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Sail eats fly after bait jerked away – Pat Ford photo

By Skip Clement – March, 2011

Being Fly With Sailfish – Part One

Zane Grey, Ernest Hemingway, The MET and launching the International Game Fish Association

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]fter coming out of the 1890’s depression (Wall Streeter shenanigans and easy credit – nothing changes), American ingenuity created unimagineable wealth in the U. S., and it accumulated into the hands of just a few. America’s ‘new world’ had been plutonium enriched by the Industrial Revolution phenomena that morphed into the era of the “Robber Barons.”

By the beginning of the 19th century, the east coast’s newly anointed socially elect began expressing their nouveau riche modele by wintering at Henry Flagler’s Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach. They came in droves, each trying to out “Jones” the other and to move up in the ranks of a newly inaugurated Social Register, and to bask in the warm winter sun while nannies attended to full diapers.

While golfing, croqueting and bowling on the manicured lawns of the Breakers were the “outdoor” sports for the light-on-their-feet-boys with rich daddies, fishing was the outlet of choice for hardier lads. However, the sailfish was considered a lowly, nuisance catch and marlin fishing wasn’t on anyone’s dance card; the sport fish of the day was king mackerel.

Zane Grey, a dentist from Zanesville, Ohio, and grand-daddy of the western novel would soon change the status of the lowly sailfish, as well as that of the uneatable tarpon and bonefish. Grey made these pescados new gamefish targets, and along the way introduced new angling methods, which created professional guiding and chartering; and in-turn exalted those proficient at catching and finding onto the pages of outdoor journals, magazines and newspaper columns.

Zane Grey Grey makes sailfish a star, Hemingway joins in and the International Game Fish Association is established

Zane Grey – 1930’s Bimini. At the time the photo was taken, the reel was the largest ever built, a 20.0. NOTE: The actual reel can be seen at The Zane Grey Bar – second floor of Worldwide Sportsman in Islamorada, FL.
Photo courtesy of the International Game Fish Association.

Romancing billfish got its ignition in 1910. And here’s how. The Grey’s (Zane and his brother Roemer) were on their way to Mexico for a fishing trip, but before arriving they learned of an epidemic there and made their way back through Cuba to Florida. On a hunch about great fishing in the Keys, they headed to Long Key, FL, via the still under construction Over-the-Sea RR. The railroad extension (Miami to Key West) had made it to Long Key, which was also home of the just completed Long Key Fishing Club (LKFC). Henry Flagler had built the club hoping to entice his socially-elect rail customers into a stopover for some remarkable fishing. Serendipitously, Zane Grey and his brother vaulted the LKFC into “the” place for sports-minded gentlemen of the day to meet up in the winter months and go fishing. Zane also taught his “tweeters” (actually called the Bonefish Brigade) how to pursue new targets: bonefish, tarpon, and sailfish, as well as other species. King mackerel was no longer the only trophy fish in town.

Zane Grey served as president of the LKFC for several years (teens and into the early 1920’s) making it and the entire Florida Keys internationally famous as sport fishing destination. By introducing light tackle fishing to the world, he also ushered in the common man to the sportfishing game.

An unheralded player in all these changes that took place at the LKFC was a guide by the name of W. D. (Bill) Hatch, a New Jersey native. In a 1925, at a LKFC sailfish tournament – the records show that Capt. Hatch’s boat, Patsy, caught 113 sails while 12 other captained boats caught only 106. Hatch had, by accounts of the day, figured out bait & switch – teaser. Catch records (length of sailfish) for that era in the Keys indicate that the sails were quite a bit larger on average than today’s  South Florida, Florida Keys and Bahamas catches.

The Long Key Fishing Club’s members included Presidents Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt, as well as other notables of the day. The club would entertain visitors from 1910 to it’s last season in 1934. It would never recover from the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane and the Great Depression – both fast forwarded the bankruptcy of Over-the-Sea Railroad. Today, the track bed of the original RR is now the southbound lane of US 1 in the Keys. Numerical mile markers (MM-82) for addresses in the Keys are a RR hangover. The site of the LKFC is now a park. However, part of the original Long Key land mass still lies in its watery grave in the Atlantic Ocean . . . it was the receding water, not the initial flood surge that did the most damage.

By the 1930’s, Grey had set the bar so high for accomplishments and written or interviewed for so many “how-to” fishing and bill fishing articles that celebrity fisherman of the day measured themselves against his feats, and all copied his innovations and techniques; including Hemingway.

Photo provided courtesy of the authors of “Fly Fishing The Florida Keys” and the International Game Fish Association. Photo taken in Bimini, circa 1934.
Left: IGFA founder Michael Lerner with his lifelong friend and IGFA VP Ernest Hemingway. The angler is Helen Lerner – wife of Mike Lerner. Although not well known, she was an accomplished angler and remarkable woman.

In less than 20 years, the sport of bill fishing became so popular worldwide that it played significantly into the establishment of the world famous Miami Beach Rod and Reel Club, the internationally acclaimed MET Fishing Tournament (Miami), Mike Lerner’s International Game Fish Association (IGFA), and several more distant big game fishing clubs of distinction. The entire phenomena of big game fishing was an inheritance of Mr. Grey’s enthusiasm, angling skill, writing ability and unwitting promotion.

Grey, some believe, planted the seed for Hemingway’s Key West written story Old Man and the Sea. And Hemingway, in the shadow of Grey’s fishing prowess, but in the sunlight of his many books, including the Old Man and the Sea, as well as his own fishing exploits on El Pilar in Cuba and Key West, became the international poster child for big game fishing popularity among the well-heeled and self proclaimed manly of the day.

From mega reels to fly reels

According to Jack Samson (Billfish on a Fly), the first ever recorded billfish (sailfish) landed with a fly rod is attributed to Lee Cuddy, a former member of the world famous, but now defunct Miami Rod & Reel Club. He caught a 47-pound sailfish offshore Miami in June of 1964. His feat was followed shortly thereafter by Doc Robertson, also of the Miami Rod & Reel Club, Lee Wulff, Stu Apte, Harry Kime, Lefty Kreh, Ted Williams, Billy Pate, Flip Pallot and two women; Dolores Williams and Laura Pate. The former were the respective wives of Williams and Pate. Samson never knew about the 1976 catch of a 119-pound sailfish caught in Panama’s Pinas Bay by Skip Clement.

When I questioned Mark Sosin, Master of Ceremonies at the Billfish Expo (IGFA • 2-12-11) and legendary angler about the history of sails on a fly, he said that Robinson preceded Cuddy. Sosin said: “It was Doc Robinson aboard Capt. Lefty Reagan’s boat in Key West that caught the very first sail on a fly. Reagan raised 122 sails to just get that first sail. It was Reagan who figured out the bait n’ switch routine.”


“… Then the fish came alive, with his death in him, and rose high out of the water showing all his great length and width and all his power and his beauty. He seemed to hang in the air above the old man in the skiff. Then he fell into the water with a crash that sent spray over the old man and over all of the skiff.  …”

NOTE: The excerpt above is from The Old Man and the Sea. The passage describes the old, Cuban fisherman Santiago’s thoughts while in the throws of killing a big marlin in Gulf Stream. The book was written by Ernest Hemingway and published in 1952. The novella won the 1953 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and it likely cinched the Nobel Prize for Hemingway in 1954, as it was cited for particular recognition by the Nobel Academy. It was the last novel published in his lifetime. Suffering from bipolar disorder, and in a state of deep depression, Hemingway ended his own life in Ketchum, ID, on 7/2/61­.


Today, Florida waters from Stuart to Key West, and the Bahamas are the best Atlantic sailfish destinations in the world, but Guatemala, Panama, Baja and Costa Rica are still more productive, and the Pacific model tends to be bigger than the Atlantic version.

Teasing with live or dead (fresh – scales on) balao or larger ballyhoo are the favored arrows in most captains bait quivers that fish offshore using conventional wisdom. A chum line will also work, but like all open water angling with a chum line, as well as live bait trolling, suitors of many descriptions can and do arrive to inspect and dine.

George as a mate in The Bahamas in 1981. First white marlin on a fly.
Sawley photo

Today, some maintain that a fly used to attract sailfish should resemble available bait or preferred bait. They say it must also be the same coloration, with size being the most important – keeping a hot sail lit up is the idea. All at-bats come while trolling with the exception of a rare boil, which allows an angler to cast into the mix.

Sailfish are prized as a game fish – given their predilection for acrobatic leaps. When caught, sailfish usually stay near or on the surface, which adds to the angling enjoyment. Sailfish do, however, tire relatively quickly and will sound. My Panama captain of a quater century ago always said: “Los primeros 10 minutos pertenecen a la vela y a los 10 minutos próximos al pescador.”(The first 10 minutes belongs to the sail and the next 10 minutes to the angler)

Sailfish have been clocked at 68 MPH, so don’t be too amazed at the speed with which it leaves the scene when hooked. The last stage of the fight is critical. When the sailfish nears the boat it will get renewed energy and one swipe with its bill and the ball game is over, especially if you’re IGFA rigged. The captain and mate will have been there, done that many times before so pay attention to instructions when it’s time to release. Follow the captains instructions, which could best be summarized as . . .  get the f— out of the way.

For some anglers of the fly fishing persuasion, talking about the restrictive rigging policy placed on fly fishermen by the IGFA is a problem similar to the elephant in the living room nobody wants to mention. The conundrum arises out of the simple fact that the IGFA is a powerful ally to all sport fishermen, and they’re also the only game in town when it comes to rules and regulations regarding record catches, which keeps the playing field even for all of us and especially those that are record oriented.

Sailfish, all billfish for that matter, regardless of your religious persuasion towards tackle, are one of the great catches for any fisherman with a bit of Santiago in him or her. There are only a few expert offshore fly fishing captains in South Florida, Florida Keys and the Bahamas. Those that are not familiar with the SAWLEY method won’t be taking you to the sailfish-on-a-fly promise land any time soon. The sailfish gig itself is one that is made up of lots of details: along with a knowledgeable captain, you’ll have to have fastball-hitting timing, leg strength, ballroom dancing coordination that pairs-up with two mates that know the drill, and all three on deck must “capisca” when the captain gives instructions. The reward to most is that it’s well worth the sum of all its expensive and time consuming parts.


NOTE: Acoustic tagging and tracking experiments by offshore captains cooperating with TBF (The Billfish Foundation) and other scientific study groups suggest that a caught and then released sailfish has an excellent survival rate. However, recapture rate is very low. Estimated at .04% worldwide – Dr. Eric Prince, U. of Miami, Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences.

NOTE: Phil Caputo, Pulitzer Prize winner and Key West resident, described bill fishermen, marlin fishermen in particular,  in terms of having a dementia he called “The Ahab Complex” in his 1988 essay by the same name.
“ . . . an obsession to pursue and conquer a monster of the depths regardless of the consequences to one’s bank account, career and family life.” Caputo won his Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting on Chicago’s corrupt political system. He also wrote the definitive book on the Viet Nam War, A Rumor Of War.


Outrageous acrobat – Pat Ford photo

Being Fly With Sailfish – Part Two

George Sawley and modern day fly fishing for billfish

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]ndy Novak, owner of one of the world’s premier big game tackle shops, LMR Tackle in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, said: “Capt. George Sawley is one the most knowledgeable, innovative and dedicated billfish on a fly captains in the world. There are individual anglers with lots more catches and releases on a fly, but no captain has a better record of billfish teased up, caught and then released on a fly, nor better all-round tournament records – considering the number of tournaments entered. If you need to know “how-to” catch billfish on a fly, George is your man.”

The third marlin ever caught on a fly in Venezuela. Mate George Sawley is kneeling – Sawley photo

The Sawley’s are a purebred Ft. Lauderdale and Florida Keys family. George’s grandfather was a commercial fisherman in Ft. Lauderdale, and his father was a commercial fisherman based out of Key Colony Beach (Marathon) in the Middle Florida Keys from the 1950’s to the early 1990’s. George’s affinity for the brine, diesel and fish began in the Keys in the 1970’s. By middle-school age, George was regularly skipping classes to assist his dad in his commercial fishing a business. George said: “Today, my dad would be in jail for multiple ‘Child Labor Law’ violations, but in those days it was just common place for Keys kids to be yanked out of school by their dads to work on commercial fishing vessels.”

By the age of 12, George could take his dad’s fishing vessel to fuel it up and “ice it” before heading out for a seven to ten day fishing trip. By age 13, George piloted his dad’s boat from Marathon to the Great Bahama Bank fishing grounds in the Bahamas, then back to Marathon. At 13 George was an old hand at commercial fishing, but had firmly decided that commercial fishing wasn’t for him. He wanted to work the cleaner, sleeker boats of the charter fishing fleets. Sawley said: “Folks running charter boats were a cut above the commercial fishing crowd.”

When his dad didn’t need him, George would hang around the Key Colony docks and picked up odd jobs on charter boats; becoming a second and then a first mate along the way. However, his skipping school had gotten so bad that at age 15 young George had a run-in with authorities and he was sent to live with his mother in Ft. Lauderdale so he’d be forced to attend school. For the next few years George complied, but worked the around the docks in Ft. Lauderdale on the weekends and during school breaks in the summers. It wasn’t dating, ballroom dancing classes or Friday night football celebrations that interested George.

At 17 years of age, George graduated from high school at the top of his class, getting his degree in just two years. Unceremoniously, he received his equivalency diploma in the morning and was on a bus to Marathon an hour later. He had a job on a charter boat before the sun set. For the next several years, George learned the charter fishing business, and with his own skiff, the backcountry snarl of mangrove lined islands, sand bars, channels, ‘holes’, interior lagoons and erratic tidal currents of the Middle and nearby Keys – all the way to Everglades National Park. He often chartered during the tarpon season – specializing in night fishing.

LMR/Sawley $1,000 “Thingamajig” fly rod with a TIBOR PACIFIC REEL – Sawley photo

The wholesale and retail Square Grouper business in the Florida Keys during the 70’s and early 80’s is the funny stuff of many stories. Carl Hiassen, Dave Barry, James Hall and many others have made Square Groupers a part of their books, articles and columns. By the mid 1970’s, most of the Keys guides and charter captains, as well as mates, and members of the police force were dabbling in the “square grouper” business (marijuana bundles dropped from low flying planes to coordinates in the mangrove lagoons of the Keys that only a “homey’s” could negotiate into and out of), or simply turning a blind eye. However, all good things come to an end. After the mass exodus of 125,000 Cubans to the U.S. from Cuba, called The Mariel Boat lift (September 21, 1979, through April of 1980), the Coast Guard and the Feds started to concentrate on both the open waters between Cuba and the Keys, and the Keys turf itself, and that impacted the free and easy “square grouper” business between the Bahamas (principally) and the Florida Keys. It was no longer a sure-bet to make a few extra dollars selling the mollifying effects of cannabis.

Sawley’s charter-mate experiences in the Keys were with legends like Dick and Randy Roads, Capt. Bob Lowe, and Huey Hahn (captain of Piqoud). They taught Sawley the rules of the road and tricks of the trade. George said: “It was Capt. Bill Hegland, fishing the Huntress out of Hawk’s Cay Marina that started my true professional career – he gave me my first ‘spot’. I worked for Bill from 1984 to 1990.”

By 1990, George knew his stuff cold, he’d proven to be a sober, smart and reliable mate, and that, even today is in great demand from the docks in Key West to Cairns, Australia. The deckhand business tends to recruit those with a penchant for one too many and/or pharmaceutically anesthetizing pills, powders and crystals.

Elise Johnson, one the best female billfish fly anglers in the world, lands another sail aboard Stalker

Fly fishing wasn’t really on George’s radar screen until he teamed up with Harry Grey in 1990 (Grey still holds an IGFA record sail caught on a fly). Grey had decided to make catching billfish on the fly his personal genius. George said that fly fishing had always intrigued him, but he’d never taken the time to learn how to be proficient. With his new gig being all about fly fishing, he called a few of his Keys friends who just happened to be famous Keys fly fishing guides like Capt. George Wood and Capt. John Donnell, as well as others. Donnell said: “He (Sawley) was a natural . . . a real fast learner.”

Sawley started traveling with Grey: Costa Rica, Mexico, St. Thomas and Venezuela. Of those trips George said: “We caught a lot of blue marlin on fly and broke Billy Pate’s long standing record of a 176-pound marlin on a fly. George went on to say: ­”We also caught the first blue marlin on fly in St. Thomas, and in Venezuela we caught only the third one ever. In Costa Rica we broke the International Game Fish Association (IGFA) 4-pound and 8-pound sail records. In 1991, I jumped on with Bubba Carter and caught the first Pacific blue marlin on fly out of Guanamar, Costa Rica.”

Gentlemen, Start Your Engines

When the captain spots a sail coming up on the left outrigger (using that as our example), the shorter of the two, he’ll start shouting out instructions that the mates below have heard many times before – orchestrated mayhem begins, especially for the teaser man and second mate. The Maestro, Mr. Sailfish, conducts and no one knows where he’s going or  when or what he’ll do. The mayhem is an all hands on deck rapid fire event – from sighting to potential hook-up takes no more than a 20 seconds. It’s a short, rich  sonata that requires everyone pay attention. In those same seconds, quarts of testosterone get fuel-injected into the bodies of all the players. It’s just the way it is, and it’s just that that brings anglers back to play time, time and again!

The angler, not at all passive, stands at the ready position to the port with rod in one hand and fly in the other. He or she will have spooled out +/- 40-feet of fly line, which will include with a few feet of the running line. The line lay coiled neatly on the deck to the angler’s left – out of the way of his or her feet, and out of the way of the teaser-man’s pathway along the transom.


In one athletic motion (athleticism is a must for a teaser-man), the teaser-man pops the tagline clip loose so that the bait is controlled by the rod and reel that was in a holder in the transom on the starboard side – no slack.


NOTE: The tagline setup prevents a “slack” line that is so typical of the conventional outrigger set up – bait sitting idle for a second – allowing the sail to catch up to the bait while an attempt is made to bring taut the slack line.


The clip swings clear and is sent backward to  starboard – out of the way. At that point, the second mate would have cleared the port outrigger. The teaser-man, with rod tucked under his arm starts what looks like a primal mating dance. He moves back and forth about the deck like a dancer. His goal, bring the bait in at a speed that defies the sail’s efforts to catch it, but keep it interested – close, and on a track that’s in-line for an intercept with the port stationed angler.

Stalker ready to go – John Kipp photo

If the retrieval includes skipping the bait out of the water, George says that the sail will think it’s a flying fish, drop the baton and leave the stage. He also said: “If the sail loses sight for too long, it’s gone, or if it sees the boat, it’s gone. Also, with that scenario in play; if there are multiple baits out, the sail will dart from one to the other and end up refusing to choose . . . seen that happen too many times. If you want to catch a sail, keep it simple, stupid.”

Captain Sawley says that a good teaser-man is worth his weight in gold, especially for serious captains and anglers, and most especially for those predilected to tournament fishing. Sawley said: “The teaser-man we have on Stalker has been with me for years . . . he’s a Venezuelan that I taught . . . a fast learner, strong and very athletic. I even let him pre-rig leaders – his knot making is excellent. But as a good pilot alway says, In God We Trust, but everything else we check.”

Bringing the Bait to the Fly

In a normal scenario, if there is such a thing in bill fishing as normal, the bait is teased to the angler. For example, and in the example previously noted for a right-handed angler – fish-on via the starboard outrigger, the bait is brought in across the white water backwash and into blue water to the port side of the transom. The captain will maneuver the boat to the left to accommodate the teaser-man’s efforts, and to enhance his own ability to see the action unfold and direct traffic.


NOTE: The bait is not dragged parallel to the transom as seen in some boating magazine sketches and copy.


On the captain’s command, the bait gets yanked free, but only at a coordinate that is equal to the angler’s casting distance capability. At his juncture, angler, captain and mates are have to produce a team effort that is perfectly timed in a two or three second event. The engine is put in neutral before the cast is made. It should be noted that a 36-foot boat and a 60-foot boat taken out of gear will have greatly differing  continuum characteristics. The advantage going to the heavier boat.

The angler must be able to calculate that the arrival of the fly has to be juxtaposed to the materialization of Maestro himself – it has to be complementary. George said: “The angler has to be practised, able to hit a target ‘zone’ and land the fly in front of the fish . . . Some folks still think that it’s wise to send the fly passed the sail, then bring it up alongside the fish – bad idea.”
George went on to comment: “The sail, when its eyes clear from the bubbles (pulled bait disturbance) only sees the replacement offering in front of it; the fly. If it eats, it has to be allowed to self-hook. Never strip the food away from a sail, or any billfish for that matter!”


For Atlantic sails George trolls baits at 4- to 6-knots and at 7- to 9-knots for Pacific sails.

Big Boy Rods

George’s perspective comes from that of a mate, teaser-man, tournament angler and captain. He’s been in the fly fish for billfish game since 1990 and catching billfish on conventional tackle since boyhood days in the Keys.

George, sometime ago, settled on a Calstar Rods (Leon Todd – Southern CA) #20 casting rod blank. Nick settled on Biscayne Rods’ 17-Weight (Biscayne Rod, Miami, FL, has been owned by the Carman family since 1948).

George, after considerable research, frustration with rod companies and contracting a mild case of manic decided to go to an old and trusted friend, Andy Novak, proprietor of LMR Tackle in Fort lauderdale, FL. Andy said: “George wanted a fly rod with lift and turn power. He didn’t want his anglers burning up a fish – have it sound and die because their stick couldn’t fight the fight, or simply take more time than necessary to land it, and it had to be a convertible – good for both marlin and  sailfish. He and I felt the blanks from traditional sources would not work, but we had to find something that a decent caster could at least lob a fly with and get around 35 or 40-feet out of it. Pro casters like Mike Conner, Steve Kantner, Andrew Derr, David Olson or Pat Ford might get 50- or 60-feet of line out in perfect conditions, but the average ‘Joe’ is probably going to max out at around 30-feet in good seas and fair winds, but much less than that in rough seas and a sheet-flapping  blow.”


NOTE: There are only two scenarios for fly fishing for sails that come up, but one is quite rare. We’ll deal with rare in a bit in Another Scenario.


The fly rods or fly rod blanks that are capable of handling a big sailfish or bill fish in general, according to George and another noteable fly angler, Nick Smith of Palm Beach, FL, are not really available from mainstream rod builders like Loomis, Sage and others. George and Nick both have fished with fly rods for billfish for over 15 years, accounting collectively for over 11,000 billfish fly caught. Nick, as a yacht owner with a fly fishing for billfish frame of mind, has been in the game since the early 1990’s, but priorly, he’d been catching billfish on conventional tackle for at least four decades.


NOTE: Nick Smith caught 663 billfish on a fly in 93 days in 2006.


Casting the 2 X 4

When an angler becomes the fly angler on a Sawley captained boat, he or she will have mastered the art of quick calculating,  which means having an ability to match and time the cast with the appearance of the Maestro – easier said than done.

The first move on the board is for the angler to feed out about +/- 20-feet of line, mend it so that if more line were let out, the fly would intersect with the “guessed” at track of the sail’s.

When the captain says to the teaser-man, pull the bait, the boat is put in neutral as per IGFA rules of engagement. The angler uses the tension of the line in the water to haul the line in and then double-haul cast. The angler has to keep the line that’s in the water taught. No belly in the line or slack, and that might mean taking in some line before the cast. If all goes as planned, it’s like watching a well choreographed dance scene in a Broadway play, and it all happens in a second! When the bubbles clear the sail finds only the fly – the chances of a hook-up are really very good. George’s anglers (quality anglers) usually bat better than .750. Interestingly enough, Captain William Hatch’s updated version of his 1920’s bait n’ switch discovery gets played out to perfection – some 90 years later.

The Take

Armed and ready with Tibor Pacific – Sawley photo

The angler wants the sail to eat the fly and have the leader and line coming straight back to the rod – not looped over its bill or coming from the far side. The drag on the reel is set at no more than 2-pounds (usually for a sail at 1-pound), almost in free spool George says. The angler (right-handed for the example we’re using) keeps the rod pointed over the port gunnel, parallel to the water and perpendicular to the boat. Sawley said: “The fish is not going to run as if it was on an interstate – it’ll be all over the place. I have to see the flyline. If it bellies behind the boat because the sail stalled or because it does something unusual. I need avoid running over it and losing the fish.”

Playing the Fish

A good set of  gloves –  finger gloves at least are a must – you’re going to have your palm on the reel and fingers on the line during the engagement with albicans (Pacific model) or platypterus  (Atlantic model). George, and all the knowledgeably billfish on a fly captains are not into “horsing” a sail. George said: “If the sail wants to run, let it, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be in-charge. When the fish begins to yield, you’ve got to have a stick that can turn and lift a fish – keep the pressure on, and hopefully the fly and leader in the right place – on  your side. Also, with billfish in general, you need a really high-end reel . . . a drag system that won’t freeze.” George went on to say: “It’s OK to have a harness – who wants to have the rod butt stabbing them in the gut for a week – it’s not a macho thing, it’s just being smart.”

A sail, like all fish, won’t follow roadway signs when they’re hooked, they go where they want to go and that’s never a straight line. Playing the sail is also very much about the captain who also does not drive in a straight line either, more like a NASCAR driver who makes turns for a living . . . it’s the easiest way to stay close to the sail.

When the fish gets tired and the mate makes an attempt at a leader grab (after the leader has passed through the tip-top guide  –  qualifies as a legitimate catch in “observed” tournaments), the fish will get re-energized because it will see the boat and the mate’s activity. Look for the fish to make a rocket-like bounding run, or start making close-in, frantic leaps. At this point in the match, the angler has to concentrate on keeping the leader on the near side and away from contact with the bill. George says a skilled mate and captain team will greatly assist the angler in accomplishing the latter.

The last stop is photo-op and quick release. The survival rate is measured as excellent by the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Miami.

Another Scenario

Occasionally, and mostly in remote locations of the Pacific and the Indian Ocean, sails will gather to herd prey, driving them to the surface and into a tight ball by using their collective and extended sails to build a “wall.” The sails then take turns rocketing through the balled bait. Anglers can cast into this “boil” and do nicely on hook-ups. But in this situation, a good casting rod is an essential arrow in the quiver. A 4o-foot lob cast with a 2 X 4 will do nothing more than blow up the fishing –  you got too close. In a bait boil, Nick Smith says he uses his SAGE RPLX 14 weight. He said: “I can cast a line with that stick out to where I can feed a willing sail, and not blow-up the boil.”

Capt. George Sawley holding court after his presentaion at the IGFA BILLFISH EXPO on fly fishing for billfish – February 12, 2011.
Capt. Skip Smith, Presenter, is in the immediate background and behind him, the inimitable Mark Sosin, Master of Ceremonies – Clement photo

Leaders and Fly Lines

Offshore fly fishing leaders and fly lines, as everyone knows, are always shorter than nearshore, flats and backcountry leaders. There aren’t any scenarios in which a leader of over 7-feet is a good employment prospect in the bill fishing game.

George  insists leaders be rigged on Stalker according to the rules set forth by the International Game Fish Association (IGFA) – no exceptions. George said: “If you’re not abiding by the IGFA rules, you’re not even fishing. Does it make sense for one baseball team to have six strikes and another three? Are they both playing baseball?”  


A +/- 4-foot long piece of 40-pound test serves a the butt section. A surgeons loop to the fly line nail knot to a 100 turn Bimini twist using a perfection loop. Note, midway in the Bimini, George ties double overhand knot to keep he double line of the Bimini from opening up.

Both ends of the class tippet are 100 turn Bimini twists, the shock is connected to the class tippet Bimini with a Hufnagel.  The two hooks in the shock tippet are snelled at 5 1/2-inches apart (6-inches is allowed by the IGFA).

Flies and Hooks

Capt. Joe Kononchik, master fly tyer holding a billfish “filet mignon.” Clement photo

With tournament game face on, George prefers 4/0 X 4/0 hooks with Kononchik tube flies (6” and 8”), stating: “Although a skilled angler is required to have more finess when fishing  4/0 X 4/0 hooks, they’ll produce a quicker, deeper hook ups than larger 6/0 hooks . . . short shank hooks are better than long shank.” George went on to comment: “Years ago, I had a chance to fish a friend’s boat who only used Joe Kononchik’s flies. I’d never seen them before and he wouldn’t tell me where he got them, or who tied them. The flies turned out to be a “Fatal Attraction” for both sailfish and marlins on that trip. I was impressed. I’d known only Cam Sigler’s innovative popper flies and Moldcraft’s lures. George said: “Some months later, my “‘don’t tell’” friend came up short – his boat was dry dock and he needed a boat to fish a tournament. I saw my chance and took it. I told him I’d fish him, but he had to reveal where he got the irrefusable flies. A deal was struck, and Joe’s been supplying me with flies ever since and that was a long, long time ago.” George went on to reflect: “I stopped using Cam’s (Sigler) lighter flies because too many times a billfish will literally blow it away or it’ll get looped around the bill – exposing the class tippet – it’s too light. Billfish, when they open their V shaped mouth, push a huge amount of water in front of it – easily blowing away light, on top of the water flies. Joe’s flies have a lead lip, and they stay ‘in’ the water – greatly aiding an angler’s chance of a hook up. Granted, Joe’s heavy flies are more difficult to cast, but with sails, we’re only talking 30 or 40-feet.”


If you’ve decided to go fly fishing for billfish, and you’re first move was to save money on a reel, sorry Charlie, you’re profligacy will cost you, sooner then later. Capt. Sawley has been round and round with reels for a few decades and he’s settled on two favorites; Tibor’s and Nautilus’ with a couple of others in his “Fab Five” list. About reels George said: “When it comes to reels, I just can’t tolerate a breakdown during the ballgame. It’s rough going for reels when you’re concentrating on billfish, especially in the saltier climes of the Pacific, and most especially for drag systems. Although I’m a stickler for details as that relates to gear, I can’t halt the tax that salt and heavy use put on a reel or the banging around and dropsy accidents that happen onboard . . . I’m often a few thousand miles from any reliable postal service . . . s0 what good does a warranty do me?

Fly Line & Backing

George said: “Contrary to many who fly fish for billfish, I use a short, heavy RIO dredger fly line of no more than 30-feet attached to 900 to 1,200-feet of 30-pound test Spectra Power Pro braided line.” George went on to say: “There are other products out there that would work, but I’ve found Power Pro to perform as advertised, and RIO lines and leader materials to be quite reliable with regard to consistency, meeting advertised break strength and endurance.”

George says he stays in constant contact with all of the big game fly fishing-bill fishing captains and anglers from around the world. He said: “We pretty much share info about product performance . . . we’re willing to test new stuff out when that leisure time opportunity presents itself. However, when there’s a tournament or a wee wager made at port, the sharing of new and better information might have to wait a bit.”


Baits not properly sewn will break apart being trolled or from the slightest presssure of a bill. Again, even a small portion eaten by a sail will satisfy it as having accomplished intent, and it will swim off. Also, if the bait is in poor condition, no scales for example, it will lessen the inducement to bite. By using poor quality baits, you could lose the game before you take the field. Use 20-pound mono to tie baits.


A boat for bill fishing is best when it has an outrigger that utilizes a simple tag line retriever and a breakaway clip. The latter additions costs about $35 to $40 and the combo allows the line to retreat quickly from the upper portion of the outrigger down to the teaser rod tip-top, then breakoff at 8-pound test impact and slip back out of the way. That system eliminates slack time. Conventional rigging automatically creates slack time when the line is popped loose. In that scenario the quary can catch the bait – and it’s game over! That slack, created by using conevntional rigging, means that the bait goes dead in the water for a few seconds – time that you can’t afford to lose. A sail can swim at up to 68MPH and it can eat up yards right now. In that lost space and time situation a sail could eat the bait or just a portion of it. It will always, at that point, be satisfied and swim off, or that slack line time simply lets the sail discover the boat. In either scenario, you lose – no hook up. And just think, for a couple of “Jackson’s” for a tag line and clip set up you’d have a shot! George said: “I won’t fish a boat that doesn’t have a tag line set-up, but if I’ve accepted an invitation to fish on a boat, and I’m not sure if the captain uses a tag line, I’ll bring my own.”


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