Just 24 miles off of Puerto Quetzal on Guatemala's Pacific Coast, I watch the mates effortlessly rig a handful of ballyhoo teasers and ready the spread. As the boat gently comes off plane, the two mates are already clipping lines into the 'rigger halyards and scanning the horizon for sailfish.
The fly rod, a 16-weight, super-stout Cam Sigler custom, sits in anticipation on the portside covering board. "You might want to get ready," says Jim Turner, the owner of the Release, a classic 37 Merritt, and my fishing partner for the day. "I bet a sail will come along any minute."
Before I finish placing the zoom lens on my camera, Jim's words come true - an electric-blue sailfish materializes behind the long 'rigger bait. The mates expertly tease the fish in, yanking the ballyhoo from its maw and enraging the fish to no end. I drop the fly in the water, letting the line come tight. I extend my arms, my heart beating like a jackhammer. I can't help but watch the sailfish dart back and forth behind the teaser as the mates reel in as fast as their arms allow. The captain drops the boat in neutral and calmly calls down for me to make my cast.
I do my best to place the fly just behind the teaser, but it falls a bit to the right. The mate hauls in the teaser bait, leaving the sailfish circling like a hungry dog. Once the fish spots the pink fly, it takes a swipe at it, and I sweep my arms in and to the left, hoping to firmly set the hook. The line comes tight for a brief moment, then falls slack, and I see the popper float back to the surface.
"Re-tease!" Capt. Chris Sheeder hollers down from the bridge, and the mates quickly go back to work. "Don't worry, Charlie. I see three more fish."
Sure enough, we raise two more sails within a few minutes and repeat the process. This time, the 6/0 Owner Octopus hook hammers home, and the sailfish takes to the skies in a display of pure beauty as the fly reel screams. We finish the day with 13 sails on fly and leave the grounds with free-jumpers clearing the waves all around us. "That's a good sign," Sheeder says. "When you leave free-jumpers, it usually means the next day is going to be hot."
The fish move a bit farther offshore on the second day, around the 30-mile mark. Again, we set out the fly spread, and again the fish magically appear behind the boat. But, the fish seem more sluggish and less aggressive than they'd been the previous day, and the mates have a difficult time getting them to tease in close enough to present the fly. We've raised nearly 40 fish by 11 a.m. but caught only four. The lazy fish start to aggravate me, and I ask the captain if I can put a circle hook in one of the teaser baits "just to get a few photos."
"We either fish all baits or all fly," Sheeder says. I nod my head and keep my mouth shut. After a few minutes, another sail pops up behind the long 'rigger, trailing it for a few seconds and then falling off. I look up to the bridge and hear Sheeder say something in Spanish to the mates, who begin bringing in the spread. "We're switching to baits," he says.
The baits make the difference, and we hook one doubleheader after another. Turner, his father Jim Turner Sr. and I couldn't leave the cockpit for more than a minute or two before hooking up again. And each time, Sheeder would experty turn the boat, allowing the second angler, and sometimes the third, to hook another fish. We finish the day with 26 sails on baits and four on fly.
On the final day, the fish move even farther offshore, and Capt. Chip Shafer on the Old Reliable finds a good concentration of fish 45 miles out. I head out with a group from New Jersey aboard the Intensity, and we decide to put the lines in 30 miles offshore. We raise a small blue early on and hook a 500-pounder around 11 a.m. Angler Rich Smith fights the fish for a good hour before he scores the release. We release eight more sailfish before calling it a day.
From November through May, no location sees more sailfish than Guatemala. Although the fleet endures some slow days here and there, few places in the world can compare. In March 2006, the fleet recorded one of the best bites in the history of sport fishing. Capt. Ron Hamlin caught 124 sailfish in one day, and Turner and Sheeder broke the one-day record for sailfish landed on fly with 57 releases. With the sailfish snapping in such huge numbers, it's no surprise that the sport-fishing fleet in Guatemala keeps on growing.
Turner, who began traveling to Guatemala in the early 1990s, decided to get into the chartering game after Fins 'n Feathers, the area's most well-known lodge, closed down. In 2005, Turner purchased the Release and signed on Sheeder to run it for him. After a successful 2006 season, he decided to up his investment in Guatemala and purchased three more vessels: the Intensity, a 37 Gamefisherman, the Cañaso, a 37 Daytona, and the Spindrift, a Stolper. Turner also purchased the Pelagian, a 37 Rybovich and once the pride of the Fins 'n Feathers fleet. This vessel, which held the record for most billfish caught in a single season two years running, recently underwent a major refit in Miami and will be ready for the 2008 season. To round out the Casa Vieja fleet, Turner bought the Nany, a classic 42 Merritt.
Turner and his staff now operate a lodge to house guests as well, named Casa Vieja. The crew conducted a room-by-room makeover, installing new furniture, windows and more. When I arrived in early February, you could still smell the fresh polyurethane on the wood floors. The finished product is comfortable with an old-world charm reminiscent of fishing days past. That's where the lodge takes its name, which means antique home. For all those who used to fish out of Fins 'n Feathers, you'll see many familiar faces at Casa Vieja, and they're happy as ever to do all they can to ensure you enjoy your stay.
After Fins 'n Feathers closed its doors in 2005, many believed that was the end of fishing in Guatemala, but nothing could be further from the truth. Guests have their choice of several different lodges, such as Casa Vieja, that offer first-class accommodations and boats. And, traveling to the coast is safe and easy.
Most major airlines offer direct flights from Miami to Guatemala City, and Casa Vieja includes ground transfers. The port is just a 90-minute drive from the airport. The lodge itself offers 12 rooms and beds for 20 guests. The lodge's restaurant serves fantastic meals, and the rum never stops flowing at the bar. Clients can choose from a range of fishing packages, and there is also room for corporate retreats. All the boats use top-of-the-line tackle and provide lunch and drinks. The lodge will also arrange for various tours onshore
if you'd like to take a day off from fishing. For more information, visit www.casaviejalodge.com or call 866-846-9121.