Offshore Costa Rica Fly Fishing: Billfish on the Fly
Living and fishing in Costa Rica for nearly three decades has given me the privilege to fish with many of the MVP’s in the fishing world including some great fly fisherman. The late Bill Barnes gave me the first taste of Costa Rica on the fly. His world record snook has stood for more than a quarter century. Watching Flip Pallot cast is watching poetry in motion. One of my biggest thrills ever whilefishing was watching Tim Rajeff land a 250 lb marlin in less than a hour on fly tackle. Tim has won many National casting competitions. I could not possibly mention all the “All Stars” I have been fortunate to meet, but one thing I learned from them all was even I can catch billfish on a fly.
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Watching me fly fish is pure entertainment, if you enjoy a good comedy. If you are onboard with me when I am fly casting you’d better be wearing a Kevlar suit and have on a fencing mask. I can accidentally tie myself up worse than the best that ever tied up Houdini before he did one of his famous escapes.
That somewhat embarrassing but honest statement being made, there is one thing that I can regularly do with a fly rod. Catch sailfish.
I have fairly good angling skills when it comes to conventional tackle. I’ve won or placed in several casting competitions and have caught big fish on light tackle. The basic skills I know well. Fish goes left, pull right. Fish goes right, pull left and the other normal stuff like keeping constant pressure on the fish. When you rest, the fish rests, ect, ect.
The trick to catching any fish on a fly is to get them to eat. A hot billfish will attack almost anything and unlike many species, it only takes a short cast to present your fly to a billfish. That is why even I can do it!
A lot of people judge the ability to catch a fish on fly equipment according to the size of the target species. In this case size doesn’t matter. It is the ability to present your fly to the target species and fooling it into eating the fly. A 100 pound sailfish is much easier to fool with a short cast than many small species. We will get into this a little further when we talk about roosterfish, but a sailfish is doable to anyone with basic angling skills.
No matter what type of technique one uses, it is hard to beat the adrenalin rush of a billfish coming up on a teaser lit up in a neon purple hue. My personal favorite way to fish them is with doing a “bait and switch” with a dead bait or casting a fly. Why? Because the experience is much more visual.
The number of fish you put in the boat so to speak might not be as high as other methods of fishing, but the visual reward of actually seeing the strike makes up for the reduced number of landed fish and unless you have a boat that goes as fast in reverse as it does forward, it will take a little longer for the average angler to land a fish on fly gear.
We keep a scoreboard in our bar that we report the days catch on at happy hour after fishing. We report the number of fish raised ( fish that come into the spread and chase a teaser) and the number of fish landed. We count raised fish because it is a better tool for the biologists to use when doing population studies than using just caught fish numbers.
For example, I have one customer who only fishes marlin on fly. He drives the crews crazy because he will not cast to a sailfish. He figures time wasted fighting a sail is time lost trolling trying to raise a marlin. One day his crew raised 26 sails and he didn’t cast to the first one. That afternoon the scoreboard listed his boat as 0 for 26. Another customer suggested he should ask for a new crew. His only reply was, “my crew is just fine.” For three years he had a few shots at a marlin but never was able to keep one hooked up. One the forth year he landed two in consecutive days both weighing over 200 pounds.
Most boats in Costa Rica use the bait and switch method. In theory it is basically quite simple. The boat is trolling teasers around 7 or 8 knots per hour. A billfish pops up and the Captain takes control of the teasers on the outriggers and the mate takes control of the other teasers. The fish is “teased,” into range and the angler presents a live bait, dead bait, or fly as the teaser the billfish is following is taken from the water leaving your presentation as the only option for the appetite crazed fish.
In reality it is quite different. It’s a fast forward fire drill we everyone working as a team and it can all happen in milliseconds.
A marlin for instance will usually charge in and be gone in a flash, while a sailfish may rush in and leave or hang behind a teaser and boat after you cast for a minute or more. If you don’t get a strike on your first cast, cast again. I’ve seen a sail break a tippet and the fly floated to the surface. The sail came back three times and hit the fly. Another time while doing some filming here I was riding in the camera boat. We pulled teasers and I cast hookless flies for close up shot of the take but, not waste time fighting a fish while the main boat trolled a couple hundred yards off our port side. We filmed two great takes and called the other boat who trolled in across our stern, raised the fish and caught it.
Like I said it is teamwork that catches fish. No matter what the sport is all good teams practice. Knowing what each team member will do when the first fish comes up may make a difference of a life time experience or a missed opportunity. Do a couple of practice runs with the crew. All big leaguers take batting practice before the game. Football teams warm up, field goal kickers and punters also. Even all star teams made up of the best of the best practice together before the game.. This should be no different.
I won’t go into a long list of tackle listing brand names or endorsing products. The serious fly fisherman will all ready have his preference. You will need a 12 to 14 wt rod for sails and a reel that holds at least three hundred yards of backing. Almost everyone prefers a floating line. For marlin a 14 or 15 wt rod. The resort has plenty of good quality 12 and14 wt fly equipment for offshore fishing. Because fly equipment is more fragile than conventional gear we do not keep it onboard. If you want to use loaner fly tackle please ask for it when you reserve your trip or if you decide you want to try it after you arrive please let the fishing manager know the night before.
Popping flies work best and my three favorite colors are pink, pink, and pink, followed by a green and yellow dorado pattern, or blue and white. For those who want a more detailed list of gear, I’ve asked Captain Allan Smith, and Captain Will Kitsos both accomplished fly fisherman for their opinions on gear and flies. You will find it below.
Captain Alan Smith on the Hardware
Offshore, 12-14wt rods with fast taper and fighting butt (Fly fishing for Billfish does not require long casts, emphasis should be more on the rods as a fighting tool, than casting) Reels, quality large arbor fly reel with good line capacity and cork or ceramic drag. (Billfish reels are all about the drag, they should hold plenty of line, and have a big enough arbor to allow you to reel line in a hurry) lines, Sci-anglers Billfish line, heavy weight forward floating line, or heavy shooting head. Flies, Cam Sigler or Rainy’s tandem rigged tube flies, Flashy profile flies or similar variation, with popper head. Colors, Pink, blue/white, Green/yellow, black/red. leader, 100lb shock tippet, 20lb class tippet. fly line backing, 65-80lb braid.
After ten years of learning how to help and teach fly fishers and non fly fishers how to catch bill fish on the fly I have developed my, ‘This is so easy even I can do it!’ set of instructions and hints.
Set up the rod so that it is ready to pick up and cast. I like the rod to be suspended in a horizontal position off the deck. The easiest way I have found is to have a 5 gallon bucket with about 2 inches of water in it placed far enough forward from the stern and as close to the rail as possible, to allow passage while waiting for the fish to attack the teaser. Let the rod rest with the reel suspended over the bucket and with the rod tip on the transom protruding no more than 2 feet astern