South Florida Sailfish Tournament Season Preview — Three Teams to Watch

These captains are seasoned pros — and know how to rack up releases when the pressure is on

sailfish underwater
Follow these three consistent performers in South Florida's sailfish tournament circuit.Hunter Ledbetter

Through the years, some teams that fish the South Florida ­sailfish tournament circuit come and go — one year you’re hot, the next you’re not. But there always seem to be a few that are always in the hunt, season after season. They sneak up on the rest of the fleet when you’re not looking. The next thing you know, they’ve racked up seven releases before lunch — faster than you can say, “Pass me a sandwich.”

So naturally, I talked with some of these ­perennial sailfish tournament heroes, who did not want to be named, about the teams they’re keeping a close eye on this year. And many of the same names kept coming up. This circuit is as formidable as it is fierce, and with the best of the best vying for the trophy, jacket, ring or big check, there are a select few who are consistently getting better, year after year. These captains are carefully planning their own ambush this season — and they aren’t afraid to talk about it.

King of the Center Consoles

Capt. Skip Dana has seen his share of sailfish ­tournaments. Gaining 18 feet of boat — going from the 35-foot Revenge Crescendo to the 53-foot Hydra Sports Sir Reel for the 2017-18 season — Dana could be considered king of the center consoles. When I asked Capt. Jamie Ralph of Old No. 7 which team he was looking for in his ­rearview mirror this fall, he matter-of-factly said, "Any team that Skip Dana is leading."

Capt. Skip Dana
“When sharing and receiving info within your network, don’t get too specific or ask for too much — the general area, water depth and tide are enough.” —Capt. Skip DanaCourtesy Endless Imagery

So, what does Dana do to keep himself in the game? He steps out of his comfort zone, even when fishing at home: “I always try to think a little outside the box — at home and away — because if you don’t experiment and try new techniques, someone else will. And they’ll beat you.” A word from the wise, especially when dealing with a South Florida fishery where virtually any team can soar to the top of any tournament leader board.

But as we all know, when you’re not raising fish, it’s easy to get in your own head and start doubting every decision you’ve made since breakfast. However, such performance-damaging action is not a possibility for Dana.

With his cast of characters on board, “there’s never a dull moment,” he says. “If everyone is getting bit but me, it can get frustrating, but when that happens, we try to make light of it and joke about it. If you take yourself too seriously, it will drive you nuts.” Dana’s cool aura filters down to the cockpit, rain or shine, sporty or calm, and it’s his levelheaded no-need-to-panic attitude that comes through. He says: “If we are in the hunt for a daily or in the lead in the tournament, then we must be doing something right. I try to keep it loose and not press too hard — we just try to keep doing what got us there. Slow and steady wins the race.”

sailfish jumping out water
South Florida sailfish will readily fall for a ­well-presented live bait, so area captains hone their skills to a fine edge in order to be competitive in the numerous big-money tournaments that occur each season.Richard Gibson

If there is one thing that does get under Dana’s skin, it’s fishing off Miami. “Miami tournaments are my kryptonite,” he says. “We can put up double digits on the practice days, but I just haven’t been able to put it together in the tournaments.” Perhaps it’s the nature of competitive sailfishing or the tight quarters, but either way, it’s only a matter of time until Dana nails down the Miami fishery, and when he does, a whole new tournament door will open for him and, unfortunately, could close for many others.

To think that you can take a breather when ­fishing around Dana would be a mistake. He’s ­seasoned, he’s collected, and he’s seen a thing or two in his 15-plus years at the helm. While he has a laid-back style and a friendly, approachable personality, Capt. Skip Dana is a winner, and you cannot argue with his success.

The Practiced Pro

Capt. Jamie Ralph is a true believer in positivity. Recently fishing in Ocean City, Maryland, with Capt. J.J. Logan on the Jarrett Bay Reel Rodeo, Ralph says Logan's team has a lot fun, and by taking their craziness to the next level, it sure goes a long way for morale. With the sheer power of positivity, rooted in fun, they generally have others looking to see if the Reel Rodeo team is sneaking up on them in the standings. "They are very serious about the fishing," says Ralph, "but they also enjoy every moment of it, and getting plenty of bites is a result."

Capt. Jamie Ralph
“Trust your gut. Always know where you stand on the leaderboard, but don’t get wrapped up in it — you don’t get to the top by staring at it.” — Capt. Jamie RalphCourtesy Endless Imagery

But having fun is not the only factor that can turn your day around, he says. Ralph believes you must also be prepared, and that means practice fishing. He says fishing more days and getting everyone on the team out on the water is the best confidence builder on his boat, the 52-foot Cabo Old No. 7. “There’s no pressure on these practice days — we’re just having fun — which is really important as the tournament gets closer,” he says.

Taking home first place in the Bluewater Movements Final Sail tournament in Key West in 2017, the team attributed a lot of its success to this strategy, which is a big part of its game plan. “You must familiarize yourself with the area,” says Ralph, “spending as much time in different zones of the playing field as possible.” If you can take the day before a ­tournament to see the field in its entirety — boundary to boundary — you can get a real feel for what’s going on. “We will put baits out in the fishiest-looking spots,” Ralph states, “and if we get bites, we’ll go back to where we had the best ­conditions, coupled with the most bites.”

Being from Palm Beach, Ralph likens a Key West sailfish to a tourist on Duval Street. “They do a lot of window shopping and wandering aimlessly within the boundaries,” he says. The current, water quality, bait presence and recent success in a particular area are what he banks on when it comes to targeting these overstimulated fish. Out-of-the-box thinking is important to Ralph when targeting Key West sails. To combat challenges like this, his team is constantly trying out new tactics to help themselves evolve.

sport-fishing boat offshore
Thanks to deep water found relatively close to shore, teams often target sailfish within sight of land.© Scott Kerrigan / www.aquapaparazzi.com

Each sailfish tournament has its own set of challenges, says Ralph: “The greatest thing about big tournaments is that you always feel like you have a shot at winning — right down to the buzzer — whether I’m fishing in my own sandbox or someone else’s.”

By doing his homework, Ralph’s team depends on him to trust his gut. He says this circuit’s competition is stiff but not impossible. “I want to fish and compete against the best so I can be pushed to elevate my game,” he says. And by the looks of it, Capt. Jamie Ralph and his team are doing just that.

The Positive Thinker

For the past three years, Capt. Ben Sharpe has ­definitely paid attention to his competition, ­especially as of late. With his win at Viking Yachts' popular Key West Challenge this past season, his third in a row at the helm of the 66-foot Viking Man-e-War, he is all too familiar with any threat that could possibly keep him from the top of the leaderboard. Citing Jamie Ralph as a master at reading conditions, Sharpe believes the Old No. 7 team to be one of the most versatile teams on the circuit, with the ability to get bites anywhere.

Capt. Ben Sharpe
“I’d rather have the baits go out slow and be right than go out fast and be wrong.” — Capt. Ben SharpeAustin Coit

Because sailfish tournaments are littered with what-ifs, Sharpe focuses on being observant. “This fishery can be extremely unstable when it comes to certain conditions, and sometimes it’s all about timing,” he says. One minute they’re biting their faces off, the next minute the sailfish are as tight-lipped as a mobster at a court hearing, so being on your toes and paying attention are key.

Sharpe says he likes to fish with direction. “If ­anything will spark a bite, most of the time it’s the tide,” he says. By using the outgoing tide as a foundation, Sharpe gathers other information such as the moon phase, water temperature and bottom structure to plan his fishing day. To him, water flow, structure and bait are the factors he’s most concerned with straight out of the gate. With the right current and structure to hold fish, “Watch out,” Sharpe says. “Because then you’ll have something to set back to and be able to capitalize on a hot bite.”

When the current is slow or non-existent, Sharpe will concentrate on structure to target resident sailfish. “Those fish are sure-bet ­morning bites. A few quick releases will get my team fired up and working like a machine while we wait out the tide or look for the masses of bait the sails could be feeding on,” he says. Because baitfish are greatly affected by current and water temperature, “the sails react to the bait’s movement, and this will matter, especially when we are forced to fish in deeper water,” says Sharpe.

kite-fishing offshore
By deploying multiple live baits from a kite, boats can cover a very wide swath of water.© Scott Kerrigan / www.aquapaparazzi.com

Upstream water temps are another sign to look for if the fish are going to push, says Sharpe. “I do spend a lot of time looking at the breaks to the north of me — ­sometimes all the way to the Carolinas,” he reports.

The Man-e-War team has seen the top of the leaderboard on several occasions, and while Sharpe is doing his best to fish where the fish are, he also has to keep calm and focused. "I try to maintain the short-term memory concept: Take it one bite at a time," he says. "If we miss one or two fish, I like my crew not to think about it longer than necessary but to focus on the next one." Sharpe believes many fish come out of missed opportunities, and to lament about the one you just missed could possibly set you up for failure on the next one. Sharpe also admits that jamming out to a '90s hip-hop song mix helps cut the tension on the boat.

offshore fishing
Since sailfish often feed in packs, top teams work hard to convert the first bite into a second, third or fourth fish.Hunter Ledbetter

The Pressure to Win

Each of these three captains named one of the others as a potential threat, which is proof that no matter how you slice it, these guys are going to make you sweat on the South Florida sailfish circuit this season. Merely entering a tournament and having to face these hardcore pros is enough to find yourself rushing to the dock at 3 a.m. in a cold sweat just to double‑check that your bait is happy and healthy.

Tournament after tournament, the teams that consistently place in the top 10 are as experienced as they are serious. The pressure is real, and these players aren't fooling around: They want to win, and they put in the time and effort. From the constant practice fishing to arriving at the tournament venue days or even weeks in advance, the teams you're going to be watching over your shoulder this year are the same ones that are getting better when you're not looking.

About the Author

Capt. Jen Copeland is a 20-year marine-industry professional who enjoys telling a good story, especially about big-game ­fishing. She currently runs the Viking 50 Three C's in North Key Largo, Florida.