Sailfish (Istiophorus platypterus)

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.


The 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.


Sportfishing 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/Behavior

Like 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 habits

Sailfish 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 Names

spindlebeak, 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.


Sailfish 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.