With its characteristic large dorsal ﬁn and superlative aerial ability, the sailﬁsh is arguably the most striking member of the Istiophoridae family of billﬁsh. Although present taxonomy suggests that the Atlantic and the Paciﬁc sailﬁsh are the same species, some experts are not yet convinced.
It has long been believed that Indo-Paciﬁc specimens of sailﬁsh attain a much greater size than do their Atlantic counter-parts (and this is reﬂected in record catches), but a recent study of size data from the Japanese longline ﬁshery provided evidence that eastern Atlantic specimens (identiﬁed by some ichthyologists as I. albicans) can attain much larger sizes than previously recorded.
The speedy sailﬁsh is among the most exciting light-tackle big-game ﬁsh to catch. Light conventional gear, as well as spinning, baitcasting, and ﬂy outﬁts, are all suitable for pursuing sailﬁsh. The smaller specimens found in the Atlantic are especially good fun and are relatively easy for even inexperienced anglers to enjoy.
Sailﬁsh are rarely kept by western Atlantic anglers (and many are tagged when released) but are commonly kept in other places, especially off Mexico and Central America. They do have commercial signiﬁcance in many parts of their range and are heavily exploited.
IdentificationThe sailﬁsh is dark blue on top, brown-blue laterally, and silvery white on the belly; the upper jaw is elongated in the form of a spear. This species’ outstanding feature is the long, high ﬁrst dorsal ﬁn, which has 37 to 49 total elements; it is slate or cobalt blue with many black spots. The second dorsal ﬁn is very small, with six to eight rays.
The single, prominent lateral line is curved over the pectoral ﬁn and otherwise straight along the median line of the ﬂanks. The bill is longer than that of the spearﬁsh, usually a little more than twice the length of the elongated lower jaw. The vent is just forward of the ﬁrst anal ﬁn. The sides often have pale, bluish-gray vertical bars or rows or spots.
Although sailﬁsh look like similar-size white marlin and blue marlin, they are readily distinguished by their large sail-like dorsal ﬁn.
Size/AgeSportﬁshing records for sailﬁsh have long been maintained by the International Game Fish Association (IGFA), according to their Atlantic and Indo-Paciﬁc distribution; the all-tackle world record for Atlantic ﬁsh is a 141-pounder caught off Angola in 1994; its counterpart in the Paciﬁc is a 221-pounder caught off Ecuador in 1947. Fish from 20 to 50 or 60 pounds are commonly caught off the eastern United States, and ﬁsh from 50 to 100 pounds are common in many places in the Paciﬁc. They can exceed 10 feet in length.
Life history/BehaviorLike other pelagic species that spawn in the open sea, the sailﬁsh produces large numbers of eggs, perhaps 4 to 5 million. These are fertilized in the open water, where they ﬂoat with plankton until hatching. Sailﬁsh grow rapidly and reportedly can attain 4 to 5 feet in length in their ﬁrst year.
They reportedly swim at speeds approaching 68 mph, making them the swiftest short-distance gamefish. Sailfish may form schools or small groups of from 3 to 30 individuals and sometimes travel in loose aggregations spread over a wide area. They appear to feed mostly in midwater along the edges of reefs or current eddies.
Food and feeding habitsSailfish eat squid, octopus, mackerel, tuna, jacks, herring, ballyhoo, needleﬁsh, ﬂying-ﬁsh, mullet, and other small ﬁsh. They feed on the surface or at mid-depths.
Other Namesspindlebeak, bayonetﬁsh; French: voilier, espadon vela; Hawaiian: a’u lepe; Italian: pesce vela, pesce ventaglio; Japanese: bashôkajiki; Portuguese: veleiro, algulhão; Spanish: pez vela, aguja voladora, aguja de faralá, aguja de abanico.
Distribution/HabitatSailﬁsh occur worldwide in tropical and temperate waters of the Atlantic, the Indian, and the Paciﬁc Oceans. They are pelagic and migratory in warm offshore waters, although they may migrate into warm nearshore areas in parts of their range.
In the eastern Paciﬁc, sailﬁsh range from Baja California, Mexico, to Peru, and in the western Atlantic from Massachusetts to Brazil. They are most common in warm waters along the edges of the Gulf Stream.