By Elliott Stark
As we all sit here awaiting the world’s return to normalcy, the fact that the world is more connected now than ever before is an inescapable conclusion. Everything is interwoven. Events and decisions that are made in one place can affect many others—even those that live on the opposite side of the world.
While much of this interconnectedness–and the impact that personal choice can have on others– has been focused on the health side of the equation, there are many aspects to consider. Fishing is something that is normally considered an individual activity or one that is accomplished by a small crew of people—after all part of the charm of going fishing is that you’re not doing it at the mall surrounded by 5,000 people.
Unlike the iconic image of a lone fisherman walking down a deserted beach or stream, the sportfishing industry is far from a singular entity. It rather depends on an interconnected web of commerce and purchase decisions made by people across not only the United States, but the world. As with most any business, those within the sportfishing industry rely on a series of transactions to generate the revenue they need to keep going. For many businesses around the world Covid-19 and its associated decreases in travel, consumption, and overall economic activity has interrupted the necessary chain of commerce.
As we wait this deal out, there may be nothing that we can do to speed along the freedom to travel—you couldn’t jump on a plane to your favorite international destination today if you wanted to (even if you flew down there on your own private jet, they might not let you in). There are however decisions that we can make to help sportfishing businesses weather this time of lost income and general uncertainty. For many, the essence of this movement has been captured in the phrase “Postpone, don’t cancel.”
Postpone, Don’t Cancel
If you have a trip on the books that has to be moved because of the pandemic, consider postponing it rather than canceling it. This helps charter businesses considerably. Will Drost, who operates Maverick Sportfishing (https://www.mavericksportfish.com/) out of Los Sueños explains it like this, “For us the best case is for clients to plan long range trips. We know that nothing in our industry hasn’t been affected by this, but we appreciate that most of our clients have been postponing instead of canceling trips. For our situation, everything is in place for postponing trips—airline companies have been issuing credits for displaced travel.”
Captain Kiwi Van Leeuwen who, with his wife, owns and operates the Sailfish Oasis Lodge in Guatemala (https://sailfishoasis.com/) provides a bit more context. “All of our clients have rescheduled instead of canceled, we are thankful for that. For us, it’s best if clients can reschedule for later this year instead of the same dates next year. If that happens (rescheduling for the same dates next year), we effectively lose those days. We are hopeful to be back in business by October. We feel that the Guatemalan tourist industry is in a relatively good position because the government acted early and closed the borders. We hope that this will mitigate the impact that we feel in the country a bit.”
The Charter Industry is Particularly Vulnerable
The men and women who own and operate charter boats and fishing lodges depend on visiting anglers for their livelihoods. While most within the general public might think of a fishing trip as a vacation– an optional trip that can be cancelled without too much inconvenience, the money spent by charter guests is the lifeblood of charter boat businesses and the livelihoods of those who operate them.
Operators in this segment are particularly impacted by the virus. This impact is felt on two levels. The first and most obvious lies in the impact of the travel ban. If you are physically prevented from visiting an area, you most certainly cannot fish there. This leaves operators and lodges forced to close their doors—even if it is the peak of their season. Have you seen the tuna videos coming out of Venice, Louisiana in the days leading up to when the marina was closed? It was the best it had been in years.
The travel bans, and decreased travel in places where it is not banned outright, effect fishing operators all over the world. Those international lodges that rely on US customers suffer from closed borders. There are also travel restrictions in the states as well—you can’t get into the Florida Keys without proof of residency. Marinas are closed and fishing has ground to a halt in many of the hotbeds of the charter industry—the Gulf Coast of Florida, Venice, Louisiana, Ocean City, Maryland, the Outer Banks, South Florida—you name it.
Restricted travel is but the first level of vulnerability faced by fishing operators. The second layer is less obvious, but no less daunting. For many, a fishing vacation is considered a luxury item. What is the first thing that is cut back when someone feels an economic pinch? Luxury items.
How does that happen? The economic impacts from the pandemic are widespread. Beyond those whose jobs or livelihoods have been directly affected to this point, many others have tightened their purse strings as they worry about what the future holds. Economists describe this level of impact in terms of consumer confidence.
As a general rule, when things are good and consumers (people who buy things) are confident that they will continue to be good into the future, people spend money freely. When consumers face uncertainty—such as that caused by the virus and how long its impacts will last—they tend to spend less money. When they decide to spend less money, the fishing trips and other “optional” items are the first to go. Both of these scenarios- restricted travel and dampened consumer outlook– impact the bottom line when it comes to businesses in the sportfishing space.
What Can You Do?
Let’s start with a couple of conclusions. The men and women who operate sportfishing businesses provide a hell of an important service to all of us. Unless you have your own boat or happen to have a good buddy that does, about the only chance for the average person to fish offshore is by hiring a fishing guide. Many of the people that now currently own boats can trace their desire to purchase one to an experience fishing with a guide or lodge. They are also the type of local, small businesses that every community needs.
The second consideration has two facets: Charter boat owners face bills and overhead whether they are chartering or not. Bills such as dockage, maintenance and overhead must be paid whether there are clients coming down the docks or not. Beyond the fact that bills are due whether clients come or not, charter fishing for many operators is a seasonal affair.
In most places, operators make the bulk of their income for the year during their high seasons. For some—like operators in the Bahamas, places like Destin, Florida that depend on spring break business or sailfish operators in Costa Rica—the high season is now. The effect of closures for these men and women is doubled. Not only are they forced to close now, now may be the time that they earn the money they need for the rest of the year.
Captain Adam Peeples runs One Shot Charters (http://oneshotcharters.com/) in Destin. He explains the situation like this, “The big thing for us is that we don’t know when we can get back to work. Having to refund deposits hurts. The beaches are closed through April 30. Right now I have a good May and June on the books, but if the closures are extended it could really hurt. The optimal situation for us right now would be for customers to be flexible. Without knowing when things will open, if they could reschedule to come down when they’re able that would really help.”
“The charter community here typically spends quite a bit of money over the winter time getting the boat ready for our spring break business. The average charter guy’s financial situation tends to be pretty tight—you do this because you love it not because you’re going to get super rich. You spend the money in the winter time to recoup it in the spring. The spring break season in Destin is lots of bottom fishing—four and six hour trips, but it’s a lot of business. Being down March and April, I might be down 60 or 70% on the year. Its recoverable if we have a good remainder of the year.”
“The consensus around here is that this is worse than the BP Oil Spill or the recession (of 2008).”
Now is a perfect time to….
If you and your family have been fortunate enough to not have been financially impacted by the pandemic, now might be a good time to consider planning a fishing trip. Thinking about—and better yet starting to plan for—a future fishing trip makes the time of being stuck around the house in quarantine that much more palatable. This is a direct benefit to you.
More than that however, putting a deposit down for a future trip can inject some cash into a local fishing business that could probably really use some about now. You can think of it in whatever terms you like, but the deposit could well be used for groceries or a mortgage payment for your favorite charter captain and his family. Not only can a deposit now inject some cash, having a day booked in the future helps with providing the confidence that every small business owner could use about now—that there is hope for a solid rebound once all of this craziness subsides.
Sometimes things are about fishing. Sometimes they are about humanity. Then there are times when the two interconnect. That fishing and humanity intersect so tangibly shouldn’t be surprising anymore—after all, it seems like just about everything in the world depends on something else these days.
If we can help you with any charter recommendations in the United States or beyond, shoot us a note…
By Elliott Stark
“Marlin, left teasah!” The man behind the voice is Captain Chris Van Leeuwen. Van Leeuwen is well-travelled fisherman, resourceful and full of stories. The fish, a blue of about 400 that would gobble the pitch bait 15-feet off of the transom, had apparently not been informed that Guatemala “is just a sailfish destination.”
Van Leeuwen is the owner/operator of the Allure II, a yellow-hulled 40-foot Capps, and a charming, boutique handle-all-the-variables resort known as the Sailfish Oasis. Van Leeuwen is laid back and full of perspective. Since leaving his native New Zealand, he has done it. Van Leeuwen ran a boat for Tim Choate’s operation in the Galapagos, before following Choate to Guatemala.
Though he’s been in Guatemala since 2002, the world knows him as “Kiwi.” His mates, brothers Julio and Enio Morales, are highly skilled and adaptable in their ability to relate to clients. In other parts of the world, the lodge’s hospitality would take top billing. In Guatemala, however, nothing compares to the fishing. The sailfish numbers in Guatemala make daily fishing report numbers sound like snapper fishing off of a chum bag. Raising 31, catching 16 out of 27 bites, could just as likely be catching 73 in a day or the groups that with some regularity catch 300-some odd fish in four days of fishing.
The sailfishery here is astronomical. To label Guatemala as simply a sailfish destination, however, may miss the point. The following is a breakdown of the many reasons that constitute the Case for Fishing: Guatemala.
An Ocean Alive
The consistent, well-rounded fishery on the Pacific Coast of Guatemala results from waters teeming with bait.
Deep currents interact with bottom topography, to send oxygenated, nutrient-rich water to the surface. These upwellings set the stage for clouds of ballyhoo, bonito all over the place, shoals of squid and generally lots of bait. The bait holds sailfish, blue marlin (with the occasional stripe and black mixed in), dorado and yellowfin tuna. Beyond the creatures taggable and gaffable, there are schools of spinner dolphins swimming with tuna and baleen whales feeding on bait, too.
If you’re into that sort of thing, there are an awful lot of sea turtles floating around as well.
Someone forgot to tell the blue marlin that Guatemala is a sailfish destination. On the second and third day of our trip, we raised six blues and saw a tank of a marlin free jumping. Captain Mike Sheeder turned loose a grand slam fishing near us—adding a blue and a black to a pile of sails. The marlin fishing near shore—eight to ten miles from the marina, is consistent.
Unless someone is targeting marlin specifically, the fleet often runs past the marlin grounds to target sails. That said, blue marlin bites are consistent offshore as well, with a reasonable expectation to raise a few on any given three or four day trip. Brad Philipps runs the Decisive, a 40-foot Gamefisherman. Philipps and his wife Cindy also operate the Billfish Inn in Puerto San Jose and a hotel in Antigua. “Imagine how many more marlin we’d catch if we were targeting them. Remember, any time we spend going backwards on sailfish, we’re not marlin fishing.” How much time might be spent going backwards?
In any given year a Guatemala charter operator like Van Leeuwen or Philipps might fish anywhere between 150-200 days. Over the course of a season, depending on such things as the skill of their anglers (or, perhaps as accurately, how many of the anglers let the crew hook the fish for them), high lining captains may release anywhere between 1,600-2,200 sailfish. That’s quite a bit of time with the square side of the boat going forward.
Van Leeuwen’s spread is telling of the consistent presence of creatures with broad shoulders. He runs two swimming ballyhoo out of the riggers, squid chains from the bridge and hookless plugs from the
cockpit. If a sail noses around a teaser, it’s fed a ballyhoo on a chugger head. If something in a blue or black suit shows itself, out goes the mackerel. In addition to the one that is ready, there will be two or three more mackerel in the cooler ready for rigging. In a good year when the marlin are around, their marlin release numbers are measured in dozens—all while not specifically targeting them.
Learning how to hook fish from the riggers or feed them off of a teaser can be difficult in many places in the world. In other parts, you troll all day for two or three bites. If a fish does come up, everyone on the boat goes nuts. People jump around, teasers get crossed up, and baits are thrown around like a Chinese fire drill.
The stressfulness of the situation is twofold: a. because you’re not likely to get many shots, you need to make the most of them, and; b. because you haven’t had many shots lately, it’s been hard to work up the chemistry for everyone on board to know what they’re supposed to be doing. How then is a new boat owner or a new addition to the tournament team expected to be able to learn? After all, unless you’ve grown up on the charter docks of Manteo or Islamorada, consistently circle hooking billfish can take some repetition.
Enter Guatemala— the land of opportunity. As Capt. Kiwi puts it, “If you miss one in Guatemala, who cares? You’ll get another shot.” While the number of fish raised and released varies as with every type of fishing, the consistency of double-digit days in Guatemala is the cornerstone of the fishery. It is the consistent presence of fish that allows for plenty of all of the necessary backlashing, whiffing, and bird-catching that it takes for a novice or intermediate rodsman to become a confident, competent angler.
The number of shots, in this line of reasoning, offers the following advantages: it decreases stress per opportunity; the repetition slows the process down (a first time angler who only sees a marlin every third trip—each time with the crew hollering like the boat is on fire—will believe that marlin swim 800-miles per hour); feeding fish from the teaser—and seeing the bite—will also help novice and intermediate anglers see the fish as they enter the spread, and; a stress-free environment in which anglers can alternatively miss fish and catch them on their own produces more technically competent anglers, but also more confident ones.
For a tournament fishing operation, a trip to Guatemala, or some other high volume fishery, is a way to hedge your bets. The charter tab becomes a team tune up before the high stakes, high pressure environment where a missed fish can swim away with tens of thousands of dollars. The experience works for everyone on board. Mates get a chance to see how high volume operations work, the way lines are cleared and how to best manipulate fish on the teasers.
Owners and anglers can get their shots on the reel, leaving with a great experience and increased confidence. Captains can come down and see how to run the boat to increase multiple hook up opportunities. For someone with the right body of experience, Van Leeuwen will even let the captain run the boat for the trip to get his team dialed in.
Lots of Fish and Calm Seas
While a sentence such as this is generally reserved for the opening line of obituaries, it actually applies to Guatemala. According to Van Leeuwen, about 80% of the time Guatemala is calm (not 2-3 or 3-4, but calm). Beyond the generally pleasant proposition this provides, a tranquil sea state also enables the prescribing of very specific fishing applications. Think kids, wife or prospective clients who can’t deal with rough weather.
Guatemala is a great place to introduce kids to the world of bluewater trolling.
With short attention spans, the numbers are a great force to counter the I-pad. A calm ride is great for the kids and for that special lady, as nobody really likes to get bounced around. The March 2017 issue of InTheBite contains “Child’s Play: An Expert’s Approach to Fishing with Kids.” The setting for the article was the Rum Line with Captain Chris Sheeder, fishing in Guatemala.
Billfish on the Fly, Light Tackle
Because you generally don’t have to worry about whether you will catch sailfish or marlin in Guatemala, you can get fancy and try to catch them in special ways. Bring out the two-pound and the bug slinger! As it is illegal to kill billfish in Guatemala, there is no record fishing here but it is a great place to get accustomed to catching billfish on alternative tackle. Van Leeuwen, like most of the captains operating here, is accomplished in the art of targeting billfish on the fly.
Anglers wishing to target fish on the fly may do so to catch their first, target their biggest or to search for numbers. The approach involves teasing a fish up close to the boat, placing the boat in neutral and casting the fly in across the boat in front of the fish. The mate then snatches the teaser away and, if all goes according to plan, the fish eats the fly. As there are a number of steps to this process, it works best in high volume fisheries.
In order for it to work, the fish must be aggressive enough to follow the teaser to within casting distance. We switched to the fly for the last afternoon of our trip. When everything came together, Van Leeuwen found two blue marlin that were willing to show us the process. The first was a small one that nosed about, but didn’t eat the fly. The second was a good fish who treated the fly with all of the gentleness that you’d expect from a starving cat jumping on a pigeon. Two hours and 20 minutes later, the fish went nuts—jumping off into the sunset. It left us a video (available on www.inthebite.com) that starts with, “****, it’s huge!”
The Atmosphere—The Dock
There is one marina on the Pacific coast of Guatemala. All of the reports and astounding numbers you read about come from here. All the captains, all the boats, and all of fishing is centered in one location. There is something quaint and charming about it. Captain Chris Van Leeuwen has been here for 15 years, Captain Brad Philipps arrived in 2000; Captains Chris Sheeder, Jason Brice, Mike Sheeder, David Salazar and others have all fished out of the same marina for years.
Joining the retired Captain Ron Hamlin, these active captains are all among the leaders in most billfish caught. In terms of sportfishing history, this unassuming dock is steeped in tradition. Guatemala holds the record for sailfish releases in a day, on both conventional and fly tackle. The stable of captains here is really incredible. Beyond simply the number of fish caught, it is the perspective and diversity of background that makes the marina here so interesting.
Van Leeuwen hails from New Zealand, Philipps is a native of South Africa, the Sheeder brothers are Hawaiian, Brice is American. They are joined by Guatemalan captains, many of whom have grown up as mates. These are headlined by Eddie Baires, who cut his teeth with Ron Hamlin, and Kennedy Hernandez whose cockpit wizardry graced the Decisive for many years. The result is an amalgam of culture and perspective that makes a walk down the dock in itself is a great piece of fishing perspective.
Another charming aspect of the fishery in Guatemala is the relative lack of traveling boats. Compared to other of Central America’s premier destinations, the area is much the same as it was ten years ago. The lack of traveling boats is neither a good or bad thing, but it imparts a sense of intimacy and community to the dock and the men who make their livings fishing here.
It’s Really Fun
In a world that’s increasingly driven by plans made three months ahead of time and by actions that are the result of analyzing lists of pros and cons, the most compelling reason to fish Guatemala is perhaps the simplest. It’s really fun. The people are nice, the lodging is great, the food is good and the fish are more than gracious in their hospitality. There’s a reason it’s a bucket list destination that brings people back over and over. See for yourself.
To fish the Pacific Coast of Guatemala, you will fly into Guatemala City. Airport transfers are handled by the lodges themselves. Eddie, the driver at Sailfish Oasis, will pick you up at the airport and have a cooler full of cold Modelo awaiting for the hour and 40-minute drive to Puerto San Jose.
Contact Capt. Chris “Kiwi” Van Leeuwen at sailfishoasis.com.
There are lots of great fishing experiences around the world. Black marlin in Australia? Sign me up. Halibut and salmon in British Columbia – awesome. Peacock bass in the jungle…you get the point. Here are a few of our favorites.
KEKOA: Great Barrier Reef Heavy Tackle Black Marlin Charter
KEKOA is a custom built 56-foot O’Brien Boat fishing live aboard trips for the giant black marlin season September to December on the Great Barrier Reef off Cairns. Visit www.kekoa.com.au
Tropic Star Lodge – World Class Fishing, Incredible Tradition
From giant black marlin to trophy roosterfish and incredible tuna and big dorado fisheries, Tropic Star has it all. No angler’s resume is complete until they’ve fished Zane Grey Reef. Visit www.tropicstar.com
Sailfish Oasis, Guatemala – Experience World Class Fishing from a Private, Boutique Resort
The Sailfish Oasis is a luxury, boutique lodge that makes Guatemala’s incredible sailfish and marlin fisheries accessible on fly and conventional tackle. The lodge boasts year-round fishing with an average of 15-releases per day. Visit www.sailfishoasis.com
West Coast Fishing Club: British Columbia’s Premier Luxury Fishing Experience
The West Coast Fishing Club operates three luxury fishing lodges offering the world’s best salmon and halibut fishing experience in majestic Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, Canada. Visit www.westcoastfishingclub.com
Fish Colombia – Rainforest Expedition for Giant Peacock Bass
Nine-day rainforest camping expedition in search of giant peacock bass to a remote Indian reserve that holds some of the largest peacock and payara in Colombia. $2,750, www.fishcolombia.com
These guys asked us to post this video. Why not?! Its got drone footage and Guatemala sailfish action. If you got the time its worth a few minutes to check out.
Do you produce fishing videos? Send em over to us- chances are we’ll let our readers have a gander. Send to firstname.lastname@example.org