The annual winter sailfish migration off Stuart makes it one of sportfishing's most notable destinations. It's a reputation this sleepy little town on Florida's southeastern coast has enjoyed for over a century.
It happens like clockwork, usually starting in early November: cold fronts sweeping down from the mid-Atlantic push gusty north/northeast winds through Stuart and the sails come piling down an imaginary highway just off the coast like snowbirds headed for the early bird buffet at Golden Corral. It's called Sailfish Alley, and Stuart is the jumping-off point for anyone looking to score big. One skipper that's seen it all is Stuart native Capt. James Ewing. He's fished professionally for 15 years and at the helm of the legendary charterboat Bone Shaker for the last 18 months.
"Our sailfish season starts in November and runs through the end of February," he says. "The fishing's usually pretty good but it's definitely better when the wind blows and it's rough. That's when the sails start tailing and the bite turns on."
According to Ewing, as of mid-December the fish were located in the 120- to 160-foot (35-50 meter) depth range about six miles straight offshore from Stuart, although sometimes a longer run up or down the coast is required to produce bites. Ewing prefers the north to northeast wind, which produces rough conditions as it blows against the north-flowing Gulf Stream, but it's not uncommon for boats to rack up impressive release numbers, especially when tournament fishing.
"Our sailfish spread is pretty straightforward," Ewing says. "We start with two double dredges on either side and run a squid chain or two from the bridge depending on how windy it is. We use 20-pound test tackle on custom rods, 50-pound test leader and 6/0 circle hooks on small ballyhoo. Four are naked and one bait is skirted. This is pretty much our year-round spread, although if we start getting wahoo bites we'll put a skirted ballyhoo deep on a planer." This time of year is also prime time for quality-sized blackfin tuna, the aforementioned wahoo and a few dolphin as well.
Finding the fish can be a challenge, depending largely on the weather and currents. Sometimes the sails will be stacked up along a particular depth range, sticking tightly to a narrow lane as they move south along the coast. But, frustratingly, they can also be scattered across an expanse of water that can be miles wide. It's one reason why boats here prefer to troll rather than use the South Florida style of fishing live baits suspended from kites. Most believe that the dredge, an umbrella-shaped contraption that mimics a bait ball, was invented in the Stuart sailfish fishery. Nearly every boat fishing here will be pulling two of these heavily-weighted fish magnets.
Mixing It Up
Although they receive top billing, the spindlebeaks aren't the only game in town. As the season progresses through February into spring, the cobia start showing up in appreciable numbers. "We'll ride the beach looking for cobia until around April or so," Ewing says, "and we also find them on an edge with the rays. It's an exciting way to sight-fish for them. We also start doing more bottom fishing that time of year, especially on the calm days." Ewing prefers not to anchor the boat but rather hold the Bone Shaker in place under power, no easy feat on days with tall seas or a ripping current.
From May through the summer, the Bone Shaker starts running trips ranging well off the coast in search of yellowfin tuna and the occasional blue marlin. "We leave the dock long before sunrise on those trips," he says, "and start looking for birds on the radar at around 65 miles. We have to stay 12 miles off the Bank [which is considered Bahamian territory] so we angle our course to stay legal." In addition to finding the big tunas it's possible to encounter big gaffer-sized dolphin in the mix too.
Late summer and fall off Stuart mean a mixed bag, from bottom fishing for grouper, snapper and cobia to blackfin tuna, dolphin and wahoo on the troll. Ewing also reports a good run of wahoo in August. "I don't know why but we always seem to do pretty well on them that time of year," he says. "Some guys high-speed troll but we prefer to just put one bait down on a planer--this gives us the chance to catch other species with our normal spread."
Off the water, one of the coolest area attractions is the Florida Oceanographic Society, located on nearby Hutchinson Island. The 57-acre property houses a gamefish lagoon, stingray and sea turtle displays, touch tanks, nature trails and much more--it's a great place for kids to learn more about the underwater world. Stuart also boasts outstanding restaurants and saloons so it's a great spot to get your eat and drink on after a long day offshore.
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Bone Shaker Charters
Capt. James Ewing