billfish leaping out of water
Christopher Balogh

El Salvador's Marlin and Sailfish Fishing Action

Natural beauty plus excellent offshore fishing abound

Marco Zablah is like your favorite uncle. Behind a bushy mustache, the gregarious El Salvadoran is quick to smile, and he laughs with a rolling, full-bellied chuckle. A natural hotelier, Zablah is the proprietor of Bahia del Sol, a resort he built 24 years ago in the Costa del Sol region of the Central American nation. He also loves to fish. Unfortunately, when we met at the resort, Zablah was trussed up tighter than a Thanksgiving turkey, laced into a back brace and walking with a cane. A fall on a slick floor a week earlier left him with several badly injured vertebrae, and he wasn’t sure if he could fish in the upcoming tournament, which was hosted by his resort and produced by our mutual friend, Paco Saca. He asked me to join him and his son, Marco, who had returned home to El Salvador from his college studies in Spain. We were fishing on Capt. Hook, the famed Guatemalan charter boat skippered by another good friend of mine, Capt. Eddie Bairez. I hesitated about two milliseconds before agreeing. Our recap of the El Salvador International Billfish Tournament is here Return to an Old Favorite My first visit to El Salvador was in 2008, fishing in the country’s International Billfish Tournament. I knew the action had potential to be red-hot — as good as anywhere in Central America. During that trip, we caught more than 40 sails and won the sailfish division. It was good to be back nine years later, to see how much had changed and what remained the same. The litmus test of time, if you will. The rainy season runs from May through October, so my visit in November 2017 was perfectly timed. The weather was hot but seasonably clear, with light winds. There was a big swell rolling through, but with the seas so widely spaced, the Pacific appeared slick-calm at a distance. Best of all, the reports leading up to the event all pointed toward some great fishing conditions.

One of the best parts about Costa del Sol is the ease of access. This beautifully scenic finger of land running along the El Salvador coast is only about 30 minutes from the airport in the nation’s capital of San Salvador. The drive is picturesque, with the Pacific waves cresting on sandy beaches along one side and placid, mangrove-lined riverbanks and lagoons on the other. The Bahia del Sol resort actually spans both sides of the peninsula, giving guests the opportunity to experience each environment. The marina is small but perfectly functional, with dockage, fuel and other amenities. The resort’s rooms are no-frills rustic, but when you’re fishing hard every day, you really just need a shower and clean sheets each evening.

El Salvador International Billfish Tournament director Paco Saca
Tournament director Paco Saca addresses the crowd during the awards celebration. Saca and his friend Marco Zablah founded the El Salvador International Billfish Tournament to showcase the outstanding billfish action found there.Christopher Balogh

I've known Saca for more years than I care to remember. He's a true sport-fishing ambassador, and he is especially passionate about lure-fishing for blue marlin. He's happiest pulling a spread of his favorite Black Barts on heavy tackle from his 45-foot Rampage, Sandy-ita, usually fishing with his sons Jorge and Javier as his anglers in the cockpit. He and Zablah developed the concept for the El Salvador International Billfish Tournament 23 years ago as a way to highlight the outstanding offshore action in the country. The event draws boats from across Central America, thanks to the high level of competition but also the close-knit nature of the event. Each evening, the resort hosts some terrific after-fishing dinners and parties, and since nearly everyone is staying right there, you really have a chance to get to know your fellow fishermen. And certified observers keep everything fair for the participating teams.

boat on the water in El Salvador at sunset
A near-surreal experience: departing Bahia del Sol in the shadow of distant volcanoes.Christopher Balogh

Crossing the Bar

After a day of pre-fishing, we headed out for the first day of the three-day event. Exiting the river mouth into the sea was thankfully benign despite the big swells. The tournament is scheduled each year to coincide with the highest tides in the morning and evening because this stretch can be a bit tricky otherwise. Boats left the marina in small groups, each waiting for a break between sets before throttling up and making a dash for it. In the shadow of the volcanoes back ashore, it’s an early morning adrenaline rush unlike any other.

marco zablah fishing in el salvador
Marco Zablah returned to his native El Salvador to fish the tournament with his father.Christopher Balogh

As with other spots along the Pacific coast of Central America, the bottom structure slopes toward the shelf, then drops precipitously. There can be good fishing inshore when the bait is stacked up, but we found better action along the drop, some 50 miles offshore. It was more a matter of spreading out along the edge to locate the bite. We hit a stretch where we were catching a sailfish about every 15 or 20 minutes, then got the call from our captain to reel up. After running for a half-hour or so, we put the lines back out and caught a double right away, then a single and a double just a few minutes later. From good fishing to great fishing, just like that.

And so it went, all day long. Although the junior Zablah fishes just a few days a year due to his studies in Europe, he proved to be an absolute sniper on the flat line. His father was equally adept on the other side in spite of his bad back, and it was truly a lot of fun watching them go back and forth as the sails kept crashing the teasers. I picked up the leftovers on the long riggers with the mate, and between the four of us, we didn't miss too many bites. By midafternoon on Day One, we had released 20 sails. Zablah remarked that we might catch 30 if the bite held up. Sure enough, just as we were getting ready to run for home, we had a double. His son caught number 30, and I released our 31st sailfish of the day. We had a narrow lead in the tournament — another Guatemala-based boat, The King and I, also caught 31, releasing its last one after we were already running home. With two more days to go, the tournament was going to be a dogfight right until the end, but winning the daily felt pretty good.

sailfish backflips on the line
A sailfish backflips prior to release on Capt. Hook.Christopher Balogh

A Convenient Stopover

That evening, I talked to another buddy, Bill Pino, of Squidnation fame. He was in town and fishing aboard Monique, a 55-foot Viking owned by Nasry Arguedas. Pino has won this event multiple times fishing on Tranquilo, but since his usual ride was back in the States for a refit, he had switched teams this year.

“This has always been one of my favorite tournaments,” he says. “It’s the best-kept sailfish secret in the world. Paco chooses to highlight the blue marlin fishing, which is great, but the sailfish action can be incredible. We’ve had days where we caught 33 and a blue, 38 and 41 sails a day in the past few years.” He also pointed out that the food was excellent as we sat down for a plate of lobster-size local shrimp one evening under a palapa-thatched bar just steps away from the boats. “It’s a great stop for the boats that are coming back to Central America from fishing the big tournaments in Mexico — more people should take advantage of that aspect when they’re traveling,” he points out.

captain daniel espinoza checking on his spread
Capt. Daniel Espinoza keeps a sharp eye on the spread behind Spanish Fly, the eventual second-place team in the event, thanks to a blue marlin release late on Day Three.Christopher Balogh

Celebrating the Winners

As we hit the water the following day, our first-place lead slipped away as Monique steadily pulled ahead of the fleet. We released another 32 sails on the next two days and were lined up for a third-place finish when our friends on Spanish Fly released a blue marlin late on Day Three that bumped us into fourth place overall. Monique finished the event with 88 sailfish releases. Spanish Fly was second with 63 sails and a blue marlin, and The King and I third with 66 sails. The team on Don Juan won the marlin division with three blue marlin, each tagged with a TBF tag. For the tournament, there were 504 sailfish and 14 blue marlin released in the three days of fishing. Incredible.

three men celebrating victory at El Salvador International Billfish Tournament
Monique owner Nasry Arguedas and Bill Pino celebrate their victory. The team released 88 sailfish in three days of hot fishing.Christopher Balogh

That evening, as the awards celebration progressed through a smoky haze of roasted pig, high-octane rum, quality cigars and live flamenco guitar music, I reflected that no matter how much things may change in our lives, some things thankfully remain the same. The fishing off El Salvador remains as consistently good as it was nearly a decade ago. For that simple fact, I am quite thankful.