Most every veteran can tell a story or three about an unfortunate handler getting scraped, swatted, or worse, speared by a sailfish bill. As Florida’s winter sailfish season approaches, now is a good time to review safe techniques for releasing these fast and acrobatic fish.
You think a sail has finished its wild jumps and long runs. It appears to have settled down. Your buddy on the rod is applying the right amount of pressure, ready to ease up if the fish charges away. The fish’s head is near the surface; its tail is beating slowly.
If you’re the one doing the leadering—hauling the fish those last few feet, grabbing the bill to remove the hook—now’s when the real game begins.
You’ll need a pair of gloves, to start with. The bill is rough as sandpaper, and will leave painful abrasions on bare hands. Lots of choices out there, but the orange poly gloves with soft plastic grippy surface are fine for sailfishing, and they cost only a couple of bucks.
Note in the first photo, the mate has grabbed the leader in his palms, thumbs facing up. He has not looped the leader around his fingers or hands. Friction between gloves and monofilament alone is sufficient for pulling the fish to the boat. No need to anchor the leader and muscle the fish. Pinch, don’t wrap. Be ready to let go.
The point at which you transition from holding the leader to grabbing the bill is fraught with uncertainty. It’s hard to predict exactly what each fish will do. It helps to have someone at the helm, keeping the boat moving forward slightly. It’s best if you can keep the fish coming toward the bow, alongside the gunnel. In a way, you almost want to trick the fish into feeling a sense of security. When you do reach for the bill, reach for the base, not the narrow tip. This will afford better control, plus reduce the risk of snapping off the fish’s bill (it happens).
When you grab the bill, do it palms down, using both hands. Most importantly, keep your thumbs pointed toward each other along the bill. In this position, you can most effectively push the fish away if it theatens to direct its bill toward your body.
If you can see the hook, use pliers to dislodge it. If not, simply cut the leader as close as possible. The fish should be none the worse for the wear. If the fish is particularly feisty at boatside—resisting your efforts to detain it for dehooking—this is also a good time to simply cut the leader and part ways, for the safety of yourself and the health of the fish. No need to get into a wrestling match with a billfish that’s already “caught.”
Your fish may or may not need to be revived, but handle it the same, regardless. Have the skipper idle forward, and you lead the fish straight ahead along the boat, holding its head down in the water. When the tail starts beating, the head shakes and color begins returning, give the fish a tug away from the boat and let it go.
One final consideration: Be sure to purchase a federal HMS permit for your boat (www.nmfspermits.com; 888-872-8862), and keep a measuring tape on board. If a tail-wrapped sailfish comes up dead, and measures the current requisite 63 inches from lower jaw to fork, it will make a fine candidate for the grill or smoker. Bag limit is one per person. But you will need the $22 permit to be legal. No sense in wasting a dead fish, though you’ll for sure want to release all that have a chance of surviving.