Today’s technology has literally opened the world to adventurous anglers. We are now witnessing a period when many countries are developing their sportfishing potential, hoping to attract you, the traveling angler. Limited only by time, finances and type of fishing experience desired, its important to plan carefully since so many destinations are available.
Both experienced and novice anglers regularly depend on professional trip outfitters, the type that adorn the back pages of fishing publications because these agents have been to the places they represent and will make recommendations based upon experience and not just a glossy brochure. Agents rely greatly on client satisfaction and repeat business and, accordingly, want to put you in the best possible location. A good outfitter will assess your abilities, outlook and needs and make suggestions ranging from cosmopolitan destinations to the more exotic locales based upon your personal profile. Travel outfitters are a valuable resource and most do not charge a service fee to you. Their revenue comes from the operators (e.g. airlines, hotels, charter boat, etc.) so it usually costs the same whether you book it yourself or go through an agent. Whether you use an agent or not some minimal planning will give maximum benefits.
Remember that peak fishing at your dream locale may not coincide with your personal vacation schedule. Ideally, its best to adjust your schedule when the fishing is good or pick another destination where the fish are still active. “Where is the best place to fish in the world? Is an often asked question but that’s like asking a tackle dealer what his best lure is. There’s no easy answer. It depends on what you need. That’s why some angler may return from a fishing trip of a lifetime while another may be totally dissatisfied even though they went to the same place.
PICK A PLACE There are a number of important criteria to consider when selecting a fishing venue. Safety, convenience, comfort, cost, travel logistics, level of service, food, quality of facilities, type of fishing, local knowledge and experience, prevailing sea conditions, weather and clothing, culture, language, and variety should all be considered. It’s always warm and sunny someplace in the world. U.S. snowbirds flock to Cabo San Lucas, Baja, in February but probably won’t find blue marlin and sailfish even though its balmy. Head further south to Guatemala or Costa Rica if targeting those species. Below the equator its mid-summer which increases the possibilities even more. Sitting in a plane an extra three hours (for an extra $300) can expand your horizons dramatically.
Once a country or region is selected, how do you pick a resort? For adventurous anglers, there are many exotic fish camps scattered around the globe catering to those individuals who want to experience “unspoiled” fishing grounds and a feeling of isolated existence. Chances are you won’t find a concrete marina or Hatteras Yacht waiting for you, maybe no electricity for part of the day and certainly no Coast Guard standing by if anything goes wrong but the intangible rewards of a wilderness trip attract many anglers. If you’re traveling in a group with diverse interests it may be better to bypass the remote camp in favor of a modern full service resort or a facility near a city. Non-anglers can then avail themselves of nightlife, golf, shopping or other activities that are important to them. Of course, there are many resorts in between these two extremes that may be more suitable.
TRAVEL TIPS Once a destination is selected it pays to continue your research. After reading the standard brochures you will find more details in country guides such as those published by Lonely Planet, Alive, Prentice Hall Travel and Moon. The computer internet is another good source. A language primer is usually contained in the paperbacks but electronic pocket translators are invaluable. It’s probably a universal trait that the local people appreciate a visitors effort to say at least a few words in the host language.
If at all possible, avoid major holiday travel periods such as Christmas and Chinese New Year (when in Asia). Airlines are overbooked, terminals clogged and hotels are filled to capacity. Be aware of “hidden costs”. Typical expenses that may not be included in your travel package include airport departure taxes, fishing permits, ground transfers, service fees (as much as ten or fifteen percent of a hotel rate), tips, terminal rigs and bait, lunches, laundry service and upgrading boats or accommodations upon arrival. It is common in some countries to also add a service charge (not called a “tip”) to your restaurant bill so check for this practice to avoid over-tipping. Many countries have special requirements such as visas, tourist cards and inoculations. Take insect repellent, sunscreen, hat and all the personal items you need. Make photocopies of your passport (photo page) and other important documents in case the originals are lost or stolen. A passport copy will make it much easier for customs officials to process your arrival or departure.
Be careful when exchanging dollars for the local currency. Exchange rates can vary greatly between U.S. banks or exchange houses, foreign banks and hotels. Avoid money-changers on the street - they may tempt you with a favorable rate but may short-change you or pass counterfeit money. In some countries, like Panama, the U.S. dollar is used and no exchange is required. Other countries that have their own currency, such as Mexico, may just as easily accept or even prefer dollars. In countries with high inflation rates, such as Brazil, you will be better off exchanging small amounts on a weekly basis since the local currency devalues quickly. Travelers cheques may be safe but foreign hotels often give you a poor exchange rate for them or will charge you a processing fee. Also, check beforehand which cheque company is preferred at your destination. Some travelers cheques are very difficult to exchange or cash.
BOATS AND CREWS Make sure the boats are designed for the fish you’re after. I’ve seen anglers stranded for hours on a tidal flat in a lobster skiff when a flat-bottomed boat could have put them on the bonefish they were seeking. Boats should also be appropriate for prevailing sea conditions. A small outboard doesn’t belong on a remote coast with 8-foot seas and 30-knot winds. Charter boats that work the normally steep seas found on the La Guaira Bank, Venezuela, are large vessels of at least 35-feet and can take some punishment. They also have skilled, safety-conscious crews. In contrast, in places like Zihuatanejo, Mexico where seas are usually calm, many anglers choose to fish from outboard “pangas” although larger cruisers are readily available.
Find out if the boat has basic equipment including navigational aids, rod holders, head (marine toilet), live baitwells and so on. I’ve been on some trips where a pocket compass would have helped find our way back and I’ve installed rod holders on some boats when I was forewarned by my agent the “bare bone” nature of the boats available. A good boat is not much without an experienced crew with a good sense of humor, attitude and local knowledge. Novice anglers must rely on crews to help with tackle rigging, knots, hooking fish and other services. Local knowledge is critical when pursuing tarpon, snook and other species that are sensitive to changing conditions and may be most responsive to locally-perfected techniques. Be wary of newly-opened fisheries, they may have new boats but may not have skippers who know how to put you on the fish. Experienced anglers have more travel options because they can adapt to local conditions, apply a variety of fishing techniques and teach the crews a thing or two.
Cost-conscious anglers may be tempted to share the expense of a blue-water charter with a group. Many hotels and charter services will be happy to add you to a group charter. There is a downside. If your heart is set on catching a billfish and you’re sharing a boat with three companions, the math is not in your favor. I learned this early on in my college years. Alone in Mazatlan, Mexico, and with limited pesos, I consented to share a boat with two other anglers. The first fish landed was a sailfish. My rotation was next and a small dorado hit. The third fish was a blue marlin which ended the days action. This is what I call “offshore” roulette and you may be better off paying more for your own charter if you want to improve your chances of catching an elusive billfish.
FISHING CHARTER DO’S AND DON’T’S Communication is critical. It’s important to discuss your fishing style, species to pursue or special needs with the fleet manager and captain/mate preferably the day before fishing is to begin. This is especially important if the crew doesn’t speak your language. It’s the managers job to match the boat and crew to your style as much as possible. Flyfishing enthusiasts should be with a crew experienced in teasing fish. A day set aside for inshore plugging for roosterfish calls for a small, maneuverable boat instead of the offshore cruiser used for marlin. The manager can also give specific advice on the best fishing currently available, crew strengths and weaknesses as well as guidelines for tipping.
In some areas it is common for mates to tease a fish, set the hook and hand it off to the client. This is irritating to some anglers and should be one of the first things to be agreed upon if you want to hook your own fish. Just assure the crew that missing a strike or two doesn’t mean your not having fun. In remote areas catch and release fishing is favored. If you want to bring fish home special arrangements need to be made, including a check with local authorities on regulations, availability of ice for your ice chest and airline restrictions. Some charter operations sell the days catch, including billfish, and you may have to pay extra if you want to release fish. If you want to share a seat on the bridge with the captain its’ generally advisable to ask for permission before making the climb. Captains appreciate the gesture. One note about fly-bridges on cruisers: Some captains separate themselves almost entirely from the cockpit activity and pursue a fixed regimen from above. Communications break down and problems sometimes arise. It may be necessary to switch boats, crews or both. There should be a focused but congenial, helpful attitude among both client and crew.
When you’re sharing a boat it’s important to have a fishing plan worked out in detail. If you have a chair rotation or fish rotation agreed to, it’s recommended that you define beforehand what will cause an angler to lose a turn. A marlin that is hooked, jumps, takes drag and throws the hook is usually considered by most anglers as a lost turn even though only a few seconds elapsed. A fish in the spread or missed fish wouldn’t mean a lost turn on most boats. However, there is no maritime manual for such things. Anglers can work out any system they want. The important thing is that everyone understands and abides by the consensus.
The subject of drag settings or new techniques are sensitive issues with most deckhands or mates. Anglers should approach the matter with diplomacy if you have differing views. For example, I have generally found that most mates set the drag too tight when trolling lures, in my opinion. I prefer softhead-type lures, which some foreign crews are unfamiliar with. They may need to be taught about new techniques applicable to them such as using a lighter drag setting to allow a fish to turn with the lure before striking with a heavier drag. However, anglers should not simply walk around the cockpit pulling drags and resetting them as you see fit unless you want to stir up some real chaos with the crew. First, talk to the mate or crew to compare your fishing style with their fishing style and come to terms with the details that may differ.
One way to break an impasse that has worked for me is to concede that their style is better and may even result in more hookups but that you enjoy your style more. Plus, you won’t hold them accountable for the day’s tally, which should lower their anxiety level when trying new techniques or lures. If you follow through with a good tip even after a bad day using your techniques that will put “money where your mouth is” and help keep the crew on your side. A compromise that can also be offered, whether on private or charter boats, is to use your “unfamiliar” lure or technique in a more limited way by dropping only one lure back instead of the entire spread. Who knows? At days end you may have the crew pleading for your lures and using them on every rod if they prove worthy.
A source of consternation for some anglers is when the mate is the first one to the rod, sets the hook and then looks around for someone to hand it to. If you don’t like this scenario and prefer to set the hook yourself you’d better make this very clear before the action starts. Even so, years of conditioned responses to screaming reel clicker noises may prevent even well-disciplined mates from leaving a rod alone while a “slow” client finally gets to it.
In some parts of the world the angler is viewed as nothing more than a glorified fish-puller by charter crews. This is especially true when the day’s catch is considered the property of the boat and is sold when the fish happens to be a high-priced species. This is when things can get real interesting for the angler. For example, years ago, charter operators pursuing giant Atlantic bluefin tuna in the Canadian provinces would not only have mates set the hook but would add a surcharge to the charter fee if the angler wanted to use 80- pound tackle instead of the standard 130- pound gear. Going down to 50- pound was even more costly for the angler because the crew was in greater risk of losing a money fish. This is not necessarily a rip off, it’s just another way of doing business that the angler can either be comfortable with or go elsewhere. It does illustrate the need to know all the rules beforehand to eliminate surprises and avoid arguments or a ruined fishing experience.
Some crews are superstitious. Bananas brought onboard are bad luck with some crews (some anthropologists trace this habit to New Guinea tribal warriors avoiding bananas before battle because it would make them “soft” in combat but opinions vary greatly on this subject). Crews in Thailand like to celebrate even insignificant catches with big smiles and gestures - and like to see enthusiasm from the client as well, or they will think you’re not enjoying yourself. There are countless cultural practices that need to be acknowledged in each country.
Tipping your crew is expected almost universally. A tip of ten to twenty percent of the charter cost is a good rule of thumb. Less if the crew is outwardly incompetent, lazy or both and more if perfection is achieved. Local currency can be used but some may prefer dollars or even different compensation such as electronics or equipment. Standard gifts such as small toys and candy for the children, fishing lures, spare tackle, pen lights, charts and gloves can be upgraded with walkman radios, mask and snorkel, compass, calculator/translator and so on to become a more valued tip than cash.
The general rule is to find out about cultural differences, avoid social faux pas, learn some of the language, smile, take a fun-loving attitude and accept the occasional bad conditions just like you do on the sea back home.
AIR ANXIETIES (OR AIR TRAVEL MADE EASY) This is an exciting time for anglers because new air routes and governments around the world are promoting and making available exotic fishing destination. However, traveling by air poses some unique challenges as well.
The biggest concern for anglers when traveling by air is that your tackle arrives when you do and in one piece. Lost or damaged equipment is not so bad on the return trip home but is essential that you have it to fish with upon your arrival. Using borrowed gear or lodge tackle can take the edge off an otherwise enjoyable trip. Unfortunately, I know of no secrets to guarantee that your tackle arrives at your destination other than as carry-on luggage. With rod cases and bulky gear this is not possible. However, to improve your chances I suggest making doubly sure all of your checked baggage is tagged and labeled correctly at the ticket counter. Pay close attention and converse with everyone that may play a role in handling it. Your main concern is the rod case. Rods are a hassle for airline employees because they require special handling. They don’t fit on the conveyor belt behind the ticket agents because of the turns and will be put aside until a handler can be found. Before boarding make sure it hasn’t been forgotten. Even so, once behind the scenes it may be placed in the wrong destination compartment on the plane or even the wrong plane.
Even though primary travel may be by large air carrier it is likely that several intermediate modes will be required. For example, an airport van or travel rep may greet you and take you to a smaller regional airport where you board a small plane. Landing at a dirt strip you then get in another vehicle which takes you to a small boat or even a dugout canoe for the final leg of the journey. This is one reason to pack only essentials because too much equipment can be a burden, or in the worse case, not fit on a small plane or other conveyance. Always ask about equipment or baggage limitations before you go. Rod cases may be limited by length restrictions and baggage by weight.
Flights of more than a few hours can be exhausting. On long trips I find it beneficial to plan a day or two of relaxation upon arrival before strenuous high seas fishing otherwise you may prolong jet lag and fatigue. A little known contributor to air travel fatigue is the constant noise or hum of the plane. Cotton or light tissue placed in the ears reduces the noise but allows you to adjust to fluctuations in cabin pressure. Do not overeat during the flight or accept ill-timed meals simply because they’re offered. Dry air quality in planes can dehydrate you so drink plenty of liquids, especially water.
Take along a small thermos to make this more convenient. Wear comfortable, loose-fitting clothing and sleep as much as possible. Visit a travel store before leaving and purchase an inflatable, contoured neck pillow. Airline pillows are often too small for maximum comfort. Speaking of comfort, fly first class or business class if possible, it makes a big difference. Making reservations well in advance may result in lower air fares.
Since baggage can get lost I like to avoid putting “all my eggs in one basket” and divide up the essentials between carry-on and check-thru. Carry-on items may include a few reels in case the tackle box doesn’t arrive but the rod case does, and should include medicines, eye care products, contact lenses, cameras with some film, and travel documents. Anything that is fragile, difficult to replace or very expensive at your destination is a candidate for carry-on luggage.
THE ART OF PACKING Packing for a distant fishing trip is an art and I learn something new every time. What to take and what to leave? How best to protect equipment? The first step is to determine what type of fish you will be pursuing and the techniques that will be used. You can pack fairly light if you’re going after one species like peacock bass in Venezuela, but if you want to combine billfishing with inshore plugging you will be adding to the load. An alternative is to use the medium to heavy tackle usually provided on charter boats and take only your favorite light tackle gear.
Regardless of where you’re going, start making a tackle list weeks before you leave. This will also serve as a shopping list and you can check off items. Store all equipment in one location before packing so you don’t leave anything behind- I find that most anglers carry a tackle box that is too big and heavy when fishing day charters. An easier way is to leave the large box in your room as a “supply store” and take a small one to the boat with the essential lures, pliers, hooks, etc. that you are likely to need for one day. Shoulder straps for bags and Velcro™ straps for rods really help in transporting gear. “Downsize” all equipment and personal items if possible. You don’t need “family-size” toiletries for one week. Purchase travel sizes found in most stores or use small plastic containers and label each accordingly. Files for hooks and knives, lubricant sprays, pliers, fighting belts and harnesses, swim fins and many other items are available in smaller, less bulky sizes. I place delicate items like baitcasting reels in ziplock-type plastic bags. Seal these with as much air inside as possible to form a protective cushion. I use one gallon size empty bags sealed with various amounts of air and place them between gear and the walls of luggage for more protection. Take a few easily stored 30 to 40 gallon plastic bags. They can be used for many purposes including covering camera cases from wind spray. Cut a hole in the bottom end for your head and drape the bag over your shoulders for a good make-shift raincoat. Discard the bags properly and never put them in the ocean. Sea turtles feed on jelly-fish and attempt to swallow the lookalike bags and may die. They are harmful to other sea life as well.
Navigation charts of the waters you intend to fish can be extremely valuable. A reliable source is the Map Centre in San Diego at 619-291-3930. They identify seamounts, reefs and the continental shelf and you will have a better idea of the fishing opportunities before you leave. Many of the best fishing areas are in developing countries and the local captains really appreciate receiving a chart as a gift. They also like any spare tackle and fishing line you can leave. I always leave room while packing for bubble gum and small toys for the children. Walk-man type radio/cassettes, blank video tapes, small flashlights and other items that are very expensive in some countries are great for gifts and are often preferred over currency as tips. When selecting film take low speed types such as 64 Kodachrome or 100 to 200 print film. Since high speed film can be harmed by airport x-ray equipment request manual inspection by security or customs officials if you choose this type.
THE WORLD IS YOURS Anglers seeking true excitement and adventure in remote places on the globe will probably face more problems and risks but those can add to the experience rather than detract. A prepared traveler can overcome may types of travel woes and create opportunities out of obstacles. Remember to always keep in mind what your personal fishing and vacation fun goals are and plan accordingly. A good way to “shop” for fishing adventures is to visit the fishing and travel shows usually held during the winter-spring period in California where you will find an amazing number of charter and fishing camp operators as well as travel outfitters to help you select your fishing trip of a lifetime.