Published Jun 13. 2016 - 5 years ago
Updated or edited Oct 28. 2021

Lucky 13

It takes more than the right gear to land a marlin on fly.

Thomas Gorman

If you Google, “marlin on the fly,” you'll see a bunch of stoked up, bloody fishermen showing off their fly fishing prowess. For a lot of hard core fly fishers, a marlin is a bucket list thing. And, even though a Google search proves that it's possible, don't be fooled. It ain't easy. First of all, you have to go to a place where marlin live. So my buddy, who's a fly freak in Tulsa, definitely has to leave Oklahoma. Then you have to find a captain who doesn't mind fly line slinging around everywhere. Let's face it, non-fly fishermen don't appreciate it when your fly zips an inch past their ear. Sissies!

Of course,

you also have to find the fish. Then there's the required skill set one must have to hook a marlin, then get it to the boat. And, even if all of that works, you'd still better be damn lucky. Hard-core fly fisherman Thomas Gorman had a lot of luck but, unfortunately, much of it was bad. For years, he traveled the world trying to hook a marlin on his fly rod. His success rate was zero. So, on the bright side, things could only get better. Gorman grew up in Chicago fly fishing in freshwater. In 1974, he visited Hong Kong for a few months and ended up never leaving. Well, to be more specific, he never moved back to Chicago. He definitely left China on countless fishing trips to pursue his marlin dream. He has fished Australia, Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica, Florida, Malaysia, Guatemala and everywhere in between. In his travels, Gorman has caught lots of blue water fish on the fly, but the one that always eluded him was the coveted marlin.

...don't be fooled. It ain't easy


in January 2014, he booked a trip to the Panama Big Game Fishing Club with one goal: to get his first shot at a marlin on the fly. He spent months tying 12-in. flashy flies with removable popper heads. He rigged lines, leader, backing and connections to heavy 12- to 16-wt. gear. In short, he was ready. But the airlines were not. He checked three bags, one of which was his rod case that contained six rods. After some 20 hours of flying from Hong Kong to Panama City, two of his bags arrived, but the rod case was a no show.

Thomas Gorman
Thomas Gorman
Cool pool
Cool pool
Thomas Gorman

Getting to and from

Panama City to PBGFC requires a one-hour flight to the city of David, then a one-hour drive, then a short boat ride. The airline said they'd do their best to forward his bag to the resort when, and if, they found it. Gorman figured, quite understandably, that he'd never see those rods again. Dejected, he boarded the plane for David and tried to forget the months he'd spent preparing for this moment. For the first three days of the trip, he and his group caught black marlin, blue marlin, sailfish, yellowfin tuna up to 200 lbs., a lot of big dorado, and plenty of big pargo and roosterfish—all on conventional fishing gear.
“My mind was still preoccupied with fly fishing and the months of preparation and anticipation building up to this trip,” Gorman said. “No doubt about it, this was an area with plenty of big fish, inshore and offshore. I felt confident I could have hooked a marlin on the fly.”

On the fourth day,

like a miracle from God, his rods arrived. He rigged up a 12-wt. and a 14-16 wt. outfit, the former intended for sails and the latter for marlin. They headed to nearby Montuosa Island, locally known as “Monster Island” because of the big marlin, which are attracted to its perennial huge schools of tuna. At long last, it was marlin time.
Catching a marlin on the fly requires a bait and switch plan. You bring them in with bait then pull it out of the water so you can present them with the switch—your shiny fly. Just south of Montuosa Island, the captain and mate deployed two hookless bonito as the long teasers, placed about 30 yards from the stern of the boat to act as skip-baits. The short teaser, a 20-in. Custom-made, hookless marlin lure with a tuna belly bait sewed onto it, was run to the inside of the long starboard teaser and placed about 10 yards back.

Gorman's hands

were sweating with anticipation as he stripped line off of his 14-16-wt. Thomas & Thomas to allow for roughly a 12-yd. cast. The 12-in. red, white and pink popper fly he had tied was ready for action. In less than 30 minutes, a big blue marlin—estimated by Captain Tati and Mate Narcisso at 300 lbs.—aggressively charged the short teaser, which was the 20-in. marlin lure. The big, blue female whacked the lure mercilessly and repeatedly, ripping the belly bait off in the process.

With the marlin lit up,

Captain Tati yanked in the short teaser, put the engine into neutral and signaled Gorman to cast. The pressure was on, but he landed the fly just far enough to the side and behind the fish that when she began searching for the missing teaser, she spotted the big popper fly and switched her attention to it. For once, it all happened according to the script. She turned, inhaled the fly, and as she began heading away in the opposite direction from the boat., Gorman set the hook. “I gripped the line between my gloved and wrapped fingers and the rod butt and yanked it directly backwards away from the fish,” he said. “It felt like a solid hook set, and even with veterinary tape wrapped around the index and second fingers of my right hand, her rocket-like acceleration after the hookset burned my skin.”

Thomas Gorman

“What I realized

after the initial blistering series of runs was the value of having a gimbal butt on a fly rod when fighting a big marlin,” Gorman said. “Apart from the comfort, it offers more leverage in lifting and regaining line.” The fight lasted two hours and 20 minutes. Captain Tati and Mate Narcisso did exactly what was needed when it was needed. Narcisso leadered the fish 12 times, but each time it was followed by a powerful surge away from the boat, taking Gorman back into the backing. As fate would have it, the 13th time was lucky. Having some 600 yards of Hatch backing gave Gorman comfort, along with having all of the right gear and being completely prepared. Narcisso was able to bring the fish to the boat for a quick photo then release her. The 300-lb blue quickly swam away. Finally, after years of trying, Gorman had his marlin. During the next two days, he only hooked up once more. That time it was a big, black marlin that broke his line and took his lucky lure into the depths of the blue Pacific. Still, the man who first fly fished 40 years ago in a lake in Illinois, was leaving Panama a very happy man. Despite the bad luck at the outset, the Universe finally smiled upon Gorman who, like any great fisherman, learns from his mistakes.

“Next time,

I'll make sure to bring at least one rod as carry-on baggage.” That's not lucky. That's just smart.

This article was first published in Guy Harvey Magazine and has been republished with permission

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