Saifish School

Saifish School

Jake Jordan uses tough love to teach the mastery of billfishing at his Guatemala big-game academy.

  • By: Jerry Gibbs
  • Photography by: Jerry Gibbs
Jake Jordan

“First thing you got to know is that you never touch the fly line,” Jake Jordan tells his sailfish-school students. “If you keep touching it, then I go below deck and come out in my nun’s outfit and crack your knuckles bloody with a ruler.”

This kind of direct attitude is homegrown. Jordan’s a guy from New Jersey who’s had more career moves than he can track. Ask him and he’ll say this about his varied carreer: “It’s all only practice because, really, I’m just on my way to Australia.”

His professional bearing was founded on advice from the late Carroll Rosenbloom, former owner of the Balitimore Colts (which he sold for $1). Jordan apprenticed as an electrician in Rosembloom’s home and says, “The guy told me, ‘Son, you get to be a millionaire, you see there are a bunch of other millionaires. Then you want something of your own nobody else has—and the luxury to get rid of it when you want.’” Jordan added, “I guess that’s what I’ve been doing in my career jumps.”

Career jumps to say the least! Jordan has built a niche business refurbishing prize-winning classic boats; he made a run on the international big-game fishing tournament circuit, winning some big ones, losing others; he learned the intricacies of the Florida Keys flats by hiring a top guide to teach him 90 days a year for two years, while on the side he ran a high-end tackle shop (and through this became a tackle importer) at one of Marathon’s then-glitzy resorts, Faro Blanco.

Today, Jordan guides a little for tarpon, but his main gig is Jake Jordan’s Fishing Adventures, which hosts anglers to numerous far-flung destinations, ranging from fly-rod marlin in the Galapagos, to Alaska’s trophy rainbows, to the current sailfish school and annual fly tournament in Guatemala.

Right now, back in the boat, Jordan is again preaching about a finely tuned, incredibly effective system for fighting and landing fly-rod billfish. We have listened to Jordan’s bidding, as have various students in his sailfish school on the other boats in Casa Vieja’s fleet, which is based on the west coast of Guatemala. Jordan has earlier cajoled, ordered and brow-beaten anglers to success. Having had plenty of success of our own this day, and thinking we do not need yet more direction pounded into our brains, we desert our tyrannical educator and settle in the salon of Capt. Chris Sheeder’s 40-foot boat, Rum Line. This is a good move: the first mate, Jeff, ear-phoned to an iPod and grooving to God knows what, pours us the good Nicaraguan Flor de Cana rum. We’re running toward Puerto San Jose, in from the never-never expanse of near structureless water extending 45 miles into the north Pacific, a stretch of ocean that steadily, enigmatically draws huge numbers of sailfish and often earns the title as the world’s best place to take them on a fly. The water is famously calm here, and the boat runs to fish are pleasantly short.

The second mate, Ricardo, has washed down the cockpit that at times today—during darting angler dances choreographed by sizzling vector shifts scribed by hooked sailfish—has more closely resembled the moshpit at a heavy-metal concert. He has stored terminal tackle and set the thick-butt Temple Fork fly rods in their respective rocket launchers. He’s pulled a Coke out of the big cooler and now draws another Cerveza Gallo for James Garrity, my fellow angler/student aboard Rum Line.

Garrity survived a career as a bush doctor in outlying Alaska settlements handling procedures from caesarian births to the unthinkable, without backup, before segueing to the more civilized venue of Anchorage, not without, he says, having had his hair go silver from the experience. Garrity and I are enjoying conversation when Jordan joins us and begins anew with his lessons. I wave at Jeff for more Canyo and he obliges by giving a fist up, a mucho macho gesture given that my first drink was far from paltry. So what about this business of no line touching?

“All right,” Jordan says, “from the beginning: Here comes the fish. You’ve dropped the fly over to the side and the short shooting head goes out and the mates are teasing the fish in. The boat’s out of gear. So the fish is close enough, the captain yells ‘cast!’ The mate swings the teaser across the transom, toward you and out, and you just pick up and cast with the line tight to the reel not holding the fly line. If there are any residual bubbles, white froth from the boat, cast outside it into the clear. Ideally you want the fly to hit to the side and just behind the fish so he needs to turn and take it going away.”

“We did that pretty well, didn’t we?” says Garrity.

“Yeah, yeah, but there were a couple of screw-ups,” Jordan reprimands, adding, “like grabbing the line to set the hook—a strip-strike. Don’t,” he demands. “For sails you’ve got the drag set at exactly six pounds and there shouldn’t be slack in the 30-foot head of the line. The fish grabs, starts heading away and you come straight back, the rod pointed at the fish, no lifting up, no line-touching, just a couple of quick yanks back against the reel drag.”

Jordan grits his teeth, grunting in demonstration. “Think of a handline, a Cuban yo-yo,” he says. “It’s true if the fish has briefly lost the fly, is hunting for it, you sometimes need to twitch it using the rod tip—but no jerking the line! Here’s the deal: You use a six-hundred dollar reel, it ought to be up to handling that hook set and the immediate run on every fish without any hand application.”

“Okay, how about this,” I say. “How about when the fish has gone, or you think it’s gone and now you’re stripping in the line and he suddenly pops up again because one of the mates is still teasing and the captain yells ‘recast’?”

“If there’s residual current then you simply let go of the slack on the deck,” Jordan urges. “Let the fly pull back; but if there’s no more water movement, yeah, you’ll have to pinch the line, make that one lob cast and hope the line all goes out in one shot. This rarely happens, but it can.”

I remembered a recast like that the previous day when fishing with Capt. Ron Hamlin, a k a Captain Hook, he of the 28,000-plus landed billfish, he of the 10,000 tagged billfish (no, not all fly-caught), he of the notorious high-dollar, big-game shoot-outs, he of the booze and brutal fights, the drugs and sex and the blistering biographical book, Tournament, which is not recommended for bed-time reading. I made my recast all right and the line shot straight out, but (oh God no) it dropped over the teasing line. Captain Hook hollered, “Shit!” like a rifle crack. Likely from sheer terror, knowing Hamlin’s reputation, I managed to flip the head off the mono teaser line, the mate immediately jammed his rod to mid-blank in the water and cranked like a madman. The fish ate the fly and I brought it in for the tag. Later I climbed to the bridge and sat next to Hook.

“Sorry that happened,” I said.

“Ah, hell, don’t matter.” He smiled. “Hey, you got the fish, I got the number in the book.”

We talked awhile, a lot about his past and his book, Tournament.

“They were gonna make a movie of it, you know,” he said. “Lee Marvin called me one night. He said, ‘This is Lee Marvin.’ I said ‘This is Ron Hamlin.’ He said ‘I know who the f— this is. I called you didn’t I?’ And he hung up. He was drunk. I laughed. Then he called back and said ‘You wanna make a movie?’ I said ‘Sure.’ And we planned it all out, eventually worked out how to do a scene where a guy goes over into the props. He even did the screenplay. Then he died, of course.”

“What happened to it all, the script?” I asked.

“Ah, it went around, they went around. I don’t know what happened to it. So I’m here. Not so bad.”

In 1994 Jordan launched his sailfish school following a bout of Guatemalan fishing he would remember as orgasmically brutal. He returned home exhausted, his abdomen patterned in polka dot rod-butt bruises. He was hooked.

“We had what was primitive gear compared to today,” Jordan said. “Four-inch tarpon reels. The biggest rod was an IM6 G. Loomis Mega 12. Hooks were hand-filed.”

I had flashbacks to my own primitive start in this billfish game. It began in June of 1978 in Panama. In the fragrant mornings we would head to the boats, walking past scuttling rainbow land crabs, their brilliant red-and-blue shells looking as poisonous as the enameled nails of a runway model. Our arms bristled with fiberglass rods, blanks by J. Kennedy Fisher, and Fin-Nor reels. Our flies had heads of unshaped ethafoam blocks. But we caught fish, were nicely beaten up and bruised and then headed off to other things while a handful of great anglers continued developing the sport’s techniques.

Jordan is one of them and he has continued refining each tactical element of this offshore game into what is now an amazingly successful system.

“Don’t bend your rod,” Jordan says and so begins the next day’s lecturing. “It increases drag. Reel drag’s enough. Keep your arm straight, pointing out. Relax your hand—I can hold my rod with a fish on using two fingers and thumb, see.…”

This instructional monologue is taking place as a full-on demonstration because Jordan is hooked to a sailfish. His rod butt is jammed to his solar plexus, which causes his voice to occasionally warble as the butt punches at him. The fish blows up mere feet from the transom, goes down, comes up still close, having turned 180 degrees. There’s some grunting noise from Jordan.

“No bowing to the fish,” he implores. “Yeah, yeah, if your line’s out of the water and he falls on it the hook will pull or the leader will snap. If the line is underwater that shouldn’t happen.”

It doesn’t. Nearly half of Jordan’s rod is jammed underwater. The fish is still doing close-in, crazy blowups. “There’s no line slack, this way,” Jordan crows, “and the fifty feet of eighty-pound mono running line is your shock absorber. Along with water drag it keeps tension on so the fish won’t throw the hook.”

This fish has now run toward the horizon making zigzag course changes, threading the line in five different directions, greyhounding. Jordan’s rod tip rises horizontally from the water, pointing at where the fish might be. His reel vomits backing. Drag against that outflow forces the rod to remain out straight. Then something happens.

“Watch,” Jordan urges. “The rod is starting to sag now. The fish has stopped or turned, tired of the drag. Or he’s running toward the boat. Now forget everything but cranking at warp speed until there’s pressure again and the rod starts rising. If you pump and reel—the fish gets a rest from reel and line drag when you drop the rod tip. You wear yourself out keeping the rod bent.”

It’s this fish that wears out and goes down near the transom. Jake is in the corner, rod pushed into the water, arm straight, letting the fish run deep while the captain finesses the boat. When the fish stops Jordan restarts.

“Now you rock,” he explains. “Rock forward, palm the reel, slowly rock your body back to gain an inch. Repeat. No rod bending or regular pumping.” Jordan looks like one of those old drinking-bird toys that rocks forward, dips its beak in a water glass and then swings erect. And here comes this fish in fine shape. The boys bill it, tag it and it goes bye-bye.

If that was your first sailfish, it would have come over the gunnel for the obligatory “lap dance” photo. You would embrace that frightening-looking creature with its huge, starry-blue sociopathic eyes and immense dorsal that has always suggested some sort of witch to me. If it is the first one you’ve held you will marvel that its iron-sided musculature so quickly transitions into underbelly vulnerability, a softness suggestive of the exotic dancer who has visited your table and deigned to place herself upon your thighs in a manner as pleasing as the wondrous fish now throbbing there.

When the Casa Vieja boats tied up one late afternoon, Capt. Chris Sheeder was greeted with the traditional bottle of champagne nestled in an ice bucket. The day had given his 1,000th logged billfish, a blue marlin.

At the dock, adrenaline rushed and pummeled bodies were without pain. Sheeder joyfully greeted the pap of his foaming celebratory champagne bottle, and then passed it on.

From his bridge on the boat tied next to Sheeder’s, Capt. Hamlin’s congratulatory voice rumbled down with the remembered fullness of the legendary Captain Hook; not quite Ahab nor Jack London’s Wolf Larsen, but enough.

“One thousand billfish! By God, the rum will flow tonight,” declared Captain Ronnie. No question, he was right.

The next morning at breakfast, with rum fumes lingering in fuzzy palettes, Jake Jordan saw fresh meat and launched into yet another new billfish-fighting-technique monologue to a recalcitrant student, Sheeder’s angler, Lucien La Fond. After the diatribe, La Fond would wonder aloud if he’d want to tangle with a marlin again. Sailfish, he declared, were a bit more civilized.

Jerry Gibbs, now “retired,” was the fishing editor of Outdoor Life for more than 30 years. He lives near the coast of Maine.

ABOUT THE LODGE
Beneath a giant thatched roof, in the dining/communal area of Casa Vieja Lodge (pictured above), there is always much discussion concerning the respective merits of Guatemala’s Zacapa rum (Reserve 23 being the preferred) versus Nicaragua’s Flor de Cana. This occurs with the appropriate point-making samples of each and invariably leads to more discussion. Visiting anglers at Casa Vieja also sample, among other excellent dishes, the gigantic Guatemalan shrimp that, heads on, would cover the space from your wrist to the end of an extended middle finger. They’re regular features on Jim Turner’s varied, tropical menu. Turner is in his fourth year of owning the Casa, having segued from affiliation with the old Fins ’n Feathers Inn operation (now Pacific Fins). Turner assembled key staff from the previous F&F operation including former manager Antonio Valdez and the top captains. He is actively recruiting more of the world’s famed blue-water skippers and he’s buying and refurbishing some of the finest classic sportfishing boats ever made. Casa Vieja is located five minutes from those boats, which means quick access to the water.

Casa Vieja, the Old House, was formerly owned by Olympic gymnast Oscar Caniz, who authored the Spanish-language African bowhunting book Safari. Turner kept the name and original building, but quickly expanded operations, adding numerous amenities, including large, high-ceilinged sleeping quarters and a big pool. The entire compound is walled, fenced and guarded. To his credit, Turner works with local leaders in outreach projects, lately the refurnishing of a local school. Besides Jordan’s Flyrod Sailfish School, Turner has hosted the Stu Apte Fly Fishing Sailfish Tournament. More at www.casaviejalodge.com; or Jordan’s Sailfish School at www.jakejordan.com, (252) 444-3308.

Technical Matters
Anglers fishing on Casa Vieja boats need only to step aboard. Complete fly outfits are provided, and mates can spin up any segment of the line system faster than Homer’s Penelope could undo a fraction of her day’s weaving.

Rods: While many big-game fly rods are suitable for Guatemala billfish, Jordan’s sailfish school uses Temple Fork Outfitters Blue Water Heavy models. All the guides on those rods are made with SiC inserts, this after it was found that snake guides caused fly-line coating to eventually peel after enough runs under load.

Reels: The best big-game reels are required. Jordan and many captains at Casa Vieja use Jack Charlton’s Makos with superbly precise drag adjustment and lack of spiking during start-up. Various models hold from 550 to 700 yards of gel-spun backing, the former size normally being sufficient.

Flies: Cam Sigler pink and white Big Game Tube Files, single or double-rigged with a bubble head; www.camsigler.com.