Migration Invasion

Atlantic Sailfish...An Annual Journey Like No Other

Capt. Mike Genoun November 18, 2009

With a crisp northwesterly chilling our cheeks, we rocked back in forth in relatively calm seas with high expectations of what was about to come. Off the downwind side, our green SFE kite did a perfect job of flying high in the sky while suspending a pair of frisky goggle-eye directly on the surface. Upwind off the flatlines, a half of a dozen scared scad with hooks bridled to their noses swam just below the waves, more petrified then we could imagine. It was just after 8:00 a.m. in-sight of Hillsboro Inlet Lighthouse and we had already scored two successful releases from a pleasantly unexpected triple that blasted our spread just minutes after setting up.

migration-invasion1

1 of 4

To our starboard and directly in our path of travel, a school of frantic ballyhoo showered in the distance. It’s doubtful all survived the attack. VHF chatter confirmed the bite was hot with “fish on” being blurted up and down the line from Ft. Lauderdale to Delray Beach. It was a typical South Florida morning in mid-December, and this was light-tackle sailfishing at its best. We finished the day 4 for 7, nothing spectacular but nothing to be ashamed of when you’re fishing five-minutes from the cut and barely a mile from shore. Throughout the activity filled morning, we wondered where the sailfish were coming from and better yet, where were they in such a hurry to go? We had questions on sailfish migratory routes and we wanted answers. What we learned and are about to reveal may surprise you, so sit back, relax and prepare to go on a migratory journey like no other.

…it’s believed large concentrations of Atlantic sails enjoy the summer months hovering in the currents around the Charleston Bump—a deep water bottom feature nearly 100-miles southeast of Charleston…

Thanks in part to thousands of recaptures from over 100,000 Atlantic sailfish tagged off the Carolinas, Florida, in the Gulf of Mexico, off Cancun, Venezuela and off the U.S. Virgin Islands, marine conservationists and recreational anglers alike have been fortunate to learn quite a bit about these magnificent pelagic predators. However, not all is peaches and cream. Even with all of the data collected precise sailfish migration routes are still somewhat sketchy.

What we do know for certain is that sailfish exhibit no trans-Atlantic movement. Fish tagged in the western North Atlantic—anywhere off the eastern seaboard—have never been recovered across the “big pond.” And although the vast majority of sailfish recaptures were in the general vicinity of the initial release, one healthy specimen traveled from the southernmost reaches of Florida to the upper mid-Atlantic, an impressive 1,745-miles.

Tag data from the Cooperative Tagging Center also tells us that along with summer breeding grounds in the northern Gulf of Mexico, it’s believed large concentrations of Atlantic sails enjoy the summer months hovering in the currents around the Charleston Bump—a deepwater bottom feature nearly 100-miles southeast of Charleston, South Carolina. A few continue to head north, past Virginia and as far up as Maine, but the majority set up shop around the Bump, and it’s easy to understand why.

Similar to the upper Gulf of Mexico with its vastly irregular bottom contours, the Charleston Bump rises from the surrounding Blake Plateau that lies just beyond the edge of the continental shelf. The Blake Plateau is a deepwater bank, similar to the Great Bahama Bank, but does not reach the surface. From depths of over 2,300-feet the bottom ramps up to 1,200-feet before plunging hundreds of feet in a series of steep, rocky cliffs, jagged overhangs and deep, dark caves. As the Gulf Stream flows northward out of the Straits of Florida, it eventually collides with the Charleston Bump and is deflected offshore, causing massive eddies and other current features that create vital fish habitat. The powerful upwellings force nutrient-rich water toward the surface, greatly enhancing plankton production. From there you can follow the food chain up. The combination of rocky bottom and complex currents is attractive to large pelagics such as marlin, swordfish and, of course, sailfish. Observant anglers, commercial and recreational, who have visited this distant destination tell us that even when the weather is beautiful, waters deflected off the Bump often result in chaotic whitewater immediately adjacent to glassy seas.

The deflection of the Gulf Stream at the Charleston Bump also sets up the Charleston Gyre—an eddy of warm water that splits off the Gulf Stream and spirals inshore. During periods of extremely strong Gulf Stream flow, the Charleston Gyre is very prominent and pushes warm, nutrient-rich water within easy reach of inquisitive anglers.

As early fall’s first cold fronts reach New England, sailfish feel the effects and the migration kicks into gear with countless spindlebeaks simultaneously heading south. Many swim straight down the East Coast, hot on the heels of boatloads of baitfish migrating in the same direction. However, a percentage venture toward the eastern outskirts of The Bahamas and eventually swim past Haiti, Puerto Rico and through the Virgin Islands before taking up temporary residence off the coast of Venezuela and Suriname. These fish enjoy rich feeding grounds in the Caribbean Sea before commencing on the next leg of their annual journey toward the Yucatan Channel dividing Cuba from Cancun.

In the past it was believed the annual sailfish migration was likely associated with spawning patterns, however, we’ve since learned that sailfish actually spawn multiple times throughout the year with the vast majority of breeding activity taking place between May and September in depths as shallow as 30-feet and as deep as 330-feet across their entire territory.

The body of fish that migrate down Florida’s Atlantic coastline aren’t here to stay and rarely remain in the same stretch of water for very long. However, depending on prevailing weather patterns and sustainable forage concentrations, a percentage do remain off Florida year-round, which explains why sailfish releases are recorded during every month of the year from Jacksonville to Key West. The overall abundance and availability of sailfish off the southeast coast of the state, especially south of St. Lucie County to the fabulous Florida Keys, is attributed to the narrow continental shelf in this region and the close proximity of the Gulf Stream. Florida’s resident and visiting anglers are simply fortunate enough to be on a collision course with fish migrating toward the equator in search of preferred 78° to 82° water. These fish that we are fortunate to catch-and-release continue south past the Florida Keys and head straight for the Yucatan Peninsula where they meet up with their brethren that make the journey across the Caribbean Sea. For reasons yet unknown, a few sailfish head deep into the Gulf of Mexico, with a small number venturing as far as Texas. Interestingly, the fish in the Gulf feed heavily on shrimp—proving sailfish truly are opportunistic feeders.

Once winter transitions into spring and northerly water temperatures once again begin to climb, the sailfish you released in December off Palm Beach may once again devour your bait in March on its way back up. By Easter, the migration has taken a complete 180-degree turn and large numbers of fish head north along the inside edge of the Gulf Stream toward familiar areas such as the Charleston Bump and thus, the Atlantic sailfish circle of life continues.

While the data we’ve learned provides a snapshot into the annual migration routes of Atlantic sailfish, as previously mentioned much is yet to be discovered. Conservation-minded anglers need to do their part by getting involved in rewarding tagging programs. We need a steady stream of fresh data to keep tabs on everyone’s favorite billfish and to ensure the longevity of this thriving fishery—a thriving fishery where success isn’t judged by a cooler full of fish but rather the number of release flags proudly displayed.

“To emerge victorious, one must know his opponent better than he knows himself” – A victorious army general must have said this at some point in history.

To truly appreciate the cyclical movements of these fast growing fish and to capitalize on available angling opportunities, anglers need to fully comprehend this spectacular species precise behavioral patterns. Distribution from telemetry and ultrasonic tag data indicates that although Atlantic sailfish are encountered offshore, they have the most coastal orientation of any billfish, showing a strong tendency to approach continental coasts, islands and reefs. Results from tagging studies also confirm that sailfish are most often found in the top 60-feet of the water column well above the thermocline, but that these opportunistic hunters display frequent short duration dives to depths exceeding 1,000-feet—likely in search of squid.

Regarding age, estimated maximum life span is in the mid-teens, though 20-year-old sailfish may be a reality. Atlantic sailfish, unlike marlin, appear to be a schooling fish. The behavior appears to be seasonal. In the Straits of Florida, fish congregate in hunting packs of a dozen or more during the late fall and winter, but during the spring and summer when migrating north, sailfish typically display a scattered distribution along the East Coast. It has also been suggested that sailfish form schools when prey is abundant, but as prey disperses, so do the fish.

Tag, you’re it!

The Billfish Foundation (TBF) is the only non-profit organization dedicated to conserving and enhancing billfish populations around the world. TBF’s comprehensive network of supporters includes anglers, captains, mates, tournament directors, clubs and sportfishing businesses. By coordinating efforts and speaking with one voice, TBF works for solutions that are good for billfish and not punitive to recreational anglers. Explore the TBF website and learn more about their work. Become a TBF member and start tagging sailfish. Do your part toward ensuring successful billfishing for generations to come by visiting www.billfish.org

Join the Discussion