As a charter captain, Chris Sheeder caught more than 35,000 billfish, an unimaginable number. The average captain is lucky to catch a tenth of that in the time it took Sheeder to reach that milestone. The 37-foot Merritt he skippered, Release, caught 57 sails on fly in a single day on March 11, 2006. He won tournaments, set world records and made hundreds of friendships as a charter skipper. With that kind of resumé, you might expect Sheeder to be a blowhard, but he was the opposite. He was a big, jovial soul whose smile beamed down from the captain’s chair.
Sheeder died of pancreatic cancer on Jan. 6, and the big-game-fishing community went into mourning. He was 48.
Sheeder was bitten by the fishing bug at age 10. He grew up in Hawaii and as a young man crewed on boats out of Kewalo Basin in Honolulu, learning the intricacies of rigging lures and live-bait fishing for blue marlin and ahi tuna.
“My first memory growing up in Hawaii was sitting on Chris’ bike handlebars as he peddled me to the nearest canal to fish for awa awa and papaio,” says Sheeder’s brother Mike Sheeder, who eventually followed Chris to Guatemala, where he, too, has been a very successful captain. “We fished, spearfished, surfed and sailed, but fishing was always our main game. If it floated, we would find a way to fish it.”
Chris Sheeder ran charters out of Midway Island and set a couple of fly-fishing records for giant trevally, one of the toughest reef hunters to catch on any gear, let alone fly. He ran boats in the Canary Islands, Costa Rica and elsewhere, but it was Guatemala where Sheeder flourished. For the better part of two decades, he racked up thousands of billfish releases a year in the prolific Pacific waters. The boats he ran helped put this fishery on the map. Most of the catches were sailfish, but he also caught more than 1,500 blue marlin.
I interviewed Sheeder in 2013 and asked if he could pinpoint his best day on the water. “That’s a tough one,” he said. “The most impressive day might be the day we caught two granders [marlin weighing more than 1,000 pounds] in Midway, or the day we caught 57 sailfish fly-fishing in Guatemala.
“My best day, however, was probably my first day marlin fishing,” he continued. “I was 11 years old, and we were in Kona, Hawaii, aboard the Anxious with Capt. Ed Isaacs. I fought a fish that was well over 1,000 pounds for almost four hours, just to have the line break. Have you ever taken a toy away from a child? Try taking a grander away from a kid. I’ve been chasing that fish for my entire life.”
A major factor in Sheeder’s success was his ability to innovate. He refined many of the offshore tactics used in Central America, especially bluewater fly-fishing. He experimented with fly sizes and colors, and when most people were fishing flies with tandem hooks, he dropped down to one, which was safer for the fish, but also for his mates who handled the big sails at the boat.
Later in his career, Sheeder took to photography, and, like fishing, he excelled at it. Using GoPro cameras attached to long sticks, he started taking photos of anglers with their fish in the water at the side of the boat. It made for a great image, and the fish didn’t have to be brought up to the covering board, which removes its protective slime.
As news of Sheeder’s passing spread, captains and anglers shared stories on social media about their fondness and respect for the skipper. One of them was Capt. Brad Philipps, who fished with Sheeder in Guatemala. The captains were always neck-and-neck as far as the numbers go, and they regularly stood next to each other on the winner’s podium.
“Chris was one of the finest captains that ever fished,” Philipps wrote on Facebook. “There was something very special about fishing alongside him for almost two decades. We pushed each other: one more fish to make the day, always at the top, right there to win a tournament, a blue marlin on fly, a stripey to make a slam, an angler’s first, fulfilling another dream. The very last drink we shared, we raised a toast to how we had made each other better fishermen over the many years.”
Whenever I bumped into Sheeder, whether on a dock or at an award ceremony at The Billfish Foundation, where he was taking home some hardware, he greeted me with a smile. I’d ask how the fishing was, and he’d say, “I’m not in the fishing business. I’m in the dream fulfillment business.”
He took great pride in the memories he helped create for countless clients. “It’s the experiences I get to share with everyone that makes me feel good about doing what I do,” he said. “How many families' favorite vacation was spent on my boat, or how many people caught their first billfish on our boat. I helped make that happen.”
I’m grateful that I was able to fish with Chris Sheeder, drink with him, laugh with him. He was definitely one of the good ones.