Angling Abroad: 'Sailing,' Guatemala-style


SAN JOSE, Guatemala — Catching sailfish on a fly rod is the closest thing yet to a circus flying trapeze act.

Under the big top, everything must come together perfectly: the empty bar is swung out, the girl in the spangled suit leaps to catch it and the big, strong guy grabs her on the way back. Any miss — any slight misjudgment — and disaster looms.

In flyfishing for sailfish, everything must work the same, and even the lone, unwilling participant — the fish — has to be on his best game.

In order to have a shot at a sail on a fly, you need lots of fish competing for food, and there's probably no better
place for such rivalry than the Pacific side of Guatemala.

The Guatemalan government, regardless of what else you might say about it, has made the sport killing of marlin and sailfish illegal. No more of those corny pictures of a dead, dry sailfish and marlin hanging by the tail while a grinning guy in a hat and Bermuda shorts with sunburned legs stands beside it, not knowing quite what to do.

Instead, Guatemala billfish now are slipped up onto the boat's transom or swim step, photographed and gently eased back into the sea.

For that reason — plus an abundance of food and near-perfect sea conditions — the waters off San Jose are as close as you can possibly get to a "guarantee" to get one … or two or more sails on a fly rod.

Our small group cast to about 20, hooked a dozen and landed five in a day.

In traditional trout flyfishing, the quarry is in a restricted area — stream or pond — and genetically programmed to eat insects or small fish. Cast a fly with a replica of the insect or baitfish and chances are you'll connect with a trout.

But sailfish are in a great, big ocean, programmed to chase and eat mackerel, bonito, flying fish, ballyhoo and squid. They must be fooled into thinking that the colorful lures they're chasing behind a boat is a small school of Big Macs: gotta have it, gotta have it, gotta have it ….

Houston accountants Brian Barragy and Lissa M. McFarlin are a couple in pursuit of the saltwater flyfishing dream. They chose San Jose to start their flyfishing charter business because of McFarlin's Guatemalan roots — and the abundance of fish.

After acquiring a small fleet of offshore cruisers, they began the task of training captains and mates to meet the needs of flyfishers. To that end, they hired world-renowned billfish angler and guide Gary Graham to work with the crews.

Today, their Pez Aguazul Pro Sportfishing outfit is considered by many the preeminent saltwater flyfishing service in the region.

"We utilize the same trolling tackle in flyfishing, except we use hookless lures and turn them into teasers," Barragy said.

"The trick is clearing the lures out of the water when we get a sailfish to follow it and allow the flycaster room to get the fly in front of the fish — substituting the fly for the teaser."

Boats depart at 7 a.m. and within 40 minutes are approaching billfish-rich brine. It's evident when the sports cruiser hits the blue water: dolphin often are leaping and surfing in the boat's wake, manta rays jump for no apparent reason and sailfish and marlin tail-walk across the horizon.

The mate then puts out three or four hookless teasers and in short order the telltale bill and sail appears.

The skipper slows the boat a bit, the mate removes all but one of the teasers from the troll and the angler moves into position in the right-hand corner of the stern for a right-handed caster, or opposite for a left-hander. Some 30 to 35 feet of fly line has been previously stripped out and put into a bucket with a few inches of water.

The mate teases the sailfish closer and closer — jerking the lure in a particularly tantalizing fashion — until it is just 25 feet in back of the transom.

Frustrated at its inability to grab and swallow the lure, the sailfish lights up in an iridescent blue and purple. At that instant, the boat goes into neutral, the mate or skipper yells "cast" and the game is on.

The cast is made to the side of the fish's head (never straight into it) and stripped in as rapidly as humanly possible. The sail will grab the fly and, if all goes well, turn away from the boat, allowing the hook to take hold in the corner of its mouth.

But a dozen or more bad things can happen when the big, bushy orange or pink fly hits the water: The fish can grab it and head for China, ignore it or snap the hook; the leader can break; the hook can slip out; the reel can have a bit of tangled backing; the drag can be too tight … ah, the excuses.

But if it all comes together, it's the Bolshoi Ballet and a trapeze act all rolled into one. The angler, the mate, the skipper, the boat and the fish must be as one.

At a finning speed of about 50 knots, Pacific sails put a tremendous strain on flyfishing tackle. Rods need the ability to cast a short line, but lift like a derrick. Lines and leaders need to stand the whack of a sail's bill. And reels must be able to weather run after blistering run with an unforgiving drag while applying uniform pressure — no herky-jerky starts and stops allowed.

Travelers flock to Guatemala because it offers Central America in concentrated form: its volcanoes are the highest and most active; its Mayan ruins the most impressive; its earthquakes the most devastating; and its offshore angling definitely first-class.

It survives in the ancient ruins of Tikal, the Mayan/Catholic rituals of Chichicastenango and the blazing colors of everyday Mayan dress.

Since the peace treaties were signed, inspiring even the least-intrepid travelers to venture beyond the Guatemala City-Antigua corridor, indigenous Guatemala has been rolling out the red carpet to once-isolated and lovely villages with access to some of Central America's wildest natural wonders.

Fly rod sailfish are definitely part of that wild adventure.