Florida's wintertime bite is highly dependent on current. Dynamic wind and water conditions produce upwellings and faster moving currents in the winter months. These oceanic influences can produce outstanding sailfish action as well as wahoo, king mackerel and blackfin tuna from Key West to Sebastian Inlet.
When it comes to physical signs, water quality is priority one in the Keys, said Capt. Brad Simonds of the 43-foot charter boat Southpaw. Simonds looks for current over bottom structure and wrecks off of Key West. Located further east and closer to the Gulf Stream, clean blue water is more common off Islamorada to the north. This differs from Key West where greenish water from the Gulf of Mexico's Loop Current can push in toward the lower Florida Keys. When looking for fish, Simonds is not as concerned with temperature breaks as he is with water clarity and bait. "The presence of bait and color changes is what matters here," he says.
In south Florida, crews find sailfish from October to early spring wherever ballyhoo is present. That's true off Islamorada as well. "Trolling is typical early in the season," Simonds says. "From December on we look for showering ballyhoo on the edge of the reefs."
The area's blackfin tuna fishery is one of the best in the world. Off Key West, Marathon and Islamorada catching a dozen blackfin tuna to 25 pounds while chumming live bait is typical. Hot spots include the Islamorada Hump, the Boca Grande bar in 120 feet and the nearby Sub Wreck in 240 feet of water.
Fishing off of Key West, Simonds encounters wahoo to 50 pounds on a full moon at first light with an easterly current. Fishing near-shore wrecks in 120 to 300 feet with a current edge and live bait often results in multiple hookups. Trolling swimming baits such as ballyhoo with an Iland lure or Sea Witch or deep-running plugs or spoons may allow you to cover more ground but live speedos or redtail scad is what Simonds prefers.
Caught throughout the Keys on reef lines and patch reefs in 20 to 150 feet, speedos bite best in clean water with current on chum lines. Catch them with hoop nets, quill rigs, bait-tipped gold hooks or light spinners with fluorocarbon leaders and hooks tipped with ballyhoo chunks. Minimal handling is required to keep the baits in good shape. Use a dehooker and drop the the fish right into a livewell without handling the fish.
The physical signs that Miami captain Ray Rosher of Miss Britt charters keys in on are color changes. "Color changes are transition points between inshore and the offshore Gulf Stream water," Rosher says. "These water boundaries or edges hold the bait that attracts sailfish between the upper Keys and Fort Pierce."
Bait and sailfish are not always in blue water, they can be on the green side of the edge too, according to Rosher. Networking with other captains, finding out where they are seeing fish, and monitoring chlorophyll charts helps pinpoint potential hot spots.
"Sailfish are communal, where there is one, there are others. Anytime you see a free-jumper or a tailing fish, that warrants further inspection," Rosher says.
Like trout, sailfish swim into the current to ambush their prey. Once Rosher finds where sailfish are holding, he often drifts and fishes bait off of kites, covering the water column from the surface to as deep as 60-feet. On days when the fish are in dirty water, deep baits produce the most bites. When they're feeding in blue water with a light chop, bites happen within the top 20 feet of the water column.
Jupiter, Florida-based Capt. Wink Doerzbacher focuses on physical conditions when hunting winter sails from the Palm Beaches to Sebastian Inlet. "Here the bottom does not fall off as quick as it does further south where they'll concentrate in a narrow area," Doerzbacher says. "Off Palm Beach you hit 120 feet a mile off the inlet. At Stuart 120 feet is five miles offshore. With the fish spread out, it makes them harder to find."
Sailfish can bite on any wind direction but they bite best kicks off when cold fronts approach and the wind goes from northwest to north and northeast.
"Water temperature is not a big factor but a temperature change of a quarter or more degree suggests a current edge where bait and sailfish congregate," said Doerzbacher.
Aside from temperature breaks, current edges can be marked by a line of scattered grass or color change. Like many captains, he prospects both sides of the color change, working a grid pattern until he gets a bite. After that, tight turns are the order of the day to produce multiple sailfish hookups.
This FishTrack chart of the Florida Keys shows the Gulf Stream edge and color breaks into cleaner blue water.