Epic Isla

Epic Isla

Epic Isla

It all started with a text. The South Carolina duck opener was the next morning, and I was out in the garage straightening some of my decoys and getting things in order. My phone buzzed with a message from my son Haywood’s friend, Skyler Hribar: “Hey Mr. Scott … we are taking Wallis’s boat to Isla for February and there are days that nobody will be there, would you like to bring some guys and come fish for sails?” The response was quick and simple: “Hell yes.”

Just a month earlier, we had spent a few days up in northern Saskatchewan with Skyler. He had been working as a guide for Jeff Wright of Wrightway Outfitters in St. Walburg, Saskatchewan. It was his second year working up there, and Skyler had come back telling us all how awesome the hunting was, so we decided to try it out. He had not exaggerated. We limited out everyday on geese and ducks and had a ton of fun. So, saying yes to this trip was a no-brainer.

Skyler was living the dream life. He worked full-time for Wallis Higginbotham, owner of several BMW and Mercedes dealerships across the country. Wallis lived in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, and Skyler works as his mate on the boat, in addition to keeping his fishing gear and boats in top shape. Wallis is friends with Jeff and lets Skyler head to Canada to help out in late August through October.

Because Wallis is such an avid outdoorsman, Skyler follows the boat and many of Wallis’s other sporting adventures. Skyler is an excellent outdoorsman himself and is equally skilled with a shotgun or a fishing rod. Skyler and Haywood had known each other since they were 8 years old, when they played soccer together, and as they have become older, they have both developed a deep love of the outdoors and enjoy hunting and fishing together. Some of my fondest memories of Haywood as a kid are of him and Skyler deer hunting together in South Texas, where we were fortunate to have a great hunting lease. I knew that Haywood would have to be included on this trip.

While I myself am not a huge blue-water fisherman, I have a few friends who have talked about the incredible sailfish bite off Isla Mujeres in February. I thought this might be a great opportunity. My first priority was to see which of my clients might want to use this opportunity to take some awesome photographs and videos to use in their marketing efforts. I jumped on my phone and, within about 15 minutes, Fish Hippie, Williams Knife Co. and Hook+Gaff had all quickly agreed that they wanted to either go or participate by sending product.

We would need a crew of models, photographers and videographers to join us. The Brandon Agency Outdoor Group photographers Craig Francis and George Douglas would join myself and Haywood, along with Fish Hippie owners Ben Webb and Drew Denny, investor John Honor and frequent Fish Hippie model Capt. Jordan Pate.

Between duck season and trade shows, the time before and after Christmas seemed to fly by, and before we knew it, February 6th was right around the corner. It seemed like all of our flights came from different places — some from Charlotte, some from Charleston, Haywood’s from Atlanta and mine from Myrtle Beach. We all arrived around the same time, and we quickly gathered up and loaded our gear into our pre-arranged van that would take us to Puerto Juarez for the 30-minute ferry ride over to Isla. The ferry ride was fun, and our anticipation was high as we had an early report from Skyler that the fishing was picking up. We arrived on Isla and grabbed a cab to the Nautibeach Condos, our accommodations for the next three days.

We unloaded and checked into our rooms. The condos were nice but basic — perfect for our purposes. We had room to spread out our gear, and we could walk to food, drinks and, most importantly, the boat. We promptly got settled and headed down to the beach bar to enjoy a few drinks and the warm ocean breeze. The view was incredible, and we enjoyed catching up with each other while waiting for the group that was fishing on the Grand Slam to arrive back at the dock.

At 5:30 p.m., Skyler shot us a text saying they were about 30 minutes out, so we headed out to the dock. The group fishing included Skyler’s Dad Ronnie Hribar and several guys from Myrtle Beach. They had caught six sails and jumped several others, a few blackfin tuna and a nice wahoo. They took the tuna and wahoo up to the Bally Hoo Restaurant, where they would cook them up for our dinner that night. 

That evening, we enjoyed the incredibly fresh fish, camaraderie and maybe a few too many drinks. From there, we headed to Hidalgo Street, which is a super-cool area on Isla that reminded me of 6th Street in Austin, Texas. The street is closed to vehicles and is lined with restaurants, bars and vendors. Even though it was a Monday night, the place was hopping, and Skyler took us to The Stump Bar, which is famous for its Scorpion Shooters. If you are familiar with eating the worm in a bottle of tequila, this is similar, except replace the worm with a real scorpion with the stinger cut off right before you put it in your mouth. The scorpion is a little chewy, so you can’t just swallow it like you can the worm. You have to really “chew” it first. That, of course, makes it a little more fun as you watch everyone’s face as they chomp down on the crusty texture. Things went a little downhill from there, and we drug ourselves back to our rooms not too long after midnight.  

I am usually a pretty early riser, but as my alarm starting blaring at 5 a.m., I immediately regretted the scorpion shooter and the extra tequila shot I had before we went to bed. We grabbed some coffee and our gear, then headed out. The streets were dark, and on our half-mile walk, we passed many locals as they were getting ready for the day.

As we stepped aboard the Grand Slam, the sun had not yet cracked the horizon and the group was eager to get out on the water. Capt. Dave turned over the single-engine diesel, fired up the Seakeeper and pulled away from the dock. The fishing had been poor close to the island, so we made a two-hour run to the north, where the bait had started to gather in greater numbers. The anticipation was high, for we were all dying to get our first look at a sailfish, hoping and wishing to see that first sail come into the baits.

Our Captain was Dave and he had grown up as the son of a fishing-boat captain out of Daytona Beach and fished his own commercial boat in addition to captaining Wallis’s new Forbes 50’. Dave hit the throttle, and the Grand Slam picked up speed as we left the bay and headed north with the sun beginning to rise over the island. Our first run was no cakewalk, as the tide was against the wind and the ride got a little rougher as we made our way. As the boat crashed into wave after wave, it sent water splashing over the bow, but we were so excited that we couldn’t have cared less. Skyler spent the time rigging baits and making sure that the tackle was ready to go. We had given him some new knives from Williams Knife Co., a new performance shirt from Fish Hippie and a Sportfisher II watch from Hook+Gaff so he would look the part in all of our photos. As soon as Dave pulled back on the throttle, everyone moved into action. Little did we know how great this day would be.

Skyler set up the flat lines, outriggers, long lines and dredges. We began trolling and patiently waiting for the first fish. We could see birds working bait, and our excitement was building. Before we knew it, the flat lines exploded off the clips.  Haywood and Ben quickly grabbed the Shimano rods and began to work on the fish. Immediately, we knew something wasn’t right. The fish were not jumping and giving us a show, but instead pulling endless amounts of drag. We quickly realized that we had hooked two massive Jacks. Haywood battled his, making no progress for at least the first 10 minutes. So, he cranked down on the drag and started pumping as hard as he could, finally bringing the 40-pound beast to the boat. As we cut the fish loose, we were jacked (pun intended) to have finally caught our first fish, but knew that they were not the fish we came here to catch. So we kept trolling.

We got the lines reset and, not two minutes later, Capt. Dave screamed, “Sail on the right dredge”. Skyler moved into action, swiftly grabbing the pitch bait and drifting it back to the hungry sail. Before we knew it, Skyler’s perfect presentation had hooked our first sail of the day. Then, out of nowhere, the two long lines went berserk. Before we could grab the rods, the flat line ripped off. The Grand Slam was quadrupled up. Organized chaos erupted. Capt. Dave and Skyler did a great job of keeping us calm (as calm as possible) and did their best to keep everyone out of each other’s way as each angler battled his respective fish.

This wasn’t Jordan’s first rodeo in the blue water, and he made short work of his fish, only to discover it was a bonito.  John had the same result, and our dream of a quad sail release was quickly dashed. But we were quickly redeemed, as we knew George was locked up on a sail, as the fish put on a show nearly 200 yards from the boat. We quickly focused on Ben’s unknown fish, as his was closer to the boat. Ben had worked him almost to the transom when the water boiled from beneath Ben’s rod and the big sail erupted, putting on a dazzling display of jumps and runs. The entire team worked together to get the first sail to the boat, and as Skyler made a clean release, we high-fived each other and let out some loud whoops. Our attention then turned to George, who was locked up on an impressive sailfish that was still taking drag 200 yards from the boat.

Minutes went by, and George began to gain line on the big sail. Capt. Dave aggressively backed the boat down on the fish, taking any advantage he could get. With the leader in sight, Skyler swiftly grabbed it, wrapping the monofilament line around his hand and entering a vicious tug of war. It’s officially a catch, as he reached down and cut him loose. We all erupt in cheers. A double on our first encounter, and it’s still not 9 a.m.

This day was long from over. Everyone on the boat would land a sailfish, including a triple hookup where we successfully brought all three fish to the boat. John hooked up on one big sail that literally swam straight at the boat in what Capt. Dave would later describe as the fastest catch and release ever on the Grand Slam. For many in our group, it was their first-ever sailfish. We would finish an incredible 13/15 on sails with a few jacks and bonitos sprinkled in. You hear of 25- and 30-fish days in Isla, but this was our day, and to us, the 15 hookups was epic.

Around 3:30 p.m., we began to pull in the lines and started to make our way back to Isla. We all grabbed a beer and enjoyed our two-hour ride home, laughing and sharing the stories of the day over and over. We got back to the dock in high spirits, eager for a big dinner and maybe a few more scorpion shots.

After washing the boat, we all headed over to Café Miramar, famous for its giant live lobsters and beautiful beachside dining. We enjoyed a fantastic meal of lobster and fish, then headed back to The Stump Bar for another fun night.

5 a.m. felt like 2 a.m. as we fought off hangovers and lack of sleep. The morning’s story line was similar … early alarm, a dark walk to the boat, a beautiful sunrise and a bumpy ride out. However, this day would not be quite the same as the day before. The sails were not as aggressive and active as they had been earlier. Instead, they were lethargic and uninterested. Skyler and Capt. Dave gave us everything they had, but the fish just did not cooperate. Such is fishing. We managed to get eight fish hooked up, but we were only able to get three to the boat. Even though the competitive angler in all of us was a little disappointed in the result, we all knew we would have been ecstatic had we had a three-sailfish day back home.

As the day wound down and we pulled in the lines for the last time, we again grabbed some beers, and Capt. Dave hit the throttle to head home. Only smiles and laughter filled the salon, as we enjoyed the ride home together. Approaching the dock, a bittersweet feeling came over us. We didn’t want to leave such a beautiful place, but we all had obligations back home. I had already changed Haywood’s plane ticket home once to give him one extra day of fishing. The Fish Hippie guys had more trade shows to get ready for, and we had thousands of images and videos to review.

One last dinner would round out our trip. We dined right next to the dock at Muelle 7, where we all enjoyed an incredible dinner of whole fried hog snapper, fresh guacamole and vegetables. We started looking at our photos and shared our experiences from the trip. We all agreed that this was one of the most fantastic places we had ever been and that we would all be back.

The next morning, we caught a ride on the Grand Slam as it went to the mainland to pick up some new arriving guests. We all climbed up on the flybridge and enjoyed one last ride as Isla shrank in our wake. We unloaded and headed to the airport. As we all shook hands one last time before heading to our flights, there was an even deeper bond between us all created by this epic trip — and we knew that we would all be back.