There are two particular fish species that sit atop the world of sportfishing as the ultimate challenge when it comes to fishing with a rod and reel—sailfish and marlin.
These fish are incredible predators that are built for speed and power and anyone who catches one will certainly never forget the experience.
There are a number of similarities between sailfish and marlin and it might be somewhat difficult for novice anglers or even seasoned fishermen to tell the difference.
We’ve compiled this article to list these differences and answer some questions about the sailfish vs marlin debate.
What is a Billfish?
Both sailfish and marlin are part of the Billfish family, which includes other species like swordfish. These fish are especially fast and capable of reaching extremely fast speeds in the water.
Anglers target them for this outstanding physical ability and billfish have a reputation among the sportfishing community as the most exciting fish in the world to catch.
It’s not uncommon to see a sailfish or a marlin burst out of the water and perform a number of acrobatic maneuvers above the surface in an effort to free itself of the lure.
Watching a sailfish or a marlin breach while trying to land it on a rod and reel is one of the most sought-after experiences among fishermen the world over and many anglers travel thousands of miles to fish for them.
Billfish are fierce predators that roam most of the world’s oceans feeding on smaller species of fish in the open water. These fish are named after their long, pronounced bills that might extend out to half their body length in some cases.
Before we begin comparing sailfish vs marlin in a head-to-head style matchup, it’s important to note that there are different kinds of both sailfish and marlin species throughout the world’s oceans.
What is a Marlin?
There are multiple species of marlin within the Billfish family. Many of these share a large amount of similarities, but some of them have their own distinct traits and appearance characteristics that make them unique.
There are four main types of marlin that each have their own specific distinguishing features which separate them from the other fish within the Billfish family.
The most common type of marlin, and the variation that anglers often pursue the most, is the blue marlin. It’s widely known throughout the sportfishing community that blue marlin are the largest of all Billfish species and are known to reach well over 1,000 pounds.
The IGFA world record blue tipped the scales at an astounding 1,376 lbs in 1982 off the coast of Hawaii, but there are photos and records of a behemoth blue caught in the same area in 1970 that weighed a whopping 1,805 lbs.
White marlin are more known for their peculiar appearance and only grow to be about 60 pounds at full maturity. These fish have a reputation for being extremely agile and can change directions in an instant with ferocity and power that few other fish are capable of matching.
White marlins live only in the Atlantic oceans and are not found in the Indo-Pacific oceans.
Black marlin are known for their speed and are the fastest of all marlin species. They are not small fish, by any means, and the largest-ever black marlin on record is a massive 1,560-lb monster that was landed off the coast of Peru in 1953.
Striped marlin are one of the more rare and visually-fascinating varieties of these fish. They are known to live in the waters of the Indo-Pacific oceans.
What is a Sailfish?
There is debate among anglers and even biologists as to the differences between sailfish species. Sailfish that live in the Indo-Pacific oceans are said to be a great deal larger than those caught in the Atlantic Ocean.
Both sailfish and marlin have a distinct body profile and shape that gives them astonishing amounts of speed and power compared to other fish. Sailfish are notably smaller than most marlin species throughout the world.
At full maturity, sailfish only grow to a length of about 9 feet on average and typically weigh up to about 200 pounds in even the best conditions.
This smaller size makes a notable difference in the speed at which a sailfish is capable of swimming.
Also Read: Sailfish vs Swordfish
A full-grown sailfish is capable of swimming as fast as 65 to 70 miles per hour. They are actually the fastest fish in the ocean and have an incredible amount of agility when it comes to chasing down prey in the open ocean.
The common size of most blue or black marlin far exceeds that of a trophy-sized sailfish. While both fish have a body profile and shape that’s similar, marlin species can grow up to well over 1,000 lbs in favorable conditions and with the right diet.
Marlin are also longer by a few feet with some of the larger ones reaching 14 to 16 feet in length.
One of the main differences between sailfish vs marlin is also something that remains mostly unseen by anglers who target them. The average sailfish is believed to spend the vast majority of its life in the upper portion of the water column, near the surface.
Many of the sailfish that biologists have tagged display a propensity to hunt and navigate in the upper part of the ocean, which is about 60 feet below the surface.
There have been some rare instances in which a tagged sailfish was tracked diving down to more than 1,500 feet, but sailfish mostly spend their lives in the warm, upper portion of the ocean.
Marlin are much larger, but they are fish that also live above the thermocline. Most marlin species generally spend a great deal of time in deeper water compared to sailfish.
However, they do have the capability to swim down into extreme depths if they choose. One tagged marlin was tracked swimming nearly half-a-mile beneath the ocean’s surface on multiple occasions.
Anglers who regularly fish for marlin stick to a rule of thumb known as the “110 Fathom Curve.” This refers to the ocean’s initial 600 feet below the surface and it’s said that marlin are often found in the upper half of the 100 Fathoms.
The theory behind the 100 Fathom Curve is that you’re more likely to catch a marlin around the middle of this 600-foot section of water.
Fin Shape and Size
One of the most obvious differences between sailfish and marlin is their fins. Sailfish get their name from the very large, tall dorsal fin that extends all the way down their back almost to the tail.
When fully extended, this fin is actually wider than the fish’s body and gives sailfish the ability to swim with incredible agility.
When a sailfish is attempting to swim as fast as possible, it will usually fold all of its fins back into its body, which makes it look more like a torpedo than a fish.
Unlike the sailfish, marlin have a crescent-shaped dorsal fin that curves upward into a sharp point. This fin very closely resembles the dorsal fin of many shark species.
Some mature marlin often have a dorsal fin that extends back as far as the fin of a sailfish, but the marlin’s fin is not very wide and tapers down to a much greater degree.
One of the more interesting differences in the characteristics of sailfish vs marlin behavior is how each species of fish hunt their prey. Marlin are largely considered to be solitary for most of their lives.
Sailfish, on the other hand, display much more of a “schooling” behavior, especially when hunting their prey.
Sailfish have often been spotted herding large schools of fish up toward the surface and they will continually take turns delving into the school of fish, picking them off bit-by-bit.
One of the other more prominent differences between sailfish and marlin are how each species of fish fights when hooked on a rod and reel.
Any expert angler who has caught multiple numbers of both species will attest to the fact that the marlin is second-to-none in terms of sheer power and fight.
A fully-grown marlin is much harder to bring in than a sailfish, but both types of fish are extremely tough and physically fit.
If you hook one, you’re likely to be in for an hours-long battle to land it. Marlin often take much longer to land than sailfish and they won’t tire easily.
If you get the chance to catch either a marlin or sailfish, you’re one of the fortunate few anglers who gets to experience the fight and struggle with a chance to land one of the most prized sportfishing species in the world.