Ballyhoo and Circle Hooks
Thanks in large part to the pioneering efforts of legendary skipper Ron Hamlin, Guatemala sailfishing is long since synonymous with circle hooks. Clearly skippers like Hamlin, Sheeder and others want to minimize release mortality, particularly with anglers bringing such great numbers of sails boat-side. Casa Vieja crews use Eagle Claw EL 2007 light-wire hooks, which, Sheeder says, mates simply leave in the fish after snipping the 80- to 130-pound wind-on leader at the hook, knowing these hooks corrode out quickly. (If not kept sealed in plastic bags, Sheeder says, even the salt air is enough to corrode the metal on them.)
Although ultralight enthusiasts will find few better places to practice that version of extreme fishing on sailfish, the norm is 20-pound line - light enough to be sporting but still sufficient to get a sail, even a large one, boat-side without an extended and potentially debilitating fight.
Sheeder puts out a spread of five or six lines, consisting of two armed baits (long on the riggers) and three or four teasers, including two flat lines from each corner, with an 8- or 9-inch Mold Craft Softhead or Ilander in front of a rigged ballyhoo. That combination - a skirted ballyhoo - has become the golden standard here, Sheeder says, noting that he's spent enough time slow-trolling live baits to know that these sails simply prefer the lure and ballyhoo.
He estimates that 60 percent of sails skip the armed baits to follow in teasers; mates have pitch baits (ballyhoo) ready to throw. Sheeder prefers pitching baits (or, of course, flies). Besides the thrill of watching fish eat next to the boat, it's easier on the fish, offering an excellent hookup rate with minimal damage to the fish.
For blues, the pitch-bait offering is similar but with larger skirted lures and baits - typically a sierra mackerel or small bonito about two inches behind the circle hook. (Bridling marlin baits with the circle hook in front versus on top of the bait's head has minimized problems with hooks turning around on the strike and ending up in the bait instead of in the marlin's jaws.)
The Pacific off Guatemala tends to be a pretty peaceful sea. I've been blown out a day or two but have mostly enjoyed flat seas. Plenty of billfishermen would hear that with some dismay: nothing worse than a calm ocean when you're trying to stir up action. But not here. As a rule, flat seas mean rock 'n' roll in a figurative, not literal, sense, with billfish snapping eagerly.
Not, mind you, that billfish snap eagerly every day all day. As noted, few places I know of escape that "no guarantees" maxim, and Guatemala definitely has its slow days too. But when it comes to sailfish - and at times blue marlin as well - Guatemala is still king of good year-round action, and smart money in particular will be on Iztapa starting about the time most folks are scurrying to get in those last shopping days before Christmas.
Planning a Trip
You'll find a wealth of information to help you plan a trip to Guatemala on the websites of several resorts/charters that operate in Iztapa. You can fly nonstop or direct to Guatemala City with American, Continental, Delta, Spirit, U.S. Airways and others. We booked with Casa Vieja Lodge (www.casaviejalodge.com; 866-846-9121 or 786-243-1552); its seasoned staff and skippers make a visit pretty straightforward, from greeting you at the airport on arrival to dropping you off. Most packages run four nights with three days of fishing but can be any length. Bring your own tackle if you wish (or must), but these boats have excellent gear. Of course, you will want to bring camera/video equipment, sunscreen, mosquito repellent and rain gear (mostly needed from July through November). Also, take cash if you want to avoid using your credit card, and you may since doing so will mean avoiding an additional 12 percent country tax, plus another 5 percent service charge from hotels and restaurants. And, no, don't drink the water. One slip could send you home in mucho discomfort. (That advice also includes not drinking hot coffee outside of the resort. I did - and paid a high price four days later.)