ISLAMORADA, Fla. Early Saturday morning Caribsea captain Kenny Spaulding knew he'd found the right formula to win the two-day ESPN Outdoors Saltwater Series Redbone Don Gurgiolo Sailfish Classic. Spaulding was trolling with ballyhoo for bait.
"Once we figured out what they wanted to eat, we stuck with it," Spaulding said.
He had several other live bait species on board, including goggle-eyes and cigar minnows. But Spaulding never put one of those on a hook over the next two days.
"Ballyhoo are sailfish candy," said Spaulding, 37, representing a third generation of Florida Keys guides in his family. He and his brother, Benny, were working as mates on board their father's boat when Kenny was 12. He got his captain's license when he turned 18 years old.
T.J. and Becky Hopson of nearby Tavernier formed the Caribsea team on Spaulding's boat over the weekend. They easily took the tournament title with 17 caught-and-released sailfish.
"We had 20 fish on before noon (Saturday)," Spaulding said. "We knew we were on the right pattern."
And unlike most of the other 14 boats in this tournament, Spaulding was straight-line trolling, instead of using kites to drift bait behind his boat.
"You have to be versatile out there," Spaulding said. "But once you find out what they want, there's no use trying something else."
When fishing slowed down in the Conch Reef area, where Spaulding spent most of his fishing time over the weekend, he did try trolling ballyhoo under kites Sunday afternoon. He saw a couple of other boats catch sailfish with that method, and finally switched.
But Caribsea didn't land another sailfish Sunday, and they didn't need to, finishing with a five-fish lead over second place Kalex.
Kites or no kites
So why would Spaulding choose not to fish with kites when almost every other boat in the tournament was doing so?
"I'm able to maneuver a lot quicker without them," Spaulding said. "I'm able to cover a lot more area.
"When you see a bird swooping down, I can get to that spot quicker."
And birds are definitely a key focus for sailfishing captains. When various bird species are diving down to the water, they're feeding on baitfish. And those baitfish are usually part of a school that sailfish or another gamefish has pushed to the surface to feed upon as well.
Man O' War are good sign
Bob Rich attempted sending hand signals several times Saturday afternoon to the big, kite-like birds that sailed near the kites flying behind his 45-foot fishing boat. He was jokingly trying to direct the birds to the area where his baits were trolled.
"They're almost a sure sign of fish," Rich explained.
Indeed, just like sea gulls and other species of pelagic piscivores, the Man O' War's feeding habits usually signal a school of baitfish is near the surface. And where ever baitfish are near the surface, a sailfish is likely to be close by.
The Man O' War is also known as a frigatebird or pirate bird. The Keys are about as far north as these unusual birds venture. They are related to pelicans, and they have wingspans of similar length.
But the Man O War is distinctively different. It has a long forked tail, and the bird can't land on the water because it can't fly from any flat surface. Its light weight and stream-lined body allows it to stay in the air for as much as seven days at a time.
The fastest fish in the sea
It's no wonder that sailfish are such a prized angling species. They've been clocked at speeds of 68 miles per hour, making them the fastest saltwater fish. And their tendency to put on aerial shows can make landing a sailfish as exciting as catching anything swimming in the sea.
In 1975, the Florida legislature adopted the Atlantic sailfish as the state's official saltwater fish.
Sailfish get their name from their sail-like dorsal fin. The fin usually stays flat along their backs when they are swimming through the sea, but extends when they become excited. They also extend the fin to help herd baitfish to the surface.
Sailfish begin migrating south as water temperatures fall further up the Atlantic coast. And they pile up in the Florida Keys.
"We've had some cold weather earlier in the fall than usual," said captain Alex Adler, who guided the second-place Kalex team. "The migration is about a month ahead of schedule."