Despite having released more than 35,000 billfish in his lengthy career — more than any other sport-fishing captain, past or present — Capt. Brad Philipps is just as excited about the next bite as any neophyte angler. He has received The Billfish Foundation’s Top Overall Release Captain award 16 times, with an equal number of Top Pacific Sailfish Captain honors. His best days include: 91 sailfish releases on conventional tackle; 73 releases for an individual angler; 51 releases for a single angler on fly; and 3,671 billfish releases in one season. He operates Guatemalan Billfishing Adventures with his wife Cindy, kids Darren and Lyndsey and a Staffordshire bull terrier named Rigby at his side. Philipps is just as comfortable at the helm of his 40-foot Gamefisherman, Decisive, in the vast Pacific Ocean as he is on safari in his native South Africa. Because it is a deep-rooted sense of adventure that drives him to success — no matter the conditions or the odds.
Q: Why is the fishing so consistently good off Guatemala, especially for sailfish?
A: It’s a near-perfect set of conditions here. The mountains block the wind on most days so we’re usually fishing in calm seas. The fishery is lightly pressured by the locals, and the next recreational fleet is 400 nautical miles away. And the offshore topography is very good, with a big, deep canyon that holds a lot of bait and fish year-round.
Q: What drew you there in the first place?
A: I went to university in Cape Town [South Africa] after two years of compulsive military service, then spent several years fishing around the world. I met Tim Choate in Bom Bom in 1996 and spent a season running a boat for him in Brazil. In 2000, he offered me work in Guatemala — after a few years, I was fleet captain for the Fins and Feathers Lodge boats. The lodge closed in 2006, and my wife Cindy and I started Guatemalan Billfishing Adventures to fill the void for those clients who still wanted to experience the excellent fishing the country has to offer. The timing was great and we hit the ground running.
Q: What are some of the changes you’ve seen in the fishery?
A: There are more boats fishing, but it’s still lightly pressured. My best year was in 2016 when we released 3,671 billfish, which means that it’s also sustainable, to hit record numbers after being here for 16 seasons. A big change for us has been technology, with satellite services like Hilton’s Real-Time Navigator and others that let us pinpoint the best water conditions before we leave the dock. We still spread out every morning and everyone calls in their releases during the day, so the fleet does a great job working together.
Q: You grew up in South Africa. What did that experience teach you about the ocean?
A: We used to do beach launches in rough seas with a lot of current. You learn a lot about seamanship but also about being prepared for anything. Those are valuable life skills for anyone to have.
Q: What impact did Tim Choate and Capt. Ron Hamlin have on you?
A: Tim started Fins and Feathers and I’m grateful to him for the exposure to this country and the fishing. Ron’s impact cannot be underestimated. He got here a year or two ahead of me, and as a young captain it was great to learn so much from him. You cannot buy experience — you must put in your time and earn it.
Q: What are the keys to becoming a better angler?
A: You have to fish with captains and crews that are good teachers and who want to help you get better. When you leave, we want you to really feel like you have learned something. Good captains with years of experience can pick up on the small things in your technique. Once you become pretty good as an angler, the learning curve flattens out a lot and it’s the little details that become more important — only an experienced crew can really help you improve at this stage. Then it’s just a matter of practice, putting in the time and getting the shots.
Q: Any favorite destinations aside from Central America?
A: I really enjoy fishing in Cape Verde. It’s a good mix between numbers of blue marlin and size, but it’s also the remoteness and the sense of adventure that you get there.
Q: How do you find longevity in a career like yours?
A: It’s about balance. You have to get off the water at some point during the season to gain perspective. We have a lovely boutique hotel in Antigua, Guatemala, where we host anglers, and it’s also home for the kids and Cindy and me when I’m not at the coast. At 5,000-plus feet of elevation, Antigua is a great place to spend time with my family. Cindy and I also host photo safaris at Toro River Lodges in South Africa, which is a very special place with amazing scenery and all the wild animals one would expect to see, and is something we all really enjoy. Africa’s wilds are just magnificent, and we get to share that with our fishing clients, most of whom also love the adventure but want to go with someone they already know and trust. I have also been a registered dangerous-game professional hunter, so I guide clients all over Africa. At the end of the day we’re still taking care of people, whether it’s fishing or on safari. You are the one ensuring your clients have a seamless experience, from the food and lodging to the guiding. You are the catalyst than ensures an experience of a lifetime. It’s hard work, but it’s a nice change from the water.
Q: What is the scariest experience you’ve ever had at sea?
A: In 1994, I was on the first gameboat to fish Ascension Island, which is in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean between Brazil and Africa. We were delivering the boat from Mozambique to the Caribbean. We had to leave Ascension and go on to Brazil on one engine — we had no choice. It was something like 1,400 nautical miles. We knew we had a full set of spare parts on the other engine, but it was definitely something I would not do again now that I’m older.
Q: What are some of the difficulties in running a top-shelf charter operation in remote countries?
A: Growing up in Africa one is used to dealing with these things. You have to be adaptable and also realize that you’re not in your own country, you have to be tough but also respect the locals and their ways and understanding that you’re a foreigner. Even though Cindy is a former Miss Guatemala, she also has a business degree and handles everything for the business while I’m out fishing. Having a solid support system while operating in countries like this cannot be underestimated.
Q: Guatemala has an underrated blue marlin fishery. What has been your best day on blue marlin?
A: We caught six in one day in 2008, and we released 97 in my best year. There are some nice blue marlin here. We can regularly see fish in the 300- to 500-pound range, and some even bigger.
Q: How do you still love it after so many years?
A: It’s in your blood: The people, the places and the sheer adventure of it all. Just not knowing what’s going to show up on the left short teaser keeps you going. Every morning, I can’t wait to get back out there again.