Switching Sails: The Definitive Guide To Switch-Baiting For Sailfish


Often named as the fastest fish in the sea and certainly one of the most spectacular, sailfish are one of those ‘must catch’ fish for anyone who spends a lifetime in fishing. They’ve got the whole package of speed, spectacular aerial antics and stunning good looks to make them an irresistible dream fish.

  The north-west coast of Western Australia is the place to be if you need to tick a sailfish off your bucket list. From Exmouth to Broome, and right up through the Kimberley if you’re adventurous enough to travel that far, sailfish are on offer year round and can be crazy thick at certain points of the calendar. Better yet, West Aussie sails are easily accessible to angler fishing out of the smallest of boats – most of the sailfish grounds along this part of the country are so close to shore that even the good ol’ 12ft tinny will put you in sail country. There are many ways to target these spectacular billfish from the tried and true trolling techniques through to sight casting them off bait balls. For my money though, the most enjoyable and arguably most effective way to score sails is to switch bait.

Brad Bell with a typical Exmouth sailfish switched off a teaser. These fish are available very close to shore along the north-west WA coast.


Switching Fundamentals

Switch baiting as a fishing method is fairly simple in concept. A hookless teaser is trolled until a sailfish is raised, whereupon the teaser is pulled away from the lit up fish and immediately replaced with a hook loaded natural bait – hence the ‘switch’ terminology. There are a few critical nuances to perfecting this fishing system, but when done right it’s deadly effective on sails and has the added bonus of a sight fishing element which makes it even more attractive to we fishos. I guess the principal ingredient to successful switch baiting for sails is the teaser. After all, that’s what brings the fish into range in the first place. Surprisingly, an effective sailfish teaser does not have to be anything too fancy – a single hookless lure can be good enough. However, the most popular teaser type for sails is what’s known as a bird teaser. This odd looking winged creation skitters across the surface, creating a commotion that will catch the attention of sailfish from quite a distance.

Circle hooked rigged skipping garfish make convenient and effective switch baits for sails.


Next In Line

Behind the bird teaser, attach a line of plastic squid (three or four is plenty) a foot or two apart and finish the teaser set up with a soft headed pusher type skirted lure or a heavily stitched natural bait like a mullet or small tuna/queenfish belly flap. This last link in the chain is what you want a raised sailfish to focus on to make the switch easier, so it needs to Run the teaser line as close to the boat as you feel confident in doing, as this makes a raised sail easier to spot. Sighting the fish is the crucial element to successful switch baiting, which means the entire crew must maintain a fair level of concentration staring at the teaser(s) for what – if the fish are a slow – may be periods of several hours as a time. Therefore, if you’re more interested in spending your time on the water emptying bottles and kicking back, this is probably not the fishing style for you.

Always have at least two rods rigged and ready when switch baiting for sailfish. There’s a very high probability of several sails coming onto the teaser at once, so having baited rods ready to throw allows for multiple hook-ups.


The Switch Bait

Sails generally aren’t that fussy about what they’ll eat, particularly when they’re all fired up after chasing down a teaser. However, having good, well rigged switch baits on hand to offer the fish will obviously boost your switch baiting catch rate. Sailfish have a long, skinny jaw structure topped off with that distinctive very slim bill. All this makes achieving a solid hook-up with a standard J hook difficult, particularly when trying to avoid gut hooking a fish species which should always be released. For reasons both of securing a solid hook-up and ensuring the fish is not gravely injured, circle hooks are the only way to go when chasing sails.

Circle Hooks

A circle hook rigged skipping garfish makes an excellent switch bait that sails will rarely refuse on the switch, and carrying a couple dozen frozen gars ready to rig is nice and convenient. However, you will get the occasional sail that is just window shopping as it comes in to check out the teaser, and in this situation a bridle rigged live bait can be invaluable. Whatever the bait used, always have at least a couple of rods rigged and ready with switch baits as sails are pack hunters and it’s more common to have a whole pod of them attack the teasers than it is for a single fish to pop up. With multiple rods ready to throw, double, triple and even quadruple hook-ups are not just possible but probable.

You want a raised sailfish to stick to the end of the teaser line, so stitching a natural bait – such as this queenfish belly flap – to the end of the teaser can help hold a sail’s attention.


Making the Switch

The question first timers to switch baiting for sails always ask is “What do I look for?” When in attack mode streaking in to bash the teaser, sailfish often appear jet black which is surprising for such a vibrantly coloured fish. This helps in spotting them amongst the white water of the boat wake, although at times the first thing you’ll spot maybe a skinny little bill poking through the surface and swatting at the teaser. The key message here though, particularly when you’re new to switching, is that if you see anything or even think you see something, grab a rod and make the switch. Often a half interested sail may be sitting down deeper below the teaser where it’s hard to see, or you might have a different other like a small black marlin, cobia or such looking at the teaser. You’ll never know if you never throw!

Switch baiting is sight fishing, so watching the teaser like a hawk is essential. A bit of height over the water makes spotting incoming sails easier too.


A Team Sport

Switch baiting is a team sport, requiring synchronism between crew and angle. The moment a sail appears on the teaser this teamwork needs to come into being, with the angler grabbing the rod and getting ready to present the bait and a crew member snatching the teaser line and quickly but temptingly pulling it away from the fired up fish. The idea is for the bait to slide back right into the fish’s face just as the teaser is pulled away – when everything goes to plan and the switch is seamless the sail seems to gulp down the switch bait almost as if it didn’t have a choice. As mentioned earlier, in north-west WA where sailfish are thick at times, it’s a very common occurrence for a whole pod of sails to appear behind the teaser. This is where switch baiting is really come into its own because if you have the hands on board and can keep the excitement from turning the crew into a rabble, it’s possible to systematically pick off every fish behind the boat and end up with flying sails cartwheeling in all directions. Sportfishing, my friends, does not get any better than that.
Ben Knaggs

About Ben Knaggs

Born and bred in South Australia, Ben’s love of fishing developed from a very early age and evolved to become an obsession which would ultimately shape his life. Actively involved in fishing related journalism from his mid teens, Ben has written articles for most Australian fishing titles and served as editor of Saltwater Fishing magazine for eight years.


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