From the bridge, it looked like the school of dolphin was holding the boat afloat. There were flashes of iridescent yellows, greens and blues everywhere. The fish came so close that the mate nearly free-gaffed several. It was the proverbial "fishing in a barrel."
While the dolphin were numerous, they were small. Known as "peanuts," they averaged only a couple of pounds and had the energy and fearlessness of a 16-year-old behind the wheel of stock car at Darlington. With the late June sun bearing down - even though it was only 11 a.m. - the weather, action and size of the fish was a lot different from a month earlier.
The name of the game in May was a fleece jacket during the morning ride out - and maybe long pants if it was early in the month. Fishing consisted of trolling spreads of dressed ballyhoo and landing bull dolphin that had Rocky Balboa foreheads and pushed scales to the half-century mark. There was none of this pitching bait 10 feet to fish that weren't much larger than blue marlin baits.
The typical summer offshore pattern was beginning off of Charleston.
The large schools of yellowfin tuna and gaffer dolphin had moved north. Billfish numbers had risen, but many fishermen were complaining about the lack of meat fish, mentioning over the radio that they were moving to other ports for more action.
What these boats were leaving behind was an improving sailfish bite that consistently gets better as summer progresses, ultimately rivaling the winter catches found off of Florida.
One look at the 2006 HMY-Viking Megadock Billfish Tournament out of Charleston proved the point. Fished last year at the end of June and in early July, the tournament featured 81 boats that released 131 billfish, a state record for a tournament.
The billfish count featured 31 blue marlin, 37 white marlin and a whopping 63 sailfish. The winning boat, Home Run, actually landed fewer blue marlin than the second-place boat, Bentley's Best, but Home Run's point total was bolstered by seven sailfish releases.
One tournament's results could be described as a fluke, but these sorts of catches have been common in recent years. The 1999 Charleston Harbor Marina Billfish Tournament also had a tremendous sailfish bite mixed in with the blue marlin action. That year, 79 billfish, four white marlin, 31 blue marlin and 44 sailfish were released.
It wasn't always this way, said one captain who has fished offshore of South Carolina for more than 30 years.
"You used to have incidental catches of sailfish during the tournaments," said Capt. Mike McClamrock, captain of the 61-foot Overspray, a recreational offshore boat that fishes out of Georgetown Landing Marina. "I don't know that anyone has figured out exactly why there seem to be more sailfish around now, but it is definitely something we've not had in the past."
McClamrock should know. Eleven years ago, a catch on his boat set the South Carolina offshore community on fire.
"In 1996," McClamrock said, "we caught seven sailfish in one day. That was unprecedented at the time. It was described as a 'freakish' day of fishing in the papers. Today, that number is commonplace, and that wasn't really all that long ago."
Boats, such as Sportin' Life, Major Motion, Summergirl, Aggressor, and Special Lady - as well as others - have all had double-digit release days in recent years.
McClamrock acknowledges that there are more boats fishing today, but he personally believes the sailfish population is higher off of South Carolina.
"When I started fishing here in the mid-1970s," he said, "it was rare to see more than three boats fishing at Georgetown Hole. Very few boats ventured that far. Today, there might be 50 or 60 boats there during the weekend.
"All of the boats today create better coverage in offshore waters, which helps spread the word where the fish are located. However, even back when there weren't as many boats, you still had a select group of boats that fished many of the same areas where sailfish are being consistently caught today. We still didn't see the big sailfish numbers.
"I don't believe it was a case (that) we were just missing them in the past. You'd hear about a sail showing up during the summer on the kingfish grounds, but you never heard about the numbers we are talking about that have been around the last three or four years.
"The showing of sailfish has progressively improved each year," McClamrock said.
McClamrock and Capt. Ben Polk, who runs the 54-foot Special Lady (843-696-7655 or www.seafix.com) from Toler's Cove Marina in Mount Pleasant, both say it's about finding bait.
"When we found those sailfish back in 1996, they were magnetized on the bait," McClamrock said. "It was a nice concentration, and those fish just didn't want to leave it.
"It can be the same way now. If you find some bait, you can do really well."
"It pays to watch your electronics," Polk said. "A lot of times, you are not going to see birds working busting bait like you would if tuna were working a school of bait. You are most likely going to see a sailfish jump, if you see anything at all on the surface.
"That's why, if you mark some bait, you should work that area over real well."
While finding bait can enhance your chances, McClamrock has looked at other features as well.
"There doesn't seem to be much rhyme or reason why sails are showing up in some spots now," he said. "I've looked at a lot of variables, and a couple of things pop out.
"It appears the sails don't like to be in fast-moving water. You usually find them just inside of the current edge. The sails also appear to be found in higher salinity areas. Usually there's a pronounced difference.
"The boat sometimes looks like a glazed donut from the salt spray," McClamrock said.
Another feature that McClamrock utilizes is altimetry data.
"Altimetry of the ocean is just like when you are flying," he said. "There are places of the ocean that are higher or lower than mean zero.
"When the water is showing a minus, you can pretty much count on the water being pulled down, which is usually not good fishing. On the other hand, plus water is bubbling water, which is usually an upwelling of some sort.
"You can find rips in these locations, and the water pushing towards the surface brings with it nutrients and bait, all good things for productive fishing. If these factors combine with good water color, then it should really be a hot spot."
The warm water of July and August will have sailfish scattered about. It's not until September, October and early November when the fish get really concentrated at certain spots. Nonetheless, there are a few summer spots to check out.
"You can sailfish just about anywhere during the summer," Polk said. "They might be in 50 feet of water or as deep as 700 feet. King mackerel fishermen routinely get a sail in their baits, but in close, barracudas can be a problem. Since warm water has most of the bait pushed inshore, there's not much reason to get out beyond 400 feet.
"Usually, the 200- to 400-foot range is good," Polk said. McClamrock echoed a similar depth range.
"Inside of the 226 Hole and 380 Hole have been productive areas the last few years," Polk said.
To catch sailfish, there are a couple of things to keep in mind when it comes to technique and tackle.
"Most trolling offshore is done around 6 1/2 knots," Polk said. "You need to slow it down for sailfish. Back your trolling speed down to about 5 or 5 1/2 knots."
Some captains have been known to go as slow as 3 to 3 1/2 knots.
"Sailfish will bite when you are trolling at faster speed, but the slower speeds cleans up the prop wash some, which helps the dredge stay in the water and makes it a little more visible," Polk said.
Most successful sailfish boats pull dredges - umbrella rigs that originated in the Northeast for striper fishing. Featuring as many as 72 real or artificial fish, the dredge is designed to mimic a ball of bait.
Polk, for example, will pull two dredges in tandem to create the effect. The dredge features no hooks and it's usually the captain's choice as to whether the baits are real or artificial. Some run exclusively one form or will mix it up, putting artificial baits towards the center of the dredge and real ballyhoo, for example, on the outside. Besides ballyhoo, mullet are sometimes used.
Sailfish off the South Carolina coast average between 40 and 60 pounds. While very few anglers ever bring a sailfish to the docks, the state record sail is 75 pounds, landed in 1968.
"Scale down your tackle and bait," Polk said.
Both McClamrock and Polk recommended using reels such as TLD 20s through TLD 30s, spooled with no more than 30-pound monofilament line. Both opt for a stiff, 15-foot section of 60-pound monofilament that offers abrasion resistance. The rig is completed with a 60-pound Jen-Kai leader, which is softer. Some captains may go as heavy as an 80-pound leader.
"You have to stay as natural as possible and avoid stiff leaders," McClamrock said. "The softer leader allows the fish to turn the bait around in their mouth if they need to without much resistance."
"I usually use a No. 6/0 Mustad 9175 hook," Polk said. "I'll rig several medium ballyhoo up with wire and no push pin or weight. You don't want the pushpin in this case, because sometimes when a sailfish bites down on the bait he'll feel the pin and drop the bait.
"We'll troll two rods and have two rods ready to pitch. It is best to rig up several ballyhoo baits, because when sailfish come up, they are usually not traveling alone. If you see one, there is normally at least one more around as well. This is a mistake you don't want to make, because it can turn an average day into one you will remember for a long time."
McClamrock also fishes a No. 6/0 hook, usually a circle hook, but he has been known to go as low as a No. 5/0.
"I know some captains fish medium ballyhoos for sailfish, but I prefer to use small or peewees," McClamrock said.
Most offshore captains - and McClamrock and Polk are no different - fish ballyhoos naked, opting for as natural spread as possible. McClamrock said it has been his experience that sailfish will shy away from baits that are dressed, no matter how small the dressing.
Although water temperatures are high in July, Polk and McClamrock said a fisherman shouldn't be surprised if other species show up in the bait spread. Dolphin are a real possibility, and wahoo will make an appearance as well. Wahoo usually end up cutting off since there's no wire leader, but landing dolphin should be no problem on a sailfish rig. The light tackle makes it extremely fun.
"Sometimes a 400-pound blue marlin will crash your sailfish baits," McClamrock said. "All you can do then is give it your best shot, and sometimes you win."