Capt. Brad Philipps returns to the bountiful waters of Guatemala and closes in on 40,000 career billfish releases.

Sitting on the flybridge with Capt. Brad Philipps at the wheel, pulling baits and teasers across Guatemala’s offshore grounds—the most productive billfish waters in the world—I keep thinking about lions. “You don’t want to be a male lion,” the 53-year-old South African had said the night before as we ate fresh wahoo under a palapa at his Billfish Inn.

Young male lions are pushed out of the pride and forced to live and hunt alone or in small groups, Philipps explained. Half of them don’t reach adulthood. If they do survive, the males will seek out an alpha to battle in hopes of taking over a pride. Alpha males must fight for their standing day after day. Their time on top is brutal and brief. While the life of a charter captain is far more comfortable than that of a male lion, I see vague similarities, battling a constant onslaught of obstacles such as boat issues, weather days and fuel prices. It takes determination, passion and hard work to stay on top.

Fishing with Philipps in Guatemala isn’t just fun; it will make you a better angler.

Photo: Mark Hatter

For more than two decades, Philipps has been an alpha lion of this fishery, amassing unthinkable billfish releases along with hardware and accolades—he has won The Billfish Foundation’s Top Overall Release Captain award 16 times. In 2016, his best year, boats he captained released 3,671 billfish in Guatemala and another 42 blue marlin in Cape Verde. It was the best season ever seen in the offshore fishing world until this past year, when the crew on Big Oh released an astounding 4,057 billfish.

When Covid hit, Philipps, his Guatemalan wife, Cindy, and their two children, Lyndsey and Darren, went to South Africa, where they own Toro River Lodges, a safari operation inside Makalali Game Reserve in Gravelotte. For three long years, Philipps was out of the offshore game. The 2023 season was meant to be his triumphant return to Guatemala, and anglers who had logged some incredible days with Philipps couldn’t wait to fish with him again. When he reached out and said he had a cancellation this past winter, I couldn’t say no. He invited me and our mutual friend Eros Cattaneo, owner of Bluefin USA apparel and the head of Alutecnos rods and reels, to spend a couple of days on the water and visit the Philipps’ property in the colonial city of Antigua.

Capt. Brad Philipps and his crew average 16 billfish releases a day when fishing conventional gear.

Photo: Mark Hatter

For Philipps, resuming the charter operation wasn’t easy. It took a lot of work and money to get his 40-foot Gamefisherman, Decisive, up to snuff after all that time on the hard. And months away from his family, who stayed in South Africa, took a toll. But when a blue marlin materialized behind a bridge teaser and zigged across the spread like an Olympic sprinter, the enthusiasm and drive of a much younger Brad Philipps emerged. The charismatic captain has still got it.

“You’ve got to hang on to that youthful exuberance, that passion,” he says when asked about the 10-hour days on the boat. “If you are not absolutely hooked on this game, you are not going to manage it. It’s going to transfer. Your anglers are going to see it. You have to wake up every day with enthusiasm.”

A Long Journey

Growing up in South Africa, Philipps took an unconventional path to Guatemala. He began his fishing career launching “ski boats,” outboard-powered fishing boats, from the beach into the surf. The main target was snapper, but Philipps craved larger fish. “I used to dream of owning or captaining a ski boat,” he says. “I’d say, if I could catch one sailfish or a blue marlin every now and again, I’d be lucky.”

After serving in the military and graduating from college, Philipps began traveling to fishing hot spots around the globe. He met Tim Choate in Bom Bom, a small island off Equatorial Guinea, in the mid-1990s and spent a year running a boat for him in Brazil. An angler and entrepreneur, Choate was one of the first people to establish charter operations in Costa Rica and the Galapagos. Choate recognized the potential of Guatemala and opened Fins ’n Feathers in the late 1990s. The lodge quickly grew to prominence and put this fishery on the map. In 2000, Choate brought Philipps to Guatemala to run Pelagian, a classic 37-foot Rybovich. The boat is still in Guatemala, now captained by Jeffrey Garcia, one of Philipps’ former mates.

Capt. Brad Philipps

Photo: Charlie Levine

“The fishery was insane,” Philipps says, “and I was motivated and driven. I really loved what I was doing, and it showed.” He worked alongside offshore legend Ron Hamlin and peers such as Chris Sheeder, whom Philipps often battled for top boat on the dock until Sheeder’s passing in 2021 at age 48 from pancreatic cancer.

“A fishery like Guatemala raises your game because you’re fishing alongside some very good fishermen,” Philipps says. “You ever throw crabs in a bucket? One crab gets to the top, and the rest of the crabs pull it back into the bucket. Here, when a guy gets to the top, it kind of raises everyone up to that level.”

The fleet still works together—captains talk openly on the radio about the bite, no matter which lodge they’re fishing out of. It’s always been that way. It makes more sense to have all the boats catching fish with happy customers on deck.

When Choate closed Fins ’n Feathers around 2005, Philipps and his wife decided to start their own business. That’s when I first fished these waters. I had met Philipps at the Miami Boat Show, but I was already well aware of him. I asked him about catching sailfish on fly, a skill that Philipps and his crew had taken to newfound heights—they once caught 51 sails on fly in a single day. He invited me to Guatemala to give it a go.

The Casa Philipps operation in Antigua isn’t only about flying billfish. It offers guests the opportunity to immerse themselves in the history and culture of Guatemala.

Photo: Mark Hatter

On the morning of our first fishing day, Philipps stood with me in the cockpit and went over the entire process and the gear. He explained how they troll with one downrigger down and the other one up to leave room for the angler to cast. When a sailfish or marlin appears in the spread, the mates use hookless baits and teasers to draw the billfish closer to the boat. When the fish is right off the transom, the captain takes the boat out of gear and yells, “Cast!” The angler then places the large popper by the teaser just as the mates yank the teaser out of the water. If all goes well, the fish switches to the fly for a dramatic take. Setting the hook depends on how the fish crashes the fly; you either pull against the direction of the fish or, as Philipps prefers, pull the rod straight back. It was a lot to take in.

“You really think I’ll catch one?” I asked.

“Nah, mate,” he said, “I think you’ll catch ten!”

He was right. Seas were calm, the sky was clear, and the fish were hungry. By lunch, I’d caught ten sails on fly and broke off a few more. Philipps came down from the bridge and fished alongside me. It was one of those days that will forever live in my memory. The kind of day that brings you back, hoping to repeat it again and again.

Sitting on the bridge all these years later, we reminisce about that day as we chug through some uncharacteristically rough water and gusty winds to catch a few sails and mahi-mahi. Philipps says he averages 16 billfish releases a day when fishing baits, and between five and six fish a day on the fly. No other location comes close to that.

Making angling dreams come true keeps the passion stoked on “Decisive”.

Photo: Mark Hatter

“If you’re lucky and carry a golden horseshoe, you might see above-average fishing,” he says. “If you come enough, you’re going to see some really great days. By the law of averages, you’re also going to see a slow day or two, but I’ll guarantee you’re going to have a good trip. We’ll look after you. You’re going to eat well, and you’re on a fine boat with the best crew. I can’t guarantee how many you catch, but I’ll guarantee that I will put effort into trying to teach you and that you leave a slightly better angler.”

His clients can attest. “I’ve never seen anyone put so much preparation into everything they do, from the baits to the tackle to the boat. His boys put on fresh line almost every day,” says Mark Hatter, a longtime fly fisherman and photojournalist who has fished with Philipps since the early days of his charter operation. “Some people just seem to be more connected to the water than others. That’s the way Brad is.”

Cattaneo, who has sponsored Philipps with rods and reels since the beginning and fished with him numerous times, agrees. “I could catch sailfish in Miami,” he says, “but it’s not the same. Here, you get to fish on this great boat with a great captain. We come to fish with Brad.”

Closing in on 40,000 Billfish

You can catch billfish all year in Guatemala, but the bulk of the fishing takes place from October to May, before the summer rains start. Philipps wrapped up his fishing in March and was sitting at 39,300 career billfish releases. If all goes well, he should hit 40,000 next season, after spending a few months in Africa.

“I didn’t set out thinking there’s a number I want to get to,” he says. “You catch the fish one at a time. I try not to focus on the number because when the number becomes more important than the day, or the number becomes more important than the angler that’s booked you, it’s a different value.”

When I ask about the key to his success, he points to the two mates on deck, Omar and Waldo. This fishery requires a team. In that way, it truly is a sport. This isn’t “snag-and-drag” lure trolling. The mates never stop moving. They’re rigging baits, teasing fish, changing leaders, pulling bird’s nests out of reels, making food and keeping clients happy. The dance hits a crescendo when a marlin shows up in the spread. As adrenaline builds, they calmly communicate where the fish is, then man the teasers and tell the angler when to drop back a pitch bait. Seeing a blue marlin suck down a bonito rigged on a circle hook like it’s a Tic Tac and shoot out of the ocean like a missile is, in my mind, the ultimate angler experience on a fishing boat.

Catching a marlin, whether it’s your first or your one-thousandth, ignites an eternal flame inside you. This is what keeps anglers coming back to Guatemala and keeps the fleet in business, providing jobs and opportunity for locals. “That one catch is worth about $300,” Philipps says. “When you equate it to what that angler spent on that charter package, that fish may be worth $600 or $800. Now, if a commercial guy kills it, he sells it for $15.”

Photo: Mark Hatter

In Guatemala, it’s illegal to kill sailfish, but the regulation is loosely enforced. Crews commonly encounter longlines offshore. Philipps believes the younger generation is helping educate commercial fishermen based solely on the economic opportunities they’re missing out on. If the son of a commercial fisherman starts working on a charter boat, his daily tip equates to three or four days of killing fish for market.

The charter fleet also provides a ladder of opportunity that begins as a washdown boy, cleaning the boats when they return to the dock. Reliable, hard workers can move up to second mate and, if they show promise, first mate. If they continue to excel, they may be given the opportunity to ascend the ladder to the flybridge and become a captain, earning ten times what their fathers make. Two of Philipps’ former mates now run boats, and many of the Guatemalan captains at other lodges came up much in the same way. Philipps and the other captains in Guatemala are mentors who put a lot of effort into the growth of these young men.

“It takes a team to catch fish,” Philipps says. “I spend more time with my mates than I do with my family by 10-to-1.” It’s a special bond, and the captain drives the crew to consistently overdeliver. At the end of the day, that’s why they’re so good. “It’s a tough game, being a professional sport fisherman,” Philipps says. “Everyone thinks it’s all romantic—you’re just out there having fun.”

And most days on the water are fun, especially when you’re surrounded by smiling faces. Though we fell short of hitting Philipps’ daily average on our outing, we still had a blast. We got to be part of an elite team, pulled on a few sails, brought a mahi home for supper and raised a blue marlin.

That evening, we drove to Antigua, sat in the Jacuzzi as the sun dipped behind an active volcano, and listened to Philipps talk about the wilds of Africa. I can tell he’s eager to get back to his family. But at the same time, he is mentally preparing for the work that needs to be done before next season’s bite. There’s plenty of roar in this lion’s heart.

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This article originally appeared in the June/July 2024 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.


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