Want to catch a billfish on fly? The man who has caught more than anybody shares his secrets
By Capt. Ted Lund
Outside of Lefty Regan and Dr. Webster Robinson – the duo that devised the original method for taking billfish on regulation fly tackle – no angler or captain has done more to advance the art of fly-fishing for billfish than Ron Hamlin.
In 1974 he and the late angler Pete Peacock took the first IGFA world-record Atlantic sailfish on 15-pound tippet off Cancun. Since then Hamlin has led anglers to every species of billfish, except swordfish and spearfish.
For the past 14 years Hamlin been plying the waters off Guatemala’s Pacific coast, racking up some pretty impressive numbers. He fly-fishes more than 70 days a year – with beginner and expert alike – and in 1999 tallied 434 billfish on fly (including three marlin) in a single year. Over a career spanning 33 years and more than 23,000-plus billfish (including 2,809 in 2006), he still has a soft spot for fly-fishing.
Recently we had a chance to spend time with him in Guatemala aboard his new 40ft Cabo, Captain Hook, talking fly fishing. Suffice it to say, no one is more qualified to lead the discussion.
FOLLOW THE RULES
Over the years, one of the things I’ve learned about Hamlin is that he’s a stickler for the ethical boundaries laid down for our sport by the International Game Fish Association.
“Fly fishing is an aristocratic sport with its own rules and guidelines” he says. “If you want to be a part of that circle, then you need to adhere to those rules with regard to tippet lengths and breaking strength, and also to casting to and hooking fish. There are a couple of outfits here (in Guatemala) that troll flies, and that’s very deceiving. When you do it right – by the rules – there is nothing more exciting. It’s a team effort, where everybody on board – from the skipper to the mate to the angler – is involved, and it is so visual. If you don’t do it by the rules, you really haven’t accomplished anything.”
He recommends that anglers learn how to do it right, fishing and learning with crews in Guatemala or Costa Rica where they have plenty of shots and know – and follow – the rules.
“Many people that have never caught a billfish on fly tackle go someplace where the crews don’t necessarily know what they are doing or how to do it”, says Hamlin. “There is no other bite like it in the world of fishing, when you cast to a sailfish or marlin and watch it take the fly 30 feet behind the boat. And if you learn it right from the start, then you have the chance to export that knowledge and skills to other places in the world.”
Although most anglers might think sailfish are the only really doable billfish on a fly, Hamlin says that’s not necessarily so. And, he’s right. During our trip, several boats, including Nick Smith’s Old Reliable caught blue marlin on fly.
“I’ve been targeting marlin since 1975. Jim Lopez and I tried to catch the first Atlantic blue ever taken on a fly rod off St. Thomas,” he says. “The way we were interpreting the IGFA rules, we thought the boat had to be dead in the water,” says Hamlin. “It took five days to get a bite, then we hooked three fishing in nine days but kept breaking the 15-pound tippet. Finally, we figured out that the boat only had to be out of gear – not completely stopped. You could use the momentum to make the fly imitate the teaser, essentially matching the hatch. That changed things dramatically. Plus the tackle has come a long way. Today, we’ve got better rods, reels and shooting heads and thinner-diameter backing – all those things are making it better. But not easier.”
Fishing more than 200 days a year, charter captains generally develop an idea of what type of equipment they want their clients to use. Hamlin is no different.
“For rods, anything heavier than a 12 weight is what I prefer,” he says. “You can tire the fish out quickly, which is better for the angler and better for the fish, plus you’ll have a chance at landing a marlin if one shows up in the spread.”
For the beginner, Hamlin prefers anti-reverse reels like the Pate Marlin, Bluefin or Henschel V because they allow the angler more latitude when fighting fish. After you gain some experience, though, he recommends retiring the AR reels and upgrading to direct-drive because of the added control and the ability to pull more drag.
“With a direct-drive reel, there’s no doubt. You turn the handle, and line comes in.”
Once you’ve settled on a reel, Hamlin has specific thoughts about rigging. He prefers thin diameter backing such as PowerPro or similar superbraids for the high strength to diameter ratio which translates into more capacity and less drag when fighting fish. He’ll then use a 30 or 40 foot section of running line, attached to a 30 foot sinking shooting head, ranging from 500-800 grains. His personal favorites are those made by Scientific Anglers. Shooting heads are the line of choice because of the decreased drag in the water.
“I avoid weight-forward, floating fly lines,” he says. “They don’t let you pull right down the body of the fish. There is always a belly that prevents you from really putting the heat directly on fish.”
Eschewing nail knots because of the way they travel through the guides, Hamlin’s crew prefers loop-to-loop connections borrowed from wind-on leaders used in big game fishing. They splice a three foot wind on loop of brightly colored Dacron on the end of the shooting head. The same splice is made on the end of a 15 foot butt section of 60 or 80 pound monofilament.
“No one really makes a bright colored shooting head, so it’s difficult for the angler, captain and crew to really tell where they’re at”, say Hamlin. “We use the bright wind-on loops so we know exactly where the leader is. I can understand the darker shooting heads for dredging for tuna or wahoo, but I really wish somebody would make an orange one for this type of fish.”
They finish the butt section off with a surgeon’s knot or a Perfection Loop in the terminal end.
FLIES, HOOKS AND LEADERS
While some anglers prefer traditional double hook flies for sailfish and marlin, Hamlin exclusively uses tube flies. He prefers either the Cam Sigler Billfish Tube or the Fish Fly, a nylon pattern devised by one of his clients.
“In the past we used a lot of popping heads, like the removable foam ones that come with the Sigler tubes,” he says. “But today, I don’t even use the popper heads. The fish can sense the fly back there, and the popper head either interferes with the bite or gives the fish a chance to leverage the hooks out of its mouth.”
Hamlin has also downsized the fly over the years.
“Way back , we used to believe that you needed a giant fly,” he says. “But now we use just a single tube section that gives you an overall fly length of about six inches, rather than rigging them in tandem for a giant, foot long fly. You don’t really need the bulk. The fly doesn’t look like much out of the water, but when it hits, the hackles and marabou blossom. A billfish can sense it without any trouble.”
The hook rig preferred by Hamlin was actually developed by South Florida light tackle guide, Rick Murphy. It features only one permanently fixed hook, so that if the fish breaks off during the fight, it will be able to open its mouth to breathe and feed until the hooks rust out.
The hookset employs a standard j-hook (generally a 6/0) snelled to a three foot length of 80 pound monofilament. The rig is then measured against the fly, and a crimp is placed in front of the trailing hook, so that the bend is just inside the end of the hackles. Once a crimp is in place, an octopus style hook with an upturned eye (a 6/0 or 8/0) is slipped down the shock tippet and pinned in place against the crimp via a wire bead tie or small rubber band.
Once the hook is pinned in place, the remaining shock tippet is measured out to 12 inches and cut, meeting the IGFA’s tippet requirements. To finish off the leader, Hamlin ties a Bimini in both ends of a four foot section of 20 pound Mason. One end is attached to the shock using a Huffnagle and the other is doubled with a Surgeon’s knot, forming the terminal loop and attached to the butt section.
Hamlin usually has the anglers set up two rods in the cockpit: one in the corner and a backup rod rubber-banded to the rocket launcher or chair. Both have a cast’s worth of line stripped onto the deck or in a bucket ready to go. He’ll have anglers practice going through the motions with both rods.
His general bait and switch spread consists of three Moldcraft Four Eyed Monsters fished off the starboard side - one short and one long, both off the outrigger, and a mid-length teaser fished off a conventional rod in one corner.
Once a fish appears in the spread, Hamlin will make the call, and the crew will go about switching the fish over to the corner rod. After teasing the fish into range, Hamlin will slide the engines out of gear and the mate will simultaneously yank the teaser away from the fish.
Then, the real fun begins.
CASTING, HOOKING AND SETTING UP
Once he calls for the cast, Hamlin likes anglers to present the fly to the side and beyond the fish. He uses a modified Spey cast that allows the anglers to shoot the 35 foot distance with one false cast.
“I’d recommend that people make the cast and then leave the fly in the water without moving it,” says Hamlin. “The momentum of the boat sliding forward causes the fly to look like a teaser, and you want the fish to eat it going away or at an angle. For that reason, you don’t want to strip or anything. If the fish sees the fly, he’ll turn and eat it.”
Hamlin likes the going away bite because the hook up percentages are the best.
“If the fish eats straight from behind, you only hook and catch about 10% of them,” he says. “They’ll sit there straight up and down, shaking their head like a windshield wiper and usually throw the hook. But if you get that going away bite and then set the hook by sweeping the rod across the fish’s back, you’ll hook and catch about 60% of them.”
If it looks like you’re going to get the come from behind bite, Hamlin wants anglers to actually tease the fish with the fly.
“Don’t be afraid to take the fly away from the fish if you’re not getting the bite or angle you want,” he says. “It’s a hard thing to take the fly away from a ten foot long fish, but your hookup ratio will soar if you re-tease the and re-present the fly until you get the bite you want.”
FIGHTING THE FISH
Once you’ve gotten the bite and applied the opposite pressure to hook the fish, the next steip is to let the fish settle down. Much like a tarpon, when billfish jump, you’ll want to give the tip slightly (bow). After the initial series of jumps, the fish will settle down and that’s when the work starts.
“I had a chance to film an episode of The American Sportsman with Billy Pate on the Great Barrier Reef in 1978,” says Hamlin. “We were fishing for black marlin, and that’s where we learned you really want to lift directly down the side of the fish without any lag or belly.”
The crew of the Captain Hook sets drags on their fly reels in the same manner as their conventional tackle. On 20-pound tippet, Hamlin looks to get eight pounds of resistance from his drags.
If you are serious about chasing billfish on fly, Hamlin has the one last catch-all piece of advice. “Lots of times, in the heat of the moment, people aren’t really sure what to do and the result is they don’t do anything,” he laughs. “No matter what – even if what you do is wrong – do something. The worst thing you can do when a fish eats or jumps or runs is not react. Anything is better than nothing.”
But don’t worry.
If you don’t react – chances are – your captain will.