Captain Justin Moore sails to a first
Chris Estep of central Florida, is a frequent visitor to Anna Maria Island. Estep fishes regularly with Captain Justin Moore, one of Florida's top guides and son of Island icon Captain Scott Moore. Last Tuesday, April 3, after a productive half day of fishing the back waters of Anna Maria Sound, Estep asked Moore about the possibility of heading offshore in search of kingfish and cobia.
Moore obliged, and after working the three mile reef with no success, they headed farther offshore to explore some hard bottom. Limestone outcroppings and ledges in the Gulf are a magnet for baitfish, which, in turn, attract large predators. When they arrived at the location some seven miles off Longboat Pass, Moore spotted a big pod of bait and began fishing the perimeter of the school.
Using a 20-pound spinning rig with 60-pound mono leader, Estep was free lining a live threadfin herring when a sailfish began slashing through the baitfish. Estep's dad was the first to spot the sail as it cruised under the boat, mistaking it for a shark.
Although it was the first sail Moore had encountered, he knew right away what it was. Although he initially missed a strike, Estep was able to hook the big sailfish that the anglers estimated to be between 40 and 50 pounds. After a spirited fight that featured 20 plus jumps and never got more than forty yards from the boat, Moore grabbed the fish's abrasive bill with a gloved hand.
Estep, an experienced angler, also knew how to handle the fish and they were able to take a number of pictures before releasing it in good shape. After a number of high fives they returned to port to savor the catch. The sailfish was only the third that Moore has been aware of in shallow inshore waters and the first caught off his boat.
Sailfish are at the top of the food chain in the Gulf of Mexico. While they are not rare offshore, I've only heard of a handful caught locally in near shore waters in my 30 plus years in the area. Sailfish are considered an apex predator and range throughout semi-tropical and tropical waters of the world's oceans. Sailfish are capable of extreme bursts of speed, and have the ability to launch themselves into the air while pursuing a meal.
With documented speeds approaching 70 miles per hour they've earned the distinction of being called the fastest fish in the sea. Predominately blue to gray in color, they have a characteristic dorsal fin known as a sail, which often stretches the entire length of their back. Their elongated bill is another notable characteristic (resembling both swordfish and the marlins) putting them in a class known as billfish in sport fishing circles.
Sailfish grow extremely quickly, and can reach four to five feet in a single year. They can live up to 16 years, are a highly migratory species and have been known to travel as much as 200,000 miles their lifetime.
The sail is normally kept folded down and to the side when swimming, but it may be raised when the sailfish feels threatened or excited, making the fish appear much larger than it actually is. This tactic has also been observed during feeding, when a group of sailfish use their sails to herd prey.
This could be an excellent year for encountering pelagic species in shallow waters just off our beaches. On Wednesday Moore once again fished the area where they had found the sailfish, and although that experience wasn't to be repeated, they did have shots at blackfin tuna to 25 pounds. Angler need only find schools of bait in 40 plus feet of water and work the area with live bait, flies or plugs and poppers. Sails are landed regularly on top water flies in Costa Rica and will attack anything on the surface that looks like struggling prey.