By Justin Ritchey
It’s never been easy for me to get organized the night before a trip offshore. Not just because it’s a 3+ hour drive at an ungodly hour (usually 1 or 2am), but the amount of preparation that goes into rigging jigs, tying stinger rigs, charging batteries and studying weather conditions keeps me on edge the entire night. Every time this type of trip rolls around I think, “I’ll get a jump on preparations in the afternoon so I can get a good night sleep”. And every time, I’m reminded of how bad my time management really is. So after 4 hours of rigging & packing, I finally back out of my driveway at 1:15am the next morning, on Zero Sleep (which I DO NOT RECOMMEND to any angler), and embark on yet another expedition to the waters of South Florida.
Even though I safely made it to Pompano that morning, it wasn’t without it’s pit stops. Between the Gas Station, a quick McDonalds drive-through, and a much needed 30 min power nap once I pulled off the interstate, I ended up making it Beachside around 5:30am. With only 30 minutes left until Sunrise, I rushed down to the surf with all my gear and launched as fast as I could. Unfortunately, this didn’t leave me with much time to Sabiki bait before daybreak. I tried checking the 3 known areas I usually target for bait off the beach, but only ended up with 3 Oversized Blue Runners and 1 Goggle Eye; not the most ideal turnout, but it would have to do for the day. Besides, I had mentally prepared to test out all of my Slow Pitch Jigging gear anyways, so having bait was more of a bonus.
But as luck would have it, the Jig Bite was non-existent. Crystal Clear Water and Zero Current makes for ideal diving conditions, but not so much in the way of vertical jigging. Every depth I explored, from 90’ all the way out to 350’, seemed to be devoid of life. Sure, my depth finder showcased nice marks halfway down the sounder, but it seemed like no one wanted to come up to play. All the while, my Arnold Schwarzenegger-sized Blue Runner was running a marathon way behind my kayak, with zero interest from any pelagic passerby. Reports on the radio featured William Centrone and other locals on an exceptional bite, with one person catching a nice Mutton Snapper and the other landing a Wahoo. At least someone was finding action today. Their success only fueled me to try harder, cover more water, and jig faster.
Unfortunately, it was nearing Noon and all I had to show for my efforts was a small Almaco Jack and a Trigger Fish. With one last Hail Mary attempt, I switched out the large Blue Runner with the only Goggle Eye in my live well and decided to leave the 300’+ ledge for shallower prey. I noticed on my Navionics app a wreck out in the low 200’ range that was nearby. If anything, maybe this wreck would hold a few small Blackfin or even an Amberjack to test my tackle; anything that would make this trip worthwhile. I marked the structure on my Lowrance and drop my Benthos 150g. Pink/Glow jig to the bottom. Shortly after making contact I notice my flatline setup get nervous. A few bounces of the rod-tip and then SPLASH!…..my line immediately went slack. Normally, a sky-rocketing Kingfish is a dead giveaway, and I would be able to see this predator mid flight during the decent. But this strike didn’t seem characteristic of a King. Given the time of year and my location, I had only one other assumption of what this could be.
My instincts kicked in, I quickly grabbed my rod and placed my reel into free spool, carefully thumbing my line further back. Nearly 10 seconds later, I feel something grab my bait and make a blistering run South. After spoon feeding this mystery fish I slowly engage my drag until I felt pressure on the other end. The verdict was in: this was definitely NOT a Kingfish. Line was peeling off my reel faster than I could manage, and then suddenly I hear splashes in the distance, although not in the direction my line was going. My rod may have been bent to the South, but the splashes were coming from behind my kayak, and over 100 yards away! I quickly realized I had hooked an experienced Sailfish that was taking full advantage of this inexperienced angler.
I quickly try to gain line on this fish and shift my rudder North to begin the chase down. Despite my best efforts, this fish was pulling line off my real faster than I could pedal! After taking nearly 200 yds of line I slowly gained control over the fight and the tables turned in my favor. I didn’t care how far this fish pulled me. I didn’t care how long the fight would take. All I could think about was this was the best opportunity I’ve had all year at landing my 1st Sailfish from a kayak. I’ve landed a few Sailfish over the years from a boat, but nothing can compare to being at eye level with one of the most acrobatic fish in the ocean. About 5 minutes into the fight this Sailfish breached and put on an amazing show. 1 Jump, then 2, then 3, 4, 5, 6! It felt like I was in Cabo San Lucas, but at half the price! Then she sounded and went deep, and I realized that this fight was far from over. With this fish hovering directly under my kayak most of the fight, I was forced to shift my rod tip over my bow multiple times to apply pressure from different directions. Normally, a 7’ Rod is the standard length with conventional outfits. Fortunately I hooked this fish on my Star Rod Handcrafted KFHC 7’6” outfit with me today, allowing me to swing my rod tip from left-to-right across the front of the kayak with ease. Right tool for the job was an understatement, as this setup allowed me to maneuver this Sailfish with little effort and apply steady pressure to lessen the length of the fight.
Out the corner of my eye I notice another kayaker by himself, enjoying the fight from a distance. I quickly realized it was our Local Legend, John McKroid. I informed him that this would be my 1st Sailfish from the kayak and he politely agreed to help me land the fish and snap a few pictures. Even though I was able to leader this fish next the kayak multiple times, I just didn’t want to quit fighting. It was humbling, really, knowing that this fish was ready to fight to the end, much like myself. John quickly snaps a few pictures of me holding the broadbill and fin of this fish, keeping her in the water as much as possible to offer the best chance for survival. These fish deserve our respect: they give us 100% during the fight, we should offer 100% during revival.
After nearly 10 minutes of pedaling in big circles, this beautiful animal swam away strong; her stripes glowing blue with the same intensity as the beginning of the fight. John and I celebrated the victory, spent some time chatting about our backgrounds and shared a few fishing stories. I can see why he is so well-respected in our kayak community. We parted ways and I slowly pedaled back to the beach with the sweet satisfaction of not needed to lick my wounds after such a long trip South.
I always preach that Preparation is the single-most important component to a successful day on the water. But I learned another lesson this trip. That we need to be flexible and be grateful for whatever Lake Atlantic throws our way. I had it in my mind that morning that I would focus on Jigging until my arms fell off. Instead I was rewarded in kind by one of the toughest fighting fish in the ocean. It goes to show you that even though you can cross all your “I’s” and dot all your “T’s”, Pompano Beach is never without its curveballs. With the Sailfish Smackdown fast approaching, have this be a reminder to have your finger ready on the trigger, because you just don’t know when that award-winning bite is going to happen.