Top Tactics for Atlantic Sailfish

Dead-bait techniques on the troll

February 9, 2021
A sailfish on the leader bursts out of the ocean.
Hooking these wily fish can be incredibly frustrating. Harry Hindmarsh

For sailfish fishermen, it’s a recurring dream: There he is! Left teaser… It’s a sail! But it’s not always as easy as the captain pulling in the squid chain and the angler getting a picture-perfect bite 10 feet behind the boat. Really, that scenario is just a small percentage of the bites we get from these wily and sometimes sneaky creatures. So let’s take a closer look at the touch-and-go method we employ when feeding a dead bait to an Atlantic sailfish on the troll.

Many factors go into a successful drop-back and hookup when encountering these agile and explosive little critters. Smaller and slightly faster than their Pacific cousins, feeding an Atlantic sailfish is like dealing with a whole different animal. One of the first steps to success is being in position when an opportunity presents itself. This hardly means sitting on the mezzanine, or in the salon with your feet up.

A wise captain I work with used a great hunting analogy with some of our guests one day by asking them if they hunted birds. When the response was yes, he said, “Well, do you hold your gun the entire time, or do you put it down 8 feet away from you?” Their answer, they hold their guns, further illustrated the importance of holding your rod—your weapon—or being in the correct position.


Guard Your Position

In some instances, holding a single rod can actually hinder your hookup ratio, depending on your position on deck. For example, if you’ve been placed in charge of standing behind the rocket launcher to guard multiple long-rigger baits, then holding a single rod can—and will—cause you to miss a bite should it occur on the opposite rigger. In this case, it’s better to leave the two rigger rods in the launcher and simply hold the line between the top of the reel and the first guide lightly on your pointer finger. That way, even if no one sees the bite, you are still fishing by feel and are able to feel your bait get picked up—your finger is on the trigger. With this tactic, you can effectively guard multiple baits at once.

Conversely, while fishing a flat-line position, it’s important to hold the rod and keep yourself ready for the traditional flat-line bite, or everyone’s favorite: the bait-and-switch. If you raise a sail on the teaser or dredge, you might be asked to adjust the bait’s position to give yourself the best chance at a connection, thus eliminating the time it takes to get to the rod and then pick it up.

Having good situational awareness is a must at all times on the troll. If you accidentally tangle your bait in either the bridge teaser or the dredge as they are coming in, you’ve missed your shot, and rest assured, if that happens during a bait-and-switch scenario, nine times out of 10 the fish is going to eat your tangled bait and you’ll get the silent treatment from the man on the bridge.


The Right Touch

Feel is a critical piece of the Atlantic ­sailfish puzzle. For most anglers, the more you handle the equipment in different positions and conditions, the more comfortable you will be with it. Having a rod in your hands at all times will help you learn the difference between the weight of the bait and the water pressure against it, and a potentially super-subtle bite. Sailfish can be extremely finicky and are able to feel almost every bit of pressure applied to a bait they’re trying to eat. This is why all successful anglers never fish with the clickers on. Not every bite is a pile-on one where the release clip pops first. These sails are lightning-fast and profoundly sneaky. Add to those characteristics the fact that the sea conditions are usually less than favorable for a good portion of the sailfish season, and you encounter a trifecta for missed bites.

Say your teammate hooks a fish on the flat line and the boat begins to turn into—or toward—the fish. If you’re guarding the long-rigger position on the same side and you feel your bait pressure increase or, even trickier, decrease, it’s that touch that will help you recognize if you’ve been picked up. Honing your touch will enhance your hookup chances greatly; even more specifically, it will help when prospecting.

Many anglers fishing in the Atlantic employ a tactic known as prospecting. This technique involves reeling a flat-line bait up in front of the dredge and dropping it back past the teasers and sometimes the other baits in the spread, depending on what individual crews prefer to do. This drifting action often appears like an injured bait—one that has fallen behind the school—making it an easy snack for a sail to grab on the run. Successful prospectors have a sensitive feel for their baits. This is when knowing the feel of increased—or decreased—­pressure makes all the difference.


A good percentage of the time, your bait will get picked up while the fish is swimming directly at you, decreasing the amount of speed and pressure with which the bait is falling. Inversely, whenever retrieving it from the ­prospect drop-back, I find that if you keep the drag as light as possible—almost ­slipping—and get picked up, you aren’t instantly sancochoed.

An angler reels in a large sailfish.
It is vitally important you try to beat the Atlantic sailfish to the release clip. Waiting for it to pop open only decreases your hookup ratio. Courtesy Pepper Ailor

Let it Fly

Once you get the touch portion somewhat figured out, you’ll need to feed the fish or, as we say, let it fly. The Atlantic sail’s pickiness and predisposition to pressure changes make this one of the most difficult maneuvers in billfishing. Here it’s important that you not use the clicker (or your thumb) to control the line as it effortlessly leaves the spool. Doing so adds pressure to the concept of free-spool, and will cause your fish to feel this pressure and spit out the bait. Being afraid of a clicker-free free-spool will only cause you to make more errors either on the feed or when the fish has turned or sunk out.

When using circle hooks with dead bait, hookup-to-catch ratios increase significantly, provided we understand the basic mechanics of setting, or rather not setting, a circle hook. The design of a circle hook is effective only when it comes tight slowly and steadily by turning and rolling itself into the corner of the fish’s jaw.


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Using the correct technique, circle hooks work about 99 percent of the time, but keep in mind the turn portion of that sequence. If an angler tries to Bill Dance a circle hook by yanking the rod upward in an effort to set the hook, he will pull it out of the fish’s mouth 100 percent of the time. It also helps to remember that if the fish is swimming directly at you, the hook won’t set without an angle, so some angle must be artificially created for the hook to turn and lodge into the corner of the jaw. Seeing the bite, noticing the direction your line is going, and listening to your crew will help you decide in which direction to sweep your rod and engage the fish.

Over the years, I’ve adopted a catchphrase: Never deny the threat. Meaning, it’s always the right bite. If you don’t clearly see the bite, learn to treat every potential tug or significant pressure change like it is one and, as we say, let it fly. Becoming an effective, well-rounded and sticky sailfish angler is the goal to help your team succeed. Keep your eyes on the spread, your hands on the rod, and your ears toward the crew.


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