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.
The 56th Annual Islamorada Sailfish Tournament kicked off at Whale Harbor hosting 80 anglers, plus friends and family with a grand buffet. Great Sailfish action started on Friday morning and continued over the next three days concluding on December 8th. Captain KC Spaulding of the Caribsea led anglers Kenny Spaulding, Sam Milazzo, Phillip Bryan and Lee Gahagen all from Islamorada, FL to the winner’s circle with a total of 19 sailfish releases. The team took home beautiful sailfish sculptures sponsored by Caribee Boat Sales and Yamaha Outboards. 141 Sailfish were released out of the 154 called in hook ups with nearly $55,000.00 going to the winners.
Miami Beach, Fla. (Mar. 18, 2019) – The party moves south, as the highly anticipated grand finale of the Quest for the Crest Sailfish Series, Final Sail, closes out in Miami Beach this year on April 3-7. A hefty purse in excess of $800,000 is not the only prize teams have their eyes on. The prestigious burgundy jackets are also awarded to the top overall team at this final leg of the series. With an elite fleet of competitors, this world title is as tight as the lines, but the leader will be cut soon and just one team will claim their spot in the competitive sailfishing hall of fame.
Major payouts aren’t the only attraction for teams at Final Sail. This grand finale takes place in Miami Beach, with an exciting kick-off party overlooking beautiful Biscayne Bay and a Resorts World Bimini sponsored “Casino Night” where anglers compete on the green felt to help raise money for the tournament charity, Fishing for Muscular Dystrophy. The kick-off party is held Wednesday, April 3rd at the incredible DoubleTree by Hilton Grand Hotel Biscayne Bay. With a “day of rest” in between, competition starts on Friday, April 5th with lines in at 8 a.m. Following lines out on day one, teams can unwind for happy hour at the famous Monty’s Restaurant in Miami Beach Marina with complimentary drinks and food. Day two of competition is Saturday April 6th and tensions will be high as the final scores determine both the winners of Final Sail and the Quest for the Crest series.
With a total purse exceeding $1.9 million dollars, several boats have claimed six figure prizes at each stop for the series. With a current payout approaching $350,000 and a winner-take-all format, the Release Round Up has the undivided attention of every team and many spectators heading into Final Sail. Run the table in Final Sail and your team will have a shot at a payday in excess of $500,000. Five teams were in arms reach of the jackpot in the last tournament, Sailfish Challenge, and two of those teams needed just two more releases to win the massive jackpot. The signature category is broken into four rounds of fishing (morning and afternoon) over the two-day competition. In each round, a random number between 1 and 6 is drawn at the start of the round and represents the minimum number of sailfish a team must release during the 4-hour round in order to advance to the next. A team must advance through all four rounds and have the most releases in the final round among their competitors in order to claim the jackpot.
The results of the first two legs in the series have been diverse, with Utopia taking first place for Operation Sailfish with 14 releases, MDALA only a release behind with 13, and Kluch/Reel Easy taking 3rd place with 12 releases. Sailfish Challenge was a nail-bitter to the end. Native Son, one of the final five in the Release Round Up at the Challenge, secured 1st place with 20 releases. Team Good Call followed closely behind in 2nd with 19 releases and Kluch/Reel Easy snagged back-to-back 3rd place finishes with 18 releases. Their consistent performances earned them the lead in the series standings with 56 points followed by Bar South in 2nd place with 51 points, and one of the center-console favorites, team Showtime in 3rd place with 49 points on their 39’ SeaVee.
Claiming the world champions title and the burgundy jackets requires dominant performances and most importantly – consistency. As the final sailfish tournament of the season, teams know what is at stake. Who will rise to the occasion? The 7th annual Final Sail will be one to remember and the tournament of the season you won’t want to miss!
2019 Final Sail Details:
The Final Sail kick-off party is held on Wednesday, April 3 at the beautiful DoubleTree by Hilton Grand Hotel Biscayne Bay in Miami Beach. Competition days are both Friday, April 5th and Saturday, April 6th, followed by an awards ceremony Sunday, April 7th at the DoubleTree Grand Hilton Hotel ballroom. Tournament registration is available online at www.FinalSail.com and remains open until the conclusion of the kickoff party on April 3rd.
For more information on Final Sail, visit www.FinalSail.com or call 954-725-4010. The entire Quest for the Crest schedule and series standings can be found at http://www.questforthecrest.com
Launching of the NEXT GEN
50′ WALK AROUND
Designed to Fish & Travel
We are very excited to announce that Gamefisherman will soon be adding another member to its list of family members. In April, we will be starting the latest in our series of new builds. As we approach the West Palm Beach Boat show we wanted to give you a brief description of what this new model is all about.
The 50’ walk around will be powered by quad outboards. Since delivery will be in 2020, the owner has reserved his right to choose motors further into the build. Early indications say that some of outboard manufacturers will have 500+ HP outboards available by then. The new 50’ walk around will come with a huge cockpit and full mezzanine seating for up to six people. It will be outfitted with a Marlin Tower with a four sided enclosure so the bridge deck will have full temperature control.
The Gamefisherman 50’ walk around is designed to fish and travel. It will have two large insulated in deck fish boxes and a 50 gallon livewell built into the transom. Belowdecks it will have a master stateroom forward with a full walk around queen. The master will have its own private head and shower. The interior will feature a large galley with refrigeration, microwave, and stovetop with fridge and freezer combo below. A separate aft stateroom will feature four separate bunks. In addition, the boat will have a second head and shower that can accommodate the rear stateroom guests. The quad outboard engines are predicted to push her to a cruise speed of 40 MPH, with a top end approaching 52 MPH. This model will be equipped with a Gyro to be located in the cockpit. This new setup will be sure to capture the attention of others in the tournaments circuit in Florida.
50′ Walk Around SPECS
LOA: 50′ | Beam: 15’9″ | Draft: 2’8″
Displacement: 36,000 lb. | Fuel: 800 gal.
Water: 150 gal. | Power: Quad Outboards- HP and model to be determined
Whether you’re running the boat, manning the rod or trying to get your team in shape, everyone could use a refresher on making the most of your bites. In this video, originally published in 2017, acclaimed tournament angler Fred Hardwick outlines an ingenious, practical way of getting a fell for the drop back. If that were not enough, check out what the best fishing teams on the professional series are doing in 2019. For even more from the archives, check out the bottom link– a 2014 round table with some of professional sportfishing’s best…. Have things changed? Are they the same?
More ITB Sailfish Articles to Read –
Fishing for sails in Florida is a numbers game. Those who play it seem to be getting faster and more efficient with every passing season.
Sailfish 2.0 (click here…)
A Q&A with 4 of the Best Captains in the Business
The Art of Sailfishing (click here…)
Two days of battle by an infantry of elite Sailfishing teams
West Palm Beach, Fla. (Dec. 27, 2018) – Recognized as both the largest and richest sailfishing series in the world, the first leg of the Quest for the Crest Sailfish Series, Operation Sailfish, will be held at the Sailfish Marina in Palm Beach from January 16-20, 2019. Participating teams will battle it out on the high seas, sailfishing both Friday and Saturday for the chance to take home a custom set of champion dog tags and a stout payday with a cash purse worth over $800,000.
Other opportunities to reel in a win include the “Release Round-Up” jackpot. This winner-take-all category is approaching a $300,000 payout at Operation Sailfish with a buy-in of only $1,000. Win the tournament and the Release Roundup and your team could be cashing a check for over $500,000. The 2018 champion team and current titleholder, Weez in the Keys went home with a cash payout of $210,000 last year. Who will earn the prestigious title this year?
This two-day long tournament will give anglers a run for their boats, rods, and money. With a variety of prize categories available to enter, anglers will have many opportunities to collect some hefty checks and patriotic trophies. There are two tiers of optional entry through the daily categories that provide teams with an opportunity to win over $80,000 on a first place daily. Early and late bite categories also offer teams the chance to win some bonus cash in both the first and second half of the day.
Along with the competition, one of the most notable highlights of Operation Sailfish is the unique opportunity it provides anglers to give back to the men and women of the United States military. In partnership with its charity, Operation Homefront, each year this tournament holds a “Take a Hero Fishing Day,” which is designed to honor and support military veterans, active-duty soldiers, and wounded warriors by getting them out on the water for a fun day fishing. Held on Thursday, January 17, 2019, each participating team will be paired with a hero to enjoy a day of fishing, followed by a cocktail reception and awards ceremony, where top hero’s will be presented with trophies of their own!
The kick-off party is held on Wednesday, January 16 at the historic Sailfish Marina Resort in Palm Beach, with a color guard and national anthem ceremony. Competition days are both Friday, January 18 and Saturday, January 19, followed by a brunch and awards presentation Sunday, January 20 at Sailfish Marina Resort. Tournament registration is available online at www.operationsailfish.com. Registration remains open until the conclusion of the kickoff party on January 16th.
For more information on Operation Sailfish, visit the tournament website at www.operationsailfish.com or call 954-725-4010. The entire Quest for the Crest Sailfish Series schedule can be found at www.questforthecrest.com
From the ITB Vault- Conquering the Backlash
by Sam White
Chasing billfish with light tackle, circle hooks and dead bait is a tactic that’s gaining in popularity worldwide. It’s a great way to keep the anglers involved in catching fish rather than just waiting for a blind strike, not to mention that pitch-baiting a lit-u [Read more…]
A Q&A with 4 of the Best Captains in the Business
by Jan Fogt from the ITB Vault
Capt. V.J. Bell resides in Stuart, FL. Born in Wachaprague, Va., Bell’s first job was working for Capt. Earl Parker but when Earl’s brother Ray went south to Stuart in 1986, he signed onto the Seabird for his first sailfish season and never went back. In addition to Ray Parker, other mentors include Henley Sandige, Kim Phillips and Frank “Boogie” Warren, who he worked for on the Hobo. One of the top sailfish captains on [Read more…]