Terry Gunn knew it wasn't the usual kind of fly-fishing when the big wahoo came at him through the air like a missile.
"The attack wahoo," is how Gunn described it. "Their teeth are razor sharp. We were fly-fishing for fish that can hurt you. You don't normally think about that."
Gunn, who runs a guide service at Lee's Ferry on the Colorado River, was one of 16 expert fly anglers rounded up by sportsmen's show promoter Ed Rice to target saltwater fly rod world records on a long-range tour of Mexican waters out of San Diego this month. They returned with 10, plus five lesser catches that also topped tippet (leader)-class records listed by the International Game Fish Assn.
Nick Curcione of Santa Monica called it the trip of a lifetime.
Between the bountiful El Nino fishing and the expertise on board, Rice said: "The worst day of fishing out there was probably better than most people ever see in their lifetimes."
The records, including three each by reel maker Steve Abel of Camarillo and Ray Beadle of Los Gatos, were for wahoo, black and blue skipjack and yellowfin tuna taken on tippets testing from four to 20 pounds--the extreme light end of the usual saltwater tackle. They will be submitted to the IGFA for recognition. Rice thought it might have been the most records ever collected on a long-range trip, fly rod or otherwise, but it might be only the beginning.
Saltwater fly-fishing is a relatively young sport--most of the records were set in the 1980s--and until recently it was restricted to day trips from the East Coast or warm-water locales around the world. Abel tested the idea of taking it long range when he organized a similar trip on a smaller scale last year.
Both trips were aboard Frank LoPreste's 92-foot Royal Star, which took the anglers 500 miles south of San Diego for 10 days. They fished from the boat as well as outboard-powered 14-foot Avon inflatable skiffs, sometimes ranging out as far as 10 miles from the mother ship into yellowfin tuna boils that Abel described as being "like a storm surf hitting a reef."
True to their ethic, the fly anglers used nets instead of gaffs whenever possible and released 90% of their catches--except injured fish, potential records and "some the cook wanted for dinner," Abel said.
"When the fly-fishing and light-tackle world understands what this is all about, it's going to create an entire new fishery," Rice said. "This is kind of the last frontier in fly-fishing."
Besides that, Abel said: "It proved to some of the big names in fly-fishing that this is a real sport."
Some of the records might have been "soft," but none was vacant. Fly rod records for other saltwater species are even more attractive--most of the tippet-class records for California halibut, striped marlin and white sea bass and all the records for Pacific blue marlin and swordfish remain unclaimed.
Stu Apte holds four records for wahoo, sailfish and dorado, including the two oldest saltwater fly rod records dating to 1964 and '65, but he had never experienced fishing quite like it. "I didn't even know what a long-range trip was," said Apte, a retired Navy carrier and Pan-Am pilot who lives in Gallatin Gateway, Mont.
Retrieving his fly one day, Apte was startled to see a a wahoo pursue it clear over the boat.
"When that fish leaped, the line went flying out of my guides, took a big wrap around the first guide and broke off," Apte said. "That is etched in my mind 'till the day I die."
Wendy Hanvold, who works with Gunn at Marble Canyon, Ariz., commanded the respect of her colleagues, especially for her 42.6-pound wahoo on 12-pound tippet that broke a record held by Apte.
"I'd much prefer to see her with that record than me," Apte said. "It was an eye-opener to see a young lady that could cast like that and had the heart to fight these fish hard."
Hanvold, the only female angler on the trip, is 5 feet 4 and 115 pounds. Her size wouldn't matter if she were fishing freshwater for trout, but it could be a handicap at sea.
"The fish are real strong and you're using big rods," she said. "As far as stamina goes, the guys will land a lot more of those fish than I can. It's not like being on a freshwater stream where you're casting out whatever those fish are eating when (an insect) hatch is coming off."
There were new techniques to learn. Fly reels are geared one-to-one, so line is retrieved by hand, a technique called stripping. The test of the reels was when the fish ran.
"With the wahoo, we thought we'd have to do a real fast strip because wahoo is the fastest fish in in the ocean," Hanvold said.
Instead, she and the others soon realized what longtime saltwater fly anglers Apte and Curcione already knew: First, you must get the wahoo to the boat by trailing heavy boat lines with big lures.