Open, the Pelican Yacht Club Tournament and the Stuart Light Tackle Tournament drove teams to try new and different dead-bait techniques.

"In 1980 we had tournaments with 100-plus boats in them," says Crutchfield. "But you knew that only five or six were capable of winning, because there were only five or six who knew how to use light line and small baits and work the dredges."

It's hard to pinpoint the exact crew or captain who first brought the dredge - an umbrella teaser styled after the ones used by striped-bass fishermen in the Northeast - to Fort Pierce. The dredge revolutionized sailfishing. Most attribute this innovation to Shafer and his mates Dave Warren and Mike Brady. Teams began loading four-armed dredges full of split-tailed mullet - and eventually went to pulling double, six-armed monsters using as many as 48 mullet per side to simulate a school of baitfish following along behind the boat.

But not everyone thinks dredges are the answer. "Dredges turned what used to be a fun sport into more of a job," Crutchfield says. "You need two or three mates just to keep the damn things filled up. I wonder how many mullet have to die during a typical Fort Pierce tournament? Some people call it progress, and I take great pride in helping to bring them along (with the help of Robbie More and Craig Koch), but any teaser that splashes and swims will raise a sailfish."

"I miss the simple days. We didn't realize how much fun it was just catching four or five fish without all the hassles. It was harder to catch them - we didn't back down like they do today. It didn't make much sense to hot-dog around after a 35-pound sail and put a $25,000 transmission in the shop. Now if you catch four or five, people say you've had a bad day," he says. "Even so, there used to be a lot more sailfish out there. It kind of reminds me of the duck hunter who said, 'I don't know what happened to them all; we used to kill them by the thousands.'"

A Mate's Haven
The small Fort Pierce fleet went on to produce a number of great billfishermen, including former mates who became globe-trotting captains like Robbie More, Mike Everly, Jimmy Grant and the current Viking factory captain, Mike Brady. These young captains spread out all over the world, fishing with, and sharing, some of the same techniques developed in their home waters.

Everly, who now fishes on the Over Easy, has fished the Fort Pierce area since 1979. He came down and worked five years as Shafer's first mate and still respects the captain's dead-bait philosophy. "We've always tried to keep a pure, traditional dead-bait fishery here in Fort Pierce. We've always frowned upon the use of live baits up here because we really do believe it's better for the fish in the long run."

But it's also a matter of personal preference. "I guess I just like trolling. I like to cover more ground and find fish. In places like Jupiter, everyone gets all bunched up and fishes in one spot. I really enjoy fishing my own water and finding my own fish," Everly says.

Capt. Glenn Cameron on the Floridian - the man to beat in Fort Pierce for the last 10 years - agrees with Everly: "Fishing out of Fort Pierce is more like a deer hunt than a turkey shoot. Our fishery is more conducive to trolling because our fish are more scattered."

Cameron prefers to read the water and watch for the telltale signs of bait and the presence of sailfish. "Sailfish really don't care about clear water; they just want to be in the water where the bait is. A lot of times we find them in that blended, green water rather than in the bright blue. I keep the sounder on all day looking for bait ? and watching for flyers getting up at the same time."

Cameron and his mates, Kevin Paul and Mike Fulgham, continue to push the envelope to this day with their dead-bait techniques. "My boys are way ahead of the curve when it comes to using dredges and circle hooks," says Cameron. "They have really tweaked the dredges over the years and still make little changes to them every year. We are always willing to try anything that might give us that little bit of an edge."

I saw their ingenuity at work firsthand during the first Fort Pierce Billfish Derby several years ago when the crew went to work each morning, building a double Spanish-mackerel dredge!

Recently, the National Marine Fisheries Service rule requiring the use of circle hooks in billfish tournaments by participants using dead baits put the whole Fort Pierce fleet in a tizzy. But the area's skilled mates rose to the challenge and came up with several swimming ballyhoo rigs that work just fine with circle hooks.

However, some captains and crews still resent being told what kind of hook to use - Cameron included. "We've done very well with circle hooks; I just think that they could have picked a better battle. It's definitely better for the fishery, but there are a lot of other people who hurt the fish more than the guys who troll dead bait."

The Fort Pierce fleet, while rooted in tradition, continues to push the envelope of dead-bait-fishing techniques. But as captain Crutchfield says, "All that fancy stuff doesn't really matter. All the teasers, the perfect baits, the dredges - they all don't matter unless you're in the right place. Pulling all of the mess in the wrong place does you no good. Always remember: An hour in a great place is better than all day in a crappy one. I've proved that many times!"