Pat Ford has chased fish around the globe. An award-winning photographer, Ford has not only captured them on film and digitally, but he has also taken more than two dozen world records himself in his decades on the water. Two records he’s most proud of are a 67-pound, 4-ounce Cobia on fly with an 8-pound tippet and a 73-pound white marlin, also on 8-pound tippet. Both fish were caught in 1984. But they are not “the one.”
“Those are my two best world records,” says Ford, a retired Miami attorney and frequent contributor to Anglers Journal. “But my favorite fish is an Atlantic sailfish that I caught on a fly out of Palm Beach in February of 1980.” Ford had taken a few sails on fly in Mexico but had yet to land one off Florida, despite chasing them hard for several seasons out of Stuart.
“Very, very difficult,” he recalls. “I hooked a couple but never landed one. Then in early January of 1980 I was at a Miami Beach Rod and Reel Club meeting with legendary captain Ron Hamlin, who back then was not yet a legend.” Hamlin, who was running a private boat out of Palm Beach, believed he could get Ford into a sail on fly.
“He said, ‘Just wait. When the conditions are right, I’m going to call you, and you’re going to have to drop everything you’re doing and get up here the next morning,’” Ford remembers.
That was late December or early January. The call from Capt. Hamlin came Feb. 3.
“He said, ‘get up here tomorrow morning. A front had just come through.’ It was blowing 30 mph, and the sails were everywhere. So I did.” Noted angler and author Mark Sosin and a couple of Hamlin’s friends were also aboard.
Seas the next day were 5 to 8 feet; it was blowing 25 with plenty of whitecaps. They didn’t see a fish until about noon, and about an hour later Hamlin found a bunch of sails balling bait. Ford says there were three or four other boats casting live baits into the action and hooking sails left and right.
“Ronnie backed me up, and I was casting a fly to them,” says Ford, who was fishing a 12-weight Fenwick rod and John Emery reel, with a slow-sinking line, 12-pound tippet and a baitfish-pattern fly. “The way the fish would work, the sailfish would run into the bait ball, whack a couple of baits, then they’d go round and eat the ones they’d stunned. I’d throw the fly in, twitch it a little bit and let it sit, and they’d swim right up and eat it.”
He hooked and lost three sails in quick succession. “Boom, boom, boom,” he says. “I had three bites — the fish came tight, splashed around a little bit — and the hook came loose. They just got bill-hooked and spit the fly almost immediately, so I missed the first three strikes.”
The boat was rocking and rolling as Ford hooked fish No. 4. “I got a good hook set on it,” he remembers, “and it starts jumping all over the place and runs over and cuts me off on the propellers of another boat. Cuts the fly line in half. I have now hooked four sailfish on fly in one day, and I’m going ahhhh.”
Ford maintained his composure, regrouping quickly. He grabbed his second rod, waited for the fish to charge the bait ball again and made another cast. “The sailfish comes up and eats the fly, right behind the boat,” he says. “The strike was probably 30 feet behind the boat because I could see everything. I hook it up good, and it starts jumping — and all of the other boats immediately went forward and give me room.”
The fight lasted 20 to 25 minutes. “But the thing I remember most is all the other boats just immediately motored out of my way,” says Ford. “They all just spread out like in a star pattern to give me room, which I thought was incredibly nice.”
They knew that the crazy guy with the fly rod was trying to accomplish something out of the ordinary. “I was the only idiot out there throwing a fly at these things.” Ford says. “They’re all backing up, throwing live bait. I’m sure they were all amazed when I hooked one, because I was amazed when I hooked one. It was like they all ran out at the same time because they knew what I was doing. And I landed it.”
The fish weighed 55½ pounds.
“That was Feb. 4, 1980, and it’s still the Florida state record today, 36 years later,” Ford told me recently. “Ronnie Hamlin and I share that. He was the captain. The catching was on my part. That was the most satisfying fish I have every caught in my life. It took three years to get that thing. And I hooked five of them in the same day before I finally landed one.”