TRAIL­BLAZER

JAKE JOR­DAN HAS BEEN AT THE FORE­FRONT OF CATCH­ING BILL­FISH ON THE FLY

Anglers Journal - - CONTENTS - By GARY CA­PUTI

Jake Jor­dan made pos­si­ble what was once be­lieved to be nearly im­pos­si­ble: catch­ing blue mar­lin on a fly rod.

WWe’re 140 miles off Los Sueños, Costa Rica, aboard the 42-foot Mav­er­ick Dra­gin Fly with renowned bill­fish Capt. James Smith at the helm and mates Roberto and Berto work­ing the cock­pit. Dozens of tiny yel­lowfin tuna ex­plode out of the wa­ter, with three blue mar­lin in pur­suit. Two of them spy our teasers, aban­don the chase and charge the pat­tern. The mates ex­pertly tease them into cast­ing range. Smith pulls the throt­tles into neu­tral and yells, “Cast!”

I lift the flam­boy­ant pink-and-white tube fly into a back­cast and drop it in the wake slightly be­hind them. Both mar­lin at­tack. The larger one, more than 300 pounds, gets there first and en­gulfs the fly from above, no hook set re­quired. The fish races straight away from the tran­som, tak­ing 300 yards of back­ing faster than you can say 300 yards of back­ing. A tow­er­ing jump is fol­lowed by a 90-de­gree turn and three more grey­hound­ing leaps, the fly line rip­ping audi­bly through the wa­ter be­hind it. On the third jump, the mar­lin kicks its mas­sive tail and the line catches a wave, adding just enough pres­sure to part the 20-pound leader.

The whole sce­nario took 15 sec­onds. The dis­play of power, ac­cel­er­a­tion and raw ath­leti­cism left me stand­ing, mouth agape, heart pump­ing, amazed. I had just lost the sev­enth blue mar­lin to eat my fly in two days. I was bat­ting zero in the big­gest fishing game of my life, but I wasn’t done. I was de­ter­mined to bring one to the boat. Most im­por­tant, Jake Jor­dan, the best teacher on the planet, was look­ing over my shoul­der, coach­ing me.

The Chal­lenge

Catch­ing any bill­fish on a fly is a feat. Catch­ing a blue mar­lin on 20-pound Igfa-le­gal fly tackle is a con­su­mate chal­lenge. It’s a dream so few have ac­com­plished that it is sta­tis­ti­cally in­signif­i­cant when weighed against the uni­verse of an­glers. But dur­ing my time aboard Dra­gin Fly, I was un­der the tute­lage of Jor­dan, who has made catch­ing bill­fish with a fly rod a re­al­ity for hun­dreds of an­glers. He has had a dra­matic im­pact on the de­vel­op­ment of the tackle, rig­ging, teas­ing, fight­ing and even the boat-han­dling tech­niques that have made pos­si­ble what was once thought nearly im­pos­si­ble.

Jor­dan has in­structed and guided most of the top big-game fly fish­er­men in the world. He men­tored Nick Smith, who has caught more bill­fish on fly than any­one. Martin Arostegui, the first per­son to achieve the In­ter­na­tional Game Fish As­so­ci­a­tion Royal Bill­fish Slam on fly, stud­ies and fishes with him; Jor­dan was at Arostegui’s side when he caught the Pa­cific blue mar­lin that helped com­plete his quest. Jake Jor­dan might not be a house­hold name, but tens of thou­sands of fly fish­er­men fol­low his ex­ploits through his emailed fishing re­ports, and a lucky few get to fish with him.

How dif­fi­cult is it to catch and re­lease a blue mar­lin on fly tackle? In an at­tempt to ex­plain the de­gree of dif­fi­culty, Jor­dan uses a home­brewed rat­ing sys­tem that com­pares the power and speed of var­i­ous big-game species — and he has caught them all. Tar­pon, a fish he has been pur­su­ing for nearly 60 years as an an­gler and top Florida Keys guide, form the base­line for com­par­i­son.

“To keep things equal, let’s as­sume all the fish weigh 100 pounds,” says Jor­dan, whom I’ve been friends with for 25 years. “Tar­pon, a great game­fish by any mea­sure, are the base­line, the X fac­tor, and earn their place mostly on the mer­its of their strength. A Pa­cific sail­fish is also rated 1X, even though it is down on power com­pared to a tar­pon, which it makes up for with greater speed. White and striped mar­lin rate 2X be­cause they ex­hibit greater speed and power than the tar­pon. Black mar­lin rate a 3X be­cause they’re fast but even stronger. At the top of the list is the blue mar­lin, which are off the chart at 6X or bet­ter be­cause they are the most pow­er­ful big-game species by far, and they com­bine that power with speed and ac­cel­er­a­tion on an or­der of mag­ni­tude be­yond any of the other fish.” Ob­vi­ously any com­par­i­son be­tween biggame species is sub­jec­tive, but Jor­dan’s ex­pla­na­tion pro­vides a ba­sis for un­der­stand­ing just what an an­gler is up against when try­ing to catch blue mar­lin on the fly. And 50 years of on-wa­ter ex­pe­ri­ence back up his ob­ser­va­tions. He caught his first bill­fish on a fly more than 40 years ago, at a time when oth­ers would not have con­sid­ered it re­motely fea­si­ble. Dur­ing his long ca­reer as a guide, in­struc­tor, in­no­va­tor, tackle de­signer and fly-fishing trail­blazer, he has done it all, many times over. At 76, he is plan­ning his next tar­pon sea­son in the Keys, and sail­fish and blue mar­lin sea­sons in Cen­tral Amer­ica.

Fishing Life

Jor­dan was born in Delaware County, Penn­syl­va­nia, in 1942. His fa­ther was a ma­chin­ist for West­ing­house dur­ing World War II, run­ning the largest milling ma­chine in the world, which pro­duced tur­bines to power air­craft car­ri­ers. Jor­dan spent sum­mers with his mother and two sis­ters in Ocean City, New Jersey, 60 miles away. His ear­li­est fishing ex­ploits were catch­ing north­ern king­fish, oys­ter crack­ers and sea robins, but when his fa­ther got time off, they’d chase floun­der, weak­fish, blue­fish and oc­ca­sional striped bass. They fished from the fam­ily’s 16-foot Old Town row­boat, pow­ered by a 7.5-hp John­son Sea­horse out­board.

“I re­mem­ber the old wood poles and Ocean City reels, dig­ging sand fleas and clams for bait,” Jor­dan says. “We used tarred line, cat gut lead­ers and brass two-hook spreader rigs.”

Af­ter the war, his fa­ther pur­chased some “swamp­land” on New Jersey’s Bass River, built a house and started fill­ing in the marsh, one sta­tion wagon load of sand at a time, with the goal of build­ing a ma­rina. He opened a small bait shop and ice house as Bass Har­bor Ma­rina grew to have 39 slips and marine ser­vices. The fam­ily ac­quired a 31-foot John­son Broth­ers lap­strake boat pow­ered by a Ford flat­head en­gine, which was quickly swapped out for a 36-hp diesel from a trac­tor.

“We fished that boat all the way to the Bal­ti­more Canyon, where I caught my first white mar­lin,” Jor­dan re­calls. “We’d nav­i­gate us­ing a com­pass, stop­watch and pa­per charts, cruis­ing at 9 knots. The boat had two 40-gal­lon fuel tanks, so when one was empty, we knew it was time to start head­ing back to shore.”

Jor­dan en­listed in the Marines fresh out of high school and, af­ter com­plet­ing ba­sic train­ing at Par­ris Is­land in South Carolina, re­ceived a “tem­po­rary as­sign­ment” to what was then known as the U.S. Coast and Geode­tic Sur­vey. There, he was part of a team map­ping the United States. The team used a geodime­ter, a mea­sur­ing de­vice that shot a beam of light as far as 20 miles to establish a base­line for tri­an­gu­lat­ing dis­tances with pre­ci­sion.

“It was a dream job,” Jor­dan says. “I trav­eled the coun­try work­ing and fishing a path across 41 states, in­clud­ing Alaska. Later, I did sur­vey work that helped establish the U.S. mis­sile range for the first moon shots. That took me to places like As­cen­sion and the Sey­chelles is­lands, where the fishing was spec­tac­u­lar. When I wasn’t trav­el­ing, I lived in a trailer near Cape Canaveral [Florida] and fished al­most every day.”

Af­ter Jor­dan mus­tered out of the ser­vice, he moved to Fort Laud­erdale and got a job man­ag­ing a ma­rina. He also started his first com­pany, which spe­cial­ized in lo­cat­ing and restor­ing an­tique boats and yachts. Sev­eral ex­am­ples of his work are still on per­ma­nent dis­play at Mys­tic Sea­port in Con­necti­cut.

The Keys

From the first time he saw the Florida Keys, at age 9, Jor­dan knew it was where he wanted to live and fish. It was 1951 when his fa­ther took him on an ad­ven­ture that tra­versed the East Coast from their New Jersey ma­rina to Marathon, Florida, to de­liver a cus­tomer’s

Ry­bovich. Af­ter the trip, they spent two weeks fishing and ex­plor­ing the is­land chain.

“We man­aged to catch 31 species of fish us­ing noth­ing more than clams for bait,” Jor­dan says with a smile. “I moved to the Keys in 1963, got a job at a tackle store and started char­ter fishing. I was the mate on my first six trips and cap­tain from there on, run­ning a 24-foot sin­gle-screw Pace­maker with a fight­ing chair, tak­ing cus­tomers tar­pon fishing. “Around that time I met a new neigh­bor who was a part-time fishing guide,” Jor­dan con­tin­ues. “He taught me how to fish for tar­pon with a fly rod, and once I tried it, I never looked back. Re­mem­ber, be­fore that I was bait-fishing for tar­pon with heavy con­ven­tional tackle, but fly-fishing opened a whole new world of op­por­tu­ni­ties and in­creased the de­gree of dif­fi­culty dra­mat­i­cally. It changed my per­spec­tive on fishing for­ever.”

In 1977, Jor­dan opened World Class An­gler, a fly-fishing spe­cialty shop, in the light­house at Faro Blanco in Marathon. It quickly be­came home base for many of the best light-tackle guides in the mid­dle Keys. He had built a large clien­tele of fly fish­er­men who char­tered with him to chal­lenge the Keys’ big three: tar­pon, bone­fish and per­mit. He trav­eled the world fishing for mar­lin on con­ven­tional tackle. Back home, they chased sail­fish on the reefs us­ing light spin­ning gear. But af­ter his in­tro­duc­tion to fly-fishing for tar­pon, Jor­dan be­came cap­ti­vated with the idea of catch­ing sail­fish on his tar­pon fly rod.

“I de­vel­oped a tech­nique to bait and switch sail­fish us­ing a kite,” Jor­dan says, “and with some re­fine­ment it worked quite well. In a cou­ple of sea­sons I caught 51 sails as an an­gler, and then a few of my fly-rod tar­pon clients de­cided to give it a shot, with mixed re­sults.”

The up­shot of his early ef­forts with sail­fish is that Jor­dan de­vel­oped a tech­nique for lur­ing and catch­ing bill­fish on a fly more than 40 years ago. And that was just the be­gin­ning. Over time, fly-fishing for bill­fish be­came an all-con­sum­ing pas­sion.

Bill­fish Ob­sessed

By the early 1980s, Jor­dan’s fly shop in Marathon was de­vel­op­ing into one of the ear­li­est sport­fish­ing travel agen­cies, cater­ing to an ex­clu­sive clien­tele. The busi­ness in­creased his ac­cess to the hottest bill­fish mec­cas at the time, but he had yet to at­tempt to catch a mar­lin on a fly. That would be­come re­al­ity a few years later, when he started us­ing sink­ing fly lines around the bait balls off Isla Mu­jeres, Mex­ico, and caught sev­eral white mar­lin — an­other im­por­tant step to the dif­fi­cult, ex­act­ing chal­lenge of tack­ling a blue. Around the same time, there was a pro­lific blue mar­lin fish­ery de­vel­op­ing out of Key West on a spot called Woods Wall. Jake started work­ing on bait-and-switch tech­niques there and dis­cov­ered it was pos­si­ble to get blues to take a fly. “I man­aged to log 119 blue mar­lin bites with­out catch­ing a sin­gle one,” Jor­dan says. “The tackle just wasn’t up to the task. Rods that eas­ily fought tar­pon shat­tered, reels ex­ploded, the Dacron back­ing was too bulky, and I’d get spooled. It wasn’t un­til the mid-1980s, fishing the La Guaira Bank in Venezuela, that I caught my first blue mar­lin, all 90 pounds of it, on my 120th bite. Four years later I caught my se­cond, about 120 pounds.”

In the late 1980s, Jor­dan was fly-fishing for striped mar­lin in Mag­dalena Bay off Baja, Mex­ico, and at Club Paci­fico on Coiba Is­land in Panama. Then he was hired to help open the Sail­fish Ran­cho in Golfito, Costa Rica. “We’d work on the old in­board Mako cen­ter con­soles they had in the morn­ing and fish in the af­ter­noon,” he re­calls. “I hooked 213 bill­fish, mostly Pa­cific sails, and man­aged to catch 12. The tackle and tech­niques were still evolv­ing, and con­vert­ing bites to re­leases was no sure thing.”

In 1991 he sold World Class An­gler, kept his tar­pon char­ter busi­ness and re­al­ized that what he re­ally wanted to do was ded­i­cate him­self to learn­ing ev­ery­thing he could about fly-fishing for bill­fish. I re­mem­ber some­thing Jor­dan told me years ago on a tar­pon trip: “I’m prob­a­bly the only guy you’ve ever met who has made a mil­lion dol­lars three times and spent it all go­ing fishing.”

The School­mas­ter

Jor­dan’s pop­u­lar­ity with fly fish­er­men led him to de­velop a se­ries of “schools” aimed at teach­ing the tech­niques re­quired to catch and re­lease game­fish. His first one, dubbed the Bone­fish School, was run for many years out of Peace & Plenty Lodge on Great Ex­uma in the Ba­hamas. It brought to­gether a cou­ple dozen fly fish­er­men with a teach­ing staff of the world’s top guides, fly cast­ers and fly ty­ers for a week of classes and fishing. It was so suc­cess­ful that he ex­panded the con­cept to big­ger game.

He es­tab­lished his first Bill­fish School with the help of Tim Choate, then owner of Fins and Feath­ers in Costa Rica and, later, Gu­atemala. Jor­dan worked with the lodge’s top cap­tains and mates to establish the tech­niques to at­tract, tease, cast and fight bill­fish on fly tackle. It was very dif­fer­ent from trolling con­ven­tional tackle and baits, but once the ba­sics were in place, they would hone them to the point that the hookup ra­tio in the en­su­ing years soared.

Jor­dan started bring­ing in small groups of clients to teach them how to fly-fish for the abun­dant Pa­cific sail­fish found along the Cen­tral Amer­i­can coast. Each group would spend three days fishing with Jor­dan, along with two days of in-depth in­struc­tion. The sheer numbers of sail­fish en­coun­tered of­fered every client the op­por­tu­nity to catch mul­ti­ple bill­fish on one trip.

I fished with Jor­dan at his orig­i­nal Bone­fish School in Ex­uma, the first Sail­fish School in Costa Rica and, more re­cently, at Casa Vieja, Gu­atemala, where the school re­sides to­day. With that back­ground, I was primed for our most re­cent ad­ven­ture fishing the FADS (fish

ag­gre­gat­ing de­vices) off Costa Rica at his

Blue Mar­lin School.

While Jor­dan was hon­ing the tech­niques to tease, cast and hook bill­fish, ad­vances in tackle were greatly im­prov­ing the abil­ity to fight them. Thin, gel-spun braid for back­ing made it pos­si­ble to pack enough line onto fly reels to chal­lenge big­ger game while re­duc­ing the line’s drag in the wa­ter. Dra­matic im­prove­ments in drag sys­tems gave the an­gler the abil­ity to make the minute changes in pres­sure set­tings needed to move up from sails to mar­lin.

Jor­dan, with world-renowned bill­fish cap­tain Ron Hamlin, per­fected fail-proof con­nec­tions that bring to­gether his sys­tem of back­ing, monofil­a­ment top­shot, shoot­ing head and leader that in­cor­po­rates the class tip­pet and Ma­son hard monofil­a­ment bite leader. Each leader is as­sem­bled to con­form to IGFA re­quire­ments. He uses TFO Blue­wa­ter SG Se­ries rods, which he de­signed for the com­pany, and Mako fly reels by Charl­ton for their smooth, re­peat­able drag sys­tems that al­low for mark­ing pre­sets so the an­gler knows ex­actly how much pres­sure is be­ing ap­plied.

“Drag set­ting is crit­i­cal,” Jor­dan says. “You can set the drag at 6 pounds for sail­fish and just leave it there, but try that with a blue mar­lin, and it will break the 20-pound tip­pet on the first run every time. The ini­tial set­ting for blues is 1 pound to pre­vent tip­pet break­age and to let the sink­ing fly line trail be­low and be­hind the fish, cre­at­ing just enough down­ward pull to help keep it danc­ing on the sur­face as much as pos­si­ble.”

The Mar­lin Dance

Catch­ing a sail or mar­lin on the fly is a chore­ographed dance that re­quires a troop of tal­ented peo­ple. Jor­dan de­vel­oped many of the tech­niques in con­junc­tion with top cap­tains and mates. For them, catch­ing sail­fish and smaller mar­lin species has be­come com­mon­place. With Jor­dan aboard to teach the an­gler how to fit into the rou­tine, re­sults are as­sured for sail­fish and lesser mar­lin species.

The ra­tio of those bill­fish that tease to the boat, take the fly, and are fought and re­leased is ex­tremely high, but when you up the game to blue mar­lin all bets are off. The fish’s size, speed and power dra­mat­i­cally in­crease the vari­ables that can cause the an­gler to lose the fish. Even tak­ing that into con­sid­er­a­tion, every an­gler who has ac­com­pa­nied Jor­dan at his Blue Mar­lin Schools in Costa Rica dur­ing the past three years has caught and re­leased at least one blue, and most have achieved mul­ti­ple fish dur­ing their three-day so­journs. From Jor­dan’s home base at Los Sueños Re­sort and Ma­rina, we boarded Dra­gin Fly on a Mon­day at midafter­noon. The boat cruised slowly for a first-light ar­rival at a seamount 140 miles off­shore. The sub­merged moun­tain rose from the sea floor thou­sands of feet be­low to ap­prox­i­mately 1,000 feet at its crest. Deep-wa­ter cur­rents strik­ing the seamounts gen­er­ate nu­tri­ent-rich up­wellings and plank­ton blooms, an ideal en­vi­ron­ment.

Two FADS had been de­ployed about a mile apart on op­po­site ends of the peak, each teth­ered to the bot­tom with mas­sive con­crete blocks and a se­ries of 300-foot sec­tions of cable with nu­mer­ous floats. The fi­nal float is set at 90 feet, where stream­ers cre­ate a con­gre­gat­ing point for schools of bait­fish and small tuna, a bill­fish sta­ple.

This is only part of a vast, un­der­wa­ter moun­tain range that ex­tends from 80 to 150 miles off the Pa­cific coast of Costa Rica, and dozens of sim­i­lar FADS have been strate­gi­cally placed along it, cre­at­ing the hottest blue mar­lin fish­ery in the world. (This past sum­mer, two U.S. an­glers fishing blue mar­lin aboard Dra­gin Fly had one of the best trips Jor­dan has ex­pe­ri­enced. In three days, they raised 46 fish, got 23 to bite the fly and re­leased 15.)

We would fish this one seamount for three days, sleep­ing as the boat drifted on a sea an­chor in dark­ness.

Dur­ing the first two days of trolling with just three teasers de­ployed, the boat raised 46 blue mar­lin that mates Berto and Roberto teased into the pat­tern. Twenty ate our flies, and we man­aged to catch and re­lease four, a 20 per­cent con­ver­sion ra­tio, which is ex­cel­lent, ac­cord­ing to our host.

Af­ter los­ing seven straight, I didn’t have to wait long for an­other shot. Mar­lin popped up fast and fu­ri­ous in the pat­tern. A hot fish of about 150 pounds charged the spread, and Berto and Roberto teased it to within 30 feet of the tran­som. Smith pulled the boat out of gear and yelled, “Cast!” I dropped the fly to the right and slightly be­hind the fish from my po­si­tion in the port corner of the cock­pit. The cast found its mark, the take was ag­gres­sive, the hook set was solid, and the first run was blis­ter­ing. I had the drag set at just 1 pound so the fish couldn’t break the tip­pet. The sink­ing line trail­ing be­low and be­hind it kept the mar­lin on the sur­face for an ex­tended dis­play of ac­ro­bat­ics, which few fish can match. Then it went deep and held there, test­ing back­ing, fly line, leader — every con­nec­tion strained. The weak­est link was the slen­der 20-pound tip­pet. Jor­dan calmly coached me to in­crease the drag pres­sure as Smith worked the boat in an at­tempt to an­gle the fish back to the sur­face.

There is no fre­netic back­ing down on these fish at crazy speeds, as with con­ven­tional tackle, be­cause the reels of­fer no me­chan­i­cal ad­van­tage. One turn of the han­dle is one rev­o­lu­tion of the spool, and the an­gler can only pick up line so fast. You fight these fish with min­i­mal aid from the boat.

When the fish wouldn’t budge, Jor­dan in­structed me to go to free-spool and let the weighted line sink be­low the fish a lit­tle. The minute pres­sure pulling down worked, and the fish made its move back to the sur­face. With the drag back to 3 pounds, I was ready to take ad­van­tage of the moment. The backand-forth with bursts of speed and jump­ing went on for an­other 10 min­utes be­fore I was able to bring the fish close to the boat. A lit­tle more ef­fort, and the last of the fly line was back on the reel, the leader inside the rod tip. Roberto grabbed the leader, brought the fish close, billed it and re­moved the fly. Mis­sion ac­com­plished.

Later in the day, with the sun dip­ping to­ward the hori­zon, I got an­other shot at a much larger fish, which I caught and re­leased. Both Jor­dan and the cap­tain agreed that it was about 270 pounds, and it was even more ac­ro­batic and bel­liger­ent than my first. But tech­nique and per­sis­tence won out. I had done what very few an­glers would ever at­tempt, and I’d ac­com­plished it with my friend, the guru of big-game fly fishing, at my side.

Its speed, strength and stamina put the blue mar­lin firmly at the apex.

Jake Jor­dan (left) and North Carolina guide Brian Horsley dis­cuss the mer­its of fly pat­terns.

Jor­dan honed his tech­nique and tested his tackle on thou­sands of Pa­cific sail­fish.

Noth­ing can pre­pare the unini­ti­ated for what en­sues when they hook a blue mar­lin on a fly.

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