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A Sailfish Adventure
By Mark Pinski
July 2007
                 Mark with 110 pound sailfish caught at Zihuatanejo, Mexico.

Most of the fly fishermen I’ve fished with over the years know that if it has fins, that I’m probably interested in fishing for it. That makes me a generalist when it comes to fly fishing. I guess that means that I know a little bit about lots of types of fly fishing, but I’m not an expert at anything. What attracts me to being a generalist is that I love the challenge in seeing if I can fool the fish into taking the fly. Whether it’s crawling on my hands and knees in a meadow stream high up in the Sierras, or trying to search and cast to Dorado in the lower reaches of the Sea of Cortez. Somewhere along the line, I got it in my head that I’d like to cast to and land a sailfish on a fly. I’m not sure exactly why, but it might have to do with I had not tried to do it before and the fish are really big.


My wife suggested that we go to Zijuatanejo, Mexico. Of course I gave an immediate positive response. It’s a good destination for families or groups, as there are multiple things to do, in addition to the year-around fishing for a variety of saltwater species. Zijuatanejo is reasonably priced, and it is far enough south and close to warm water currents that there are sailfish present year around (although the peak time is December to January). The family vacation was halfway over before I had an opportunity to head

out to fish. The outfitter was particular about the conditions to search for sailfish, hence I did not have the opportunity to head out up to that point.


The sailfish had not been around in good numbers and it appeared that the full moon might had played a role. I’ve heard multiple theories on the why a full moon turns some fisheries off, although I’m not certain why, it probablyhas something to do with light for feeding opportunities 24 hours a day.


I boarded the 24-foot super-panga (handmade fiberglass boat) with my weapon of choice; a 12-weight rod with a good reel and 350 years of backing. I had a number of saltwater baitfish flies that I’ve used on other trips. Before I left, I made sure I had some extra 4 to 6 inch deceivers, as I knew sails liked good size baitfish and plenty of 30-pound test leaders with bimini loops on both ends.


The first thing that my pangero (Guide) did was cut off the 12 inches of 40-pound mason I had on as a bite tippet and replaced it with 6 feet of 100# monofilament. He explained that the bite tip I had was good for most species, but that the sailfish would probably slice though my line with its tail flopping. Hence the 6 feet of 100# line. I thought to myself, “I wonder how that 6 feet of 100# test is going to affect my casting.” I think the pangero chuckled when I pulled out my 4-6 inch deceivers. He reached into a bag and pulled out a large plastic box with about half a dozen 10-12+ inch flies that dwarfed my deceivers. Each fly looked like in had been tied with about 3-4 packs of flashaboo. Each fly had two very stout tandem hooks in a size “Really big/0.” Apparently sails are often difficult to hook, so the double hook is a necessity to find something other than bone to sink the hook in to. I thought to myself “hmmm how am I’m going to cast my 1 foot long fly, with 6 feet of 100# bite tippet?”


The deckhand brought out a fresh caught local fish called a Goggle Eye that the sails were particularly fond of and pulled out what looked like a sewing kit. He meticulously sewed the fish onto a straight hook that had no point or bend in the hook. The barbless Goggle Eye fish was hooked with a teaser and connected to a conventional fishing rod. The deckhand dropped the bait/teaser overboard and several adjustments were made to the rigging until both the deckhand and the pangero were satisfied with how it swam. He repeated this hookless teaser on a second rig and when we motored out to likely grounds about 30 miles out both hookless teasers were set overboard about 80-90 feet behind the boat.


The location we went out to was navigated to by handheld GPS. The sight of land was not visible that far out due to the humidity in the air that formed a haze the further you looked away from your current location. The location of the sails and other bluewater species depend on the location of the baitfish and the warm bluewater currents (82 degree water). The blue water currents location varies depending on the time of the year and other current conditions. At that particular location, the blue water currents can

be as close as a few miles out (very few world locations have blue water that close) to 50+ miles out.


I had read about actual blue water fishing multiple times and have had it described to me on more that a couple of occasions as well. Here I was finally out there getting a chance to do it myself. I had my line stripped off into a bucket ready to cast with the rod in a ready-to-grab position with the right amount of tension on the fly and reel. The idea was to grab the rod and make one backcast and heave this monster of a fly with 6 feet of bite tippet out to the vicinity of the fish. I thought to myself, “No false cast at all, what’s up with that?”


When we set to trolling with the two hookless teasers out, I was surprised at how fast we were trolling. I shouldn’t have been too surprised though. Sailfish are the fastest fish in the open ocean. And in the open ocean where there is no cover, the term “slow” is a relative term. It’s either swim fast or be eaten.


Sailfish can swim 60 mph (yes, you read that correctly). Our plan for hooking one of these fish was simple. Troll around, the sailfish would come up behind the boat, the deck hand would immediately remove the hookless teaser that the fish was not chasing, the pangero would tease the fish in by keeping the hookless teaser just out of reach of the sail. The boat would be kicked out of gear and come to a stop, the pangero would say “now” at which I would cast my fly straight out and as soon as it hit the water I was supposed to start stripping the fly like it wanted to escape. The sail would take the fly and I had to wait about 2 seconds until it turned away and then I could “strip set” the hook. Then I was supposed to clear all the line and keep my fingers the hell away from the line, unless I wanted to lose one or two of them. Got it? Didn’t sound too hard. I mean I had read about it a couple dozen times and rehearsed it weeks before arriving.


But first we had to locate some sails. It’s a big wide ocean out there, you can’t see the land due to humidity fog, and the ocean is thousands of feet deep. Although the fish can be scattered here and there, what we were looking for was a concentration of fish chasing bait around. Find those fish and the chances of getting a fish to the boat go up immensely. Two hours into the search the deckhand and pangero simultaneously jump up into action. The deckhand is reeling a teaser in as fast as he can. The pangero has the other teaser rod in his hand and is keeping the hookless teaser just out of reach of the sail. It’s amazing how long the sail will stay behind the teaser as long as he thinks he has a shot of capturing the prey.


The pangero says “ready,” (the boat is kicked out of gear); ”cast.” My hands were practically trembling in anticipation. I snapped my line backward and then forward and was pretty proud of myself that I put the fly right in front of the fish. The pangero yelled at me, “What are you doing? I said cast straight out!”

The sailfish half-heartedly followed the fly up and mouthed it. I couldn’t set the hook into anything except the bony mouth. Opportunity lost. I’m not sure exactly what happened, I just lost my composure in all the excitement and forgot that I was to cast straight out behind the boat in the opposite corner from where the sailfish was chasing the teaser. When the teaser is pulled out of the water the sailfish is looking around for about a second or two to see where the teaser went. When the sail sees my fly, he will turn 90 degrees and hit the fly from the side. This is critical to get the sail to take the fly from the side so when you strip set one of the tandem hooks will get buried in the side of the mouth where there’s no bone.


About an hour or so later we had another sail behind the boat. The pangero was having a hard time teasing the fish closer to the boat. When the fish left I thought maybe I blew my opportunity of the day. Fortunately, we rose up another fish behind the boat later. This time I put the fly straight out and the fish turned and hit the fly from the side. I immediately set the hook. Mistake! I just pulled the fly out of its mouth. It’s best to wait a second or two and make sure the fish turns. You don’t want to wait too long as the sail will mouth its prey to kill it before swallowing it. The pangero wasn’t happy. He was working pretty hard trying to find fish in less than stellar conditions and I made some rookie blue water mistakes.


I promised myself that I would redeem myself if I got another opportunity. Luckily for me I got another opportunity. I did everything right until I went to set the hook again. This time I lifted the rod up, like setting the hook on a trout. What was I thinking? I was supposed to strip set the hook with my left hand. All I did was pull the fly out of the mouth and away from the fish. Three strikes and you’re out, the day was done.


The next morning I felt a little more confident. I had learned hard lessons from my mistakes. That didn’t stop my pangero from testing me about my goals of catching a sail. When we passed by multiple schools of bonita chasing bait, he asked me if I wanted to stop and fish for them. I didn’t say a word, but shook my head no and pointed out to the open blue. A big smile cracked his face and he gave a slight approving nod. Unfortunately day two ended up like day one, with no fish and with 4 reasonable opportunities to hook a fish. It is difficult to hook a sail with all that bone in the mouth. If we were using bait we would have just let the fish swallow the hook before setting it. On my last opportunity I had done the technique correct, but I had the line loop up and catch the reel when I set the hook fairly on a fish.


So close, yet so far away. I knew I could do it; it was just a matter of keeping my composure and learning from my mistakes. I took a day off before going out for the third and final day. I found myself rehearsing in my head all the correct nuisances I needed to overcome to be able to hook up a sail. I woke up on the last day, more determined than before. The pangero greeted me with “It’s a brand new day, we start with a clean slate.” He was right. I found myself a couple of hours later with a sailfish chasing a teaser. The deckhand pulled the other teaser out.


By this time the pangero didn’t have to count out “” I knew when to cast. The boat was kicked out of gear. In one cast I punched out the monstrosity of a fly and as soon as it hit the water I stripped it. The sail turned 90 degrees and intercepted my fly from the side. I waited till he turned away and then “strip set” with my line hand; I looked down immediately and focused my attention on making sure my free line disappeared out of the bucket. The disappearing line was on my reel. I held my composure and knew not to do anything until the first run was over; this I had learned from chasing Dorado around in southern Baja.


The reel was spinning so fast the handle was just a blur. About 200 yards out the fish slowed down, but was still taking out line. After setting the hook again I was in familiar territory fighting a saltwater fish. When I could gain some line I would reel in some line. Sometimes the fish would surge out and take line with it. Fly reels are actually good at bringing line in; their 1:1 ratio is like having a granny gear on a bike that is ascending a big mountain.


The fish tail-walked a number of times and gave a number of aerial maneuvers. Each one was greeted by a gentle bow by me as not to keep the line too tight. When I was able to work the fish over to the side of the boat, the deckhand was able to grab the fish’s sword-like mouth using a pair of gloves and wrapping a rag around it. The fish thrashed around and I thought he was going to pull the deckhand overboard.


The fish was tagged and we hustled in a couple of pictures before releasing the fish back into the water. My first sail weighed 75 pounds and took 21 minutes to land on a 12-weight. It was a great feeling that leaves me with goose bumps even as I write this now.


I didn’t care if I hooked another fish on the trip, but my luck had turned for the better a little later. I found myself hooked into a large sail that left me wondering how come I didn’t own a 14-weight rod. My hands cramped up during the fight and my sunglasses steamed up. I also wished I had some type of fighting belt to rest the butt of the rod into. Fifty one minutes later I had my largest fly-caught fish ever at 110 pounds. That fish was tagged as well.


Blue water fishing for sails requires good gear, patience to hunt down the location of the fish, composure and enough time on the water to learn from your mistakes. The challenge is real and the reward is great. I’m squirreling my rainy day money away to get a ticket down to Mexico again. Hope to see you there.

. . .Mark Pinski


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