PHOTOGRAPHY BY KYLE RM JOHNSON
I can’t recall whether it was my fifth or sixth sailfish on the line that morning, but I can still feel the weight of the rod in my hands as it leaped clear of the water 50 yards behind our boat and started dancing sideways over the water, upright on its tail like some kind of gorgeous, rainbow-colored Jesus fish. Diving back under, the fish charged toward me, torpedo-like. As I frantically tried to reel in slack, it juked to my left and jumped again. “Now that’s a fish,” murmured Johnny, one of the boat’s mates, to nobody in particular. Caught up in the fight, my muscles straining against the 100-plus-pound leviathan in an age-old tug-of-war, I let out an excited boy’s falsetto whoop once, twice, and then a third time. The sailfish might’ve been the one with metal in its mouth, but I was the one who was hooked.
After all, the last time I’d fought a fish this spirited, I was an excited boy, and it was a 12-pound walleye on the line. Growing up near the shores of Lake Erie, the sportfishing capital of the Great Lakes, my brothers and I would regularly go out on the lake with our next-door neighbor, Mr. Broyles. A retired postal worker turned full-time fisherman, he had a rotating fleet of boats parked in his backyard and a brace of rods strung and at the ready.
We’d stock the Lady Kay—a 25-foot, two-tone-blue cruiser named for Mrs. Broyles—with peanut butter, butter, and strawberry jam sandwiches and bait and tackle and launch onto the lake from Barcelona Harbor or Cattaraugus Creek for a long day of angling. Our targets included bass, yellow perch, and lake trout, but most of all we were after walleye, the notoriously wily, hard-fighting fish for which Erie is best known.
Even back then, Mr. Broyles was teaching us tough lessons about the patience and faith required to cast one’s line into a vast and—to my 9-year-old mind, at least—mysterious underwater world and haul from it something as foreign and magical as a fish. It was about the challenge, sure, but it was also a gratifying opportunity to pull an animal fresh from the water, know exactly where it came from, and eat its delicate flesh. “Teach a man to fish,” they say…
It couldn’t last, though. Mr. Broyles suffered from a heart condition that increasingly kept him off the water, and I went through a period of teenage indifference; by the time I thought much about fishing again, I’d become aware of how polluted Erie was. During my high school summers, I worked as a lifeguard on the lake’s beaches. Razor-sharp invasive zebra mussels clung to virtually every underwater surface, slicing my feet as I set up buoy lines for the swim zone. Botulism outbreaks killed fish by the hundreds, and we’d walk the mile-long beach in pairs, scooping dead fish and gulls from the shore by the wheelbarrow-full and burying them beyond where swimmers could smell them. Heavy rains often overwhelmed a nearby wastewater treatment plant, releasing raw sewage into the lake and shutting down beaches for miles in either direction.
I didn’t want to cast a line into that water, much less eat a fish that had been swimming in it. I’d become disillusioned with fishing open waters, distrustful of whatever harvest they might yield. These days, I’m an occasional angler at best, and I only ever bother scaring fish on small streams, where I can assess the health of an ecosystem that’s close at hand and fully visible to the naked eye.
But last winter—a particularly icy, bone-chilling one where I live in Upstate New York—I started hearing wild tales of world-class billfishing off the Pacific Coast of Guatemala. There, a fluke of geography known as the “Pocket”—a 3,000-plus-foot-deep underwater canyon that runs from the continental shelf inward toward one of the country’s largest port cities, Puerto San José—conspires with eddying currents and relatively steady year-round water temperatures to concentrate and hold large numbers of baitfish that, in turn, attract large predatory fish, particularly the Pacific sailfish. To improve matters, the Guatemalan government has done much to protect the resource, outlawing the commercial killing of sailfish in 2002. I had heard that it’s not at all unusual for a single boat to catch (and release, of course) an otherwise unheard of 20-plus 100-pound sailfish in a single day. The Guatemalans have kept this ecosystem intact and, by doing so, have kept the fishing action-packed. I wanted to try my hand at fishing those waters in the hope that I might rekindle that magical feeling I had the first time I hooked a big walleye.
So it was with visions of The Old Man and the Sea—and 90-degree days in the tropical sunshine—that I packed my bags for Casa Vieja Lodge, one of Guatemala’s premier fishing outfitters, whose roots go back to the early days of sportfishing here. I awoke early my first morning at the lodge and made my way through a bobbing fleet of sun-washed white fishing yachts to where David Salazar, legendary sportfishing captain and a co-owner of Casa Vieja, stood waiting on the dock. After a quick round of introductions to my crew for the day—Captain Nicho Alvarenga and mates Johnny and Ludwing—he offered this inspired send-off: “Remember: The water’s wet, the deck is hard, and you’re on your own out there.”
Soon we were aboard the 44-foot Poco Loco—a rare, custom-built Kincheloe Nickerson fishing yacht—and motoring out of the marina and past the breakwall, where less fortunate fishermen worked the channel from the rocks. Out on the open, rolling sea, Alvarenga throttled up the powerful diesel engines to a growl, the bow pitched up, and we made way for the fishing grounds. The port receded in our wake, and massive 12,000-plus-foot volcanoes—each one wearing clouds on its summit like a winter hat against the cold—rose up behind its industrial machinery.
After so many years without pulling in a fish, I nervously grilled Johnny, who spoke nearly flawless English, for tips that might prep me for the fight. “It’s more practice than anything else,” he said, patiently. “You have to learn how to handle the reel so you don’t make a bird nest—a big tangle of line that causes the line to go taut and snap. It’s no fun, because we lose the fish and break the line, plus you’ll get a sore thumb.” As I watched him deftly string seven rods, including a heavy-duty one with 50-pound test line for marlin, visions of tangling myself up in a man-size bird nest played in my head.
In short order, we were 10 miles out, where the ocean floor drops away into the canyon, and the boat slowed to trolling speed while the mates set out “teasers”—hookless baits that look like squid or fish and trail the boat at varying distances—plus four lines baited with ballyhoo, a smallish silver baitfish. Within minutes, Nicho shouted down from the bridge—“Pez!”—and the mates instinctively leaped into action. Before I could fully comprehend what was happening, Johnny was handing me a rod with its tip bent down toward the water. Immediately, I felt the fish heavy on the line. Without thinking, I began clumsily muscling it in, my back and shoulders straining against 100 pounds of fish and God only knows how many pounds of drag and water resistance. Even as I was vaguely aware that I was letting my own animal instincts override strategy, I couldn’t stop myself. It was backbreaking work that, in the moment, called to mind Hemingway, and old man Santiago’s days-long struggle with the 1,500-pound marlin that pulled his skiff hopelessly out to sea.
But this fight would last only eight minutes. The sailfish briefly surfaced a few feet from the boat—a flash of silver in the sunshine. I swear it caught sight of me and then dived deep in the opposite direction, snapping the line.
Johnny and Ludwing clapped me on the back and hollered. “How’d it feel?” Johnny asked, excited, but he could tell I was disappointed. On autopilot, they reset the lines and teasers to raise another fish, and afterward, Johnny—his eyes all the while scanning the water for a bill or a dorsal fin—quietly offered some advice: “Don’t try to muscle the fish in. You’re only making yourself tired by doing that. Work with it to maintain that steady tension, and let it tire itself out.”
Less than five minutes passed before we had another one on the line, and Ludwing handed me the rod. The sailfish jumped 100 yards out and ran hard, but this time I was ready. Rather than fight it, I let it go. The farther it went, the more line was in the water, the more drag it had to work against.
That fish taught me patience; it fought terrifically, jumping and charging and juking, but whenever it would tire and turn toward me, I’d take back line—an inch here, two inches there—until at last, I had him alongside the boat. Reaching down with a gloved hand, Ludwing gripped the fish by its bony bill, allowing me to inspect it up close. Its eye was huge, almost fist-size, and brown, and it appeared to study me. Ludwing encouraged me to touch the fish, so I ran my hands reverently over its rough, sandpapery bill and spread its shimmering purple sail-shaped dorsal fin to examine its dark spots. In the sun, its iridescent stripes shone blue, and gold flecks extended all the way from its bill to its tail, where a 4-inch-long remora fish had firmly attached itself. Inspection complete, Ludwing removed the hook and set the sailfish free. It swam slowly away, a fish fading into a torpedo, into a shadow, and then disappearing altogether.
From there, the day was a blur of wildly spirited sailfish fights. Sailfish are one of the fastest, if not the fastest, fish in the ocean, reaching speeds of up to 68 miles per hour in less than two seconds, and that athleticism is on full display when one is desperate to throw a hook from its mouth. Plus, they grow to over 10 feet long and occasionally tip the scale at 200 pounds. Each fight was different, intense in its own way, as the boat pitched and reeled in the waves, sending saltwater spray over the transom. By the afternoon, I was soaked to my hips in seawater, my rod-steadying left hand raw and red. But I felt lucky, kissed by the tropical sun and taking a master class in sportfishing. Johnny—always the steady, patient teacher—continued revealing the tricks and techniques for taking the fight to the fish, and I was reminded more than a little of Mr. Broyles and those stubborn Lake Erie walleyes.
By the time we returned to shore, the Poco Loco had raised 34 sailfish in its wake and received 29 bites, and I’d reeled in 16. A little crazy, indeed.
Back at the lodge that night, under the big, open-sided palapa at the center of the grounds, I swapped fish tales with other anglers over a four-course meal of lobster soup (with goldfish crackers “swimming” on the surface for good measure), wedge salad, beef tenderloin in mushroom sauce with mashed potatoes, and banana crepes. Jeff, a youngish guy from Rhode Island who was on his fourth visit to Casa Vieja, talked about how he and his buddy Mike did everything—bait the lines, set the spread, hook the fish, and reel ’em in—all by themselves. Mike mentioned that although he fishes all over the world, this is the place he comes back to every year. “The fishing here is hard to compete with,” he said, “and the consistency is hard to compete with.” A few minutes later, a father and son stopped by to joke about how they spent the day fattening the fish up with all their baitfish, just so they could go out tomorrow and catch the big ones.
The next morning, I awoke to the smell of fresh Guatemalan coffee—a wake-up call tradition at the lodge—and the sound of wind rustling the palm fronds outside my window. Lifting the steaming liquid to my lips, I became aware of how badly the previous day had beaten me up: My shoulders ached, my arms were stiff, my left hand felt raw and calloused against the warm cup.
Outside, the warm, dry northeast trade winds were blowing down off the highland volcanoes to the north. A little wind wasn’t going to spoil the day’s fishing, but it would be rough out on the water. As we passed through town on the ride to the marina, life was just beginning to stir. In open-air stalls, women stoked wood fires under comales, smooth, flat griddles where they’d soon be making tortillas. Produce vendors arranged piles of melons, recruits walked in uniformed groups to the nearby naval base, and stray dogs wandered aimlessly along the roadside.
On the way back out to the fishing grounds, I noticed smoke issuing from the cone of Volcán de Fuego, an active volcano that destroyed the colonial town of Antigua in the late 1700s, forcing the Spanish to relocate their capital to present-day Guatemala City. When I stopped by the bridge to chat with Nicho about it, he frowned. “It’s too rough today,” he said of the rolling swells. “I don’t like it.”
I’d like to say that the fishing was every bit as good as the first day, but it wasn’t. After 90 minutes, we’d seen four or five sailfish, but every time, the big fish simply ate the baits—taking care to “kill” them first with their bills—and disappeared again into the depths. The Poco Loco, with its four trailing baits, was becoming a moveable feast for the sailfish. After three hours without a fish on the line, it began to feel hopeless, like the 84 fish-free days that led up to Santiago’s monster blue marlin.
Eventually, I stopped focusing on the fish and began to simply enjoy the beauty and richness of the environment around me. I saw flying fish skitter across the surface, like the stones I once skipped on the creeks and lakes of my youth. We passed through a school of fish that was being dive-bombed by birds and, a second later, a sailfish leaped from the water one, two, three times. Then a dorado burst through. A few hundred yards farther on, a sea turtle drifted lazily along on the surface. Finally, a dolphin cruised close by, its dorsal fin and back arcing gracefully out of the water.
The fishing was relatively slow, but by the end of the day, we had still raised 14 sailfish, gotten 12 bites, and reeled in three. And frankly, that was enough for me. In 15 hours out on the water over two days, I’d hooked more fish—and far bigger ones—than in my previous 15 years of fishing combined. I’d come to Guatemala in pursuit of a fish tale and a decades-old feeling, but I came away with something else: a renewed appreciation for the sport itself. Not only had it brought me into close contact with this wild, weird, strangely beautiful creature from the deep, but it also immersed me in a pristine ecosystem that has remained that way because this country has been willing to put nature—one of its greatest assets—before industry. The only thing that might have made it better would have been having Mr. Broyles there beside me, whooping like a kid as he reeled in a shimmering sailfish of his own.