Steve Parker describes a recent fishing excursion to Mexico as “Simply awesome”. With fabulous species variety, sob stories and a personal best to round it all off it’s no wonder he was bowled over.
I am not an experienced big game angler, and despite catching a number of small Barracuda over the last 10 years I have always yearned after catching a Sailfish. My research suggested that Mexico’s Caribbean coast at Easter represented the best mix of fishing potential and opportunity. Enquiries also suggested that the demand for fishing charters during this period can be very high, so I set about planning and organising the fishing trip way back in November 2009. A previous visit to Mexico 11 years ago suggested that a charter outfit based in Puerto Aventuras named Captain Rick’s would best suit my aim of boating a biggie. A quick Google on the ‘net established that the business was still in operation, and from the testimonials on their informative website, it looked fab. I booked two separate full day trips on 6th and 13th of April. My early booking also meant that I had choice of boats… I plumped a 35ft Luhrs sport fishing boat appropriately named ‘My Obsession’. The lovely Glenna at Captain Rick’s also fixed up transport to pick me up from the hotel each day. The whole experience of arranging this was very straightforward and left me with a high degree of confidence that things would go to plan.
Captain Rick’s operate sixteen boats from 23ft to over 50ft in length, with various price points. They own all the boats and employ experienced local skippers and crew to operate them. I get the impression that the crews are fiercely competitive with the seasonal boats that come from the USA and other parts of Mexico each spring in search of sailfish, and rumour has it they usually better their results by some margin. Captain Rick’s is also committed to conservation and they make it very clear in their highly professional start-of-trip briefing that all billfish will be returned alive. They also clarify that if a fish is in good enough condition they will allow it to be brought aboard for a photo, but if the skipper deems that it too tired or stressed then it stays in the water. There is no discussion on this point and the skipper’s decision is final.
The taxi picked me up from the hotel at 6.20 am and got me to the charter office at 6.45, where Glenna introduced me to the crew of ‘My Obsession’. I struggled to pick up the skipper’s name which sounded like Robot’… just as well then that Glenna added that I wouldn’t be talking to him much! The crew were Pepe and Jesus who were busy rigging baits and lures ready for the day when I reached the boat. And my confidence soared knowing that I would be fishing with the messiah.
The moorings were slipped and we headed out of the Marina and in to the open waters of the Caribbean just as soon as I stepped aboard. Many places I have visited boast fantastic fishing within yards of the harbour but it’s certainly true here. Deep water is found within a 1/2 mile and the rods are set within minutes of leaving the harbour. With the rods out for just two minutes, a sailfish jumped clear of the water three times in a row, some seventy yards to starboard. All the pictures I have seen of sailfish represent these fish as being a fairly dark colour however this fabulous specimen had a beautiful metallic blue sheen that I could never reproduce digitally.
Two 30lb class rods were fished wide and long on the outrigger, while a third 30lb rod was fished directly behind the boat and short. A fourth was fished from the flying bridge skipping the bait along the surface. A fifth heavier rod was fished on a down rigger to set a bait deep. The lighter rods were matched up with Shimano TLD 25’s, with the 50lb set-up sporting a Penn International. All the outfits were in excellent condition and spooled with new line. Despite the early jumping sail, the next hour and a bit were quiet. The time was spent admiring the first flying fish I’d seen and a couple of large sea turtles.
The first run came out of the blue; Jesus grabbed one of the port side rods and struck repeatedly into a fish. I jumped into the fighting chair and Pepe fitted a fighting belt around my middle which, to my relief, fitted despite all the beer and food I’d consumed. The run was short, and I winched in a smallish barracuda of 15 – 20lbs. I have often compared these ‘cuda to our dogfish; easy to find and taking every bait in sight. And a lack of enthusiasm among the crew seemed to bear out this theory. I would, however, change my mind later in the trip.
Zig and Zag
After a two-and-a-half hours steam we turned and started to run back up-coast in a zig-zag pattern, sometimes doubling back when we had hits on baits or when the skipper spotted ‘signs’ from the flying bridge. During this time there was a much stronger run, but after fighting what felt like a substantial fish for a few minutes everything went light and it was gone.
Pepe and Jesus looked at me incredulously, openly hypothesising that it was probably a sailfish, and likely quietly thinking that I had donkey paws. From the action I experienced on a later trip I now doubt this was a sailfish but could have been a big ‘cuda.
As we neared Puerto Aventuras we had a couple of hits on lures without hook-ups before one of the reels screamed… but only briefly. I was handed the rod and I realised that this was not a large fish. I was being encouraged to wind faster to get the fish in so the lures could be reset. Modest fish or not, it still seemed like hard work. The result was a beautiful Spanish mackerel which would grace the dining table of the salivating crewmen.
We cruised past the entrance to the marina and continued for about half a mile before taking a long turn back towards home. Here I saw another one of Captain Rick’s boats locked in a battle with a big fish. I then saw the lucky angler land a fine sailfish of around 50lbs. But there was no time for admiring other peoples’ work as a large splash and a screaming reel let us know we were in to another fish. Jesus struck the fish – a kingfish he thought – and passed me the rod. I managed to lose this one immediately, again to the consternation of the crew. The day finished with me doubting my ability to land one of these bluewater monsters, but I was still itching to get back out there and try again in a week’s time.
My second outing began in similar vein to the first. We sped from the harbour and immediately set the rods and there on the starboard side of the boat the surface exploded. Once again a sailfish – bigger than the previous one – was performing aerial acrobatics within touching distance as my fingers twitched and my eyes lusted after it or one of its majestic brethren. What I didn’t know at this dreamy juncture was that I was about to learn just how difficult this type of fishing can be.
Hits came on three of the five rods which had been set up as before. Each had the bait neatly severed just behind the hook suggesting attacks by small predatory fish. We fished on, and after an hour came the first serious run… a real hard screamer. A large sailfish had smashed into the bait and taken off at speed. Settling into the fighting chair I received the rod from the crewman who had assuredly set the hook.
I held on for dear life as the fish powered off on a long, line-tearing run. I was being urged to wind and keep tight to the fish but was unable to do anything as it tail-skipped across the surface before diving. After what seemed like minutes, but was probably seconds, the sail slowed and I started to successfully jockey with it, winning back as much line as it was taking.
The fight tipped to-and-fro but I seemed to have the upper hand… but only just. In the midst of this exhilarating torture I realised that nothing in British angling had prepared me for the sheer physical and mental battle. I was surprised that it was not the bicep or shoulder on my left arm that ached, but rather my gripping hand and forearm which were afire – symptomatic of slouching at a desk all day I suppose. Now call me thick, but I was so busy staring at the spool of the reel to see if I was gaining that I was oblivious to the big fish on the surface, or the hollering of the crew. The sail instantly tensed and affected an almighty leap which threw the hook and left me dumbfounded, distraught, deflated and a whole host of other horrible words that collectively added up to GUTTED!
Silence reigned in the aftermath of that near thing, but we dutifully set the rods again and continued trolling. I necked a can of Pepsi, more for energy than refreshment, and silently prayed that we wouldn’t hook up again too soon, as my lame left arm was next to useless at that juncture.
Another Chance, Another Banana Skin
Some 45 minutes later and the skipper struck a fish from the flying bridge. He handed the rod to Jesus who struck again to make sure of the hook-hold, and then I was back in the fighting chair and a world of pain. This time I watched the water and just hoped I was gaining. I started to make some steady progress on the fish – I suspect the skipper was also slowly reversing towards the fish to make it easier on me! Minutes later, the line angled almost straight up and down. Pepe saw the fish, a sailfish of around 65lbs, he said. But as he turned around to begin clearing the deck for unhooking – POP! The sail was gone. I still don’t know what went wrong, and asked Jesus whether the problem was mine or the fish’s and he smiled and said: “I think the problem is you”. I could only agree.
I could sense the disappointment in the crew that they had connected me to two good sailfish and I hadn’t landed either of them; perhaps worse than that was that the bragging rights would belong to another boat. If the second sailfish was 65lbs I cannot imagine how big the first was as it had fought significantly harder. And after two battles I was definitely feeling the effects. Further less committed runs came to nothing with the late exception of a tiny 2.5lb bonito which earned hardly a glance from Jesus, Pepe and Robocop or whatever his name was! I couldn’t help wondering if this was the firmest indicator yet of my level in the world of sport fishing.
With about 40 minutes left the deep bait on the heavy outfit screamed off. The tension was palpable as the crew willed me to land the fish. The fight was reasonably brief – two or three minutes maybe. This fish smaller than the two escapees and stayed deep the whole time. When a fine 30lb wahoo surfaced there was a deal of excitement and relief, not least from me.
I brought wahoo to the side where Jesus took the rod and instructed me to go to the back of the deck. Pepe grabbed the trace and went for the fish with the gaff. As he tried to set the gaff the fish kicked and the trace slipped through Pepe’s hands embedding an exposed sharp tag on the swivel clip in his finger. Naturally he had to let go and the fish ran. Jesus tried to reset the hook but by the time the rod was back in my hands the fish was gone. The crew were despondent but I have rarely seen such a beautiful fish and felt privileged to have done so.
We headed in fish-less.. but, so what. It had been amazing day’s sport that fully demonstrated the potential of this location. Despite not actually landing a dream fish this was one of the most exciting days on the water I have ever experienced and I can only feel sorry for the crew that I did not reward their expertise with a catch. I suspect a more experienced bluewater angler would have been rewarded with a stack of wonderful fish pictures.
Delays and Cuda Magics!
The UK return flight was unavoidably delayed due an ash-spewing Icelandic volcano. We were moved to a really crappy hotel on the third day of our overstay. The family were so down that I suggested an afternoon fishing trip to alleviate the boredom for my eight and ten year old daughters. A quick call to Captain Rick’s confirmed they had one boat left for the afternoon and I booked it. By 12.30 we were on our way to the Marina. Our boat for this trip would be the “Wild Bill” which is a single decked 31′ sports boat that was very comfortable.
The skipper was surprised and horrified that we wanted to go bottom fishing in the middle of the peak sailfish season. “Nobody bottom fishes in April”, he said. After a short discussion we agreed to troll for an hour to a bottom fishing spot, and then if the bottom fishing action was no good after a couple of hours, we would try trolling again at the end. The reason I didn’t want to troll is that it is a patience game and without a rod to hold the kids would soon be bored stiff.
Polly was starting to feel sea sick and our sympathetic skip set up for bottom fishing sooner than intended. I had assumed we would just fish for small snappers etc and the skipper set up a couple of rods with lighter reels and slivers of ballyhoo fillet as bait for us to hold. The skipper and crew had various tricks up their sleeves however, and first set two rods up with whole ballyhoo dead-baits suspended off the outriggers. These the crew regularly agitated to give them movement. They then set up two rods with triple snoods and fish fillets on each hook which the skipper and the senior crewman worked up and down over the reef.
We had only been at it for five minutes when one of the outrigger suspended baits took off. The skipper hit the rod and handed it to my eight year Maddy, who was sat in the fighting chair at the time. With the rod butt secured in the fighting chair, her feet braced against the fish box, and the skipper supporting the rod when required, she started to reel. After a short sharp fight I was astonished to see the fish turn ‘flank on’ to the sunlight – a barracuda in double figures! The smile on Maddy’s face was magic, and sensing everyone’s delight, at this point the crew’s enthusiasm definitely improved.
10-year old Polly had been bravely struggling with sea sickness, but he sight of her younger sister landing a large
fish soon perked her up though and she was determined to take the next turn in the chair. Meanwhile, I was handed a triple-hooked rig and reeled in a small strawberry grouper of only a couple of pounds. This was a stunning little fish and good eating apparently.
When the bites dried up the skipper wasted no time in moving to another mark. Almost instantly the port side whole Ballyhoo that was hit and Polly was attached to a good fish. With excellent supervision from the crew Polly was able to bring her fish to the boat and I was even more astonished to see this was another barracuda but this time 25lbs in weight! It was larger than the one I’d caught on my first trip. Was I jealous… of course! I landed a snapper on the three-hook set-up before the skipper whisked us off to another spot.
Action in a Snap
The fish obliged straight away. Maddy managed a strawberry grouper while Polly landed a small snapper. The port side whole ballyhoo went again and I leapt in to the chair and took the rod. I worked the fish to the surface and the gaff flashed in the hands of the crew. We were all urged to step away from the back of the boat and then over the gunwale came the fish that I had longed for. The barracuda of around 40lbs was taken on a 30lb class outfit. It is undoubtedly my best foreign angling achievement in the thirty-three years to date.
We tried a couple of other spots but found no more big fish. Polly rounded off a fantastic family outing with another small snapper, and I must applaud the boat crew for their outstanding help which ensured the kids had a trip that will live long in their memories. The final icing on the cake was being able to take our snapper, cleaned by the crew, to a local restaurant on the quay. Gringo Dave’s is a locally renowned watering hole. We met Dave, and he had the chef prepare the snapper as a starter for the four of us. My kids are not normally big fish eaters but they picked this guy clean. We followed up with the superb Surf ‘n’ Turf, and the ice cold beer my wife and I supped was the perfect end to fabulous family day.
So thank-you Captain Rick’s, thank-you Gringo Dave and thank-you Icelandic Volcano for making all this possible. We will definitely return one day and I will have another crack at those damn sailfish with Captain Rick’s. I think I will pump some iron and work on my technique between now and then though.