ISLA MUJERES, Mexico
The most exciting fishing on Chesapeake Bay comes in autumn, when rockfish and blues school up and rise to the surface to rampage through clouds of fleeing bait, and seagulls shriek and dive to mark the schools. Now, imagine that scene in the Gulf of Mexico with hungry birds twice the size and fish 10 or 20 times bigger.
In the distance they appear as black specks in the sky, tumbling gracefully to spear sardines, but up close the massive frigate birds reveal themselves as sinister predators with forked tails, fierce eyes and razor bills. The bait on which they prey has been compressed into a terror-stricken, shiny, boulder-sized, fast-moving ball by five-foot-long sailfish slashing below, black sails cleaving the surface and waving in the wind.
Mate Jordan Blount, left, and Mike Bailey of Seneca get a grip on a 50-pound sailfish caught in the waters off Isla Mujeres, Mexico, a place rich with the fish during January and February.
(Angus Phillips For The Washington Post)
There you have a pretty picture of maritime life and death off the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula in winter, and if you come here in January and February and hire a boat you will see it over and over and over again. The billfishing here is not as good as it gets, "it's better than it gets," says veteran charter skipper Arch Bracher, who runs his 56-foot sportfisherman Pelican 1,300 miles from home port in Cape Hatteras, N.C., every year to partake.
This year it was 17 degrees Fahrenheit and blowing hard northwest when he and mate Jordan Blount left Oregon Inlet Fishing Center for the five-day trip south. By the time they'd run down Pamlico Sound the boat was caked in saltwater ice but on they forged, driven by a vision of billfishing at its best.
"The best day I ever had in Carolina, we got 10 white marlin and a blue one," Blount said. "The best day we've had here so far was 74 sails."
"Any day you catch 10 billfish is a great day fishing anywhere in the world," Bracher said. "Here, it's just a whole different ballgame."
Mike Bailey of Seneca in Montgomery County, one of the deans of fishing the Potomac at Fletcher's Boathouse, had pestered me for years to join him here. He splits a five-day charter every winter with Brian Light, an executive chef from Portland, Ore., whom he met through Bracher. Both are avid anglers from different schools -- Light mostly flyfishes rivers of the Northwest for steelhead and salmon in summer while Bailey works Washington's tidal river for shad or rockfish on spinning tackle.
Both are drawn to the same stimulating midwinter challenge -- tackling wild sailfish one-on-one with light, 25-pound-test tackle. Bracher lets his anglers do the tricky parts themselves. "You're going to like it," said his wife, Summer, a keen angler who comes along to fish with her husband's parties whenever she's invited. "You get to hook your own fish."
Indeed, much billfishing on charter boats is a disappointment as the crew handles the hard parts -- by necessity. When you spend all day in the Gulf Stream looking for a few marlin bites, it's hard to let an amateur blow the strike. Here, with the likelihood of dozens of hits, even the rawest rookie can park himself by a rod, free-spool the ballyhoo bait to a marauding sail, watch the little fish disappear in the big fish's maw, count to seven, 10, as long as you can take it, then click the reel in gear and feel the powerful tug that signals a hookup, followed by the arcing, spray-spewing leaps of a mighty gamefish in flight.
The first six times I tried I came up empty, to the point where I was ready to call the whole thing off. "Don't pout! Reel up and get your bait back in there," shouted Bracher from the bridge, where he orchestrates the dance that develops when four anglers dodge and weave around each other, some to fight fish while others still aim to hook up.
"Right rigger!" he cries, and you dash for that rod and throw it in free-spool, pointing the rod tip straight at the fading glimpse of a sailfish, hoping against hope that the hungry beast never feels the faintest resistance from the slim, silvery baitfish he hopes to swallow. "Okay, come tight on him now!" And far astern, beyond the last bubbles of prop-wash, a silver needle erupts from the sea and tail-walks, shaking its shiny flanks. Fish on!
Carlos Bentos, a keen marlin fisherman in Ocean City, Md., maintains that sailfish are much easier to hook than white marlin, which he considers the most challenging billfish of all. Bracher doesn't agree. "I actually think sailfish are harder," he said. "We've gotten to the point that we hook about 70 percent of the marlin strikes we get back home, but of course we get a lot of practice down here over the winter."