How to catch sailfish
THE North Western quarter of our wide brown land is known for many things. The spectacular Kimberley and its almost spookily ancient landscape. The harsh and arid Pilbara with its vast iron ore deposits that kept the nation from economic collapse. Or the World Heritage listed marine wilderness of the Ningaloo Reef and its iconic whale shark aggregations. From a fisho’s point of view though, one of the major things north-west WA should be known for is being Australia’s undisputed stronghold of that most spectacular of billfishes, the Indo-Pacific sailfish.
The pristine north-west waters from Shark Bay northward to the Territory border are home to world class stocks of sailfish, making this massive chunk of the Aussie coastline the place to look for the very best saily action the country can provide. More often than not, West Aussie sailfishing is about as close to guaranteed as billfishing gets.
Sailfish can be a tricky species to tick off the lifetime list along the eastern Australian seaboard. Through Queensland waters and even around into the Territory, their availability seems highly cyclic with boom or bust variations that can be really hard to discern. Out west though, sails are a year-round proposition with seasonal aggregations you can just about set your watch to.
Being a coastal billfish species, sailfish are typically found right inshore in West Aussie waters. This means they’re highly accessible, with nothing more than a decent tinny required to get amongst the action in most parts of their north-west range. Being a relatively small billfish, they also don’t require much in the way of specialised gear, so any fisho that owns a couple of 6-15 kg spin outfits is ready to get stuck into the sailfish shenanigans.
All this means sailfish are THE light tackle billfish and north-west WA is THE place to go to get amongst this light tackle mayhem. So let’s have a look at how to do just that in Australia’s sailfish stronghold.
WA sail destinations
While sailfish are prolific right throughout north-west WA waters, there’s really two major hot spots that stand out from all the rest – Exmouth and Broome. Across the 1300 km of coastline between these two exciting destinations there’s plenty of opportunity for great sailfishing, as there is further north up into the wild waters of the Kimberley. However, Exxy and Broome both offer the combination of established sailfisheries that are as reliable as they come, grounds that are very easy to access, and some great charter skippers that will put you on the fish if towing your own boat clear across the country just isn’t an option.
Broome is the more renowned of the two sailfish destinations, with its dry season (winter) run of sails famous in sport and game fishing circles for many a decade now. Broome’s sailfishery is all about numbers, as it’s nothing to raise 20 or more sails in a day’s fishing Broome’s shallow, inshore grounds, as well as a few small black marlin thrown into the mix.
The only limiting factor to Broome’s outstanding sailfishing is the huge tidal variations – the biggest in the world in fact – that perpetually flood and drain this coastline. Even though sailfish aren’t particularly bothered by dirty water, the huge volume of sediment and strong currents that spring tides stir up tend to make for quiet fishing, so aligning a visit around a set of neaps is important to see Broome’s baby billfish at their best.
Exmouth has only shot to nationwide prominence as a billfish destination in relatively recent times, primarily because it’s only been relatively recently that enough billfish mad anglers and charter skippers have started to shine the spotlight on just how epic a hot spot this place is for all Aussie billfish species, let alone sailfish. All six members of the billfish clan that can be found in Australian waters are encountered off Exmouth in good to great numbers, and sailfish are no exception.
With no wet or dry season to speak of and much more sedate tidal ranges, Exmouth’s sailfishery is a year-round option, although there’s clearly peak times on the calendar to target them. Exmouth’s sailfish grounds are so close to shore as to barely bother the fuel gauge, and at times these grounds can also produce crazy-hot fishing with plenty of shots over a day out.
As is often the case for tropically distributed Aussie fish species, the biggest sailfish are found at the bottom end of their West’ralian range. A typical Exmouth sail would be in the 20-30 kg size class, with 40 kg+ fish far from uncommon. Up in Broome, a 20 kg sail would be considered a really good fish, and the further north you go up into the Kimberley, the smaller the average size of any sailfish encountered gets.
As mentioned, Broome’s ultra-reliable sailfishery is a dry season affair. The peak period is from June – October, when small to mid-sized sails arrive in droves. Although the average size of these Broome sails is only small, they are ultra-reliable, with the fishery almost never failing to produce hot sailfishing through this time of the year.
Sailfish are a realistic proposition in the clean, oceanic waters outside of Exmouth’s Ningaloo Reef year-round, however, the peak time is similar to Broome in that the best of the action usually takes places through late winter and into spring. The big difference though is that Exmouth experiences two distinct runs of sails that occur in two very different marine environments.
Sometime in July or August, numbers of sailfish stack up along the back of the Ningaloo Reef, just a couple of kays from shore. These are good sails too, averaging about 25-35 kg and often much bigger. The peak of this run usually doesn’t last long, but when it’s cooking the sailfishing along the back of the reef can be as good as it gets in Aussie waters, both in terms of size and numbers of fish.
From late September through October and the start of November, Exmouth’s second annual run of sailfish takes place in the shallow, tidal waters of Exmouth Gulf. This is a completely different stock of fish – much smaller at an average size of 20 kg – which roll up in response to a seasonal abundance of a local herring species known as gulf mulies. Exmouth Gulf sailfish can be crazy thick when this baitball scenario comes together, with some of the local charter skippers who have this fishing dialled in routinely racking up double figure days for their clients.
Exmouth sailfishing can be a little more variable than that up in Broome, so the latter would still have to rate as Australia’s premier sailfish destination purely because of that reliability in season. The upside to the Exmouth fishery (aside from average size of fish) is that there will almost always be some sails around regardless of time of year, plus a higher (also year-round) instance of desirable by-catch including small to middling black marlin, dolphinfish, cobia and more.
West Aussie sailfish techniques
With their long, tapered lower jaw and sometimes finicky way of swallowing a bait, sailfish are arguably the hardest of all Aussie 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 specialised techniques need to be adopted in order to pin these spectacular little billfish.
There’s really two standard approaches to chasing sails anywhere in the country; either troll small skipbaits or drag hookless teasers looking to switch bait any sails that rise to the teasers. Trolling small skipbaits such as garfish or mullet is probably the no fuss way to target these fish and can be deadly effective at times, especially when you’re needing to cover ground to find where the sails are hanging out.
There’s a multitude of ways to rig skipbaits for sails; some of which are easy, thirty second jobs and others that are intimidatingly complex. Personally, I really don’t see the need to over-complicate skipbait rigging, as sails are far from a fussy fish that don’t require ultra-realistic bait presentation. A well rigged skipbait is simply one that has the hook well clear so as not to get buried in the bait when a fish eats it, and that it won’t break apart when trolled or when a sail grabs it.
On this latter point, stitching your skipbaits using a length of light waxed thread and a small, in-line eye bait needle to very simply cross stitch the head to the softer body and along the back of the bait to bind the flesh to the spine is a must to allow your bait to withstand what may be several hours of trolling. Similarly, adding a small plastic squid skirt or what’s known as a bubbler head in front of the skip bait helps streamline the bait, and can also add to the attraction.
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 circle hook used closely 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.
Troll your skipbaits at about 4 knots, give or take a knot or so depending on sea conditions. You’ll know when you’ve hit the right speed as the bait will be skipping across the water surface enticingly, but not so fast as to tumble. Setting the skipbait on the face of a wake wave can also help get your skipbait really flapping along the surface in a lifelike manner.
As effective as trolling simple skipbaits can be for sailfish, switch baiting takes things to the next level of fun. The approach is similar in that you’re trolling looking to raise sails into your spread behind the boat, but the big difference is that what you’re trolling are hookless teasers to attract the fish, then throw them a bait.
For west Aussie sails, the standard teaser is a daisy chain of half a dozen plastic squid behind a splashy bird teaser. The last lure in the chain is a soft headed skirt, which can be enhanced by solidly stitching in a belly flap off a tuna, queenfish, mackerel or similar. When a sail comes onto the teaser, it will typically attack that last lure in the chain, and the belly flap gives the fish some natural taste and feel that will hold its interest.
With a sail on the teaser, the fun part begins. The play here is to pull the teaser away from the fish, smoothly switching it onto a bait – which can be a simple rigged skipbait, or better still a small live bait like a yakka or mullet - so that the sail immediately and enthusiastically engulfs that bait. It’s not always as easy as it sounds, as it can take a little practice to get your crew well drilled enough to make the switch without some form of hiccup happening, but it’s highly visual fishing that is top fun.
Of course, these two techniques aren’t mutually exclusive, so there’s no reason you can’t run a teaser as well as a couple of skipping gar way out the back for any fish that don’t want to commit to the teaser. The only drawback is that this set up can require many pairs of hands to manage in the instance that multiple fish pop up behind the boat, which is a very common occurrence with sails.
In these West Aussie waters, it’s nothing for half a dozen sails to suddenly appear in the spread and attack anything that moves. For this reason you need to have multiple baits rigged on multiple outfits ready to throw at all times, along with a plan of attack for who’s going to do what when this happens. If you can keep the deck from descending into chaos in the excitement of a pod of sails appearing in the wake, it’s actually quite a simple thing to convert this opportunity into multiple hook-ups and sails dancing across the surface in all directions.
In Exmouth waters, those baitball aggregations I mentioned earlier open the door for an even more exciting way to chase West Aussie sailfish. In this scenario, pods of sails can often be seen herding baitfish against the surface, from where it’s possible to sight cast to them. Spotting a surface boil up, racing over to it and pitching live baits to multiple sailfish strafing the edges of the tight packed baitball is fast paced, highly engaging fishing that is ultra-exciting from cast to catch.
Because sails are an inshore billfish, tides make a big difference when chasing these fish. As already mentioned, those huge tides that wash the Kimberley coastline mean that fishing the neap tide sets is just a given when visiting Broome to chase sailfish, but you will also find sails to be tide change biters. What was a dead area can suddenly come alive with sails around the change of tide, so always keep this in mind when things are quiet.
For light tackle fun on what is doubtlessly the most spectacular of all billfish species, north-west WA is without peer in this country. Come visit Australia’s sailfish stronghold and experience this exhilarating fishing.