Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth, whenever it’s a damp, drizzly, mud-season in my soul, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can and pull big fish on a fly rod. I mean really pull them, putting back and heart into it, the long muscles fully in play, breaking rivers of winter-stale sweat under a tropical sun, legs braced and the rod bent to the max, pumping and reeling until I see color at last—the electric blue of sailfish or marlin, the silver flash of a tarpon—and some psychic color comes flooding back into my life, as if in reciprocation.
Melville called this his “substitute for pistol and ball.”
“If they but knew it,” he wrote in the opening paragraph of Moby Dick, “almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feeling towards the ocean with me.”
The Bat Islands rise sharply from the Pacific about 28 miles northwest of the lodge as the frigate bird flies. They’re rough, wet miles in the prevailing seas. Our boat, the Swordfish, was not the fastest, most comfortable, or spacious sport fishermen ever built—a single-screw, 31-foot deep-vee hull not unlike a miniature Rybovich, powered by a 250-horse Volvo turbine—but she’s a legendary Siren at teasing up billfish.
Porpoises crisscrossed our track to the Bats, flirting up alongside to flash their frozen grins, then surging ahead to frolic in our bow waves. From time to time we spotted green turtles, big as manhole covers, bobbing and paddling in the spine-jarring chop. You don’t want to hit one at speed. They can shatter a fiberglass hull as effectively as a mortar shell. But Captain Calin, our skipper, had a sharp eye for such hazards. No problemo.
Surf crashed high on the oddly canted, mustard-yellow rocks of the islands. Squadrons of tijeretas—frigate birds—swung black on their crooked wings against a bright blue sky. Already half a dozen other sport-fishing boats were trolling conventional tackle in random patterns off the Bats, chumming up sailfish with dip nets full of live anchovies. But we were fly fishing—no live bait allowed.
The standard deployment of teasers for sailfish on the fly rod is two bonito bellybaits trolled astern, port, and starboard about 50 to 75 yards back, and a single daisy chain of ten hookless, plastic squids trailing in the wake amidships. Most beginners at this game troll too loudly. The ideal engine speed for a single-screwed vessel after billfish is about 700 rpm. When marlin or sailfish rise to the teasers, the skipper slows to 500 or less, mainly to reduce the size of the wake and make the fly more visible when it’s thrown.
It’s the mate’s job to spot the sailfish when he first appears , then excite him further by playing a bellybait back to him. He allows him to mouth the hookless bait, get a taste, then artfully plays the delectable morsel into casting range. While the sail’s appetite alarm is clanging like a fire bell, its wild eyes big as softballs, the mate “disappears” the bait by whisking it forward and quickly reeling up.
Meanwhile, the “on-deck” angler takes his position in one corner of the sternsheets and readies his gear.
I was the man on deck.
I was fishing a 9-foot, 12-weight Orvis rod, loaded with a shooting head, level line, and a few hundred yards of 30-pound backing. The leader tested 16 pounds. At Joe’s suggestion I’d stripped about 20 feet of line off the big DXR reel—the amount I’d probably have to cast—and coiled it carefully in a plastic bucket at my side. A couple of inches of water in the bucket would keep the line slick and tangle-free at the moment of truth, and the bucket itself would act as a stripping basket, preventing my nervous feet from tangling in the line-coils as they played out when a fish hooked up—a potentially embarrassing situation, as in “Man overboard!”
Eppridge had built the fly, a variant on classic designs originated by Harry Kime and Dr. Webster Robinson, the pioneers of West Coast saltwater fly-rodding for billfish.
“I call it the Frank Perdue Special,” Epp said. “It’s just chicken feathers and Ethafoam tied on a 6/0 Mustad hook.”
But Epp had carefully carved and tapered the Ethafoam body, glued eyeballs on it with irises that actually rolled, and then, for ultra-realism, added garish gill slots with a red Magic Marker.
“There he is,” Joe said quietly.
Brownish-green and big around as a sawlog, the first sailfish of the day suddenly materialized behind the starboard bellybait. Curpin, our veteran mate, dropped the bait back to him and danced it enticingly, then swept it forward as if in escape. The sail was on it in an instant, slashing at the bait with Erroll Flynn-like cuts of its bill. He lit up as if someone had thrown a switch—bright, electric-blue stripes igniting the ultramarine water. Curpin teased him closer.
Bill and Joe brought in the daisy chain and the other bait. Curpin glanced at me and grinned, then disappeared the bellybait.
“Now!” Joe said . . .
For the rest of this feature, pick up the new September/October issue of Sporting Classics on newsstands August 29. It’s also found in A Roaring in the Blood—Remembering Robert F. Jones, published by Sporting Classics in 2006. Copies of the 205-page book are still available. To purchase, call (800) 849-1004 or click here.