Fishing for Sailfish in Key West
The Sailfish is Florida’s official State Saltwater Fish, and its incredible speed and acrobatic fight make it a very popular gamefish.
Sailfish (Istiophorus albicans)
(Florida Record 126lbs.) The classic characteristics of the Sailfish are the long, round bill, which is a modification of the upper jaw, and the large first dorsal fin, or “sail” which is much taller than the width of the body. The sail runs most of the length of the body, with the 20th ray of the dorsal fin being the longest. The sail is usually kept folded down when the fish is swimming, but may be raised when the Sailfish feels threatened or excited, thus making the fish appear much larger than it actually is.
Sailfish are capable of rapid changes in body color, which varies depending on levels of excitement. Normal coloration is dark blue on the back, turning to white with brown spots below. About 20 bars, each composed of many light blue dots, are present on the sides of the fish, and the fins are all generally blackish blue.
Maximum size for Sailfish from the Atlantic is 124 inches in length and around 128 pounds in weight. Fish from southern Florida waters tend to be smaller, running between 68-90 inches in total length, with the largest fish usually being female. Sailfish are one of the fastest animals in the water, with individuals clocked at speeds of up to 68 miles per hour.
Sailfish Habitat and Behavior
The Sailfish is a widely-distributed member of the billfish family, occurring around the world between latitudes of approximately 50° N to 32° S with some east-west variation. The key distribution factor for the Atlantic sailfish appears to be water temperature, as it generally swims in the warmer surface waters above the thermocline, seeking water between 70° and 83°F.
In the western Atlantic, the greatest abundance of Sailfish occurs off the Atlantic coast of Florida, in the Caribbean Sea, and in the Gulf of Mexico. Distribution in this region seems to be influenced by wind conditions as well as water temperature. In the northern and southern extremes of its range, sailfish appear during warm seasons, which may be a phenomenon linked to prey movements affected by water temperatures.
Atlantic Sailfish feed on smaller pelagic forage fish like half-beaks, jacks, mackerels, needlefish, and tunas, as well as octopus and squid. The variety of prey taken indicates that Sailfish hunt at the surface, as well as in midwater, along reef edges, and along the bottom. They use their speed and ability to change color when hunting, and often hunt in groups.
Color changes are controlled by the fish’s nervous system and can occur almost instantly. The Sailfish will turn its body light blue with yellowish stripes when excited. This confuses its prey and makes capture easier, while at the same time serving to signal its intentions to other Sailfish. Sailfish have also been observed to raise their sails when feeding, working together and using them to “herd” a school of fish or squid.
Fishing for Sailfish
Fishermen from all over the world come to Florida waters to hunt Sailfish, and several famous Sailfish tournaments take place each year. Sailfish are an offshore species usually associated with waters near the Gulfstream and near the 600-foot depth line. Typical fishing strategies include looking for color changes and back eddies along the Gulf Stream.
Sailfish use the color difference between the clear Gulfstream waters and the dirtier bay waters as camouflage for ambush attacks on the schools of baitfish. Back eddies produce strong currents that trap baitfish between them. The Sailfish rush the bait and push it into a ball, then slash through the packed bait, striking prey with their bills and snatching the wounded baitfish. Sailfish also hunt the reef edges in the wintertime when ballyhoo school over the reef, and they will “shower” the bait, driving the baitfish into water only a couple of feet deep and making the smaller fish leap in a confused frenzy as the Sailfish attack.
When hunting Sailfish are located, drifting through them with live baits on unweighted lines or trolling baits or lures through the area will both work well. Ballyhoo, blue runners, pinfish, mullet, scads, and squid will all attract cruising sailfish. A hookup will result in an exciting fight, as the Sailfish uses its speed and acrobatic ability to attempt to throw the hook. Catch and release is a nearly universal practice in order to preserve this great Key West fishery, and tired Sailfish should be carefully revived after the fight to enhance the odds of their survival.