Proverbial oceans of time had passed since I'd been in blue water pursuing sailfish. I'd hunted, captured, and released hundreds of the spindlebeaks with the unrelenting ferocity that made me sure I'd never stop. But I did, in favor of the sandy shallows countless moons ago. Whatever currents and forces move the lives of men and fish is what I suspect urged me oceanward once again; but I can't be certain. It wasn't even a matter of "pez vela's" absence making the heart grow fonder. I simply wanted to fish for them again.
And the best homecoming season for any sailfisher in Florida was winter, when the frosty winds of fronts from faraway humped up the waters in and around the Gulf Stream with southbound, mean-intentioned winds. While these icy blasts were the very bane of the flats from Miami to Key West, they were the needed spark plug tonic that brought the sailfish to the same area up out of the cobalt blue azure deeps. In a few words, I was glad that my hunger for sailfish woke up in December.
Embarking on a sailfish tale gave me the opportunity to ask Capt. Gil Gutierrez to be the guide on this one-day project. I'd met him as a working co-captain on the Dave Kostyo story. It was obvious on that tarpon quest that Gil was a passionate expert. My introduction to "G"'s vessel was a stunner: it was a spiffed-out, gleaming 32-foot Contender with twin 250 Verados. The rig shouted "coolest kid on the block", but Gil gave it the substance to match the form. So I asked...and he accepted — excellent!
We set the date for two weeks time and I was to meet him 9 a.m. at T.N.T. Marina where he docks his vessel. The civil and downright humane nature of the meeting time made me recall that sailfishing often flourishes in the brightest hours of daylight.
The day of my trip with Gil dawned as a clear blue dome redolent with high pressure and southeast winds of 10 mph. Sailfish purists no doubt could easily prefer to venture out into front-tossed seas. These very conditions became our first talking point when I climbed aboard Gil's well-appointed Contender. Fortunately, Gil was quite confident that despite these almost tropical conditions we'd still easily score on sailfish. He mentioned that at least some of the current large quantities of sails off Miami Beach would still be feeding-even if the winds pushed from another quadrant.
The distance from T.N.T. marina and the open ranges of north Biscayne Bay was perhaps a brief ten minutes. Gil immediately spotted some diving birds about 100 yards away and asked me to steer his vessel as he pulled out his casts net to catch live bait for the day. I reflected that any kind of live "whitebait" for this drift and/or anchor fishery was as seemingly precious as treasure coins salvaged from the deeps. As we pulled abreast of two center console vessels working the bait, Gil's depth recorder indicated broken masses of forage fish in ten feet of water. He kept the Lucky Vee moving past wheeling birds and said that the bait schools would be more dense and less pressured in the deeper waters of the channel another hundred yards to the east.
Sure enough, Gil's depth finder/fish finder soon lit up with some dense red/orange displays of large bait schools below the boat in 15 feet of water. The first throw of his cast net struck such a large wad of bait that he had the happy difficulty of pulling on a huge "bag" of large live pilchards. As the end of the net came over the gunnel, I heard the sizzling and snapping of baitfish as they were lowered and shaken into one of Gil's huge livewells. All it took was three more tosses of Gil's net to provide us with more live bait and chum than we could ever possibly need.
Gil eased his vessel into Haulover Inlet. After carefully checking the seas, and inlet itself for wave patterns and nearby boat traffic, he pushed down the throttles. Five hundred horses whinnied and pushed the Lucky Vee into a jet-assisted takeoff. As we flew eastward, Gil pointed to an aggregation of boats about 2 miles northeast of the inlet. He said, "Let's start out with a few kings and such." Our warp speed got us to this fleet in no time.
Gil circled the boats on an outside perimeter track and saw many of the vessels hooked up. When he was satisfied with our boat's position, Gil slowed his vessel to idle speed, then neutral. He asked me to man the helm as he slowly paid out anchor line in about one hundred feet of water. Once we were tight on the anchor, Jim grabbed two 12-pound spinning rods from the rod racks, an arsenal that was filled with a variety of high-end, spotless tackle. One rod was rigged "free" with a short wire leader and the other was rigged similarly, but with the addition of a small sinker. He baited up each rig with a belly-hooked horse pilchard and we each played line out on one of the rigs. In a moment, he put his rig into a rod holder and netted some more pilchards, which went over the stern as gunnel-bounced "stun baits" or net-tossed as frantic livies.
After about the fifth net of live chum was released astern, we saw a few explosions and braced for strikes, which quickly came. As the drags screamed, Gil said, "kings." From experience, I was sure he was right. We both had fish of about ten pounds to the boat in five minutes and then released them. I made my second presentation with the weighted rig, which came tight within a minute. The rod heeled over, but without the screeching run. Both of us were enjoying the surprise of what the fish would be. After two or three minutes, some vague ascending yellow patch surrounded by the azure blue of the ocean let us know we had a yellowtail snapper. When I got the fish to the surface, it was a plump "flag" of about 3 pounds, which promptly went into the livewell for dinner. After releasing a few more kingfish, I told Gil I was satisfied with this action, but was craving a sailfish. He set up lifting his anchor with the customary float system and as I idled forward he pulled the line, chain, and anchor in hand over hand atop the corner of the gunnel and stern.
Gil ran about a mile south and began to set up a drift in hundred twenty feet of water. He baited a "free" and a lightly weighted 20-pound outfit spinning outfit with a lip-hooked pilchard and these were deployed on the upwind side of the vessel. When Gil attempted to raise the kite on the downwind side, it was clear that he'd be having difficulty in seas and winds that were becoming becalmed: we'd have to settle with the two drift baits. Gil began to throw live chum at our drift baits. While they got nervous, we had no strikes in fifteen minutes.
Gil said, "let's move." We ran south a few miles, which put us almost due east of the Green and Blue Diamond buildings. Gil rebaited both rigs, and we repeated the same procedure. On the second toss of live chum, the free bait jumped out of the water in panic as a black stiletto of a bill danced a deadly predatory samba below in a mad thrash of feeding. As my bait fell back in the sea, I waited for the strike, which came instantly. Since the outfits were rigged with circle hooks, I simply let the rod come down as the fish hooked itself. When the sailfish felt the sting of the hook and the line pressure, it went into a mad series of greyhounding leaps with a full-blown, opened-out fan of a dark blue sail. It then ran across the surface for a hundred yards with the speed of an Indie racecar. Gil started the engines and we followed the fish to gain more line and give us more line control by shortening the distance. The sails' second series of leaps revealed red hues that fight or flight emotions had painted on its flanks. These next bunch of jumps tired the fish even more and it slowly began to do a slow surface tailbeat across the surface fifty feet off the bow. The next ten minutes revealed a back and forth battle of the sailfish surging and leaping, both of which were met with my bowing the rod so the hook would not tear free. With steady pressure, I had the fish alongside the vessel in five more minutes. I had my camera already out on the center console so the pose, and "breathing" release were accomplished in no time.
It was barely an hour into our day and we had met success. What would the rest of the day offer us? That's another story!