All illustrations by Joe Mahler (_www.markerjockey.com)_
For a long time, I had zero interest in billfishing. But when I found myself in Costa Rica, I figured I’d better see what all the fuss was about. So there I sat, fly rod in hand, waiting for the ultimate game fish to show up. The second the bill of that first fish broke the surface, my anti-billfishing feelings went overboard as fast as my fly. I was captivated by the whole process – the bill frantically slashing at the teaser, the mates moving about the cockpit in a choreographed dance and the fish giving chase after chase – all the while getting closer to casting range. And finally, the shout from the captain: “Cast!” If that scenario doesn’t get your heart rate up, you’d better check yourself for a pulse.
Put in My Place
The fish in the Pacific seem to like the taste of feathers as much as they like the taste of dead ballyhoo. When the opportunity came for me to fish Islamorada, Florida, for Atlantic sailfish, I thought, “Piece of cake – I’ve done this before, and I know the drill.” Oh, how I was mistaken! I quickly realized that the Atlantic variety of sailfish is far more elusive and has a much more discriminating palate than its Pacific brethren.
To learn how to up my odds on Atlantic sails, I sought input from two seasoned pros who reside in very different locations: Sandy Moret, from Islamorada, Florida, and Capt. Anthony Mendillo, out of Isla Mujeres, Mexico. Even though the two seek the same fish, their tactics differ greatly.
Sandy Moret owns Florida Keys Outfitters, in Islamorada, and he’s been pursuing sailfish on fly actively since 2000. Through the years, he has tried several setups to raise fish, but now he typically runs two flat lines rigged with live ballyhoo. He also likes to drag a short daisy chain of live ballyhoo off the transom. Says Moret, “Using live bait, such as ballyhoo, will definitely raise more fish, but if a fish gets too much of a taste of the real thing, it’s next to impossible to get it to eat the fly in a way that could result in a hookup.” That being said, fly-fishing for Atlantic sails is a low-percentage game, so take your pick: Either troll plastics and raise fewer fish that might be more inclined to eat a fly, or use the real thing and raise more fish, which gives you more chances to fool one.
Moret likes it best when a fish comes in hot on one of the single teasers. “It’s important for the mate to pull it out of the fish’s mouth right away, being careful not to let the fish chew on it too much,” says Moret. “At the same time, all the other lines must be cleared by the rest of the crew.” If all goes well, the mates will have the fish teased in just behind the transom, and then several things must happen simultaneously.
The captain yells for a cast and drops the boat out of gear (the boat must be in neutral per IGFA fly-fishing rules; otherwise it’s considered trolling a fly), and at the same instant, the mate pulls the teaser out of the water. Ideally, the angler’s fly drops at the teaser’s exit point. “The idea is to have the fly slightly behind the fish so, when it turns around, it will bite the fly going away, which gives the angler the best chance at a solid hookup,” says Moret.
In the early days, Moret used large fly patterns, and he found that the fish would bat them around but rarely engulf them. He began using smaller flies, in the 7- to 8-inch range, with hooks down to 2/0. The smaller sizes didn’t seem to affect the number of bites he was getting, and they also worked well with his “finesse” style of setting the hook. “When the fish bites going away, I essentially let the fish do all the work,” he says. “All I’m trying to do is keep tight. If it stops, I might give it a few rod whacks. For the first few runs of the fish, there really isn’t much you can do. So I let it do its thing, and in the initial phases of the fight, all I’m trying to do is keep a belly out of the line.”
Capt. Anthony Mendillo
If you were to travel southwest far enough from Islamorada, you would eventually reach another hot spot for Atlantic sailfish on fly. Isla Mujeres, Mexico, is located approximately eight miles northeast of Cancún, and Capt. Anthony Mendillo has been prospecting these waters for the past 13 years. Isla is a prime spot to target sails on fly because the fish are plentiful, and plentiful fish means more shots for anglers. Mendillo says that on normal days, anglers can expect to make casts to seven fish, and it’s not uncommon at all to have shots at as many as 10.
On the Troll
Before Mendillo begins his troll, he always sets the distance of the fly line for his client. For this type of fishing, bait-and-switch trolling with rigged dead baits, you need only so much fly line, and anything more is just going to be a hindrance.
Mendillo is known particularly for racking up large numbers of fly-caught sailfish. His big secret is pretty surprising – he uses a dredge rigged with dead mullet or ballyhoo. “Because we use a dredge, we do end up losing a lot of fish, but by using the dredge, I’m raising a lot more fish and providing my clients with more opportunities,” he says. “That’s what you’ve got to have, especially if you want to rack up release numbers.”
In the Spread
Ideally, Mendillo raises fish on the flat line, which normally has a ballyhoo. Unlike Moret’s crew, his will try to keep the fish there as long as possible, to get the fish really hot and give time to clear the dredge. The mate lets the fish mouth the bait a little bit, and when everything is cleared, the tease is on. Once the fish is in range, Mendillo will yell for a cast. “When I yell out, that is the point when I want the angler to make his cast,” Mendillo says. “I can’t stress it enough to my mates that when I yell out, I want the teaser to be erased completely. If the teaser does not completely exit the water at this point, you’re not going to get the fish off it.”
Like Moret, Mendillo prefers the fly to be behind the fish, to get a going-away bite. However, it’s not a perfect world all the time. “If the fly lands beside the fish, you can still get a good bite, but it’s harder to get a hookup,” he says. “When we catch those fish, that’s what I call ‘stealing fish,’ and you’ve got to steal the occasional fish to post the big numbers.” When a fish bites from side to side, Mendillo’s method is pretty simple: “Strike with the line and the rod, and always strike in the opposite direction of the bill.” To give the fish a better chance of seeing the fly, Mendillo prefers using patterns a little larger than Moret’s favorites. Larger flies are often more appealing to marlin, which are very likely to come up on the same spread as sailfish in Isla Mujeres. He customizes the hooks on his flies by filing down the sides in order to make them more like needles. When a fish bites from the side and the angler strikes as instructed, it doesn’t take much pressure to penetrate the fish’s mouth, especially with Mendillo’s custom hook setup.
There’s something about trolling in open water – while it can be boring, knowing that any second something truly exciting could occur always puts your mind at ease. When it does happen, there are only two words to describe the few seconds that follow: absolute pandemonium. The great thing about fly-fishing for Atlantic sailfish is that, when things come together, the action literally happens right in front of you. Again, fooling these fish on fly is definitely a low-percentage game, and that’s what makes it a true test for anglers. When you get a shot, you’ve got to make it count.
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