Sailfish vs Marlin: the Battle of the Bills

The world of comics has Batman and Superman, we, anglers, have Sailfish and Marlin! These mighty fish may seem similar, but in fact, they are quite different. Read on to learn the key differences, dietary habits, and superpowers of these rulers of the ocean!

A poster of Sailfish and Blue Marlin under water

The Billfish family

Marlin and Sailfish are fish species that belong to the Billfish family. They are highly predatory species, the fastest and fiercest in the entire ocean. Although some Billfish taste mediocre and others are supposed to be a delicacy, most of the time anglers release them. The taste itself has never been the goal of anglers who chase these incredible creatures.

The truth is – these fish are the very best of sport fishing. And that’s why thousands of anglers make the effort to get them, year after year. Billfish are strong, acrobatic, lean, fast, and difficult to catch. If you want ultimate bragging rights, you’ve just got to reel them in. Luckily, Billfish are present the world over, from Australia to the Gulf of Mexico, and many places in between.

Family tree of Billfish, showing Swordfish, Blue, White, Black, and Striped Marlin, Shortbill Spearfish, Longbill Spearfish, and Swordfish

Marlin and Sailfish species

Before you compare Marlin and Sailfish stats head-to-head, it’s important to note that there is no single species called Marlin, or Sailfish.

In fact, Marlin come in four different shapes and sizes: Blue Marlin, Black Marlin, Striped Marlin and White Marlin. Each of the sub-species has quirks of its own. Blue Marlin are the largest, Black Marlin are the fastest, White Marlin are agile and elegant, and Striped Marlin are plain cool. They live in New Zealand and have stripes.

These fascinating fish have a stellar reputation among anglers for their speed and force. If you want to dive into the subject and prepare thoroughly for your next Billfish trip, then check out our in-depth guide on all things Marlin related.

As for Sailfish, some authors say that there are two main subspecies: Pacific Sailfish and Atlantic Sailfish. Authors that differentiate between the two claim that Atlantic specimens are on average smaller and brighter in color. Other authors recognize only one species, claiming that there are no significant differences in DNA, fin length, or dietary habits. More and more people accept the latter as evidence. That’s why you will more often find Sailfish as a single species.

What’s the difference between Marlin and Sailfish?

Marlin and Sailfish look quite similar, at least to the untrained eye. And though they inhabit similar waters and share a similar diet (watch out, Bonito), these two species have a lot of differences:

Appearance

For one, the shape of the dorsal (back) fin is nothing alike.

Sailfish have bigger, sail-like fins (hence the name), while the dorsal fin of Marlin peaks at the front and gently slopes downward.

The image showing Sailfish vs Marlin dorsal fin, with a diagram showing their fins shape and an image of Sailfish and Marlin caught
Who wore it better? If you want to tell Sailfish and Marlin apart, check out the fins on their back.

Hunting

Sailfish and Marlin also behave differently. While Marlin are generally loners, Sailfish move and hunt together. Often times, when you hook one Sailfish, there are a lot more “sails” nearby. Sailfish are impressively coordinated when hunting. So trained, in fact, that a lot of marine biologists nicknamed them the “wolves of the sea”.

A group of Sailfish hunting together near the surface of the ocean.

Fighting

When it comes to action and durability, Marlin are second to none. They were made to tire you out and won’t stop even after several hours. Remember the Old Man and the Sea? That’s Marlin fishing at its best.

However, Sailfish are neither weak nor feeble. They are crazily fast and will make the drag scream like it’s Judgement Day. You need to be fully focused to land them or you risk a damaged ego and a missed chance – they get tired faster than Marlin, but won’t surrender easily.

Be careful when attempting to reel in these beasts. Their bills can seriously harm you and some anglers have even been pulled off into the water by the sheer brute force of these fish. They will give their best to free themselves by violently shaking their bodies, so watch out. Don’t bring the fish near the boat before they you tire them out.

Where do Marlin and Sailfish live?

Both Sailfish and Marlin love warm waters and will travel far to stay close to them.

The following maps by FishBase, the largest database on fish species, show where you can get your dream fish.

Sailfish

You can find Sailfish anywhere in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Ocean, from 50° N to about 35° S. They will rarely move past those points and only in the warmest of months.

Sailfish habitat heatmap

Marlin

Marlin are an even more migratory species, they move all around the world in search of warm waters and good food. While you can find Sailfish relatively close to the shore, sometimes only three miles from dry land (as is the case in Miami Beach or Stuart), Marlin swim farther offshore. Generally, Sailfish inhabit shallower waters, between 100 and 300 feet, while Marlin will swim in waters deeper than that, staying close to the surface.

Some places around the globe have fantastic Marlin fishing as deep waters lie only miles from the coast. When you’re in Cairns (Australia), New Zealand, Cabo San Lucas, or some other major Billfish destinations, you can get humongous Marlin on a half day trip.

Blue Marlin

Blue Marlin live in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian oceans in water temperatures ranging from 69 to 95°F. They usually spend the winter in warm waters, moving towards the Equator, while spring seems them swimming back into temperate waters.

Blue Marlin habitat heatmap

Black Marlin

Black Marlin live in the waters of Indo-Pacific ocean, hunting the surface. They mostly stay in tropical waters with the temperature from 75 to 80 °F. These Marlin are highly migratory, and some even enter the Atlantic near the Cape of Good Hope.

Black Marlin habitat heatmap

Striped Marlin

These beauties live in Indo-Pacific oceans, in tropical and warm temperate waters. They stay near the surface at all times and feed during daylight. During cold months, Striped Marlin move towards the Equator and swim away from it in warm months.

Striped Marlin habitat heatmap

White Marlin

White Marlin inhabit the waters of the Atlantic Ocean from Maine to Argentina, including the Gulf of Mexico. They move near the surface, in water temperatures of 65+°F. These fish love to migrate – from May to October they move north off the US and then make their way south during cooler months.

White Marlin habitat heatmap

What do Sailfish and Marlin eat?

Sailfish prey on creatures that swim near the surface, such as squid, Mackerel, Jacks, smaller Tunas, and flying fish. It’s best to use the “local” bait – fish that inhabit the waters you’re fishing.

As for Marlin, fresh Mackerel is your best shot when it comes to live bait. Marlin aren’t picky though, so you can also try some mid-size Mahi, Tunas, and Bonefish.

There is no bulletproof bait out there, which makes the fishing even more exciting.

As a rule of thumb, you should use either live or strip bait.

Sailfish vs Marlin: Head-to-head

Sailfish vs Marlin stats on length, weight, and speed

So, where do you stand in the Sailfish vs Marlin debate? Have you caught any of these before, and where? If you haven’t, which would you rather catch and why? Can’t wait to hear your stories in the comments below!

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