The sheer power of a blue marlin and the acrobat skills of a pacific sailfish caught on light gear are some of the most exhilarating feats an angler can encounter, but the fast runs and jaw-dropping aerial jumps are something that every ocean love can appreciate. As an intern with The Billfish Foundation and a second year Marine Affairs and Policy student, I had the opportunity in November to take a short break away from my research and head to Guatemala to fish in the Presidential Challenge of Central America — a tournament series that generates $25,000 dollars a year for billfish conservation.
Despite the fact that Guatemala is one of the only places in the world you can “pitch bait” sailfish and blue marlin, the amount of wildlife in addition to billfish in Guatemala is absolutely incredible. On the practice day of the tournament, the boat counted over 100 olive ridley sea turtles and during the following three days I was fortunate enough to see a humpback whale breach three times and spinner dolphin schools that stretched for as far as the eye can see.
While my Spanish skills are not where they should be after countless years of Spanish in school, the phrase “san cocho” will be something that haunts me for some time. The “art” of pitch baiting can only be done in a handful of locations around the world because of the aggressive nature and abundance of billfish present—Guatemala is one of those. Rather than having hooked baits being trolled behind the boat, only teasers are used to attract fish up into the “spread” (If you were a fish looking up at what the boat was dragging, that would be the spread – all the lures and teasers the boat pulls. The purpose is to attract fish and look like baitfish that are running away). Once a fish is spotted in the spread, the captain will call out which teaser the billfish is trying to eat and at that point in time, it is the job of one of the anglers to “pitch” a ballyhoo (type of baitfish, most are caught off of south florida and then shipped all over the world) to the hungry and angry billfish that cannot seem to kill the plastic teasers. Once the sailfish eats and realizes that it is hooked up, it will immediately sky rocket and start a series of jumps and hard runs. Circle hooks are exclusively used in the sailfish fishery in Guatemala to improve the post release survivability of the fish because they hook the fish in the corner of the mouth rather than the stomach and are ultimately a conservation tool used by recreational anglers to ensure the health of the stock.
All in all, the tournament was a great success and Team Billfish Foundation finished in third place despite having mechanical problems on the second day of the tournament. The opportunity to do something like this as an intern at The Billfish Foundation was an extraordinary experience. Never did I think I would have the opportunity to take a break from my research (determining the socioeconomic benefits of billfish anglers in the Gulf of Mexico) to fish in one of the world’s premier fisheries.
To read more about the trip, visit The Billfish Foundation blog.
Marine Affairs & Policy Student
The Billfish Foundation Intern