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October 26, 2001

Marlin Magnifico

Marlin Magnifico

Even though he weighed 130 pounds and stood 5 feet tall, mate Roberto Angel was dead serious about gaffing the 400-pound black marlin that had finally been fought to the boat. I stood ready with my camera, fully expecting to photograph a jockey-size Mexican being catapulted into the Pacific.
Fortunately, the tiny gaff in his hand was more suitable for something on the scale of a chihuahua. He took a swipe at the big fish and missed, which hardly surprised me. Actually, seeing the majestic animal uninjured was a relief.
Before Roberto could get another chance, my partner grabbed the leader and gave it a good yank. The hook pulled and the marlin - half the size of the boat - glided away into the blue-water abyss.
We went on to rack up another marlin release plus battled so many sailfish that we finally called it quits by midday. And this wasn't some sort of quirky day - it's typical of the big-game candyland in the deep waters off Bahias de Huatulco, Mexico. Called simply Huatulco (pronounced Wah-tool-co), the area is 20 miles long and includes nine bays. I've fished Huatulco three times this year and returned from each trip happily exhausted from bouts with sailfish, black marlin, yellowfin tuna and dorado.
Billfish Bash
I'm not the only one who's discovered Huatulco. A number of other anglers have experienced the nonstop action but have kept mum about it. "I hooked up with more sails in one day than I dreamed possible," says Ron Sigler of Orange, Texas, who fished here last spring. "During a three-day trip we had sails in the baits every time we left port. What was amazing was the size of the sails - all but one weighed in the 130-pound class - and we released blue and black marlin. We never knew what was going to plow into the baits."
Ron Peterson owns the only modern charter-boat operation in Huatulco. An eye for adventure lured Peterson into leaving his successful Ohio construction and real estate businesses five years ago for southern Mexico. He cashed out and went to Florida to rig the Odyssey, a 27-foot, diesel-powered Ocean Master. He then towed it 5,000 miles to Huatulco, which itself was an adventurous nightmare of flat tires, burned bearings and wrong turns - but, Peterson now insists, it's all proving well worth the dues he paid.
Peterson is certain that the area is about to experience a tourism boom due to the spectacular fishing opportunities. "On some days you can raise 20 to 30 sails and an occasional marlin, especially from April through August, and all within 2 or 3 miles from shore," he says. "The sails tend to run unusually large, with fish averaging well over 120 pounds."
On April 7, 1996, Peterson caught an estimated 750-pound black marlin on a Soft Head lure while trolling 15 miles offshore. "We have a marlin fishery that's basically untapped," he says. "When I first came down here several years ago I found out in a hurry that the billfishing was great. Problem was, there were no decent boats to fish from. I went out in the local pangas (20-foot Mexican commercial fishing boats) for $33 an hour. Even so, the more I fished, the more I liked what I saw, so I set up my own sport-fishing operation."
This past April, Steven George of Orlando, Florida, was aboard the Odyssey for a wild two-and-a-half days in which 13 marlin were on the line and in the air - 12 blacks to 300 pounds and an estimated 500-pound blue. Curtis Thorpe of Texas, who made the trip to Huatulco twice this spring and came away with outstanding catches of sails, marlin and big dorado, even hooked up a sailfish on the edge of the bay while returning to port as he tried to catch bonito for bait.

Far From the Madding Crowd
Huatulco is a small fishing village you won't find on most maps. On the Pacific coast of southern Mexico, it's about 250 miles northwest of Guatemala and about the same distance southeast of Acapulco. Several airlines service Huatulco through Mexico City, with one-hour connecting flights.
Nestled in the shadow of the Sierra Madre mountains, Huatulco is refreshing and quiet. The air here is clean and salty, with cool, crisp mornings and mild afternoons in the fall and spring. You'll find the locals very friendly - they even seem thrilled to host tourists.
While the Odyssey has well-maintained, modern gear, a number of other local boats and panga operators available for charter vary greatly in quality, with some downright dilapidated. The last time I fished Huatulco, the Odyssey was booked so my party rented two pangas and had the crews put makeshift outriggers on them. We still ended up catching and releasing about 25 sailfish, a black marlin and several bull dorado in the 40- to 60-pound class.
The Odyssey carries two-speed Penn International 16s, 30s and 50s for stand-up marlin and tuna scrapping, plus Shimano TLD 25s and Penn 15- to 20-pound spinners for sailfish, dorado and smaller fare. If you're booked on other local boats, bring your own equipment, including everything you need for rigging (no tackle shops in town).

First-Timers and Fly
Fishers Score
Lowell Rogers of Nederland, Texas, latched onto a black marlin that the panga crew estimated to be 400 pounds and the largest they'd seen in weeks. The marlin must have jumped 20 times and almost stripped his TLD 25 a time or two when it sounded. At one point well into the battle, the great fish leaped 15 feet from the boat and momentarily towered over our heads. It was one of the best stand-up fights I've ever witnessed, yet Lowell had never before battled a billfish.
A number of other anglers have caught their first marlin off Huatulco. Thanks to the frequent shots most people get at them here - and the light pressure - these fish are almost "innocent." Furthermore, the marlin off Huatulco aren't the least bit finicky and always seem willing to strike.
In fact, in 22 years of fishing around the world, this is without a doubt the most marlin-friendly area I've seen. Same goes for sailfish, whose massive numbers offer just about a guaranteed hookup every trip.
Several proven marlin and sailfish hot spots are within short runs out of Huatulco. The most popular is 2 miles west of Cacaluta Island, where canyons in the 5,000-foot range peak in some areas to within 800 feet of the surface. Marlin also are found around several seamounts 15 to 20 miles offshore in the Middle America Trench.
A good close-in location is Tangolunda Bay, which is just offshore of the Sheraton Hotel. The banks of this bay have a pronounced drop-off that draws tidal rips close to the mainland.
Just southeast of Huatulco in the direction of Guatemala, Rio Copalita and Bahia de Conejos form the confluence of a river and a bay which attracts large black and blue marlin, according to Peterson. Well-defined tide lines and color changes can be found each day, which seem to draw schools of bonito, tuna and dorado, with marlin nipping at their fins.
Water temperatures off Cacaluta Island, Rio Copalita and Bahia de Conejos can vary by as much as 10 degrees from day to day. Marlin fishing is best when the water stays around 76 degrees, while warmer temperatures in the mid- to upper 80s are better for sailfish.
All this billfish action makes for some splendid offshore fly-fishing opportunities as well. Last spring, Peterson had a client hell-bent on pursuing marlin on fly. On one day, the fellow battled seven marlin, both blacks and blues. He had one black on for 40 minutes before the hook pulled.
"It's very possible to target marlin here on fly and at least get some hookups, if not releases," says Peterson, who also has all the necessary fly tackle needed. "However, most fly fishers end up battling sailfish. One or two sails a day on fly gear will wear you out, especially if you're a beginner, so if you insist on tangling with a marlin, it's wise to keep them in your cross-hairs rather than switching to sailfishing."
Teasing billfish to the transom so a fly can be presented usually demands more skill than the hookup. "Basically, just about any fly that hits the water is pretty much guaranteed to be taken," says Peterson. "A lot can go wrong after a billfish takes a fly, but I've had guys out here with very limited fly-fishing experience and watched them land sails."

Short-Range Trolling
Conventional tactics are simple yet effective: Troll ballyhoo in waters 800 to 5,000 feet in depth, 1 to 20 miles off the Huatulco jetties. Key on rips, color changes, floating debris and water temperature changes. Frigates and other feathered friends sometimes swarm by the thousands over miles of skipjack tuna, and in smaller groups often point the way to dolphin and billfish.
A typical fishing day aboard the Odyssey extends from dawn until 11 a.m., and then you come in for lunch and siesta-not inconvenient when fishing close to shore and a welcome respite from the Mexican sun. Back out at 4 p.m. to fish until dark, then head back to the hotel for a shower and dinner. Not a bad routine! Or, you can choose to stay out all day.
Although rigged ballyhoo take most billfish, some of the largest smack trolling lures. I've done well with lures such as the 5 1/2-inch, black-and-orange Mold Craft Hooker Soft Heads, 6 1/2-inch dorado-colored Iland Sea Stars, and 10-inch, pink-and-white C & H Stubbys.
Peterson likes 5- to 6-inch Soft Heads with rigged ballyhoo because they make a more compact smoke trail, but he says, "There are days when nothing but naked ballyhoo will work. That's when I'll pull two freshly caught ballyhoo on the outriggers and flat lines. I vary the trolling speed, but I've found that it's best to slowly wobble the 'hoos in the prop wash."
It's a special thrill to see a billfish at the surface while trolling, and watch it chase down a bait and get hooked up. About 90 percent of the sails and marlin you see at the surface can be caught by adjusting your course and dragging the baits in their vicinity. Last March, Bill Panto, who's caught billfish all over the world, sight-cast lures to sails at the surface here. "We'd be cruising along, see a fin sticking up, and just about every time we would catch that fish," says Panto.
I've had great success catching yellowfin tuna and dorados on big-lipped diving Rapala lures and trolled 1-ounce Spoondog spoons with pink-and-white or blue-and-white tails. The best bet is to troll around weed lines and floating debris.
If you enjoy ultimate big-game action while traveling to picturesque areas not yet overgrown or complicated, Huatulco won't disappoint. But don't wait too long - visit while the town is still unspoiled, tourists are still a novelty, lobster dinners are still just a few pesos, and the billfish are muy sympatico.

Robert Sloan is a free-lance writer and newspaper outdoors editor from Beaumont, Texas. He's fished extensively for billfish around the world for over 20 years, with particular emphasis along the Pacific Coast of Mexico.