5,000 Sailfish the Hard Way

Capt. Chris Sheeder quietly racks up the numbers on the fly.

January 24, 2014
sailfish fishing on fly
A Pacific sailfish takes off on a spectacular run. John Frazier

The reports from the Pacific coast of Guatemala have become the stuff of legend: “So-and-so caught 55 last Thursday,” or, “One boat raised 80 fish yesterday!” We all know it’s not like that every day, but the fact remains that Guatemala offers unquestionably the most consistent Pacific sailfish bite found anywhere — and a burgeoning blue marlin bite simply adds more excitement to the mix.

Several captains now hold the honor of catching more than 20,000 billfish, and most of them did it in Guatemala. Capt. Chris Sheeder is one of them. However, among those 20,000-plus catches lies an amazing subcategory; in the fall of 2013, Sheeder and his crew released his 5,000th billfish caught on a fly rod. This milestone certainly places Sheeder near the top of the list of billfish fly-fishing experts worldwide.

fly-fishing for billfish
Capt. Chris Sheeder is one of the very best at catching billfish on fly. John Frazier

Many Records

While quietly setting fly-rod records for some time, Sheeder became well known among the relatively small circle of skilled anglers who like chasing sailfish and marlin on fly gear. In March 2006, he and Casa Vieja Lodge founder Jim Turner set a single-day release record when Turner caught and released an astounding 57 sails on the fly. (That same day, Capt. Ron Hamlin caught and released 124 sails on bait).


Sheeder came to the fly-fishing game in a roundabout way as he searched for a niche of his own among a league of talented and ambitious captains who had flocked to Guatemala in the late 1990s after reports of the incredible action began to filter out. He had fished previously in Hawaii and Midway Atoll before discovering Guatemala, but it was there things began to come together for him.

“I started taking fly-fishing for billfish seriously back in 2001 on Magic during the Fins and Feathers days,” Sheeder says. “I was trying to find my niche. Everyone else seemed so interested in posting huge numbers, but I found that stepping back and catching fish this way is really cool. We soon increased our hook-up percentages by cutting down casting distances and teasing fish up close to the boat, closer than where the fly re-enters the water on the cast, to get that going-away bite.”


I’d caught sailfish on fly before, but my wife, Poppy, never had, so she, Marlin senior editor John Frazier and I made the trip to Casa Vieja in December to make a full-frontal assault on the fish using nothing but fly gear. On the way out, Sheeder explained the technique he has perfected.


“The rush is bringing a hot billfish all the way to the transom, firing him into a state of rage and watching him bite chicken feathers 15 feet from the boat,” Sheeder says. “Teasing sailfish is a strategic process, but when a blue marlin shows up, the process had better become greased lightning. Sailfish are usually pretty forgiving, but if you let a blue whack a teaser around too many times, he’ll lose the aggression needed to trick him into biting a fly.”

Green water close to shore necessitated a slightly longer than usual run offshore, but when we found blue water, teasers went out on the right side of the boat and we began scanning the water intently, looking for a bill. It took a few minutes, but Rum Line mates Nico and Zonder soon sprang to the teaser rods as they spotted the first fish before any of us.

ballyhoo for fly-fishing
Ballyhoo are rigged hookless and cast as teaser baits to lure sails close to the boat. John Frazier

Game On

The first sailfish popped up on the long teaser, and the methodical process of transferring the fish from one bait to another began. Sheeder brought in the lure from the bridge teaser reel as Nico cast a hookless ballyhoo toward the fish. It instantly jumped at the fresh bait, and Nico kept it just out of reach, drawing the fish closer and closer to the boat, working it into a feeding frenzy.


Poppy was up first, and as the fish approached the transom, Sheeder shifted the boat into neutral and hollered, “Cast!” She executed a roll cast using a predetermined length of line, no more than about 20 feet. The instant the pink-and-white Cam Sigler fly landed, Nico yanked the ballyhoo from the water. The sailfish seemed confused at first — its meal had vanished — but it soon spotted the fly and engulfed it.

Poppy set the hook in the opposite direction, and the fish took off in an incredible semicircle of leaps behind the boat. If you’ve never teased a billfish right to the boat and seen it eat from 15 feet away, you need to try it. That’s about as awesome as it gets. Poppy’s fish stayed on the surface, and Sheeder maneuvered the boat after it, scoring a quick release. Nico and Zonder tagged the sail before releasing it to the ongoing cheers and high-fives emanating from the crew.

sailfish fishing
A sailfish eats a fly right behind the transom of Rum Line in Guatemala. John Brownlee

It’s All About the Bite

“I would have to say the prettiest sight in all of sport fishing is over-teasing a billfish where he keeps looking for the pulled teaser under the boat and around the props,” Sheeder says. “Finally, after what seems an eternity, he sees the fly and blasts out to bite it.” We saw this repeated again and again on our first day, as Poppy, Frazier, Sheeder’s fiance, Elisa, and I all took turns, eventually catching and releasing 11 sailfish that day.


On the way in, I asked Sheeder about the difference between fly-fishing and bait fishing, as he’s an expert at both. “You’re not going to catch as many on fly, but the action is in your face,” he explained. “I think that’s why fly-fishing for billfish is so popular here in Guatemala. The fishing is so good you can afford to get creative with how you catch them.”

fly-fishing flies for sailfish
Pink-and-white Cam Sigler tube flies are the fly of choice, but Sheeder says a well-teased billfish will bite any color fly. John Frazier

Does Color Matter?

Sheeder uses pink-and-white Cam Sigler tube flies and prefers short fly lines with shooting heads of 400 grains or more. Long casts usually aren’t necessary, and the weight of the shooting head keeps the fly in the water as the fish approaches. When asked about other fly colors, Sheeder said, “A well-teased billfish should bite just about anything, so we like to use pink-and-white flies because they show up really nice in pictures.”

In our three days of fishing, we ended up catching and releasing 34 sailfish on fly, awesome fishing in anyone’s book. The boats fishing conventional tackle and bait caught more, but the excitement of watching the fish take the fly again and again right in front of us more than offset any differences.

sailfish jump
A sailfish goes airborne, a common sight throughout Central America. John Frazier

Looking for the Blue Dog

We also kept close by a fly rod rigged for marlin sporting a much larger fly, but one never showed. Frazier has caught a blue marlin on fly, a feat not too many people can claim to have accomplished, but the rest of us didn’t get a chance. “Many people ask me what’s the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen on the water,” Sheeder says. “My answer is always the same: watching a blue marlin inhale a fly right off my transom.”

Guatemala’s incredibly vibrant fishery never ceases to amaze me, and catching billfish on fly simply adds another level of excitement to the game. “Catching my 5,000th on fly is great,” Sheeder says. “It’s truly a testament to the unbelievable fishery we have here.” On top of his other accomplishments, Sheeder has mastered the fly-fishing game, and there’s no better place to try it than Guatemala. I’m eager to go back and do it again, in the hopes that this time, a blue one will rise among the teasers. I can’t imagine anything more awesome.

fly-fishing for sailfish
John Frazier puts the heat to a sailfish that’s dogging down deep. John Brownlee
fly-fishing for sailfish
Poppy Brownlee fights her first flyrod sailfish. John Frazier
fly-fishing for sailfish
A sail raises its dorsal before release. John Frazier
fly-fishing for sailfish
Poppy Brownlee and Sheeder celebrate his remarkable accomplishment. John Frazier
Capt. Sheeder
Chris Sheeder doing what he usually does, scanning the teasers. John Frazier
Antigua city
When not offshore, a side trip to the ancient city of Antigua is a must. John Frazier

More Travel