By Jono Booysen
(Originally published in March 2021 issue of SKI-BOAT magazine)
FOR many anglers, the sailfish is the ultimate light tackle billfish to catch. Their beauty and exciting aerial displays are something that no one can forget; ask any angler and they will be able to tell you, in detail, what their first sailfish catch was like.
Over the past few years during October and November there has been a phenomenal run of sailfish in the area between Cape Vidal and St Lucia. This stretch of the coast has long been nicknamed “Sailfish Alley”, and for good reason. In my opinion, this is the best place and time in South Africa to give yourself a really good chance of ticking a sailfish off your bucket list. The sheer number of fish has been mind-boggling, with several boats releasing five fish a day. The best numbers I know of were in 2019 when At van Tilburg’s Avanti released 14 sailies in four days (five, three, four, two). Other boats had bumper days with three and four fish being relatively common.
There is a commonly held belief that you need a big boat, long outriggers and a bunch of rubber and plastic paraphernalia splashing in your wake to have even the slightest chance at catching a sailfish. That might be the case in some parts of the world, but as they say, “this is Zululand, not Disneyland” and our fish don’t read the same books as we do, nor do they play by the same rules as their international counterparts.
LEFT: Jono Booysen with his 36.7kg sailfish caught on 3kg line — an All Africa and SA record
What is interesting is that the majority of these fish are caught “by accident” while targeting the shoals of dorado arriving with the first wave of warm currents. Boats targeting sailfish in the traditional way — pulling teasers and baits off outriggers — didn’t produce the results one would expect. This is what makes these few weeks of the year very special — anyone who puts out to sea, regardless of the type of vessel, has a realistic chance at catching a sailfish … by accident.
I have found that the most productive way of catching these sailfish is by targeting dorado. This might seem a bit strange, but dorado and sailfish are basically the same thing except for their colour and the obvious pointy section. They are both shoaling species with extremely fast growth rates, which equates to fierce internal competition for food. This means that where there is one, there are normally more, so if you hear of someone hooked up, work the same depth and you’ll probably bump into one. Neither species have sharp teeth, so their feeding habits are similar, hence the angling techniques are practically identical.
My favourite bait to use is undoubtedly livebait, specifically maasbanker and mackerel. They are hardy baits that can be pulled for hours and the sailfish love them. There are some days that livies are hard to come by, but believe me, it is well worth the effort.
At this point you might be thinking: “Hold on … you can’t troll a livebait at the same speed as lures and teasers, can you?” And the answer is that you are correct. What makes this fishery great is that the vast majority of the sailfish are caught slow trolling these livies, so you don’t have that massive fuel bill at the end of the day and no expensive lures or imported hook rigs to replace. It’s a win-win situation.
There are two ways you can approach the bait rigging aspect of this unorthodox sailfishing method. One option is to go with a traditional ’cuda trace with wire and treble hooks. Hundreds of sailies have been caught this way and there will be hundreds more caught this way in the future; it is a very simple but effective way of snagging them when they take a bait. There are a few negatives to this method, though. Wire has a tendency to kink very easily and many an acrobatic sailfish has parted off when wire breaks. When this happens, the fish goes off with a mouthful of hooks that often prevent it from opening its mouth to breathe or feed, leaving the fish to suffocate or starve.
This brings me to my preferred way of rigging livies for sailfish. Seeing as there are normally not that many ’cuda around, but a lot of dorado, I opt to use an all-nylon leader rig. This makes my setup a lot simpler and easier to replace than having to put on a new wire rig after every fish. The bait has a much more natural appearance on nylon, and when I get a sailfish hooked, the leader does not kink off. I have tried using flouro, but the sailies tend to feel the hard leader and don’t commit to swallowing the bait like they do with the softer nylon.
From my main line I tie on a short double line and join 3- to 4m of 60 lb clear nylon. From there, I tie a short “bite trace” of 80- to 10 lb clear nylon onto which I then snell a light gauge Eagle Claw 7/0 circle hook. To rig the bait, I take a 25mm section of dacron and burn each end with a lighter. Pass the hook point through the side of one end of the dacron, making sure it slides over the barb of the hook. Push a small cable tie through the other end of the dacron. This cable tie is pushed through the channel above the eye socket and secured. It helps to cut the end of the cable tie at an angle before passing it through the dacron and the bait. When the bait is rigged like this, it swims beautifully and has a great hookup rate.
When trolling these baits I use a very loose drag — just enough to prevent the bait from taking line. Spinning reels are great for this kind of fishing. Once the bait is in position, leave the bale open and hook the line over a piece of copper wire. This acts like your finger holding the line before a cast. Just be sure to keep an eye on the rods as there is no ratchet to warn you of a strike.
A spread of four surface baits is used, but I always have one skelm ’cuda trace on a big sinker downstairs just in case. One bait is sent back about 40m while the others are within 20m of the boat. These baits are relatively small so their profile in the water can’t be seen from too far away. The bait needs to be pulled almost over a sail’s nose for it to be seen, so to help attract the sailfish (and dorado) and turn their heads in my bait’s direction, I use a trick that I have only recently let out the bag — I use a slow trolling flasher a short distance behind the boat. I would say that 90% of the fish come up to it and then see the baits.
When slow trolling for sails, I use one motor at about 900- to 1 000rpm depending on the weather. You don’t want the lines hanging down past the motors, because then you are too slow, but if the baits are skipping on the surface, you’re going too fast. You are looking for a happy medium speed. I find the best indicator of speed is the one skelm deep line I have on a 16 oz sinker. The line angle should be about 45 degrees from the rod tip to the water. When we have tailing conditions I often drift with the nose of the boat into the current and the stern into the wind. This way you can still have steerage to cover ground, but present your baits naturally.
A sailfish strike is rather subtle compared to other gamefish. More often than not, the bait will rev for quite a while, then the reel will run fairly slowly. This is when the sailie has come up to the bait, caught it and is just hanging there busy swallowing it. The speed of the boat is pulling most of the line off the reel. Only once the bait is down the hatch does the fish pick up speed again. Knowing this, when the reel starts to run, release the drag and allow the fish to feed for five- to seven seconds, then put up the drag and wind up the slack, allowing the circle hook to do its job. If you miss the fish, feed the bait back again as the sailie is almost certainly going to take it again.
The other beauty of slow trolling is that when you intercept a pod of sails, your baits remain in the strike zone for much longer than if you were trolling at the traditional five knots. This means you have an excellent chance at multiple hookups. Doubles, triples and quads are standard procedure when slow trolling, and as long as everyone keeps their cool you have a good change at catching them all.
With regards to depth, I like anything from 20- to 35m. The trick is to find the line on which the fish are feeding. Look for the bait showings, whale activity, current lines and other gamefish activity. Listen to the radio and you will quickly hear where to focus your efforts.
Unfortunately, the best sailfishing weather is normally the most uncomfortable for fishermen. Basically, what I’m saying is if you want to get a sailfish, don’t be a fair-weather fisherman; no pain no gain. I look for a south-westerly wind of 15- to 20 knots, a swell of around 1.5- to 2m from the south, and a good north to south current of two or three knots. There are most often a few rain clouds around as well, but this doesn’t seem to bother the fish. Throw in a 23- to 25°C water temperature and you are in for a great day.
When these conditions present themselves, several things happen. First, the sea surface is oxygenated by the white-capping chop, making fish more active. Second, the SW wind brings in good clean water over the grounds making visibility into the baits much better. Third, the southerly swell and north to south current causes “tailing conditions” where sailfish surf down the swell, into the current, using very little energy yet covering ground while hunting. These conditions work brilliantly, especially when there is a tide change happening (high or low).
Don’t get despondent when all the boats around you are hooked up to sails and you’re not, because your chance will come; it’s just a matter of time and perseverance. If you use the above info as a guideline, and the conditions are right you too will experience the magic of “sailfish alley”.