The thrum of the engines fell to a murmur as we settled into trolling speed and the mates set the lures. We shifted around the cockpit, prepared for the waiting inherent to billfishing. Today it was not to be. We scarcely got comfortable before the first reel went off.
Bedlam ensued. Mates cleared lines, and anglers jockeyed for position and a spot in the chair as a black marlin in the 300-pound class greyhounded toward the horizon.
Forty minutes and three anglers later, we had the fish at the transom. Once he’d unhooked it, the mate carefully revived the exhausted fish, giving it a chance to return to full vigor before releasing his hold on the bill in the prop wash as we watched it glide toward the depths. It was a great start to the morning, and before it was over, it would bring a second black marlin and a Pacific sail boatside before the bite cooled in the early afternoon.
We were fishing about 40 miles offshore in the Pacific on the northern Nicaraguan coast. The gentle slope of the bottom drops off sharply into an encroaching canyon here, and that’s where we had put out the lures and found fish.
Unlike most billfish destinations, we had an entire patch of ocean to ourselves that day: both a blessing and a handicap. To the upside, any fish in the area were ours and ours alone, since we had no competition. On the other hand, we had a vast area in which to locate them and were totally without the shared information that often makes offshore fishing so much more productive. Captains are accustomed to fishing without company here. The sole exception is in August, when the Marina Puesta del Sol, which was hosting us, also hosts the Flor de Caña Tournament.
The waters we were fishing have scarcely been explored by peripatetic anglers. Though the fishing in Costa Rica, to the south, and Guatemala, two countries to the north, is thoroughly fished, this stretch of the Central American coast has gone largely unexploited, which is precisely why Roberto Membreño, owner of Marina Puesta del Sol, embarked on his resort-development project a decade ago.
The resort sits on 600 acres of reforested farmlands, along a protected deepwater estuary that’s just minutes by boat from the open Pacific. It’s ideally situated for reaching the offshore billfish grounds and accessible by any size fishing boat in almost all conditions, yet tucked away behind a protective point that keeps the waves and wind at bay.
The bottom heading offshore descends gradually for the first 30 miles or so first, interrupted by fingers of deep water that encroach on the continental slope from the major drop-off into the depths, which lies some 50 miles offshore.
Few anglers have explored these offshore grounds, but one of them is Joe Crawford, who captains Rum Runner, owned by Don Carlos Pellas, proprietor of Flor de Caña Rum and primary sponsor of the annual Flor de Caña tournament held in August every year.
Rum Runner’s home port is Quepos, in nearby Costa Rica, but between fishing the tournament and transiting the waters between Costa Rica and Mexico as part of his regular circuit of the best Pacific fishing, Crawford has spent considerable time in Nicaraguan waters, and has been exploring and fishing it regularly since 2005.
“We fished there first in June and saw excellent fishing,” says Crawford. “There was so much life in the ocean that is was hard to describe.”
The next season, Crawford fished the area from August through September. “We averaged 17 bites a day — pretty much all sailfish — and the next year, during August, the sailfish bite was strong across the board for all the boats in the tournament as well.”
This past season, he says the fish were on the northwest-facing edge of the drop-offs, and there were a lot more marlin than in previous years. “This year, we were four-for-seven on marlin in three days — a mix of blacks and blues.”
Tournament records for the past couple of years indicate that the record number of marlin released is 10 for some 25 boats over three days of tournament fishing, with the fish evenly split between blacks and blues. In 2012, a 400-pounder won the tournament, but in past years, boats have tallied marlin from 550 to just under 800 pounds. Overall, the total billfish count during the tournament every year runs between 200 and 300 fish.