Sailfish (Istiophorus platypterus)
- Size 40 to 60lbs
- Food Value Low
- Game Qualities Good
- Habitats Offshore
The first sign of a Sailfish will be the sighting of its stunning dorsal fin, which they flaunt like true princes of the ocean. Although they're on the smaller end of the billfish spectrum, these elegant, yet savage, creatures offer intense light tackle action and a good preparation for going after Marlin.
These pelagic, migratory fish are some of the fastest marine creatures in existence, clocking in at speeds of up to 70mph. They are normally found swimming close to the surface, alone or in small groups. If schooling, it's likely that they're hearding prey in a spectacular display of color changing, sail flashing and bill stunning.
The Pacific Sailfish reaches lengths of up to 134'' (including the bill) and about 220lbs. The Atlantic Sailfish is smaller in comparison, at about 124'' and 150lbs. A common catch in Florida will be between 6 and 8ft and between 40 and 60lbs.
When & Where
Sailfish are cosmopolitan, spread across tropical and subtropical zones of all oceans up to between 40 and 50° N and around 35° S. They thrive in warm temperate waters between 70 and 83°F, so, in the northern and southern extremes, they will only be found during the warmest months.
In Florida, the most popular fishery in the US, hotspots include the entire Atlantic coast, especially Miami and Stuart, where they can be found close to shore (the farther up north, the farther offshore they will be, along the Gulf Stream), Middle Keys, particularly Islamorada, and the Panhandle, in abundance at the 100 fathom curve off Destin.
Other popular fisheries in the Atlantic include the west coast of Africa, the Gulf of Mexico, Bermuda, Puerto Rico, Aruba, Curaçao and the smaller landmasses in the Caribbean Sea. Prolific Pacific fisheries include Papua New Guinea, the Philippines and many Central Pacific islands such as Tahiti, Marquesas and Hawaii. Mexico offers access to both Atlantic and Pacific Sailfish. If you'd like to know more great Sailfishing spots, have a look at the Sport Fishing Magazine and Marlin Magazine's top picks.
Sailfish spawn mostly during the summer, from May to September, so one peak season will normally be around the middle of this time frame, in July. Eastern Atlantic Sailfish will also have a seasonal migration southwards to warmer waters starting around November and lasting through February, so this is another great time to target them. Having these best times in mind, Sailfishing is usually good year-round wherever they're present.
How to catch
Sailfish are mostly hooked by fast trolling. Artificial options include various plastic lures, feathers or spoons. Jigs and poppers are also used with success. Seeing as the fish mainly feeds close to the surface, options like kite fishing and fly fishing are wide open as well.
Natural bait is prefered though, and it can be live, dead or cut (strips are actually optimal, as they fold great in the mouth of the fish). If live or dead, whole mullet, ballyhoo or any small local fish will do the trick (if dead, make sure they are hooked so they look alive when trolled in the water). Strips can be taken from mullet, bonito, mahi, mackerel and similar fish.
A "dropback" technique should be applied for best results - this means feeding line to the Sailfish once spotted approaching the bait. Free spool should be allowed until the point when it's certain that the bait has been taken (when the line is being taken rapidly). Then set the drag, allow a couple of seconds until there's no more slack, set the hook and get ready for a fight. Like with all aerial fish, remember to "bow" your rod once they leap into the air - lower the tip to give slack and reduce pressure on the line.
Sailfish are acrobatic creatures prone to spectacular jumps during which they violently shake their heads or skip across the water surface using their tails - tail-walking. However, they tire quickly and do not require very heavy tackle. This is why Sailfishing might be perceived as an intro to Marlin fishing.
Once the fish is reeled in, be sure to verify that it's really exhausted because it can cause real harm to the equipment and people on board.
Good to eat?
Only when smoked, because the meat is very tough. Also, might contain high levels of mercury. Most anglers practice tag and release for all billfish for this reason.
USA (HMS permit required in federal waters)*:
- Season - always open;
- Size limit - Florida, the Carolinas, Louisiana, Mississippi - 63'' LJFL minimum; Texas - 84'' TL minimum; other states have no size regulations;
- Bag limit (per angler per day) - Florida - 1 billfish, North Carolina - 1; Georgia - catch and release only; Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas - no limit; other states have no bag regulations;
- Season - always open;
- Western Australia, Northern Territory, New South Wales - up to 1 fish, no size limits;
- Queensland, South Australia and Victoria have no regulations;
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