To the inexperienced, taking on a sailfish with a fly rod sounds like challenging an irritable bear with a flyswatter and dropping the flyswatter. To the experienced fly-fisherman it's an afternoon's fantasy.
From the office of his furniture store in Springfield, Missouri, Dave Kester shared a few of his experiences taking sails with a fly rod, and now I'm rethinking that bear thing.
Well, anything's possible.
Of all the places on the planet earth, where sailfish are prevalent, the prime location for catching a lot of them in one day is off the Pacific Coast of Guatemala. In these pristine waters, where "deep blue" is a short run, the numbers are beyond impressive during peak season, and there are a number of side benefits as well.
"I primarily go to Guatemala for sailfish, but every time I go we run into nice dorado and yellowfin tuna. The sailfish's fight is so phenomenal that sometimes it's nice to take a break. Many days we would have 30 to 60 sails in the baits. For fly-fishermen, Guatemala is such a great spot that you could take about anybody there that has some experience with a fly rod, and get them hooked up. I've also had several marlin rise, but haven't been lucky enough to hook up with one, but it's a pretty one-sided battle with a marlin and a fly rod," he said
According to veteran fly-fisherman, Ed Beattie, the first time an angler takes on a sailfish it's like a Chinese fire drill, and usually the angler gets tangled up in the line, or something similar happens. "Everyone is yelling at once, and there is a flurry of activity all around you. The captain is yelling instructions to the deck hands, and at the angler, and once the hook is set the intensity level rises dramatically. It's a very exciting few minutes," he said, referring to a quote from noted author and fly aficionado Jack Sampson. "Fishing for sailfish consists of hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer panic." In those moments of exhilaration, the wait vanishes like the last vestiges of salt spray in a hot tropical sun.
"I can remember my first trip," Kester said. "We spent a lot of time with sails in the baits but couldn't hook up. Someone would jerk a fly or spook the fish at the tease, but I don't remember a time when I would grab a spinning outfit and cast to the fish that I didn't hook up. After a while, I quit doing that because it was cutting into my fly-fishing time."
Kester's first sailfish was one of his biggest. "You catch a lot of 70-80 pound fish, but the first one for me weighed 110 pounds. It was my first experience with a fish of that size on a fly rod. When I set the hook, the sound of the line ripping off the reel sound totally different. It was thrilling to see the fish ripping out, leaping out of the water like a dolphin for 250 yards. It took 30 minutes to catch and release that first fish," he added.
As fly-fishing goes there is a large gap between fish, and the difference is proportionate to the size of the species. Kester is from the Ozarks, and favors river fishing for smallmouth. There are a lot of clean streams in his area, but he also goes to Canada to fish for pike with topwater lures. "Big pike are very exciting, but there's no comparison to sailfish or dorado. With sailfish you have so much more going on. The teasing and setting the hook are much more different because you have to set the hook with the line and not the rod. There's always a potential for a disaster such as having the line tangled when you set the hook. It's always exciting every minute of the process from sighting to release," he said.
Catching a sailfish on a fly rod is an effort that requires a great deal of coordination between the boat's captain, deck hands and the angler. The approach is the same as conventional angling, with two exceptions. Two flatlines are trolled behind the boat and only one outrigger. If the fly-fisherman is casting right handed, the port boom is swung out of the way, and only the starboard outrigger is used in the tease. Since the captain is aloft at the helm, he is generally the first to sight a sailfish reacting to the teaser. No hooks are used in the tease, and the object is to keep it away from the fish. As soon as fish are attracted to the teaser, deck hands immediately recover all but one teaser and the active lure is manned so that it can be jerked away from the attacking fishes mouth. If the sail is allowed to strike the teaser, the game is over.
Once the fish is brought close behind the stern, usually a matter of only 20 feet, the moment of truth has arrived. With the angler standing in the port corner of the stern he is at the ready with stripped line lying in a bucket. IGFA regulations require that the boat be in neutral when a sailfish is hooked with a fly rod. Once the fish is in position the captain will quickly put the boat in neutral and yell "cast". If all goes well, the fight is on.
With well over 100 sailfish caught and released, Beattie shared a trick that he learned from a noted angler, Billy Pate, who owns numerous world records for the fly rod. "The hook set is the most difficult aspect of sailfishing. I used to cast directly in front of the fish, but had a lot of fish lost to bad sets. The best way to get a good set is to present a Camsigler's Tube Fly on the right side of the fish about two feet from the tip of its bill. That way, it will see the lure out of its right eye and turn to take the bait. The fish is going away from the boat and you get a good set in the back corner of the mouth every time. I learned that one from Billy, and it works great," he said.
For Kester, sailfishing is such a passion that it's not a question of if, but when. "The fishing is so exceptional that I try to get down to Guatemala every year, or at least every other year. I often go with a group of 4 to 6 friends. We rotate on the rods and have a great time. We've doubled up a couple of times. When you get that first fish on, its color explodes, and the other one or two in the area think that there is something there to feed on and they get into a frenzy. A lot of times you can double up if you get a second fly out there quickly," he said, pausing for a long time to relive the moment.
The Bonus Round
"On my last trip, there were a lot of dorado and there are always a lot of tuna. That's a nice bonus. We often have 3 or 4 tuna on at a time. The biggest I've caught is 155 pounds, but their size generally runs in the 8 to 40 pound range. It's not uncommon to hook into one over 200 pounds. It's pretty much like tossing a Volkswagon over the side and then trying to reel it back up. Pound for pound I think they're the strongest fish in the ocean. On one trip I was hooked up with a 150-pound fish and a companion hooked up with a fish of similar size. After a battle that lasted more than an hour, his fish had completely destroyed a Penn reel. In my broken Spanish, I suggested to the guide that he wrap a towel around his hand and help by bringing in the fish by hand. Either he didn't understand what I said, or didn't think much of my advice, because he grabbed the line and wrapped it around his hand three times, barehanded. The fish made a big run and you could smell the flesh burning. It burnt three laps in his hand about a 1/4 of an inch deep."
Kester usually takes 10, 12 and 13 weight rods just to be outfitted for any opportunity. "We've hooked up with a number of marlin but never landed one. With a fish in the 250 to 400-pound class, after a couple of hours it's pretty much a hopeless cause.
Guatemala is one of the most enchanting countries you will ever visit. Tropical rainforests are home to a variety of exotic wildlife as well as spectacular Mayan ruins. You fly into Guatemala City and are met at the airport. It's about a 2-1/2 hour drive to the coast. Once you get to the coast the water is like a magnet, and most anglers usually stay there. "You have to get up pretty early, around 4:00 A.M., and a full day on the water takes it out of you. I usually do down for a week, with 3 to 4 days of fishing. One of these days I want to go down for a month and fish a few days, then rest for a few. Catching that many big fish in one day, and the experience of being out on the water several days in a row is very taxing. Having a few days to lay in the sun and rest would be a great combination," Kester said, pondering the possibilities.
The exceptional fishing in these waters is due in large part to government policies. Guatemala was one of the first countries to get the Japanese long-line ships out of their waters, and they were one of the first nations to push catch and release, and that has made a huge difference in both the quanity and quality of their fishing. All sailfish and marlin must be released unless they have expired in the fight, which, according to Beattie, happens to marlin on rare occasions when they dive very deep.
Depending upon where and when you're fishing, it could be a 10-mile run, or a 50-mile run. Sailfish and marlin relate to the deep currents. You need to be in blue water. Sometimes you hook up immediately, and on other days it might be one o'clock in the afternoon before they turn on. The guides always head back early, around 3:30 or 4:00 P.M., for safety reasons. If there is a problem, you don't want to be adrift and waiting for help in the dark. After a full day of battling these courageous fighters, heading back to port is a mixture of relief and sadness, especially if it is the last day of your trip.
The only problem with fly-fishing for sailfish in Guatemala is that the time goes so quickly, and before you know it, it's over. On the flight back to the real world you doze and dream about the next trip, the next tease, and the next hookup. Shouting "fish on," you bolt upright in your seat only to be confronted by a startled flight attendant. Sheepishly, you respond to the coffee or tea inquiry and slump back to close your eyes and return to fading glory. The flight back to the states provides two more hours of "fishing" before reality will hit you like a sail peeling deep into your backing.
For more information on sailfishing in Guatemala, or anywhere else in the world, contact Ed Beattie at 1-800-346-8747, or go directly to Cabela's Outdoor Adventures online
Frank Ross grew up on a lake in Florida, where fishing and hunting were second nature. He has pursued his passion from the jungles of South America to the northern reaches of the Arctic Circle and most points in between. With a background in newspapers, the wire services and magazines that began in 1970, Frank brings a unique perspective to his work with Cabela's. He is an award-winning photographer with a flair for getting to the bottom line of every story.
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