Pacific Coast Sportfishing Mag - Feature on Sailfish Bay
Catching Air - Guatemala Aerobatics
By Dave Vedder
IT WAS CLINT’S TURN, SO I DIDN’T PAY TOO MUCH ATTENTION WHEN THE SKIPPER OF THE SIRENA SHOUTED, “PEZ VELA, DERECHO, DERECHO!” I HAD HEARD THAT ANNOUNCEMENT MANY TIMES BEFORE – SO MANY TIMES THAT I NOW KNEW THAT DEERECHO MEANS RIGHT IN SPANISH, THAT PEZ VELA IS SAILFISH, AND THE REASON FOR THE EXCITED ANNOUNCEMENT WAS A SAILFISH CRASHING THE TEASER ON THE RIGHT SIDE OF THE BOAT, AND CLINT WOULD CAST TO THE FISH, ONCE THE BAIT WAS YANKED FROM THE WATER. WE HAD PLAYED THIS GAME MORE THAN 150 TIMES IN THE LAST FEW DAYS.
But when I heard both deckhands begin shouting, I knew something unusual was happening. As I hurried through the cabin door, I saw the deckhands pointing in different directions. What I then saw will be forever burned in my memory. Indeed, there was a big sailfish coming in hard after the port teaser, but there was also another behind him, two more behind the starboard teasers, and a lone sailfish milling around near the transom. In all, I counted five sailfish. Several times in the previous days we had seen doubles and even triples, but five sailfish coming towards the boat at the same time is something many anglers never see, especially if they haven’t fished in Guatemala.
In Guatemala’s indigo blue waters, sailfish look like large milk chocolate-colored silhouettes. Make no mistake, however; there is nothing sweet about them. Sailfish are apex predators. They patrol the ocean with the single-minded goal of catching, killing and inhaling any other fish they can swallow. Their aggressiveness is what makes it possible to take them on fly.
Clint cast to the fish on the far right and was immediately rewarded with an aggressive take. Grabbing my fly rod, I began casting to the pair of sails to the starboard side. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Clint had a solid hookup. As they almost always do when they feel the sting of the hook, his sailfish was leaping high above the water and burning away from the boat at warp speed.
Though the pair I was casting to was following my fly, neither would take. Suddenly, both fish veered off and disappeared, and looking all over, I could see no other sails. Dejectedly, I began reeling in my fly when, from underneath the boat, a sailfish exploded out of the water and crashed down on my fly. Clint and I were into the fourth doubleheader of what could only be described as a sailfish spectacular. Fifteen minutes later, with both our fish carefully released, our skipper, Carlos, said, "That, my friends, is Guatemala." I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Clint and I came to Guatemala because he had heard that the largest concentration of sailfish in the world converges there. Our goals were modest: We wanted to each catch a sailfish on a fly. We expected to put in many long hours between strikes, but we felt the thrill of seeing a sailfish come in and slam our fly was well worth the wait. When you hit everything right, we soon learned, there is very little waiting for Guatemalan sailfish. And while sailfish are the primary target in Guatemala, they are not the only game in town.
The evening we arrived Clint took his eight-weight fly rod to the beach to try for whatever was crashing baitfish in knee-deep surf. On his third cast he tied into something big and strong. After a dogged battle he slid ashore a 15-pound jack Crevalle. Several locals came down to the beach to watch Clint’s battle. They all smiled and cheered when he slid the jack ashore. One small boy seemed especially impressed with Clint’s catch. When we gave him the fish his smile was a joy to behold.
Later that evening we chatted with guests who had arrived several days before us. One group, fishing with bait, reported landing more than 20 sailfish in one day. A group of fly rodders told us they were consistently raising 30 to 50 sails a day and were landing as many as 20! While we were thrilled that the fishing was on fire, we worried that this might turn into one of those you-should-have-been-here-last-week trips; nonetheless, we spent the remainder of the evening rigging fly rods, sorting gear and planning our approach. We agreed that if the fishing was tough we would abandon the fly rods and switch to conventional tackle.
Fly-fishing for sailfish is, in theory, as easy as falling off a log. These spectacular predators are attracted by a set of teasers, which are typically plastic lures with or without bait attached. When a sail charges the teaser, the mate reels in the lure just rapidly enough to keep the sailfish from getting a firm hold on it, and yet slowly enough to keep the fish interested. Once the fish is within an easy cast of the boat, the lure is snatched out of the water and the fly is cast. In theory the sailfish will slam the fly and the battle is on. But nothing is ever simple when trying to hook and land a 100-plus-pound fish on fly tackle.
In four days of fishing out of Sailfish Bay Lodge, Clint and I raised more than 150 sailfish and landed roughly 35. That ratio is actually pretty dang good. We learned that there are about as many ways to miss a sailfish with a fly as there are exaggerations at a presidential debate.
Often the sailfish simply loses interest in the teaser, never coming close enough to make a cast. Reverse of this is when a sailfish comes in so hot he snatches the teaser bait and leaves before the mate can get it away from him. More frustrating failures come when a sailfish take the bait and simply sits there with his bill pointed right at you masticating your fly. Clint called the behavior "scissor billing," and I found it an apt description. We soon learned that it is almost impossible to get a hook set on a sailfish until it takes the fly and turns away with it. Lord knows we tried enough times before we got that lesson pounded in. Then there are the fish that take the fly, turn away and are apparently hooked solidly, only to inexplicitly come unbuttoned within seconds. All of those problems are what I would consider no fault misses.
Of course, there are the mistakes that we all make when the adrenaline is surging and our instincts overcome common sense. Among the many sailfish we lost to what I consider operator error were the one that snapped the leader when the fly line fouled on a cleat, the one that broke the leader because of an overly exuberant hook set, the one that broke the fly line when a loop of line slipped over the butt of the fly rod, and the one that took fly line leader and sly when the backing dug into itself and formed a perfect storm of a backlash. But no matter how many sailfish we failed to hook, hooked and lost, or occasionally landed, we never failed to thrill to the skipper’s call of "Pez vela!"
On our last evening at Sailfish Bay Lodge, Clint and I took advantage of the open bar policy enough to become a bit philosophical. I asked Clint, "How many sailfish would you have to hook before you became bored with the game?" His answer was the same that mine would be if asked the same question. "I could never get tired of this!" Stalking sailfish with a fly rod is a sport that never losses its appeal. Anyone who can’t get excited about a huge predatory billfish slashing at the teaser, charging toward the boat and then slamming your fly should throw away their fishing tackle and take up golf. But if you want the very best chance of experiencing one or angling’s biggest thrills, come to Guatemala.
Planning your trip
Sailfish are available in Guatemala all year long, but the months of November through April are the peak of the season. When all the conditions are right, you can expect to raise as many as 100 sails in a day. But – as with any type of fishing – there can be dry spells. During our stay we had one three-hour period with not a fish raised. In the next hour we raised more then 20.
If you plan to use conventional gear, the lodge can accommodate you with top-notch gear in both spinning and casting configurations, so there is no need to bring any of your own. Fly fishers will probably want to bring their own rods and reels. We used Lamiglas 12/13 rods and found them to be just right for sails. Stock fly rods and flies are available for daily rental.
While sailfish are by far the most prevalent fish available, both black and blue marlin are commonly raised and occasionally landed. Dorado are also present, occasionally in large numbers. In addition, inshore fishing for rooster-fish and jacks can be excellent when water conditions are right.
What to Bring:
There is no reason to pack anything more than toiletries and a few shirts and shorts. The staff at Sailfish Bay will do your laundry every day if you wish. Don’t forget the sunscreen and a camera. You should be able to bring all you need in carryon luggage, which will make your trip considerably easier.
Unlike many Central American destinations, no in–country flight is required to reach Sailfish Bay Lodge. Direct flights from Los Angeles arrive daily and can also be booked from Atlanta, Dallas, Houston and Miami. You will be met at the airport by a Sailfish Bay employee who will take you on a hour-and-a half-tour of the country before you hop on a small boat in Puerto Iztapa for a five-minute ride to the lodge.
Booking Your Trip:
You can learn almost all you need to know by visiting the Sailfish Bay Website at www.sailfishbay.com, or you can call them at (800) 638-7405.