winter dredge fishing in stuart, florida
Jessica Haydahl Richardson

Winter Sailfish in Stuart, Florida

Few places rival Stuart as a sport-fishing destination.

Located on Florida’s Atlantic coast between West Palm Beach to the south and Fort Pierce to the north, Stuart is a legendary sport-fishing destination, and has been for longer than most can remember. It’s a short run from St. Lucie Inlet to the offshore waters that hold everything from sailfish to snapper, and the region is also home to some of the sport’s iconic boatbuilders, including American Custom Yachts, Willis Marine, Garlington Landeweer, Jim Smith Tournament Boats and Whiticar Boat Works. It’s an unbeatable ­destination that’s perfect for a winter getaway.

The Sailfish Capital of the World

Stuart earned the self-proclaimed title of Sailfish Capital many years ago, and Capt. V.J. Bell says it was well-deserved in the early days of sport-fishing.

dredge fishing in stuart, florida
While natural baits such as mullet and ­ballyhoo are still preferred for dredges in tournament competition, artificial baits and mudflaps have become popular alternatives.Christopher Balogh

“In the 1940s and ’50s, this was as prolific a spot for sailfish as there was in the world,” Bell says. “And we still have days here that’ll rival fishing anywhere, with stretches where you might catch double digits of sailfish for days.” And remember, all this is in Florida, with no need for international travel to a foreign destination, or hassles with passports or language barriers either.

Bell, whose Stuart Big Game Fishing offers charter trips on Unbelievable, a 61-foot custom sport-fisherman, says he has had days where two half-day charter trips produced a total of 28 sailfish releases for his customers. "As recently as January 2016, fishing 6 or 7 miles south of our inlet, we saw 30 sails while trolling," Bell says.

Capt. Justin Rieger, who has run private boats up to 60 feet, fishes out of Jensen Beach, Florida, and also attests to the prolific sailfish fishery. Like Bell and other Stuart captains, he prefers to troll for sails using dredges but isn’t afraid to mix ­tactics either.

“Stuart is a combination of north and south: trolling dead bait and kite-fishing,” Rieger says. “I feel that covering ground is a much more efficient way to fish than kite-fishing, which is more like drifting and dreaming.” The standard setup is a chin-weighted ballyhoo armed with a circle hook and often rigged on light fluorocarbon leaders, enticing bites from sharp-eyed sails. Twenty- and 30-pound-class tackle is perfect for just about anything that swims off Stuart, short of a blue marlin in the Gulf Stream or a swordfish in the depths.

rufus wakeman dredge fishing stuart florida
Rufus Wakeman dredge-fishes effectively for sailfish from a smaller boat. He deploys a multi-armed dredge from a downrigger rather than an electric reel.Pat Ford

Pick Your Seasons

Bell says sailfish can be caught year-round off Stuart, but the best time is mid-November through mid- to late February. “We also have a few weeks in the summer where we seem to get some good sailfish action,” Bell says. “Someone will catch eight or 10 a day.”

Rieger says February is his favorite month because, in addition to sailfish, anglers can catch permit, cobia and dolphin. Bell says April and May are the best months for catching big dolphin. “There are a lot of 20- and 30-pound fish,” he says, “and there’s always a chance of catching a couple of sails too,” he says.

Trolling for sailfish off Stuart is most ­effective because of the relatively flat bottom. “It’s 60 feet forever,” says Capt. Rufus Wakeman, of Jensen Beach, who pulls dredges for sailfish on his 31-foot Jupiter.

captain mike croke, stuart, florida
Capt. Mike Croke explains that trolling with dredges and dead bait is popular in the Stuart area because it allows teams to cover more water. Just to the south, as the water depths funnel game fish closer to shore, live-bait fishing with kites is the go-to method, especially for sailfish.Captain Mike Croke

Capt. Mike Croke, who runs the 80-foot Viking China Time in Jupiter, Florida, which is just south of Stuart, says there is a dividing line offshore between the two cities. South of that line, live-baiting is the choice of most fishermen. Trolling is best north of that line.

“Stuart has an area between 80 feet of water to 250, maybe 300 feet, and that depth range can probably stretch for 2 to 5 miles,” Croke says. “It funnels down toward the Jupiter area. Off the Loran tower in Hobe Sound, it goes from 80 to 200 feet in less than a mile. So a live-baiter could set up right in the middle of that, and if he can strategically set up his fishing kites, one kite would be to port in 150 to 200 feet, and the other kite would be in 80 to 100 feet. Now they’re covering a lot of different depths.”

Besides the variety, the 51-year-old Bell, who grew up fishing on the eastern shore of Virginia and moved to Stuart in fall 1986, loves that he doesn’t have to run too far to catch those fish. “What really impressed me about living in Stuart was being able to go 6 or 8 miles offshore to catch dolphin and sailfish,” Bell says. “In Virginia, I’d run 25 or 30 miles and often 50 to 60 miles offshore.” The short runs mean that anglers in small boats can get in on the big-game action, and also that those fishing on charters will really get their money’s worth in a day of fishing, rather than spending hours running to the grounds each way.

Another great opportunity for Stuart anglers is the ability to catch a swordfish during the day. Boats that run 20 to 25 miles out of St. Lucie Inlet and then put a bait on the bottom in 1,300 to 1,500 feet of water have an excellent chance of catching a fish weighing 200 or more pounds.

Most daytime swordfish anglers use electric reels to deploy their baits, which can vary from squid or dolphin bellies to a slab of bonito. The reels are filled with 65- or 80-pound braided line topped with 100 feet of 250-pound monofilament line and a short piece of 300-pound mono leader. When a fish hits, anglers can either flip a switch on the reel to retrieve the line or, on some electric reels, manually crank up the fish.

fisherman on boat stuart florida
For anglers seeking blue marlin action in the Bahamas, Stuart offers a good jumping-off point for the 70-mile run to West End on the island of Grand Bahama.Leonard Bryant

Bahamas-bound for Blues, Tuna on the Edge

For anglers seeking blue marlin action in the Bahamas, Stuart offers a good jumping-off point for the 70-mile run to West End on the island of Grand Bahama. From there, says Rieger, it doesn’t take long to reach several other popular Bahamian fishing destinations. “We’re close enough — we can go fishing for a weekend in the Bahamas and go back home,” he says.

Another alternative: the eastern side of the Gulf Stream. Bell frequently runs trips to the east in order to target yellowfin and blackfin tunas, as well as blue and white marlin, dolphin and wahoo.

“The East Side trips are about 15 hours,” Bell says. “We leave at 4:30 in the morning and typically run 65 to 90 miles, trying to arrive at first light and then find the birds working over the tuna schools with the radar. We’re usually on the other side of the Gulf Stream by 55 miles out, so at that point we’ll start looking.

“We catch yellowfins up to 110 pounds, but probably on average they’re 30 to 60 pounds. And there’s always a great chance of catching a marlin.” If his clients want to fish for two or three days, Bell stays in West End or Grand Cay in the Bahamas, which are more convenient to the tuna grounds.

jim fish custom vessel fish on
The 72-foot Jim Smith, Fish On, is one of the many custom vessels built in the Stuart area. Florida boats tend to have less bow flare and a more gentle sheer when compared with those built in North Carolina.John Vance

A Boatbuilding Mecca

More than a fair number of the sport-fishers that fish out front or in the Bahamas these days were built right in Stuart. Whiticar Boat Works got its start there in the late 1940s, and other builders followed suit over the years.

john vance of jim smith tournament boats
John Vance, of Jim Smith Tournament Boats notes that Smith was one of the first builders to fully understand the important correlation between weight and strength in building fast sport-fishing boats. From the start, Smith’s boats were lighter and faster than the competition. A trio of anglers (above) hooks up during the Stuart Sportfishing Club Light Tackle Tournament.John Vance

John Vance, president of Jim Smith Tournament Boats, says Smith had built boats from Jacksonville to Boca Raton before going to Stuart, where he leased a boatbuilding jig to Donny Chason, who started Monterey Marine.

After Smith left Monterey, he opened up his own shop around 1980. Vance says Smith was one of the first to use new epoxy resins for his cold-molded hulls, which consisted of laminated layers of wood veneer.

“Jim was the first guy to really look at the ­construction of sport-fishing boats and say they don’t need to be that heavy,” Vance says, adding that Smith’s lighter boats were doing 30 knots when others were running at 20. “Jim really got it going, then Richard Garlington, Gamefisherman and L&H all did it.”

From Mothership to Tender

Like Smith, Dominick LaCombe of American Custom Yachts also had a Monterey Marine connection. He was vice president of the company, which he left in 1989. In 1992, he built a 58-foot sport-fisherman for the Chouest family from Louisiana, who loved marlin fishing. That boat, named Freedom, went on a world tour, and ­business for ACY took off accordingly.

Needing to expand its boatbuilding facilities, as well as improve its ability to service its boats, the company bought the Monterey facility a few years later. That proved to be a smart decision. General manager Dominick LaCombe Jr. says service makes up 60 to 70 percent of ACY’s business, while new hull construction comprises the remaining 30 to 40 percent. The parent company that owns ACY also has acquired Westport, a yacht builder in Washington state, as well as the Venture line of center consoles, which adds a whole new ­dimension to its business.

“There are not many companies in the world right now that can say they can build the entire fleet for the owner, from the mothership to a custom sport-fisherman to a center console tender, and do it all with the quality we can offer,” LaCombe says.

He also says that ACY’s sport-fishers are lighter and faster than ever before, in part because the boats’ topsides and bridges are all-composite core. “We have much better efficiencies in terms of speed and fuel burn for the performance of the boats because of weight savings,” LaCombe says.

stuart florida boat dock inlet
It’s just a short run from the slip to the inlet from nearly any point in Stuart, with outstanding fishing just beyond (above left).Leonard Bryant

Mark Willis jokes that he's the new kid on the block in Stuart, having finished his first boat, KDM, in 1993. Like Freedom, the boat was an immediate hit, and Willis Marine has been going strong ever since.

“It seems like over the years, my customer base has evolved in the much higher end,” Willis says. “I don’t have a lot of people come to me for simple fish boats. Each one got a little more complicated. Our current project has air-actuated doors and retractable sonar. It’s totally customer-driven. I’m just bending to their demands.”

Computer-aided design also has helped the boatbuilding industry evolve. LaCombe notes that computers have shown that the old-school designers knew what they were doing, and they’ve also enabled builders to tweak their designs. Jim Smith’s Vance says CAD helped streamline production because customers can do a virtual walk-through before the boat is built and pick out everything they want in it.

In addition, all of those storied boatbuilders have ready access to a variety of skilled marine tradesmen and supporting industries who call Stuart home. Experts in carpentry, electronics, refrigeration, engines, propellers, composites and interior design are available to lend a helping hand or troubleshoot particularly vexing issues.

fisherman aboard boat in stuart florida
Stuart-area tournament competition is intense, and understandably so: The pros there are credited with designing and fishing the first dredges, and they know how to use them effectively.Leonard Bryant

“Stuart is a great place to live and also to build boats,” Willis says. “The area has a wonderful year-round climate for the paints and epoxies that we use. Up north, like in New Jersey, they have to use heated buildings. We don’t have to do that here.”

That pleasant weather also attracted captains like Bell, who came south from Virginia for the winter fishing season and never left. That’s a major attraction for snowbound northern anglers seeking the opportunity to not only go fishing in the middle of winter, but to also have a chance at catching memorable game-fish species, from sailfish just off the beach to swordfish to blue marlin and tuna in the Gulf Stream and the Bahamas.

Add in a Who’s Who of incredibly talented custom boatbuilders who continue to pioneer sport-fishing designs, and that makes Stuart, Florida, the perfect prescription to cure a case of those wintertime blues.