Behind the Lens: Unveiling the Stories of the Top Billfish Photographers

Taking an inside look at some of the photographs that capture not only a story, but the circumstances behind them as well

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The old cliche that photographs freeze a moment in time is unquestionably true. The images splashed across these pages have made fleeting moments with billfish available to anglers everywhere, entangling us in the fish stories of the 21st century. And yet an important narrative—one that centers on the photographer—has gone largely untold. To unveil those stories, we’re thawing the freeze and going behind the camera of some of the past decade’s most interesting billfish shots.

Hannes Ribbner

A large marlin splashing out of the ocean.
Hannes Ribbner Hannes Ribbner

On an overcast January morning, the father-and-son team of Kelly and Grant Brashear would see why Hannes Ribbner prefers shooting on cloudy days: Those conditions can help even out the light and yield stunning results. The Brashears had never caught a black marlin before, nor had they ever been to Tropic Star Lodge, but they did manage to get tight, with this fish bounding across the surface and putting on quite a show. “In general, small billfish tend to be a little faster than bigger ones,” Ribbner says, “but even still, a small black is not nearly as fast as a small blue or a sailfish. Black marlin are actually easier to get shots of, especially when they stick their bills out of the water for a second or two before they jump. I love that little indication.” And while all of Ribbner’s photos stand out, he says that this one perfectly represents the black marlin in action, explaining, “The light and pose are great.”

Kelly Dalling Fallon

A large marlin splashing out of the ocean.
Kelly Dalling Fallon Kelly Dalling Fallon

Producing some of the Great Barrier Reef’s finest fishing imagery from the deck of Kekoa in Australia, it’s only after Fallon is done clearing lines and storing rods that she is able to pick up her camera and begin ­shooting. While trolling with a few friends en route from Cairns to a tournament in Townsville, bluebird skies and ­relatively calm seas reminded Fallon of her youth and what she enjoys most about light-tackle fishing in North Queensland just as a little but fierce black marlin darted into the spread. “I grew up fishing these light-tackle grounds,” she says, “and my favorite thing in the world is switching little black marlin. They are so pretty and colorful compared with the adults, and their blue eyes are always gorgeous. In this photo, you can see the neon colors through to the stripes on the back and all the way along the tail. The silver reflection also ­perfectly matches the water splash.”

Austin Coit

An underwater image of the a large marlin.
Austin Coit Austin Coit

When Coit joined the Tarheel crew at Los Sueños Resort and Marina in Costa Rica for a day of fun fishing, the weather conditions were less than ideal. Flat-calm days are routine for this area, but when the wind picked up and the skies turned gray, Coit readied his equipment and hoped for the best. Once a fish was hooked, he ditched the cockpit. “When you get in the water offshore, you’re reminded just how much current is out there,” Coit says. “And the fish don’t want you anywhere near them. In two beats of their tail, they’re 50 feet away,” he continues. “I remember seeing the foam get totally illuminated when the boat was put in gear, and I thought, Whoa, how sweet would that be if the fish was in that? And then, as the fish moved right into position amid the prop wash, everything lined up.” Coit got the shot. The illuminated puff of white water is his favorite part of this cerulean image—a dramatic backdrop to an already cinematic scene.

Matilda Leijon

A large marlin breaking the surface of the ocean.
Matilda Leijon Matilda Leijon

Working out of Tropic Star Lodge, photographer Matilda Leijon hadn’t seen a black marlin in several months as she prepped for a weeklong trip with returning client Jay Dollries, who didn’t have great luck on his previous visit. It was time to show him what Panama really has to offer, and Pollyanna delivered. “It was the last day, and we had already released seven blacks and a grand slam,” she recalls, “but we hadn’t yet seen a fat lady.” With only minutes left, Leijon watched the biggest black she’d seen in Panama come in and kill the live bonito on the left side. Then it swam over and completely destroyed the bonito on the right. Feeling an enormous weight on her shoulders to get the shot, the light wasn’t in Leijon’s favor. But just as they were about to release this huge fish, she put on one last show—this time in the perfect light. Turns out, Leijon’s got luck and skill.

Kevin Dodge

A large sailfish swimming under the ocean's surface.
Kevin Dodge Kevin Dodge

Most people wouldn’t suggest getting into the water with any swordfish. Much like the depths they prefer, swords have a rather dark reputation, and hopping into the water with them, especially a hooked one, comes with risks. Kevin Dodge would be the first to tell you that it’s an ill-advised practice, and he’s had some close calls. But then again, he’s a seasoned photographer with years of experience freediving and working with prominent swordfish experts. On one rough day in the Florida Keys with Capt. Nick Stanczyk, the team had this swordfish “controlled” at the boat. “I looked around to be sure no others had followed it up, and I got in,” Dodge says. “The fish was battle-tested and it showed, with line marks along his body from fighting from the depths. Even his posture made him look like a weary ­soldier who’d been through hell and back.” Dodge says that this image isn’t about beauty; it’s about toughness—a true mark of the noble sword.

Tim Rahn

A flock of sea birds flying over the ocean, circling fish in the water.
Tim Rahn Tim Rahn

Early in the sailfish season off Islamorada, Florida, a 22-foot Pathfinder glides out to the reef to chase schools of baitfish. Tim Rahn is at the helm alone, but he isn’t there to fish. Instead, he’s there to observe as hungry sailfish shower bait across the surface. “I really enjoy these moments where I can see these fish in their natural environment,” Rahn says. But such opportunities come with some challenges. “The greatest challenge of all is running the boat myself; I’m moving around to chase the fish, and the light is constantly changing. To have it all come together is a combination of luck, the right place, the right time, the right camera lens, and proper exposure.” Fortunately, it did come together for Rahn one morning as a pair of frigate birds and a single sail lined up perfectly for this shot. “I absolutely love watching these predators going after ballyhoo, with birds attacking from the top and fish attacking from the bottom.”

Read Next: We interview some of the best photographers on the water today.

Jessica Haydahl Richardson

A large marlin breaking the surface of the ocean.
Jessica Haydahl Richardson Jessica Haydahl Richardson

Some mates just have the skills to boost a photographer’s confidence—­greater ­control of the fish on the wire makes for better imagery—and such skills were ­evident in Jilberto “Herbie” Cansari, who sadly passed away in a tragic ­accident this past year. “Herbie was built like a rock, and when he grabbed a ­leader, the fish wasn’t going anywhere,” says photographer Jessica Haydahl Richardson, who was fishing off the coast of Panama with her husband, Capt. Wade Richardson, on their family-owned boat, The Hooker. On one particularly beautiful flat-calm day, “Herbie had this blue up on the leader, and the fish slid into a 45-degree angle from the stern, and I got the shot of him winking at us,” Richardson says. This specific shot isn’t one that originally stood out to her as a favorite, but she does like the artistic composition and the marketability of the image. Richardson now says she has a new reason for why it speaks to her: It is yet another sweet reminder of her talented friend Herbie.

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