Just before Christmas, we whisked our Race to Guatemala winner away to Casa Vieja Lodge for some epic offshore sailfish action. Of course we volunteered to tag along to make sure he had a great time.
Each year for the last five years, BD Outdoors has run its most popular contest, The Race To Somewhere. We take the winner of a random online drawing to experience a bucket-list fishing trip, all expenses paid.
This year’s lucky winner was hometown SoCal angler, Cole Coscino. Cole was already a diehard fisherman and member of BD. He described the moment when he found out he had won the trip to Casa Vieja. Cole said, “I was riding home on the train from college for a fall break, when Ali from BD called. I could not believe what he was saying; the whole moment was surreal.”
Not only was this trip to one of the best places anywhere to chase stunning numbers of sailfish, but at Casa Vieja Lodge, you are fishing with some of the best captains and crews in the world. They routinely set new records for fish caught and raised while fishing the loop currents that provide food for an unending flow of Pacific sailfish. They also catch plenty of marlin and tuna along the way, but the star of the show is the potential for sheer numbers of sailfish.
Did I mention that Casa Vieja’s fleet of boats is a thing of beauty and function? Capt. David Salazar, his wife Kristen, and their crew have assembled and restored some of the finest, classic sportfisher’s, many with a rich history of their own.
Back to the trip, we all flew in from our perspective locations to the very modern airport in Guatemala City. I was really surprised at the size of the city from the air. Customs and immigration was a breeze and everyone’s baggage arrived without issue, which always brings a sigh of relief.
The lodge had sent out detailed itineraries well in advance, explaining where to go and what to do. Just as they said it would be, the Casa Vieja drivers, Michael and Walter were waiting in front of the welcoming crowd with a Casa Vieja sign. We greeted quickly and then climbed in the lodge’s big van a few feet away. A Yeti full of frosty drinks and cranked-up AC made the ride to the lodge a breeze, despite the city being full of shoppers doing their Christmas shopping in town. The sights, sounds and people watching provided plenty to see and once out of the city, we stretched out on the open road. We were traveling a private toll road that was in surprisingly good shape, even by U.S. standards.
The 90-mile ride to the coast and the town of Puerto San Jose goes quickly as you peer at smoldering volcanoes and vast tropical plantations of coffee beans and sugar cane.
Guatemala is home to 37 volcanoes some of which are active.
As we pulled into the lodge, one feels as if you’ve discovered a tropical oasis. The Casa Vieja managers, Manuel and Elisa were there to greet us with fruity rum drinks and directions to our rooms. The entire staff from drivers, servers and bartenders is always willing to help and with a genuine smile.
The giant thatched-roof dining area and the sparkling blue pool certainly set the scene for a tropical vacation and made it very hard to remember that many people were buried in snow. That is the power of “changes in latitudes” and the reason it is so hard to convince people that this is a trip for work.
Work sure felt like a vacation at Casa Vieja and Cole and the crew were amped to hit the boat the next day. I must mention that the staff comes to the door for your personal wake up call and they bring a fresh pot of Guatemalan coffee, cream and sugar. A delicious hot breakfast is only moments away and the boats in the marina are only a five-minute ride in the lodge van.
The fishing crews were ready and the rumble of diesels filled the air along with a mixture of excitement and anticipation. We were going to be fishing with one of the most experienced captains in the sport, Captain Chris Sheeder aboard the Rum Line. Capt. Chris and his crew, Nicholas and Henry, helped us aboard with all of our gear.
The grin on Cole’s face was priceless. Cole fishes a lot at home including working on private boats as a deck hand when he’s not at college at Point Loma. But this was going to be special and we all felt it.
We ran out of the harbor leaving behind the odd mix of cargo ships and basking iguanas. The crew was ready to fish and had a Yeti full of circle-hooked ballyhoo all stitched up and waiting to pitch. They were more than accommodating as we took over the boat with camera and video equipment, enough to capture the action on deck from above and below the water, even from the air.
Before long, Capt. Chris reined in the pair of 450-horsepower Cummins and the 40-foot Gamefisherman, Rum Line, settled into her daily routine. The boat was built in 1989, but it has been brought back to modern standards and was well appointed. I can’t help but wonder how many fish have risen up into the clean wake of this sweet fishing machine.
She did have some stories to tell, like the sailfish bill protruding through her planks in the port bow behind some cushions; a battle scar from a recent wayward sailfish. Capt. Chris explained there were 19 bills embedded in her, each one sanded smooth, finished over and left in place. Now that is fishing history!
Nicholas and Henry deployed a spread of teasers not too far behind the boat. A mix of hookless marlin lures and daisy chains of squid or skirts were the main attraction but we did have two long rigger baits with Mustad circle hooks to act as the clean up crew for shy or fading sailfish. Often the teasers incorporated a stitched up mackerel or ballyhoo on a short piece of Seaguar leader. This adds some flavor to the teasing equation and really locks the billfish into feed mode.
Our go to set ups for sailfish were the light and agile Okuma Andros Two Speed A-Series lever drag reels. These reels were designed to take the punishment of modern braided lines and make the most of the benefits of using lighter tackle. We were spooled up with Seaguar’s Threadlock 16-strand hollow core braid, which gave us more than enough capacity and strength to catch anything we might encounter. To the braid we added a wind-on leader that the crew had made and then attached about three feet of Seaguar’s Big Game Fluoro Premier. Seaguar leaders provide maximum strength and minimal visibility while still being very soft for fluorocarbon leader.
To the bait leader we snelled a 7/0 Mustad Demon Perfect Circle Hook, which has a chemically sharpened and strengthened point. The circle hook rides on top of the ballyhoo’s forehead and is highly effective at hooking the fish in the corner of the mouth. This method makes it easier for the angler to hook the fish and much better for the healthy release of a fish. These Mustad circle hooks greatly reduce the odds of hooking a fish deep and are tournament approved by the Billfish Foundation. Casa Vieja Lodge takes great care in the release of all its billfish and works closely with the Billfish Foundation to preserve this resource and learn more about all billfish.
Capt. Chris came off the bridge to give Cole the rundown of what to expect and how to react. All of us tried to soak up the knowledge and experience from this seasoned crew. There is always so much more to learn in fishing and that’s what keeps it fun.
It wasn’t long before the sound of “left teaser” shot through the air, calm but assertive. Cole grabbed the Andros with bait in tow and began to drop it back into our wake. The mates were busy teasing the sailfish without letting it actually grab it. This means they were reeling the fired-up sail right to the back of the boat where Cole’s ballyhoo was swimming.
A bill and black-back breaks the surface as the sail gulps the bait. A four second drop back, just as Cole had been coached followed by a slow winding down until the Okuma SCT Inshore Rod heeled over to his first running and jumping Pacific sailfish.
Cole fought the fish like an old pro, while Capt. Chris maneuvered the Rum Line in the dance of pursuit. This dance he has performed tens of thousands of times but he has never lost the excitement or the rhythm.
We continued to troll offshore until the inland volcanoes were lost in the haze. Though it was December, it was hot and we were thankful for the hooded AFTCO Samurai shirts protecting us from the searing equatorial sun. The lightweight material keeps you cool despite being long sleeved and hooded. It truly is the best way to protect your skin and still be very comfortable.
Did I mention that one of the benefits of fishing the big boats was the hot lunch cooked to order. Burgers or chicken were sizzling on the George Foreman for a mid-day refueling.
Nothing like hot food on a boat.
We proceeded to raise more sailfish, some we caught and some we didn’t, but each time the epic bite was the visual highlight. “It really is the most fun way to fish, teasing and pitching to a hungry billfish right at the transom of the boat”, said Capt. Chris. As if to prove his point, the black silhouette of a hungry sailfish began swatting the right teaser.
Practice does make perfect and Cole swiftly hooked up number four for the day. “Watching my first ever sail, all lit up and purple, engulf my ballyhoo right off the transom was a sight I’ll never forget”, Cole said on the ride home.
It’s much easier to love the tropic heat when you walk into your room and it’s a crisp 70-degrees. A hot shower and quick log onto the complimentary Internet to send stories of the day back home was followed by the ritual telling of tales at the bar before sitting down to a five-star meal prepared by the Casa Vieja’s chefs.
Guest can also cool off in the pool or play some pool in the open-air rec room. There is a large flat-screen TV in the lounge area for a sports update or you can access the lodge’s in-house spa services for a massage. For those who still have energy, there is a new gym with state-of-the-art equipment, all on the property.
Day two kicked off with a double header and frankly I lost track after that. It was not long between flurries of bites. Some were more aggressive than others, but several times we had four or five fish in the spread at once. Cole was having a blast and he was not alone.
The key to succeeding in this fishery is to be able to see the fish as it chases the teaser or switches to the other side of the spread. We were all wearing our Costa glasses, which truly cuts the glare like no other. It’s not just the lenses, but also the fit that makes Costa sunglasses comfortable for a ten or twelve hour day.
Not only were we catching fish, but Michael and Ben, our expert cameramen were shooting stills, rolling video and splashing into the prop wash as the action went down. It’s a lot of work for them, but the payoff comes with that perfect shot. Capturing the moments of organized chaos takes planning and practice, but they are so good at it.
Pacific sailfish spend more time in the air than their smaller Atlantic cousins. They flip and flop and really put on a show. Then you fire back into the salt and exhaust, reeling fast to keep it tight until the mate can grab the leader for a quick tag and release. This is where the high-speed gear ratio comes in handy on the Andros reels. The fight is relatively quick and the fish swim off with plenty of purple color still flashing through them, a sure sign that they should be fine.
“These Guatemalan beauties put on a show for us every time we came tight, but as soon as they submerged, they used their sails for extra resistance and you really had to put some heat on them to raise them” offered Cole.
The only time we saw other boats fishing was in the froth of a giant pod of spinner dolphin. If you’ve not seen this with your own eyes, you may not believe me, but imagine a herd of crazed marine mammals launching themselves repeatedly into a violent corkscrewing jump. Crazy to witness, but the real excitement is the knowing that yellowfin tuna prefer to keep company with their acrobatic neighbors. As soon as Nicholas saw the spinner dolphin, a ballyhoo/Islander combo slid out of the cooler and onto the 50 Makaira outfit.
When the order came from the bridge, the tuna rig slid into the spread. Surprisingly close compared to our fishing at home, but when the tuna erupted on the teasers, I understood why; these fish were not shy! As tuna explosions ripped through the spread, two rods buckled over and lines were screaming. Michelle, BD’s Marketing Director and Cole were hooked up but there was no jumping this time.
Each fought their digging tuna well, but Cole’s fish pulled the hook and Michelle’s came over the rail on the business end of an AFTCO gaff.
Another tuna favorite is the Savage Lures Freestyler, a slow sinking glide bait that casts a mile when paired up with the new Makaira spinning reel from Okuma. We changed out the treble hooks for Mustad’s Kaiju inline single hooks. This results in better holding power, effective hookups and a safer handling for both fish and anglers.
When the dust settled, we had released 19 sailfish. What an awesome day. We all said it can’t get better than this, but actually in Guatemala it can and does. There are many days where Capt. Chris raises 50 to 80 fish or more and catches a good portion of those. He is also adept at putting his clients on big numbers using the fly rod. “I think fly fishing is my favorite way to catch sails. We have dialed in a system that enables anglers of any experience level to succeed. The best part is that the fish ends up very close and fired up. When he sees the fly, its game over and it all goes down at the back of the boat”, said Capt. Chris.
Day three followed suit with more opportunity and more releases. We spent more time filming and throwing in our favorite underwater photographer, Ben, when the fish teased up. I can’t wait to see what images he captured underwater, but I know the ones burned into my memory of those three days of fishing will last a long time.
There is no down side to the trip except for having to go home, but as all great trips come to an end, it leaves you plotting how you will return for another adventure. Cole remarked, “This trip was something extremely special for me, and as a diehard fisherman, experiencing this kind of fishing was something I’d always dreamt of. I’m making it a life goal to return here, sooner rather than later. It is literally that amazing, and will 100% spoil you.”
Casa Vieja Lodge bends over backwards to make your trip the best it can be. They make every guest feel like royalty and we can’t thank them enough for making this Race to Guatemala one for the books. We also can’t thank our partners enough because their products make fishing fun and more productive.
If you would like to set up a trip to Casa Vieja Lodge or learn more about their services, check out their website, Facebook or drop them a line. I promise you, they will help you anyway they can and will make your adventure the fishing trip of a lifetime.