Improving Sailfish Survival Rates
By Capt. Ray Rosher
The hottest topic on the south Florida sailfish tournament circuit this year is the great hook debate – circle hooks versus J-hooks. Just to be clear, this article is not intended to support or criticize either type of hook, but to look at the bigger picture. What we can do to improve sailfish survival rates regardless of which hook we chose to use.
I have used both types of hooks for as long as I have been fishing. I’ve had good luck in Guatemala and Costa Rica using circle hooks with dead baits, but at home (Miami, FL), I’ve had better luck using J-hooks with live bait.
I am not a scientist or a biologist, but I’ve spent most of my life working as a fisherman, trying to understand as much as possible about catching fish. How to properly take care of fish you intend to keep, and how to properly handle fish that you intend to release so their chances of survival are greatest.
The conclusions I have reached are not all based on observations made while sailfishing. Some have come from comparing ideas with some very respected captains and mates in this business and from understanding what causes many different types of bait to either live or die in captivity.
By watching what causes fish to live or die in a spacious well protected pen, I’ve learned a lot about what can cause a fish to die days after it’s capture and release, which wouldn’t be apparent without long term observation. Within five days of being placed in a pen, most traumas experienced by a fish during its capture will manifest themselves.
There are about six or seven things that must be done properly from the moment the fish is hooked until it is placed into the pen, or the fish will die within this five-day period. If those things are done properly, four or five days later the fish will begin feeding again and it will live as long as you routinely feed them good food. At that point, only two or three things can happen that will threaten their survival.
I learned all of these things the hard way over many years of trial and error. Unfortunately for the fish, mostly by a lot of errors. In a way, my ability to make a living depends on the survival rate of these baits so that we have them available for our charters and for our bait business. I firmly believe that there are not many differences between what kills a small fish, days after its capture, and what will kill a large fish during its capture or days after its release. I believe that everyone involved in fishing for sailfish, no matter what our experience level, has a desire to see every sailfish swim away in a healthy condition.
Unfortunately, I think we have all made mistakes that contributed to injuring a sailfish that were probably avoidable. These are the things that need to be addressed, and regardless of anyone’s opinion of circle hooks or J- hooks in our fishing community, this great hook debate has caused this discussion to occur. I think that our increased concern over the preservation of sailfish is the greatest result of it all.
Capt. Ray Rosher is one of South Florida’s best known and most respected fishing guides. He has been a full time fishing guide in South Florida and Bahamian waters for over 20 years. He knows all the great local spots and has all the right gear to take advantage of any fishing opportunity in South Florida and Miami. No matter what type of fishing you want to do, Capt,. Ray will do his best to insure everyone aboard shares some laughs, good memories and experiences a great day of fishing.
Sailfish numbers seem to be on the rise in south Florida and there are several probable contributing factors. It probably has a lot to do with the ever-increasing effort of all anglers to release sailfish.
My grandfather spent over 40 years pursuing primarily sailfish. He fished on several Miami party boats about three days a week. He kept almost everyone of them to smoke. I still remember being surprised the first time I heard that he had released one, wondering why he would do something like that.
The first captain that I worked for was Bob Lewis. I’ll never forget asking him how long sailfish lived and his response was, “about four or five years, so you might as well keep them.” He was not the only one that told me that, Capt. Buddy Carey and Capt. Bill Harrison told me the same thing years later. This was just a common opinion of that time which led fishermen to feel that if you didn’t keep a decent sized sailfish, they were probably going to die soon anyway, kind of like a salmon after spawning.
Another situation that led to this mentality was the fact that all sailfish mounts in the early days required you to give the fish to the taxidermist to literally have it stuffed. Fortunately for the sailfish, those days are gone.
The final issue that led to the demise of quite a few sailfish was the issue of trust and integrity in several south Florida sailfish tournaments that held prize money for the winners. With the introduction of the polygraph and a solid observer program, the need to put them on the dock has all but vanished. Today, if you were to drag a sailfish down the dock to the scales during a sailfish tournament not only would it not count for the tournament, but you probably wouldn’t be too popular with the rest of the crowd.
Fortunately for the sailfish, times have changed.
Another reason that we are seeing more sailfish on our coast is because of generally increasing bait populations. This is probably a result of the net ban which was put into effect several years ago. This ban protects populations of fish from large scale netting from shore to three miles offshore. This ban offers the greatest protection to the area between Jupiter and Miami, since this is the only area on the east coast of Florida that the three mile limit falls outside of 120 feet of water. This protected depth range saves many types of bait from netting that sailfish feed on.
Another part of this picture is that Miami has more artificial reefs than any other area in this zone which offer great habitat for a lot of the bait that sailfish like to feed upon. By offering great habitat to hold the food longer, you are increasing the incentive for the sailfish to stay longer in our area instead of just migrating by us.
Sailfish numbers seem to be on the rise in south Florida…
The biggest reason behind the rule change in many tournaments this year requiring all boats to use circle hooks is to reduce the number of fish that are gut hooked. A J-hook obviously has a greater chance to gut hook a fish if given excessive drop back. In an effort to reduce the problem, a maximum of a four degree offset is allowed for circle hooks used in those tournaments. There is a list of acceptable hooks allowed so that all teams are using hooks within these parameters.
Most of the captains and anglers that are not used to fishing circle hooks have at the very least been worried about the hookup ratios, some are not sure if they’ll fish these tournaments. And because of the seemingly increasing numbers of sailfish seen in recent years, their feeling is that ” if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” It’s wrong to judge something before you’ve tried it – it often leads to misconceptions.
Circle hooks aren’t the first controversy involving sailfishing techniques and the issue of gut hooking fish. In the early eighties, we fished the Merritt, Monterrey, Rybovich tournament in Palm Beach. Out of 30+ boats, there were three of us flying two kites, the “L & H” with John B. Dudas (Louie’s dad), “That’s My Hon” with Dick Greiner (a local Palm Beach charter boat) and us.
John originated the idea of flying two kites, and despite knowing what an advantage this would have been to keep to himself and his team, he had been kind enough to show Dick and myself how to do it, as well as, anyone in Miami who asked. As I recall, most of the captains involved in this tournament, for the most part preferred to simply criticize John for everything they could think of instead of asking questions and educating themselves.
At the end of the tournament the three of us came in the top three places. The following year there were five of us flying two kites and we all came in the top six places. The local captains that fished either one kite or no kites were noticeably upset with the outcome and a few comments were made at the awards banquet. I didn’t give it much thought.
The main reason the boats with two kites were so successful was because both tournaments were very windy which made fishing flat lines out of a typical charter boat with a cockpit much more difficult than the two kite approach. Here comes the amazing part, the following year the tournament organizers banned kites from the tournament and the reason cited was that kites were unsportsmanlike and resulted in too many gut hooked fish.
Do I believe that kites are unsportsmanlike? No. Do they give you an advantage in windy conditions? Yes, they do. But if someone is too stubborn to learn a better technique, then they deserve to get beat. Remember, this occurred many years ago when the idea of flying two kites was new, John and I were both from Miami and Dick was a local captain but was not afraid to try something different. A lot of the Palm Beach and Stuart boats could fish circles around us with dead bait, but under windy conditions with live bait, the kites simply gave us an advantage.
The biggest thing that bothered me about their reasoning is their claim that kites gut hook too many fish. I believe just the opposite. Almost every day that we sailfish, we fish both flat lines and kites together and we have always used J-hooks. I would say that we hook 50% to 60% of our flat line fish and 75% to 85% of our kite caught fish where the hook is visible somewhere on the edge of the mouth or are foul hooked somewhere outside of the mouth.
Our percentages may vary from that of other boats, but that is truly where our numbers fall. I’m sure that you could gut hook more fish on the kite if you wanted to but we don’t drop back much and I think this helps us to avoid gut hooking more sailfish and improves the survival rate of the fish that are released.
Another reason why I think that a kite is less likely to gut hook a fish with a J-hook is because no matter which way that a fish swims after eating a kite bait, without a long drop back, the pressure quickly increases on the hook, pulling in an upward direction hooking a lot of our fish in the roof of the mouth or in the corner of the jaw.
Flat lines on the other hand, are usually pulled in a certain direction by slowly bumping the boat ahead or the wind causing the boat to drift away from the baits. Because of this pull on the bait, many times a sail will see the bait, swim up behind it and eat it as he swims toward the boat, giving him a lot of time to totally swallow the bait. Many times this will happen without you knowing that your bait has even been eaten. This happens more often if you are fishing from the cockpit level, without a tower.
On several occasions when Alex and I were both down below, we’ve had a sailfish start jumping before it pulled off of the release clip on the reel. Overall, even without long drop backs, our hookup ratios have been very good, so unless we get a very lethargic bite, we don’t drop back very much. It seems like using circle hooks, especially on flat lines could reduce the number of fish hooked deeply.
From what I’ve seen, the type of hook and where it is attached to the fish is only half of what affects a sailfish’s chance of survival, maybe even less than half.
First, the amount of time spent fighting a fish dramatically affects the amount of lactic acid that builds up in a fish’s tissue. The lighter the line and/or drag causes sometimes fatal amounts of fatigue on a sailfish. I have seen two or three sails die on us by staying deep on 6 and 8 lb. test after very long fights.
Second, dragging a sailfish across the gunwale of your boat or laying him on the deck for a measurement, will wipe the slime coat off of the fish.. I firmly believe that dragging a fish across the covering board or deck can doom that fish to a slow death caused by an infection on the area that the slime was removed.
I believe this because of watching it happen every single time to baits that are touched by human hands, gloves, the mainline on a sabiki rig if left hooked on too long or by flopping on the deck. This infection occurs over a 2 to 5 day period once baits are placed in a pen. I bait fish with as many as five livewells and therefore separate what I consider “pen baits” or flawless baits, from what I consider “day baits” meaning those were the baits that were touched and will be great for the day but won’t survive well beyond that day.
My pen baits will usually have about a 95% survival rate in the bait pen and a 100% survival rate once they start eating and will live as long as I feed them.
On the other hand, my day baits will have a 5% to 20% survival rate if I put them in the pen. Their skin infections will appear within a day or two accompanied by their eroding tail fin tissue. You might have seen this condition before, we call it “scabbing.” If it is minor, occasionally the bait will heal, usually leaving a visible scar on the fish. Usually though, it is fatal to the bait, regardless of the species. I’ve watched it happen to blue runners, goggle eyes, pilchards, tinker mackeral, speedos and even pinfish.
This is what leads me to believe that a sailfish, which was heavily abraded could just as easily die days later, even though it swam away at that moment of release.
During a typical charter, if a customer wants a picture of the fish, we will either take a picture of the angler leaning over the side of the gunwale while Alex holds the fish halfway out of the water not letting the fish bang into the side of the boat, or Alex waits until I am ready to grab the tail and we lift straight up not letting the fish drag on the covering board or deck in the process of getting a quick picture with the angler or an estimated measurement for a release mount.
Afterwards, swimming the fish alongside the boat until it shows some signs of renewed energy most likely increase their chances of survival. Generally though, we would only worry about fish pictures at the boat during a regular charter, not during a tournament. Obviously it is better to minimize contact with the fish and some of our clients are satisfied with pictures of the fish near the boat if they ask us what is best for the fish.
Fishing Tournaments are Making the Change to Circle Hooks