Video and Photos: Guatemala Billfish in the Off Season

This top Pacific sailfish destination boasts multiple marlin hookups and dorado; the country also announced new steps toward leading the world in sailfish research and conservation.

(Please click through all the images above to read the whole story about this adventure.)

Among Central American destinations, Guatemala is unusual with its preponderance of Pacific sailfish. But locals want anglers to know that blue marlin and dorado can be thick as thieves in the sailfish "off season." Off season is, of course, relative. But in a country that can flaunt dozens of Pacific sail releases in any given day, a single-digit or low double-digit release trip seems paltry.

I traveled to the Guatemalan coast in late September. The true sailfish season starts in November and runs through June. During our visit, the rough seas kept us moving on both our fishing days, but we enjoyed plenty of action on trolled ballyhoo. We raised half a dozen blue marlin and caught/released two (including one for me). We also saw about the same number of Pacific sailfish and released five. In between billfish, schoolie dolphin/dorado kept us busy and provided some fresh fish tacos on board.

The photo gallery above tells the complete story of the adventure, which included the announcement by Guatemalan goverment officials of a new National Commission for the Protection of Sailfish. Besides two busy days on the water, our group of four journalists, toured Guatemala City and Antigua, a stunning colonial town nestled among volcanoes. Below, you'll see a short video of the action we experienced on the water.

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All About the Sail?
While anglers know that Pacific Guatemalan waters hold loads of sailfish, particularly during the peak season from November through June, many don't realize this region hosts good numbers of blue marlin and plenty of mahi/dorado during the rainy-season (summer and early fall). Guatemala's hydrogeological features and weather patterns make it unique to the Pacific Central American region. It features one 40-mile wide canyon offshore, but no predominant current. Its primary bait fish is ballyhoo. (Check out the video of fishing action!) Photo courtesy Casa Vieja Lodge.Casa Vieja Lodge
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Flying In
Guatemala, which sits just south of Mexico, is a quick flight away from many American hubs. When I went, in late September, I spent just 2 hours and 42 minutes transiting from Miami to Guatemala City. Descending toward the airport, I could see the varied terrain and lakes surrounding this central-region city.Chris Woodward
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Guatemala History
Even in the bustling downtown streets of Guatemala City, the country's history is on display. Guatemala encompasses the heart of the ancient Mayan civilization, with ruins throughout its Peten region and living cultural experiences in the highlands.Chris Woodward
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Guatemala Sailfish Commission
During my trip, I and several other journalists sat with Guatemalan officials at lunch to discuss the country's new Comision Nacional Para La Proteccion Del Pez Vela — or National Commission for the Protection of Sailfish. The country outlawed the commercial take of sailfish in 2002, but it still deals with an illegal fishery and wants to further promote a sustainable recreational industry by becoming the Mecca for sailfish research and developing programs to ensure sailfish conservation. Guatemala sport-fishing leaders — such as Niels Erichsen from Pacific Fins Resort and Marina (far right at the back table) — also talked about coastal development projects such as a brand new inlet to the ocean — due to open next month — that will expand options for the offshore fleet, located in Puerto San Jose, the country's only port. Photo courtesy of Norman Raxon.Norman Raxon
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Casa Vieja Lodge
After a whirlwind tour of Guatemala City, we drove by van to Casa Vieja Lodge in Puerto San Jose/Iztapa on the coast. The entrance to this oasis is along a busy port street. But once inside the gates, the grounds are quiet and tropically lush. With other anglers talking tales at the bar, it's easy to start getting your fish on. Photo courtesy of Casa Vieja Lodge.Casa Vieja Lodge
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Marina Pez Vela
The calm water in Marina Pez Vela, a few minutes away from Casa Vieja by van, belied the offshore conditions. But the stiff breezes and rolling seas we ran through our first morning would stir up a solid blue marlin, sailfish and dorado bite.Chris Woodward
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Circle Hooks
Sport-fishing operators here advocate circle-hook use and catch-and release for all billfish.Chris Woodward
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Ballyhoo on Ice
Natural ballyhoo is the bait of choice for sails. The crew of Piragua, one of the charter vessels for Pacific Fins, prepared these choice morsels for the first day. (Not only did they feed the fish well, they prepared some awesome on-water taste treats for the anglers too!)Chris Woodward
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A New Fishing Day
Small- to medium-size, inboard sport-fishers, like this 31 Bertram, dominate the local charter fleet. However, Casa Vieja recently took ownership of two Contender 35ST center consoles.Chris Woodward
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Marlin Bait
A mate sews and bridles a larger mackerel bait for marlin. In two days, we raised at least half-a-dozen blue marlin and caught/released two.Chris Woodward
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Hooked Up!
Ozzy Delgado, director of sales and marketing for Guy Harvey magazine, puts his back into a fight with the first blue marlin of the trip. September and October comprise the best blue marlin months for the region.Chris Woodward
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Billfish Mania
Delgado's marlin showed itself as it neared the boat. The mate was leadering the fish when it broke off — before we could shoot more photos.Chris Woodward
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Wiring the Blue
A mate aboard Piragua wires Delgado's blue marlin.Chris Woodward
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Dropping Back
Long-time angler and conservationist Julio Mansylla drops back to a fish after seeing it in the spread.Chris Woodward
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A Sail for Bill
Freelance writer Bill Kearney hooked into a Pacific sailfish, his first, on day one. While they're generally larger than their Atlantic counterparts, Pacific sails can run hot and cold when hooked. Some provide wonderful aerial displays while others barely show themselves. Photo courtesy of Casa Vieja Lodge.Casa Vieja Lodge
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At the Boat
Kearney's Pacific sailfish decided to pose for a few photographs before release.Chris Woodward
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Casa Vieja Lodge Room
Casa Vieja's rooms are large with good air conditioning and welcome hot showers. Photo courtesy of Casa Vieja Lodge.Casa Vieja Lodge
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Dinner at Pacific Fins
Our co-host for this fishing trip — Pacific Fins — hosted a dinner after our first day of fishing. The weather during our late September trip was perfectly comfortable and very conducive to outdoor dining.Chris Woodward
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Smothered Snapper
Smothered snapper (pargo) was my choice for the evening. Guatemala doesn't have the reefs and rocks that some of its neighbors ply for bottomfish, but it does have artificial reefs, and the newly appointed sailfish commission plans to expand that program.Chris Woodward
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Day Two
We boarded the 32-foot Blackfin Maverick, owned by Pacific Fins, for day two of offshore fishing. Photo courtesy of Norman Raxon.Norman Raxon
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Dorado Central
Our tour guide, Norman Raxon, with one of the many dorado caught (and on occasion eaten fresh).Chris Woodward
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Fresh Fish Tacos
A mate aboard Maverick heats up some homemade tortillas for fresh dorado tacos.Chris Woodward
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First: Appetizers!
Fresh guacamole and chips and succulent shrimp with cocktail sauce make for some delicious appetizers on board. Photo courtesy of Norman Raxon.Norman Raxon
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Incoming Dorado
An incoming dorado picks up speed at the surface for one final run.Chris Woodward
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Bigger Bull
Though we caught no giants, this bull dolphin — hoisted by Ozzy Delgado from Guy Harvey magazine — put on a spectacular show.Chris Woodward
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Cooperative Sailfish
The mate leads a very cooperative sailfish to the boat before a few photos and release. Our second day on the water, we raised eight Pacific sails — not the multiple double-digit numbers this region produces during its high season, but plenty of action for our anglers.Chris Woodward
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Great Day on the Water
Our Maverick crew was all smiles and thumbs-up after releasing multiple billfish and catching a cooler full of dorado on our second, and final, day of fishing off Guatemala. Photo courtesy of Manoel Jose Cifuentes Marckwordt.Manoel Jose Cifuentes Marckwordt
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Colonial City
No fishing trip to Guatemala should be complete without a side excursion to Antigua, a short drive from the coast. When I posted to Facebook a photo of myself in one of the town's boutique-hotel gardens, many fans responded about their love for Antigua. Surrounded by volcanoes, Antigua's cobblestoned streets, quaint jade, coffee and chocolate shops, 16th century convent and other historic buildings create a colorful, relaxed experience.Chris Woodward
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Hotel Camino Real
One of many beautiful boutique hotels in Antigua, Hotel Camino Real features a large, warm Jacuzzi-style pool in the courtyard between rooms.Chris Woodward
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Coffee Time
A barista at ABC Del Cafe in Antigua brews a sample pot of coffee made from some locally grown and roasted beans.Chris Woodward
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Tropical Time
On tour at Casa Santo Domingo, a hotel whose rooms blend with the ruins from a once highly grand Dominican convent. The grounds host lush gardens, spectacular art and antiques plus gourmet restaurants.Chris Woodward
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Convent Ruins
On the grounds of the Casa Santo Domingo lie many ruins from the 16th century convent buildings.Chris Woodward
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Garden Macaw
Among the gardens surrounding Casa Santo Domingo, a macaw perches near a crossroads of paths. He doesn't say much, but he seems particularly interested in cameras.Chris Woodward
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Rose Water
Low stone pots throughout the Casa Santo Domingo grounds that appear to gather rain water (or perhaps were once used for holy water?) now feature a bed of rose petals that adds a flash of color to the gray surroundings.Chris Woodward
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On the Street
A horse-drawn cart carries tourists past Antigua's Hermano Pedro Orphanage and Hospital near the center of town. Antigua is also known for its Spanish-language-immersion schools.Chris Woodward
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Church of San Francisco
A group of students kneels to pray before a cross in a courtyard of the Church of San Francisco.Chris Woodward
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Ornate Doors
Like many historic cities, Antigua showcases unique and unusual architecture, such as this door at the Church of San Francisco. The giant door has a special cutout that is just big enough for a horse and rider to duck through.Chris Woodward
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Courtyard Garden
The many small boutique hotels in Antigua often feature immaculate garden courtyards that create a very private, quiet, serene setting.Chris Woodward
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Mansion de la Luz
The entrance to Mansion de la Luz (Mansion of the Light), the second Antigua boutique hotel at which we stayed. The chef at this hotel prepared some fresh dorado we brought from the coast. The dish was the absolute best preparation of dorado that I've ever eaten.Chris Woodward
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Historic Models
In the lobby of Mansion de la Luz and along its courtyard wall, wire-mesh mannequins wear colorful costumes from a variety of periods in Guatemalan history.Chris Woodward
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Volcano View
From the second floor of Mansion de la Luz, you can see one of the volcanoes that ring Antigua, which is set in a valley.Chris Woodward
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Colors and Textures
Antigua architecture and design is reflected in this room at Mansion de la Luz, where muted colors, textures and patterns, along with historical touches create welcoming scenes.Chris Woodward
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First Course
Casa Santo Domingo offers first-class dining worthy of any global foodie. Here's the appetizer course for lunch — a black-corn tostada with shrimp, avocado and vegetables.Chris Woodward
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Jade Sculpture
A reproduction Mayan jade funerary mask at the Casa del Jade store and museum in Antigua.Chris Woodward
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Outdoor Market
An outdoor market in Antigua showcases the colorful fabrics and other products common in the region.Chris Woodward