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Pre-fishing for a sailfish tournament is all about determining boundary locations, testing different areas for the presence of fish, and concluding where to drop lines at the start of the main event.
This winter, I was granted a unique vantage point from which to observe the decision-making process. I was on board a SeaVee center console with the Sailsmen team. The 7-man team, many of them longtime friends, were preparing for Operation Sailfish, first of a 4-leg competitive series, the Quest for the Crest. The series wraps up April 12-17 with the Final Sail event.
From the slip at Sailfish Marina on Singer Island, we wouldn’t need to travel very far to get into fishable waters. Sailfish often travel inside the 100-fathom line, which is only a few miles outside the nearby Palm Beach Inlet. Sailfish are apex predators, with a characteristic high, spotted dorsal fin that runs most of the length of the back. They are fast-growing and fast-swimming fish which commonly prey on blue runners, ballyhoo and squid. Not only is the sailfish the prime target of tournament anglers in this part of Florida, it is in fact Florida’s state saltwater fish.
Captain Jeff Scott awaited his team at the slip while a high tide slowly began to recede from the concrete finger docks. Most of the guys had known one another as high school classmates at Cardinal Gibbons in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Their team was originally known as the “Roofers” or Advanced Roofing Sail Fishing Team. Their success led to an opportunity where their name was changed to the Sailsmen during the taping of a television series.
Soon Mike Calabrese walks up, flips off his shoes and exchanges them for a pair in the dock box. David Collier, Jr., the boat’s mate and cameraman, takes long strides up to the boat with his 6′ 4” frame as he holds a dry box for a DSLR camera. Soon, everyone is aboard-Chris Meek, Chris Deleo, Robbie Clawges, and owner Mike Kornahrens-making a 7-man crew. A bustle of activity transpires at every corner of the boat: Air tanks are checked for kite fishing, fresh bait is netted up and placed in the boats livewell, fishing hooks are cinched with monofilament as team members secure knots with teeth and a bit of saliva.
Then the fun part-Captain Scott lights up the Mercury Verados. Collier stands on the bow ready to throw two lines back to their pilings. Lines off, and we’re out to the shimmering brine, cruising slowly until we reach the inlet, and then it’s throttle-down.
Outside the inlet, we head south and quickly find frigatebirds circling overhead, ready to dive bomb a fish. The Sailsmen are stocked up on goggle-eyes which Chris DeLeo says is his pick for versatile bait. The team utilizes lighter gear to their once heavier lines. Small, tournament-approved circle hooks are used to mitigate damage to the fish during a catch. The objective is a low mortality rate after release.
“We constantly evolve our fishing game by not being afraid of change if it’s the right one,” said Captain Scott.
When I later spoke with Jamie Bunn, owner of the Operation Sailfish event, he shared a similar sentiment: “The spirit of the tournament is to always keep improving from one year to the next to deliver a world-class event,” he said. “I am inspired by the culture of tournament fishing. Running tournaments is a byproduct of being a fisherman.” Bunn got his taste and lifelong thirst for competitive fishing during his junior and senior high school days, the same time that the Sailsmen started to lay the groundwork to becoming a formidable sailfish team.
The Sailsmen are fishing away from their home turf in Fort Lauderdale where Collier says Captain Scott knows every crevice of reef and hot spot. At home, they have an edge, even over the latest equipment, because there is less time needed to interface with a constantly changing screen mapping the underwater geography. But here, 50 miles north, details they can pick up while pre-fishing are valuable. “We look for the north current, clear blue water, sailfish free jumping, and what depth they are biting,” said Chris Meek, mate on Flight Plan, a 74 Spencer out of Hillsboro Inlet.
Captain Scott slows the vessel and does a turnabout. The team jumps into action, each one darting off in a different direction like men aboard a war ship responding to incoming artillery. As the activity calms, David Collier explains, “There was a flopper [a free-jumping sailfish] off the starboard side. This signals that there are more sails in the area.”
The team wastes no time as they know seconds turn to minutes and just a few minutes can be the difference in winning
a tournament. Collier must capture these moments perfectly with his GoPro camera. Documentation is part of tournament
protocol. So is an occasional polygraph test. Yes, even a polygraph-if all that sweating during the day wasn’t enough, now every word is held up to scrutiny. The polygraph comes into play with a large pot of money being up for grabs by the competitive steam of 54 teams. BAR South, who came in first overall during the two day tournament collected just under $256,000 in winnings. Participants who walked away with checks the wind couldn’t bend were not the only winners. A charity for veterans known as Operation Homefront was also a beneficiary of tournament as part of the proceeds went to benefit their needs. Veterans were even given a chance to spend a day out on the water with a fishing team where some veterans caught their first sailfish.
The pre-fish brought the Sailsmen a nice size dolphin capable of providing the entire team at least a steak each after it was filleted back at the dock. A few decent sized sailfish were photographed and released. In these situations the team will often tag the sailfish and record the GPS data in an effort to promote preservation through The Billfish Foundation when a tournament day is not at hand.
DAY 1 The Sailsmen fought early on towards a first place finish, landing in second overall for the day one. The beginning hour mimicked a bull straight out of the gate as things took an early start to hooking sails. However,
five sailfish threw hooks like bulls tossing aside riders. That left the taste of blood in the mouths of the Sailsmen.
There were eight fish that the Sailsmen hooked and brought to the side of the boat for a leader grab as Collier did his handy-work to record the event. “If he (Collier) messes his job up, we might as well not even get out of bed in the morning,” chimed Robbie Clawges, a master angler who went 33 for 34 one year at the World Sailfish Tournament in Key West. “You’re only as good as your last at-bat,” he added, an athlete competitive at every step of the game.
Mike Kornahrens is the owner and mechanic. He comes from a family with roots in Rhode Island fishing that makes South Florida conditions look like a field day. He also finds time to man the short and middle lines of the right kite.
Kornahrens was going below deck during the Fort Lauderdale Billfish Tournament to install a battery circa 2003 when it arced, creating an explosion due to the boat’s cracked gas tank. Kornahrens’ skin was taken clear off the side of his face. He grins when he tells me the story, signifying his gratitude and humor at making it through. He joins the rest of his fellow anglers for the first day of Operation Sailfish, knowing full well the gravity of danger that lurks at sea.
Mike Calabrese-captain, inventor and traveler-works the long line on the right kite. He has fished the Kingdom of Tonga and its unspoiled ecosystem and notes his beginning as a professional angler at around age 22. “I grew up catching bass and turtles as a kid in Coral Springs,” said Calabrese. “I’ve always had fun out on the water.” Calabrese was heading to his next adventurous job in January: a two month stint where he’ll be working off Isla Mujeres, Mexico.
DAY 2 The second day gave rise to the unmistakable blue and white colors of sailfish tailing which occurs when the dorsal fin just breaches the surface while sails are attempting to conserve energy by riding the waves south to warmer waters during migration. This rare sight happened just before the 7 a.m. bell to begin the second day of tournament play, gripping the entire team with excitement.
To many, the first cold snap in South Florida signals the beginning of sailfish season. “When you have a current coming out of the south and moving north that meets a wind pushing southward, these conditions run directly into one another’s path holding up the face of the wave to create conditions that bring about the tailing phenomenon,” said DeLeo, who is a doctor of internal medicine when not holding on to a rod and reel. DeLeo’s main job as a Sailsmen is to man the long line on the left kite with Clawges maintaining the middle and short lines. “When I’m fishing with Clawges we both know what the other is going to do. It becomes second nature,” said DeLeo.
Although the Sailsmen went two for two on the second day, they placed 11th overall out of 54 teams. Steering lines proved to be an obstacle for most of the second day as Captain Scott fought a tight wheel losing its hydraulics. The early sight of sailfish tailing could not be capitalized upon because the tournament time had not yet begun. The team ached for another chance like day one where they were hooking sail after sail, but with 7- to 9-foot seas at some points, the shiny brine seemed to derail their efforts. The Sailsmen held their heads high and still managed to take home $47,520 in total.
The Sailfish 400 (second leg) was just around the corner, where the only true competition comes in the form of an apex predator bursting out of the sea as if to say, “Here I am! Catch me if you can!” FS
➤ What’s the typical cost to enter a South Florida tournament like the Quest for the Crest events? The first, third and final legs of the series were $3,975 per team; the second leg, the Sailfish 400, was $842. You may also need to factor in an overnight slip. Slips are charged by the foot. Sailfish Marina was $3 a foot per night ($117 for a 39 CC) and $15 a night for power.
➤Bait Supply: Many teams catch their own live bait (goggle-eyes are preferred) before tournaments and pen the bait up. Feeding the bait and transferring as little as possible are two ways to improve their longevity and activity. Most say that a sluggish bait doesn’t get a bite; fast and health-looking baits are better.
➤Kite Rigging: The Sailsman crew uses Daiwa electric reels spooled with 65-pound Power Pro. The clips are Black’s brand, spaced 60 feet apart on the line. Hitches of waxed rigging thread are built up to catch the clips; the thread helps catch the clip and keep it from sliding up in heavy wind. Also, the thread doesn’t compromise the strength of the line by introducing knots and swivels which could fail. The team has back up yo-yo’s rigged and ready to go with lighter (30lb) Power Pro for ultra light wind days. They use SFE kites, and carry 15 kites for all varieties of wind such as light wind, medium heavy and heavy.
➤ Boat Modifications: There can never be too many rodholders. Many teams (including the Sailsmen crew) want rodholders along the entire gunwale surrounding the boat. The reasoning is that, when fighting a fish, you have to walk the kite spread around the boat to adjust to the turning of the boat. You have to be able to stop and place rods down anywhere on the boat.
Power outlets placed on the port and starboard sides of the cockpit, as well as the bow, power the kite reels.
There are three livewells on the Sea Vee run by a custom pump box, essential for keeping bait aerated and exchanging water to remove waste products. Most boats will have at least one large well at the transom for quickly accessing baits.
A custom kite box is molded into the hard top to hold kites.
The dash of the second station in the tower and underside of the tower top are painted matte black to reduce reflection into the captain’s eyes.