I have spent most of my life in the southern United States—most of my early years near the ocean. I have also admired the sport-fishing boats and dreamed of being out there. One day, I kept telling myself, one day. I created visions in my mind of lush islands, screaming turbos and hourslong fights with big marlin.
Having moved to Tennessee some 37 years ago, those dreams began to further distance themselves in my mind as life’s reality took over. I had tried several times in the past to find some friends and put together a trip somewhere—anywhere—to go offshore for a few days. Unfortunately, there weren’t too many takers.
One day came and went, but then in the airport on one of my work trips, I purchased a copy of Marlin magazine. My goal was to escape reality in those pages for a few hours, and somehow rekindle my dreams. I wasn’t too far into the magazine when I saw an ad stating that Marlin University was headed to Costa Rica. I would love to do this, I thought, but not by myself.
I returned home with renewed enthusiasm, and talked up the idea with some friends again. Still no interest. As life does sometimes, it lets you know when it’s time to look at the world differently. It was at that moment, I decided I was going to Marlin U, even if I had to go by myself, so I reached out to inquire.
I explained my lack of billfishing experience but was completely assured of what Marlin U is all about. They were amazing in making me feel welcome, and after explaining the format and informing me that many folks attend alone, I was officially signed up for my first Marlin U experience. I was going to Guatemala.
Casa Vieja Lodge, May 2019
There’s no question about how intimidated I was on the boat that first morning. Sam White, Marlin’s editor-in-chief, was the instructor, and one of my teammates was attending his 12th-ish Marlin U. As Sam walked us through dead-bait circle-hook techniques, I listened intently, and before long, I had my first bite.
I was nervous. I could hear Sam in my ear: “Free-spool, count to five, slowly move the drag lever to strike, reel steadily to see if the fish is there.” I felt like I did everything as he was saying it—well, until that move-the-lever-to-strike thing. I kind of went all in and moved the lever past strike, all the way to full. And in just a few seconds, I saw this beautiful Pacific sailfish jump right behind the boat. In that same instant, the line broke and came flying back at me. The fish was gone.
After everyone realized what I had done, I thought, Maybe this is not for me. However, it was a true teaching moment. Sam calmly explained what I had done, and more importantly, what I should have done. Ken, my fishing partner, also came over and told me to shake it off, and with encouragement, noted that we still had three and a half days to go.
The next bite, Sam was right there again, talking me through the bite and the hookup, step by step. And this time, I landed the fish—my first sailfish. By the end of the day, I was gaining confidence and asking questions as fast as I could think of them. I have to credit the first mate also. On the ride back in, he came down from the bridge and talked me through hooking the fish again too.
The next day, I was on a different boat with a different instructor. He had heard of my struggles the day before and made a point to specifically talk me through the bite once again, and in less than 24 hours on the water, I was thinking, Why did I not do this sooner? Third day: another boat, another instructor, more hands-on learning. Not only did each instructor take a similar approach with me, but they did it with everyone on the boat, helping each student work through their specific issues based on their level of experience. By the end of the week, I had even wired a few sailfish—what a rush!
My Angling Future
Since that first trip, I have attended five Marlin University classes, most recently to Sport Fish Panama Island Lodge on Isla Parida in the Gulf of Chiriquí in Panama, to fish on the famed Hannibal Bank—and it didn’t disappoint.
As I always do on the plane ride home from Marlin U, I sank deep into thought about my experiences. This trip was unique in that it offered a different perspective into billfishing; but really, they all have. Thanks to my prior Marlin U trips—Casa Vieja Lodge in Guatemala, Scrub Island in the BVI to fish the North Drop after the August moon, and Los Sueños Resort and Marina in Costa Rica—I now have a network of fellow, like-minded anglers and professionals all over the country. The instructors have been outstanding in helping me get started on my own with my new-to-me offshore boat, and I talk to several of the students I’ve met along the way on a regular basis.
The first time, I started off just wanting to learn the basics and catch fish. Now, I get deeper and deeper into it with each class. Marlin U is an incredible opportunity for everyone. If you want to experience billfishing at its finest, I highly recommend trying it. And don’t worry if you’re going alone or don’t know anyone; you will leave with a host of new friends, not to mention great memories.
I hope my thoughts have reignited your passion for big-game fishing, because in my mind, it’s been nothing but a win-win for me. And I’m pretty sure it will be for you too. That first experience even helped me name my new boat: Full Drag.
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Breaking Down Marlin University
Marlin U books only premier locations, and top boats and crews, at the best times to fish. Accommodations, fishing, food and lodging is handled—all you do is pick a class, sign up and buy a plane ticket.
While Marlin U strives for “all billfish, all the time,” opportunities exist for many other pelagic species. Dorado, tuna and wahoo are just a few that frequent the same waters.
They are industry professionals, and I cannot say enough about them. They take a genuine interest in every person, are there to help us develop as anglers, tell amazing stories of their adventures, and are our biggest fans.
From resorts with private chefs to full-service lodges to even a potential trip on a mothership at the Great Barrier Reef, the digs and food are always top-notch.
Whether you are a complete novice or the savviest fisherman, each instructor works with you to fine-tune your skills based on your experience level.
You get out of it what you put into it. You can learn all you want to, ask as many questions as you would like, show interest in tying knots, rigging for the fishery or anything in between; you set your own no-pressure learning pace.