Guatemala Fishing at Sailfish Bay Lodge
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Circling Guatemala Sails
by Larry Larsen, Florida Sportsman, Oct 2003
"That's nine in a row!" shouted Robert Fallon, as we watched head mate "Tito" Cristobal Mora bill my 100-pound Pacific sailfish. A struggle ensued as Tito maintained careful control while removing the circle hook from the side of its mouth. I watched as the big fish tail-kicked its way loose from the mate's grasp and descended back into the depths to mull over his latest feeding experience.
"We used to get about one out of every three sails in our baits with the J hooks," Robert pointed out, "but a few years ago, we started using the circle hooks and haven't gone back."
"Now we use only circle hooks," the co-owner of Sailfish Bay Lodge in Guatemala explained. "They are the most effective sailfish hook ever, and their other applications are endless. We explain the hooking process to our customers and how the hooks are so effective so that they can go home and employ them in their areas with confidence."
On some days, Robert has found literally hundreds of sailfish concentrated several miles off the coastal village of Puerto Iztapa. Most of the captains broadcast such activity on the radio, and others shortly join them. Doubles and triples are common then. On one day, his customers caught 16 sails in a little more than one hour. Tow other nearby boats using conventional tackle and ballyhoo on circle hook rigs had similar action over the following two hours.
We had great luck with circle hooks on a recent trip. Within five minutes of setting out baits, four sails, each 60 pounds or so, hit the surface and came after the two teasers in pairs. Two grabbed skirted ballyhoo baits hanging from our conventional outfits and one took a dropped-back ballyhoo from our only spinning outfit. A terrific start.
After the triple, we again dropped the teasers into our spread and waited about five minutes before being greeted by a double. Ten minutes later, after retrieving our circle hooks from the mouths of those two we took a few quick photos of angler and fish and watched them swim off.
The Maverick, captained by Lan Melendez, turned and started again to troll our baits at about 6 ½ knots. We motored 100 yards or so before another double was after our baits. One we quickly hooked and the other lost interest as the captain focused on the hookup.
Fallon, an avid fly fisherman H. Whitney Bailey, and Sailfish Bay Lodge co-owner Scott Ruprecht of Sportfishing Worldwide and I were fishing Pacific waters some 13 to 18 miles off of Puerto Iztapa on Guatemala's southern coast. Captain Melendez is one of the pioneers in Guatemala Sportfishing and is an expert in catching sails on circle hooks. He and Tito, who is also a captain, both worked with Ron Hamlin in early experimentation with the circle hook rigs. Lan started mating aboard Sportfishing boats and commercial fishing at age 11 and captaining both types of boats at 15.
In the early tests of the circle hooks off Guatemala, the exact position of the hook in the ballyhoo for exact hookups was the question to be resolved. Fishermen soon learned the ideal placement for sails was to wire the hook tightly just above the head of the ballyhoo. Two advantages over the J-hook used in the past became apparent. One is that the circle hooks don't injure the fish like the J-hook might, and the second is that the hookup percentage is much better for the circle hook rigs.
There is a trick to fishing the circles, but even an amateur can do it. You have to be ready to freespool the reel when a fish takes the bait, and let it run for about five seconds. Normally, with a leverdrag trolling reel, the drag is positioned about halfway to strike while trolling; when a fish strikes, you pull the drag lever into freespool and lower the rodtip. Give a five count, then push the lever up to strike position. There's no sudden yanking of the rod to set the hook - instead, you merely tighten on the fish by reeling hard and hang on.
"The secret to the hookup with the circle hooks is keeping the rodtip low and giving the fish enough time to swallow the bait," points out Robert. "The sailfish will swallow the ballyhoo and then the pressure of the taut line will cause the ballyhoo to come back up from the stomach into the mouth. As the bait is being ejected then, the circle hook will catch the inside of the moth doing minimal or no damage to the inside of the fish. If you set the hook quickly or raise the rodtip high, either action may pull the ballyhoo right out of the fish's mouth.
To properly rig the bait, the mate first cuts off the beak of the ballyhoo and then punches out the eyes. Using a long rigging needle, he runs rigging thread through the eye socket several times and then through the side of the body, passing by the spine. He then runs the needle and thread back over the upper half of the bait, wrapping down and through the sides, and back up, in criss-cross fashion. Finally, he wraps the exposed circle hook into the rig at the point where the shank starts its turn into the bend of the hook. The hook is now positioned above the head and along the beak, not below the body cavity, as with the traditional J-hook.
In all, we fished aboard the Maverick a total of about 13 hours over a 3-day period and were constantly hooking sails with the ballyhoo baits and completing the catch. We used both conventional and spinning gear with the circle hook rigs to amass a 90 percent hookup ratio.
"We run two long outrigger lines with circle-hooked ballyhoo, in addition to the two hookless, soft head teasers off the outriggers," Robert explained. "We also put one flatline with ballyhoo about halfway between the teaser and the far baits. We basically have three lines working for us, although we could do four. When the boats here try to use four baits, we often get multiple hookups, and it can be a madhouse."
As a backup, Lan always has an outfit ready for the times when a fourth sail comes up on the teasers. The captain will then trip to bring the sail closer to the boat by enticing it with the teaser; the angler stands by to cast a ballyhoo. At the last second, Lan yanks the teaser out of the water and the sail usually hits the ballyhoo.
About 70 percent of the time, the sails coming up into the spread will go for the rigged ballyhoo, and the other 30 percent will go after the teaser, which is nearer the cockpit. The teasers are particularly seductive to blue marlin, and that's another reason Robert and Lan employ this setup. When specifically targeting marlin, Lan trolls 7 to 7 ½ knots with either bonito or cero makerel rigged with 14/0 or 15/0 circle hooks positioned above the head.
The marlin normally will hit an outrigger plastic teaser and the captain will tease it in closer while the mate tosses the rigged bonito out. Robert has taken marlin up to 400 pounds on 50-pound-class tackle with the circle hooks rigs. Big marlin are hooked just like the sails. After freespooling for five seconds, the full drag is set and the angler just has to hang on.
Both conventional and spinning tackle is used with the standard circle hook rigs. The conventional tackle aboard the Maverick.reserved for sailfish is 20-pound reels spooked with IGFA tournament line in a high-visibility yellow or green color. The line visibility is vital so that the captain can see where the fish is. Sailfish generally aren't spooked by line color. Doubles and triples are common, and the captain needs to see where the line is for each fish so that he can decide which fish he should go after first.
For pitching to fish in the teasers, you can use a spinning reel loaded with 350 yards of 20-pounds-test mono matched to a 7-foot medium-heavy action rod. After you make the cast to a hot fish, leave the bail open and hold the line with your forefinger. When the sailfish strikes, just straighten your finger and let the line go. Let the fish take the line and count to five, always keeping the rod low and then simply close the bail and start reeling. The fish will be hooked up.
The remainder of the rig is six feet of 100-pound-test monofilament leader that is used above the swivel and another two feet of the same line between the swivel and circle hook on both the conventional and spinning rigs. The ballyhoo range from 8 up to 12 inches, and the circle hook employed by the Maverick crew for sailfish is a size 7/0 bronze Eagle Claw.
We had plenty of ballyhoo and needed them. On day two, we landed 9 of the 11 sails that we had hooked. On the final morning, we had 21 sails in our teasers and 13 strikes in only three hours. We caught and released nine of those fish. We decided to go back to the marina at noon, so we left the fish biting. Our host, Robert, called the day a "good bite," noting that they usually catch 15 of 18 striking fish on circle hooks and conventional tackle on such days. And that was the "off-season."
On a typical day during the prime season, November through May, the crew averages 15 to 20 raises per day and expects three or four multiple hookups.
Sailfish Bay Lodge
955 Pavilion St. | Cincinnati, OH 45202
Tel: 513-984-8611 or 800-638-7405 | Fax: 513-984-0831
| Last Updated: 03.19.17