At first, it looks like a dark smudge on the pink and white horizon. As we move closer, individual specks emerge from the cloud, wheeling in ever-tightening circles hundreds of feet into the air. The spiraling tornado reaches all the way to the water’s surface where black tijereta birds must fold up their long wings when jockeying for position over the feeding frenzy below. Closer still, and we start making out slicing bills and fully erect sails knifing through the water, scattering sardines with every charge. We found the birds, so we found the sailfish. Rigged and prepped long before sunrise, the baits go over and the captain turns the boat toward the action, and Isla Mujeres delivers on its springtime promise once more.
So Close, Yet So Far
The small island of Isla Mujeres lies just off the Mexican coast, a few miles north of the resort town of Cancun on the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. Only 10 miles apart as the crow flies, the distance between Isla and Cancun is tremendous in terms of atmosphere.
Although you’ll find plenty of bars and nice restaurants on Isla, they cater to a much quieter crowd, so you won’t see drunken frat boys stumbling around. You do, however, see plenty of kids wandering the sandy streets, shopping with their parents. Isla is one of those rare places in the world where you can let age-appropriate children take off and explore on their own, so it’s one of the first places I recommend to folks who want to take their family on a fishing vacation.
There are few cars allowed on Isla Mujeres, just a few taxis, so the golf cart is the chariot of choice here and also adds to the laid-back vibe this island exudes. Aside from the amazing sailfish potential and the family-friendly ambience, the fact that you can ditch the cold winter temperatures and snow up north and hit the tropics in under half a day’s travel is reason enough to visit. But it really is the remarkable sailfish bite that makes a trip to Isla so alluring.
At Times … Astounding Numbers
During my first few years here at Marlin in the mid-1990s, I started hearing about the big sailfish bite off of Isla Mujeres. Back then, it was a more of a springtime fishery. Traveling boats met up in Key West, Florida, before making the “long” trek across in late February or March to intercept multitudes of sailfish that gather to feed off the baitballs. Many of those boats came down from the Carolinas to ditch the cold weather and stretch out their charter season.
Boats started reeling in incredible numbers, catching 30, 40, 50 up to 100 sails in a single day. Crews here pull dead ballyhoo rigged with circle hooks, so mortality is kept to a minimum. Hookups were instantaneous.
Over time, boats started leaving from the States earlier and earlier to get first crack at the sails as they moved into the area. The fish can show up like gangbusters in January, so as soon as those early boats started doing well, the news spread. Nowadays, most boats head for Isla shortly after Christmas and stay until March.
Get a Jump Start
One of those boats is the 65-foot Viking Outta Here, captained by Pat Dineen out of Destin, Florida. “Most everybody shows up in late December or early January,” says Dineen. “Our first year, we came down during the first week in December and we were the only ones there. We came back after Christmas and the marina was full. January and early February can be really good, so we like to get down early to get a good spot in the marina. March and April is grand slam time since you can go out wide and catch blues, whites and sails.” Guy Harvey even shows up during the summer months to tag a few of the juvenile mako sharks that move into the area.
It took me awhile to get down to Isla, and my first visit came during a Marlin University session in March 2010. Just as advertised, the sails started stacking up the balls of sardines, and we saw hundreds of fish in the water around our boat. It was the first time I ever saw so many Atlantic sails in one spot. Several times I saw more than a dozen sails slashing the bait, and we knew that many more lurked down below out of sight. We also got to see the different ways these guys fish for sails. Since we were there during the tail end of the season, the fish had already been worked pretty hard, so you had to be very precise with your bait placement to get a bite. Your bait had to almost go directly through the baitball or the sails wouldn’t eat it.
Fishing the Baitballs
When the sails feed aggressively on the baitballs, the angler and captain must work together to get the angler’s bait to skip up to and penetrate the baitball to trigger a bite. If you miss a few feet off to either side, the sails ignore your bait and stay fixed on the baitball. Oftentimes, the captain just told us to dump everything and wait for one of the sails working underneath the baitball to pick up one of our “wounded” ballyhoo. On our first day, we caught 20 out of 45 bites with Capt. Jeff Ross on Obsession and we never got fewer than 10 bites a day on that trip.
Practice Makes Perfect
Mostly short runs to the fishing grounds, gin-clear water and plenty of bites create the perfect place to experiment with different tackle and techniques. It doesn’t hurt that the early bite represents the first fishing of the year for traveling crews fresh out of the yard. Practice makes perfect, so a lot of crews travel to Isla to hone their skills for the marlin tournament season that runs over the summer months. During my last trip to Isla, the boys on You Never Know were playing with a new “top secret” dredge. Unfortunately, no one was very good at keeping secrets and the neon-blue Squidnation dredge was soon seen everywhere … at least for a while, anyway.
Experimenting aside, most crews do fine running a fairly standard spread. “We pull two double dredges with split-tailed mullet and ballyhoo/rubber imitation combos,” says Dineen. “We pull a daisy chain of squid with a ballyhoo on the end from the flybridge and five dink-bait ballyhoo on circle hooks.” That’s pretty much the same spread I’ve seen pulled on all the boats I’ve been on here, with a just a few exceptions. You have to use circle hooks in your dead baits here and live bait is prohibited.
Follow the Birds
Although the towers of birds here can be truly impressive, it’s still a good idea to familiarize yourself with your radar’s bird-finding capabilities — when you find the birds, you will most likely find the action. Runs here vary with the time of year and the location of the bait schools. Early in the season, you can find the bait and fish working from 10 to 15 miles out, but as the season progresses, longer runs might be necessary. Since you are fishing during the winter months, a sporty wind can blow here during the best parts of the season. Seas of 3 to 6 feet are common, but the winds and wave action seem to stir up the action, much like it does back in Florida when fast-moving cold fronts trigger epic sailfish bites.
“When the fish are there, you can get into some really good action,” says Dineen. “Sometimes we see more than a dozen in the spread at once and hundreds down deeper around the baitballs. When you have five baits in the water and they all get bit, that will keep you coming back.”
A Fun Island
Also, if you happen to visit during a lull in the sailfish bite, or you just can’t get there during the peak season from January through April, you can still find plenty of game fish to target. Capt. Anthony Mendillo on Keen M is an awesome sailfishing expert who lives in Isla year-round, so he also knows all the best bottomfishing spots. If you can’t find the sails, Mendillo can wear your arms out deep-dropping on some of the most pristine bottom you’ve ever seen. There are also great estuary and flats-fishing opportunities within a couple of hours.
For those with a really adventurous bent, Mendillo allows you to jump into the fray and take underwater photographs of the sailfish and baitballs. The clear water and bright sunny days usually mean excellent visibility and the fish rarely refuse to cooperate. You need to be a strong swimmer and contact Mendillo about your intentions before showing up on the dock. Isla also makes a good home base to explore the surrounding Yucatan Peninsula and the wonderful Mayan ruins that dot the area. “Our people like to take day trips to the Mayan ruins in Chichén Itzá, Tulum and Cobá and they always come back amazed at what they saw,” says Dineen. “Everybody’s nice and friendly and it’s very safe. I would bring my daughter down there … no problem. It’s just a fun island. I’ve never seen anyone unhappy in Isla!”