For most offshore anglers, sailfish represent their first billfish catch. The sailfish is more coastal in nature than marlin and you don't necessarily need a big boat or a big budget to catch a sailfish, making them an accessible catch for anyone looking to score a billfish release.
While the International Game Fish Association's world record database maintains records for both Pacific sailfish and Atlantic sailfish, the species is one and the same no matter what ocean you catch them in. The one major difference between Atlantic sailfish (Istiophorus albicans) and Pacific sailfish (Istiophorus platypterus) is size. Pacific sails can grow to nearly twice the size of its Atlantic brethren.
The Atlantic all-tackle world record sailfish weighed 141 pounds and was caught off Angola, Africa. The world record Pacific sailfish, caught off Ecuador, weighed 221 pounds.
Because of the difference in size, Atlantic and Indo-Pacific sailfish were originally classified as two separate species, but research has confirmed that they are indeed the same species though no interbreeding is known to exist between the two.
Sailfish inhabit tropical and subtropical waters near landmasses, usually in depths over 6 fathoms. In some areas, such as South Florida, sailfish are caught along reefs in water less than 6 fathoms. Pelagic and migratory, sailfish feed mostly on sardines, anchovies, mackerel and squid mid-water along the edges of reefs or current eddies.
Sailfish prefer warm water from 77 to 82 degrees F. They are believed to live up to 16 years and can travel over 200,000 miles in their lifetime.
Sailfish are easily identified by the high first dorsal fin. A sailfish can fold the large dorsal against its body, or hold the sail erect and use it when hunting and balling bait. The sail is slate or cobalt blue with a scattering of black spots. The second dorsal fin is very small. The bill is longer than that of the spearfish -- usually more than twice the length of the elongated lower jaw. The flanks of the sailfish range from pale white to a bluish gray with vertical bars or rows of spots.
Thanks to the advent of circle hooks and a catch-and-release ethic by sport fishermen, along with the outlawing of longlines in the Florida Straits, Atlantic sailfish populations off the East Coast of the United States are in good shape. Abundant from the Outer Banks to the Caribbean, a few areas stand out as sailfish hot spots in the Western Atlantic, including North Carolina, South Florida and the Florida Keys, the Dominican Republic, Cancun and Venezuela. Popular fishing techniques include trolling dead ballyhoo off of dredges and kite-fishing with live baits.
In the Pacific, Guatemala holds the title as the reigning sailfish mecca. Costa Rica and Panama also offer an incredible sailfish bite but populations of sailfish are always under siege by illegal longlines and artisanal fishing fleets. Sportfishing crews in Central America typically target sails with 20- to 30-pound tackle and naked ballyhoo. Fly-fishing for sails is also effective. Top crews have caught over 100 sails in a single day on dead baits and more than 50 in a one day on fly. Other top Indo-Pacific locations include Mexico's Baja Peninsula, Hawaii, South Pacific islands, Thailand, Australia and Kenya, to name a few.
A TOUGH CUSTOMER
The sailfish is by far one of the most colorful fish in the ocean and is known for impressive bursts of speed and a tough fight, making it the perfect foe on light tackle. The sailfish is acrobatic in nature, and will tail-walk across the surface and make leaping jumps in an attempt to free itself.
With its pugnacious fight, accessibility and beauty, the sailfish is a perfect fit for anglers of any level. It's a great species to target when introducing junior anglers to offshore fishing and you can take some beautiful photos of your catch before releasing it. And thanks to release mounts, you can relive your catch with a replica mount, which you can purchase without harming the fish.
The sailfish is a hardy customer and recent acoustical tagging and tracking experiments show that this species has a very high survival rate when released. To do your part, fish with circle hooks and don't yank the fish out of the water for a photo.