As editor-at-large of Marlin magazine and director of Marlin University, I've enjoyed the privilege of traveling to some of the best billfish hotspots on the planet. From Africa to Australia, and just about everywhere in between, I've experienced both the good and not-so-good aspects of overseas travel. And although the good times far outweigh the bad, you never truly know what to expect in some of the newly discovered destinations, and you can easily find yourself in some pretty laughable situations fishing-wise.
I distinctly remember flying for more than 20 hours on one trip and then spending the next four days fishing from private ski boats and converted World War II landing craft. My first Pacific blue ended up swimming into the landing craft's giant exhaust pipe and asphyxiating. (I was even crazy enough to go back and give the place a second try, and they still didn't get it right!)
Ever since Sept. 11 and the resulting security crackdown in our nation's airports, traveling anywhere by plane means getting to the check-in counter at least two hours early and dealing with endless baggage hassles and interminably long lines at security checkpoints. And can anybody tell me why you're required to take your shoes off and your computer out of its case at one airport and not at another? It just doesn't make any sense and seems to get worse on every trip.
But it's not just the security issues that make traveling such a chore these days; the economic crisis over the past few years has sent ticket prices to some of our most popular fishing destinations soaring, and to make ends meet, the airlines keep cutting back on services for its passengers. Who would have thought that you would ever have to pay extra for checking in a bag or bringing a piece of carry-on luggage aboard?
To help you make the most of your billfishing vacation, I've put together a list of my favorite places to wet a line that provide excellent numbers but don't come with an extra side of hassle. Most of these spots are just a two- or three-hour flight from the United States and are listed in no particular order.
St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands
If catching a blue marlin is the next item on your bucket list, no place on earth provides a more consistent blue marlin bite than the famed North Drop off the eastern end of St. Thomas. This incredibly deep portion of the Puerto Rican Trench holds vast quantities of bait that migrating marlin just can't resist. Anglers fishing for three days the week before or after the full moons of summer (June, July, August, September) will almost certainly come away with a blue marlin capture. We've held a Marlin University session in St. Thomas almost every year since its inception, and I have to say that from my personal experience, the best time to fish in St. Thomas is whenever you can go! At first I used to make sure that we were fishing the right moon phase, but I soon discovered that boats were sometimes hard to come by during those weeks. Being forced to fish off the moon several times - and doing just as well or better than the full-moon trips - convinced me that as long as you go during the summer, you've got a shot at a blue marlin. Fish here average in the 300-pound range, although 500-pounders are not uncommon. St. Thomas even held the all-tackle world record for many years with a 1,282 caught in 1977 by Larry Martin.
As a bonus, you can take a stroll down "A" Dock at American Yacht Harbor and converse with some of the best blue marlin fishermen in the world - and if you go off the moon, you might even be able to convince one of them to take you fishing if the boss isn't around. And since St. Thomas is a U.S. territory, you don't even need a passport to experience some of the best blue marlin fishing the Caribbean has to offer.
Capt. Red Bailey, Abigail III 340-775-6147 www.visportfish.com
Capt. Eddie Morrison, Marlin Prince 340-693-5929 www.marlinprince.com Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas 340-775-3333 www.ritzcarlton.com
Over the past several years, the Central American country of Costa Rica exploded as a must-visit eco-tourism hot spot. Costa Rica set aside almost 20 percent of its land in the form of national parks and protected areas, and visitors can enjoy everything from zipping through the jungle on elevated cables to hiking at the foot of an active volcano. And the fishing ain't half bad either!
Just a 2½-hour flight from most southern U.S. cities, Costa Rica offers up some of the world's best light-tackle action. World-record seekers come here for the large numbers of jumbo Pacific sailfish and the swarms of small blue and striped marlin that move in and feed during Costa Rica's dry season, which lasts from December through March - although this year the bite lasted well into June. All of these species swimming in the same water makes Costa Rica one of the premier spots to pursue a grand slam. Since most of the fish you see will be on the small side - except for the monster-size sails - most anglers fish with 20- to 30-pound tackle and pitch ballyhoo to fish raised on the teasers. There's no more exciting way to fish for blues, stripes and sails, and Costa Rica sits atop the list when it comes to the pursuit of light-tackle marlin releases.
Los Sueños Resort and Marina at Herradura Bay on the Pacific side represents the most luxurious and hassle-free spot to fish in Costa Rica. Sumptuous accommodations, one of the most modern marinas in Central America and a plethora of charter opportunities make Los Sueños a must-stop spot for traveling boats and visiting anglers alike. If you want to step away from the limelight a bit, try fishing up the coast in Playa Carrillo. This sleepy village hosts the country's best marlin bites, and a good number of charter boats - and world-record seekers - make this sheltered little bay their home from January through March.
A stable government and an eco-friendly national policy make Costa Rica an attractive destination whether you decide to wet a line or not.
Richard Chellemi, Gamefisher II 011-506-2654-4789 www.gamefisher2.com
Hotel Guanamar, Playa Carrillo 011-506-2656-0054 www.guanamarhotel.com
Los Sueños, Herradura Bay 866-865-9759 www.lsrm.com
Marina Pez Vela 866-739-8352 www.marinapezvela.com
Isla Mujeres, Mexico
For some reason or another, it took me 18 years to get around to visiting Isla Mujeres, Mexico, one of the first hot billfish destinations discovered by traveling American sport-fishers. After hosting a stellar Marlin U session there , I can assure you that it definitely won't be another 18!
Meaning the "Isle of Women," Isla Mujeres lies just a short 20-minute ferry ride from the coast of Cancún. This little bit of paradise hosts an amazing sailfish bite each winter and spring, with ravenous packs of sails balling shoals of sardines at the surface. Some of the sport's earliest travelers used to make the 350-mile trip from Miami to Isla Mujeres each March on 12-knot boats loaded down with the extra fuel needed to make what back then was a major crossing. Today's big boats make it down in 12 to 18 hours. Since then, boats have left earlier and earlier, and now you'll find a good number of them heading down in January to get a shot at the tremendous number of sails that pound the bait balls just a short 10- to 14-mile jog offshore. Catch numbers here reach epic proportions, and most boats catch and release more than 1,000 sails during a three-month season.
On a 1½-hour flight from Miami, Florida, you can leave the States in the morning and be out catching scrappy Atlantic sails off Isla Mujeres before noon! Depending on how well you pick up the intricate drop-back techniques used to make your dead ballyhoo swim right through the center of a balled-up school of sardines, you can expect to catch 10-plus sails a day without breaking a sweat. Once the sails really start firing off, 20 or 30 releases a day becomes the norm. As an added bonus, the quaint little fishing village on the island with its friendly people and cool little shops, bars and restaurants makes Isla a perfect place to come back to each day. After my one brief visit this past spring, I felt like kicking myself for missing out on this great island for so long - don't make the same mistake.
Capt. Anthony Mendillo, Keen M 011-52-998-877-0759 www.islamujeressportfishing.com
Another American territory in the Caribbean that's just a short 2½-hour hop from most eastern U.S. cities, Puerto Rico hosts a great blue marlin bite each summer.
Since it lies at the other end of the Puerto Rican Trench, just some 60 or so miles from St. Thomas, the bite here sometimes reaches epic proportions. The San Juan International Billfish Tournament, the longest continually running billfish tournament in the world, even held the record for the most blue marlin caught in a four-day tournament (190 in 1988) for 10 years. The San Juan tournament, which takes place every August, uses a unique, rotating boat format that allows an angler to show up all alone with rod and reel in hand and compete as an individual or as part of another team. In my opinion this represents one the best deals in all of sport fishing.
Truth be told though, Puerto Rico's best blue marlin bite doesn't even take place off San Juan. Instead, it's Mayaguez, a little fishing village on the northeast end of the island, that enjoys a swarm of blue marlin during the full moons of summer. Anglers trolling lures or small dead baits here routinely score three or four blue marlin releases a day and sometimes more. Once again, you don't even need a passport to visit this exotic island destination.
San Juan International Blue Marlin Tournament www.sanjuaninternational.com
Both blue and white marlin show up in the clear, blue waters of the Dominican Republic, with whites popping up in the spring and hanging around well into the arrival of the blues in the summer.
The small blues that frequent these waters make perfect targets for light tackle and fly gear, so pick up a long wand, and you might just get lucky enough to catch a blue one on the fly. Three years ago, a number of FADs (fish-attracting devices) set up along the coast drew incredible numbers of blue marlin into the area, and crews were catching up to five or six rat blues a day with surprising regularity. Combine all the hot bites with legitimate five-star hotels and marinas like the Cap Cana and Punta Cana resorts, and you've got an island paradise just a three-hour flight from Miami.
Cap Cana Resort 800-785-2198 www.capcana.com
Punta Cana Resort & Club 888-442-2262 www.puntacana.com
I first visited Guatemala more than 17 years ago, and at that time I wouldn't have classified this Central American hot spot as an easy-to-fish destination. The huge numbers of sailfish that swarm off the Guatemalan coast had just been discovered, and the infrastructure had not yet caught up with the hot bite offshore.
Decent accommodations in the fishing area around the port city of Iztapa were nonexistent. The first place I stayed down there had an air conditioner in the room that dripped on my head and sounded like someone trying to kick-start a Harley-Davidson. My, how times have changed. Once the indomitable Tim Choate opened up the now-defunct Fins N' Feathers lodge, Guatemala's fishing and lodging alternatives exploded. A new marina, built by longtime angler and Guatemalan promoter Fernando Aguilar, provided excellent dockage, kept boats from having to navigate a horrible inlet every day and helped pave the way to making this remote spot one of the easiest places to fish.
Guatemala hosts a ridiculous amount of Pacific sailfish from December through March, with anglers sometimes releasing more than 40 fish a day. Blue marlin make their appearance in these waters as well, so you'll be thankful for the world-class, English-speaking captains at the helm. Top-notch lodges, boats and a fabulous landscape make the Guatemalan experience all the more enticing. And since all of the lodges pick you up at the airport and whisk you away to the port, there's no easier place to book a charter and fish in Central America, which is saying something.
Casa Vieja Lodge 866-846-9121 www.casaviejalodge.com
Guatemalan Billfishing Adventures Capt. Brad Philipps www.guatbilladv.com
Florida: Fort Pierce to Key West
Already widely known as one of the world's premier saltwater fishing destinations - drawing more than 3 million fishing visitors each year - Florida also hosts a consistent, world-class sailfish bite each winter and spring that lasts from December to well into June. And a lot of you don't even have to jump on a plane to get to it.
Ten-, 15- and 20-fish days come fast and furiously as cold fronts moving down from the North butt up against the Gulf Stream, causing the sails to start snapping with wild abandon. And since crews in Florida utilize several different methods to target the sails, it's easy to find a charter boat that fishes the way you are accustomed to. Up in the Fort Pierce area, crews pull dredges and dead ballyhoo to cover ground, while farther south, live baits fished under kites is the preferred method. Move even farther south into the Keys, and you'll find captains who "run and gun," cruising the reef edge looking for showering baits and then roaring in to toss live ballyhoo into the fray on 12-pound spinning tackle.
And just because sails make up the large majority of Florida's billfish catches, don't think that's the only billfish action the Sunshine State has to offer. Longline closures in the Florida Straits and along the state's east coast revitalized the traditional recreational swordfish fishery. Now you can fish for the elusive swordfish - one of the hardest species for any billfish angler to put under his belt - during the day or night in Florida and actually have a good chance of catching one.
Capt. Alex Adler, Kalex, Islamorada 305-522-1984
Capt. Ray Rosher, Miss Britt, Miami/Coconut Grove 305-596-0419
Ocean City, Maryland
Believe it or not, you can find great billfish action right off the Eastern Seaboard during the summer months, and Ocean City, Maryland, becomes the epicenter of the offshore scene during August.
Pods of hungry white marlin move into the offshore canyons, and anglers willing to make the 80-mile runs are sometimes rewarded with double-digit days, releasing more than 10 scrappy whites in a single trip. Big blue marlin and tunas also feed in the same water, so anglers need to prepare their tackle for an encounter with all three species. Also, those willing to wager can enter the White Marlin Open, one of the world's richest tournaments, which awards more than $2 million in prize money.
It's also hard to beat the local atmosphere in Ocean City, where the 2½-mile boardwalk draws families from all over the Northeast during the summer months. With an enormous range of accommodations to choose from and one of the largest charter fleets on the East Coast, it's no wonder Ocean City turns into the self-proclaimed "White Marlin Capital of the World" each and every summer.
Charters/Dockage, Sunset Marina 410-213-9600
Inlet Lodge, Ocean City, Maryland 410-289-7552
With one of the richest coastlines in Central America, Panama ranks up among the world's best places to wet a line.
As home to one of the top game-fish lodges, Tropic Star Lodge, and several world-class mothership operations, Panama offers up a wide variety of fishing options. Most importantly, it also provides your best shot at a black marlin in the Northern Hemisphere. Sure, you can catch one giant Pacific sail after another, trolling just yards off a primordial jungle coastline, but after you get your fill of sails, a short jaunt out to Zane Grey Reef with a live tuna almost guarantees a visit from a black marlin.
Blacks here range from 300-pound rats to bruisers pushing the 1,000-pound mark. While you can probably catch fish year-round, the dry season from January through April is the peak time for Panama. Once the rains start during the summer, fish move farther offshore, and boats have recently discovered pretty good blue and striped marlin bites when fishing slows inshore.
The only downside to fishing in Panama - if you can call spending the night in a four-star hotel a downside - is that you might have to spend an extra night coming and going to make connecting flights. While that may not sound like a hassle-free experience, when you book a trip with one of the agents listed below, you'll find yourself looking forward to spending a fun night in Panama City. Besides, once you're trolling along one of the most wild and rugged coastlines you've ever seen, any thoughts of the city fade away to oblivion. I equate a fishing trip to Panama to a visit to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia: Anyone who likes to fish should try to get here at least once before they die, and it's one hell of a lot closer to the States!
Tropic Star Lodge 800-682-3424 www.tropicstar.com
Long known as one of the cradles of big-game sport fishing, North Carolina boasts a late-summer blue marlin bite that gives stateside anglers their most legitimate shot at catching a blue topping 800 pounds.
With that said, the white marlin bite off Hatteras and the Outer Banks comes in second to nowhere when they really turn on. North Carolina has enjoyed a tremendous white marlin season the last few years, with local boats scoring 10- to 20-fish days with surprising regularity. And the state's large and experienced charter fleet allows walk-up anglers the opportunity to fish with world-class captains and mates. A trip on a North Carolina charter boat is more than just a fishing trip; it's a big-game education that can shave years off your learning curve if you sit back and pay attention.
The area's large charter and boatbuilding community continually spits out a seemingly never-ending supply of top captains who go on to make names for themselves - guys like Paul Spencer, John Bayliss and Paul Mann, just to name a few. North Carolina also hosts some of the largest, most popular blue marlin tournaments on the East Coast, like the Big Rock out of Morehead City and the Pirate's Cove out of, you guessed it, Pirate's Cove Marina on the Outer Banks, which also hosts a charter fleet. And anyone who fishes in the Atlantic should definitely stop by the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center to see where this whole offshore game got started.
Oregon Inlet Fishing Center 800-272-5199 www.oregon-inlet.com
Pirate's Cove Marina 800-367-4728 www.fishpiratescove.com