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LAHAINA NEWS — HARBOR REPORT With Donnell A. Tate (September 2010)

The Finest Kind weighed a rare catch in Hawaiian waters: a 76.2-pound Pacific sailfish by Rob Leslie. He was fishing with Captains Dave Hudson and Chad Leonillo.

They were fishing the southeast edge of Molokai, in an area known as “Blue Roof,” looking for ono.

Chad was still setting up the pattern and only had two lures out as Dave made their first pass. They were only in ten fathoms of water (60 feet) when they raised a fish. It grabbed the short rigger lure and pulled off the 80-test line on a 200-yard run.

They thought they had a nice ono hooked. Rob cranked it to the boat in about 15-20-minutes. As it neared the boat, it made a short run. Chad was watching for the leader as Rob retrieved the fish. It came up showing a bill, and everyone was surprised when the marlin unfurled its sail.

After the sail was boated, Chad checked the rest of the lures. He found chaffing on two other leaders, with possibly one other sail in the area.

A week earlier, a juvenile sailfish about ten inches long was netted while one of the charter boats was fishing for bait at night in the Olowalu area. A fish that small was probably a few months old and didn’t migrate here, so it was born in Hawaiian waters.

This sail was a female that was nine feet long from tip of bill to tail. It is the 12th largest for Lahaina Harbor since 1979. It is the largest since March 2005, when a 93.4-pound fish was weighed aboard the Kanoa with Capt. Tad Luckey. Since 1979, the Lahaina Harbor Sportfishing fleet has captured 76 sailfish, the average weight being 30-60 pounds.

The best year was in 1989 when eight sailfish were caught. There were six caught in both 1992 and 1994. Some years no sailfish are recorded, with one to three caught a year on average. So far this year, two sailfish have been caught. A 50.1-pound fish was captured aboard the Joyce’s Choice with Capt. Steve Elkins, and this one aboard the Finest Kind.

Rare to Hawaiian waters, the Indo-Pacific sailfish inhabits tropical and temperate waters near land masses, coral reefs and islands where warm currents are close inshore. Pelagic and migratory, sailfish usually travel alone or in groups. Schooling instinct is developed very strongly in the sailfish. They mainly school for food and spawning activity.

They are the peacock of the sea with glorious colors and a graceful winged shape.

Its outstanding feature is its long, high, membrane-like first dorsal fin colored slate or cobalt blue with a scattering of black spots. Other distinct features are a single and prominent lateral line along the median line of the flanks. Its sides often have pale lavender or bluish gray vertical bars or rows of spots. Most noticeable, the pelvic fins are very long with membrane (longer than any other billfish).

So why does it have the sail, and what is its use?

Those who have been near these fish as they hunt and ball up their prey can see the answer. That apparently flimsy, supposed balance-destroying sail when upright turns the slender-bodied sailfish into a silhouette of a monster fish, increasing the visible body depth in combination with the long-rayed pelvic fins.

Sailfish appear to feed mostly in mid-water along the edges of reefs or current eddies. They eat squid, octopus, mackerels, tunas, needlefish, flying fish, mullet and other small fishes.

Sailfish are a blend of marine savagery and efficiency in the way they hunt, balling their bait schools. One will work the surface by jumping counterclockwise in a tight circle with sail and fins folded. This apparently random free jumping is part of an organized, ruthless, cooperative feeding pattern. This surface jumping helps ball up the bait fish into tight masses. Other sailfish in the school will circle below the surface at various levels, with dorsal fins and pelvic fins fully extended, to look as big as possible to assist in rounding up the bait. Then they gently take their prey from the outside of the column of bait in their circling.

Its fighting ability, spectacular aerial acrobatics and fast surface runs have established its reputation as a top sport fish, but it tires quickly and is considered a light tackle species. Sailfish have been clocked at over 68 mph — a speed unheard of in any other fish.

Indo-Pacific sailfish attain a much greater size than their Atlantic counterparts, with the females generally heavier and fatter than the males. Sailfish live an average of three to four years, with some living as long as seven to eight years. They grow quickly, between four to five feet in a single year, and do not usually grow more than ten feet.

The IGFA all-tackle world record for men is a 221-pound fish on 130-pound test line taken in 1947 from Ecuador.
The women’s all-tackle record is a 199-pound fish on 80-pound test line taken in 1968 from Panama.

The Hawaii state record is a 119-pound fish taken in 1983 from Kona. The Lahaina Harbor record is a 113-pound fish taken in 1979 aboard the Sport Diver with Capt. Tad Luckey. A 100-pound fish was taken in 1986 aboard the Finest Kind with Capt. Dave Hudson.

Family: Istiophoridae (Billfishes)

Genus and Species: Istiophorus platypterus

Range: Formerly considered as three different species, the sailfish from the three different oceans have been united into a single species. The Atlantic form ranges from Brazil to Massachusetts, on the Americas coast, and are also found off the African Atlantic coast as well. But is most common in the warm waters along the edge of the Gulf stream. The Pacific form is similar in appearance but bigger, averaging twice the size of the Atlantic form, and ranges from Peru to Baja California, rarely northward.

Description: The most distinctive billfish with an extremely high dorsal fin that is highest in the center. The body and sail are marked with light and dark blue spots that are vertically aligned against the rich blue of the back and sides. The sailfish is easily recognizable by its long bill and long high sail like dorsal fin, and also by its comparatively slim, compact body. The pelvic fins are notably long and the caudal fin lunate. Two keels are present on each side of the caudal peduncle. Sailfish are usually a purplish or cobalt blue in color, but are also seen in bronze , the coloring is lighter on the lower sides and belly .

Natural History: Usually found in the upper layers of warm water above the thermocline, but also capable of descending to rather deep water. Sailfish often migrate into near-shore waters, occasionally forming schools of up to 30 individuals, but often occurs in loose aggregations over a wide area. Feeds mainly on small pelagic fishes but also takes bottom-dwelling organisms. It is a rapidly growing species, reaching 4 to 5 feet in a single year.

Fishing Information: Sailfish can achieve sizzling speeds with up to 50 knots being quoted, but tire quickly and are generally considered a great light tackle species.  The sailfish is famous for spectacular aerial acrobatic displays. When hooked sailfish can run at speeds of 60+ MPH. The most successful techniques are trolling with artificials or rigged balao, mullet or flying fish and kite fishing with live bait. This is also the most popular billfish with fly fishermen and can be caught by fly-casting a large fly to an excited fish after teasing.

Temperature Range: 72 - 85 degrees F.

Other Common Names: Atlantic sailfish, Indo-Pacific sailfish, spindlebeak, pez vela, a’u lepe.

Largest recorded: 221 pounds (Ecuador)

Sources: Marine Sportfish Identification, California Department of Fish and Game, 1987; FishBase, FishBase Consortium, 2001; Billfish, Saltaire Publishing, 1976