The impressive aerial display performed by a large group of spinner dolphins
had us all mesmerized when a warning from the bridge of A-fin-ity, a
fabled 39-foot Billy Knowles out of Puerto San Jose, Guatemala, alerted
everyone on board to take battle stations.
“Left rigger, left rigger!” shouted Capt. Chico Alvarenga, who from his high
vantage point was the first to spot a dark shadow lurking a few feet from a
bait trolled behind a rubber-squid daisy-chain deployed as a teaser. An
instant later, the dorsal of a big Pacific sailfish sliced through the
bluewater, and the mate jumped on the respective rod to work the bait that
sail was tracking. The day’s first game of cat-and-mouse had begun.
Sails and marlin strike prey repeatedly with their bills to maim or kill them and sometimes attempt the same with a
Photo by Pat Ford
It didn’t take the fish long to decide this would be its next meal. Quickly
moving in for the kill, it repeatedly swung its bill forcefully from side to
side in an attempt to strike and injure its prey. The mate expertly let the
sail briefly make contact before pulling the bait just out of its grasp.
Meanwhile, the rest of the crew swiftly reeled in the teasers and other lines,
and I stood at the ready, near the transom, waiting for the right moment to
deliver my fly, praying I wouldn’t fumble and my line wouldn’t find any snags
on the way to the target.
Teasing is crucial to getting a billfish primed and excited enough to commit and attack a fly aggressively.
Photo by Pat Ford
The teasing worked like a charm and the sail grew more aggressive by the
second, unwittingly pushing closer to the boat during its pursuit. In less
than three minutes, it was within casting range, so I dropped the fly in our
wake, then used the agreed-upon word to signal to the captain to shift into
neutral and to the mate to yank the bait out of the drink: “Ahora!” I yelled,
delivering my pink-and-white offering without delay.
Marlin, like this 200-pound blue, are also likely to
come up behind the teasers in Guatemala.
The fly landed some six feet ahead and slightly to the left of the sail, and a
couple of long, hard strips was all it required to get its undivided attention
and prompt a final attack. Without missing a step, the fish swung wide and
doubled back with its mouth open, taking the fly on the run and going under
the second it claimed the large streamer. I set the hook firmly with a sidearm
stroke, then cleared the loose line from the deck, and the fight was on.
Once hooked, Pacific sailfish put on amazing aerial
displays combined with fast, powerful runs and dives. Photo by Pat Ford
Pacific sailfish are famous for their aerial displays, and mine closely
followed the fight playbook, combining spectacular jumps, violent headshakes
and a couple of frantic cartwheels interrupted by a high-speed dive during
which the handle on my fly reel was a mere blur. It was a good fish,
approaching 120 pounds, and luckily the hook stayed put, the leader held, and
the drag did its job, wearing down the billfish after an intense 30-minute
It was late July, still a couple of months away from the beginning of peak
sailfishing in Guatemala, yet the action was as good or better than I’ve come
to expect at any other top billfish destinations on Earth. By day’s end, we’d
raised more than 20 sailfish and a blue marlin, teased 16 of the sails within
fly-casting range, hooked 13 and came back to the dock with nine release flags
flapping on the outriggers. Such numbers would raise eyebrows in most places,
but not here, where top crews tally more than 2,500 releases most years and
report 50- to 100-fish days with some regularity.
Dorado, also known as mahi-mahi and dolphin, often
add to the fly-fishing fun off Guatemala’s coast. Photo by Pat Ford
The region’s underwater topography and strong currents that flow west to east
set the stage for a replenishing offshore bonanza. A significant canyon that
comes as close as 15 miles from Guatemala’s shores serves a thoroughfare for
big-game species. Meanwhile, the currents—after colliding with the jagged sea
floor—create upwellings that send nutrient-rich, oxygenated waters toward the
surface, attracting a diverse buffet of forage that, in turn, draws scores of
sailfish, marlin, tuna, dorado and more.
In addition, the Guatemalan government quickly realized the importance of its
amazing marine resources and made headlines when it took decisive action to
ensure the protection of sailfish in 2002, enacting a law that makes it
illegal for anyone to kill sailfish in Guatemalan waters.
Guatemala’s big-game crews are experts at capturing
that spectacular shot of your trophy catch without removing the fish from the
water. Photo by Pat Ford
Ideal Training Grounds
Some 30 years after Tim Choate’s Fins and Feathers operation made the world
take notice of Guatemala’s billfish rich waters in the early 1990s, the
fishery continues to thrive, keeping the small Central American nation among
the top offshore fishing destinations, and retaining its title of sailfish
capital of the world.
The sheer numbers of sailfish in Guatemala present fly fishers with an unusual
situation filled with shots at fish and equally plentiful opportunities to
hone their skills, with tips and hands-on instruction from the area’s
experienced captains and mates certain to shorten the learning curve. In fact,
other than Guatemala, I can’t think of another place where anglers who wish to
up their billfishing game can go from novice to seasoned after just three or
four days on the water.
A welcome cocktail with a smile is how every visit
to Casa Vieja begins. Photo by Pat Ford
Safe and Luxurious Experience
Safety concerns are largely a thing of the past for tourists and anglers
visiting Guatemala. Nowadays you can expect easy, uneventful passage from the
airport to the lodge and back, and a relaxing, all-inclusive experience during
At Casa Vieja, our temporary home in Guatemala, we were welcomed with cold
drinks upon arrival, a tradition that extended to our fishing days. Along with
the libations, in fact, we were offered chilled towels to place around our
necks as soon as we got off the van that drove us back from Marina Pez Vela,
five minutes away. Then came a tough decision: jump in the pool or retreat to
my room for a quick shower before heading to the outdoor bar—shaded by a large
palapa—to exchange fish tales with fellow anglers over some suds and hors
d’oeuvres, killing the couple of hours left until dinner.
In line with its world-class game boats and crews, superb, air-conditioned
accommodations and beautifully manicured grounds, the service and the food at
Casa Vieja are absolutely top notch, thereby completing a luxurious,
all-inclusive experience even non-angling companions should enjoy. Precisely
for those who would rather remain on terra firma, a day trip to Antigua, a
small and colorful colonial city renowned for its coffee and local arts and
crafts, can easily be arranged.
For anglers, the day begins with a wakeup call, which at Casa Vieja means a
knock on the door and a hot cup of coffee delivered right to your room. That’s
followed by breakfast, then a ride to the marina for an action-packed outing
offshore. The usual high number of shots leaves room for the inexperienced to
practice and hone the required skills, but to maximize their chances, visiting
fly anglers ought to familiarize themselves with the bait-and-switch technique
widely used in Guatemala and elsewhere, where scoring sailfish and marlin on
the fly requires two essential things: raise the targeted fish, and coax them
within casting range.
All of Casa Vieja’s rooms face a pool surrounded by
tropical landscaping, with an elegant dining room and a large, outdoor bar
just steps away. Photo by Pat Ford
Not the Only Game in Town
In addition to Casa Vieja, there are other topnotch angling operations in Guatemala with
impressive resumes. In fact, two of the best are located nearby, and their crews have decades
of experience and thousands of billfish catches on the fly under their belts.
There’s Intensity Sportfishing, which offers deluxe lodging for up to 12 anglers at
beautiful Villa Intensity (just five minutes from the marina), and fishing aboard the legendary
37-foot Gamefisherman, Intensity, with world-renowned Capt. Mike Sheeder at the helm. And
there’s Gringo Sportfishing, which combines terrific, single-occupancy accommodations—with
all the desired comforts and conveniences—for up to eight anglers and fishing aboard Tuna
Bite, a 37-foot Sunny Briggs skippered by heralded Capt. Jason Brice. Both outfits use nothing
but the best gear, provide excellent service and meals, and are located in safe, gated
communities some 10 minutes away from each other.
World-class sportfishers line the docks at Marina
Pez Vela, just a 5-minute drive from Casa Vieja. Photo by Pat Ford
Trolling teasers plays a vital role in achieving the first, and seasoned
captains and their mates have their favorite configurations and components.
The second is best executed with hook-less baits added to the trolling spread.
When a billfish appears behind the spread, the teasers are reeled in, and the
baits are manipulated to get the fish to focus on a single one. When that
happens, all but the specific bait the fish starts tracking are swiftly pulled
out of the water, and the real teasing starts.
Timing is critical, so teamwork is a requisite for success. Since the captain
has to run the boat and keep an eye on the fish, and the fly fisher must
concentrate on managing his tackle and making the cast at the opportune time,
the duty of teasing the billfish with the single bait remaining in the water
falls on the mate, who must keep the potential meal tantalizingly just out of
the predator’s reach while reeling it ever closer to the boat’s transom.
Rigged without a hook, the bait won’t sting the fish, should it mouth or
strike it with its bill. In fact, if the bait is hardy and rigged properly (a
trolling lure paired with a sewn-up ballyhoo or strip of tuna or dolphin belly
is the usual choice), letting the billfish grab and taste it for an instant
before pulling it away will fire up the pursuer even more. All that’s left is
to draw the fish a few feet nearer, and yank the bait out of the water as the
angler presents the fly to complete the bait-and-switch.
Considering the cast is made from the back of a moving boat, likely with a
tower, antennas and outriggers, all rocking with the waves, the delivery
should be more of a lob achieved with a sidearm motion to avoid protruding
obstacles. If the fly caster is right-handed, only the left outrigger is
employed to widen the trolling spread, leaving the other up and out of the way
for added casting clearance. Of course, if he or she is left-handed, the
If the bait-and-switch is performed to perfection,
the angler is rewarded with a memorable battle.
Moment of Truth
Since most billfish flies are bulky and heavy when wet, the casting range is
usually reduced to 35 feet or less, depending on the angler’s casting skills
and the chosen fly line and leader configuration. The crewmember teasing the
fish must understand the casting-distance limitation in order to draw the
target within a comfortable range, and they and the angler should agree
beforehand who will call out when the instant comes for the bait to be pulled
from the water, so that the cast is synchronized and the fly lands in the
immediate vicinity no more than a second later. The job of the captain, at
that point, is to shift the motors into neutral, letting only forward momentum
propel the boat for the few seconds it takes to feed and hook the billfish.
Pulling 40 feet of line off the reel and laying them neatly —in big coils— on
the cockpit deck, next to the spot where the angler will stand, is the best
way to prevent tangles. And rather than gradually feeding fly line and keeping
it in the air during false-casting—a difficult task considering the heft of
the fly—many anglers prefer to drop the big streamer in the water while a fish
is being teased, letting it, the leader and several feet of fly line drag
behind the boat until it’s time to take the shot. That way, aided by tension
from the water, the angler easily loads the rod and shoots the necessary
length of line with a single false-cast.
Tube flies and popper heads in bright colors,
especially neon-pink, have proven particularly successful for targeting
billfish. Photo by Pat Ford
Top Billfish Fly Choices
Tube flies, like the popular Cam Sigler big game or similar billfish streamers
tied with synthetic materials, are the way to go. They slide up the leader
when a fish jumps or sounds, minimizing torque on the hook and helping it stay
pinned. And because noise and splash help the fish zero in, a popper head is
strongly recommended. Instead of the kind that remains a fixed part of the
fly, however, it’s best to place a separate popper head 6 to eight inches
ahead of the fly, which will then remain under the surface film when stripped,
increasing the odds for a solid hook-set. To keep the popper head in place,
simply jam a toothpick in the hole to snug it against the leader.
When it comes to fly colors, blue-and-white and purple-and-black are effective
schemes, especially during cloudy days and early or late in the day.
Nevertheless, pink-and-white is the overwhelming favorite. It doesn’t really
resemble any of the sailfish and marlin’s natural prey, but these billfish see
that color combo well in the water and rarely turn it down.
While their coloration can vary by region, all tuskfish possess the same
fighting prowess. Photo by Pat Ford
As for tackle, the 12-weight outfit one would use for tarpon will serve well
for sailfish. For marlin, however, a beefier 14 or 16-weight rod matched with
a large-capacity reel designed specifically for big game is a better choice.
I’ve found my TFO Bluewater series rod and Nautilus CCF-X2 Silver King reel to
be a good compromise. The combo has repeatedly proven up to the task, and
loading the reel with 50-pound gel spun instead of micron, I carry 500 yards
of backing for peace of mind.
The two other things I recommend are a pair of fingerless gloves and a
lightweight fighting belt with a shallow cup to rest the butt of the fly rod
without interfering with the reel. Even if you don’t have a long battle with a
marlin, the sheer number of sails you are likely to encounter in Guatemala
places considerable strain on your hands, arms and back, so it helps to