There was no commotion to speak of on the water's surface; birds weren't pouring in from all directions to take advantage of bait balling on top and no oil slick was evident, indicating these birds were looking for leftovers from a recent massacre of baitfish.
But these terns weren't seeing things. They saw something below, and they were waiting for it to happen.
Deeper down, a school of baitfish was being forced into a tighter ball. Nothing frantic, it was just a slow constriction of the school. The safety-in-numbers instinct of the baitfish was kicking in, and no fish wanted to be on the outside of the pod. Methodically, the trio of sailfish worked the edges of the baitfish school.
The terns hovered patiently as the baitfish school gradually ascended towards the surface. Within a few minutes, the birds would swoop down and nail a meal that was too busy concentrating on the terror that lurked below from the sailfish.
The school of baitfish was within reach of the terns, and the birds dove down to grab something to eat. At the same time, the sailfish made slashes through the baitfish school to satisfy their hunger.
Despite the one-two feeding punch by feathered and finned predators, the ocean didn't erupt. When tuna smash bait, baitfish and tuna go flying and flinging in every direction. The splashes make the water sparkle like diamonds. Seabirds noisily fly in from all points of the compass to snag unsuspecting bait that has become disoriented and isolated in the turmoil. Fear's energy engulfs action. But the sailfish feeding frenzy was more like a quiet death, as if life had slipped away in its sleep.
That's why the few anglers who are on the ocean during July's heat normally zoom past potential sailfish bites.
"To find sailfish in the summer, you have to look for bait," said Capt. Bobby Garmany, captain of the Sportin' Life, a 62-foot Charleston-based Tribute. "Keep an eye on your scope for pods of bait below and watch for the birds. You won't see big flocks of birds like when tuna are busting the surface but rather only four or five birds working the top."
The reason anglers don't normally see the concentration of birds is caused by weather and water temperature.
"Unlike when fishing for tuna, dolphin or billfish early in the year, water temperature is not critical now," Garmany said. "It's hot, and the water temperature is essentially the same everywhere. Don't waste your time looking for temperature breaks and eddies spinning off of the Gulf Stream.
"Rather, be mindful of the bait and water clarity. The water doesn't have to be that crystal blue that we all like to find in the spring, but it should be clean looking.
"The hot water will move a lot of bait in, but because the temperature is fairly consistent everything will be scattered. Earlier in the year, fish are seeking certain temperatures whereas now everywhere is in their comfort range."
Because the warm water has bait scattered everywhere, anglers can catch a sailfish from water nearly reachable in a john boat to as far out as the Gulf Stream.
"It's not uncommon to hear about a king mackerel fisherman catching a sailfish right outside of sea buoy at Charleston Harbor," Garmany said.
Until recent years, no one heard much about anyone catching a sailfish. May and June are typically the top bluewater months off of Charleston because yellowfin tuna, gaffer dolphin and blue marlin are most abundant. Once the warmer weather settles on the coast, tuna and most marlin head north, and the dolphins have shrunk to "peanuts." Repeated 4 a.m. departures, the hotter weather and smaller fish squelch some of the bluewater fleet. However, many boats are discovering sailfish action that nips at the fun of winter sailfishing in Florida.
"Back in 1999," Garmany said, "there was an impressive billfish bite during the Charleston Harbor Tournament held in July. That was a situation where the blue marlin were still here, but the sailfish had arrived in numbers, too."
Seventy-nine billfish, including 44 sailfish, 31 blue marlins and four white marlins were released during that tournament.
"The sailfish start showing up in good numbers in July," Garmany said. "Then we have sort of a summer resident population, and it's enhanced with the southward fall migration of fish. It peaks from late September to early November.
"The few boats that were out there later in the year mistakenly shrugged off the sailfish feeding as bonitos. It wasn't until some people started catching a good number of sails that got everyone's attention," Garmany said.
One person who got into the sails was Steve Leasure, owner of a Charleston floor-covering company called Carpetbaggers and co-owner of the 42-foot Post sportsfishing boat, Summergirl. What the crew of the Summergirl experienced last year was a one-day release record for South Carolina - 16 sailfish and two white marlins.
"It was an incredible day," Leasure said. "We probably had 30 to 40 bites, and really should have landed five or six other fish if we'd been prepared for what we encountered."
The Summergirl's experience was typical last summer. No one really knew how good the sailfish bite was until boats stumbled into it.
"The fish were so thick," Leasure said, "that we were trying to catch more than one fish on a rig, and with light tackle that wasn't always possible every time. We should have been re-rigging after each fish, but we didn't have the rigs ready because we really didn't know we would run into so many fish."
Summergirl wasn't alone, as many other boats also posted double-digit releases during the same period. Garmany, for instance, released 11 sails and jumped a blue marlin November 4.
"We caught those fish during the first week of November," Leasure said. "No one really knew all these fish were out there. From September on there is so much to do in South Carolina, from football to hunting, that many people aren't out there fishing. But once a few people started having some luck, then the word spread."
Even though high numbers of releases occur later in the year, Leasure said anglers shouldn't overlook July possibilities.
"You can get 10 to 20 bites per trip later in the year," he said. "In the summer, when the fish are more scattered, you can still end up catching five or six sails per trip. For a long time, if you caught one billfish per trip off S.C.'s coast, you had a good trip. But that seems to be changing now."
Garmany and Leasure use the same basic setup when targeting sailfish. The key is to start scaling down tackle since the majority of blue marlins are gone.
"I fish naked ballyhoo," Garmany said. "You can dress them with a Sea Witch if you want, but I normally don't. Sometimes the Sea Witch can slide up the line when a sail hits but doesn't get the bait. When you drop it back to him, the dressing can create drag on the line that's unnatural once the fish has the bait, which can cause the sail to drop the bait."
"The smaller the better when it comes to ballyhoo size," Leasure said.
Leasure normally fishes an 8-foot leader of 60-pound monofilament and a No. 6/0 hook. Garmany opts for an 80-pound Jen-Kai leader. He said the softer line makes it easier for the fish to turn the bait around in its mouth, and he uses a No. 7/0 Mustad 9175 short-shank hook.
TLD 25s reels with 20-pound line are the standard set up. The two captains said light tackle makes summer sailfishing ideal for kids to get into offshore billfishing.
"These fish are very acrobatic," Leasure said. "You don't need heavy tackle. A lot of people will be out there with TLD 50s. You don't need anything that big.
"In Florida, they use spinning rods, and I've even caught a couple on spinning rods here. The fish also would make a great opportunity for anglers with fly rods, but I haven't tried that yet."
Sailfish off of South Carolina average between 40 and 60 pounds.
Each boat also runs two "dredges" for teasers. Dredges are umbrella rigs that originated in the Northeast with striper fishermen. Featuring 72 ballyhoos per dredge, Garmany runs artificial ballyhoos, called Tuff-hoos, on the inside and real ones on the outer arms, whereas Leasure opts entirely for artificial teasers.
"You will want to troll a little slower than you normally do when fishing for dolphin or tuna," Garmany said. "Go fast enough to keep everything swimming, about 5 to 5 1/2 knots."
Leasure backs down further, trolling 3 to 3 1/2 knots.
Because sailfish are scattered during July, where to find them is hard to say exactly.
"You can find sailfish nearly anywhere," Garmany said. "It might be from 60 feet of water out to 600 feet. But in close, from about 180 feet inward, the barracudas will drive you nuts. And there's no need to go beyond 400 feet in the summer because the warm water has most of the bait pushed inshore.
"The last three years or so, a lot of the action has been just inshore of the 226 and 380 Holes."
Leasure finds his sweet spot at about the same depth range.
"I usually find the sails the best in the 200- to 400-foot range," he said. "You want to find some bait. Once you find some pods of bait, work that area for a time before you move on to look elsewhere. In the summer, you can expect to (average) six to eight opportunities (per day) at sailfish."
Leasure also found another bite during summer sailfishing.
"There is a pretty good wahoo bite into August," he said. "You want to consider that bite. Some captains will switch to light wire to keep from getting cut off by a wahoo, but I usually stay with the monofilament, realizing I might lose a (sail)fish."
Captains also appear to be more willing to help other boats when it comes to sailfishing. Usually when a bluewater bite happens, boats switch to selected secret radio channels. These few boats work together to catch fish. But not with sailfishing.
"It's hard to say where to tell someone to go exactly in the summer because the fish are so scattered," Leasure said. "No one certain area seems to be better than any other.
"However, when the bite is on, it's not as big a secret as other times of the year because there are usually fewer boats. Several boats gave it a shot last year, and everyone worked together to spread the bite around - and it worked. The reports showed several boats having multiple releases the same day."
"There is getting to be a lot more enthusiasm about sailfishing," Garmany said. "I know of a boat that came down out of Ocean City, Md., last year to fish the bite. I expect there'll be more out-of-town boats this year.
"It's a good fishery, and people don't treat it as a big secret at this point."
Anglers who want a chance at multiple billfish days without driving to Florida, should try summer sailfishing in South Carolina.
They won't see the frenzy of tuna fishing before a hookup, but once hooked, the aerial antics of sailfish more than disturb the ocean's surface.