Sailfish on the Fly
...by Captain Dave Dobbins, Quepos Costa Rica - www.FishLamanta.Com
It was the spectacular fishing that brought me to Quepos in the fall of í97... I have been here every season since then. I used to think that flyfishing was for yuppies, but after following the natural progression of Quepos sportfishing for more than seven seasons I believe there is nothing more rewarding than leading a client to their first sailfish on the fly.
My introduction to catching Sailfish on a flyrod was very exciting - as well as extremely disappointing. I was chartered to fish the Second Annual Harry Gray Fly Fishing Tournament, now appropriately called the G.I.F.T. My charter for the tournament and I exchanged numerous e-mails in which I explained my previous inexperience in flyfishing. They assured me that everything would be very low key and we could just go out there and have fun and see what happened. I was very excited as this would be my first career tournament and I wanted to make a good impression.
I had a client/friend down on vacation who agreed to help me practice and after a few near misses "Big" Dan Kavenaugh released the first of what was to be many Sailfish on the fly aboard the Lamanta. Now I had a saltwater flyfishing system. In the meantime I picked the brains of other successful saltwater fishing guides like Bill Gannon and Tom Caulhoon who had won tournaments in the past so I would be ready for the big event.
When the charter finally arrived a few days before the tournament I was brimming with confidence. We headed offshore for a practice day and fine tuned our flyfishing system - releasing three sails all in less than twenty minutes, one was brought to the boat in just under four! During the captains meeting all the participants enjoyed the usual playful inquiries and misleading reports and I felt sure that we would finish in the top five.
Then the unthinkable happened, we went three days without teasing a fish in. The reasons were several fold but mainly attributed to the fact that we were unclear as to whether all the teasers had to be out of the water before the cast was made. This from two guys who were on the rules committee of the tournament! We raised plenty of billfish but in the time it took to clear that "other" teaser, they always seemed to fade off.
We wound up dead last out of 15 boats. Now some people might take that as a sign and return to the ever successful dead bait trolling with conventional tackle, but not me, from this bitter defeat sprang the beginning of my quest to become the best fly fishing captain possible. In the seasons that followed I never once missed an opportunity to try one on the fly. On many of my conventional charter fishing trips each angler would release three or four - and that's when I would ask if they wanted to try something new. I have converted many conventional offshore anglers to fly fishing this way.
After I got the saltwater flyfishing bug one of the first things I needed was the equipment. I ordered a BillyPate Bluefin model and through a friend and fellow charter captain I purchased a 16 weight Cam Sigler rod. Overkill, you might say - but if I am going to provide the tackle I donít want to end up replacing it every three weeks. I wouldn't recommend anything lighter than a fourteen as I have seen no less than 20 12 weights meet their demise in the cockpit of the Lamanta. Lesser rods just don't have the backbone to lift a 80 to 100 pound sailfish... and you never know when "The Man" will show up. More on that later.
After equipment, the next thing was to go out and get as much experience as possible. I did this by inviting friends to go "fun" fishing and riding along on other charter boats whenever they had flyfishing customers. This worked out especially well because everyone has a little bit different approach, and I was able to develop my own style from a mixture of others. Some very successful captains never vary the same three teasers from the same positions, they donít raise the fish I do but the ones they do raise will be more likely to tease in.
What teasers to use and where? Early on I experimented with several styles of teasers and bait combinations and to this day I would have to say it depends on how many fish are around and how they are behaving. If there are plenty of fish and they are extremely aggressive its hard to beat the moldcraft widerange. I run all the teasers from the cockpit, one longrigger and one in each corner. This lets me focus on driving the boat.
One of the reasons I have grown to love flyfishing so much is the challenge. It is a team sport with everyone playing their part. If one person doesnít do their job perfectly it usually results in a missed fish. The job of the mate(s) is to tease that fish right to the back of the boat without letting him actually clamp down on the teaser, this gets them so fired up that often times they will literally come out of the water to eat the fly. I have seen many billfish fade off after getting their beaks around a teaser, even if it has a belly strip or deadbait stitched in - which is what we do when the fish are a little less aggressive. Sweeten the teaser with a Bonito belly or Dorado belly and when the fish are really finicky sometimes the only way to get them excited is with a swimming ballyhoo or mullet. This requires extreme vigilance on the mate's part. If he fails to see the fish before the initial bite, or isnít quick enough when I shout, "largo, largo!", then usually the fish will mangle even the best stitched bait and all you will have left is a ball of ballyhoo meat and rigging floss.
Which brings us to the most exciting part, the bite - that is if the mate has done his part and I have done mine by spotting the rising sailfish and slowly reducing the speed while keeping in a straight line. The closer the fish gets within fly casting range the slower the boat gets until finally the boat comes out of gear and the teaser is ripped completely out of the water in a snapping action (thatís why I like those soft teasers), and the angler makes the cast. By this time the white water from the wake has cleared up giving an impressive view to what is hopefully a very angry, lit up sailfish. They really turn on the color when they are teased in properly - displaying neon bands and peck fins that is a sight to behold.
There has been much controversy on the proper way to set the hook on a sailfish but in my experience the most effective means for a first timer to come tight is with a sweep strike. I recommend six pounds of drag and swinging hooks. The key is to wait until the fish is turned and come back across his face with a low sweeping action of the rod. With our technique the fish is often swimming away from the boat to eat the fly, but occasionally they will circle around behind. In this case the angler MUST wait until the fish has turned and sweep in the opposite direction. A premature strike on a straight on bite has a small success rate.
Once hooked these fish go right to the air usually four or five times and sometimes they just keep on going. Donít believe any of that nonsense you may have heard about "lazy" pacific sails that donít fight. Thatís why I like the 16 weight rod, when these big billfish get angry, the fight is on and it seems like nothing agitates them more than a wad of pink feathers. This is when I really have to get busy, driving the boat, trying to guess which way they are going and not get ahead of the angler. When they are tired out we edge up along side of them and use a taped up straight gaff to guide the fish by the bill so the mate can retrieve the hooks and get a photo.
Despite the early challenges, the determination to learn saltwater flyfishing for sailfish has paid tremendous rewards. In addition to conventional deep sea fishing success aboard the Lamanta, I have had the privilege of fishing with some of the finest fly fishing anglers in the world on some of the best fishing grounds in the world. To date we have released hundreds of sailfish, had a few marlin bites and captured many more species such as dorado, wahoo, snapper, and more - all on the flyrod. We have released three double header sails on the fly and we are proud to have helped 36 anglers release their first billfish on the fly.
Whether you are looking to catch your first or your twenty first, you owe it to yourself to come down to Quepos.