Guatemala Part 2: Dorado Disparus, Bonito Blitzes and Marlin Madness

(More impressions from an offshore newbie in mid-summer… Part 1 was posted on February 7.)

As the boat headed offshore through the glass calm water, I finished another round of Spanish lessons with Danny the mate and realized it was going to take a lot of fishing trips to develop fluency. My first sailfish on a fly had come yesterday and I was actually feeling pretty confident about my chances as I reviewed the drill:

Cast behind the fish but not in the prop wash. Make a couple strips. Sweep left if the fish goes right. No need to worry about getting tangled in a bunch of line when there is only 15 feet stripped off the reel.

Just before we got to the blue water, the spread got dumped overboard and we trolled by a log, hoping for a dorado. Yes! Mahi mahi on the teaser! Nevertheless, the dorado completely ignored my sailfish fly and quickly vanished.

Our captain, Chris Starr, gave me a bit of a briefing on dorado and said, “If we see a dorado, it looks like you’ll need your 10 weight. Put a 6 inch Deceiver on it and strip off a fair chunk of line. Dorado don’t come to the boat like sails. They want to see a meal in front of them or they’re off. So cast right at the teaser – not behind it – when it gets about 40 feet behind the boat.”

Almost as soon as we reached the blue water, two sails showed up in the spread. Both bit but I could not stick them permanently. The second one crushed the fly so hard it bent the hook and also wrenched my right wrist. The fly was quickly changed; my wrist was sore but I was pretty sure another sailfish in the spread would make me forget about it.

My wrist was forgotten pretty because every hour there was a fish or two on the teaser. It was enough action to keep me concentrating on the spread and scanning the ocean. A lot of people might think that is completely tedious but watching teasers skip through the swells is kind of like watching a campfire. The simple but subtle changes are completely mesmerizing.

Although we were 40 miles off the coast, the ocean life was amazing. There were dozens of birds; a few bold – or lazy – ones perched right on the bow of the boat. There were also dozens of turtles. You could see their head poking out of the flat sea. The dolphins that we spotted seemed pretty wild and stayed a long ways off from the boat.

Two birds fighting

At lunch, mate Vince coaxed another culinary miracle out of the old camp stove inside the cabin. This time it was tacos. Just as I finished mine, a sailfish invaded the spread and I hooked up!

I was determined not to miss ANY jumps this time around. Instead of watching line peel off the reel, I looked down the line into the water. And saw… more water? I felt confused and even a little panicked. Somehow I had misplaced a sailfish that was definitely connected to my rod. Chris read my mind and yelled, “Look right! The fish turned! Big belly in the line!” Ahh, yes… After that I settled down and enjoyed the fight.

Once again, I really admired the expertise of the mates – taking pictures, clearing lines, and getting the fish in and out of the water. To me, sailfish seemed quite docile during their short foray into the boat. They fight like hell in the water but seem to possess a certain dignity during their brief stay out of it.

Two fly anglers holding their catch

Soon, it was time to start heading in. Chris pointed the boat towards shore and the greenish water. Once again, we were searching for logs and any dorado they might hold. Chris also said there was also a better chance at seeing a blue marlin in the slightly shallower water because bonito, their favorite snack, hung out there. Not long after, the mates pointed towards a tailing sail. I was looking way out towards the horizon and almost missed it as it slid by only 30 feet from the boat. It completely ignored the boat and the spread. Chris remarked it was likely a little dazed and confused, being outside the blue water.

About a half hour later, we passed a log and one of the teaser rods thumped. “Grab the dorado rod!” The sailfish rod had the place of honor along the gunwhale at stern; the 10 weight was stashed in the mid-deck along with chairs and coolers. I scurried in after it. Thank God for another calm day! I stripped out the entire head and and let it fly.

“Marlin! Big one! Get the big fly!” Chris was screaming. I stripped in the Deceiver. This was taking too long. I was swearing and cursing. “Hit the teaser!” yelled Chris. Finally I grabbed the fourteen and threw the fly on the water. My swearing and cursing doubled in frequency and amplitude; the fly line had looped around my leg. Did I say before that you don’t have to worry about stepping on your line? “Hit the teaser!” yelled Chris again, as was hopping on one foot and disengaging myself from the fly line. “Hit the teaser!” continued Chris. He must have been beside himself watching all this unfold. I have to congratulate him on his restraint, he wasn’t even swearing and cursing yet.

Finally a cast . Somehow the marlin – surely one of the world’s most accommodating – was still there. I got a good look at the marlin’s face as it turned toward the fly and after that I can’t really remember what happened. I know the marlin didn’t eat the fly. Chris said the fish smacked it with his bill but I didn’t strip it hard enough to get his attention. Come to think of it, I was so relieved (surprised?) to get the cast off, I don’t think I stripped at all.

That marlin had a flair for dramatic. It spent the next ten minutes darting around from teaser to teaser. Vince covered the water in all direction with the pitch bait, trying to draw it close. Eventually, though, it disappeared completely.

When we pulled into port, I think I was still shaking slightly from the encounter with the marlin. Luckily, the evening at Blue Bayou Lodge was typically relaxing. The lodge is actually a sprawling house inside a gated community not far from the marina. With a swimming pool, an open bar, a great cook, and dozens of sportfishing magazines laying around, it was the perfect place to hang out.

I slept well and awoke ready for my final day on the water. It was a little different from the previous two because the glass calm was replaced by a steady chop. As well, Chris had everybody on the boat thinking marlin. He had his favourite marlin teaser, a large orange and black creation named “Tony the Tiger” running closest to the boat. And he gave me a quick lesson as well: “Marlin don’t like to stick around the boat too much. They have to see something to eat or they’re gone. So don’t cast behind the teaser like with a sail… You have to literally hit the teaser just as it gets yanked.”

A fly on the ocean surf

We deployed Tony and the rest of the spread just as the water was changing from green to blue. Chris was hoping to find a few logs with some lurking dorado and maybe even a ravenous marlin preying on them. Shortly thereafter, a football field patch of ocean literally erupted with boils and diving birds. “Bonito!” declared Chris. My secret desire was to cut the boat’s power and cast into the froth but I strangled that impulse; you simply don’t stop a billfish boat in middle of its quest. A few small tuna did not justify retrieving and redeploying the whole spread.

Nevertheless, Chris read my mind and said, “Try trolling the dorado fly.” Done! It was not the same as watching my fly line arch out over the churning fish, but it certainly scratched my itch. Almost instantly, the Deceiver got slammed and I was connected to a firecracker of a fish. Bonito are disproportionately strong and it pulled the 10 weight into a deep bend. However, a 1 pound fish can only do so much damage. In short order it was hoisted inside the cockpit and given the place of honor at the end of the pitch bait rod. Our crew was going to take full advantage of the fact that bonito are like M and M’s to a marlin.

Fly fisherman holding a catch

We trollled up one more bonito and then left them. Very shortly thereafter, we approached a small log and one of the outrigger lines popped off its holder. “Dorado ” yelled Chris. I was ready with the 10 weight.

“No! Marlin! Need the big rod!” The teaser was about half way back to the boat and I literally threw my 10 weight into the boat’s mid-deck. Just as the mate yanked the teaser out of the water, I had the 14 weight ready to cast. “Hit the teaser!” screamed Chris. Incredibly, the fly smacked down right where the teaser had been. I saw a large black mass and gave a couple strips.

“&$%#!” Chris swore loudly in the cockpit above and then lamented, “You stripped it right out of his mouth…” I was stunned – and for the 2nd time in two days – shaking like a leaf. This marlin, similar to the one before, had a flair for the dramatic and promptly raced off for the couple teasers that were still in the water.

Vince the mate did his best to lure the big fish close again. But as soon as he grabbed the targeted teaser rod, the marlin raced elsewhere. Eventually it slid from sight as Vince fan cast the pitch bait in all directions. I actually felt a bit numb and couldn’t quite believe that – for the second day in a row – I’d come dangerously close to having nothing but some fly line between myself and a blue marlin.

Over the course of the last few days, whether it was a marlin, sailfish, or a dorado in the spread, I have to admit that my visual of the fish was never what I was hoping for. Being used to squinting at relatively tiny bonefish that were fifty or sixty feet distant, I thought that every last detail of a 5 foot long sailfish in the prop wash would be instantly apparent. In some cases they were, but many times all I saw was a bill, or a bit of a dorsal fin, or a dark shape. Regardless, I had not seen the marlin in the detail I needed to successfully feed it.

The rest of the day was challenging. The boat bounced in the waves and several sails honed in on the teasers. But only one or two came close enough for a legitimate shot. For quite awhile, Tony the Tiger had most of my attention as I tried to photograph it skipping along behind the boat.

Finally, around 2:30 in the afternoon, a sail greyhounded three times across our wake, at right angles to our direction of travel, just beyond the teasers. It seemed bent on heading a long ways out to sea. I felt like waving goodbye but then a bill popped up behind an outrigger teaser. Game on!

This fish definitely wanted to play and it was soon greyhounding with my fly in its mouth. In five more minutes, after some skilled backing down by Chris and the mates usual expertise, it was on and off my lap for the obligatory picture. I was thinking that would be my last mental image of the trip and started to prepare myself for stowing my rod and heading into port.

Fly fisherman holding a catch

Nevertheless. After perhaps 10 minutes, Chris called out, “Dorado!” This was a fish I could not miss. It was not large – perhaps 5 or 10 pounds – but it was porpoising directly towards the boat. Once… Twice…. Three times. One more leap and it would have been beside me in the boat. Needless to say, I completely overlooked any attempt at grabbing a rod and casting.

And that is my last image of fishing in Guatemala – a dorado seemingly floating in air only a few feet behind the transom and a foot above it. I had come in the middle of summer – not prime time with double digit sails to the boat every day – but who cares! It was still an imminently satisfying and memorable experience. I would recommend it to anyone.

Group of fly anglers

(Note: Guatemala is a unique destination and only experiencing its fishing would be a crime. I actually spent a couple days exploring the countryside before I went fishing. It was an amazing experience; a local company named Tours Atitlan showed me amazing vistas, quaint villages, lively markets, and some really cool butterflies.)

Guatemalans strolling through a residential area
Butterfly on a leaf