Pacific Sailfish fishing with conventional tackle

Our typical trolling setup for sailfish in Guatemala consists of running four or five lines. On most sportfishing boats, two of the line would be run from outriggers as hookless teasers, the others are often flat lines and may or may not contain hooks depending on the method employed.
All billfishing in Guatemala is catch and release, and in order to try and minimise mortality wherever possible, we only use circle hooks with conventional tackle.
The corollary of this is that the angler needs to employ a “dropback” in order to allow the hook to set, and so needs to be in control of the bait when (or as soon after as possible) it is taken by the fish.
Eagle Claw circle hook.jpgCircle hooks essentially work by allowing the whole bait to be taken into the gullet or as far as the stomach, and then pressure is applied to withdraw the bait and so the hook. When the hook encounters a change in the pressure vector (such as when the line and hook are exiting the mouth), the point of the hook is designed specifically to catch at this point. As it catches, pressure alone will cause the hook to turn by virtue of the shape and gap of the hook and the angle of pressure – driving the point and eventually the barb into the bony part of the mouth or ideally into the “scissors” of the jaw.
The hook-up rate when properly employed is at least as high as with “J” hooks (75% or better), but the mortality is dramatically higher – with survivability in excess of 99%. Another significant benefit of utilising the circle hook is that once engaged correctly (or “buttoned”), there are far fewer occurrences of fish “jumping off” or losing the fish during the fight.
The challenges faced by the conventional angler therefore are to learn two particular skills:

  • Timing the dropback to the fish
  • Developing sufficient and the “right” amount of pressure to achieve a secure hook-up.

The first skill is certainly the one that causes the most adrenalin to pump, as it happens generally in full view of the excited fish.
The billfish are first attracted to the boat – or more accurately to the combination of sound from the engines, the wash from the prop and the bubble trail caused by teasers and the hull itself. This is why you may have heard discussion in the past about “this boat raises a lot of fish” – as certainly the shape of the hull/keel and the resonance of the engine frequency stimulate the aggressive impulses with predatory fish.
It is the general commotion of all of the above that first attracts the sailfish – perhaps they connect it in some way to the commotion that occurs when baitfish balls form and in particular when they are under attack…………but once “raised” to the spread, the natural predatory instincts then start to take over – and they look for a target. This is the job of the teasers. They are designed to sit slightly outside and offset to the commotion, and to generate their own bubble trail to first get the fish’ attention – but then the colors, shape and demeanour single it out as a potentially injured baitfish……and a prime target.
The sailfish then becomes focussed on its target, and after perhaps a couple of closer inspections will charge and attack! Its first attack is to swipe the target with its bill. In the “natural” world, this is to stun the bait or to handicap it so as to make the catch more predictable. Typically one swipe with the long bill of a sailfish or a blue marlin is more than enough to stun or kill the target so that it floats helplessly down for an easy meal.
In the “simulated” world of bluewater fishing, the initial strike to the bait causes the line to be released from the clip, momentarily causing slack in the line and so a hesitation or “flutter” of the bait in the water. This is often enough for the sailfish to come charging and take the bait.
If this occurs, then it is time to be patient, as now we have wait for the fish to run and swallow at least past the gullet. Don’t forget all of this is happening while the reel is screaming (sailfish are renowned as the fastest fish in the ocean, reaching speeds of up to 60mph)……but patience is a virtue. Most captains advocate a dropback of at least 5 seconds (and often say 7 so that they are more assured of 5 good ones!) – at which time pressure can be applied.
hooked.jpgMore often than not however, the fish will become focussed on the teaser (that IS its job after all!), which of course has no hooks in it, and so requires a different approach. This becomes what is commonly referred to as “bait and switch”.
The angler releases the drag and clicker – and reels the bait coincident with the teaser that has captured the fish’ attention. While this has been happening, the mate (or the captain if the teaser is run from the flybridge) has been continuing to lure the fish in, chase the teaser and the drop it back again – so that the fish is becoming more and more frustrated and more and more aggressive. This is when the sailfish in particular (but most billfish) becomes “lit up”; adrenalin and amino acids in the surface layers of the skin are released, and cause colouration that is almost neon-like in its brightness. That is when you know the fish is really ready to bite!
At this point, and as the teaser is being pulled towards the transom by the mate or captain – hotly pursued by the lit-up billfish – the angler prepares to place the bait in front of the fish. At the last moment, the teaser is literally jerked or lifted from the water – and the fish is left with one bait only now to attack………the switch has been completed. Once the bait is taken, it is time for the patience as described above!
A refinement on the above “bait and switch” method is to use only hookless teasers (two or more may be natural, weighted ballyhoo for example), that all work together to attract the billfish to the transom.
Sitting in the gunnels though is two ready rigged “pitch baits” that are standing by to be released at the appropriate time (usually designated by the Captain) back into the wash and in line of sight of the sailfish. The other teasers are withdrawn, and the sailfish becomes focussed on the new pitch bait. There is some substantial choreography that goes on during this process between the Captain, the mates and the anglers to ensure that things happen in the proper sequence and at the right times in order to retain the sailfish’ interest. Any slight mistake in any of these elements can easily cause the sailfish to just “fade away”.
Sometimes this can even add to the adventure however – as if/when the fish fades from view, the mates’ job is to entice it back into the spread and hence make it “targetable” again by the angler. They typically do this by casting back teaser baits on medium heavy spinning tackle, and essentially “spin” the teasers back to the wash – hopefully grabbing the errant sailfish’ attention in the process. This is akin to the process widely used for flyfishing – and commonly referred to as “reteasing” – more than an art than a science, but skilfully applied by experienced mates.
The second element which is essential to understand and eventually to practice is how to produce and sustain the “right” type of pressure in order for the circle hooks to do their job effectively.
“Classic” trolling techniques for offshore predatory fish have mostly used “J’ hooks. The fish would take the bait in the spread, and the taughtness of the spread combine with the narrow gap and sharpness of the J hook would hook-up to the fish. Many anglers would enforce this by manually “setting the hook” as well – when the contact of the lure/hook with the fish is confirmed – and series of hard tugs is made in order to drive the hook home in anticipation of a stronger hook set.
When using circle hooks, this combination of techniques is almost guaranteed to lose the fish every time. The shape and angle of the hook point are specifically engineered to pass smoothly over even surfaces, and only to catch when a change in angle and pressure is detected. Any attempt to “tug set” a hook, will almost always result in the whole hook being pulled from the mouth of the fish. The trick or technique is to quickly generate a firm and consistent pressure – and to maintain it until the hook has turned properly and the barb is set – ideally in the scissors of the jaw.
The first milestone in this process, once the fish has been teased and taken the bait, is to allow sufficient time for the sailfish to swallow the bait completely. Often billfish – particularly when there is an abundance of bait – become a little half-hearted about finishing their meal, and just drag or “mouth” the bait by instinct. Any attempt to set a hook or apply pressure when this is the case – early in the process – will also result in a pulled hook. Hence the need for patience, and the official count of seven (although five good ones will do!). As soon as the fish has attacked and taken the bait, the least amount of pressure applied is best – so free spool the reel, just applying enough pressure to it with the thumb or nail to stop it overrunning. The goal at this point is to not allow the fish to detect any pressure being applied if possible.
After the count, engage the gear in the reel, sweep the rod gently to the side (not striking up) and reel as quickly as possible to address any slack that may have entered the line possibly by the angle that the sailfish took when running. As soon as contact is felt, continue to reel so that constant pressure is applied – but now you can start to let the rod do some of the work applying pressure as well. This is normally where the hook has been drive home, the billfish feels it – and explodes from the water. Anglers will often be shocked at this point to discover that the sailfish has run about 300 yds further than t they had anticipated ! They are looking for the fish jumping 50-100 yds behind the boat – when all of a sudden it appears 300 yds to starboard!! The cardinal rule throughout this whole process is to keep any motions slow and deliberate – constant pressure is the key!




For more information or questions contact us
1-336 655 0541

Office: 00(502) 7934-62-20
Cell: 5966-4528 or 4065-1179

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