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September 21, 2007

Make it Mazatlan!

A charter fleet with a mission is making Mazatlan even more attractive as a family fishing destination.


This sailfish roughed up a mullet before Jo Hood, left, boated it on stand-up gear with help from mateGabby Ramirez

The calm, cobalt water off Mazatlan boiled as a billsuddenly appeared behind the red-skirted mullet on the right flatline. The fish slashed at the mullet three times, then backedoff before lunging again and finally grabbing the bait in itsjaws. We all spotted the strike at the same time, and the previouslypeaceful cockpit sprang to life. My 16-year-old son, Chris, ranfor the rod as Taylor, his nine-year-old brother, scrambled outof the cabin. I dove for my camera while my husband, Jo, simplytried to stay out of the way.

The line came tight and a large Pacific sailfishcleared the water, tumbling end over end as Chris settled in forthe fight. He did an outstanding job, and had the fish alongsidein a remarkably short amount of time. Gabby, the mate, liftedthe sail into the cockpit for some quick photos and the application of a tag from The Billfish Foundation,then returned the fish to the water and revived it. Chris wasnaturally ecstatic over the release of his second billfish (hisfirst was a blue marlin taken when he was nine), as were the restof us. Like his mom and grandfather, Chris has billfishing inhis blood, and every catch seems like the fulfillment of a legacy.

Ramirez carefully revives a sailfish, a familiar sight on Pro Team's all-release boats.
Ramirez carefully revives a sailfish,a familiar sight on Pro Team's all-release boats.

Being able to fish with my family was just one reasonthis trip to Mexico was so special. I usually travel alone orwith a friend on fishing trips, so when I was offered theopportunity to take my husband and sons along asanglers, I jumped at the chance. I was also hoping that I wouldget a chance to see my youngest son catch his first billfish.

Man with a Mission

We were in Mazatlan to check out a unique charteroperation called Pro Team Sportfishing. Pro Team is run by RodneyCaughman, a Texas billfisherman who left his position as an internationalsales rep in the food industry to create a lodge and all-releasecharter business that would cater to conservation-minded anglerslike himself. In that respect, Caughman has been a pioneer ina part of the world where sailfish, marlin and swordfish routinelyhang from the scales of other charter operations.

"I just think we need to give something back,"Caughman explains. "How can we expect to make strides incontrolling commercial billfish slaughter if we don't set theright example?" In just over two years of operation, thePro Team boats have set that example by tagging and releasingover 300 billfish. Furthermore, it appears that Caughman's voiceis beginning to be heard among the other charter crews in Mazatlan,some of whom are starting to release more of their own fish.

The billfish grounds are just a short run from the hotels and beaches of Mazatlan's
The billfish grounds are just a short run from the hotels and beaches of Mazatlan's "costa del oro." (Photo By Larry Dunmire)

Mazatlan is located on Mexico's mountainous westerncoast, due east of Cabo San Lucas. It's a city of 800,000 thatspreads along the coast and up into the mountains that overlookthe Pacific. Mazatlan harvests more shrimp than any other partof the world, and is home to the largest commercial tuna fleetin the world.

Fishing here is easy compared to many destinations.The Pro Team boats leave the dock around 6:15 a.m. and start trollinga combination of natural baits and lures just eight to ten milesfrom the harbor. During our trip late last June we were nevermore than 25 miles offshore at any time, and the action was hotthroughout the fleet.

FADs Mean Action

Although a wave of thunderstorms effectively canceledour second day of fishing, day three brought clear skies and veryhot weather. The heat was intense, and we all moved around fromone shady spot to the next, like restless dogs on a Southern backporch. The restlessness was broken when we got into a school ofspinner dolphin that must have spanned several square miles. Theseplayful mammals jumped ten feet out of the water, spinning liketops. We stayed with the school for nearly an hour, watching asother boats around us hooked up with sailfish and blue marlin.Over the radio, we heard that a striped marlin had been caught,an unusual occurrence in late June.

Suddenly, Captain Augustine Ramirez kicked the throttlesup a few notches and we knew he'd seen something. Moments laterthere was a shout of "Fish on!" and Taylor ran forthe rod. He wrestled the outfit into the chair and began to reelwith all the might a nine-year-old can muster.

We had hooked up near one of several FADs (fishaggregating devices) that have been deployed in the area by thelocal fishermen. The FADs are made by attaching polypropyleneline to a concrete-filled bucket. Every 50 feet, large palm frondsare woven into the line, creating underwater structure that attractsbaitfish and predators. It was nearly impossible to troll pastone of these clever devices without hooking something.

Nine-year-old Taylor Hood poses with his first-ever sailfish, landed after a grueling 50-minute fight. The fish was tagged and released.
Nine-year-old Taylor Hood poses with hisfirst-ever sailfish, landed after a grueling 50-minute fight.The fish was tagged and released.

Taylor's fish turned out to be a small dolphin,and I could tell he was disappointed. But that was understandable,given his personal mission to catch a billfish. He would justhave to wait a little longer.

Jo was next in the Hood line-up, and he didn't haveto wait long for his fish. Shortly after resetting the lines,another huge sailfish appeared behind one of the mullet baits,slapped it back and forth a few times, then attacked it viciously.No stranger to billfishing, Jo fought the fish on stand-up gearand had it alongside the boat in a few minutes.

Back at Casa de Marlin, the base of operations forPro Sport's guests, we heard about the adventures of a Texas fatherand his 14-year-old son. The two were fishing for billfish forthe first time, and had already released a 300-pound blue marlinand a sailfish. As I listened to their story, I silently hopedthat Taylor would get another shot at his goal.

We had one more day of fishing, so now the pressurewas really on. Although we never spoke of it, I could tell thatTaylor was antsy. He dealt with it by snacking in the cabin andacting like he could care less.

At around 9:30 we heard a clamor on the bridge.Augustine pushed the throttles full forward, Gabby leapt fromthe bridge, and we saw a trio of sailfish appear in the spread- one behind the right flat line and two behind the left 'riggerbait. The flat line came tight and a beautiful sail made a seriesof greyhounding leaps across the waves.

Gabby grabbed the 'rigger rod and tried to teasethe other two fish into eating, but they quickly lost interestand disappeared. No matter; we had a sail on the line, and itwas all Taylor's!

My son climbed into the fighting chair for a secondtime and began to reel. However, it was clear that this fish wasnot going to give up as easily as the first two, and 20 minutesinto the fight we all began to wonder if we'd mistaken the sailfor a blue marlin. The fish went down and stayed there, and Taylorgained line at a painfully slow pace. The cockpit grew quiet,save for intermittent words of encouragement.

But Taylor hung tough, and after 40 minutes thedouble line appeared, then disappeared again as the fish madea last-ditch run. The grueling, nail-biting tug-of-war lastedanother ten minutes before Gabby was finally able to grab theleader and end the battle. As the fish was led to the boat, wecould see that the hook had caught in its shoulder, which explainedwhy the fight had been so difficult.

We all high-fived Taylor while Augustine got onthe radio and spread the good news to Caughman and the rest ofthe fleet. Taylor beamed as Gabby removed the hook and replacedit with a tag, then my son stood next to his catch with a smileas wide as the Pacific while we took photos. Taylor had succeeded.He'd caught his first billfish in the summer of his ninth year,just like his brother. Thanks to Mazatlan and Pro Team, the Hoodtradition lives on!

Fishing with Pro Team

Pro Team has two 26-foot, twin-diesel Robalos (withheads) that are comfortable and well equipped, all the way downto the light-tackle spinning gear. The fleet also includes two26-foot pangas that can be used for both billfishing and inshorefishing.

Guests stay at Casa de Marlin in the Sabalo CountryClub area, close to the new Marina Mazatlan. The five-bedroom,five-bath villa is exotic and comfortable. Amenities include apool, hot tub, garden, cable TV in every room, hot showers anda staff that just can't do enough to keep you happy. Every packageincludes a continental breakfast, lunch on the boat and a wonderfulafternoon meal after you've returned from fishing and had a cooldip in the pool.

Pro Team offers a "Two-Couple Special"that includes two rooms, four nights, two days of billfishing,all meals and transfers for only $450 per person. For more information,contact Pro Team Sportfishing, (888) MARLIN3 (627-5463); fax (361)553-8688; email: profish@ mzt.megared.net.mx. You can also visitthe Pro Team web site at www.probillfish.com. ¿-D.H.