12344479476?profile=RESIZE_710xCapt. Mark Lamb runs his fishing boat while a guest fights a sailfish. Photos by Steve Waters/The Coastal Star and provided

By Steve Waters

The cold fronts that sweep through South Florida in January have offshore anglers looking forward to celebrating the New Year by catching sailfish.

Cooler temperatures and blustery winds send the acrobatic billfish swimming south along the Atlantic Coast this time of year. On a good day, it’s not unusual for boats to catch and release 10 or more of the state of Florida’s official saltwater fish. Tournament teams have released dozens of sailfish on a January day.

There have been some incredible catches in the West Palm Beach Fishing Club’s Silver Sailfish Derby, which is Thursday and Friday, Jan. 11-12. In the record-setting 2012 tournament, which was a three-day event, the 46-boat fleet caught and released a total of 1,174 sailfish, an average of more than 25 fish per boat. The top boat finished with 58 releases, including a record 36 sailfish on the first day, when the derby set a one-day record of 659 releases.

The boat Priceless won last year’s derby with a two-day total of 16 sailfish releases, and the fleet caught a total of 223 sailfish.

Although sailfish can be caught by drifting with live sardines or trolling dead ballyhoo, serious sailfish anglers usually fly two fishing kites, each with a variety of baits.

12344493697?profile=RESIZE_710x A sailfish bait is hooked.

As they head offshore, local captains consider a number of factors to determine where to start fishing — everything from water color and clarity to the presence of baitfish and birds.

Capt. Mark Lamb of West Palm Beach likes to kite-fish along a color change, which is where the water goes from green to deep blue.

“I’m going to run out to 100, 120 feet of water and start looking for an edge,” Lamb said. “I’m going to look for a temperature change and bait, like flying fish. I’m going to set up on that edge where the bait is. Put the boat out in the blue water and put your baits out on that edge.”

Top sailfish live baits include goggle-eyes, threadfin herring, pilchards and sardines. The fishing kites are flown behind the boat, and two or three fishing lines are clipped to each kite line to get the baits away from the boat.

On those January days when sailfish are plentiful and biting, it’s not unusual to be fighting three or four fish at a time.

Lamb’s crew constantly adjusts the fishing lines as the kites move up and down with the wind, to keep the baits splashing on the surface. That splashing attracts sailfish as well as kingfish, dolphin, wahoo and tuna.

If the sailfish don’t bite at first, Lamb said, stay put and keep fishing, because they eventually will show up to eat.

12344493284?profile=RESIZE_710xA sailfish puts up a fight as it is reeled in.

“When you have a nice edge and there’s some bait around, don’t move,” Lamb said. “Sometimes you’ve got to be patient and keep fishing rather than run around. In a sailfish tournament, two or three or four fish can change everything in minutes. You’re never out of it in a sailfish tournament.”

The standard tackle for sailfish is a 20-pound conventional outfit with a 15-foot, 30-pound fluorocarbon leader tied to a size 5/0 to 7/0 circle hook.

Successful tournament captains such as Casey Hunt and John Dudas prepare their sailfish leaders and hooks well before they leave the dock to go fishing, and they make sure all of their tackle is in tip-top condition.

“Every single time a line goes in the water, it’s perfect,” said Hunt, who has won billfish tournaments from Florida to the Bahamas to North Carolina. “The hooks, the knots. You’ve got to spend that extra time because that extra time is going to catch you more fish.”

Dudas, who has won countless sailfish tournaments from Palm Beach to the Florida Keys, and whose favorite sailfish bait is a herring, bridles all his kite baits with a rubber band to a 5/0 or 6/0 circle hook. Like Hunt and Lamb, when one of his anglers gets a bite, he has his crew keep the other baits in the water in case more sailfish are around.

“Sit tight, back off the drag and let him swim off,” Hunt said of the first sailfish you hook. “The longer you sit, the better chance you have of getting another bite.”

Lamb has the angler with the first fish move to the bow while he positions the boat so the baits remain in the strike zone.

“If you can get one on and leave the rest of the baits working, the odds of catching a double or triple are probably 80%,” Lamb said.

The Silver Sailfish Derby is sold out. Call 561-832-6780 or visit westpalmbeachfishingclub.org/tournaments/silver-sailfish-derby for more info.

Outdoors writer Steve Waters can be reached at steve33324@aol.com.

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