Having made Costa Rica my home for the past 12 years it may be slightly unfair to say that I have an unbiased opinion regarding which country offers the best billfishing in Central America. Panama has the ability to produce world class marlin fishing, but Costa Rica’s sailfish numbers dwarf that of their neighbors and the bite is more consistent throughout the year. However one country I kept hearing about and reading too-good-to-be-true fishing reports was Guatemala. Twenty, thirty, forty bites a day were common place – but how could this be true? I went to the ‘sailfish capital of the world‘ myself last week to find out first hand.
While Costa Rica remains ‘the billfish capital of the world‘ due to the terrific year-round numbers of blue, black, and striped marlin as well as sailfish caught here, few dispute that Guatemala is the place to go to rack up ridiculous numbers of sailfish. Our top lodge, the gorgeous Casa Vieja Lodge, has a 9-boat fleet that averages 15 sailfish raises per day, all year round! Like any fishery they do experience their slow weeks once in a while, but in season it’s quite common for them to see 30-40-50+ sailfish a day. When I asked the first mate Tony what his best day ever was, without accessing his recall memory he quickly replied “88 pez velas, el Diciembre pasado“. We were lucky enough to fish on the owner’s boat, David Salazar’s 40′ Whitaker named Finest Kind, and were captained by the best local guide in the fleet, Nicho. The bite was 40 miles offshore that week so without thinking twice about burn rates, gas prices, or profit the fleet headed out to do their jobs – find the fish. By 9 AM the lines were in the water, by 9:18 AM we had our first bite. Sancocho. I wasn’t worried, I knew there’d be more. I missed the next one as well, but by 9:28 AM we had released our first sailfish. Not bad Guatemala, not bad
The bite continued at that torrid pace most of the morning – every five to ten minutes another reel would scream or a fish was in our spread hot for our teasers. My wife Theresa usually spends most of our fishing days up in the tower with the captain snapping the great pictures you see on our website and social media pages, but she got called into duty on a double hook up. Unfortunately the mates were having troubles with their Go Pro so the shot of two sailfish at the back of the boat in crystal clear, calm water didn’t turn out, but we probably won’t forget it anyway. I went into the air conditioned cabin to grab my Go Pro, but I didn’t even have time to set it up before I heard “Left long! Left long!” We were up to four sails released and about twice as many missed by 11 AM. When the second mate Ludwig served us a freshly cooked, hot chicken sandwich lunch none of us had time to eat it because we were under attack. About two bites into my lunch we experienced something I’ve never seen before – a 3.5 hook up! We had two sails hooked up on the long lines when another two came into the spread hot after our teasers. We got pitch baits to them and hooked them both – four hooked up reels screaming at the same time! It’s those brief moments of chaos that really stand out in a lifetime of fishing memories – mates screaming at each other, people bobbing and weaving over and under each other to not cross lines, and seemingly not having enough ballyhoo’s rigged up to catch all the fish in our spread. I released my sailfish first, then Ludwig released his, but Theresa and the other mate Tony were still fighting. Both were doing the sailfish slow dance, pulling the rod up slowly and reeling down fast, until a dark shape finally appeared at our transom. Problem was, there was only ONE fish and two anglers that were reeling it in… This fish had eaten two different ballyhoos and got hooked on both of them – now that’s aggressive feeding!
That triple put as at 14 sailfish by noon (7 released), so Captain Nicho gave me the nudge I needed and told me it was time to fly fish. I’ve fly fished for sailfish in Costa Rica a few times but never had the chance to cast to one, much less catch one, so this was definitely something that was still high on my bucket list. As much as I hated to take lines out of the water during such a hot bite, if there was ever a day to catch my first sailfish on the fly this was it. The 30W Shimano Tyrnos reels were put away and the 16 wt Biscane Bay fly rod with Billy Pate reel was taken out – it was go time. For those of you who don’t know, when you fly fish for billfish you pull a couple of teasers (without hooks of course) on one side of the boat while the fly angler stands at the ready to the other side (his/her casting arm). The goal is to tease a sailfish so close to the back of the boat that the angler can make a 20-30 ft cast just as the mates rip the teasers away from the agitated pelagic. Sounds easy enough right? Head 40 miles offshore, troll two teasers in thousands of feet of water, get a 100 lb fish that can swim at 60 mph to chase it to the back of the boat, then all you need to do is cast you pink popper at the time and in the right place.
It didn’t take long, our first sail was hot after our squid chain to the point I could almost look him in the eye. Forty feet…thirty feet…bill slashing the water….twenty feet… “OK – CAST!” yells Captain Nicho. The teaser was yanked away, my cast ended up five feet short but quickly floated into perfect position. The sailfish was confused, but still hungry, right under my fly. ”Pop it! Pop it!” yelled the captain. Like I was fishing for largemouth bass back in my home state Wisconsin, I began to instinctively pop the large pink fly forgetting that I was holding a big 16 wt rod and was about to get bit by a 100 lb fish. He turned twice, rose up, and swallowed – BAM! I hooked the first one I saw and it immediately went berserk. Three spectacular jumps right next to the boat and the fly was spit out, floating in the water. I thought to myself “WOW, that was fun“, but didn’t think for a second that I missed my once in a lifetime chance at landing my first sailfish on the fly – this was Guatemala after all!
The next fish became my first, but it gave me the probably the toughest fight any sailfish ever has – 45 minutes! I landed the next two as well, each one putting on an incredible areal display as if they knew Theresa was waiting in the tower with her Canon like a sniper waiting for her shot. Truth is, most anglers and crews agree that J-hooks seem to hurt billfish more then circle hooks do, so once they are hooked they really put on a show.
Overall we finished our day with 22 sailfish raised, 19 bites, and 10 released (3 on the fly rod, 7 conventional tackle). The crew was definitely no where near as geeked up as we were about double digit sails, for them it was just another average day at the office. For us, proof that the hype about this place is real.