Known for their speed — they can swim 100 yards in just over 4 seconds — and their incredible aerial displays, sailfish are among the world’s most prized game species and should always be released to fight another day. They are most easily distinguished by their oversize dorsal fin, which is used to corral prey and has the appearance of a sail when the fish cruise on the surface.
Sailfish have dark backs and grayish-silver sides that lighten to almost white near the belly. Like other members of the billfish clan, however, they undergo color changes that are controlled by their nervous system and happen quickly. When excited, sailfish sport a purple/black back and iridescent blue accents on the tips of their fins and various other parts of their anatomy, including dots on their large dorsal and vertical stripes along their sides. By contrast, the fish turn copper as they tire, reaching a dull brown when exhausted.
Species: Sailfish grow quickly, reaching a length of about 5 feet in their first year. Although no differences have been found in their DNA, two sailfish species are recognized: Atlantic sailfish (Istiophorus albicans) and Indo-Pacific sailfish (Istiophorus platypterus). The latter tend to be considerably larger — some specimens measure close to 10 feet and weigh nearly 200 pounds, and they live 13 to 16 years. Meanwhile, Atlantics live only 5 or 6 years, and fish exceeding 7 ½ feet and 80 pounds are considered trophies.
Sails often hunt in packs, using their spread dorsals to herd squid and various baitfish, like ballyhoo, blue runners, goggle-eyes, tinker mackerel, small bonito and tuna, and others into tight schools before launching their attacks. Then the fish use their coarsely-textured bill to slash through the bait schools, and circle back to eat the dead or injured.
Locations: Guatemala and Costa Rica are perhaps the world’s most famous destinations for Pacific sailfish, but these fish are widespread off Mexico’s Baja Peninsula south to Ecuador, as well as Hawaii, Australia, and parts of Asia and eastern Africa. Atlantic sails are plentiful along the South Atlantic coast of the U.S. — primarily Florida and North Carolina — as well as Mexico’s Yucatan, the Caribbean and South America, from Colombia to Brazil.
Techniques: Trolling baits, lures or combinations of both along current rips, color changes, and around upwellings created by seamounts or steep drop-offs is the most widely employed tactic. Bait-and-switch — where a natural bait is presented to fish raised by dragging teasers and dredges — is a highly effective practice popularized in Central and South America. Live-baiting with the help of kites is another proven technique used primarily in Florida waters.
Tackle: 20- to 30-pound conventional tackle is used most often, but spinning gear is an excellent alternative for pitching baits at sailfish feeding on the surface. In the hands of a seasoned angler, lighter tackle can also be a formidable weapon. And with the help of an experienced crew, fly-fishing maximizes sport and excitement. Lacking the sharp teeth found in various other popular offshore species, sailfish do not require wire leaders. Nevertheless, the rasp-like texture of their bill calls for 50- to 80-pound mono or fluorocarbon leaders. Circle hooks, which prevent gut-hooking and greatly increase the probability of a successful release, have become the norm at most top sailfish destinations.