It started out like any other long-range bottom-fishing trip. We were anchored in 180 feet of water 80 miles off west-central Florida, dropping baits for grouper and snapper. Sea conditions were perfect — slick calm and cobalt blue. When the bite did not materialize as we had hoped, boat owner Mark Lindsey decided to troll to the next spot about 3 miles away. We set out three rods with surface lures and one with a deeper diving plug. Immediately, the little tunny, known locally as bonito, made themselves a nuisance, grabbing the plug every time we put it out. After many bonito bites, the crew was in no hurry to grab that pole and reel in another one.
A few minutes later, Jason Capra noticed we were dragging a bonito on the surface then yelled, "There is something after it!"
As we all looked on, a 300-pound marlin rose up behind the 10-pound bonito, whacked it a few times with its bill then launched out of the water and swallowed it. We fought the fish for 15 minutes on tackle that stood little chance of landing it, and eventually the leader parted.
When the shock of what we had just seen wore off, we opted to troll the rest of the day.
As we ambled along at 6 knots, we encountered a sailfish finning on the surface. Repeated passes with our trolling spread produced no reaction.
As the fish continued to rest on the surface with its tail and dorsal fin above the water, we rigged a spinning rod with a live blue runner and pitched the frisky bait in his direction. He charged it immediately, and a moment later we were hooked up to a 50-pound gulf sailfish.
After getting the fish close to the boat, we saw another sailfish alongside it. We tossed another live bait out and instantly hooked up.
During the next two hours, we hooked five sailfish within a 2- to 3-square-mile area and lost the marlin.
The best time to go
As any blue-water veteran will tell you, summer is the best time to target the migratory pelagic species off west-central Florida. The area features favorable water temperatures and currents, and abundant forage draws marlin, sailfish, wahoo, swordfish and tuna to the edge of the continental shelf.
Upwellings where the Gulf Stream collides with the wall of the shelf transfer nutrient-rich water from the bottom toward the surface. This aids plankton growth, the building block of the food chain on the high seas.
The edge of the shelf lies 110 miles off the Nature Coast and is where most serious anglers begin fishing. This is not to say you cannot find fish closer to home, but it has been the most reliable area. From May until early September, blue-water anglers have a good shot at catching a variety of fish.
Most of the time, trolling lures is the best strategy. Because there is seldom a particular structure or specific spot holding fish, you must cover as much area as possible in limited time.
Skirted lures and cedar plugs can be fished effectively as high as 7 knots. Depending on the skill level of the crew and the size of boat, six to 10 lines can be fished at the same time. The lure size should match the size of the rod and reel. For example, 18-inch skirted lures are likely to be hit by big fish such as yellowfin tuna or marlin and should be fished on 50- to 80-pound gear. Smaller lures often attract dolphin or blackfin tuna. But there is no guarantee a 500-pound marlin will not eat a dolphin lure on a 20-pound outfit, either.
Venturing out more than 100 miles is not something to be taken lightly.
Conditions can change rapidly, and seas can build to 6 feet or more when summer squalls pass by. One thing to keep in mind is that VHF radios will not reach shore. You must be self-sufficient: have a life raft, EPIRB, ample fuel for the return trip in any conditions and, if possible, a satellite phone for emergencies.
Filing a float plan with the Coast Guard, towing service or a family member detailing where you will be and when you plan to be home is a necessity.
Another good idea is to make the trip with a buddy boat or two. When several boats are out on the shelf together, they are all in a much less vulnerable position. On occasion, such buddy boat trips are discussed and organized in the local forum of the Florida Sportsman's Web site.
The great unknown
Blue-water trolling is not for everyone. It takes a great deal of patience and a real commitment to stare at the pattern of lures dragging behind the boat for hours on end with no action.
There are those who do not like it, and there are those who enjoy every minute spent staring into the spread fantasizing about a giant blue marlin or 800-pound bluefin tuna appearing behind the lures.
This anticipation and potential to see something truly extraordinary is what makes blue-water fishing so exciting.