Most people’s first introduction to the world of billfishing comes from catching a sailfish. They are by far the most prolific species of billfish and since they tend to frequent near-shore waters, they come in contact with the most number of anglers. Many anglers trolling for dolphin, kingfish or some other meat, end up catching their first sailfish by accident. That’s how I caught my first one off Cape Canaveral, in October, when the sails start their run down the Florida coast.
For those who are seriously targeting sails, however, there are a few spots worldwide that offer up some seriously ridiculous numbers of sails during certain times of the year. Sailfish like to swim and hunt in packs, so you can put yourself in the right spot at the right time, you can really get some practice in. During one of our very first Marlin University session in Costa Rica, I watched four students who had never seen a sailfish before catch 54 sails out of 100 bites! Needless to say, they were spoiled for life. Here are 10 sailfishing hot spots that can really turn on and show you the time of your life if you hit them at the right time.
Another hot fishing hole that we have Tim Choate to thank for: Costa Rica. Choate helped pioneer these prolific waters in the late 1980s and the place hasn’t been the same since. Huge numbers of sails migrate along Costa Rica’s entire Pacific coast and they are well-fed. Early efforts came out of the port towns of Quepos on the central Pacific coast as well as Flamingo and Tamarindo to the north, but the arrival of Los Sueños Resort in 2001 was a game-changer.
The first full-service resort and marina on the Pacific coast of Cost Rica, Los Sueños provided a luxury destination that could accommodate the larger sport-fishing boats that wanted to traverse the Panama Canal and make their way up and down the Central American coast. With professional crews coming in and fishing, the number of sailfish caught here exploded. Marina Pez Vela in Quepos also offers not only a great marina but a sizable charter fleet as well; they host the Offshore World Championship each spring, attracting anglers from around the world to Costa Rica. With unusually calm water and large numbers of sails close to shore, you’d be hard pressed to find a better spot to catch your first billfish.
While every serious angler should have the Florida Keys on their bucket list just for the sheer variety of species that you can target there, those wanting a shot at a scrappy Atlantic sail would be hard pressed to find a more agreeable location. Not only do the Keys provide good numbers of sails throughout the winter months, they also have a large number of excellent, and reasonably-priced, charter operations that can get you out to the action.
The Florida Keys are one of the few places in the world where you can experience the “run and gun” style of fishing. When the sails congregate bait in the shallow waters next to the reef, savvy captains look for their dark shapes or showering schools of ballyhoo to locate the fish. They then run up to the spot and cast out live ballyhoo, pilchards or sardines to the feeding sails. While these fish won’t approach the size of those in Central America, they make up for it in their incredible speed, color and acrobatics.
Isla Mujeres, Mexico
I’ve been to Isla Mujeres twice now, once for a Marlin University session several years ago, and once just recently with Capt. Joey Birbeck on You Never Know. I pretty much fell in love with the island’s laid-back atmosphere and proximity to a truly world-class sailfish bite the first time I saw the place. I travel quite a bit, but Isla marks one of those special spots where I’d have no qualms about bringing the whole family and letting them run wild. The only cars allowed on Isla are taxis, so everyone else gets around on scooters or golf carts — which is whole different kind of fun itself.
I first heard of the big sailfish bite off of Isla Mujeres in the mid 1990s and back then it was a more of a springtime fishery. Boats would meet up in Key West (some as from as far away as North Carolina) and head down in late February or March to intercept the multitudes of sailfish that gather there to feed off the bait balls each spring.
The fishing hasn’t changed much over the years; the sails still come up into gin clear shallow water to herd up balls of sardines. If you get lucky, you will be there when they are close to the Isla and you won’t have to run up around the corner to get your 40 bites a day.
Like all the countries in Central America, Panama gets its share of sailfish. However, a quick look at the record books shows that Panama (and Costa Rica) has some of the biggest sailfish found anywhere on the planet. Panama’s prolific waters support an unusually rich food chain and the sails here eat big baits. Prime time for sails in Panama runs from December through April, though they can be caught here year-round.
What’s amazing here is that you can literally get sailfish bites just 100 yards from the rocky shoreline! Crews here catch the big sails on the crushingly effective Panama strip bait, which works even better than the original when paired with a circle hook. The fish come back and attack the strip until you finally get a hook into them. While there are several mothership operations that service the Panamanian coastline, a visit to the historic Tropic Star Lodge should also be on every serious angler’s bucket list.
Big-game sportfishing for billfish started in the years following World War II in the Palm Beach area. The area between Fort Pierce and North Miami Beach capitalized on the Florida land boom and the number of tourists that travelled to the sunshine state to enjoy it’s mild winters. Consequently, wintertime is sailfish time in south Florida, and when the cold fronts come in from the north, they stack up the sails in the Gulf Stream, which lies just a few miles offshore.
At the northern end of the “alley” in the Fort Pierce area, crews pull dead baits and dredges to cover more ground since the fish are scattered out a bit. (The whole dredge fishing craze started in Fort Pierce). Down south in the Palm Beaches and Miami, live bait fishing with kites along the reef proves deadly effective. Although you can catch sails in south Florida year around, the winter months from December through March usually have the higher concentrations. When the wind is blowing from the North you can get 20 bites a day, even or more.
The last time I fished in the Bazaruto Island area of Mozambique, I was fishing for the area’s giant black marlin. We didn’t see a sailfish, although that’s what most anglers who come here from all over Europe normally target. Although you can catch these Indo-Pacific sails throughout the year, the peak of the season runs from July through September – the winter months for this part of the world. Large numbers of sails show up in these warm waters all the way up to Kenya, and you usually don’t have to travel very far offshore to get into them.
Trolling dead baits and/or pitch-baiting with live baits or strips, the sails here aren’t picky. The Bazaruto Archepelago is one of last truly pristine places, that coupled with the amazing amount of wildlife and other adventures on the mainland make Mozambique an exciting place to target sails.
These last three places represent destinations that I’ve never had the pleasure to fish personally, but since I’m young and still have my health, I hope to visit them someday soon. Exmouth in Western Australia represents one of the world’s richest and most diverse fishing destinations. Australia declared the Ningaloo Coastline as a World Heritage Marine Park, which means that the area will remain protected to be enjoyed as an untouched wilderness. The Ningaloo Reef provides a perfect ecosystem that supports a wide variety of marine life, but the sails make their major showing from October through December.
The presence of black and striped marlin make Exmouth a decent place to score a grand slam. Plus, it’s in freaking Australia, where the people speak English and all the fishing is incredible! Several good gameboats with excellent equipment service the area, so you know you won’t travel halfway around the world and end up fishing on a rust bucket.
Kuala Rompin, Malaysia
I first heard about the great sailfish bite off Malaysia when one of our Marlin U students, Capt. Mike Tan of Bluesails Sportfishing, clued me in during our Kona session last year. Capt. Mike has released well over 5,000 sails for his fishing guests along with a decent number of juvenile black marlin. Sailfish are caught here year round but the best times coincide with summer monsoons from March until September. Tan has even caught seven sails in one day pitching topwater plugs to feeding sails!
This island in the Andaman Sea offers up some great sailfish action. The peak occurs between June and August during the monsoon season. There is a good fleet of boats that service the area and several extremely nice resorts. The legendary Thai food and hospitality, combined with six to 10 shots at good sized sails a day should make the trip an awesome Asian adventure. With a good infrastructure and a safe, tourist-friendly atmosphere, a fishing trip to Thailand should be a no-brainer. A decent number of juvenile black marlin only sweetens the pot.