Category: High Risk
SAILFISH are probably the most common billfish encountered by recreational anglers, occasionally popping up in a spread of baits or lures intended for mackerel. They are enigmatic creatures which have the ability to appear at the back of a boat as if by magic, swiping and mouthing baits, only to disappear just as quickly. This often leaves anglers who have not previously encountered them with a strong desire to actually catch one. Many go on to pursue them regularly.
These gamefish have the ability to capture an angler's imagination as few other species can. Their sheer speed has to be seen to be believed. Sails have been clocked over small distances at 112kmh, which makes them just about the fastest creature with fins. Not surprisingly, the name Istiophorus platypterus literally means "flat-winged sail bearer".
Happily these days very few anglers can bear to kill a sailfish, so most are released. The New South Wales Fisheries Department, in conjunction with the Australian Game Fishing Association, has had a tagging program in place for many years to try to find out more about the movement of these popular fish.
It's pretty hard to get this one wrong - sails have a large, sail-like dorsal fin, hence the name. This sail is used when hunting schools of fish. Sometimes, hunting in groups, sailfish race up to and surround a hapless bait school with their sails raised when they are close to the baitfish. This makes them look much bigger than they really are, and the terrified baitfish tend to ball up tightly. Then the sails take turns at feeding, sometimes swiping the massed bait school with their bills to stun the fish. Occasionally, for no apparent reason, sailfish will sit just below the surface with half of their erect sail above water. This may well be their version of "sailing" or travelling using a minimum amount of energy.
The all-tackle world record for sailfish is a massive 100.24kg, but the largest sail weighed in Western Australia, caught off Exmouth, went 78kg. However, this was an exceptional fish. North of Exmouth the vast majority of sails are in the range of 18 to 30kg, but south of Exmouth and offshore at places like the Rowley Shoals, sails seem to grow bigger and are generally twice as big as their smaller inshore cousins.
Sailfish are much more widespread than previously thought, and are not just confined to inshore shallow reefs and dropoffs. On one occasion I was fishing at Exmouth in 360 metres of water and boated a sailfish on a big milkfish bait meant for marlin. That sail was my personal best to date at around 35 kilos. Catch data from longline fleets also shows that sails do not confine themselves to shallow water. They have been encountered in 2,000 metres hundreds of kilometres offshore.
It's thought that sails aggregate offshore where nutrient-rich coastal waters meet the open oceanic waters. These areas hold concentrations of plankton, and subsequently the baitfish that feed on them, which in turn is what the sailfish are looking for. DNA fingerprinting carried out on sailfish from the prolific waters around Broome a few years back showed that there was a degree of common gene material among both Dampier and Broome sailfish. The interpretation, given by Dr Julian Pepperell who carried out this work, was that at some point in time there was intermixing of both stocks. But where and when remains a mystery.
Breeding and migration
Sailfish on the east coast mature at 30-35kg, but research in Broome has shown that the fish there mature by about 23kg. It's believed that these differences may be environmental, genetic or both. There may be as many as three spawnings in a season for sailfish, which is thought to take place in relatively shallow water near reefs. Quite a few larval sailfish up to 10mm in length have been caught in fine mesh nets during larval surveys, but they are rarely seen above this size. This may be because once they are bigger than 10mm they are fast enough to avoid the plankton nets.
Threats for sailfish are, happily, very low. Commercial exploitation is not a major problem given that this is a recreational-only species. The availability of food also does not appear to present any problems. Sails tend to eat a range of small baitfish, squid and on occasions have even fed on puffer fish.
Having said earlier that sailfish are distributed over most of the Indian Ocean, I will confine my comments to areas where they are generally sought by recreational anglers.
Sails are found both around reef structure and away from it, but never generally too far from a feed. Anglers fishing inshore normally try either near a dropoff or reef structure. This may be at the back of a break at locations such as Exmouth and Coral Bay, or it may be just a metre-high lump rising off the bottom, as with Broome and Dampier. But off Broome, in particular, when you find bait schools you generally find sails. At times this may be on dead flat sand. Bait doesn't seem to be so crucial in other sailfish waters. Rather, you fish proven grounds and wait for them to turn up. Sails do like clean water. Dirty water, such as after storms, will make things tough.
Tackle and bait
Probably the numero uno universal bait for sails is garfish, preferably the local ones freshly caught and good enough to cook for lunch. On some occasions small poddy mullet, slimy mackerel and scad are very palatable to sails. When bait is scarce a well-presented belly strip will work well, but it needs to be rigged efficiently to skip across the water nicely.
I would choose to use six-kilo outfits for sailfish everywhere except around Exmouth, where I might run eight-kilo. Certainly I wouldn't go lighter because I like to get the fish to the side of the boat as quickly as possible. Spin sticks or overhead outfits is a personal choice.
Like so many other people these days, the one item that I now standardise on is circle hooks for sailfish. One of the earlier dilemmas for anglers chasing sails was that sometimes they would be deeply hooked, especially with live bait. With circle hooks this doesn't seem to be a problem - the vast majority of fish are neatly hooked in the corner of the mouth. Sure, you need to rig baits a bit differently, but it's worth it for the peace of mind that circle hooks provide.
There are three main techniques for sailfish and these really depend on where you're fishing for them. If you're fishing proven grounds, trolling baits is a great way to go. Sailfish love skipping baits but some days they grow shy, as do all fish, and a well-rigged swimming bait may be the only thing which will work. An increasingly popular way to fish for sails, especially in waters frequented by other non-target critters such as mackerel and tuna, is to run a spread of teasers with no baits in the water. When the sailfish turn up to go crazy over your teasers, drop a bait back to them and bingo - nine times out of ten you're connected to a sail- topped greyhound.
Teasers may consist of daisy chains of plastic squid, often lined up behind a splashing "bird" teaser, or daisy chains of fresh gardies, tuna belly flaps or big hookless swimming baits. Dragged along behind a boat at five or six knots, a selection of good teasers will have the local sailfish population lit up neon blue and grabbing at them like a puppy dog playing with a piece of rag on a string. When fishing around baitfish schools, dropping down a live bait should be very effective, but as I said earlier this is best done with circle hooks. Move quietly up to the bait school and lower down a livey with your reel in free spool and your thumb on the spool to lightly check it as the line peels out.
References: Kailola, Williams, Stewart, Reichelt, McNee and Grieve Australian Fisheries Resources 1993. Hutchins and Swainston Sea Fishes of Southern Australia 1986.
My thanks to Dr Julian Pepperell for filling in some gaps in sailfish biology for me.