Over the course of a career that spans nearly three decades, Captain Chris Sheeder has refined many of the techniques used in catching billfish on the fly and accumulated a career billfish tally of more than 35,000. Equally as impressive are his stories and ease with which the Hawaii native relates to fishing and life.
By Elliott Stark
While there are days when you’ll catch a bunch of fish and there are days when you get skunked, as a general rule you should probably not trust anyone who says that he or she does not enjoy fishing with Captain Chris Sheeder. Sheeder is laid back, quick with a joke and more than generous when it comes to sharing his experience and perspective. As for dock credibility, how does a career billfish tally of over 35,000 sound? Never one for bragging or self-promotion, you’d never know that his catch count is top two in history or that many of the modern approaches for bluewater fly fishing were refined in his cockpit.
Growing up in Honolulu, Sheeder’s affinity for the ocean started early. “My dad had a couple of friends who had charter boats. When I was 11, my Dad took me on my first trip offshore out of Kona. I had gotten good grades and it was a job well done kind of thing. It was on Ed Isaac’s boat. Ed, Norm, and Neil introduced me to marlin,” Sheeder recalls. “In the early afternoon a big fish showed up on the short corner – on a lure I had put together. The week before my Dad took me to the tackle shop, and I picked out a head and skirt and put it together. It got some funny looks, but that’s what the fish ate.”
“Three hours into the fight, it broke off. I was devastated,” Chris explains. “The old man came down to console a devastated child. He said, ‘That fish may be gone, but you’ll remember this day forever.’ He was right. In a lot of ways, it seems like I’m still chasing that fish. If I’d have caught it, we might not be talking.”
“Ever since the Kona trip, fishing has been a drug, an addiction. It was hard to go to school when your high school overlooked the fishing grounds and you could see the boats hooking up. I started out like everybody – cleaning boats and fish, taking pictures. Then I was a mate and a captain,” Sheeder says. “I worked up through the best outfit in the harbor through my early years, they had three boats and I eventually ran one. It was in Kewalo Basin, home of Choy’s Monster.”
“One day, a fella named John Bone with Midway Sportfishing tracked me down. He was trying to bring in some guys from Hawaii to fish with him. I was there five years,” Sheeder recalls. “The fishing was great. It was a little bit more seasonal than Hawaii and it had a good mix of inshore and offshore fishing. There were big fish in the summer – most over 500. I won the first Aftco Tag Flag, the Billfish Foundation’s contest, in 1999 for tagging blues. The best day I ever had offshore was releasing two fish that were probably granders. The biggest fish I ever weighed was 927 – these two were at least as big. There were also lots of giant GT (giant trevally). The place was polluted with them.”
“Fly fishing started for me there. I had a client who was fly fishing for GT and asked if they could catch a blue marlin on fly. I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ I went to Costa Rica a few months before and saw the offshore fly deal, but I’d never thought about blues. That day we raised double blues – 400-500 each. We had a massive bite. It sent shivers down everyone’s back and might have been on for only 22 seconds! It broke off but it didn’t matter – if you’ve ever seen a blue marlin eat a fly you know that nothing else after that really matters. I’ve been hooked ever since.”
“Midway closed to tourists the next summer, and I moved to Costa Rica because of that fish,” Sheeder recalls. “I felt bad for all of the fly fishermen. They’d spend $10,000 and prepare for months – tying knots and making flies. Then, when guys would see them walking down the dock with their fly rods, the crews would say, ‘Shit! We have to fly fish today.’ They’d been looking forward to this for months.”
“I fished at Crocodile Bay when it first opened in 2000 and was there for the next few years. Fly fishermen kind of flocked to me. I always asked about their skill, their background, whether they’d done this before and where. I’d ask them, ‘How many did you catch there?’ Clients kept saying Guatemala and the numbers they caught were massive.”
“I got a hold of Tim Choate,” Chris says. Choate was opening Fins and Feathers in Guatemala. “I signed on for six months – which turned into 18 plus years in Guatemala. Fins and Feathers shut down in 2006. A client of mine that I’d fished with a bunch and I took care of – I’d arrange a private house for him and his group, etc., asked me what I was going to do next. Then he said, ‘Who’s going to take care of me?’ I said, ‘Buy a boat and I’ll take care of you.’ He picked up a Marlin Magazine, turned to the back and asked me, ‘What do you think of a 37 Merritt?’ I told him, let’s just enjoy your trip and we can talk about it.”
That client’s name was Jim Turner. The 37 Merritt would soon be the Release. “Jim got home on a Monday. He called Tuesday and said, ‘Here’s your ticket, let’s look at the Merritt.’” That was the beginning of Casa Vieja Lodge.
“Turner and I set record for release on fly in day. We set out to do 30 – the record was 27. We caught 57 – he caught 54 of them. At the time that was the record for any gear – fly or conventional,” Sheeder recalls. “I kind of specialized in fly fishing in Guatemala. With Jake Jordan, my first mate Nico Melendrez, we kind of changed many of the fly techniques used. It used to be a lot of long casts and a lot of stripping – you’d lose a lot of fish that way.”
Sheeder’s adaptations to the bluewater approach to fly fishing for billfish include cutting down the fly line to the bare essential and cutting down on the running line (for marlin outfits, they got rid of it all together). Each of these modifications are designed to reduce line drag in the water. Sheeder also adopted a single hook rig, “It’s safer for the mates and for the fish and the hook up ratio is just as good, if not a little better,” he says. “We would also tease the fish in closer to the boat. This not only raises the percentage, but makes the process even more cool because you’re hooking fish at your feet. We also changed the tease process. “Instead of the ‘stop and start, wait for the fish to show on the surface before you wind’ approach, we go with the assumption that each fish has a limited number of bites he’ll give up in an attack. Why waste them on teasers? Once the fish shows on a specific teaser, get it to the boat as quick as possible, whether he sinks, fades or stays strong – you’ll end up with a fresher, more aggressive fish to deal with behind the boat in the strike zone instead of farting around with him outside of casting range. This especially holds true with blue marlin. I’ve seen blues that we could tease forever, but once they get a hold of that teaser a few times, it’s over!”
While Sheeder’s career catch numbers (35,000-plus billfish, with more than 1,500 blue marlin), list of tournament wins, and records (he personally holds the 16-pound and 20-pound tippet records for giant trevally on the fly – both fish were just shy of 80-pounds) are impressive, they may in fact be overshadowed by how nice of a guy he is. Known for his sense of humor and keeping it light on the boat, Sheeder’s list of pranks and jokes is great.
“One time in a tournament Jim Turner brought a pig down in a bag. He released it aboard the Intensity. By the time they caught it, it had taken a couple of shits downstairs,” he says with a laugh. “It all started with a guy going back to the lodge and finding a horse in his room.” In retaliation for the pig being loosed on the boat, Sheeder arrived to his boat one morning to find a goat on board. “It was in a tournament. It was me, Jim Turner and Erik Lorentzen on board. We are all big guys, together we are over 1,000 pounds. Instead of returning the goat, we turned the joke around and said ‘Thanks! We’ll eat it for lunch,’ and left. The fellow who owned the goat was a bit upset, but we won that tournament…and yes he got his goat back.”
“We also had a disco ball that we would raise like a flag every time we won a tournament and it got a good workout for many years,” Sheeder says. While many have seen photos of the ball, there is more to the story. “It was an actual working disco ball that came from a local Cat House. I don’t ask too many questions, but you need to be some kind of ninja to complete that mission! I’m not sure how it wound up on the boat but there it was one morning at 5:00 am spinning on the center rigger with the Bee Gees playing full throttle! We won that tournament too and from then on it was a Rum Line tradition.”
Chris Sheeder recently left Casa Vieja Lodge. The next step in the captain’s lifetime fishing adventure is yet to play out. Like his approach to fishing and life, Sheeder is philosophical in thinking about his place in the world. “Everything good that’s ever happened in my life happened on my boat – including meeting my wife.” Elisa was working for a sponsor of a tournament and met Chris while fishing on his boat. “I don’t feel like I’m in the sportfishing business, I’m in the dream fulfillment business. It might sound cheesy, but fishing is a great way of enriching other people’s lives. It’s been my avenue to making lifetime memories. How can you touch other people’s lives? Take them fishing. Lots of people think about a day spent together for a long, long time.”