Guatemala Fishing at Sailfish Bay Lodge

Sailing in the Heart of the Sky

by Bob McKinney, Sporting Classics, Jan/Feb 2004

I am feeling estupido and just a tiny bit apprehensive. Okay. I admit it. I am feeling a lot apprehensive. Beneath me the white deck planking of the Sirena, a 35-foot Viking, rolls and pitches. Not violently, but enough to cause me to have to consciously brace myself. The old sea legs aren't what they used to be when I was a young coastguardsman way back in the mid-1960's.

The tropical sun, unimpeded by clouds or haze, is busily cooking my nose and face to lobster red, but I haven't noticed yet. Already I feel a trickle of sweat welling up from the heat or the pressure to perform is not clear. Probably both.

The nearest tierra firme is either forty miles to the east on the west coast of Guatemala or 800 feet straight down. Take your pick.

The big G. Loomis fly rod in my hands, which seemed like a broomstick when I fitted it together in my living room back in Virginia, now feels ridiculously, even ludicrously inadequate for what I am about tot attempt: to boat a 100-pound-plus Pacific sailfish on a fly attached to a 20-pound-test leader.

I suddenly wish I had given the knot holding the leader to the line one last check. But there is no time for that now. It's my turn and I'm on deck, literally.

A handful of fluffy white seabirds with short brown wings weave and dip a few hundred feet off to my right. One of them is perched on the round, washtub-sized back of a drifting sea turtle. The water beneath me is a brilliant blue and very clear.

Kansas it ain't.

I glance back over my shoulder at our two mates, Chirro and Victor. They smile and nod encouragement, but say nothing. They have already taken the gringo's measurements, I am sure. The trickle of sweat has now turned to a river.

Behind the mates are racked the more usual tools of their trade. The rods are short and thick, with bases the diameter of hammer handles. They sport industrial looking roller guides that look like they'd be right at home lifting the engines out of Chevrolets and giant Penn and Shimano reels the size and color of Pennzoil cans. The monofilament looks like milky clothesline.

And just in case the gringo comes to his senses and abandons the silly fly rod and feathers, there is a large cooler full of iced ballyhoo baits already trussed up with hooks the size of boarding grapples.

By comparison to the racked rods behind the two mates, the little Loomis tapers to an almost invisible tip. Come twelve feet of gossamer leader and the beginnings of a white fly line snake through the tiny wire guides. About ten yards of the line is coiled in a plastic bucket at my feet.

I stand aside, hugging the port side of the boat ready to cast at the first opportunity. I can feel the Sirena's twin Caterpillar diesels pulsing just beneath me.

The vessel slows to about ten knots. Chirro and Victor quickly put out four teasers, three pink-and-white hula-skirted hook less lures and an orange one with a popper front. One trails behind the starboard outrigger, the other three from the bait-casting rods. The farthest teaser is about 150 feet behind the boat, the others closer in.

Even though I protested that I needed to take photographs, Robert Fallon, an American ex-pat who owns Sailfish Guatemala, has insisted that I get the first opportunity to cast. He is ready, I think, for a good laugh. I suspect he senses that the biggest fish I've ever caught on a fly rod is a 24-pound silver salmon in the surf near Dutch Harbor, Alaska. A fantastic fish to be sure, but nothing like what I am after today.

Twenty seconds later, sooner than any of us had suspected, all hell breaks loose. A sailfish has spotted the orange teaser, and is rapidly closing in on it. His large sail and the upper part of the tailfin slice the water as he zigzags back and forth. Victor grabs the rod to which the orange teaser is attached and reels furiously.

The teaser skips across the water with the fish close behind. Somebody yells "Wait!" Then somebody else yells, "Cast!"

When the fish is about twenty yards out, I manage to get off a decent side-armed back cast and as I come forward the pink-and-white bundle of feathers sails across the water. It nearly hits the fish. I strip line furiously. On the fourth interval between strips, the fish loses interest in the orange popper and whirls around and slams my lure hard once, twice, three times! On the third hit, he's hooked.

The Abel reel screams as the fish realizes something is wrong. He makes a run away from the boat. The white fly line quickly disappears into the blue ocean.

All I see now between the fish and me is blood red backing slicing the water like a hot straight razor through deep blue butter. I get a quick glimpse of another sailfish swimming along beside the hooked one. Then I spot three more!

I follow the line with my eyes through the choppy water in the Siren's wake. Carlos, the captain, shoves the boat into reverse, but there is no problem with slack line. The rod is bent double. There is no fighting chair, no belt. All I have is my arms and hands and a gunwale o brace myself against.

The sailfish seems to have sounded, but then, far out from where the fish ought to be, he erupts in a geyser of rainbow spray. I can tell he is huge. For a second I think the leaping fish is not the one I have on, but then I see the pink-and-white fly dangling from his jaw.

For a brief instant the line goes slack as the big fish, his body now almost completely out of the water, shakes his massive head. His bill looks a yard long. His sail is fully erect and flashes bright blue in the sunlight.

Once, twice more he comes up out of the water. Each time I manage to keep the line taunt. I wonder how much more the 20-pound-test leader can take.

The fish swims rapidly back and forth like a pendulum. In the troughs between the waves, I see his sail and tailfin cutting the blue water. He turns and heads directly for the boat. I crank the reel hard and fast and for a moment the fly line is back onto the spool.

Without warning the fish dives nearly straight down and the reel whistles as the snail takes back all the line it has relinquished, then more. Much more. My hand burns from trying to palm the spool. Somehow I've managed to let the reel's handle knock a chunk of skin and flesh off the knuckle of my left thumb. A bit of blood runs down the top of my hand and drips to the white deck in little red puddles.

The fish seems to be headed for China. I glance nervously at the spinning spool of red backing. There appears to be plenty left, for now at least, but looks can deceive.

The fish stops his dive at what I guess is at least two hundred feet down. Now he is so much dead weight hovering far below. I begin the laborious task of coaxing him up, a few inches at a time. He's a sack of cement now, but I can still feel his head shaking from time to time in the water. Slowly I lift, then reel rapidly as I drop the rod tip a few inches.

I am beginning to realize that hooking a big Guatemalan sailfish is one thing getting him to the boat is another.

For the next ten minutes, it is lift a few inches, drop the rod tip and reel. Lift a few more, reel again. Sweat is pouring down my forehead and stinging my eyes.

He is coming up, but I know that if he dives again, all I will be able to do is watch my little bit of gain disappear. Suddenly the fish seems to get fed up with my badgering him. He heads away from the boat. The line screams once again.

"He's coming up!" shouts Robert, who I had completely forgotten in the excitement. "He's going to jump!"

Jump he does, but now the fish seems tired. Still I don't relax. I've lost "tired" fish before and I desperately want to hold on to this one. I reel as fast as my aching arms can move and Carlos backs toward the fish. The big sail cuts the water about 100 feet from the fantail and I can hear the water hiss like a giant snake.

Several times he leaps. Once more he makes a run, but I sense victory if I can just keep my cool and keep the line taunt on my first-ever sailfish on a fly.

Chirro readies a long-handled gaff, its hook padded with surgical tubing so as not to hurt the fish, while Victor slips on a pair of rubber-palmed gripping gloves. The gloves are bright green. With a bit of a gloat, I wonder what they're thinking of El Gringo now.

Suddenly, as if he has just now noticed the boat, the fish makes one final, furious effort, but I hold the line tight and let Loomis absorb the shock. Salt spray splashes on my glasses and obscured my vision.

Victor grabs the line just a few feet from the fish. He leans far over the starboard gunwale and snatches the fish's bill, while Chirro keeps a firm grip on his belt. The two mates struggle to hoist the heavy fish into the boat and across my lap as Robert snaps the obligatory pictures with my camera. The memory if this day will never leave me, but it is still something I want pictures of.

The fish is not longer brilliant blue, but is now dull brown with exhaustion. His bug eyes move around and there is no fear in them, only the steady gaze of a valiant warrior.

I grin tiredly for the camera.

"One hundred and twenty pounds!" states Carlos and the weight across my lap believes him.

Then the hook is out of the fish's jaw and the mates slide him gently, respectfully, back into the blue water. They hold him in the current for a few seconds, the release the magnificent animal. The sailfish hovers briefly, then flips his huge tail and swims slowly away.

I have just done what, a few days earlier, I would have considered highly unlikely; hooked and landed a large sailfish on a fly.

During the rest of the day and the next, however, I would discover that my fish was not just a one-time event. Robert and I would raise seventeen more sails that day and fourteen the next. Of these, we managed to hook about a dozen and brought seven to the boat. Most ran around 100 pounds, but one probably went close to 150. It fought Robert for ninety minutes and dragged the boat for more than four miles before it finally came to the fantail!

Robert, who scouted the sail fishing possibilities up and down the west coast of Central America before deciding to set up shop in Guatemala, says the area has the largest and most consistent population of sails anywhere between Chile and California. The reason he believes is that the Pacific currents form a giant, hundred-mile-wide eddy off the coast of Guatemala that is rich in baitfish favored by sails.

According to Robert, the average fly fisherman has virtually a 100 percent chance of connecting with a 100-pound-plus sailfish if he spends two or more days on the water. "I am not afraid to burn the fuel to find the fish," he says. "Although we can usually find plenty of action at anywhere from fifteen to forty miles out, I've gone as far as a hundred miles, though the necessity for such a long trip is rare."

In fact, Guatemala is fast becoming the best place in the world for big sailfish on the fly rod. Although some of the locals still consider fly fishing for sails somewhat of a novelty, they have quickly mastered the fine art of teasing the fish into casting distance.

The west coast of Guatemala is also blessed with relatively calm waters and moderate winds, all lending themselves to fly-casting. The Mayas, the first peoples, knew Guatemala as "The Heart of the Sky" because of its tranquil beauty.

Sailfish Guatemala is strictly a catch-and-release operation with a great respect for the resource. It operates out of Puerto Iztapa, where, counting private fishing boats, the deep-water vessels numberless than a dozen. In fact, on my second day, a local tournament was going on and, counting the Sirena, I saw a grand total of only six boats.

Puerto Iztapa (pronounced "is tapa") is a small town that remains mostly undiscovered by tourists, who usually head for either Guatemala City or Antigua. The coffee, locally grown on the mountainsides around nearby Antiqua, is out of this world. It is robust and tasty, yet with not the slightest hint of bitterness.

The prime season for catching Guatemalan sails on the fly is from November to May, but June, July and August are also great. Robert scratches his head, then says, "Actually, December and March can be excellent months also." The only month he doesn't recommend is September and this is due to the ocean's tendency to be choppier then.

Guatemala is a great place to combine fishing with a family vacation. While I was in the country I fished for two days, spent one day flying across the country to explore Mayan ruins at Parque Nacional Tikal (Takal National Park), and two days roaming through the Mayan villages around the beautiful Lago de Atitl'an (Lake Atitl'an), a yawning volcanic caldera surrounded by dormant volcanoes. Lake Atitla'n allegedly holds huge black bass, but I can't personally attest to this. Still, it might be worth checking out.

I spent the final day touring the city of Antigua, visiting a shade-grown coffee plantation, and getting a demonstration of how coffee is processed in the Museo de Café', the Museum of Coffee. For those with a shopping bent, Guatemala offers beautiful Mayan weavings, woodcarvings, handmade dolls dressed in native costumes and Guatemalan jade, which ranges in color from nearly white to jet black. And don't forget the coffee.

I did not sample the inshore fishing, but Sailfish Guatemala can also set up expeditions to go after roosterfish, jack crevalle, African pompano and other species on either fly rods or conventional gear.

Overall, it is fair to say that Guatemala gave me one of my best fishing experiences ever. If you've wanted to push the limits of fly-fishing, Guatemala appears to be the place where it is possible. I've caught all kinds of fish all over, but my first sail on the fly is an experience that ranks right up there with the best of them.

If You Want to Go:

Guatemala has a wet and a dry season, but this doesn't seem to have any effect on sailfishing. Hurricanes are very rare. It is warm year-round, although a light jacket can come in handy early in the morning. You'll need wet weather gear during the rainy season.

Guatemala is almost unbelievably easy to get to from the United States. American, Delta and several other airlines have direct flights to Guatemala City, the capital, from Miami, Atlanta, Houston and Los Angles. It is only tow hours and fifteen minutes from Miami, three-and-a-half from Los Angles. You'll need a passport, but visas aren't necessary fro US citizens. You don't even need shots.

Sailfish Guatemala meets all its clients at the small and very efficient airport at Guatemala City and whisks them quickly (about ninety minutes) over excellent roads to their private 4 bedroom, 3 bath house. Guatemalan motorists drive like proverbial bats out of Hades, but booth they and the roads are otherwise safe. Visit Sailfish Guatemala on the Web at or call them at 800-638-7405.

My entire trip was handled by Sportfishing Worldwide, 9403 Kenwood Road, Suite C-110, Cincinnati, OH 45242; 800-638-7405; email:; . I found Scott Ruprecht, president of the company, to be extremely knowledgeable and very enthusiastic to see that I had a good experience.

My travel arrangements within Guatemala were handled by Vision Travel, 3a Avenida norte #3 (behind the Cathedral), Antigua, Guatemala; 502-832-3293;; email: The contact is Nancy Hoffman or Luis Ramirez.

Sailfish Bay Lodge
955 Pavilion St. | Cincinnati, OH 45202
Tel: 513-984-8611 or 800-638-7405 | Fax: 513-984-0831
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