Sailfish are members of the billfish family and are related to marlins and swordfish. Along with white marlin, sailfish are among the smallest members of the billfish family. But they are the most easily-recognized thanks to their dorsal fins.
While marlins and swordfish have relatively small and rigid dorsal fins that look very much alike, sailfish have much bigger and flexible dorsal fins, extending almost the entire length of their backs. These “sail” type dorsals give the fish its name.
Fisheries biologists believe sailfish are the fastest swimming fish in the world. They have been clocked at 68+ mph. Their large dorsal fins usually lay folded down limp to one side of their body. But they stand straight up and go rigid when the fish is excited, chasing prey or fleeing from predators.
These fish are long with blue backs and fins, silvery to white bellies, and long bills that are more streamlined than those of marlins and swordfish. They feed primarily in the middle of the water column, but often take prey at or near the surface as well.
Researches have identified two subspecies of sailfish, Atlantic sailfish and Indo-Pacific sailfish. However, they have found no scientific differences between these two. Their DNA and all other means of identification are identical. Still, fisheries biologists recognize them depending on which ocean they inhabit.
Sailfish grow quickly, reaching four to five feet in length in their first year. Their maximum size, however, is very small compared to blue marlin or swordfish. Very few sailfish have been known to reach 200 pounds or 10 feet in length.
Throughout their lives, sailfish are preyed upon by a variety of larger fish like dolphinfish, wahoo, king mackerel, orcas and sharks. Their primary source of food is squid, jellyfish and smaller fish, which they attack from behind, slashing at them with their bills to injure them. Studies have shown that a percentage of sailfish are “left-handed,” preferring to slash their bills to the left when chasing prey.
Sometimes when hunting, communicating with other fish or otherwise excited, sailfish change colors. They are dependent on coral reefs and often disappear from areas where reefs have suffered extensive damage.
Nicknames for sailfish include spindlebeack and bayonetfish. They are sometimes misidentified as swordfish, blue marlin or white marlin.
Louisiana’s state record sailfish weighed 96 pounds and was caught by John Lauricella in October 1953. Sailfish are mostly seen in cool weather months off the Louisiana coast. The world record stands at 142 pounds and was caught out of Lobito, Angola on March 12, 2014 by Marco Couto.