Scott’s Species – sailfish, one of the ocean’s fastest fish

I have never really caught the marlin bug, but I do have an undoubted soft spot for sailfish as the billfish of the people, writes Western Angler’s Scott Coghlan in this week’s Scott’s Species.

Fish: Sailfish, Istiophorus platypterus

Eating: Three stars

ID: Long bill and large fan-like dorsal fin that looks like a sail. Blue colouration on body gives way to white underneath, with vertical blue stripes.

How good is this photo that Jim Bastow snapped of Josh Cheong hooked up to a sailfish off Exmouth!?

Considered to be possibly the fastest fish in the ocean, sailfish were believed to be capable of speeds to more than 100km/h.

However, recent studies found they were more likely to hit top speeds of around 60km/h.

Easily identified by their huge dorsal fin, they are just that little bit more accessible to the average angler than marlin as they quite often show up in shallow inshore waters, even though they do swim down to depths of around 350m.

Removing sailfish from the water for photos can cause damage to their organs and skeletal structure, use a ‘selfie stick’ for great photos, while keeping the fish in the water and minimizing the stress on the fish.

Click here to download Recfishwest’s Fishing for Science sailfish fact sheet!

I have a fond recollection of catching my first sailie off Ningaloo while at anchor.

I had put a floating bait out and called it for a shark when line started peeling off the reel, only to watch a sailfish launch out behind the boat.

It almost spooled me but we were able to get it to the boat and I was able to tick off another angling first.

From memory we were only fishing in around 45m of water, but it is not uncommon for sails to venture in close to shore.

I have even caught one from the rocks near Steep Point while spinning for Spanish mackerel.

Sailfish have such a prominent dorsal fin. 📸 Peak Sportfishing

I had cast out a 100g metal and it was hit on the drop. When I saw the fish jump well out from the rocks I thought it was a Spaniard with a shark on its tail.

It was only when it kept jumping in that greyhounding fashion across the surface typical of sails that I realised what it was.

It took me to my last few metres of line but I was able to eventually bring it to the rocks, where I snapped the line to allow it to swim off.

I couldn’t bring myself to drop down the flying gaff, even though they are certainly edible.

I have caught a few sails, but never really targeted them and they’ve usually been an incidental capture.

We’ve often encountered them after seeing them greyhounding at the Mackerel Islands, usually in 15m or so of water.

I’ve also had them pop up next to the boat and we got a big one when that happened off Tantabiddi just as we were about to head in.

A bluewater roamer by nature, sailfish mainly feed on small baitfish and squid, and are often caught while trolling for marlin as they will take the same skirts being towed in the blue water.

However, sailfish will often show up in packs and that can make for some very exciting action as multiple fish are hooked.

The Broome Billfish Classic highlights the world-class sailfish fishery off the West Kimberley town, with Emi Campbell landing this sail at the 2021 comp.

Many sails are caught the same way as my first, on unweighted baits and I’ve hooked a few trolling surface lures such as stickbaits or poppers, which seem to excite them.

They are also often hooked on trolled bibbed minnows meant for other species like mackerel.

While sails are usually caught from Shark Bay north, there are definite hot spots for them.

Good numbers of sails are caught off Tantabiddi and Exmouth also has unique run of fish in the Gulf late each year.

The sails follow bait into the Gulf and offer great sportfishing action, as anglers look for working birds that indicate sails are onto some bait.

It can be mayhem when the fish are found!

Karratha also boats an excellent sailfish fishery out around where the ships anchor, while Broome is famous for its annual run of sails, where they turn up in huge numbers although they aren’t generally big fish.

This fishery is celebrated by the Broome Fishing Club’s annual Broome Billfish Classic.

Jade Relph with a sailfish during Broome Fishing Club’s 2020 Billfish Classic.

As mentioned earlier, we often see sails around the Mackerel Islands.

The most memorable sailfish capture I can remember at the Mackies was by former Australian cricketing legend, Merv Hughes, who cast a Halco Roosta popper into a school of working tuna and somehow hooked a sail!

He was very happy with himself then, and still is now.

Because they are very mobile, finding them can be tricky but working current lines in the blue water would be a good start, and they’ll often be found around bait.

Watch for them free jumping, or sometimes you will see them cruising with just their large ‘sail’ showing above the surface.

Casting at cruising sailfish is a very exciting angling experience, especially when they zero in on your offering.

Indeed, there is much to love about sails from my perspective.

They often show up when least expected, are a lot more manageable on traditional tackle than their bigger billfish cousins, are capable of thrilling aerobatics and boast an almost unmatched burst of speed, making them an ideal sportfishing opponent with a side helping of the spectacular.

It’s important not to take sailfish out of the water to take a photo. 📸 Peak Sportfishing

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