Fly Fishing for Billfish

A historical piece about fly fishing with teasers for billfish with the “Robinson System” developed by Webster Robinson and his wife Helen Robinson in the early 1960s.

Dorsal fin of a teased and eager marlin cuts through water as the fish turns toward a fly.

The ancient art of fly casting has long since shed its once-exclusive connection with salmon and trout. Democratically, it has gone on to embrace bass and bluegills and most other freshwater species, and in recent years has turned seaward to challenge everything from bonefish to huge sharks. But through it all, true devotees of the sport have maintained a lofty insistence on manual presentation of the fly-whether it be to conjure forth the illusory rise of a trout to a No. 22 dry, or the explosive lunge of a giant tarpon at a seven-inch streamer.

Size, large or small, means nothing. A present-day saltwater flyrodder would happily go after Moby Dick, if able, on his vise, to create some feathery imitation of Captain Ahab. Any avid fly caster will instantly recognize and applaud the distinction between the phrases “fishing with a fly rod” and “fly casting.” Numerous offshore fish, including an occasional sailfish, have been taken over the years by anglers trolling with fly tackle. But not until 1962, when the late Dr. Webster Robinson of Key West landed a 74½-pound Pacific sailfish aboard Capt. Louis Schmidt’s Caiman at Pinas Bay, Panama, was the first billfish officially registered to fly casting.

More than any other sports fishing specialty, fly casting is a game in which the end result is not favored with supreme satisfaction unless obtained through adherence to rather rigid rules concerning tackle and technique-foremost being that the fish must accept an artificial fly, presented and given whatever action is necessary to coax a strike only through manual efforts of the caster, and not through boat movement.

To a trout fisherman, the challenge of proper presentation lies in such things as depositing his tiny fly gently to a selected target area, and then employing further skill to drift the fly over a pre-determined course, while avoiding line drag or other unnatural motion.

The task of seducing a billfish to a fly is considerably less delicate, of course, but certainly no less difficult. On rare occasion—before and since Robinson’s efforts an offshore fly fisherman has lucked into the opportunity to toss his fly at a surfacing billfish, only to find that while the fish may exhibit passing interest in the artificial, it is extremely unlikely that he will hit it.

Obviously, you could spend a lifetime cruising the ocean, looking for a sail or marlin that would make an inviting target for a fly. And if you did find such a target and got your fly to him, your odds of being rewarded with a spontaneous strike would be somewhat less than your chance of hitting the Irish Sweepstakes.

Webster Robinson realized this, and when lie captured his landmark sailfish in 1962, it was no fluke, but the payoff of an elaborate and carefully-planned system. But one winner doesn’t prove a system, so in the next few years lie went on to catch more than a dozen Pacific sailfish, plus five striped marlin.

More important, other anglers began cashing in on the techniques, thereby demonstrating that a reliable system of fly casting for billfish had indeed been established. First to do so was J. Lee Cuddy of Miami, a close friend of Robinson’s, as well as an angling counselor who had made suggestions which Robinson incorporated into his system. Cuddy has landed several fly-caught sailfish in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Other early followers included Stu Apte, Lee Wulff and Mark Sosin, and if the ranks of successful flyrod billfishermen are still pretty exclusive, it’s no reflection on the Robinson system, but is due merely to the fact that not many folks combine the time, opportunity and determination to pursue what certainly
must be the most ambitious specialty in all light-tackle angling.

Still, a handful of fishermen, other than those already named, have taken sailfish on the fly more recently–among them Florida Sportsman’s Bob Stearns. And the newest milestone in the short history of this adventurous sport was reached last September by Billy Pate and his wife, Laura, of Islamorada, who racked up five black marlin while flycasting the famous waters off Cairns, Australia.

FEBRUARY-MARCH 1973

Pate, who earlier had taken a striped marlin in Ecuador, thus became the first fly-tosser to score on two different species of marlin; and Laura the first woman to catch any billfish on a fly.

Though the blacks were small ones, weighing between 38 and 46 pounds, Pate trimmed the edge by landing the
46-pounder on six-pound-test leader.

Pate is an expert fly fisherman whose experience covers all the major fly targets of the world, from Oregon steelhead to Iceland salmon to Argentine trout to giant Florida Keys tarpon, still, he backgrounded himself thoroughly on the Robinson techniques before chasing billfish. In these academic preparations he was luckier than most because he was able to obtain the personal counsel of Robinson’s widow, Helen, particularly as regards the all-important “teaser” techniques and timing.

We’ll see shortly that skillful handling of the teaser bait is the heart of the operation, and from the Pates’ success in Australia (and earlier in Ecuador), it’s obvious that Helen Robinson taught her lessons well.

Although the principles of the Robinson system are fairly well known by now in the fly-casting fraternity, a completely-detailed description of the entire procedure has never before been printed. It is offered here with the help and cooperation of Mrs. Helen Robinson, and based on voluminous notes left by her husband.

Where to Fish

“This whole thing is a waste of time,” Doe wrote, “unless you can fish where there are plenty of billfish and plenty of chances.”

We already have mentioned several prominent grounds: the Pacific waters of Panama, Ecuador and Mexico; even
Cairns, Australia. But close to home there are fine opportunities, in season.

From fall through spring, sailfish are usually available in attractive abundance somewhere along the Southeast Florida coast between Key West and Vero Beach.

No doubt the best bet for an Atlantic sail on fly would be at Cozumel Island, Mexico, in spring.

White marlin prospects would seem to be excellent in the Tongue of the Ocean, out of Chub Cay or North
Andros, Bahamas, in March and April. And the determined fly-caster would be almost certain to hook up in Venezuelan waters in October.

Tackle

The gutsiest flyrod available is called for, naturally, and this means one of the power models used for giant tarpon in the Florida Keys. Length of the rod is not very important, but most available are nine-foot or nine-foot, three-inch models. A No. 11 or No. 12 floatreel line is needed to match the rod. The reel should be heavy-duty single-action type with positive adjustable drag, and large enough to hold a minimum of 200 yards of 20-pound test braided Dacron backing. If you can use 30-pound backing, and still pack 200 yards or more on to the reel, so much the better.

Since this is a regulation endeavor, the leader must conform to rules. Doc Robinson used 12-pound-test tippet because that was the maximum allowed by his club. Under Salt Water Flyrodders of America regulations, which came later, a 15-pound-test class was established, along with several classes lighter than 12-pound, Presumably a first-timer would chose either 12- or 15-pound tippet.

Rules state that the light-tippet portion of the leader must measure at least 12 inches long. An additional shock tippet is allowed, and this must be no more than 12 inches long, including the knot or connection to the light tippet.

Robinson however, became convinced that the light tippet should be two feet long, or slightly more, to provide for additional stretch-cushion and to lessen punishment to the joining knots. This opinion is widely shared by flyrodders who chase any kind of large fish.

As to the 12-inch heavy tippet, Robinson chose Steelon, which he fixed to his fly and to a small swivel with crimped sleeves. Current fly fishermen would be more likely to tie the heavy tippet directly to the light, using the Albright special knot.

The simplest leader arrangement is this:

(1) A six-foot leader butt of 30-pound-test mono, tied to the fly line.

(2) A section of 12-pound mono (or whatever tippet class is chosen) measuring at least two feet. Actually, you should start with a longer length of 12-pound and double each end to obtain maximum knot strength. Elsewhere in this issue, associate editor Lefty Kreh describes a new knot, the Spider Twist, which makes
doubling the line much faster, and just as strong, as the more widely known Bimini Twist.

(3) A one-foot length of heavy tippet, tied directly to the light tippet.

One important thing to watch out for: Your 12-inch allowance of heavier tippet must include both the knot and the remaining doubled portion of the light tippet.

It takes two to tangle with a billfish when fly fishing. That’s Helen Robinson handling the teaser rig while husband Webster stands ready with flyrod.

As to the lure, if things turn out right and you tease a billfish into a striking mood near tour boat, he just might hit most any large salt-water streamer fly or popping bug you throw at him. But Robinson eventually worked out a lure which not only increased his number of strikes, but afforded a much higher percentage of positive hookups.

This was an oversized popper he built with the head of a foam popping cork, a dozen long white hackles, and a 7/0 hook with the point carefully triangulated and sharpened to a knife edge. He flattened the underside of the foam head so the hook would ride point-upright and thus tend to take hold in an exceptionally vulnerable spot in the upper jaw, right at the base of the bill.

The Fishing System

Basically, the system revolves around the use of a hookless teaser bait. This bait is trolled in normal fashion until a billfish is raised. The person handling the teaser must then manipulate the bait,
bringing it ever closer to the boat, and all the while keeping the fish interested and following.

A Pacific sailfish often will keep charging the teaser recklessly, although never catching it, and sometimes can even be teased within range of the fly by using an artificial teaser, such as a big
surface plug with hooks removed.

The Robinsons quickly found, however, that a striped marlin was a much more level-headed customer. Not only
was it necessary to use a teaser made from natural bait, but also to let the marlin get a good taste of it in order to keep him coming.

If a marlin takes the teaser bait, has it yanked away from him, and then charges again, it’s a pretty good sign he will continue to follow to within casting range. And this is a key stage, for as soon as the teaser-handler feels the fish has committed himself to the chase, he or she must holier, “Out of Gear!” so the captain can slip the engine into neutral.

This is another point necessitated by rules. By the time the cast is made, the boat must be still in the water, so that
boat motion cannot contribute to the action of the fly.

After the teaser-handler orders the boat out of gear, he continues to lure the fish closer by manual cranking on his reel while the boat is losing momentum. And if the fish shows the slightest sign of waning interest, he must be allowed to grab the bait again.

One more tricky and critical phase still awaits the operator of the teaser: getting the bait out of the water at the right time. With sailfish it usually is all right to crank the teaser to the transom and lift it out of the water. But if a marlin sees the boat, Isis usual reaction is to dive and get the heck out of there.

Therefore, when the marlin had come within a moderate cast of the stern, Helen would yank the bait out of the water-making a long sweep with her teaser rod in order to sail the bait far enough toward the bow so the fish could not see where it went.

This maneuver also should make the marlin all the more angry and confused, and all the more likely to attack the fly, which hits the water at just this time.

Now the burden of producing shifts from the shoulders of the teaser-handler to those of the fisherman.

The caster’s impulse would be to throw his fly ahead of the fish, but trial and error proved to Robinson that this wasn’t the thing to do. A billfish which follows the fly is less likely to hit it, and if he does take it, the straight-on strike seldom results in a good hookup.

Robinson would throw his fly behind the irritated fish and pop it noisily. His aim was to make the fish wheel suddenly and crash the fly at a right angle. Almost invariably, when this was accomplished, the hook locked up tight.

Another way in which sailfish and marlin differ, Robinson discovered, was in preference for lure action. Sailfish generally would hit the bug when it was retrieved in normal fashion, with sharp and steady pulls of the line to make it pop. In order to interest a marlin, though, he had to move the fly much more actively, by sweeping his rod upward as he stripped in line fast, thus making the lure skitter across the top.

So now we have teased up the billfish and cast to him and hooked him (it’s easy here on paper, isn’t it?). We’ll move on to the fight after some details about making the proper teaser.

As mentioned, a sailfish might well respond to an artificial teaser. And, of course, a live bait or a ballyhoo rigged without hooks would be likely to raise either a marlin or a sailfish. But neither
makes a satisfactory teaser bait, for the simple reason of fragility.

Since it is absolutely necessary for marlin, and very helpful for sailfish, to actually grab and taste the teaser, a strong and durable teaser bait should be used. The answer is a venerable rig which many veteran bluewater anglers know as the “Panama belly bait”. It is a long, teardrop-shaped strip cut from the belly
of a baitfish–preferably a bonito, though others can be used-then folded over a wire or cable leader, and sewn to shape. When finished it roughly resembles a slender baitfish and has great swimming action when trolled.

Naturally, this bait is rigged with a hook for regular fishing, without one for use as a teaser-some of the stitches being sewn through loops in the leader to hold the bait in place.

Fighting a Billfish

It would take a dedicated engineer many long days at the drawing board to design a set of tackle less well suited to battling billfish than a fly outfit. The reef, small diameter to start with, is stuck way down on the butt end of the rod where its most difficult to reach and to crank. Besides that, the crank must be turned four or five times for every yard of line regained, meaning four or five hundred turns to pick up 100 yards. It makes your wrist and elbow tired just to think about it. But that’s part of the game.

When the fish hits you strike hard two or three times to set the hook. Then, as in all fly fishing, you keep slight tension on the excess line with your left hand until the running fish takes out all loose line and your reel drag can take over. The drag should be pre-set at no more than three pounds.

On the first run there’s not much you can do except keep a good bend in the rod and hang on, But there’s a lot the boat operator must do! It doesn’t take long for a racing, greyhounding sail or marlin to cover 200 yards and more, and so threaten your entire line capacity very quickly. The boat must start in chase almost at once–forward, not backing down, and at a pretty fast clip.

Throughout the fight, the skipper must stand ever ready to pursue, and it’s during these chases that the angler is compelled to under go the abominable chore of cranking the reel a couple of hundred times or more to retrieve his precious line

On the other hand, the boat should not give chase any more than is necessary to keep a working supply of line on the spool. Whenever possible, the angler must fight his fish directly and fight hard pumping and pressuring just as much as he would do with light trolling tackle. Excess boat movement only helps relieve pressure on the fish

Robinson decided that best odds of victory are achieved by applying as much pressure as possible, as early as possible, while the light tippet is in good shape and has little wear on it.

Sometimes perhaps several times during a fight, a sailfish or marlin is bound to go deep. There is little percentage in staying directly over a sounding fish and attempting to pump him up with the flyrod. Instead, have the boat move away. You yield some line in the process, but the wider angle almost always coaxes the fish back to the surface.

Another important point in boat maneuvering is to keep the fish off to the side of the boat as much as possible. And when pursuing, to travel on a parallel course with that of the fish, but off to the side of him. The primary purpose of these efforts is to keep the leader and line from falling back over the body of
the fish. In other words, you try to keep the leader at right angles to the fish as much as you can. It’s a challenge that can never be achieved to perfection throughout the fight, but you keep trying.

Every thing about fly-fishing for billfish is more difficult than with other tackle and techniques, and the final step–landing the fish–is no exception.

You don’t have a long and sturdy leader that can be grabbed and handled. So you must eventually fight your prize all the way to the boat and prod him within reach of the gaff. A flying gaff is by far the best landing device, but a regular gaff with eight-foot handle (the longest permitted under angling rules),
can be successfully used.

So there’s the Robinson system, fully detailed. Easy it isn’t. But any able flyrodder, in the right waters, can hook sailfish or marlin by practicing the system with dedication.

And with a bit of luck and a lot of chances, he can add his name to one of the most exclusive clubs in all sports fishing. FS