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If you want to catch a billfish on fly, Guatemala is by far the best place in the world. That’s a bold statement, but here’s why I say it’s true.

First, Pacific sailfish hit flies with abandon. These sails are much bigger than their Atlantic cousins and nowhere near as smart. I am a fan of big, dumb fish. Second, you need a place where you’ll raise as many sails as possible; raising 30 fish a day in Guatemala is about average. The more fish you raise, the better your chances of a hookup. There is no place on Earth that has this many billfish.

Catching billfish on fly-fishing tackle is a team sport that requires a boat with an expert crew who can tease the fish close to the boat, and the best gear available. 

Catching billfish on fly-fishing tackle is a team sport that requires a boat with an expert crew who can tease the fish close to the boat, and the best gear available. 

Next, you need an operation with great boats and crews. My choice is Casa Vieja Lodge, but there are several other incredible fly-fishing operations in Guatemala. Casa Vieja owner David Salazar is an expert in modern offshore boats, rigging and fly-fishing for billfish. His nine-boat fleet averages more than 15 sailfish releases per boat a day during the season (December through March and May through July), but that includes the bait-draggers. Granted, some days are better than others, but during a three-day visit, odds are you’re going to have an amazing fly-fishing adventure.

I have been to Casa Vieja dozens of times, and what impresses me the most is the skill of the captains and mates. Catching billfish on a fly is a team effort. When the captain finds an area where the fish are holding, hookless teasers are deployed. The teasers usually consist of two daisy chains of rubber squid and two hookless skirted ballyhoo. The ballyhoo are sewn in a pattern that prevents the sail from ripping it apart on the first grab. The mates do the rigging and the teasing.

Teasing is a skill. The idea is to excite the sailfish by pulling the meal right out of its mouth. When a sail appears behind a teaser, all the other teasers are immediately hauled into the boat. The mate on the teaser rod draws the sail to the stern and jerks the teaser out of the water. At the same, time the captain will take the boat out of gear and yell “cast!” That’s when the angler goes to work.

Raising 30 sailfish each day is about average in the prolific waters of Guatemala.

Raising 30 sailfish each day is about average in the prolific waters of Guatemala.

Most people do not own a $2,000 billfish rod and reel, so Casa Vieja provides them, rigged and ready. The standard rod is a 14-weight. You can catch a Pacific sail, which run from 80 to 120 pounds on a 12-weight, but I wouldn’t recommend it, especially if you’re a newbie. The reel has to be designed for billfish, such as a Nautilus NV Monster or a Tibor Pacific, and filled to capacity with 50-pound braid backing. I attach 100 to 150 feet of 50-pound high- visibility monofilament to the backing. I prefer a fluorescent color so the captain can see it. The mono adds a bit of stretch to the fight, which can help keep the tippet from breaking.

The fly line is a 600-grain Cortland billfish line sometimes cut back to 40 feet. The leader is usually 125-pound mono, and the IGFA-class tippet is 20-pound Mason hard mono. The Casa Vieja boats follow strict IGFA fly rules: at least 15 inches of class tippet and no more than 12 inches of shock. The tippets are pure perfection. A pink-and-white Cam Sigler billfish tube fly is followed by two 7/0 Owner hooks. The skill it takes to rig one of these fly leaders is seriously impressive.

While they look large and imposing, the Pacific sailfish is actually a beginner's billfish, according to the writer, Pat Ford.

While they look large and imposing, the Pacific sailfish is actually a beginner's billfish, according to the writer, Pat Ford.

It can be a bit intimidating to handle a fly rod of this size, but you don’t have to cast very far. Just strip off enough line so that the end of the sinking line is at the rod tip. This is usually less than 30 feet. When a fish comes to the teaser, drop the fly into the water and let it hang behind the boat. If you are a right-hand caster, you will be standing in the port quarter, and the teasing will be on the opposite side. When the captain gives the signal, make one false cast and flop the fly right back where it was before and don’t move it, unless the captain tells you to. If everything goes according to plan, the sailfish will be in a frenzy when the teaser suddenly disappears. Watch your fly and listen.

Sometimes the sail will swim right up to the stern, then turn to its left. They always turn to their left, and I have no idea why. As the fish turns, the first thing it will see is the fly, and the fish will hit it going away. To set the hook, pull the rod in the opposite direction the fish is moving. Do not strip-strike like you would with a tarpon. Use the drag and the fish’s speed to set the hook — and hang on. The aerial display explodes 30 feet behind the boat, and it is spectacular. Pacific sails are very aggressive, which makes them perfect for tease-and-switch fly-fishing.

To land a marlin on fly is an entirely different proposition that puts the fish at a serious advantage over the fly-fishing angler. 

To land a marlin on fly is an entirely different proposition that puts the fish at a serious advantage over the fly-fishing angler. 

The waters that Casa Vieja guests fish also hold a smattering of striped marlin, blue marlin, big mahi-mahi and an occasional black marlin — all of which can be teased to a fly. It’s not all that rare that a fly angler will hook up to a 300-pound blue marlin, but it’s best not to make a powerful blue marlin your first bluewater fly rod experience. While Pacific sails are a beginner’s fish, blue marlin are an expert’s Mount Everest. There is nothing like a big blue marlin on a fly rod. Nothing.

For the ultimate bluewater fly-fishing experience, Salazar takes his 48-foot G&S The Hooker to Costa Rica to fish the seamount fish aggregating devices, or FADs, 100 miles off Quepos. I made the trip twice before Covid hit, and it was the high point of my bucket list.

In 2018, Rufus Wakeman and I flew to San Jose, Costa Rica, and caught a van to Quepos, a two-and-a-half-hour drive. We arrived at Marina Pez Vela in time for a late lunch, met up with my friend Capt. Chris Sheeder, who was running one of Salazar’s boats, and headed toward the FADs. (Sheeder died in 2021 of pancreatic cancer.)

The Casa Vieja fleet of charter boats in Guatemala are some of the best in the business when it comes to landing billfish on the fly. 

The Casa Vieja fleet of charter boats in Guatemala are some of the best in the business when it comes to landing billfish on the fly. 

We ran during the night and started fishing at daylight. We stayed on the boat and fished from dawn to dusk for three days. The FADs are attached to a half-dozen seamounts 70 to 130 miles offshore. The mountains rise out of 15,000 feet of water to within 4,000 to 1,500 feet of the surface. The FAD begins with a huge concrete block and enough chain to support a stainless steel buoy that stays about 90 feet below the surface. A polyurethane rope is attached to the buoy, and to that is attached any number of things that will float and form a safe haven for baitfish 40 or 50 below the surface — nets, PVC rectangles, tarps, palm fronds. Dozens of FADs are now in place, and the fishing seems to get better every year.

Teasing up a 250-pound blue marlin is nothing like teasing up a sailfish. Everything happens at warp speed with a blue marlin. Once it decides that the pink-and-white Cam Sigler fly is edible, it just crushes it. Sailfish whack the fly with their bill, nibble on it, follow it; blue marlin murder it. The strikes are spectacular.

There are three phases to catching a blue marlin on fly. The first is the strike. Again, you set the hook with the rod. A strip-strike will snap the 20-pound tippet every time. The drag is set at just under 2 pounds, and the fish’s momentum is usually sufficient to set the hook. A few pumps with the rod helps, but don’t touch the reel.

Don't even attempt a strip-set when coming tight to a powerful billfish. Use the rod and hang on.

Don't even attempt a strip-set when coming tight to a powerful billfish. Use the rod and hang on.

Phase two occurs when the marlin is hooked and starts greyhounding across the surface. This is a critical time for a 20-pound tippet. Salazar uses a 600-grain Cortland billfish line with the running line cut back to about 10 feet from the sinking section. The fish can cover more than 600 yards in its first run, so line drag is a big issue.

Phase three starts after the fish sounds, and you have to pump it back to the surface, which is no easy task. At this stage, you can increase the drag from 2 to 4 pounds. Most of the pressure is applied by palming the reel, and you have to be ready for a tippet-snapping burst of speed at any time. If the marlin surfaces, it usually starts greyhounding again, and you quickly have to drop back to 2 pounds of drag or you’ll break it off.

Blue marlin typically aren’t caught on a fly rod with only 12 inches of 125-pound test separating them from 2 feet of 20-pound tippet, but complying with IFGA rules makes it even more satisfying, and there is no room for error on the angler’s part. You must have top fish-fighting skills, you have to be patient, and you have to be lucky. Wakeman lost a marlin when the reel handle caught in his shirt. Plan on anything that can go wrong, to go wrong.

Pacific sailfish grow much larger than their Atlantic brethren and will launch into impressive aerial displays.

Pacific sailfish grow much larger than their Atlantic brethren and will launch into impressive aerial displays.

On our first trip, we raised 38 marlin, had 17 bites, and caught and released five marlin and three sailfish. The magic of fishing FADs is that you can throw a fly at a dozen blue marlin a day. Some days you might have 20-plus bites. My biggest marlin was around 300 pounds. It took two-and-a-half hours for the mate to grab the leader and pop it off. I’m not sure I ever want to tackle one that size again; 200 pounds is just about right, and 150 is even better.

Whether you’re a newcomer to billfish on fly or an expert, the sails and blue marlin at each end of the equation are equally exciting to catch. And Casa Vieja Lodge and Salazar will put it all together for you — all you have to do is show up, and it’s game on.

MASTERING THE IMPOSSIBLE

In the 1970s, I got the bug to catch a sailfish on fly and helped develop the tackle and techniques for offshore fly-fishing with Capt. Ron Hamlin. I actually gave Hamlin his first fly rod, and he became an offshore fly-fishing guru. Together we set the Florida state fly record for sailfish, and he guided me to an IGFA record 73-pound white marlin on 8-pound tippet in 1984 off Venezuela.

When I started fly-fishing in New York in the early ’60s, catching a sailfish on a fly rod was considered next to impossible, if it was considered at all. At the time, guys like Stu Apte were just figuring out how to catch tarpon on a fly. The tackle was limited, rods were subpar, and the so-called “saltwater” reels were tiny. Of course, things are much different today, and I recommend that all fly fishers, no matter where they live or what species they target, catch a billfish on a fly.

To book a trip to Casa Vieja Lodge, visit casaviejalodge.com.

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