Profile: Billfish on the fly with Captain Chris “Kiwi” van Leeuwen of Sailfish Oasis Lodge
by Keri Peyton
Guatemala is known as “The Sailfish Capital of the World” and for good reason: it holds both the conventional and fly-fishing records for the most sailfish released in a day (124). Captain Chris “Kiwi” van Leeuwen of Sailfish Oasis Lodge gives us a peek into what it’s like to target billfish on the fly in Guatemala.
Of all the places in the world, why did you choose Guatemala to be a fishing charter captain?
Guatemala chose me. I got offered a job here. I had been working for Tim Choate from Fins ‘n Feathers. Tim was starting an operation in the Galapagos Islands. Once we got that off the ground, he offered me a job here in Guatemala for a year.
Just one year, so you stayed. What was it about Guatemala that made you want to continue being a captain here?
It was just the sheer number of fish. The fishing was incredible. So then I convinced Liz, my wife, to stay another year, and then another year, and then 10 years later here we are.
Tell me about your first experience fly-fishing for billfish?
So I had had a small amount of experience when I got Guatemala. But in places like New Zealand, where I’m from, you can target them, but you’ll go days without seeing a billfish, so you have to be onto it. Then in the Galapagos, I tried again and we raised quite a few striped marlin there; we’d tease them in, but we couldn’t get the stripeys to switch to the fly from the teasers. In hindsight we were casting too far. In Guatemala the sailfish are far more aggressive and less finicky than the striped marlin I encountered in the Galapagos, and I’ve learned a lot about teasing and techniques here in Guatemala. Also with just the sheer number fish, you get a lot of shots.
What’s the difference between fly-fishing for smaller species and billfish?
The difference is that when you’re tarpon fishing, for example, you’re more often casting to rolling fish and there’s not a moving boat involved. With billfish, you’re not sight casting and you’re not casting far. Here we’re looking for fish, so we’re trolling teasers: we’re pulling hook-less lures and we’re teasing the fish right to the back of the boat.
It’s also all about using the correct drag pressure on your reel because the bite can be very aggressive. You can’t use your hand. If you put your hand on the fly rod like you do with tarpon and everything else, you’re more than likely to break the tippet. If you have a big fish on and the fish runs, you’ve got to back the drag off and let him go because of all the line pressure in the water. With small fish you don’t have to worry about that too much.
We also fish according to the International Game Fish Association (IGFA) rules. And we stick to those because that makes fly-fishing a real challenge. You want to keep that challenge, right? That’s what fly-fishing is all about.
But at the same time, because there are so many fish in Guatemala, people still walk away satisfied…
Exactly. You’re more than likely to land a billfish. You very rarely walk away with nothing – hardly ever.
So besides the number of fish, what makes Guatemala an exceptional destination?
Flat seas. I’m talking 80% of the time: flat and calm. We’ve got a small fleet that covers a large area, and because of that, we all talk to each other. There are no secrets. Everyone communicates: if they’re eating the baits, or if they’re coming in on the teasers, which is good for fly-fishing. So flat seas, good communication between the captains, and good numbers. We’ve also got a deep-water trench right in front which starts at 8 miles off the beach; it’s very unique to Central America. It’s very, very deep water that’s 20 miles wide. It creates all these eddies that hold a lot of bait and that really helps the fishing.
You’re an experienced captain and have worked in other parts of the world; do you think the communication between the captains is unique to Guatemala?
Yeah, if you go to big locations with a lot of boats, like Mexico and Costa Rica and Panama, people are far more secretive about what’s going on because they don’t want a hundred boats coming into the area.
Besides the fishing, why else is Guatemala an excellent destination?
It’s rich in culture, tradition and history. You have lots of Mayan and Spanish Colonial sites, so there are places like Tikal and La Antigua to visit. Guatemala has a great climate year-round, and beautiful places like Lake Atitlan and Semuc Champey, and there are lots of volcanoes, so you have tons of opportunities for other outdoor activities. It’s also easy to get to from the States.
So getting back to fishing, what’s your favorite species?
Why is that?
Just the sheer power, the aggression, the size, and the speed. When you’re fly-fishing, you tease those fish behind the boat so you see the bite right there. We’re only casting 15 to 20 feet. We’re not casting very long, so when you see those big fish bite, you see how agile they are. They just spin on a dime and then eat that fly; that’ll get you for life. Sailfish are a lot of fun too, but blue marlin on the fly – that’s the super challenge.
What are the most common fly-fishing patterns used for billfish in Guatemala?
We pretty much only use tube flies: a big Cam Sigler tube fly with a popper head, pink and white or blue and white. The fish are being teased in so it’s not like presenting a fine fly to a trout on a stream. They come in pretty aggressively so you just want something that’s highly visible so they can see it. Pink and white seems to be the electric color.
What is your favorite thing about being a sport-fishing captain?
Meeting all sorts of interesting people from all over the world, and at the end of the day, the good vibe and the camaraderie with the clients back at the lodge. That’s always fun. And just being out on the water for large portions of the year! I love the water. [Laughter] I love fishing; it gives me the opportunity to be out there, doesn’t it?
What’s the most memorable trip that you’ve guided and why?
You know probably one of my most memorable trips was we were targeting blue marlin on the fly and we were with a lady angler who wanted to get a world record. We had 6 days out and I think we raised 14 blue marlin and also 90-something sailfish. We caught several sailfish that we released and we had, I think it was, 6 blue marlin on – that was just a thrill. We never landed a single one! We got close to the legal release, though ultimately they’d break the class tippet. To actually land a blue marlin on the fly with a fixed handle gaff is the ultimate challenge. They were big powerful fish so it was just exciting to see. Another great memory was when we got 23 sailfish on the fly in one day. That was a very memorable day, one hell of a day!
What makes your service great?
We always try our best for everyone. I don’t care how you came by your trip: we’re going to go all out for you. I’ve got two excellent mates; one is a very good cook too. And we’ve got an awesome boat; Allure II is arguable the best in the fleet.
When it comes to bait fishing we always try to teach our guests, especially new anglers, as much as we can. A lot of others will hand the rod over once the fish is hooked. We try to teach you so that when you leave you’re a far better fisherman, and hopefully you’re hooking your own fish. On fly everyone is hooking their own fish, but even then we try to teach as much as we can so that you have a successful trip.
We’re very patient too. If you miss a fish, it doesn’t matter; there’s another one coming. You know that’s the beauty of Guatemala and why Guatemala is such a good place to billfish because if you miss fish, no problem. It gives you a chance to learn from your mistakes and move on. We always try to have a good time no matter what.
If you only had one day off all year, where would you fish and what fish would you target?
I’d go back home to New Zealand where I’d fish the Ohau Channel, between Lake Rotorua and Lake Rotoiti, looking for big brown trout on the fly rod. That’s where my dad taught me to fly-fish.
What is the one piece of gear that you couldn’t bear to leave at home?
My fly rod.
Do you have any other passions besides fishing and being a captain?
I love surfing, hiking, and camping with my family. And reading about fishing.
To check out more from Captain “Kiwi” Chris van Leeuwen and Sailfish Oasis, please click here.
Disclosure: Sailfish Oasis is in a professional relationship with the Fly Fishing Guide Directory and the Venturing Angler. Though potentially benefiting from this relationship, we do not post what we do not believe to be true. To read more, click here.