Florida’s Record-Breaking Sailfish Bite

Pelican Yacht Club tournament hosts incredible fishing

sailfish jumping out of water
With multiple fish appearing on each dredge, doubles — and even triples — were a common occurrence as the fleet capitalized on an insane sailfish bite during the 2019 Pelican Yacht Club Invitational Billfish Tournament.©️Scott Kerrigan/www.aquapaparazzi.com

Once again, the planet’s best winter sailfish bite has come out of the Sunshine State. In May 2018, Marathon, Florida, racked up ridiculous release numbers when a series of hydrometeorological and biological events created a come-one-come-all sailfish scenario in the Florida Keys for the few boats who were lucky enough to read the signs. A similar situation must have occurred off the coast of Cape Canaveral during the 39th annual Pelican Yacht Club Invitational Billfish Tournament this past January when a total of 969 sails were released in just four days — 712 of them on the second day — breaking records by the handful. Capt. David Grubbs’s 73-fish tournament broke Capt. Scott Fawcett’s 2012 record of 57. Grubbs and the commercial kingfish fleet were credited for locating the biomass. This is the story of that incredible event.

sport fishing yacht with fishers on deck
The new 58-foot Viking, JT, grabs the tournament's one-day record of 41 sailfish released, which also is the stated Atlantic sailfish-trolling tournament record. Left to right: Chris Berkeley, Dave Berard Sr., mate Tom DeRose, Capt. Mark McDevitt, Scott Rhein, mate Jake Farley, (sitting) co-owner David Johnson.Courtesy David Johnson

Capt. David Grubbs, Grand Slam

First Place — 73 releases

We had been to Fort Pierce a few days prior to the tournament to pre-fish, but it was slow. My boss had some guests in, so knowing there were some fish around home, we took the boat back up to New Smyrna to catch his friends a few.

grand slam sport fishing boat
Grand Slam owner, Wallis Higginbotham and his team placed first with 73 sailfish releases, breaking the 2012 tournament record of 57.Courtesy Scott Levin

We fished north of where the fish should have been, but we saw nothing. On the day of the captain’s meeting, we ran the boat back to Fort Pierce, looking around the Cape where some other boats had been seeing them. I saw a few free jumpers, so I marked the area on my machine, figuring that would be a good place to start on Day One. I thought the fish laid up there, but I never expected what was to come.

There were no tournament boundaries and everyone was scattered. It was rough, so I ran north, tight to the beach and then another 20 miles offshore to get a tolerable angle on my waypoint from the day before. There is a lot of area to cover up here, and the fish can be anywhere.

I got to the mark and made my first down-sea tack; I saw nothing and turned up sea. Still nothing. On the second turn down sea, we raised and caught one, so I stayed there. I was so far from the fleet I couldn't hear anything on the radio, but at 11:30 a.m. I got a call from Mike Brady on the Cowpoke.

sport fishing yachts on the water
The Island Boatworks Cowpoke patiently sits pretty in pink among the fleet waiting for the tournament cannon to go off, signaling the tournament's start.Courtesy Steve Irwin/Island Marine Services

I knew if I broadcasted my position I’d eventually be converged on, and it was a tournament, so I told him: “We are where you and I fished together last time.” Over the course of the next few hours, five or six other boats showed up and the fishing remained good.

The next day I went back to the same spot. We stayed on the southern end of that 5-mile area and caught 33. That was the same day JT got their daily record-breaking 41. It was so rough that even though we were raising them, keeping them tight was tough.

Day Three was like a light switch had been turned off. Goose managed 21 for the daily — inshore of the previous day and even possibly further north. We got two releases to end the tournament, having to lay the last day. This was the best sailfishing I had ever seen in this area, and we ended up winning with 73 releases — beating my personal best of 41 for 60 on my old charter boat in the early 2000s.

pelican yacht club dock
Release flags litter the riggers of the Pelican Yacht Club fleet in Fort Pierce, Florida.Courtesy Steve Irwin/Island Marine Services

Capt. Mike Brady, Cowpoke

Second Place — 66 releases

There had been a lot of coverage Fort Pierce to Miami in the weeks before the tournament. We wanted to fish Day One, and were hoping someone in the fleet would find fish.

Grubbs got a report from the king mackerel fishermen, saying they were hooking sails on their drone spoons. He didn’t tell anyone about the reports he received, but I knew on our way out the first day that he wasn’t going up there for nothing.

I followed Grand Slam, setting up 12 miles south of them. We picked up and ran toward him when we heard he was catching, setting up a mile and a half below. A little after noon, I was on an up-sea tack when we got a sail bite on the prospect. When I turned down sea, I took a look at my right dredge and saw eight or 10 fish in it; I glanced at my left dredge and saw the exact same thing. The only words I could muster were: "I think we found 'em, boys." We raised an additional 35 fish, releasing 24 for 45 with only four anglers, leaving many hungry fish behind the boat.

the deck of a sport fishing yacht
The team aboard the 68-foot Paul Mann Champagne Lady gathers for a picture after an unprecedented day of tournament fishing on the Treasure Coast.Courtesy Capt. Josh Chaney

On Day Two, everyone went north, because the bite was some 45 miles east of Pelican Flats off Canaveral in the deep water. It was rougher than the day before, blowing northwest more than 20 knots, so many boats didn’t get there until well after 10:30 a.m. We were off to a slow start, but got above everyone else and were marking lots of fish. We stayed out of the fleet, on a stretch of water all to ourselves, going 40 for 65 bites, even with all our sancochos.

We laid on Day Three, but the Viking 72 Goose found some fish even more north in 90 feet and ended up with the daily. The body of fish had moved down, but no one made it offshore, getting sucked into the shallow Goose report. By Day Four, we only needed nine fish to win. Grand Slam was fished out, but unfortunately everything slowed down. We did end up seeing six or seven fish, although they were very lethargic and not eating. How does it go from JT catching 41 to none? Just crazy fishing, I guess. We ended up with 66 releases for the tournament.

Capt. Josh Chaney, Champagne Lady

Third Place — 58 releases

After the Gold Cup's slow fishing, I wasn't expecting anything to change. On the first day I started at the 500 line, but didn't see a single fish. I could barely hear Grubbs on the VHF, so I call Brady and he said he thought he had Grand Slam on the radar. After we hear them catch a quad, we immediately stopped fishing and charged directly into the 7-foot north head sea for an hour and a half. They were there.

By the time I turned around on a flopper at 12:54 p.m., we hooked a quad and we didn’t even have the second rigger laid out. Out of 30 bites that afternoon, we caught 18 — every encounter being a multiple. You would hook four, look behind you and there would be at least 25 fish in the turn, with four or five on each dredge. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

sunset over pelican yacht club
A firelike sky echoes the firelike bite off the coast of Fort Pierce for the boats fishing the Pelican Yacht Club Invitational Billfish Tournament.Courtesy Steve Irwin/Island Marine Services

The entire fleet lined up on Day Two waiting for the cannon to go off, arriving at least an hour after lines in. No one cared because we all knew the fish would be there.

First flat line out and there he is. We caught 36 that day. It was the best fishing I'd seen since Bone Shaker won the Stuart Light Tackle tournament in 1997. Twenty-seven boats fishing the same stretch of water, fish jumping everywhere, every boat hooked up. There were so many fish and we were fishing so close together; if you got cut off, it didn't matter. It was awesome.

On the third day we ended up another 10 miles north, going four for 16. Anyone could have caught up to us, but we held at 58. Fifty-eight sails and you get third, that's nuts. The Pelican was a great end to our season, placing in every tournament we fished. Brady and Grubbs are my heroes. I'm lucky to be able to compete with, and fish beside them. —By Capts. David Grubbs, Mike Brady and Josh Chaney, as told to Capt. Jen Copeland