How to Target Billfish on Fly

Recreating that first-time adrenaline rush
Capt. Jen Copeland and two crewmates posing and smiling for the camera.
Capt. Jen Copeland with Rum Line mates Sebastian Valladares (on left) and Tony Gonzales (on right). Marlin Expeditions / Out Your Front Door

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As my offshore-fishing career advances over time, I find myself looking for new ways to bring the spark back to the sport that has dominated my career and my life. I love going fishing, but as an adrenaline junkie—or ex-junkie, as it were—I’m always looking to re-create that feeling. There’s nothing like it, and I’m sure anyone reading this can agree.

After decades in this business and hundreds of billfish, I still have some bucket-list fishing trips to pursue: baby black marlin on the flats of Hervey Bay in Australia, Mag Bay stripeys, and yes, believe it or not, a clown knifefish is also on my list. What was not on my list, however, was my first sailfish on fly.

Keep in mind, I may have thrown a fly at a hula hoop in my backyard a few times, but I had never successfully landed one in front of a fish. And I’d never thrown a fly at a billfish. Luckily for me, I was able to cross that off the list this past summer, when a layover Marlin Expeditions trip to Casa Vieja Lodge in Guatemala provided me that very opportunity.

We Aren’t in Kansas Anymore

Bluewater fly-fishing to me was always an enigma of sorts, mostly because it is hardly ever light-to-variable offshore. I couldn’t wrap my head around a perfectly presented fly in not-so-perfect weather. While I admit that I never really considered this quest until a few years ago, I also never asked anyone for any advice on the matter. I wasn’t serious, or even interested, until, all of a sudden, I was. So, when I approached my fishing buddy, Phillip Kile, to see if he was interested in trying it, I was happy to get a resounding yes from him.

As we got to Rum Line that morning, two fly rods sat in the rocket launcher, both adorned with sparkling pink-and-white flies. The hooks I recognized immediately, coming from the day when we fished for sails with J hooks: Owner SSW 5111 6/0s, extra sharp, I thought. I was a little nervous, but having fished with Phil and the crew for a long time now, I knew we were all down for a first-on-fly mission. I tried to forget everything I knew before. And even though the fish were biting their faces off on the troll, we were ready to switch it up, even if that meant not landing a single one. Sometimes you gotta break a few eggs, they say.

So Many Questions

The first question mate Sebastian Valladares asked me was, “Left-handed or right-handed?” referring to which hand I’d be reeling with. Normally, I would have treated this setup as I would a spinning outfit and go the left-handed route, but due to a recent injury to my left hand, I was forced to reel with my right. Not a big deal, I thought. I’d been reeling with my right hand all week.

On the ride out, the mates explained the process, the number of teasers used, where they would be located in the modified spread, how they would tease the fish in, and when to throw the fly. Now, I’ve seen my fair share of fish on a teaser, so I thought I would be fine. The problem was, and the part I neglected to hear was, “Don’t throw it until the captain yells, ‘Cast!’”

Capt. Terry Brennan slowed down as we approached a commercial ship loaded with dorados. The left rigger went down, three teasers went out—two on the long riggers and one off the tip on the left side—and we were about to get our first real lesson in ­billfish fly-fishing.

As we trolled around the ship, Valladares set up the rod, stripping off just the right amount of line so that when the fly was tossed, it would land where the teaser would be ripped from the water. He then showed me where exactly to land the fly for whichever side the fish was on, and asked me to do a few backcasts for practice. I did, and then set the rod on the deck, carefully recoiled the stripped line, and laid the fly on the covering board. “Ladies first,” Phil insisted.

Phillip Kile pulls a large billfish boatside.
Phillip Kile documents his first billfish on fly in Guatemala. Courtesy Casa Vieja Lodge / Rum Line

No Thinking; Just Do

There is no casting or stripping in this game. You get one shot, that’s it, and after raising five sailfish on the long teasers and successfully teasing them three-quarters of the way in, the lazy fish lost interest, as I attempted to toss the fly on my own while we were still moving. This required Brennan to come off the bridge to give me a little talking to, reminding me of the three most important parts of this process: 1) The boat must be out of gear; 2) there likely will be only one shot at the fish; and 3) the part that neglected to register the first time, “Wait until I say, ‘Cast.’”

At one point, Phil and I were questioning our motives: Was it worth missing the opportunity to actually catch rather than sit around and watch the fish fade off the teasers? We were frustrated, but we stayed the course, and eventually, as if it were meant to be, it paid off.

Fish No. 6 showed itself on the right long teaser, and I picked up the rod. I refused to think about the process. I was focused on the fish, and with the cloud cover, I couldn’t let it out of my sight. As mate Tony Gonzales artfully teased it in, I thought, This thing is gonna be the one, and I used my peripheral vision to pick up the fly off the covering board. I stood there, eyes locked, for what seemed like forever, one ear turned toward the bridge, not hearing anything but Brennan’s voice.

“Cast!” was all I heard as I swung the rod over my right shoulder and threw the fly with the same determination and follow-through as I’d hit a baseball. The fly landed directly in front of the lit-up sailfish. For a second, I thought I’d lost sight of it, but then, the fish inhaled the fly in what was the prettiest bite I may have ever seen—so close, no white water, so awesome.

Fifteen minutes later, I was leaning over the side for that classic Casa Vieja GoPro photo to document my first sail on fly. I was ecstatic; everyone was. And just like that, we were onto the next one—Phil’s—and he nailed it (of course he did).

Read Next: Here’s some additional information to help you connect with your first billfish on fly.

As the day went on, we each ended up going 2-for-2, hoping for another shot that unfortunately didn’t happen. But, we were good; we were 4-for-4 on fly and couldn’t have been happier. And we were able to re-­create that first-fish excitement all over again.

So, if you’ve never tried to catch a billfish on fly, I highly recommend it. Not just because you can say you did it, but also because doing so just might give you the same feeling Phil and I got and give you a new lease on your fishing life. Couldn’t we all use a little more feel-good these days?

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