Winter is officially here, bringing with it the cold seas of the new year that announce sailfish season in the south. Sailfish are the ultimate gamefish, measuring an average of 6 feet in length and weighing in at 100 to 220 pounds. Clocked at speeds of up to 68 miles per hour, they are known for their acrobatic tendencies and are chased by anglers of all ages. 

If hunting this legendary gamefish is on your New Year’s bucket list, read on for your guide to winter sailfish season including where to start your search and the best bait to use. Get your camera ready, because after following these tips and tricks, you will soon be posing with your big catch.

Where to catch sailfish

In the summer, sailfish are found further offshore, but as the water temperature drops, that all changes. In the winter months sailfish are drawn out of the deeper waters and into shallow warmer waters following smaller fish. Remember to keep your binoculars handy while on the water. Sailfish hunt in packs, so if you spot a free-jumper, odds are that other sailfish are in the area. Jumping schools of bait fish can also indicate the presence of sailfish.

Along with shallower water, the deep side of reefs, and other areas of transition between shallow and deeper water are prime fishing locations. Look for color change areas where colder and warmer waters meet and bait fish congregate. Set multiple lines at varying depths to zero in on the current location of the sailfish.

South Florida boasts some of the best winter sail fishing in the world and this attracts anglers from all over. From Fort Lauderdale down to the Florida Keys, if you are looking to catch a trophy, South Florida is where you need to be.

Best bait for sailfish

The good news for anglers is that colder weather and a recent cold front will encourage the sailfish to feed more readily, making whatever bait you are using that much more appetizing. That said, there are still some tips and tricks you can use to improve your odds.

If using live bait, the bait should still be fresh and its scales unmarred. Drifting with live bait on kites is often considered one of the best approaches because the bait stays just below the surface while the tackle is above water and out of view of the sailfish. When drifting with kites, present your bait downwind and consider bridle-rigging. If you will be moving and fishing with live bait in stronger wind and currents, use a through the mouth hook set-up instead.

A wide range of bait fish work for sailfish, with the most common being ballyhoo, blue runner, cigar minnow, google-eye, herring, mullet, sardine, speedos, and pilchard. Though live bait is often used, trolling dead bait at a speed of about 6 knots also works provided they are well-rigged.

Anglers who opt for the lure route will do well to select one in the blue, green, and/or pink color families. Look for daisy chains or spreader bars with multiple soft concave head, chugger-style trolling lures to create bubble trails and motion.

A 16-pound test is typical for kite configurations, otherwise opt for 20-pound with a 30- to 50-pound leader. A lighter tackle improves bait presentation, so if you are not getting bites, consider switching to a lighter leader.


The cold days of winter are a perfect time to take to the water in search of one of the most prized of all gamefish. For your best shot at catching sailfish, set yourself up at the right time, in the right place, with the right bait, and using the right techniques.

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