Every winter, hordes of sailfish congregate off the Pacific coast of Central America. Southern Mexico gets a fair number of fish, Costa Rica sees days when 25 to 50 fish are common, and Panama can have 50-fish days. And then there’s Guatemala. In the peak months of December, January and February, 50-fish days here are considered slow.
The numbers of sailfish that gather in these waters stagger the imagination and are unmatched anywhere in the world. Given the fact that only a small number of boats fish the area out of one port, you quickly realize that the density of the sailfish population is best estimated by numbers with lots of zeros.
Fishing aboard the Intensity out of Fins ‘n Feathers in Ixtapa, Capt. Brad Philipps released a whopping 2,759 sailfish in 189 days of fishing in the 2004 season – 291 on fly in only 48 days. With an average of 12 fish per day, Fins ‘n Feathers estimates that their four-boat fleet released more than 7,000 sails for the year.
That’s why I decided that FFSW had to go to Guatemala to try to do something no one else had ever done: film sailfish attacking flies underwater. I knew that to stand a chance we needed to have a huge number of shots under peak filming conditions with top-notch crews who understood fly-fishing. We lucked out by having world-renowned underwater photographer Bill Boyce and Cam Sigler Jr. and Sr. – whose sailfish poppers have become a universal standard – join me, Darryl Seaton and Capt. Chris “Kiwi” Van Leuwen aboard the Coyote II.
Our first day on the water couldn’t have been more idyllic – flat, calm seas with tons of fish. We were having a slow day by fleet standards, raising only 64 sails. Capt. Philipps on the Intensity raised more than 90 and released more than 60 on baits. We got shots at almost half the fish we raised and released 12. After three days of fishing we released 21 fish, but we cast to well over 150; not bad numbers considering that we spent most of each day throwing flies with no hooks in them. Everyone thought we were crazy, and maybe we were – it turned out to be one of the most difficult things any of us had ever done.
Although Boyce has been in the water with hundreds of billfish of all sizes, he had never tried taking photos of them chasing flies. Our strategy was more of an evolving process than a set concept. As a safety consideration, we couldn’t throw a fly with hooks in it while Boyce was in the water, and he couldn’t jump in until the boat was almost at a dead stop. While sailfish eagerly chase baits for some distance, keeping one hot on a fly for more than a few seconds proved nearly impossible. Once we bait-and-switched the fish to the fly, we had one or two chances before the fish got wise. Amazingly, the fish were completely unafraid of Boyce. In fact, it seemed that his presence actually kept them around longer – but once the fish hit the fly, the proverbial jig was up. From our perspective on the surface, the entire scene was pulse-pounding. We often had multiple fish behind the boat, including several quads, and Boyce pointed out that there were always more down deep. One time when we could only see four from the surface, we actually had as many as 12 fish around the boat by Boyce’s count.
One of the unique opportunities that Fins ‘n Feathers offers its anglers is the option to jump in the water and swim with your fish. All of us decided this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity not to be missed. As impressive as a sailfish looks alongside the boat, it pales in comparison to its countenance underwater. In its own realm, that skinny 10-foot-long fish becomes intimidating, even if you know its first instinct is to swim away. The only word to describe the experience is spectacular. It brought a whole new level of appreciation to all of us, regardless of skill level. While I’ve been fortunate enough to catch many sailfish in my life, none will be as memorable as the one I swam with in Guatemala.