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June 25, 2010

Guatemala Bait-and-Switch

Captains along the Pacific coast have bait-and-switch fishing down to a science...

All photos by Richard Gibson

More: See our Guatemala Offshore Gallery

It's late March in Guatemala, and I'm standing next to Capt. Ron Hamlin on the flybridge of the classic 40-foot Whiticar Finest Kind, doing one of my favorite things - bait-and-switch trolling for Pacific sailfish. Hamlin has tagged and released over 10,000 billfish during his long career, and he has probably forgotten more about this style of fishing than most captains will ever know.

Hamlin, photographer Richard Gibson and I stare at the baits from the bridge, and when a sailfish shows up, everyone in the cockpit moves instantly into a well-rehearsed routine; there's no panic or pandemonium here. The fish rises to a hookless teaser riding on the face of the second boat wake, to the left. The mates grab the teaser lines as my wife, Poppy, picks up a 30-pound conventional outfit and pulls a waiting ballyhoo rigged on a circle hook from its pitch-bait tube and drops it over the transom.

The sailfish slashes at the hookless lure, but the mate keeps it in perfect position until Poppy's ballyhoo falls back into position. When she's ready, he yanks the teaser from the spread, and the fish, still fired up and hungry, piles onto the ballyhoo and takes off with its meal. After a brief drop-back, Poppy throws the reel into gear and winds hard, keeping her rod tip low and slowly sweeping the rod to the side when the line comes tight.

Off to our right, the sailfish leaps skyward as it feels the sting of the circle hook and heads off toward the horizon in an incredible series of acrobatic jumps, trying to rid itself of the hook. It won't be able to, however, because the circle hook, as is typical, has found the corner of the fish's jaw perfectly and is well-set. The sailfish subsequently sounds, but after a few minutes of steady pressure, Poppy has the fish at the transom corner, where one mate takes a wrap on the leader while the other mate plants a tag in the tired fish's shoulder. The leader is cut, and the fish is free again as the crew celebrates and marvels once more at the effectiveness of the bait-and-switch.