Houston Chronicle - Superb article on Sailfish Bay
Guatemala coast ideal for Pacific sailfish
By JOE DOGGETT
For The Chronicle
Bowing is a proven parry on leaping fish such as tarpon and salmon, species that tend to fall back more or less where they left the water. But the light-tackle technique of reducing line tension by bending at the waist and extending the lowered rod can be a big mistake on a Pacific sailfish.
The pelagic billfish greyhounding on automatic fire is moving too far, too fast, to allow the groveling angler to regroup. The blue water of offshore fishing can be a vastly expanded venue.
This was made abundantly clear during late February on my first sailfish off Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala. The "teased up" 90-pounder snatched the tandem-hooked popper fly 30 feet off the stern and vaulted into the air.
As the sail launched with slashing bill, twisting dorsal and churning tail, I bowed smartly, leaving no doubt to my partner, Ed Cappel, and skipper, Victor Pia, that they were in the company of a master angler gifted with catlike reflexes. The 8 1/2 -foot, 14-weight rod stabbed low to the water and well over the stern — maximum extension with textbook form.
Fast and acrobatic
Problem was, now I had nowhere to go. And the departing sailfish was just getting started. Pacific sailfish are claimed by some experts to be the fastest of all fish, clocked in excess of 60 mph. They certainly are among the most acrobatic. This one demonstrated both virtues in a 100-yard series of straightaway jumps.
During the entire display, I was stretched at arm's length over the stern, fearful of being yanked over the side. Somewhere between the 15th and 18th consecutive leap (I lost count), the sailfish tossed the fly.
"You can stop bowing now," Cappel said. "He's gone."
That encounter during the first morning reflected our three days of fishing at Sailfish Bay Lodge. The trip was that rare thing in fishing — better than we hoped, even at times more than we could handle.
Houstonians Jim Easterling, Rick McCord, Charles Parker, and Joe Turano rounded out our six-angler group. Turano was the official cruise director; it was his fourth trip to Guatemala. It was my first (despite several decades of adventure travel to Central America), and I was impressed from start to finish. Guatemala is an outstanding blue-water destination for Houston-area anglers.
For those who skipped high school geography to go fishing, Guatemala sits on the Pacific Coast just below Mexico. Guatemala City, the capital, is less than three hours from Bush Intercontinental Airport. Continental airlines has direct flights daily. Guatemala City has a population of 2.5 million, but it is scarcely a hub for international air travel. This is a plus. The small, clean airport had minimal crowds, and a gift shop was selling local 23-year-old dark rum for $30 per liter. The seasoned swashbuckler has got to like that combination.
Customs and immigration were a non-event; we passed through with no hassles and no visas, a dramatic contrast to other, more touristed countries. We were met by a Sailfish Bay Lodge van outside the terminal and enjoyed a pleasant two-hour drive from the big city to the coast.
Most of the trip was on a new four-lane divided highway with light traffic — a safe and secure transfer against a rugged backdrop of green valleys and distant volcanic ridges and mountains.
Sailfish Bay Lodge with its double-occupancy air-conditioned rooms is situated on a narrow island on the Pacific side of an estuary canal, accessible by outboard-powered panga skiffs. The commute via panga/van from the lodge to the waiting boats at nearby Marina Pez Vela takes about 30 minutes.
The lodge features a spacious bar/pool overlooking the ocean and an open-air restaurant. The seafood was outstanding and if I've learned one thing during 40 years of vagabonding through Latin latitudes, fresh garlic-grilled whole red snapper is the call on any menu within earshot of squawking parrots and rolling surf.
The first day of fishing was excellent, with light wind, clear sky and a moderate ground-swell. The standard drill when fly fishing is to troll several hookless lures or baits — "teasers." When a slashing bill shows behind a teaser, a skilled deckhand draws the aggressive fish close to the stern. The angler stands ready and, on command, lobs the gaudy fly into the wake.
The "fly cast" is short and simple, hardly comparable to an 80-foot double haul with a tarpon streamer or an "S" mend with a dry fly, but the in-your-face excitement of watching a jacked-up sailfish grab the surface-skittering counterfeit is among the most dramatic moments in angling. The surging black bill, the sweeping dorsal, the big blue eye seemingly are close enough to reach out and poke with the rod tip — a major adrenaline rush.
Lots of opportunities
The Pacific sailfish is a great light-tackle fish. The average 70-90-pounder runs fast and hot, jumps high and often, and tires quickly — especially against a savvy skipper who backs down to keep the fight close. A skilled fly or plug fisherman fast to a leaper (opposed to the odd sail that sounds) can whip the fish within 10 or 15 minutes. This is good for all concerned. The fish usually is released in fine condition — not drained — from a prolonged struggle, and the "down time" with no teasers in the water is minimized.
The key to excellent light-tackle fishing is to have lots of shots during the six- or eight-hour day, and Guatemala is regarded as the most consistent venue for sailfish numbers. Our trip supported this claim.
The first evening back at Sailfish Bay Lodge, we compared notes against a setting sun at the pool. Cappel and I raised 37 sailfish and got 13 hookups. He landed three, and I caught two. Easterling was the top rod with six. The three boats raised 106 fish.
If the caught-to-raised ratio sounds poor, remember that attempting to feed sailfish flies is much different than free-lining circle-rigged ballyhoo baits into the wake. Other boats using natural baits on conventional tackle were catching and releasing three times our numbers.
Either way, after you land a few, it's all about the action.
We were in fine spirits, aided and abetted by the lodge's open bar and the aforementioned 23-year-old Ron Zacapa. "Joe T" and "Joe D" enjoyed celebratory Montecristo No. 2's, the exceptional torpedoes that go just right under a tropical sunset.
"You know," I said with uncommon insight, "this whole trip reminds me of Costa Rica 25 years ago."
The second day was good — but not as good as the first. The wind was stronger, the swell was higher, and the run to the fishing grounds was longer, almost two hours. On the positive side, the skippers were willing to burn the fuel to find fish.
Cappel and I raised 20 sails. Cappel landed three, and I caught two on the fly and one on a 20-pound-class plug rod rigged with a ballyhoo. Easterling and McCord raised 24 (four caught) and Turano and Parker raised 36 (three boated).
Bumpy 4-to-6-foot seas and gusting wind greeted the final day. We braced for a long run, but the ride was worth it; Cappel had a fish hooked 10 minutes after the teasers were in the water. We raised 30 and "bent the rod" on 10, bringing six to the boat for clean releases (three apiece).
In addition, I caught another fish on the backup plug rod when three fish showed together in a fencing match amid the spread.
The flurries of frantic activity were not without incidents. Cappel got his fly line wrapped on the rod handle during one point-blank strike, and the 20-pound class tippet popped like a .22 long rifle shot.
Following a release, I glanced over as mate Alex Marinero extended his flat palm. Assuming he was waiting for a triumphant hand slap (you know, "Geev 'em, brah!"), I whapped my open palm down — and smacked it into the double-hooked sailfish fly he was handing back to me. Well, at least the Gamakatsu 5/0 hooks were razor sharp.
We hit the dock at the appointed 5 p.m. to rendezvous with the luggage-loaded van for the drive back to hotel rooms in Guatemala City (included in the Sailfish Bay Lodge package). Comparing final-day notes, Easterling and McCord raised 36 fish and released three. Turano and Parker also raised 36 and released three.
If sketchy math serves, our three-boat, three-day tally was 288 sailfish raised. To repeat, many fish showing on the long teasers faded away without striking, but the drama is real and visual even when nothing happens with the rod. And, significantly, all hands caught at least one sailfish each day.
Our fishing was impressive, but our three days were slow compared to earlier returns. Sailfish Bay Lodge posts daily numbers on its Web site (www.sailfishbay.com), and the week before our arrival the boats were averaging 30-50 fish in the baits. The top boat recorded 72.
And the week before that, the fleet averaged 50-60 fish per boat, with a high of 90. I cannot comprehend such billfish bounty. But I'm — we're — willing to try. Gambling that sailfish, unlike lightning bolts, strike in the same place twice, Turano's group is booked two weeks earlier next year.
Joe Doggett is a retired Chronicle outdoors writer.
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