Having lived along the coast of South Florida my entire life, it amazes me how I still get excited when sailfish begin to invade area waters. Every time I hit the edge in hopes of an encounter with a supercharged sail I think to myself how fortunate we are to have such incredible opportunities with world-class opponents.
However, since anglers don’t need a tricked-out battlewagon to get connected, it is sad to say that these magnificent fish don’t always get the respect they deserve. Drawn out battles and aggressive handling practices result in torn sails, broken bills and the potential demise of one of the ocean’s most capable predators. Make it your New Year’s resolution to practice sound conservation techniques when handling Florida’s greatest game fish.
While the odd fish may surface tail wrapped and have no chance of a healthy release, it’s the fish that are mishandled and abused that deserve to feed another day.
Sure, white marlin are more exotic, blue marlin grow much larger and swordfish are more revered, but day in and day out there’s no game fish that excites anglers as much as the heavily pressured Atlantic sailfish. However, to ensure the long-term survivability of sailfish it’s essential recreational anglers take a more proactive approach. Most agree that recreational anglers targeting game fish with rod and reel could never deplete a fishery, but the truth of the matter is that whether intentional or unwarranted, the killing of sailfish is indeed detrimental to the populations and completely unnecessary. While the odd fish may surface tail wrapped and have no chance of a healthy release, it’s the fish that are mishandled and abused that deserve to feed another day. Furthermore, you may be under the impression that every sailfish you release swims off happy and healthy, but a different scene may unfold below the surface. As an avid underwater photographer I’ve had the opportunity to witness sailfish in their natural environment and can tell you that many released fish don’t swim away as healthy or as happy as you think. Rather, joyous crews celebrating a release have no idea that their fish is now sinking towards the bottom of the ocean where it will undoubtedly meet its demise. If you truly care about our game fish you need to practice the following rigging, fighting and release tips.
Circle-Hooks Save Lives
Although scientific studies have proven the effectiveness of circle-hooks, it is important to note that not all circle-hooks are the same. The least harmful circle-hooks feature a hook point that angles in at 90°, or even beyond perpendicular to the shank. Imperfect circle-hooks have a hook point that is aimed toward the hook eye. It’s also crucial you avoid offset circle-hooks, which have a tendency to grab flesh on the way out of the fish’s throat or gut. While circle-hooks promote the restoration and conservation of sailfish populations, when fished properly they actually improve catch ratios. Although there are numerous tournament-approved circle-hooks, I’ve had great success with Eagle Claw’s Lazer Sharp L2004EL.
Shorten the Fight
Professional tournament anglers know that the longer a hooked fish remains on the line, the greater the chance it has of escaping. However, the length of a fight also plays a large role in the health and post release survivability of sailfish. Because of this you’ll want to do everything in your power to get your fish to the boat as quickly as possible. While the captain can maneuver the boat to make your life a lot easier, tackle selection is equally important. It’s totally acceptable to enjoy the fight provided by a magnificent game fish, but ultra light line and drags that are set way too loose are a fatal combination. An angler’s fighting technique can also help end the battle, with constant pressure and short pumps effective means of beating determined predators. Remember that if you take the opportunity to rest during the fight, you’re also giving the fish a chance to regain its strength. This will ultimately extend the battle and increase the build up of lactic acid in the fish’s muscles.
On the Leader
It is a known fact that the end of a fight is the most critical in determining who emerges victorious, but the last leg of a fight can also cause the most damage. Pressure by leadering a fish too aggressively can create a lot of unwanted stress and trauma. Because of this it is a much safer approach for both you and the fish to cut the leader with a sportsman’s release knife instead of trying to remove or forcefully pull out the hook. In fact, The Silver Sailfish Derby suggests tournament participants release sailfish by cutting the leader as close as possible to the mouth of the fish. The rulebook further states that breaking the leader by jerking on the line will result in a disqualified catch. Remember that tournament approved circle-hooks aren’t stainless, so they will rust out in no time. The damage done by trying to remove a hook is much more detrimental than simply cutting the leader.
Forget the Hero Shot
We’ve all been guilty of it at one time or another, but removing a sailfish from the water to take a picture is arguably the most deadly act of all and greatly reduces the fish’s chance of survival. In order to survive, pelagic game fish require oxygen to flow over their gills. After a marathon sprint, oxygen starved sailfish need to be treated with extreme care. Removing a sailfish by hoisting it over the gunwale is a kiss of death. Not only does the removal of slime coat subject sailfish to parasites, disease and skin lesions, but the unnatural act can cause undue damage to their internal organs. The next time you think about taking a sailfish from the water to snap a few photos think about how you would feel if you ran a marathon and were forced to hold your breath for 60 seconds once you crossed the finish line. Costa Rica recently passed a regulation making it illegal to remove sailfish from the water for the purpose of taking a photograph…shouldn’t we follow suit?
While I’ve been fortunate to visit some of the world’s greatest angling destinations, the joy that comes along with such adventures is often overshadowed by the sadness of how poorly prized game fish are treated. Fortunately, many countries are recognizing the economic importance of game fish and several governments have imposed rules and regulations regarding the conservation of critical species. In the nearby Bahamas, the killing of any billfish is illegal. In Guatemala it is illegal for anyone to possess sailfish, and throughout the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans governments are realizing the socioeconomic benefits of healthy billfish populations. While international governments should be applauded for their billfish conservation initiatives, why is the United States lagging? In Florida it is fully legal and acceptable for recreational anglers to kill highly prized blue marlin, white marlin and sailfish, yet species with hardly any economic importance or recreational interest, like goliath grouper, have complete amnesty.
Sure, there are those who disagree and claim smoked sailfish is delicious, and although everyone is entitled to their own opinion, this is nonsense. I’m not a member of PETA and I enjoy harvesting fresh fish for the table, but the satisfaction that comes along with watching a majestic sailfish swim away after a healthy release is much greater than the palate pleasing attributes of smoked sailfish dip. Whether you agree or not, sailfish deserve more than to be made into spread for your crackers. If you truly care about the health of our fisheries then it is important we adopt sound conservation practices. Think about this…the sailfish you just killed could have released more than 4,000,000 eggs. How does that fish dip taste now?
We want to hear your opinion. Do you think it is acceptable and ethical to intentionally kill sailfish? What if a sailfish is tail wrapped and ultimately perishes after revival efforts? Then what do you do with the fish…burial at sea? Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or post at facebook.com/floridasportfishing.