Sailfish Fishing: A complete guide to the fastest fish in the ocean

Sailfish fishing, a challenging adventure

The elusive sailfish is one of the greatest catches for the sport of fishing. Sailfish fishing is one of the most challenging but rewarding game fishes out there, due to its large size, lightning speed, and spirited fight.

When going after such a prize, it is always helpful to know as much information as possible. This is why we have compiled all the must-know information in this handy sailfish guide. Keep reading to get the most complete low down on this magnificent animal.

What is a sailfish?

Sailfish are a type of billfish (like the blue marlin or swordfish). Originally, there were thought to be two species in the world, the Atlantic sailfish (Istiophorus albicans) and the Indo-Pacific sailfish (Istiophorus platypterus); however, no morphologic differences have been found between the two supposed species and most authorities now only recognize a single species, the Istiophorus platypterus.

The sailfish have been swimming around in the ocean since the Paleogene, about 60 million years ago! They are highly intelligent and outstanding predators, known to work as a team to drive schools of prey fish (such as sardines) up from the deep for easier feeding. Sailfish can live for 13 to 15 years; however, their average life span in the wild is of only 4 to 5 years.

As with other fish species, a group of sailfish is called a school.

What does a sailfish look like?

Being totally honest here, this is one of the most beautiful fishes out there. Sailfish can display a startling array of colors, from subdued browns and grays to vibrant purples and silver. They usually have a silvery below, with a bright blue, spotted dorsal fin. Their body colors are often highlighted by stripes of iridescent blue and silver dots.

As a type of billfish, one of the main characteristics of the sailfish is their ‘bill’: an elongated upper jaw that’s approximately twice as long as the lower jaw, forming a spear, which it uses to strike and stun larger prey.

sailfish striking its prey

Obviously, the sailfish are known not only for their pointed bills but also for their extraordinary dorsal fins that can be taller than the length of their bodies. Their sail-like fins are so unique that in fact, they inspired the name of the sailfish. They also have a second, smaller dorsal fin and two anal fins. Fins are typically a blackish-blue color.

he fish’s sail is normally kept folded down and to the side when swimming, but it may be raised when the Sailfish feels threatened or excited or is herding baitfish. Another way sailfish can express excitement or stress is by flashing iridescent body colors, an adaptation controlled by their nervous system. Pretty awesome, right?

How big do sailfish get?

Sailfish start out as tiny larvae, no more than a few millimeters in size, but grow rapidly during their first year, to about 4 to 5 feet long. These potent, streamlined beauties can grow from 0.125 inches (0.3 cm) when born to more than 10 feet (3 m) long and weigh up to 220 pounds (100 kg) as adults. The biggest sailfish ever caught was 11.2 feet (340 cm) long and weighed 220.5 pounds (100 kg). Like with other billfish species, the female sailfish can be larger than males so they can carry as many eggs as possible and have a greater chance of successful reproduction in the open ocean.

How fast can a sailfish swim?

Sailfish are considered the fastest fish in the ocean. Sailfish speeds have been clocked as fast as 70 miles per hour. During predator-prey interactions, sailfish reached burst speeds of 7 m/s (25 km/h; 16 mph) and did not surpass 10 m/s (36 km/h; 22 mph).These outstanding species are practically created to be fast, with a streamlined body like theirs it’s no wonder why are sailfish so fast.

sailfish leaping out of the water in cancun

What do sailfish eat?

At a young age, they eat tiny zooplankton, and their prey increases in size as they do. As adults, they eat fairly large bony fishes, crustaceans and squid. In the Atlantic, fish commonly eaten include tuna, mackerel, needlefish, jacks, and halfbeaks; in the Pacific, jacks, anchovies, sardines, triggerfish, and ribbonfish are dietary staples.

Where do sailfish live?

The sailfish can be found in warm-temperate to tropical waters all around the world. Their natural habitat is the open ocean, making them pelagic creatures that are constantly on the move across the great blue. The sailfish can be found predominantly near the surface of the open ocean, however, they are outstanding divers, plunging up to 1,150 feet (350 m) to find food.

These fish prefer waters ranging from 70 to 83 degrees Fahrenheit. Though they mostly dwell far out from land, sailfish sometimes venture closer to shore than other members of the billfish family.

These fish swim in schools and migrate to different waters at certain times of the year, so there are quite a few destinations all around the world that provide great Sailfish action depending on the season. Some that stand out are Florida (known as the sailfish capital of the world), Thailand, Guatemala, Australia, Mozambique, Panama and of course Mexico. Isla Mujeres has had great bite statistics dating back to the mid-90s, but the fishing in this part of the world hasn’t changed much since then. Boats rack up some incredible numbers, catching 30, 40, 50 or more sails a day in Isla Mujeres.

How to catch sailfish?

fishing in cancun and isla mujeres

Sailfishing has the reputation it has for a reason. These fishes are very hard to catch because they are just so damn fast and powerful! Their large hard bills are frustratingly hard to hook sometimes if you are ill-prepared. On top of that, once a sailfish is hooked it puts up a challenging fight. This is not to say that catching a sailfish is impossible, in fact, lots of people have had a sailfish bite completely on accident. You just have to know what works and when to do it.

Of course, the first step is going where the sailfish are. Like mentioned before, one of the top destinations in the world for sailfishing is Mexico, more specifically Cancun and Isla Mujeres. Apart from having a world-class Sailfish population, they are awesome vacation spots to spend with the family, but more on that later.

Crucial to hooking a sailfish is having the right gear and knowing what to do with it. Here is some basic info to get you started.

Sailfish baits

There are many baits for Sailfish. One of the most popular baits for trolling is the small Ballyhoo rig. It’s good to have a cooler full, rigged and brined. Another is the “Panama strip” (or belly strip), which consists of false albacore, or is made from the belly of a bonito tuna. To get the best results when Sailfishing, you should have a variety of live baits, such as blue runners, cigar minnows, goggle eyes, large pilchards, speedos and, of course, large sardines.

All of these baits can be slow-trolled simply by lip-hooking as with mullet, or nose-hooking in front of the eyes with most baits, or in front of the dorsal ridge for deeper swimming. You can also use dead baits, but be sure to close the lips so it does not “spin” unnaturally in the water.

Sailfish lures

You can also troll with plastic lures, especially when no Sails are insight as it saves the bait for when you need it. Lures can be trolled faster than live or dead bait and are perfect for when a large area needs to be covered when looking for fish. Popular color combos for sailfish lures include purple-red, and pink-red-white.

Your lure selection should include a wide range of teasers such as Seawitches (skirts) and soft plastic baits such as squid, ballyhoo, and mullet. These are used in a combo with frozen and live baits pulled with spreader bars, dredges, umbrella rigs, and daisy chain teasers. You can also spice up a lure with a thin strip of bait on the hook to encourage a better take.

Hooks for sailfish

With their long, tapered lower jaw and sometimes finicky way of swallowing a bait, sailfish are arguably the hardest of all billfish species to get a hook into nice and solid. Hook-up rates on skirted lures rigged with standard J-hooks can be abysmal, so some slightly specialized techniques need to be adopted in order to pin these spectacular little billfish.

Circle hooks are the only way to go for sails, both to improve hook-up rates and to prevent gill or gut hooking this release-only species. However, it’s really critical to match the size of the circle hook used close to the size of fish (or more specifically, the size of the fish’s mouths) you’re chasing, otherwise, the instance of sailfish throwing the hook during their trademark jumps can be frustratingly frequent.

Tips for catching a sailfish

As published by, these are some of the best tips straight from the lips of the best pros around the world:

  1. Look for the birds! The oceanic waterfowl that most often reveals pelagic fish below is the ‘tijereta’ (frigate bird). See if the frigates are cruising, or actually diving and working the water. If the birds are diving, they’re likely above fish, possibly sailfish.
  2. If you’ve had a catch, don’t’ leave the area to find more fish! Once a sailfish is hooked, other anglers should be ready for a second bite. Double hookups are common. Think about it, we’ve discussed how sailfish travel predominantly in large groups in search of food. Try to set your lines back in the water as quickly as you can after a hookup. This way you’ll get way more bites than you normally would.
  3. Don’t let the fly line wrap around the rod’s tip when a sailfish jumps. Instead, stick the tip in the water to increase tension on the line.

How to release a sailfish

When it comes to billfish, being pulled from the water and into a world with no oxygen after an exhausting fight can be deadly. Even if the fish arrived at the boat in good condition, the stress of being removed from the water can kill it. What’s more, billfish have an exterior coating that protects them from disease, which can easily be rubbed off when pulled onto a boat and handled. The tricky thing is that the fish may appear fine upon release, but it’s not uncommon for the stress and diminished immune system to kill the fish several days later.

If a billfish is caught by a hook and not retained, the fish must be released by cutting the line near the hook or by using a dehooking device, in either case without removing the fish from the water. Use release gloves to wire the fish closer to the gunwale. Grab the sail by the thickest part of its bill and attempt to remove the hook or cut the line. Put the boat into gear and revive the fish by holding the sail forward by its bill. It should revive the fish and it will swim away. Also, try to use heavy tackle to shorten fight time so the fish is not completely exhausted upon release.

gray fishtag research releasing a sailfish

What time of year are sailfish in Cancun?

While fishing in Cancun Mexico is a prolific activity year-round, the prime season to find the much sought after sailfish is from December to July. It is around this time of year that the sailfish migrates from the north and stay a few months in the area north of Isla Mujeres.

Your best option if you’re looking for an amazing deep sea fishing Cancun is Aquaworld. You can choose between a shared fishing charter and a private fishing outing (recommended for more experienced anglers). In both cases, a crew with over 10 years of experience in these waters will catch live bait for you and aid you in setup and everything you need to spend the best day.

sailfish fishing charters in cancun

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