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April 03, 2013

The Perfect Day

Isla Mujeres Provides Epic Sail Numbers

I’ve spent a lot of time during the last 50 years in, under and around the water, especially in South Florida and the Keys, but I’ve never experienced anything like the day I recently had in Isla Mujeres, Mexico. It all came about quite unexpectedly.

During a recent visit to Tropic Star Lodge in Panama, I ran into Jimmy Nelson and his Gaff Life television crew. They were there to film a series of episodes on Tropic Star for NBC Sports. I was also on a photo mission, and our conversation flowed casually from fish to cameras to techniques to destinations. At some point, I mentioned that one of my goals was to get back to Isla Mujeres and try to take some underwater photos of sailfish balling bait.

I’d been to Isla Mujeres with Tim Choate back in 1981, trying to set an IGFA fly record for Atlantic sailfish on 6-pound tippet. We caught a sail that would have been way over the existing record, but to our dismay, we couldn’t find a certified scale on the entire island. Nevertheless, it was a fun trip with lots of sails raised and caught, but not once were they ever “balling bait.”

Fast-forward some 30 years, and the growth of the sport-fishing industry in Isla Mujeres is off the charts. It is now the

No. 1 place for Atlantic sailfish from mid-January through March. Catches of more than two dozen sails a day are common, and several videographers have recorded some outstanding action after coming across packs of sails working balls of sardines. The sight of sails working a baitball is a rarity in most parts of the world, but you have a pretty good chance of seeing it happen in Isla Mujeres. As luck would have it, Nelson said that they were filming a show in Isla Mujeres in a few weeks and invited me to tag along. He didn’t have to ask twice!


Back to Mexico

I met Nelson and his cameramen, Mark Soussou and Xavier Groenendyk, at the Miami airport for the short hop to Cancun. Upon arrival, we flagged down a van and headed to Puerto Juarez for the 20-minute ferry ride to Isla Mujeres.

Brant Wise, owner of Swordfish Sportfishing and the 53-foot custom Carolina sport-fisherman Swordfish, would be angling with us. Capt. Jim Ashley and Swordfish spend most of the year on the Outer Banks in North Carolina, but venture down to Isla Mujeres for the winter sailfish run, from January through March. Wise met us when we stepped off the ferry. The seas were flat and calm — too good to be true, of course.
Wise’s local contact and overall “fixer,” Tony Poot, also met us at the dock and brought us to our hotel and then to the boat to unload what seemed like several hundred pounds of camera equipment. Poot turned out to be invaluable to us during the trip, and he arranged dinners at Freddy’s, his father’s restaurant, which was only a few doors down from our hotel. Everything seemed to be flowing smoothly until about 10 a.m. the next morning.

sailfish balling bait
Ford said that watching the sails feed underwater taught him more about the species than he had learned in his previous 40 years on the water.

Our first day on the water started out nicely, albeit with a warning that a front was moving into the area. Our run to the fishing grounds took about an hour pushing through 2- to 3-foot seas, and within the first hour of trolling, we raised six sails and caught two — then everything went south! The wind arrived ahead of schedule, the seas shot from 3 feet to 8 feet, the fishing shut down completely, and by 11 a.m., it was just too miserable to stay on the water. Heading in was pretty much a no-brainer, and by the time we reached sheltered water, the wind was blowing 30 knots and the seas were pushing 12 feet. The next day, the wind never let up, and we stayed at the dock.

Day three dawned with civilized winds and seas, but a whole day of fishing raised two sails that didn’t eat and a 40-pound kingfish that managed to stay attached to a circle hook on a mono leader. We never even saw a frigate bird.

isla  mujeres fishing dock
With a short run to the fishing grounds and an amazing sail bite, Isla Mujeres makes for a great place to practice.