Toothy critters and those with long bills are on tap for light tackle and fly rod anglers. Chill winds and cool waters put a damper on traditional flats fishing for bonefish, permit and tarpon. But who cares when there are chances to chase sporty blacktip sharks or sailfish. The sharks, averaging 40 to 80 pounds on the flats, are speedy athletic fish that will take to the air when hooked. One friend refers to them as “tarpon with teeth.” Beyond the reef, sailfish are cavorting in lumpy winter seas and although usually caught on live bait, a few diehards entice the blue and silver billfish with artificial flies and fly rods.
Catching a flats shark means chumming. Butterfly fileted barracudas or jack crevalles are hung over the side on the edge of a bank or flat where a good current carries the scent. Cruising sharks will hit the scent trail and home in on the source. When aggressive, it is not unusual for the predators to start chewing on the boatside carcasses. One key to success is to let the sharks get lit up before presenting a fly, lure, or chunk of bait on a hook. Contrary to the “Jaws” stereotype, sharks can be very cautious and refuse your finest offerings – they’re not exactly the brainless eating machines of popular fiction. Your chances of success go up when more than one shark appears as competition always makes them more willing to bite.
Fly rodders concoct sizeable bright orange and red flies tied with plenty of flash. The flies are attached to single strand wire leaders (around 50-pound test) and connected to a mono leader with an Albright knot. As sharks don’t have great eyesight, the fly needs to be presented just to the side and by their eyes. Enticing a visible toothy eat 35 feet from your boat is exciting. Sharks will also take plug lures and if the artificials won’t turn the trick (as often is the case), a chunk of flesh from the fileted ’cuda or jack on a circle hook and wire leader should work. Blacktips are No. 1 but a big lemon will pull awful hard; try to ignore the sluggish nurse sharks. Sometimes BIG sharks – bulls or tigers – will appear in shallow water. If you’re a glutton for punishment, try the fly rod or light spinning gear. Otherwise enjoy watching the big predators up close waiting for a more manageable-sized critter.
Sailfish are now here in good numbers too. Islamorada hosted the 14th Sailfly Tournament in January – 20 teams competing to catch sails on flies and fly rods. It’s done routinely in the Pacific off Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Panama. However, our Atlantic sails seem to have a higher IQ and are difficult to fool with a fly. The trick is to lure the sails close to the boat with live bait and hookless ballyhoo, let the fish get a taste then yank it away, and put a ballyhoo fly where the real bait had been. If the sail gets mad about losing its meal, it will pounce on the fly and game on. Most of the participants were from Islamorada but one Marathon team joined the fray aboard Capt. Mike Biffel’s Big Dawg: Mike, Capt. Ariel Medero, mate Andrew “Ace” Hunter, Jim Reed, and me. Day one of the tournament featured horrible weather – 25 to 30 knot winds, seas to 8 feet, thick clouds, low 60’s and persistent rain; we were dressed in fleece and foul weather gear looking like Alaska king crabbers. Even so we raised a couple of sails that looked at our flies. Day two was much improved and we got four more sails to look but none to bite. Brian Devries and Jesse Leboeuf, fishing on Capt. Rob Dixon’s Challenger II, won with three sails. The second place team caught one and 18 teams tied for “third” with zero. Honorable mention went to 13-year-old Erik Perna of New Smyrna Beach, the youngest angler, who hooked and lost a fly rod sail on the Fishn Pole captained by Erik Wokcek.
For easier rod bending action, Gulf and Bay banks and flats are full of winter piscatorial visitors: bluefish, pompano, sea trout, ladyfish, jacks, and Spanish mackerel. But spring is right around the corner; spotted the year’s first big tarpon on January 21 before they got chased back to the deep by another cold front. In a few weeks, “laid up” poons will pop up in the Gulf and Bay whenever we get a couple of warm days and light southerly breezes.