The two following articles, one about billfish on the fly, and the other about setting the hook and fighting saltwater fish with the fly rod, are excerpts from Ed’s book Fishing, Methods, and Incredible Stories – Fly Fishing the West Coast of Mexico.  

Fly Fishing For Billfish

     By Ed Kunze


          The boat was the “Intruza”, a 34 foot Radon with a wide beam and an experienced crew. We were 16 miles out of Zihuatanejo Bay and trolling a teaser spread at 6 knots. Everyone was alert and ready for action, but Ruben the captain, was quicker. From his higher vantage point, he yelled out “rigger, rigger” and in the next instant, pitched his voice to a scream level with "marlin, marlin".


    I was stationed by the underwater teaser and Antonio "Pez Vela" was next to the spreader bar teaser. Ruben slowed the boat and started winding in the outrigger rod from his station on the fly bridge and at the same time I brought in the hookless underwater teaser made out of a blue boat bumper with a string of plastic squid. Pez Vela, waiting till the outrigger bait was even with the spreader bar, hand lined the spreader bar in as the lit up blue marlin charged the baits and the boat.  The big blue actually ate one of the baits on the spreader bar and from my position in the center of the cockpit, I told P.J. Cunningham "now!" The fifteen foot cast laid the 8 inch dorado pattern fly next to the blue marlin's beak and was instantly engulfed. A lot of things go through one's mind during these critical moments. Probably foremost, was the fact that this was a huge fish and I wondered "how in the world is a fly outfit set up for sailfish, going to hold up on this 300 pound plus blue?"


    The problem with bill fishing, and especially on the fly, Mr. Murphy is always looking over your shoulder. What can go wrong, will go wrong and that was becoming very obvious when the marlin was not content to just eat one of the teaser baits and the fly. It seemed he wanted the whole boat.  Pez Vela, reaching out, lifted the spreader bar up on the swim step. The marlin finally came to its senses and made its turn from less than 3 feet away. P.J. was stripping line, in short 14 to 18 inch power pulls, as fast as he could to get a hook set. But, he could not catch up with the fish until it turned. A quick left hand strip and the forward number 8/0 hook was firmly in the corner of the mouth. 


    My original question was quickly resolved. The rod tip was actually beyond the marlin’s head at the hook set, and in trying to catch up to the fish, Mr. Murphy had wrapped the line around the outside of the reel.  When the big blue felt the bite of the hook, the explosion that followed snapped the 20 pound leader as if it was thread.


        On the Pacific Ocean side of Mexico, the twin cities of Ixtapa / Zihuatanejo are a premier sail fishing destination for serious fishermen. Not only is the area known for it's popular resorts in Ixtapa, and the old world charm of Zihuatanejo, but the sailfish fishing can only be duplicated in a couple of other areas in the world.


    Supported by an international airport, good roads, great hotel and restaurant accommodations and an adequate fishing fleet, the towns are one of the best bargains for the fisherman who wants to get a billfish on a fly rod.


    Fly fishing for a billfish is best described as the ultimate adrenaline rush. To have a blue marlin or sailfish rise up in the trolled spread of hookless teasers, watch him charge the boat and take the fly; this is sight casting at its best.


    Blue marlin are not as abundant as the sailfish, but as P. J. will contest, he had a second chance on another blue two days later. We had already released a sailfish and kept a nice thirty pound dorado. P.J.'s fishing partner, Alan Van Duyne had taken those and it was P.J.'s turn again. Rubin screamed "marlin, marlin" and we went into action again. I could see it was only about 180 pounds of fury this time, and I honestly thought we had a chance for this one. 


    The twenty foot cast with the hot pink fly was eaten and the hook set made. The marlin did not jump. It headed straight for Hawaii. The speed and power of the run was awesome. The fly rod was bent to maximum resistance, the line was screaming off the reel, and we all stared in awe. A veteran fly fisherman, P.J. had a satisfying smile on his face that reflected past fly fishing battles with 27 pound steelhead from Idaho and 50 pound salmon in Alaska. Seconds later, for some unexplainable reason, a brand new 12-13 weight fly reel, from a reputable manufacture, froze up. End of second chance in two days.


 Most of the billfish taken here in Ixtapa / Zihuatanejo are the large aerobatic Pacific sailfish, however, the methods we use for sailfish are the same for the marlin and dorado. We generally use two to three hookless teasers, which are trolled to locate the fish and entice them to bite. The teaser man brings the fish close to the boat, and the fly angler then makes the cast. This method also works, and was derived from, using a light line conventional gear rod and reel for bait and switch fishing. 


Sailfish caught on light line outfits such as a fly rod or 20 pound gear outfits fight better, and leap more often, than when being dragged down by a heavy 60 or 80 pound conventional gear rig. This adds to the excitement of the fight, and the ability to appreciate why the sailfish is one of the most targeted exotic game fish in the world.


As proven by PJ, the light line outfits and fly fishing rigs are not really made for the ultra heavy weights of the billfish world, but they sure are fun on the sailfish.   


Top: Conventional billfish flies. Bottom and Right: Tube crease
 flies for billfish with a 12wt and dorado.  The flies are tied by
 Rebecca, the author’s wife.



Saltwater Fly Fishing:

 Setting the Hook and Fighting Your Fish

 By Ed Kunze


          Most fresh water fly fishermen use a one hand strip to finesse the fly on the retrieve. When the strike occurs, the wrist is flicked up with the rod tip exerting enough pressure to bury the small hook in the trout’s jaw. This works for a couple of reasons; a) the “high sticking” of the rod will quickly take any slack out of the line, and b) the small diameter wire of the small hook penetrates easily and does not need much force to get a solid hook set.

 In salt water, with much larger hooks, and often much tougher jaws, other hook setting methods must be used. A bent rod is just absorbing energy. The more direct the connection from your hand to the fly, the more pure the form of energy being transmitted. 

 If you are more comfortable using a one handed strip to retrieve the line and consequently move the fly, then continue using this method. But, instead of “high sticking,” use the simple variation of extending your arms a little, while keeping the rod low and pointed right at the fly. Once the fish takes the fly, do a hard strip set, pulling all the line possible, even to extent of having your stripping arm extended out behind your body. If the set has not yet occurred, while firmly holding the fly line at the point you stopped the strip, quickly pull the rod butt straight back, and by then it should be a done deal. This method can be very effective when there is a little slack in the line or the fish is swimming back at you. An average sized person can recover about 5 to 6 feet of line and easily make an effective hook set. I can think of many times this method had advantages over other methods when a huge roosterfish kept coming towards the boat, just before he made his turn and spit the fly.


Helpful Hint: When the fly is in the water is not usually necessary to strip in line for a sailfish to attack a conventional fly, especially if the boat, even though it is in neutral, is still gliding forward. However, you must have a tight line in order to “feel” the fish the instant he takes the fly. Even though it may “look” like he has the fly, set the hook only after you can “feel” him.  And then, set it fast and set it hard.


  The two hand strip is probably the most preferred method for salt water fishing. Utilized and made popular by striper fishermen on the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S., it is basically placing the rod under your arm and just below the arm pit, pointing the rod tip directly at the fly, and using both hands to strip the fly line back for the retrieve.

There are several reasons the two hand strip is very effective in salt water:

           1) Even though you can vary your speed with both methods, the two hand strip can really speed up the fly. It is an excellent method to use when speed is essential.

          2) The short strips, at a higher speed, look more natural. An injured baitfish does not make long runs, with a long pause, as a fast one handed retrieve would do, but rather short jerky runs.

          3) Most saltwater game fish hit the fly so hard; they set the hook themselves, but only if there is a reasonably tight line. With the two hand strip, one hand is on the line at all times and the rod is pointed directly at the fly; keeping an efficient straight line connection.

          4) With the rod pointed at the fly, and tucked under the arm, you will not have a tendency to “high stick” the fish as you would with trout. A full 2/3 of a fly rod is used for casting, with only the lower butt section of a rod used for fighting a large game fish. Keep the rod pointed right at the fish, and never let the rod get higher than your head. This will exert maximum pressure on the fish, shorten the fight, and lessen the chance of a lost fish. With an almost straight line between the reel and the fish, the drag is working at its most efficient configuration. You will be letting the drag efficiently do what it is designed to do.

 Hooking and fighting your salt water game fish differs tremendously from hooking and fighting a trout. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, the fight should never see the rod above your head…but why? The larger the bend in the rod, the more energy is being absorbed by the rod.

By keeping the rod low and pointed right at the fish, you are utilizing the butt section of the rod to put pressure on the fish. You are now applying 6 to 7 pounds of pressure, which will wear out a fish a lot faster than ½ pound. And, for the hook set, your strip set can be as hard as you want. However, I have seen a good fly fishermen get a bit over zealous and break a quality 20 pound leader on a sailfish hook set. It sounded like a .22 rifle going off.

No single method for setting the hook for salt water game fish is cast in stone, because a lot depends on your comfort level and experience with different methods, and also on the type of fish or how he takes the fly, however the two above methods will work most of the time.