• Published:January 12, 2016
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Being able to adapt to conditions is critical when it comes to catching sailfish. Captain Art Sapp and his crew aboard Liquid demonstrated just how rewarding a change in game plan can be during the 2016 Silver Sailfish Derby, the world's oldest sailfish tournament. The Hillsboro, Florida-based team bested a field of 36 other boats in the contest, which has been hosted by the West Palm Beach Fishing Club since 1935.

Winning the prestigious billfishing event was a dream come true for this year’s winners.  

“I've fished a lot of tournaments, but its the Derby that I have always wanted to win the most. This has been a long time coming and is really special for us,” said Liquid team member Keith McDonald.   


Prior to the start of this year’s tournament, sailfish action off of Palm Beach had been extremely slow. A week of summer-like weather that saw temperatures in Palm Beach County climb into the mid-80s was great for visiting tourists, but bad for those seeking sailfish. Derby anglers had their hopes raised when a cold front pushed through south Florida a few days before the tournament. Rough sea conditions, temperatures in the high 50s and a northerly wind shuffled the deck offshore and filled Derby anglers with anticipation.   

A foggy day with 5- to 7-foot seas and a healthy northeast ground swell greeted the Derby fleet on the first day. As the day progressed, the seas began to subside and temperatures began to rise.  Team Reel Captivating, led by Captain Tore Turney, jumped to an early lead, registering the first fish of the Derby and several others soon after. The team would finish the day with six releases overall, as did Good Call led by Capt. Matt Alligood. It soon became clear that the best sailfish bite was taking place in the northern reaches of the tournament boundary. Reel Easy, captained by Derby veteran Chip Sheehan, ended up taking top boat honors with seven releases on day one. Boats reported seeing lots of bait and clean water offshore in the Stuart area.

The heaviest meat fish on the first day was a 26.3-pound cobia landed by angler Mike Donohue of Wilmington, Delaware, aboard the Griffin with Capt. John Adams at the helm. Unfortunately, the short-lived drop in temperature did not yield the sailfish action most anglers were looking for. A total of 68 sails were released the first day of fishing. A total of 30 of the 37 boats in the fleet registered at least one sailfish release.


Nearly every boat in the Derby fleet headed north on the final day of fishing. Seas had subsided considerably, but a significant groundswell remained. For the dozen boats at the top of the leaderboard, it was anybody’s tournament to win.

“When the fishing is slow it doesn’t take many fish to climb up the scoreboard in hurry," said WPBFC chairman and official Derby radioman Pete Schulz from Fishing Headquarters tackle shop in Jupiter. "A double or a triple can shoot you to the top.”  

Pete’s words proved to be right on the mark. Several Derby boats were all making big moves on Day Two, ascending the leaderboard. Among them was Goin’ Raptor, led by Capt. Will Sabayarac, last year’s Derby champs Wrenegade captained by Jim Garner, Lady Lane led by Capt. Robert ‘Fly’ Navarro and 2010 Derby champions, team Double Take led by Capt. Mike Laufle. Double Take angler Mike Causley would end up earning the Top Daily Angler Award with three releases.  


Also rising to the top on day two was team Liquid. After having caught only two sails the first day, Liquid decided to deviate from their their plan early on the final day.

“When the wind dropped out we had trouble flying the kites," said Capt. Art Sapp. "In fact, we never caught a single fish off the kite on the second day. We were seeing fish, but just couldn’t get the bites. So we decided to switch it up and start chasing the bait sprays and free-jumpers we were seeing.”

The tactical change to run-and-gun style sight-casting paid off. Team Liquid finished the day with nine sailfish releases, claiming the Top Daily Boat award and earning the title of Silver Sailfish Derby Champions. It was one of the best comebacks in recent Derby history and underscores the value of being able to adapt to changing conditions.


With 11 sailfish releases in the tournament, Liquid won the Top Boat Overall Trophy. Joining them in the Derby winner’s circle was Second Place Boat Overall Reel Easy with 10 sailfish. Third Place Overall was Griffin with eight releases on time and Fourth Place Overall was Good Call with eight releases. The top individual angler was H. Wesley Schwandt of Wilmington, Delaware, fishing aboard the Griffin. Schwandt released five sailfish to win the coveted Mrs. Henry Rea Trophy, one of the crown jewels in the world of competitive billfishing.  

“This is a huge honor for Wesley and our team. We’re thrilled to now be a part of the rich history of this event,” said Capt. John Adams.  

Second Place Angler Overall was 16-year-old Timmy Maddock, Jr., of Pompano Beach aboard the Reel Easy. Third Place Angler Overall was Good Call team member Mark Wodlinger of Naples with four releases on time. Fourth Place Angler Overall was Erik Waldin of Palm Beach fishing on Wrenegade with four releases on time. Sasha Lickle of Palm Beach, also aboard the Wrenegade, posted two individual releases outscoring nearly a dozen other women anglers to claim the Top Lady Angler Trophy. The award is presented in memory of the late Rosemarie Hampp who was an accomplished Derby angler in the 1950s.

Lifetime WPBFC member Mike Simko of Palm Beach Gardens fishing aboard the Captivating landed a 36.5-pound cobia to win the Grand Champion Weight Fish Trophy. Capt. Will Sabayrac, whose team members included his father and brother, guided the Goin’ Raptor to the Top Small Boat Trophy. Capt. Tore Turney and team Reel Captivating took home the Top Tag Team Trophy by tagging four sailfish with The Billfish Foundation tags. Their first tagged sail in this year’s Derby had been dipped in the cremated ashes of former WPBFC member Jim Gill, whom Tore had guided to Derby wins in 2003 and 2007.
While it was an exciting finish for the top dozen boats in the tournament, for the most part the sailfish bite could be characterized as slow when compared to past Derbies, many of which were history making events. But as one veteran angler said, “We can’t set records every year!”  

For more information on the venerable WPBFC and the Silver Sailfish Derby visit,  westpalmbeachfishingclub.org.