Surfin' Sails Off Key West

A rare summertime color change offshore triggers a stupendous sailfish bite

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_Although usually a wintertime phenomenon in the Keys, a significant powder blue to indigo color change developed just outside the reef this past June, creating perfect conditions for a stellar sailfish bite. Photographer Pat Ford happened to be in the right place at the right time to record this lucky summer day.
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Pat Ford
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On June 2, I was in Key West trying to find some tarpon when my longtime fishing buddy, Col. Hunter Ledbetter, U.S. Marine Corps, invited me to ride along with him and a couple of friends. They had chartered Capt. R. T. Trosset for the next day, and since the tarpon were pretty much AWOL, I jumped at the chance to do something different and met the group at Hurricane Hole Marina at 7:30 a.m. The wind was blowing 20-plus knots from the east, so Trosset suggested that we simply head offshore and see what we could dig up. He said that he'd heard a few reports of some big dolphin in fairly close and some sails along the color change.Pat Ford
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After a brief stop to catch some live threadfin herring for bait, we bounced out past the reef until we finally found some blue water and started our search for sails tailing down-sea.
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Trosset runs a 34-foot Yellowfin center console with a mini tower, which lets him drive and look for fish from an elevated vantage point at the same time. It wasn’t long before he spotted some birds with a school of small dolphin in tow.
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We caught about a dozen mahimahi before they wised up, which was all we really wanted to keep anyway. As the day wore on, the seas picked up, but we had pretty steady action with bonito, one nice blackfin tuna and the occasional shot at a sail. Hunter’s friends, Megan and Stephanie, each caught their first sail, and by 2 p.m., they were about ready to call it a day when the radio came alive with reports of sailfish surfing the waves along the color change.
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This phenomenon usually happens in late February and early March — never in June — but it is one of the most exciting ways to catch sailfish in south Florida. Trosset put us on an amazing color change in around 90 feet of water and started heading into the wind.Pat Ford
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Trosset stayed up top so he could easily spot the dark sails in the light blue water. Once he saw one, we threw out a live bait in front of the tailing sail on a 20-pound spinning rig. This kind of fishing is extremely visual, more akin to stalking the flats and casting to mudding bonefish.Pat Ford
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Trosset would position the boat so that the sail was swimming pretty much alongside it, about 40 feet out. If we got the bait outside and in front of the sail, we could watch it run over to the struggling threadfin, raise its sail and gulp down the bait.Pat Ford
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We used 50-pound fluorocarbon leader with circle hooks, and the proximity of the hookups set the sails jumping right next to the boat. Between 2:30 and 4:30 p.m., we got more than 30 shots at surfing sails, hooked 16 and released eight for the day.Pat Ford
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The next day, Trosset headed out again and only spotted a few sails — even though the conditions were pretty much the same. We still have no idea where all these sailfish came from, or where they were going, but it certainly was an amazing afternoon in June off Key West. — Pat FordPat Ford
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