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September 21, 2007

Sailfish School

To catch billfish on the fly, knowing when to cast and how to set the hook are just two of the deciding factors. How does one learn it all? By going to school.


TEACHER'S PET: Captain Jake Jordan, center, shows how it's done with the help of two mates and a cooperative sailfish.

To see more great photos from Gary Caputi's trip to Sailfish School, click here.

"Left 'rigger," Captain Brad Philipps called down from the flybridge of the Decisive. With those two words, class was in session. The mates, Carlos Alvarenga and Kennedy Hernandez, grabbed rods and teased a sailfish as it charged the spread.

The port outrigger had been retracted, so angler Jeff Asplundh, standing in the port corner of the cockpit with fly rod and pink-and-white Cam Sigler tube fly in hand, would have an open lane for his backcast.

At Asplundh's left shoulder stood Captain Jake Jordan, headmaster of the Sailfish School, to oversee the angler's every move and offer advice as the lesson unfolded off Guatemala.

When the approaching sailfish was announced, Asplundh slid the fly into the water alongside the boat. He held the rod tip low to the surface with both arms extended out away from his body, as he'd been taught.

As the fish closed in, Philipps pulled the boat out of gear and shouted, "Cast!"

Asplundh responded, making a low backcast and shooting the fly across the wake, dropping it slightly behind the sailfish.

"Point the rod, extend your arms, lean out toward the fly," Jordan instructed. The mate pulled the last teaser from the water, and the excited billfish turned across the transom and spotted the fly. The fish engulfed it while heading away from us. Everything went just as planned.

"Now!" Jordan cried. "Pull!"

Asplundh pulled straight back on the rod with both hands, the tip still pointed straight at the fish, so the butt passed under his right armpit. No jerking, no bent rod, no hand on the line—he just let the six pounds of drag bury the needle-sharp hook as the fish headed straight away from the boat.

The sailfish felt the first pressure of the drag and went berserk, charging in a series of jumps so quick it appeared never to touch the water.

As the battle progressed, Jordan slipped out of the way to let Philipps work with Asplundh. After ten minutes, the fish was brought to boatside.

The mates carefully slipped the fish over the gunwale for a quick "lap dance"—the local term for a photo opportunity—with Asplundh on the transom. They then gently lowered the fish to the water, revived it and released it. Asplundh had just bested his first billfish on a fly.

See? Learning can be fun.


LEARN THE ANGLES: Angler Jeff Asplundh's sailfish went airborne at the hookset.

The System Works
Challenging billfish with a fly rod requires carefully choreographed teamwork, and everyone must know his specific role. Students in the school learn how to be the angler. This type of flyfishing puts the emphasis on fish-fighting ability over casting prowess because the fish are teased in close.

The tale of Asplundh's first sailfish might have made the process seem easy, but it wasn't always that way. Not until Jordan and a few other accomplished fly fishermen and captains began analyzing the game and tweaking the techniques did hookup rates begin to rise, eventually crossing the 50-percent mark.

Today a practiced crew and a well-taught angler with a bit of talent can hook, fight and release most sailfish that eat the fly. Jordan's Sailfish School, which meets at the Billfish Inn in Iztapa, Guatemala, has increased in popularity as more anglers decide to pursue these aggressive fish on fly tackle. It's far more challenging and exhilarating than using conventional tackle—even a very light setup.

Jordan, an instructor certified by the Federation of Fly Fishers, has the uncanny ability to teach anglers everything they need to know about hooking and fighting billfish. When the Sailfish School is not in session, Jordan is a highly regarded skiff guide in the Florida Keys specializing in tarpon, bonefish and permit.

At the school, every one of Jordan's students has caught at least a couple of billfish during the three-day course—and most do far better. Many students have never cast a fly rod at anything bigger than a trout, and some have not even done that. Jordan teaches his students how to rig the tackle, cast the fly and fight the fish, as well as how to be in the right position at the right time.

The evening before the first day on the water, the students meet for drinks at the bar of the inn and are told about the techniques. Jordan explains the teasing and casting process, stressing the importance of teamwork and timing. The next morning, during the ride to the fishing grounds, Jordan goes over the routine in detail, including a simplified casting technique that makes putting the fly in play easy even for neophyte casters. Each student practices the technique as the boat trolls. When fish are around, anglers take turns, with each turn ending after 30 minutes or if the fly gets bit, whichever comes first.

Jordan and such renowned captains as Philipps, Ron Hamlin and Bud Gramer perfected the methods for teasing and hooking billfish. How good are these guys? Philipps and his team have broken the world record for billfish releases for a single boat in two out of the last three years and Hamlin's crew on the Captain Hook has similar credits in prior years. They trade the records for most billfish in a year and most fly-caught billfish in a single day as though they were private competitions. The daily fly record stands at 27, first set in 2004 by Jordan and three students aboard Philipps's old boat, Pelagian, but it has been tied since.


THE PAYOFF: The sailfish shows where the fly ended up as it takes to the sky. (bottom) Jordan, right, and Asplundh go over the fine points on the way to the sailfish grounds.

An Ideal Classroom
To learn to catch billfish on a fly, do it where there are more sailfish than anywhere else in the world: the Pacific coast of Guatemala. The reason is simple: To learn, nothing beats repetition. The more shots you get, the faster you learn and succeed.

Sailfish move up and down the entire Central American coast following a contour line of the continental shelf some 40 miles offshore until they encounter a feature called the "Pocket," a large submarine canyon that brings this line well inshore.

"The Pocket acts like a funnel, sucking bait and sailfish closer to shore where they spread out over an extensive area of flats," Philipps said. "It holds the bait and large numbers of sails in these waters for a longer period of time. Upwelling, thermal activity on the ocean floor and the protective Guatemalan mountain ranges are all contributing factors to the area's abundance." Interestingly, the sailfish are not oriented to structure, and the depth in which they are found can vary from 200 to 2,000 feet.

While we ventured up to 25 miles from port during our time aboard, we were never more than ten miles offshore or in more than 200 feet of water. The fish were plentiful with free jumpers everywhere. Off toward the edge of the shelf, the chances of catching a blue marlin increases greatly, but sails are the mainstay here.

The only bad time to fish here is the rainy season from late July until September when weather can hinder the action. Sailfish move through these waters in waves year-round.

During the three days we fished with Jordan, Asplundh and student Don Butler, the boat raised over 90 sails. We got 49 to take a fly and we caught and released 35 for a 71-percent success rate. The typical fish weighed 70 to 80 pounds, and we had some that easily topped 100. The largest was seven feet long and more than 120 pounds. Philipps said they encounter sails topping 140 pounds.

Some consider catching a billfish on the fly to be the pinnacle of angling. But with a little schooling, a student can understand the process from tease to release—a knowledge that will translate to all aspects of angling. And while classroom space is limited, the memories definitely are not.


CLASS ACT: Mate Carlos Alvarenga, left, prepares to dismiss Asplundh's sailfish after a few quick photos.

Dance Lessons
These are the angler's jobs in a choreographed crew.

Flyfishing for billfish is not an individual sport, but one that requires the captain, mates and angler to work as a team. The angler should know the following moves:

1. As the fish is teased close, slip the fly into the water and let the boat's forward motion pull the fly line straight.

2. After the captain pulls the engines out of gear and calls, "Cast," lift the fly line off the water with a simple side-arm backcast, then cast the fly just behind and to the right of the sailfish, as the teaser is yanked away.

3. Lean out and extend your arms, holding onto the rod with both hands, keeping the tip pointed straight at the fly. Do not touch the fly line, which is kept tight by the momentum of the boat.

4. The sailfish looks for the teaser, sees the fly and takes it either moving across or directly away from the stern. Pull the fly rod straight back to set the hook, keeping the rod horizontal to the water. The preset six pounds of reel drag will sink the hook.

5. Stay in contact with the fish, keeping only light rod pressure, while the drag does its thing. As the boat backs down or the sailfish charges, pick up line as quickly as possible and always be ready for the unexpected. During the fight, these fish often spend more time airborne than in the water, and the captain will maneuver the boat to help, but be ready to move at his direction.
—G.C.

Semester At Sea
Go where the bites are and learn by doing.

Jake Jordan's Sailfish School holds class at the Billfish Inn in Iztapa, Guatemala, each year from December through March. Sailfish School includes three days of flyfishing with one instructor and three or four students, the use of tackle, including flies and leaders, all meals, three nights lodging at the inn, one night in Guatemala City and ground transportation. The Billfish Inn is an air-conditioned, four-bedroom house located on the water with a private pool, chef, bartender and maid service.

Tuition fees are $2,900 per student with four aboard, or $3,300 per student with three aboard. To check out the curriculum and book in advance, call Jake Jordan's Fishing Adventures at (305) 743-0501 or visit www.jakejordan.com.
—G.C.

To see more great photos from Gary Caputi's trip to Sailfish School, click here.