Flying fish become gliders taking to the air to escape predators

Blackwing Flying Fish - Hirundichthys rondeletii (NZ) : Flyfish fish, 1882, by Frank Edward Clarke. Purchased 1921. Te Papa (1992-0035-2278/108)
Blackwing Flying Fish - Hirundichthys rondeletii (NZ) : Flyfish fish, 1882, by Frank Edward Clarke. Purchased 1921. Te Papa (1992-0035-2278/108)

Black Wing Flying Fish – Hirundichthys rondeletii

By Allan Burgess


Flying fish don’t fly like birds flapping their wings. Rather they are capable of leaping clear of the water and gliding for considerable distances above the surface using their long wing-like pectoral fins for lift. 

They can be separated into two general groups depending on the number of wings. There are two-wing flying fish with long pectoral fins only, and secondly, the four-winged flying fish which also has long over-sized pelvic fins that act as tail wings or horizontal stabilizers providing extra lift.  

All have deeply forked tails, with the lower lobe longer than the upper lobe. They power up through the water at up to 60kph before breaking the surface. The larger lower lobe helps them to get airborne as it continues to beat very rapidly along the surface as they take off.  

They can glide for over 50m depending on wind and sea conditions. If they break the surface at the crest of a wave and the wind is just right, they can glide about a metre above the surface for up to 200m. Just as they begin to land on the water, they can become airborne again by rapidly beating their tails enabling them to glide up to twice the distance.  

Hopefully, the distance travelled through the air will be far enough to escape most predators including marlin, swordfish, kingfish, Mahi Mahi, mackerel and tuna. Mahi Mahi (Dorado) have been observed jumping clear of the water to take flying fish in midair or tracking them while airborne and striking the moment they return to the water. As you can see in the video at the bottom of this page gliding through the air is not a foolproof means of escape as they are vulnerable to being taken by sea birds while airborne, frigatebirds especially.


Being a pelagic species that swim near the surface they have a typical colour scheme of dark blueish/purple on top of their backs while the flanks and underbelly are bright silver.  

The body is roughly squarish in cross-section, stream-lined and torpedo-shaped. The mouth and head are quite small relative to the size of the body. 

From the Blackwing flyingfish - Hirundichthys rondeletii (NZ) : Flyfish fish, 1882, by Frank Edward Clarke. Purchased 1921. Te Papa (1992-0035-2278/108).
From the Blackwing flyingfish – Hirundichthys rondeletii (NZ): Flyfish fish, 1882, by Frank Edward Clarke. Purchased 1921. Te Papa (1992-0035-2278/108). Note the large eyes close to the front of the head.

A notable feature of flying fish is that they have large eyes placed high on the side of the head to see their prey near the surface while looking upward. 

Worldwide there are about 40 different known species of flying fish. At least two of these are found in NZ waters. The largest is the Cypselurus lineatus, a four-winged flying fish, which ranges in length from 30 to 45 centimetres.  

The specimen shown in the watercolour at the top of the page is Hirundichthys rondeletii. It “came on board” the SS Alhambra off Westland on the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand on the 23rd of May 1882. The watercolour was painted by Frank Edward Clarke. This species is smaller and grows to a maximum recorded length of 30 centimetres although most specimens are around 20 centimetres. It also is a four-winged flying fish. 

The largest of this species is the California flying fish – Cypselurus californicus – which can reach 50cm. It also has four wings.

Where to find flying fish

Flying fish are for the most part a tropical species found in surface water temperatures between 20-23 °C. They are found in tropical and subtropical regions of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. In New Zealand, the most notable areas they are seen and caught are around the offshore islands along the northeastern coast north of Auckland. 

What do flying fish eat?

They are zooplankton feeders with small mouths eating krill, other crustaceans, fish eggs, and larvae.  

What do flying fish taste like?

The flesh is firm, and white when cooked, and very good eating.  

How to catch flying fish

Flying fish make excellent bait for all of the main sought-after predatory species like marlin, yellowtail kingfish, Mahi Mahi and tunas. They can be rigged and trolled or lip-hooked or back-hooked and fished as live-baits. 

You can see in Adam Clancy’s excellent video below how he catches them by slow trolling small 50 mm soft baits at a slow 3 or 4 knots. They have small mouths so it’s important to use small hooks. Adam recommends size 1 to 1/0. 

Lights at night

Like saury and garfish, these fish are attracted to bright lights at night. With a school around the launch, they come flying out of the water at considerable speed jumping towards the light and can and do, whack crew members in the head. You could catch them on small bits of bait or sabiki rigs but it would be slow going compared with netting them at night as they go crazy jumping at almost any light source. 

YouTube video

Video above: Expert angler Adam Clancy in this great video from Fishy Business offers some good tips on catching flying fish for bait. Most notable is that he is trolling small 50 mm soft baits at a slow 3 or 4 knots.   

YouTube video

Video: Flying fish can make powerful, self-propelled leaps out of the water into the air, where their long, wing-like fins enable gliding flight for considerable distances. It appears these Flying Fish are in a no-win situation, picked off from above the surface by Frigatebirds and devoured underwater by the Dorado. The pursuing Dorado have been seen jumping up to a metre above the water to take flying fish in mid-air.


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