Florida has some of the finest fishing in the world, and contrary to many opinions it is still part of the United States and relatively simple to get to. If you are traveling to the state and are not a part –time or full time resident here and have no boat then your best bet is to charter one of the fine captains in the area and head offshore for a day of blue water, blue skies and hopefully lots of action. If you have your own boat and have long dreamed about leaving the sheltered waters of the bay and heading offshore in search of the many game fish that call these South Atlantic waters home but are not sure how to get started than this article is for you! If you are an accomplished offshore angler, adept at rigging baits and following thermo clines then pass this by, as you know this stuff already. I mean c’mon! We can write a whole article just on what knots to use!
To start off, ask yourself the question, “am I experienced enough to fish offshore and is my boat adequate for the adventure?” If you are not sure, then do not go offshore, or at least not without an experienced person on board. It is also a very good idea to carry a PLB or personal Locator Beacon, this is a device that when activated will send a signal to the search and rescue teams to come and get you, immediately. The great thing about fishing off the coast of Florida is that you really don’t have to go that far to catch a variety of species such as Sailfish, some Tuna species, King Mackerel, Dolphin and Wahoo to name a few. While there is a resident population of these species present pretty much year round, some times of the year are better than others. I’ll give a brief rundown of the usual suspects.
Sailfish can be had pretty much year round, but the best fishing is usually in the winter and early spring. When South Floridians feel those cold fronts of November and December you can be certain that the Sailfish wont be far behind. You don’t have to run as far offshore as one may think for them, as although they can be caught in almost any depth, they are typically caught between 90 and 200 feet of water. The simple way to catch them (remember this article is for the offshore newbies) is trolling with rigged ballyhoo, place a skirt in front of this and troll a few rods at varying distances behind the boat and you’re in business. When you get a bit more experienced you can also drift live bait such as Pilchard and Goggle eyes and if you really get going you can learn to fish with a kite to dangle your bait on the surface making it an enticing treat for a variety of game fish. Have a pair strong gloves and a pair of pliers to remove the hook while the fish is still in the water and pull him along until he regains strength and watch him swim away. This of course is after you all lean over and take pictures!
Dolphin, also known as Mahi Mahi can be caught year round as well with the best fishing taking place in spring and early summer. The methods used to catch Dolphin are pretty much the same as for sailfish or any of the other species we will mention with the subtle differences primarily coming in depth, color of skirts and thickness of leader or wire line. If you are not skilled at rigging, a newbie to this type of fishing can just purchase rigged ballyhoo at the bait shop and be done with it. Slip a skirt over the rigged bait and go for it! Don’t forget to buy some non rigged bait as well because small to medium sized dolphin travel in schools and if you troll one up, keep him in the water for a bit and look for some of his friends to be lurking near the boat. If so, tie a hook to the end of a line, place a chunk of bait on the hook and you can limit out in just a matter of minutes. Dolphin are usually found in deeper, cleaner blue water, and although they can be caught blind trolling along currents and just about anywhere, they do prefer weed lines and flotsam. Larger dolphin can be caught with live bait under the weed lines and around floating objects trees, cargo pallets and even abandoned crab trap buoys.
King Mackerel or Kingfish as they are sometimes called are another year round resident but as with most of our South Florida Game fish, some seasons are better than others. They can be caught using the same methods as Dolphin or Sailfish but require a wire leader as they can bite through most lines like they were butter. King Mackerel are predominantly found in 60-200 feet of water and tend to hang around structures or changes in the bottom contours which cause current variations. In Summer months when trolling seems to work best you may try using a planer or trolling weight to get your baits down a bit further, but during the spring there is nothing more fun than drifting live baits while listening to some tunes and munching on some chips. If you have trouble finding live bait (pilchards, Pinfish, etc.) dead ballyhoo will produce as well. Wahoo can also be caught in the same areas you fish for all these fish; they are incredible fighters and one of the tastiest fish in the ocean. You would need a bit more expertise to actually target them with bigger rods and lures. To target Wahoo, many anglers do what is know as High Speed trolling, in excess of 12 knots with lures covering the surface and deeper into the water column. Wahoo seem to be most active around the full moon.
As for Tuna, most of the species that you will catch in the areas you can safely fish will be Blackfin Tuna; they are tasty, great fighters and can be part of a mixed bag while fishing for the above-mentioned species. For the bigger Yellowfin Tuna, well, if you are reading this article, you are probably not ready to go out on your own, as they require long-range trips, better equipment, bigger boats and a good crew. But the thrill is amazing as line rips off the reel and you are holding on until that initial run has subsided. When fishing the far offshore trips there is also the possibility of running into a big Blue Marlin or a White Marlin, but that’s for another story!
So, You have some basic information now on how to fish for some of South Florida’s favorite offshore game fish. Keep in mind that in most parts of South Florida the depths you will fish may be only 2-5 miles from shore. Pick out your favorite rods in the 20-50 lb class grab a friend and some rigged baits and head out for a great adventure! A friend once asked me when is the best time of day to catch Sailfish and the others, my reply was quite simple, “anytime you can get out there!”