How to Catch a Sailfish

How to Catch a Sailfish

If you are looking for a fight, the sailfish will be the optimal opponent. The sailfish is the ultimate saltwater game fish. Catching this fish will give you bragging rights of the century. This pelagic is always on the move and can reach speeds up to 65 mph. Once it is caught, it will give you an acrobat display with jumps and head shakes attempting to unhook itself.

Sailfish can be found in an array of colors including browns, grays, purples, and silvers. They are accented with strips of iridescent blues and dots of silver. These beautiful fish change color based on their nervous system. Not only do these color changes occur out of defense and nerves but these color changes are a signal to other sailfish of its intentions.

The sailfish has a sail that lays down when swimming, however, it stands up when it is threatened, excited or herding bait fish. This sail gives the fish a unique look. Once a fish is caught and a picture is taken, a cast can be made of the fish. This cast with the sail looks great hanging on the wall. It will make a great conversational piece while you brag about the fight this pelagic put up. Just don’t forget to lift the sail when the picture is taken!

Before you get to these bragging rights, however, you must be prepared and know a few things. The aspects to know are where to find a sailfish, how to catch a sailfish, and what the best bait and lures are to catch a sailfish. The hardest part of bagging a sailfish is locating it. Their pelagic movements can be hard to pinpoint, but once you find them, catching them is exciting, adventurous, and thrilling.

Where to Find a Sailfish

Sailfish are pelagic. In terms of fish, pelagic means a fish that inhabits the upper layers of the ocean or sea. They can be found from Mexico to Australia. When locating sailfish, you are looking for the fantastic four conditions. These four conditions are suitable water temps, good currents, water clarity, and baits.

Sailfish live in temperate and tropical waters. The sweet spot is 75℉. Sailfish migrate north on the Atlantic coast in spring and return to the east coast and southern part of Florida in the fall. They also migrate north in the Gulf of Mexico for the summer season just off the Florida Panhandle. This keeps them in warm waters but not too warm. When fishing on the Atlantic coast, the ideal months to fish for them are November-May with January and February being the best months. Be sure to dress warm! Fishing in the ideal water temps is one of the important conditions that will aid in  locating a sailfish.

Sailfish love a good time by the enjoyment in surfing the swells. When the winds from the north collide with the south current, big swells form and sailfish can be found surfing these swells in the hundreds. These currents are a great place to fish for sailfish. Also, the current at the line of the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic is ideal for trolling for sailfish. Having the proper current is important to locating sailfish.

The next condition for locating sailfish is water clarity. Sailfish locate bait in clear water. When locating sailfish, it is important to look in clear water. Look for color change when watching the spread treading through the water.

Finally, go where the bait is. Sailfish are generally located 3-5 miles offshore and 20-150 feet deep. They frequent reefs and wrecks looking for bait. If there is no bait at the reefs and wrecks, move on as the sailfish will not be there. Also, look for diving birds. Diving birds generally means fish in the water. This fish is the bait the sailfish will eat.

Locating bait, water clarity, good currents, and temperate to tropical water temperatures are the fabulous four conditions in finding sailfish. Keep in mind these pelagic fish are on the constant move so where they are one day, may not be where they are the next day. Checking fishing guides and logs will also help you find where the sailfish are located.

Sport Fishing Mag highlights some of the best fishing spots for sailfish.

How to Catch a Sailfish

Now that we know where to find a sailfish, you need to know how to catch a sailfish. There are several methods that are used when catching a sailfish. You can kite fish, line fish, or use the conventional rod and reel which is the most popular method. Using a conventional rod and reel can be used to troll for sailfish or cast for sailfish. Once you find a sailfish (or multiple!), decide whether you will troll or cast using your rod and reel. If you choose to cast, follow these four steps: anchor, chum, lob, catch! Chumming the water will attract sailfish to the area close to the boat. If you are using live bait, a seven foot boat spinning rod that is medium heavy to heavy is ideal with a 8000 size spinning reel. Use 30-pound to 40-pound braid with a light, quality fluorocarbon leader because it is stronger than monofilament. The fluorocarbon needs to be 40 lbs as well. However, on a lighter wind and clear water day, 30 lbs will suffice.

It is most effective to cast and use live bait when you see a sailfish feeding. Here are some things to keep in mind. Approach with caution as to not startle it. Only approach as close as you need to in order to cast about 15 feet in front of the sailfish. Make sure to make no noisy splash when casting as you again, don’t want to startle it. While you reel in, keep the rod tip low to keep tension on the rod.

If you are going to troll using your rod and reels, the ideal combination is a six foot rod with a line rating of 15-30 lbs and a sensitive tip. The reel should have a lever drag and 200 yards of 20 lb mono in a high vis color. Two-five knots is the perfect trolling speed and is the most effective when there are numerous sailfish in the water. Once your rods and reels are ready spread out lines to entice the fish with multiple baits or a lot of the same bait depending on your preference.

sailfish fishing

After the hook up, keep in mind, these fish are acrobats. They love to put on a show. They will jump out of the water trying to loosen the fish hook which is why you want to make sure you cast away from the boat. It never fails, once the fish is hooked, it will charge the boat and you don’t want it to jump into the boat. These fish are extremely powerful and if you are not careful, they will have you in a tied up mess  before you know it. Once a fish is on, lift the rod tip to fight. If the fish jumps, lower the tip into the water if possible to prevent tip wraps and break offs. This will increase the tension on the line. Once the fish is back in the water, lift the tip again. Once you get the fish to the boat, put on a good quality pair of gloves. Sailfish are often a catch and release fish so get your photo op for bragging rights and return the fish. Be very careful if you decide to bring the fish onto the boat as they will flip and flop and try to slash with their long bill.

When catching sailfish, it is important to remember that simple is good and to anchor, chum, lob, and catch! The fight isn’t over once the fish reaches the boat. Be sure to be safe when releasing or bringing the fish into the boat.

Best Bait for Sailfish

Sailfish aren’t terribly picky eaters. They enjoy many types of frisky, live bait. The variety of live baits include blue runners, large sardines, large pilchards, cigar minnows, speedos, and goggle eyes. The most popular baits to catch a sailfish is a small ballyhoo rig or Panama strip (belly strip). This belly strip can come from a false albacore or bonito tuna.

If you are kite fishing, you would want to use blue runners, speedos, or goggle eyes. If you are rod and reel fishing, you would want to use cigar minnows, large pilchards, or large sardines. When trolling, you want to lip hook or nose hook the bait. If you are casting, you want to hook through the front dorsal ridge. 

Sailfish will eat dead bait although it isn’t a favorite. If you use dead bait, be sure to sew the lips  or hook through the lips to prevent unnatural spinning while trolling.

The number one piece of advice for using bait while fishing for a sailfish is to check your bait and replace it often, especially after a mishit as the bait is more than likely gone. 

Best Lures for Sailfish

Again, depending on your method of fishing, depends on the lures you will want to use. It is more ideal to use lures for trolling than live bait as trolling can tear and kill your bait. When trolling, use short to long shank hooks (5/0 to 8/0). You can also use 10 to 12 ounce chromeheads that bubble. The preferred colors are purple-red and pink-red-white. These are perfect for faster trolling or when you need to cover a larger area.

If you are casting, softhead type lures, seawitches (skirts), and soft plastic squids, ballyhoo, and mullet are ideal lures. Be sure to use dredges when using lures. You should use J or inline circle hooks when you are not trolling that are 4/0 to 7/0. Don’t waste money are cheap hooks that need sharpening out of the package. Splurge a little and get the more expensive ones that are super sharp right out of the package. 


Hopefully this guide taught you and encouraged you to catch a sailfish. Now that you know where to find a sailfish, how to catch a sailfish, and the best bait and lures to use when fishing for sailfish, you are ready to head out on your adventure to wrangle the acrobat of the ocean. Whether you are on the Atlantic coast or offshore the panhandle of Florida, catching sailfish is a thrilling experience of high flying fish and powerful runs that gives you the ultimate bragging rights.

Check out: How to Catch a Black Grouper

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