PORT SALERNO —
The year was 1938. It was January.
Sport fishing was growing out of the roots of commercial fishing. Treasure Coast watermen were learning that anglers would pay them for their skills to guide them to a day’s catch of fish.
Sailfish were thick off Stuart that winter. Having little or no value at the market, they were largely not targeted. Until sportsmen realized the true value of the sailfish — as perhaps the ocean’s most magnificent game fish.
That second week of January 1938, Ernie Lyons, the longtime editor of the Stuart News, had arranged for outdoor editors from around the country to fish with the area’s charter boats. That week, well over 100 sailfish were caught trolling mullet.
Happily exhausted editors returned to home cities in New York, St. Louis, Washington and Miami. They described to their readerships their great adventures catching dozens of a majestic sport fish known as the sailfish. One scribe even suggested that “the sailfishing is so good off Stuart, they might as well name it the capital.”
Thus was born an iconic nickname and a small town’s image.
“Sailfish Capital of the World” was bestowed upon Stuart and Martin County by area leaders who recognized its marketing potential for tourism. Over the years, sport fishermen have debated whether Stuart and the Treasure Coast was still worthy of the title. Robust sailfish fisheries in Mexico, Panama, Key West, Venezuela and Costa Rica have all risen as prime destinations for the sport.
But the past two winters on the Treasure Coast sent a powerful message. When it comes to catching sailfish in December and January, there may be no better place in the world to do it than right here.
Sampling catch and release totals from the area’s five established sailfish tournaments, the numbers are inarguable. Four of the area events’ highest seven totals were recorded during the past two winters. Remarkable considering the number of boats that gathered for the events has been trending downwards for nearly 10 years.
As good as the sailfish action was a year ago, one longtime tournament skipper is not as optimistic about this season’s prospects in terms of total numbers of caught fish. Capt. Scott Fawcett of Jensen Beach steered the tournament fishing team aboard Joe Lehner’s Bone Shaker to the title in the coveted Treasure Coast Sailfish Championship.
Fawcett led Lehner, anglers Sky Wichers, Van Wichers, and mates Kyle Francis, Brandon Walton and Patrick Price to a record catch of 73 sailfish over nine days during the run across three of the area’s oldest events. It shattered the 15-year-old Championship’s previous record by 16.
Over the next two weeks, Fawcett’s team will fish in the area’s first three sailfish tournaments of the season. Coming off a win in last weekend’s Palm Beach Sailfish Classic, he hopes Bone Shaker’s magical 2011 continues.
“We may not have the banner seasons like we saw the last two years,” said Fawcett whose team caught 14 sailfish in the Classic’s two days. “We had a good early start to the season in September, but the fish we’re catching now are not as concentrated.”
Fawcett said the bait does not seem to be around. The last two seasons, schools of sardines, threadfin herring and tinker mackerel could be found over many of the area’s natural and artificial reefs and shipwrecks. Everywhere there was signs of active sea life. Now, not so much.
“There’s no shortage of dolphin right now and that’s a good sign, but the bait has disappeared. The sailfish we are catching are different. They are more shy, they don’t fire up on the teaser baits as aggressively. Last year it seemed like you couldn’t make a turn without raising a fish.”
Sailfish action this season may be less oriented to bottom structure, he said. Fawcett said anglers seeking to catch a few sailfish will do best by trolling along a current rip, a weed line or where there is a color change. The sailfish, he believes, are not staging here this year, but are migrating through.
But only the sailfish know for sure.
2011-12 TREASURE COAST SAILFISH TOURNAMENT CALENDAR
FINEST KIND QUICKIE
When: Monday through Wednesday
Marina: Finest Kind, 3585 S.E. St. Lucie Blvd., Stuart
Format: Open (professional captains and mates may fight fish)
PIRATES COVE SAILFISH CLASSIC
When: Dec. 1-4
Marina: Pirates Cove Resort, 4307 S.E. Bayview Dr., Port Salerno
TREASURE COAST SAILFISH CHAMPIONSHIP
When: Dec. 1 through Jan. 7
Fished: During course of three tournaments
STUART SAILFISH CLUB LIGHT TACKLE
When: Dec. 8-11
Marina: Sailfish Marina, 3565 S.E. St. Lucie Blvd., Stuart
Format: Amateur with one paid crewmen allowed
PELICAN YACHT CLUB INVITATIONAL BILLFISH TOURNAMENT
When: Jan. 3-7, 2012
Marina: Pelican Yacht Club, 1400 Seaway Dr., Fort Pierce
SAILFISH POINT YACHT CLUB INVITATIONAL SAILFISH TOURNAMENT
When: Jan. 19-22, 2012
Marina: Sailfish Point Yacht Club and Marina, Sailfish Point
SAILFISH TOURNAMENT WINNERS of 2010-11
Finest Kind Quickie: Zues, Capt. Glenn Cameron, 19 releases*
Pirates Cove Sailfish Classic: 2010: Cowpoke, Capt. Mike Brady, 24 releases
Light Tackle Sailfish Tournament: 2010: Cowpoke, Capt. Mike Brady, 28 releases
Pelican Yacht Club Invitational Billfish: 2011: Lo Que Sea, Capt. Kevin Paul, 24 releases
Sailfish Point Yacht Club Invitational: 2011: Koo Koo, Capt. Kevin Adrian, 5 releases
Treasure Coast Sailfish Championship: 2011: Bone Shaker, Capt. Scott Fawcett, 73 releases*
* – Tournament record
TOP 10 AREA SAILFISH TOURNAMENT TOTAL CATCHES
538: 1997 Stuart Sailfish Club Light Tackle Sailfish Tournament, 45 boats (4 days)
408: 2010 Pelican Yacht Club Invitational Billfish Tournament, 29 boats
386: 2004 Pelican Yacht Club Invitational Billfish Tournament, 52 boats
377: 2011 Pelican Yacht Club Invitational Billfish Tournament, 30 boats
348: 2009 Stuart Sailfish Club Light Tackle Sailfish Tournament, 21 boats
330: 2006 Fort Pierce Billfish Derby, 17 boats
330: 2010 Pirates Cove Sailfish Classic, 30 boats
304: 1994 Stuart Sailfish Club Light Tackle Tournament, 38 boats
303: 1977 Stuart Sailfish Club Light Tackle Tournament, 54 boats
278: 2004 Sailfish Point Invitational Sailfish Tournament, 24 boats
* Tournament record
2010-2011 TOURNAMENT FLEET TOTALS
QUICKIE: 116 releases by 21 boats fishing 2 days straight
PIRATES COVE: 330* by 30 boats fishing 3 days straight
LIGHT TACKLE: 295 by 17 boats fishing 3 of 4 days
PELICAN: 377 by 30 boats fishing 3 of 4 days
SAILFISH POINT: 26 by 11 boats fishing 2 of 3 days