ISLAMORADA, Fla. With 12 sailfish landed on Day One of the ESPN Outdoors Saltwater Series Redbone event here Saturday, the Caribsea team led by captain Kenny Spaulding has a three-fish lead over second-place Real McCoy.
However, even the third-place Kalex team, which caught seven sailfish, thinks it has a chance of winning this tournament concluding Sunday.
"Absolutely, we can win this thing," said Kalex captain Alex Adler. "The fish are here. The bait is stacked up and there are a lot of fish here. It's going to be good (Sunday)."
It's unanimous that sailfishing has been better in the Florida Keys this fall than in the last few years. That should make for an interesting finish in the Don Gurgiolo Sailfish Classic, which has become part of the Redbone Celebrity Tournament Series for the first time. The tournament, named in honor of the local legendary guide, has been held annually since 2000, the year after Gurgiolo's death.
"I expect it to be good again (Sunday)," said Real McCoy captain George McElveen. "There are a lot of fish spread all up and down (the Islamorada area). Usually they're in one area, but there are a lot of sailfish throughout this area."
Fifteen teams are entered in the tournament, and all but three caught at least three sailfish Saturday, which featured 70-degree temperatures, mostly clear skies and a northerly wind blowing up to 25 miles per hour.
The sailfish were caught on a variety of live bait, including ballyhoo, pilchards, goggle-eye and cigar minnows. And the sailfish hit those baitfish used in a variety of methods, from straight-line trolling to kite fishing to sight-fishing.
"Any time you catch seven billfish in one day, it's been a good day," said Adler, whose Kalex team included James Verner, Josh Ardis and Chris Walters, all of nearby Duck Key. "We caught them about equally between kites, sight-fishing and trolling."
No other team caught them like the Caribsea boat, led by Spaulding, which also included Becky Hester Hopson and T.J. Hopson of Tavernier.
McElveen's Real McCoy team included Stacey Telenzak, Rick Miller and John Wara of Del Ray Beach.
"Sailfishing has been improving each year lately," said Gary Ellis, who, along with this wife, Susan, founded the Redbone Tournament Series in 1984 as a fundraiser for curing cystic fibrosis. "There's more bait now. I think that may have something to do with the netting ban that was instituted about 15 or 20 years ago."
The wind is expected to blow again Sunday and shift to the northeast, but McElveen is certain that at least one team will continue to catch sailfish.
"This time of year, it changes from day to day," McElveen said. "But it's all about the bait. There's a lot of bait out there now, and the fish will stay where the bait is. I think it will take between 18 and 20 fish to win this tournament."
The winning team will be decided by the highest total number of sailfish caught and released over the two-day event. Anglers are restricted to a maximum of 12-pound test main line and no more than 15 feet of leader, which can be of higher strength than the main line.