A Florida Keys Winter Sailfish Story
On the morning of December 6th, Captain Marty Lewis and Mate Lance Doire pulled out of the Marina aboard the Main One on a mission. To help Vinny Yeager, age 66, fulfill a lifelong dream to catch a Sailfish. Vinny is no stranger to fishing; he spent most of his life fishing on the Long Island Sound and taking fishing vacations in Cape May. After moving to Florida in 2013 to retire, Vinny switched to fishing in the lakes and canals of his home in Melbourne, vacationing in the Florida Keys.
But somehow, after all these years, the elusive and highly desirable Atlantic Sailfish has escaped him. He made attempts in the past, but charter fishing isn’t cheap. And if you want to catch a Sailfish, the stars have to align in some ways. Vinny doesn’t believe in luck but, for those that do, they would probably say he was simply unlucky when it came to Sailfish.
A Generous Offer
Main Attraction owners Captain Marty and Katie Lewis know Vinny from previous trips and because his son Nick used to fish for them years back. Katie called Nick, who runs a marketing business with an incredible offer; he could come down with his Dad to fish and see if they could make his Sailfish dream come true and get some footage of the memorable moment on video. Nick graciously accepted, Katie hired a great photographer, and it was game on!
Nick and Vinny drove down on Sunday, December 5th, from their homes in Melbourne, Florida. As they drove through Islamorada, the phone rang, and it was Captain Marty Lewis calling to check-in. This call was important because when Captain Marty or Katie check-in, they let the clients know what the weather forecast is and discuss the goals for the trip.
This call was a bit funny to Nick because he used to fish for Main Attraction, and this was not a typical charter, but Marty treated it like any other charter; he was professional, discussed the weather, and asked them what their goals were. As a former Captain for Main Attraction, Nick knew the intelligent answer, so he gave it. “Whatever you think is going to be most successful, Cap.” he said. Marty mentioned they had caught some Sailfish the day before, and Vinny’s eyes lit up.
“Well, it’s funny you mention that because Dad’s never caught one of those, and it is at the very top of his bucket list.” said Nick. “Sailfish it is,” Marty said,” Meet us on the dock at 7 am.”
Nick and Vinny stayed at the Fairfield Inn that night, taking advantage of the Main Attraction discount. They were sure to get to bed early so they would be well-rested for the task at hand.
The Big Day
The following day Vinny woke very early, excited with anticipation.” Is today going to be the day?” Vinny asked. “Could be,” Nick said, “we’ll see what Marty says.” Vinny asked at 6:30 am, “should we get there early?” Nick thought about all the times as a Mate he was trying to load the boat with bait, or chum or ice, and the customers showed up early asking questions. He also thought about when he was the Captain trying to do his daily safety checks, and the clients showed up early, and he felt the pressure to keep them entertained while trying to focus on important tasks. “Nope, we should show up right on time at 7 am ready to go,” Nick said, “ We don’t want to distract them before that.”
Vinny and Nick pulled into the lot promptly at 7 am. Everyone exchanged pleasantries and boarded the boat. Marty gave a quick safety run down, pointed to the life jackets, and they headed on their way. As Marty idled out of the cut, he again confirmed what the goals for the day would be. “Still want to catch Sailfish?” he asked, “heck yeah!” was the response. “Ok, we will head to the reef and see if we can find some special Sailfish baits first,” said Marty. This was exciting news to Vinny and Nick.
Bait Is Worth The Wait
Main Attraction boats are typically loaded with live bait when customers arrive to fish, as was the Main One that day. However, a live Ballyhoo is pretty much the best bait you can present to a Sailfish, especially if that is what the Sailfish are chasing on that day.
Live Ballyhoo isn’t caught in the shallows by Main Attraction crew members like Pilchards or other baits, and they aren’t kept in bait cages and fed either. Ballyhoo are caught on the reef, and they do not keep particularly well overnight in live wells. Ballyhoo have little halfbeaks on their faces which can get caught on holes and pipes in the live well or bang into corners. This is one of the reasons a circular live well is better than one shaped like a square, rectangle, or oval. It also takes a constant water flow to keep Ballyhoo alive for longer than a few minutes.
So, if you want to catch a Sailfish you should invest the fishing time to get some live Ballyhoo on the reef first. When able, Main Attraction Captains will try to anchor on the reef to allow their customers to catch some delicious Yellowtail Snapper for dinner while they try to chum up the Ballyhoo to get within striking distance. But Marty knew the boys had one thing on their mind, Sailfish! So, Marty headed to an area specifically for catching Sailfish baits and moving on.
It was a calm, overcast winter morning in the Florida Keys, with hardly any current or wind. These conditions were not the typical wintertime weather in the Florida Keys, but everyone remained hopeful they would put together a catch.
Mate Lance put the chum bag out as they approached the spot, and by the time the anchor grabbed hold of the rocks, hundreds if not thousands of Cigar minnows were already boiling right behind the 49-foot Carolina-style sportfisher as they ate right out of the chum bag. Nick began to dehook the baits as Marty and Lance quickly swung them over the live well after plucking the cigar minnows out of the ocean with their Sabiki rigs.
After 10 minutes, the Ballyhoo began to show about 100ft behind the boat. With every shake of the bag, they seemed to inch closer and closer. This was an excellent sign, and before they knew it, two of the four live wells on the Main One were full of Cigar Minnows along with the Pilchards they had brought with them.
Lance began casting the Sabiki way back, being sure to keep the top hook of the Sabiki rig near the surface as he slowly reeled it in. Eventually, Lance caught one to the sound of cheers and sighs of relief. Then Marty caught a Ballyhoo and then Lance another, and everyone knew they were in business.
Marty handed his Sabiki rig to Nick to catch a few while he loaded up a 12-foot cast net. While hair-hooked baits are simply the best, using the net is a great way to load the well with a few dozen at a time. The only downside of netted baits is they get their scales knocked off during this process, reducing their quality and overall survivability throughout the day.
Nick dehooked each hair-hooked bait into the Starboard side round live well, careful not to touch them or harm them in any way.
Eventually, the Ballyhoo were close enough to throw the net, so Marty did just that. He pulled about two dozen out of the water on his first throw and dropped them directly into the port side live well. A couple baits hit the deck which were carefully lifted with the dip net and gingerly dropped into the well.
After another session of hair hooking Ballyhoo, Marty threw the net one more time catching another two dozen Ballyhoo for the Port side round well. Captain Marty now had four live wells stocked with high-quality baits; it was time to go fishing.
The Big Show
Mate Lance pulled the anchor, and the Main One was on its way. As they pulled away, Captain Marty commented on how it was overcast, and while it looked fishy right where they had caught bait, he was headed West just to get out from under the clouds. Marty explained how he could see Sailfish from his tower much easier in the Sun and how the Sailfish could see the baits better.
By 10 am the Main One was directly south of the Bahia Honda Bridge in 25 feet of water as Captain Marty chased down three frigate birds. The frigates dove to the deck and, Ballyhoo baits sprayed all around. Marty knew a fish would be there, as he approached, Mate Lance Doire had a Ballyhoo loaded in the well on a hook ready to pitch. Marty called out for the pitch on the Starboard side, careful to point where the fish was heading.
Lance’s first pitch of the day was right on target! The Sailfish approached and took the bait, and Marty called for Lance to crank as quickly as he could. Usually, this would result in a perfect hookup as the circle hook finds the corner of the fish’s mouth, and it’s game on. Something different happened this time, the Sailfish didn’t really eat the bait; it was most likely just mouthing it, and because of this, when Lance winded on him, probably by the smallest of margins, the circle hook failed to find it’s mark and the Sailfish swam away none the wiser.
Captain Marty determined to make the day right then and there, swung the large 49-foot vessel around with the agility of a small center console and gunned his way back in front of the Sailfish. He called for a tailhooked Ballyhoo, and Lance pitched the bait again right on target where the Sailfish would see it. The Sailfish half-heartedly chased the bait and managed to wrap itself in the fishing line. Marty told Lance to angle the rod tip to the opposite side of the fish and to wind quickly, confident that the circle hook would find something to stick as the line unwrapped itself around the fish.
When the Sailfish felt the hook point, it went from swimming around lazily to swimming as hard and fast as a sailfish can when it believes it’s fighting for its life. Lance quickly handed the rod off to the angler of the day, Vinny. Captain Marty knew the fish probably wasn’t hooked in the mouth, so he told Vinny to wind as quickly as possible to keep the line tight to get credit for the catch.
This was a special moment for Vinny. Growing up with very little in the City Park projects of New Rochelle, New York, he could never have imagined that one day he would be standing on the deck of a 49-foot luxury fishing yacht in the turquoise blue waters of the Florida Keys. Here he was, winding as fast as possible, against one of the most sought-after Sportfishes in the world!
Vinny was very quiet and focused on listening to Lance’s instructions; he didn’t want to make any mistakes. Marty told Lance and Nick on the radio that the fish was more snagged than hooked and that they needed to get a hand on the leader as quickly as possible for Vinny to get his first official sailfish catch out of the way. Marty planned to look for a hungrier sailfish next to try and get a better hookup and hopefully get some acrobatics on video.
Captain Marty backed down on the fish; the leader touched the rod tip, and then shortly after Lance touched the leader and released the fish just as the hook popped out somewhere near its head. Vinny didn’t cheer, which surprised his son; Vinny has an outgoing, vibrant personality. Nick thought his dad was simply in shock since it happened pretty fast; the fish never even jumped, but catching a Sailfish had been at the top of his dad’s bucket list for a long time. Only later did Nick learn that his father did not understand this was a successful release. Despite the congratulations, he thought when the hook popped off with the leader in the Mates hand that he had lost the fish!
On To The Next One
Marty headed further West to look for another sailfish, leapfrogging from frigate to bait spray one after the next. Marty headed toward a frigate with a Mahi free jumping under it. As Marty approached the area, he mentioned he was looking for a large Dolphinfish. Nick heard him say that over the radio and relayed the information to his Dad that he might be catching a large Mahi soon.
Marty found a shadow in the water and pulled ahead of it to see the dark purple hue of a Sailfish instead! First Mate Lance pitched a fresh tailhooked Ballyhoo in front of the fish. The Sailfish turned on the bait and nearly wrapped itself in the line like the first, but it wasn’t committed to eating the bait. After multiple attempts by Lance and Nick to put an enticing ballyhoo bait in front of the Sailfish, Marty called for a Cigar Minnow.
Marty said the Sailfish had swum downward and asked Lance to belly hook a cigar minnow to see if its downward movement would entice the fish. Lance pitched the bait, the bait swam down as expected, and sure enough, the Sailfish engulfed the cigar minnow! Lance wound on the reel, and the circle hook found its mark right in the corner of the fish’s mouth. The Main One had successfully hooked their second Sailfish of the day!
Vinny began to fight the fish, which unbeknownst to him was another Sailfish. In all of the excitement, Nick failed to mention to his father that it wasn’t a Dolphinfish!
The Sailfish swam straight at the boat, and Marty hollered for Vinny to wind as fast as he could to keep the line tight.
When the fish saw the boat’s transom, it decided to turn away and make another run, this time leaping out of the water not once but twice. This is the very moment Vinny realized he was fighting his second Sailfish of the day, and he cheered with excitement and exclaimed, “That ain’t no Mahi!”. Everyone had a good laugh, and Vinny enjoyed the fight as the fish put on an acrobatic show.
Once caught, Lance revived the fish and allowed Vinny to hold the bill as he released the fish himself. Mikey Finiguerra recorded the fish swimming away underwater with a GoPro camera.
Vinny was very talkative now, bubbling with excitement as he described how amazing it felt to finally see a sailfish jump out of the water and to touch it with his own hands.
Now it was a reality for Vinny; he had indeed accomplished what he came there to do!
A New Opportunity
It was now 11:24 am as Marty commented that the bait showers he was seeing looked like schools of Bonita. He glanced back to the East to see the clouds had finally lifted from the same area where they had caught those beautiful Cigar Minnows and Ballyhoo. Captain Marty was ready to head back to the east and take advantage of the improved lighting.
Marty offered to take Vinny and Nick to catch some Yellowtail Snapper on the reef if they wanted some fish to eat, but they were way too amped on Sailfish to think about food at this point! Nick said to Marty as the Captain it was his call, but they were perfectly happy to spend the rest of the day trying to catch another sailfish.
Captain Marty was pleased to oblige; catching Sailfish is one of his favorite things to do. And when they aren’t biting too well, Marty knows that persistence is the key. If you put enough baits in front of enough Sailfish even when the bite is tough, eventually, one will bite. So Marty headed to the east to find some Sailfish. And Sailfish he did find! One after another, Captain Marty put the crew on Sailfish. Unfortunately, each one they found seemed more interested in playing with their food than eating it!
Stop Playing With Your Food!
Each time a Sailfish was found, Lance would pitch a Ballyhoo first, when turned down, a Cigar Minnow, then a pilchard. Nick, a former Captain/Mate for Main Attraction, did his best to back up Lance with some alternative bait pitches to try and offer variety to each fish Marty found.
Despite their efforts by noon, the boat had caught two Sailfish and had five Sailfish turn down their baits. It was clear this was happening to the other boats out there. Smaller center consoles would chase down Captain Marty when he stopped on a fish, pull right up behind the Main One, and try to pitch baits to the fish he was on.
Captain Marty never complained or got excited about it. When asked why, Marty said, “This is just how we do it down here. I’ll do the same thing if I think I have a chance at hooking a sail for my client; you simply can’t claim a fish that is swimming in the ocean unhooked.”
It was clear their work would be cut out for the crew if they wanted to catch another Sailfish, but everyone on board was determined.
Oh Mahi Where Art Thou?
By 1 pm Mikey was flying his camera drones around the Main One to get some fantastic shots of Sailfish as the crew pitched baits to them. Seeing the Sailfish playfully chase schools of ballyhoo as they frantically sprayed in different directions was a sight to behold. It also made it apparent that these fish were probably not hungry because of the sheer abundance of food around them.
Captain Marty persistently hunted down every Sailfish he could find, and one by one, Lance presented baits to them. Marty was careful to keep moving so after a fish turned them down, they wouldn’t end up pitching to the same fish multiple times and waste their bait.
At one point, Mikey exclaimed that he found a Sailfish all on his own using a camera drone, and Marty hardly believed him. When Mikey explained that he wasn’t kidding, Marty had a good laugh and joked, “Well, I guess it’s time to buy a drone!”. Marty chased down that Sailfish as well, but the result was the same, no bites.
Marty decided to head offshore to the South to see what the Gulf Stream might have to offer as he heard about some Dolphinfish being caught in the current. Marty found a weed line in 350 feet of water and trolled it for Mahi. While Dolphinfish are out of season in December, the day’s conditions dictate what’s likely to be available. And that day, with the Gulf stream so close to shore and bait around, offshore Pelagic species such as Billfish, Mahi, and Tuna were all possible.
After a bit of trolling and catching some smaller Almaco Jacks, Marty came upon a floater that had a nice Triple Tail on it. After Vinny reeled the fish in, Nick thought about how fortunate they were. They now had an excellent dinner in the box despite deciding to Sailfish all day which was a great turn of events; he thought to himself, “can this day get any better?”.
After they had dinner in the box, Marty decided the weed line didn’t have much more to offer so he headed back to the reef to keep hunting for a hungry Sailfish with what time they had left. If he could just find one more, he knew it would be the cherry on top of what was already a fun day on the water.
Third Times A Charm
By 2:30pm Captain Marty was back in 17 feet of water, both Lance and Nick pitching baits in front of yet another Sailfish that was refusing to eat. They tried a variety of Ballyhoo and Cigar Minnows hooked different ways. Marty called out to Nick to find a Pilchard and belly hook it as the Sailfish moved into the deeper part of the water column. Nick found the biggest juiciest pilchard he could find, belly hooked it, and pitched straight back behind the boat where Marty had positioned the fish. To everyone’s surprise, Marty hollered, “He ate it! He’s wrapped up! Go Nick go!”. Nick wound on the reel as quickly as he could, tightening the line and hooking the fish just a few feet from the boat’s transom. The fish lept to the sounds of cheering as Mikey recorded it all on video.
Nick played with the fish for a couple of seconds and was sure to get nice and tight on the line before handing it off to his Dad to fight the Sailfish. Marty was whooping and hollering the whole time; he was ecstatic! Lance managed to touch the leader several times, making it an official catch before the line eventually chaffed off from rubbing against the fish’s bill. They now had a 3rd Sailfish caught on the day!
Winding Down The Day
By 3:30 pm that afternoon, they had one more Sailfish take a lazy swipe at a bait, but the hookup didn’t materialize. At that point, it honestly didn’t matter. Vinny was over the moon; he checked off the top item on his bucket list three times over that day.
When it was all said and done, the crew had put a variety of baits in front of 14 Sailfish that day, a true testament to the simple fact that all a Captain can do is take you to the fish so you can offer it a bait. The rest is up to the fish; that’s fishing!
Vinny and Nick were very appreciative and grateful for Captain Marty and Mate Lance’s hard work, and they thanked them as well as Katie emphatically. They ate delicious fried Triple Tail for dinner and recounted all of the exciting events of the day. It was indeed a day that neither will forget. Vinny and Nick will look back fondly on that day for years to come.
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