Swimming with the Fishes

Guatemala's waters teem with sailfish and offer anglers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Sailfish MAIN MH

Sailfish MAIN MH

Mark Hatter

It was late on our last day of fishing, and we sat watching a group of sailfish mill around the spread as the mates deftly teased them toward the back of the boat and into casting range. Four hot sailfish closing fast is sight enough to cause anyone to become giddy and a bit nervous, but other expectations excited us even more. We had to wait until renowned biologist and underwater photographer Bill Boyce was positioned just right before Cam Sigler could make the short 30-foot presentation.

That's when Boyce popped his head out of the water and said, "There's at least eight more down below us." He was in the water with at least a dozen sailfish.

While this was nothing new for Boyce, he was actually trying to shoot them as they attacked our flies. No one had ever successfully done this before, and we had the perfect opportunity to make it happen. To this point, the trip had been spectacular, and all of us had a chance to get into the water and swim with hooked sailfish. But the prospect of Boyce getting those images fueled our anticipation.

A Wild Idea

A few years back I got a wild idea that I wanted to get underwater photos of fish - not just hooked or free-swimming fish, but those in the process of pursuing and eating a fly. It needed to be a species that takes flies in a spectacular manner, and I could think of nothing more exciting than a sailfish. I immediately called Boyce, who, along with Guy Harvey, pioneered the filming of billfish underwater during the past decade. Although he'd never fly-fished for sails before, he was optimistic and willing to give it a try.

Once I decided on the "what," the "where" became obvious. I knew getting the underwater photos was going to be a numbers game - the more shots the better our chances. Many people think of Costa Rica when you talk about sailfish, but for sheer numbers no place compares with Guatemala, where 50- and 60-fish days are commonplace. There's only one major fishing area in Guatemala - the small port town of Iztapa on the Pacific coast. Situated just south of there, Art Marina's legendary Fins 'N Feathers Lodge has a storied history and for many years was the only operation in the area. Its captains and crews are among the most experienced billfishermen in the world on any tackle, and the local waters absolutely teem with sailfish.

Once I arranged the trip, Tim Choate, owner of Fins 'N Feathers, asked if Cam Sigler and his son Cam Jr. could come along. I couldn't have been more pleased and immediately jumped at the chance. Their collective experience with sailfish on fly spans decades, and while I've known the Siglers for years, I had never had a chance to fish with them. Sigler's Blue Water Poppers are regarded worldwide as the premier fly for sails.

One more angler was coming along - Daryl Seaton, owner of the Nature Coast Fly Shop on Crystal River in Florida. He had never fly-fished offshore, but he was as fired up as I was about our trip. Now, five people on one boat might sound crowded, but if things worked out, Boyce would be in the water and someone would always have to watch him. Someone else would take photos from the bridge, leaving two anglers in the cockpit to fish.

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The Best-Laid Plans**

Despite everyone's upbeat nature, I still had reservations. I had gone to Guatemala the year before in hopes of accomplishing this same task and ended up fishing in highly unusual conditions - 8- to 10-foot seas. I took a literal beating to catch fish. I couldn't help but imagine the same scenario, but Choate said the fishing was picking up quickly for early December, which is when the sailfish run starts. It goes through April, and during this time the waters are normally flat-calm.

We were scheduled to fish with Capt. Chris "Kiwi" Van Leeuwen aboard the Coyote II. On our first night at the lodge, we all met up, along with Capt. Brad Philipps, the record-setting captain of the Pelagian, to brainstorm about how to photograph the take underwater. It may not sound difficult, and on bait it's not.

On fly, however, the fish take one or two shots at the collection of feathers and then lose interest, making it impossible to predict where to point the camera. To make matters even more complicated, most bites occur within 10 yards of the transom - often in the midst of white water and prop wash from the coasting boat. This doesn't phase the fish, but it certainly wrecks photo opportunities. Plus, on a bait-and-switch with natural baits, the change-up occurs 25 yards out with the boat still in motion. So as Boyce would go overboard, the bait would be brought literally right over his head.

We decided we would stick to what everyone knew best and take the boat out of gear as soon as the fish came up on the teaser. In theory, this would allow Boyce to get into the water and get situated while the water cleared around him. Meanwhile we would tease the fish in and then bait-and-switch as close to him as possible. The one additional trick was that the flies had to be hookless to ensure Boyce's safety.

I wish I could say our plan worked like a charm on our first day out, but the fish just lost interest in the flies too quickly. While they would readily follow a teaser bait back to the boat, after their initial strike at the flies they maneuvered around them like a bad accident on the freeway. The day was far from a complete loss, however. We raised 67 fish - average for the fleet that day, but nothing in comparison with the Pelagian, which raised 97 fish. Even though we threw hookless flies most of the day, we still caught and released 13 sailfish, including Boyce's and Seaton's first ones on fly. Most fish came up in pairs or groups of three. Even when we saw only one on the surface, Boyce could see more below the boat. He knew from experience that his presence wouldn't frighten the fish. In fact, the sails hung around longer when he was in the water.

Nature of the Beast

Interestingly, in all of Boyce's 30 years of experience underwater, he notes that the most aggressively feeding sailfish are pitch black when they approach the bait, not lit up. Their fins may pulse neon blue, but the bulk of the fish remains black. Boyce says that when they're brightly colored they seem to feed lazily. Normally sailfish put on their "dress uniform" only when they're hooked. According to Boyce and other biologists, the black coloration is likely a method for intimidating prey - a large black shape, made even larger with its sail up, really stands out in the crystal-clear blue waters. Add to that the fact that they are pack hunters that use their sails to ball and herd bait and the fish indeed becomes an intimidating presence.

One big misconception is that sailfish (and marlin) whack their prey with their bills. In reality, their bills are highly sensitive, and they actually use them more like a finger to feel the prey slide toward their mouths because they cannot see directly in front of them. After the prey reaches a certain point, the fish turns its head to engulf it, occasionally missing because it's a blind strike. Swordfish, on the other hand, use their bills as weapons and are far more aggressive. In fact, the only billfish that ever attacked Boyce in the water was a hooked swordfish that pulled against the drag to pursue him.

That evening back at the lodge, we decided on another tactic - dropping Boyce overboard as soon as the fish came up on the teaser and then making a quick turn to bring everything over his head in clear water. The next day, however, the fish again proved too finicky. The water had turned off-color and cloudy as well, making conditions poor for getting underwater photos. We decided to scrap the Jacques Cousteau bit and just fish. The sails were spread out farther on the second day, and bites were coming more sporadically, but we still raised over 40 fish and caught nine, including two doubleheaders. You get jaded quickly when the fish are normally plentiful, and you find yourself antsy when you have to wait more than 10 minutes for a bill to pop up behind the teaser. Our biggest problem was that the fish came to the teaser but had no interest in following it in. All the boats in the fleet were getting the same reaction. The conventional fishermen of course could just drop a hooked bait farther back, but we had to wait for the really hungry sails.

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Going Live**

Once again, we decided to change tactics for our final day: We tried using live baits as teasers, hoping that a kicking "livey" would keep the sailfish excited enough to hit the flies more than once or twice. The problem was that they are rarely used here and can prove hard to find. Plus, keeping them alive would mean testing a homemade baitwell.

The next morning we set up the 35-gallon plastic drum and hoses and headed for the navigational buoys just offshore to try to catch some baitfish. Despite our best efforts, we could pull only a couple of fish out from under the structures. Once we headed offshore, the morning proved quite slow, and finding sailfish was frustrating. The fleet was spread out, with sporadic reports coming in from every direction. We had raised a few fish, and Boyce slipped into the water, but the mates didn't really understand how to use the live baits as teasers close to the boat. After losing a bait and then the interest of the first sail of the morning, I grabbed the teaser rod for the next fish. The struggling live bait worked well - too well in fact, as drawing the fish's attention back to the fly proved difficult. What became evident was that the sail simply recognized the fly as inedible after the first strike.

Regardless, on several occasions everything appeared to come together perfectly from our perspective back on the boat: The sail took the fly off the surface just a few feet from Boyce. Then he would simply surface and say, "Well, I might have gotten it, but you just never know." There were so many variables to shooting the sails near the flies underwater that we wouldn't really know for sure what he got until the film was developed. He could have focused on a totally different fish than we saw or had the wrong camera set up for the particular shot. He used two cameras, one for up close and one for midrange, which meant he had to position himself a certain distance from the fish to have a chance at a good shot. And the ocean becomes very small through the viewfinder of an underwater housing. Still, we were hopeful.

Early in the afternoon we decided to take a break from the underwater shoot and just fish for a while. Over the 2 1/2 days up to this point we probably cast at more than 100 fish, mostly with hookless flies, and I was eager to get everyone on board a couple of fish for the day. Just as Boyce climbed out of his gear, the action really started to heat up. Cam Jr. and I immediately got a doubleheader, and after he caught and released his I worked on mine. Once I had the fish under control near the boat, Boyce got back into the water to take some photos of hooked fish. After a handful of shots, it occurred to me that one of the truly unique prospects about fishing at Fins 'N Feathers is that with the underwater work Harvey and Boyce have done, the crews are all adept at working with swimmers around the boats. Anglers here have an opportunity to get in and swim with their fish. I suggested to the Siglers and Seaton that this could be their chance to do something few people ever get to do - hop into the water with Boyce and swim with the fishes. Cam Jr. and Seaton went overboard in a blink, but Sigler was reluctant. After hearing comments of awe and amazement coming from the two, it didn't take long for Sigler to change his mind. He got in, and Boyce took photos of each of them with the sail. We released the fish in short order and started looking for more - I wanted a shot at swimming with a sailfish, too. Sigler hooked the next fish within a few minutes, and I got into the water and swam straight toward it in wonder. Despite its overall size, a sailfish loses some of its countenance when you pull it over the transom, but in the water, in its realm, it's downright massive. After it made one headshake, I found myself backpedaling for the boat. But both the fish and I calmed down, and I swam back over to look at the gorgeous animal in an intimate way I'd never dreamed of. I could only image how Boyce must feel when they are free-swimming all around him. Sigler said of all the sailfish he has caught in his life, the one he swam with will be the most memorable. That's when I realized how lucky we all were - photos or no. But our day wasn't over yet.

Later that afternoon we noticed a sight common in these waters, but unique nonetheless - tailers. Four sailfish floated on the surface sunning themselves with their sails fully erect and out of the water. We circled them, and they shot off toward our teasers like black darts. Boyce was back in the water just as fast and excitedly told us there were far more fish below us - a dozen 80- to 100-pound fish within 75 feet of our boat! Despite the number, we could entice only one of the fish to eat.

The day ended with everyone except Boyce landing two sails, but it wasn't for a lack of fish. We raised well over 40 that last day and once again caught nine - a total of 31 in three days - and we really fished to catch them only about a third of the time. Swimming with these sailfish and seeing them up close was an experience that I will remember forever; all in all, it's one that will be hard to beat.

Once I was back in the States, I anxiously waited for the call from Boyce about the images. When it finally came, I could hear the disappointment in his voice. "I got some awesome shots, but not the one we wanted." I told him not to worry - it just gives us an excuse to go back and try again.

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