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October 26, 2001

Sailfish School!

Guatemalas top-notch billfishing provides an intensive hands-on education

The skipper's shout directed our attention to the left teaser just as a sailfish flashed electric blue and thrashed the lure. "This one's yours," I said to fellow angler Louis Alicea, who stepped toward the transom to pick up a 20-pound outfit and drop back a bait.

Grabbing the ballyhoo in a frothy rush, the sail turned and accelerated, but Alicea's impatient fingers flipped the reel into gear too soon. This error in timing yanked the bait from the fish's mouth before the hook could take hold. Wise to our game, the sail flipped us the fin and streaked away.

As I tried to think of some encouraging words to make Alicea feel better after bungling what should have been an easy hookup on an eager fish, he turned and raised his hands in a smiling shrug - then broke into a belly laugh. "Guess I'm out of practice," he said. "Oh well, we'll get the next one."

Alicea's nonchalant reaction and buoyant optimism were well founded; the surrounding waters resembled a thick sailfish soup. "That's the beauty of fishing here in Guatemala," he said. "If you miss a fish, you know another will come along - and soon." Manager of Artmarina's Fins 'n Feathers Inn since 1997, Alicea knows how productive the waters off Iztapa can be.

Savvy crews and consistently high numbers of sailfish combine to make any visit to Fins 'n Feathers Inn a perfect opportunity for novice or veteran anglers alike to hone billfishing skills. Rather than waiting long hours or even days between raised fish, anglers often enjoy dozens of shots per day, affording the luxury of learning from one's mistakes and immediately putting newly acquired knowledge or techniques into practice over and over again. My two days aboard the Classic in October of last year, under the tutelage of Capt. Erik Lorentzen and mates Marvin Gonzalez and Francisco Chicas, turned out to be an intensive course in bait-and-switch sailfish tactics.

Lorentzen spoke with me beforehand in order to determine exactly what type of fishing I'd like to do (dead-bait or fly) and, more importantly, to evaluate my skills and experience as a billfisherman. I elected to use dead bait our first day; confessing that I'd caught more billfish on film than on hooks meant I'd get the "freshman" treatment with detailed explanations of the entire process.

School's In Session
Meticulous preparation provides a solid framework on which to build a successful outing. A quick look around the Classic shows the 31-foot Bertram ready to rumble: Four 20-pound outfits, a 50-pound stand-up stick and a cooler full of circle-hook-rigged ballyhoo wait in the cockpit, backed up by spare baits and tackle stowed below.

Upon reaching the fishing grounds, Lorentzen lowers the outriggers and sets out two teasers from the bridge. "Mold Craft Wide Range lures make excellent teasers because they raise fish and don't create too much water resistance. We can pull 'em away from hot fish in a hurry if we have to," says our skipper. Using floss to secure an egg sinker on the line ahead of the teaser (a trick picked up from fellow Artmarina skipper Bud Gramer) guarantees straight tracking and reduces hopscotching in rough conditions so sails can more easily follow the lure.

Arranged with uncluttered simplicity, the cockpit holds a pitch-bait rod in each corner of the transom and a rigger rod on each side. Lorentzen's preferred sailfish tackle includes custom rods by Dru and Shimano TLD-25s loaded with 20-pound Trilene Solar Green monofilament and 80- or 100-pound clear mono wind-on leaders. (He also keeps Daiwa BG-90s and matching spinning rods onboard for anglers uncomfortable with conventional gear.) No lines litter the deck: Homemade pitch-bait tubes fit in hawse holes beside the corner rod holders; using wind-on leaders eliminates loose mono trailing from the rod tip.

Rather than risk a baptism by fire with a red-hot sailfish swimming up our wake, Lorentzen steps me through a practice run of the drop-back procedure before we begin trolling. "Get a good feel for this so you can do it without taking your eyes off the fish," he says, handing me a rod. "When we raise a sail, put the reel in free spool and stop the bait about 2 feet ahead of the teaser. With your thumb on the spool, hold the rod tip out to the side, pointing up at a 45-degree angle - kind of like a port-arms position. That way I can see exactly what's happening from the bridge."

Sails usually follow as the captain pulls the teaser in, switching over to eat the ballyhoo once they see it. "But sometimes fish lose a bait in the prop wash," says Lorentzen. "If a sail seems confused, I'll ask you to put your rod tip in the water. That helps the ballyhoo swim a little deeper, where sailfish can find it more easily."

On the Take
The critical moment occurs when a fish takes the bait since mistakes at this juncture result in booted opportunities. Lorentzen asks his anglers to remain calm and observe a sail's behavior on the strike. "Aggressive fish usually grab the bait and turn away quickly to swim off. Feed them line for four or five seconds before setting up. Lukewarm sails require a longer drop-back, maybe up to 10 seconds, because they may not swallow a bait immediately."

Like every other boat in the Artmarina fleet, Magic uses circle hooks in all dead baits. Anglers accustomed to driving hooks home with forceful jabs must forget old habits and learn a new technique: Point the rod at the sail as it peels off line in free-spool then, after the appropriate drop-back, slide the reel's lever to the strike position. "Keep the rod tip pointed directly at the fish and crank that handle until line starts going out against the drag," says Lorentzen. "If you miss the sail, chances are that he hasn't been stung by the circle hook. Reel in quickly to bring the ballyhoo back up into view and try to bait the fish again."

Gonzalez and Chicas agreed to bait and fight the first six sails of the day in order to let me get photos of the fishing action. I figured I wouldn't pick up a rod until after lunch. Wrong! By 8:30 we'd performed CPR (catch-photograph-release) on a half-dozen sails. The next one, coming up behind the left teaser minutes later, had my name on it.

I passed the practical exam by presenting the bait correctly, hooking my first Pacific sail and fighting it to boatside for a careful release. But immediately afterward, I had to ask my professor, "How do you keep from scorching your thumb when the sail's streaking off with the bait before you lock up?" Fearing a backlash, I'd kept light pressure on the TLD 25's spool and smoked off my thumbprint in the process.

"As soon as the fish takes the bait, lift your thumb off the spool while lowering the rod tip," answered Lorentzen. I followed his advice on the next sail and found that by smoothly lowering and pointing the rod tip at the fish as it begins its run, line flows freely off the spool without snarling.

Fish Fight
Once an angler hooks a fish, Lorentzen can adjust his boat-handling style to suit individual needs and preferences. "Usually I don't back down aggressively on the first few sails because fresh anglers like to fight fish without much help from the boat," he says. "But after the tenth fish of the day, they're crying for me to back down faster because their arms get tired."

When a stubborn sail goes deep and refuses to budge, Lorentzen asks his angler to put the reel in free-spool for several seconds to relieve pressure on the fish. "That often gets it heading toward the surface," he says. This method works exceptionally well with circle hooks, which rarely come unbuttoned from a fish's jaw - even on a slack line.

Another trick employed by crews in the Artmarina fleet comes into play near the end of the fight as a sail approaches the transom. The mate uses a small gaff with twine wrapped around the hook to bring the sailfish under control. When placed over the bill, the twine holds the rough surface. Unable to shake loose, the fish is brought carefully to boatside for unhooking. Particularly unruly fish receive no such hands-on attention; to avoid possible injury to fish or crew, the mate simply takes a wrap of the light leader and breaks the fish off.
Part of Classic's ready-for-anything cockpit setup includes a Penn International 50 with a mackerel rigged on a No. 12 Eagle Claw circle hook, patiently waiting in the fighting chair's rod holder. The call to duty came when our skipper suddenly bellowed, "Blue marlin, right teaser!" Gonzalez dropped the large pitch bait back near the teaser. The blue monster, out on the loose a week prior to Halloween, was tricked by the treat and sucked down the mackerel while swimming over to investigate the other teaser. Setting the reel to strike position, Gonzalez pushed the rod into my hands. I pushed back, saying something about taking fotograf"as, but the mate would hear nothing of the sort. This pop quiz took me by surprise; I had enrolled in sailfish school and now found myself face-to-face with a marlin. Chicas strapped a belt around my waist and the rod butt found its way into the gimbal just as the 400-pounder erupted from the calm cobalt waters.

Bertha Blue's penchant for fighting near the surface allowed me to score a release in about 20 minutes. She offered further cooperation by performing for my camera while Gonzalez held the leader. When the mono finally parted, angler, captain and crew celebrated the first blue marlin release of the 1999/2000 season for Fins 'n Feathers. We kept fishing until 4 o'clock that afternoon, by which time we'd fought and freed 22 sails on conventional gear.

Try a Fly
My second day of class included a tutorial in how to catch billfish on fly. Once again, to avoid rookie mistakes under fire from incoming sailfish, Lorentzen stepped me through the drill before we began trolling.

Classic calls sailfish within casting range with a spread of one bridge teaser - the port rigger remains locked up and out of harm's way for right-handed casters - and two others deployed on conventional rods. When a fish focuses on a specific teaser, the crew quickly removes the other two from the water.

As the mate brings the teaser in to draw the fish closer, the angler picks up the 12-weight fly rod and feeds out a pre-measured length of line (about 20 feet) to create enough drag for the backcast. When the captain shouts, "Neutral!" the angler knows a cast can be made in compliance with IGFA rules. At the same time, the mate yanks the teaser completely out of the water, leaving a hungry, fiery-eyed sailfish looking for something to trounce. Lorentzen teaches his anglers to make two-handed casts. "Don't hold the line," he says. "Keep both hands on the rod during the cast. That gives you power to lift the line off the water and lay it back out there on the forward cast."

I had always thought the fly had to land near the point where the fish last saw the teaser. Not so, says Lorentzen: "Try to place the fly in the strip of clear water within the wake, to the side and slightly behind the fish. Trust me, the sail will find the fly, and chances of a hookup improve when the fish strikes as it's moving away from the boat."

The adrenaline rush of seeing and feeling a sailfish grab a fly within spitting distance of the transom has caused many an angler to snap the tippet by yanking sharply on the line to set the hook. "You have to pull on the line once or twice to pop the fly and get the fish's attention," says Lorentzen. "But when a fish takes, let go of the line and set the hook by sweeping the rod in the opposite direction. For example, if the sail strikes while moving to the right, pull the rod to the left while keeping it parallel to the water. The reel's drag provides enough pressure to drive home hooks without the risk of breaking off fish. When the fish begins to run and you're sure it's hooked, you can raise the rod to a vertical position."

Following this expert advice helped me hook and release the first billfish to which I ever cast a fly, a typical Guatemalan sailfish of about 85 pounds. Lorentzen also catered to my whims by rigging a Cam Sigler Big Game tube fly with tandem circle hooks. Though he'd never heard of billfish taken on circle-hook flies, Lorentzen agreed to give it a try. "Working here lets me experiment with things I'd never try anywhere else because we see so many fish per day," he explained. The next sail we raised took the fly and hooked itself, proving that the efficacy of circle hooks goes beyond dead-bait applications.

Zen philosophy states that when a student is ready, he finds a teacher. When you're ready to learn about sailfishing - from bare-bones basics to advanced strategies for old salts - you'll find many capable teachers at Fins 'n Feathers in Guatemala.