Your Guide to Fishing for Marlin, Sailfish and Other Billfish in Florida
By Lauren Tjaden
Legendary for their power and size, marlin, sailfish and other Florida billfish are elusive, grand creatures, the ultimate prize in high-octane offshore sport fishing. Epic adventure calls to those who dare to venture to the plunging, prolific waters off Florida’s coastlines in search of these spectacular trophy fish and unparalleled excitement.
With more coastline than any other state except Alaska, its proximity to the Gulf Stream, and geological features like ‘The Wall’ in the Florida Keys, where the ocean floor plunges suddenly from 950 to 2,000 feet, Florida offers some of the most spectacular billfishing in the world.
Here's where to learn about each species and what makes it special as well as when, where and how to catch it. You’ll also find information on guide services and tournaments -- so you can hook into this thrilling blockbuster escapade and your very own marlin, sailfish, swordfish or spearfish.
At up to 16 feet and 1,400 pounds, the Blue Marlin is the largest Atlantic marlin species and is revered as the world’s supreme gamefish. Females are normally bigger than the males – up to four times bigger - but both sexes are inspired fighters and will make you earn every inch of the line. If you hook one of these monsters, you’d best be rigged heavy and be prepared to battle for four to six hours to land it. You’ll need skill, strength, and patience to persevere in this showdown of a lifetime.
American author Ernest Hemingway knew something about these grueling clashes; he was a fervent deep-sea fisherman who frequently spent more than half his year afloat on the Straits of Florida and held several records for catching marlin. Hemingway often featured these striking blue and silver beauties in his books, including The Old Man and the Sea, which chronicles a heroic struggle between an aging fisherman named Santiago and an enormous marlin. The book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1953 and made Hemingway an international celebrity.
Blue Marlins have blue-black backs that blend into silver-white bellies, and the tips of their dorsal, pectoral and anal fins are pointed. Their upper jaw stretches into a spear shape.
These giants of the deep feed mostly on fish and squid, hunting alone and usually during the day, sometimes using their lengthy, sharp bills to pierce or stun their prey.
The Florida state record for a Blue Marlin is a whopping 1,046 pounds, caught near Panama City.
While it’s the smallest of the marlins, the White Marlin is still enormous, measuring up to nine and a half feet and weighing up to 180 pounds. Known for their feisty dispositions and jaw-dropping leaps, these native fish are dark blue to brown on their backs, which blends into silvery-white bellies.
If you haven’t fished for marlin before, you should consider getting your fins wet with a White Marlin before you rival a behemoth Blue.
White Marlins use their bills to daze squid and pelagic fishes before eating them, ranging throughout the Atlantic and Caribbean.
The Florida state record for a White Marlin is 161 pounds, caught near Miami Beach.
Often misidentified as White Marlin, Roundscale Spearfish are a separate species, though they’re a similar size, commonly 62 to 70 inches in length and 45 to 65 pounds.
How can you tell them apart? The individual scales of a Roundscale Spearfish are far more distinct than those of a White Marlin, which are barely noticeable.
Roundscale Spearfish feed mostly on squids, flying fish, and sardines.
Where to Go to Catch Marlin and Spearfish
If you venture far enough off of Florida’s coastlines, no matter which one, you can find marlin -- but you have to be willing to take a longer boat ride to find the best spots in some places, because these trophy fish love deep water and the open ocean.
Two Florida areas always the top the list for catching marlin, time-proven grounds that have become legend.
The first is the Destin, Panama City Beach and Mexico Beach area of Northwest Florida, where the Panhandle begins its graceful curve to the south. It’s no coincidence a charter boat captain from Destin caught his record-breaking 1,046-pound Blue Marlin in those gorgeous, clear waters. Likewise, there are obvious reasons why the area is home to multiple prestigious billfish tournaments and why Destin’s nickname is the "World’s luckiest fishing village."
The Florida Keys, and especially Key West, are equally renowned for reeling in these prized catches. One of the primary reasons is Woods Wall, located a mere 20 miles south of Key West. "The Wall," as it’s known, marks the edge of the continental shelf, where the ocean plunges abruptly from 950 feet to 2000 feet, making it the perfect feeding ground for hungry Marlin.
Other popular fishing destinations in the Florida Keys include Key Largo, Big Pine Key, Little Torch Key and Marathon—and don’t forget Islamorada, aptly dubbed the ‘"Sport Fishing Capital of the World."
When You Should Go to Catch Marlin and Spearfish
May to October is considered high season for Marlin fishing, and late July to October is ideal. The prime time for a rod-bending catch near The Wall is the latter part of August, when adult Marlin congregate there. Low season is January to March and October to December.
If you’re headed to Northwest Florida and the Panhandle, a bit later in the year is perfect, and October is rated as the most productive month.
How to Catch Marlin and Spearfish
Catching marlin isn’t a one-man or woman operation. Be aware that you’ll need at least two people – the captain, who handles the boat, and the angler, who focuses on the rod, reel and fish. If a mate is there to help, all the better for your chances of landing a billfish.
The most productive system for catching marlin is trolling lures and rigged baits at a vigorous pace from three to 20 miles offshore. It’s best to troll with 50 to 80-pound tackle, and use high-quality, large-volume wide reels with generous line capacity, just to have a fair chance if you hook into a big gamefish. If you hook a marlin of even 200 pounds, it can run away with 200 to 300 yards of line in only seconds. If you have a weak spot in your line, the fish will be sure to bring it to your attention in the worst possible way.
Good knot tying is a vital skill. Form your double line with a Bimini Twist. Rough guidelines are to use four feet of double line on 30- and 50-pound tackle, and six to eight feet on 80- and 130-pound tackle. Don’t even think about using snap swivels; heavy duty swivels are the way to go.
Remember, in big game fishing, big baits attract big fish, so 14 to 20-inch lures with large profiles are the rule when you’re aiming to reel in a jaw-dropping beast.
With bragging rights as Florida's official saltwater fish, the iconic sailfish is utterly unique, with an imposing, sail-like, steel-blue dorsal fin that runs nearly the length of its back and a long, spear-like bill. Stunning to the eye, this prized fish has a dark violet-blue body that blends into lighter hues of blue-gray or blue-brown on its sides and a delicate silvery white on its belly. While these strong fighters can be up to 11 feet in length and as heavy as 220 pounds, they’re more commonly six or seven feet and closer to 50 pounds.
Unbelievably athletic, this fish can tail-walk some 50 feet across the surface of the water. Its speed -- upwards of 60 mph -- combined with its magnificent looks and acrobatic jumps make a sailfish fishing expedition irresistible for both seasoned anglers and novices.
Sailfish are a quickly growing species that reach four or five feet in a single year, feeding aggressively on small fish and squid. In the summer, off southeast Florida, Sailfish migrate inshore to shallow water and spawn close to the surface.
The Florida state record for a Sailfish is 126 pounds, caught near Big Pine Key.
Where to Go to Catch Sailfish
You’ll find prime sailfish fishing on Florida’s southern Atlantic coast and especially the Treasure Coast, home to the suitably named "Sailfish Alley.’" This billfish thoroughfare is just three miles and half an hour from the coast, with Fort Pierce on its northern point and Miami on its southern point. Fort Pierce, Jupiter, West Palm Beach, Jensen Beach and Stuart, (the official Sailfish Capital of the World) are all superb choices for a Sailfish expedition.
The Gulf Stream moves further away from the coast the further north you go, and if you travel as far north as St. Augustine, you’ll need to boat 50 miles to access it.
When You Should Go to Catch Sailfish
The weather, and specifically cold fronts, determine Sailfish season in Florida. The fish appear en masse in Sailfish Alley soon after the first big cold front, typically in November, and stay until the last front blows through, which can range from February to late March.
The best months have proved to be January, February, July, November and December. The least productive months are April, May and October.
Check out this article for more information: Sailfish Season in Florida.
How to Catch Sailfish
Slender enough to fit into the sailfish’s small mouth, and abundant in winter, the ballyhoo is a popular choice for bait.
The most common method to hook a sailfish in Sailfish Alley is trolling, as you can cover a lot of water. Trolling usually includes using a dredge, which consists of umbrella shaped wires rigged with numerous live or dead baits. When pulled through the water, the dredge mimics a school of bait fish -- which to a sailfish means a hearty meal. You don’t need to limit yourself to one dredge, but don’t use more than you can watch.
Keep your eyes peeled: When a sailfish spots your dredge and comes after it, the action begins in earnest.
As the fish approaches, you need to remove the dredge from the water and straightaway substitute it with a Ballyhoo rig. A skilled captain can be instrumental in figuring out the right moment.
Kite fishing for sailfish is favored south of Jupiter, employing a kite to fly above the water while your bait is suspended below the surface. When the fish strikes, your line will pull free from the clips fastened to the kite line.
In the Florida Keys, watching for a “shower of Ballyhoo” is a time-honored method to catch Sailfish. When you see a school of bait fish – usually Wahoo or Ballyhoo - desperately leaping out of the water to avoid be eaten by sailfish, cast a line rigged with Ballyhoo into the frenzy.
As the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission points out, Sailfish tire easily and should be revived after a long fight to ensure their survival. Most anglers release these fish.
The swordfish is a behemoth, measuring up to 15 feet in length and weighing as much as 1,400 pounds, though the average is significantly less, ranging from 50 to 200 pounds. Found from the surface to below 2,000 feet, these deep-sea fish dive to staggering depths to feast on a smorgasbord of fish and squid, employing their swordlike bills to slash and stun their victims.
This prized fish is usually a deep brown to purple color, which fades to a lighter hue underside, and it doesn’t have pelvic fins, scales or teeth. One of the most coveted fish by anglers and foodies alike, it can be readily identified by its elongated, sword-like bill, purple hue, and cylindrical build. Its eyes are large, perfect for utilizing any sliver of light in the depths of the ocean.
More powerful than other members of the Billfish family, swordfish possess extra strength in the base of their tails.
This hard-hitting billfish is known for feats like rocketing out of the water from a depth of 500 feet in seconds, and then immediately diving back down to the same depth, guaranteeing an adrenalinize battle.
The Florida state record for a Swordfish is 612 pounds and 12 ounces, caught near Key Largo.
Where to Go to Catch Swordfish
The vast majority of swordfish caught in Florida are on the Atlantic coast. These giants gravitate to frigid, extremely deep water in the 1,000 to 1,500-foot range that can be found in the middle of the Gulf Stream and Straits of Florida. The Jupiter area down to Key West are your best bets.
When You Should Go to Catch Swordfish
You can reel in a Sword all year long in Florida.
How to Catch Swordfish
Be forewarned, fishing for swordfish isn’t for the fainthearted, and landing one of these marvelous monsters is not only thrilling but perilous.
In the daytime hours, swordfish stay in the depths of the ocean, and catching them requires an abundance of line and patience. But under the cover of darkness they’ll swim up to 500 feet, or even less in search of a meal, where anglers aim to catch them drift fishing. Fishing at night for swordfish many times involves lights as well as heavy hooks drifted with balloons to help you notice the strike.
Use your bottom finder to search for hills, valleys or other structure; that’s where your potential catch will be hunting for a meal. It’s best to use a few lines at multiple depths and drift with the Gulf Stream on a northerly crawl using a sea anchor to slow your speed. Anchoring isn’t possible with the extreme depths you’ll be fishing, and besides, you’ll want to cover some ground.
A big boat and gear to match are necessities to land an enormous swordfish. You’ll need 80-pound test line on trolling reels with heavy trolling rods, and downriggers or breakaway weights to sink your bait down to the fish. 9/0 J-hooks tied to 12-foot, 300-pound test mono leader tied to 80-pound mono line are recommended for success. If you’re fishing at night, attach a plastic glow stick to your leader to tempt bait fish, which in turn attract swords. Attaching safety lines to your rods is smart; they’ll stop the formidable swordfish from removing your gear from the boat while it performs aerobatics.
A chum line laden with live and dead baits, including Mullet, Herring, Bonito, Goggle-Eyes, Mackerel, Squid, Eels and Deepwater Hake can useful to tempt the Swordfish.
Substantial gloves and long gaffs are essential. You should tie your landing gaff or harpoon to a large poly ball or a cleat for easy retrieval.
Local fishing guides will have a wealth of knowledge and experience recognizing billfish migration patterns and where your potential catch is located. If it’s your first-time fishing in the Sunshine State or you haven’t fished for marlin, sailfish or swordfish before, then an experienced captain and competent crew will be invaluable. Charters ensure you'll have an appropriate boat, suitable fishing equipment and fishing licenses. Check to see if food and drink are provided or you'll need to supply your own.
You’ve got a wealth of trips and prices to choose from. You can expect to book an eight-hour excursion for about $1,000–$1,200. Longer expeditions from 10-18 hours are commonly in the $1,500–$2,700 price range. Multi-day excursions can run between $1,500–$6,000 per day for a group, depending on the charter and the specifics.
Remember that the waters can be choppy in the open ocean, so pack sea sickness medicine if you’re not accustomed to the bounce.
Check out these charter services, including ratings, dedicated to make your dream catch come true.
Whether you’re looking for a tournament with immense marlin, robust competition, rich payoffs or great parties, you’re bound to find it in Florida. Check out a few of these favorite tournaments...
PENSACOLA INTERNATIONAL BILLFISH TOURNAMENT, PENSACOLA: Held the final weekend of June at the celebrated Palafox Pier in Pensacola, this long running event is dedicated to offering a highly affordable and family friendly tournament on the Gulf Coast. Brimming with superb fishing, generous crowds and award celebrations laden with cash and prizes, it has a limit of eight different types of fish, which include swordfish, sailfish, wahoo, tuna, and dolphin.
OLD SALT LOOP TOURNAMENT, MADEIRA BEACH: Nicknamed the ‘Iron Man of Billfishing Tournaments,’ this annual August event has been a celebrated highlight on the circuit for close to 50 years. This prestigious, all-release billfish tournament is rich in tradition, promising intense competition and rivalry as well as superb fishing.
EMERALD COAST BLUE MARLIN CLASSIC, SANDESTIN: Purses topping well over one-million dollars, a mind-blowing Sunday morning brunch and a stunning location on a white-sand beach combine to make this June event a must-do for some of the best teams in sport-fishing.
KEY WEST MARLIN TOURNAMENT, KEY WEST: Billed as ‘A World Class Fishing Extravaganza’ this tournament lives up to the hype, offering substantial prizes and action on and off the water. It runs simultaneously with Hemingway Days and delivers nightly fun that includes a fish fry, a pig roast and awards banquet.
Florida Billfish Tournament Calendar
To discover what will be happening when you splash into town, take a peek at this calendar:
Florida East Coast
Lenny Schelin Memorial Tournament, Fort Pierce
Gold Cup Invitational Fishing Tournament, Palm Beach, Marlin Madness Qualifying Event
Fish for Holly Sailfish Tournament, Islamorada
Silver Sailfish Derby, West Palm Beach, Marlin Madness Qualifying Event
Operation Sailfish, Singer Island, Marlin Madness Qualifying Event
Reef Cup Invitational Sailfish Tournament, Key Largo
Islamorada Fishing Club Captain's Cup Sailfish Tournament, Islamorada, Marlin Madness Qualifying Event
Buccaneeer Cup, Singer Island, Marlin Madness Qualifying Event
Cheeca Lodge Presidential, Islamorada, Marlin Madness Qualifying Event
Islamorada Women's Sailfish Tournament, Date TBD, Islamorada
Emeril Lagasse Foundation's Line, Vine and Dine, Fort Lauderdale,
IGFA Light Tackle Open, Palm Beach Shores
Sailfish Challenge, Ft. Lauderdale, Marlin Madness Qualifying Event
Jimmy Johnson National Billfish Champ., Key Largo, Marlin Madness Qualifying Event
Ocean Reef Sailfish Classic, Key Largo
Viking Yachts Key West Challenge, Key West, Marlin Madness Qualifying Event
Final Sail, Miami Beach, Marlin Madness Qualifying Event
Northeast Florida Marlin Association Bluewater Tournament, St. Augustine, Offshore World Championship Qualifying Event
Key West Marlin Tournament, Key West, Marlin Madness Qualifying Event
Hope Town United Sailfish Tournament, Singer Island
Saltwater Sisters Ladies Tournament, Date: TBD, Stuart
Bluewater Babes Fish for a Cure, Date: TBD, Jupiter, Marlin Madness Qualifying Event
Pirate's Cove Sailfish Classic, Date: TBD, Stuart
Islamorada Sailfish Tournament, Date: TBD, Islamorada, Marlin Madness Qualifying Event
Stuart Sailfish Club Light Tackle Tournament, Date: TBD, Stuart, Marlin Madness Qualifying Event
Florida’s Gulf Coast
Emerald Coast Blue Marlin Classic, Sandestin, Marlin Madness Qualifying Event
Pensacola International Billfish Tournament, Pensacola, Marlin Madness Qualifying Event
White Marlin Shootout, Date: TBD, Pensacola, Marlin Madness Qualifying Event
Old Salt LOOP Tournament, Madeira Beach, Marlin Madness and Offshore World Championship Qualifying Event