All billfish are special, but sailfish are the ones most likely to be encountered by fishermen other than those specifically seeking billfish. One of the best locations to catch sailfish north of Florida is in the waters around Cape Fear. Unlike blue and white marlin, sailfish readily abandon the Gulf Stream and move inshore following baitfish once the water warms above 70 degrees.
There is something about the water off Cape Fear that attracts sailfish, perhaps the abundance of baitfish flushed out the Cape Fear River on each falling tide, or the current patterns around Frying Pan Shoals that often trap schools of baitfish. For whatever reason, sails return to the area every year and occasionally wander inshore. Fishermen don’t question what draws the spindlebeaks that close in; they just try to be prepared to take advantage when it happens.
The midsummer arrival of sailfish has become so consistent, they’re almost expected.
Most Cape Fear sailfish are hooked incidentally by king mackerel fishermen slow-trolling live baits. They are targeting large kings, maybe hoping a dolphin or two might hit, and most are pleasantly surprised when 30 seconds into a drag-screaming run, a sailfish begins tail-walking at the end of their line. Anglers specifically targeting sailfish and nearshore dolphin often deploy trolling lures or small lures and skirts paired with small ballyhoo.
Lee Parsons, a Wrightsville Beach guide, said, “The current federal regulations require using circle hooks when targeting billfish with baits. I prefer to fish small ballyhoo rigged naked. I catch a few sailfish on them rigged with skirts, but the skirts seem to attract a lot more kings and dolphin.”
An area that runs from Frying Pan Shoals past WR-4 and 23-Mile Rock to Dallas Rock has been occasionally referred to as the “Cape Fear sailfish crescent.” They are also found west of Frying Pan Shoals, just not in quite the same numbers.
The move of sailfish into area waters has been so predictably that the only sailfish tournament in North Carolina is held from Wrightsville Beach in late July each year. The Capt. Eddy Haneman Sailfish Tournament was founded in 2000 to honor Haneman, a charter-fishing pioneer from Wrightsville Beach. Tournament boundaries limit fishermen to fishing east of Frying Pan Tower and in water shallower than 100 feet. It is scheduled this year for July 28-31.