Trophy Costa Rican Sailfish Tactics
Bob Newman

Among saltwater angling’s most thrilling challenges is hunting and catching large Pacific sailfish (the Pacific sail is much larger than its Atlantic cousin) on fly-fishing or light tackle. If you haven’t done this yet, you are missing out on more fun and excitement than most folks deserve. Here’s how you can hunt, find, fight and beat one of the Pacific’s most beautiful and impressive game fish.

Billfish Bonanza
As you might expect, the glory species of Crocodile Bay Resort is the Pacific sailfish. Given this, you might think that Crocodile Bay Resort is pretty serious about getting after these billfish, and you would be right. That’s why the lodge has a herd of gorgeous Strike 33s and wave-cutting 4 -foot Boston Whaler center consoles to chase billfish all over hell and creation, although you seldom if ever have to go that far to find a marlin or sailfish in these parts.

How good can the sailfishing be out of Crocodile Bay Resort? Good question. Here’s an example: The eight anglers in Scott Paciello’s group in late January of 2001 spent five days offshore and raised (are you ready?) 277 sails, of which they caught and released 77, including several on the fly. That works out to almost 35 raised sails each in only five days (editors note – 35 is a huge number and should not be counted on as a daily average of what to expect) . That’s great sailfish action.

I have loved chasing billfish, especially with a fly rod, since I caught my first sailfish in these very waters years ago, before Crocodile Bay Resort was even an idea. But when it comes to billfish on the fly, one of the things I like most is listening to other fly fishers describe their first hunt for them. This was the case when Allan Smith of Manhattan and his dad arrived at Crocodile Bay Resort in April of 2000.

I met Allan one morning on the deck of the building we were staying in. I was throwing rocks at the noisy parrots in the trees near the deck and noticed the batch of high-quality fly rods propped against the railing in front of the next room.

“Hmmm. Someone means business,” I muttered to myself. Just then Allan walked out and saw me. We introduced ourselves and he said he was from Manhattan.

“Yes, Mr. Newman, I know who you are. I’ve read your books and articles,” Allan said. His calling me “Mr. Newman” made me feel old, but I let it go and asked him to call me Bob.

Allan was after his first sailfish on the fly and he was full of questions and requests for advice. I gave him my best: “When you see the sail in the wake, throw the fly at him. When he eats it, set the hook and hang on.” “Jeez, Mr. Newman, don’t you have any more detailed advice than that?” my new student queried annoyingly. “Hey, kid, just be glad I gave you any advice at all. I don’t normally give out anything for free, so consider yourself fortunate.” I then grabbed my rods and headed for the dock. As I walked by him, I heard him mumble something about a “gas mole,” or something like that. I thought nothing of it, knowing that Manhattanites were an unsteady bunch, with my cohort, Field & Stream’s executive editor David E. Petzal, being the most obvious evidence of this.

I was in the bar for happy hour late that afternoon when Allan and his dad came in. Allan didn’t look all that happy. I waved him over.

“How’d you do, kid?” I asked.

“Terrible. I blew every sailfish that came to the boat. I don’t know what I am doing wrong, Mr. Newman,” he said dejectedly.

“Call me Bob or I will kill you. I’ll kill you slow, skin you, and build a kayak out of your ribcage and a streamer box out of your shinbone,” I promised.

“Hey, I work with movie stars and I know ‘Ah-nuld,'” he said through clenched teeth. “I’ll get him to crush your bald head like a rotten melon if you don’t tell me how to catch these damn sailfish.” (Allan has some sort of important job on the sets of many shows and movies.)

Impressed that he pronounced Ah-nuld’s name correctly, I decided to cut my protege some slack and proceeded to bestow upon him everything I knew about catching sailfish on the fly. A few minutes later we were done and I felt better for having enlightened the lad.

Well, the rest of the week went the same way, with Allan stalking into the bar at the day’s end with an irritated and frustrated look on his face. It didn’t help any that his dad was catching sails on conventional tackle. Then the last day of his trip came.

I just happened to be in the bar again when Allan came in, a huge smile spread across his mug from ear to ear.

“Ha! You did it!” I exclaimed as I shook his hand.

“Yeah, I did it,” he smiled broadly.

“So tell me about it,” I coaxed.

“Well, when I saw the sailfish in the wake, I threw the fly at him. He ate it and I set the hook and held on,” he grinned.

“See? I told you! Now you owe me everything,” I nodded.

You want my best advice on sailfish and marlin on the fly? Do what your captain and mate say to do, and when you see the fish in the wake . . .

Oh, when I next visited Crocodile Bay Resort, who was there but Allan Smith, only this time not as a guest. He was so hooked on the place and the fishing that he took an extended leave of absence in 2001 and signed on as a captain to be trained by Todd Staley and the other skippers. With many years fishing the chill waters of New England for stripers and bluefish, I expected good things from Allan and, naturally, I had to fish with him to see how he was progressing.

The day before I was scheduled to fish with Allan and first mate Duggie, I had witnessed and documented Barb McCarthy’s battle with a large sailfish on a light spinning rig loaded with 15-pound-test line. Barb is hitched to Jim McCarthy, who owns Jim McCarthy Adventures & Travel, a well-known and respected fishing, hunting and photographic booking agency. I was fishing on another boat nearby when I saw Barb and Jim’s boat stopped and people standing around the transom, which meant someone was hooked up, in this case, Barb. I was quite impressed with how Barb fought and beat her 120-pound sail on such light line, and it was that fight that caused me to first pick up my St. Croix Tidemaster spinning rod and Shimano Baitrunner 4500 reel loaded with 17-pound Stren Hi-Vis Gold (a new line for me, which was recommended by noted light-tackle angler and multiple IGFA world-record holder Raleigh Werking) before I picked up my fly rod for the first sail of the day.

The first sail into the teaser spread came in hot. I had a goggle-eye rigged on a bridle and tossed it to the sailfish as Duggie jerked the teaser away. The sail pounced on it and very promptly and deftly removed the bait from the hook with out so much as a ‘thank you.’ Then it left.OK, Plan B was brought into action, which was a ballyhoo. The next sail in was equally hot and gobbled the ‘hoo the moment it saw the bait. I had the Baitrunner in controlled free spool and let the sail run for only a second before engaging the reel. As expected, the sail went blasting away and then made two bounding leaps, the second of which sent my hook flying back at me.

OK, now I was getting mad. Quickly setting the teasers again and rigging another ‘hoo, it took only 15 minutes or so for the next sail to come calling, which grabbed the ‘hoo with gusto and then fled north at ludicrous speed with numerous flailing jumps.

The battle joined, I watched in first concern and then horror as the sailfish depleted the line at an alarming rate. A few seconds later and I knew that if this fish didn’t stop right soon, we would have to chase it before it spooled me. Fortunately, with maybe 35 or 40 yards of line remaining, I turned the fish and began getting some line back.

The Tidmaster slightly loaded.

Pointing the rod
(“bowing to the fish”)
during a jump.


A wild leap requiring
instant reaction by
the angler.

That was how the game went on for about half an hour before Duggie was finally able to grab the leader and guide the fish to the gunnel, where the bill was grabbed and the 120-pound sailfish pronounced temporarily captured. The fight had required me to anticipate and instantly react to each move the sail made, which are two key factors when fighting so big and powerful a game fish on such like line and with so light a rod. When the sailfish ran, which was often, I pointed the rod at the fish and just barely lifted the tip to put slight pressure on the sail. When it jumped, I pointed the rod directly at it, like in tarpon fishing. This reduces tension on the light line but keeps enough pressure on the fish to prevent the sail from throwing the hook. And every time the sailfish stopped to rest, I used a soft yet insistent short-pump technique to gain line and not allow the sail to rest too much. And when the fish wanted to turn in one direction, I would try to force it in the other direction by dropping the rod tip that way. This also forces the sail to use more energy.

This wonderful sail was beaten with a St. Croix Tidemaster rod and Shimano Baitrunner 4500 loaded with 17-pound Stren Hi-Vis Gold.

Throughout the fight I kept thinking how, if I could catch large Pacific sailfish on light tackle, and Barb could, too, others could as well, even novices, if they were properly taught and supervised. I thought the same thing while listening to the tale of one Crocodile Bay fly fisher fighting a 170-pound sail for 4 ? hours two days before (he had a few witnesses, too) until the monstrous fish finally gave it up and came aboard for photos and admiration.

Fly-fishing tactics for sails are built upon the fly fisher exploiting the sailfish’s anger, instinct and hunger. Teasers (hookless plastic baits that are trolled in the wake and which make noise and splash a lot, thus attracting the attention of nearby sails) are used to entice the aggressive sailfish close enough to the stern for the fly fisher to make a short cast to the fish, which is quite visible as it slashes at the teasers. When the teaser the sail is on is pulled out of the water by the mate, the fly fisher makes his cast so that the fly lands where the sail can see it. Now, at this point the sail is angry because it has been whacking what it thinks is a fish or squid that won’t die, so when it sees the fly, it often attacks it immediately.

Most hook sets on the fly are made with multiple back-to-back strip strikes, with the rod being loaded on the strike only if the sail comes forward with the fly too quickly for an effective strip strike. Generally, one of two things happen when the fish is hooked: The sail goes screaming off either straight away and below the surface or with jumps along the way, or the sailfish just stops and shakes its head vigorously, with the latter often happening with the fish’s head above water. Regardless, the same fighting skills apply when the battle is joined. Anticipate the sail’s moves and never let it rest and regain strength.