March 30, 2022
In most sports, there is a challenge that borders on impossible. A grand slam of sorts. For golfers and tennis players, it’s all four majors over a career. Mountain climbers try to summit all seven highest peaks on each continent. Baseball pitchers aim for a perfect game. But nobody likes a grand slam more than the fly-fishing community.
The best-known saltwater slam is from the shallows of the Caribbean—a bonefish, permit, and tarpon in the same day. However, the International Game Fish Association (IGFA) recognizes at least six slams, ranging from bass to tuna, and each comes with its own set of rules about tippet, gear, and lure or fly selection. Many anglers spend their fortunes and their lives in pursuit of these slams.
For a small group of rabid fly fishers, the journey to catch all nine species of billfish on fly is all encompassing. The IGFA calls it the Billfish Royal Slam on Fly, and it comes with a few rules and regulations. Most important, anglers must hook and play fish on maximum 20-pound-test tippet with less than 12 inches of shock leader. All nine of these billfish species can range into hundreds of pounds, and it takes a delicate hand to land one safely on such light tackle.
In 2017, American fly fisher Martin Arostegui achieved the first known lifetime Billfish Royal Slam when he caught and released a striped marlin in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. After Arostegui’s accomplishment, there still remained one challenge for billfish anglers—to catch all nine species on fly in less than a year.
Kenyan fly fisher Jeremy Block was the first to get all nine billfish species in less than 12 months when he tagged and released a black marlin off the coast of Exmouth, Australia in April 2018. He crisscrossed the world from Hawaii to Australia, successfully landing an Atlantic blue marlin, white marlin, Atlantic sailfish, Pacific sailfish, Pacific blue marlin, broadbill swordfish, spearfish, black marlin, and striped marlin. He caught them all in 11 months and 10 days using an IGFA-approved 20-pound-test tippet. The sheer scope of this challenge is hard to imagine, but it all began late one night about 20 miles off the coast of Kenya.
The Start of the Billfish Royal Slam
In 1996, Block set out of Hemingway’s Resort in his home country of Kenya planning to catch the first ever broadbill swordfish on fly. For two years, Block and Capt. Richard Moller tested different fly patterns and techniques for broadbills, toiling night after night through glow sticks, trawler baits, and missed fish.
Conventional anglers told them it would be impossible to catch a broadbill using fly tackle. Broadbill swordfish feed hundreds of meters deep in the ocean. They rarely come near the surface, and when they do, it’s always at night.
The idea of catching one near the surface—with a fly—is laughable. But in 1998, Block successfully landed a 56-pound broadbill swordfish on 20-pound-test tippet. It was the first ever caught on fly adhering to IGFA rules, and it remains a tippet-class world record today. Block may not have known it at the time, but the seed for the Billfish Royal Slam had just been planted.
Two decades of fly fishing ensued. Block traveled all over the world, catching a 55-pound Atlantic salmon on the fabled Alta River in Norway, an Indo-Pacific permit in the Seychelles, and four more broadbill swordfish off the coast of Kenya.
In April of 2017, Block was on a trip to Guatemala with Capt. Brad Phillips. He managed to knock out two of the nine species that week, checking Pacific blue marlin and Pacific sailfish off the list. That was when Phillips suggested a lifetime Billfish Royal Slam. With the broadbill already boated, he pointed out that the hardest fish was already out of the way.
Block agreed, and boarded a flight to the Dominican Republic later that week to fish with Capt. Tim Richardson on Chaser. There, he broke off a hungry Atlantic blue marlin that engulfed the fly just behind the boat’s transom. Two days later, in colossal waves and wind, Block managed to tag and release the Atlantic blue and the white marlin he came for. It was April 30, 2017. With four of the billfish in the bag, he had five left on the list.
The next course of action was to go after a spearfish in the eastern Atlantic. His first choice was the Canary Islands off the coast of Spain, known as a hotspot for spearfish because many of the world records have been caught there. For Block, it turned up nothing. He then fished at home in Kenya, where a number of black marlin had been recently caught on bait. Again, he blanked.
It was mid-August 2017 when Block got a phone call about a hot spearfish bite off Sardinia, where a skipper reported an outstanding average of one fish per day using conventional gear. Together they were able to raise three fish, but no opportunity to get a fly in the water. His only consolation was a spearfish trip he already had booked to Hawaii.
In the meantime, it was on to Atlantic sailfish. Block traveled west across Africa to Angola, where he was able to hook and land his first Atlantic sailfish, notching up a world record on 12-pound-test tippet in the process. Capt. Iain Nicolson and crew were elated with the success, and Block had five of the fish he needed for the lifetime Billfish Royal Slam—four more to go. However, he still needed a broadbill swordfish if he had hopes of getting the same slam in less than 12 months.
A few days off Kiwayu Island in the north of Kenya yielded nothing, but Block hit the jackpot in Mombasa aboard the Shuwari (which means “calm” in Swahili) with skipper Bryan Matiba where he released his fifth broadbill, a 50-pounder on light tippet. Six fish down and three to go, with four months of the year left since the Indo-Pacific blue marlin that started it all on April 25, 2017.
Four days fishing back off Kiwayu Island in late January raised numerous striped marlin, but none were interested in a fly. A few weeks later, Block boarded his flight to Kona, Hawaii with spearfish on the mind. Within hours of touching down in Kona, he hooked two spearfish, but both came unbuttoned only seconds into the fight. It felt like a good sign that at least fish were around.
Two days passed with no fish. On the third day they rose a striped marlin but lost it. He lost another on the fifth day. Block was beginning to feel desperate. His trip was coming to a close, and to the chagrin of his long-suffering wife Caroline, he was thinking of extending it.
Near the end of his trip, a hot spearfish burst up into the wake of the boat and smashed the teaser. Capt. Chip van Mols and crew teased the fish in closer, and Block was able to hook and land a 40-pound short-billed spearfish, marking his lifetime Billfish Royal Slam of all nine species. There was no shortage of celebration. With two months left on the clock, all he needed was a striped and black marlin to complete the same slam in under a year.
The following day, Capt. van Mols got a text from Capt. Tim Dean in Port Stevens, Australia reporting that his crew had hooked 28 striped and black marlin in three days. Block got the news and decided to fly directly to Australia from Hawaii.
The next day, Block was watching teasers bounce across the wake of the Mauna Kea, skippered by Brent James in Australia’s northern waters about an hour outside of Sydney. By 3 P.M., they had hooked and released a striped marlin of about 150 pounds. Eight fish down, with only a black marlin left to go.
The following morning came with fresh wind and rough seas. At 9:45 A.M., a monster black marlin showed itself in the wake of the Mauna Kea. They watched it work the teaser, and sent a fly right to him. It was a sinking fly, and the fish inhaled it and peeled off line as it sounded toward the ocean floor. Was this the moment Block had been waiting for? It seemed unusual because the fish hadn’t jumped, but as it came closer, the truth settled in. A huge wahoo had come up from under the black marlin and stolen the fly! The disappointment was not eliminated by fresh wahoo sashimi later that day.
By March 2, things were starting to get serious. Due to the weather, they stayed inshore, fishing in only 40 to 70 meters of water. A neighboring boat managed four black marlin on bait, but Block and Capt. Brent James only raised two striped marlin in the afternoon. Block cast at both of them, but fortunately didn’t hook either of them as his reel wasn’t seated correctly and later fell off the reel seat and into the ocean.
On March 3, Block celebrated his wedding anniversary over the phone. It was his last day of fishing in Australia, and inclement weather barred any thought of an extension. That morning they raised, hooked, and landed a blue marlin. The crew was ecstatic, but it wasn’t the black marlin Block needed for his Billfish Royal Slam.
Back in Kenya, he spent a few days on the water with nothing to show for it. It became obvious that a return to Australia was necessary. Block says his wife even encouraged it so that they might be able to put this Billfish Royal Slam nonsense behind them.
Block arrived in Exmouth on April 4, only 22 days before the deadline. The flight touched down at 7:30 A.M. and Capt. Eddy Lawler and his crew Wes Jones and Riley Smith had lines in the water by 10:30 on the aptly named Black Marlin. Their spread was a queenfish on the long outrigger, a bigger queenfish at the end of a daisy chain from the bridge, and a dredge close by, handled by 16-year-old mate Smith.
Just before 2 P.M., a window shopper took a swipe at the teaser and disappeared back into the deep. Twenty minutes later a black marlin rose in the boat’s wake, following a queenfish to the stern as Riley and Wes brought the teasers in. “Out of gear!” Lawler yelled. Block cast, hooked up, and the massive black marlin walked across the boat’s wake. Two hours and ten minutes later, Block brought his ninth and final billfish to the boat. He accomplished his Billfish Royal Slam in less than 12 months. At around 250 pounds, the black marlin would have been an IGFA world record if it had been killed. Instead, Block tagged and released it.
Block and the crew were ecstatic, and acted accordingly at the bar that evening. He still had five days of fishing left with Capt. Lawler and his crew.
Jet-lagged and hungover, Block and the crew set out the next morning at daybreak. Block tied on 16-pound-test tippet—the same you might use for striped bass or permit—and set out to break a different sort of record. They rose another black marlin of about 100 pounds on the lighter tippet and after a one-hour fight, they tagged and released the fish, and Block promptly passed out on the deck.
Block remained unconscious for five minutes, then woke up to a frantic crew heading into port at full speed. He spent the afternoon connected to an intravenous drip at the local hospital. His prognosis was good. It seems that 36 hours of travel, a two-hour-plus fight with a 250-pound black marlin, an evening of celebration, and a record-breaking 108 degrees F. in Exmouth that day caused severe dehydration.
Lack of water couldn’t dampen the team’s spirits, so when the following day brought good weather they headed out with the goal of landing a world-record black marlin on 16-pound-test tippet.
That afternoon they landed a black marlin that tipped the scales at 211 pounds—a pending IGFA world record. A first for Exmouth, Block and the crew were delirious with excitement. The next few days of fishing were shared among Block and the crew, raising, hooking, and landing three black marlin and a couple of sailfish. Capt. Lawler landed his own first marlin on a fly, and first mate Wes Jones landed his first billfish of any type on a fly.
In under a year, Jeremy Block circled the globe and landed all nine billfish species—Atlantic blue marlin, white marlin, Atlantic sailfish, Pacific sailfish, Pacific blue marlin, swordfish, spearfish, black marlin and striped marlin. He demonstrated the effectiveness of fly fishing in nine different countries, tagged and released many fish, notching two pending world records, and managed along the way to help other people accomplish their own firsts with a fly rod. It is a feat that is unlikely to be repeated any time soon. When I asked Block his motivation for doing all this, his response was simple. “Because it had never been done before. And they said it was impossible”.
Cortland Bonefish Tropic Plus $100
Our tester used Cortland’s newest saltwater line on a recent trip to Andros Island when the weather was marred by clouds and rain. Due to poor visibility, the bonefish often didn’t appear until they were inside of 50 feet—and often much closer. The Bonefish Tropic Plus (6- to 9-weight, dual welded loops) has an aggressive front taper with a 5' tip and 7' body that loads even stiff, fast-action rods quickly for these types of close shots, and turns over straight so you can get the fly in front of the fish and start moving the fly immediately after it lands. The fishing end of the line is off-white with a 20' sky blue section and a 20’ pale yellow section near the rear loop to help gauge distance when the fish runs into the backing. When the sun comes out, the 32' rear taper helps carry line for longer casts, and the Tropic Plus coating stands up to the heat to keep the line shooting smoothly—with fewer tangles—throughout the day. cortlandline.com
Winston Saltwater AIR $975
Built using Winston’s SuperSilica resin system and new carbon fiber technology, these 9-foot, fast-action, progressive-taper rods are designed for faster line speeds with less fatigue, for long hours of casting in tough saltwater conditions. When you hook up, the Boron III in the rod butt section provides tremendous lifting power for powerful saltwater gamefish. All Saltwater AIR rod blanks are finished in “stealth matte” Winston green to avoid spooking wary, sharp-eyed fish on shallow tropical flats. Fitted with hard chrome snake guides, Nanolite stripping guides, and charcoal gray anodized aluminum reel seats with double locking rings, Saltwater AIRs are 9-foot, 4-piece rods available in 6- through 12-weight. winstonrods.com
Redington GRANDE $300-$350
After several years of intensive research and testing in both fresh- and saltwater conditions, Redington has produced a new line of large-arbor, fully CNC-machined, anodized aluminum fly reels with a slew of innovative features—and at a reasonable price point. GRANDE reels have a completely sealed carbon fiber drag system Redington calls “Super-Torque” with easy-to-reach, oversized drag knobs for smooth, powerful, and reliable drag performance for tough-fighting gamefish. The extra-large reel handles are machined from soft-touch Delrin and designed to exert maximum pressure in the heat of battle. GRANDE spools have oversized palming rims and extra-large backing capacities to give you peace of mind when a steelhead, bonefish, or tuna races for the horizon. The reel foot appears slightly offset, but is precisely positioned at the true center of gravity to prevent rod twist and put maximum pressure on large gamefish. Available in five sizes up to the 5-inch 14+ size, which handles a WF billfish line and 700 yards of backing. redington.com
RIO DirectCore Bonefish $120
With a 50-foot head plus a 12-foot rear taper, this line works best in optimum bonefish conditions where you can see the bonefish at longer ranges and you require a delicate, accurate presentation because the fish are just a little bit skittish. Our tester used the 8-weight version on Espiritu Santo Bay bonefish, and found the 6.5' front taper turns over size #6 Gotchas and other typical bonefish flies delicately with little splashdown effect, though it had a little trouble turning over larger snook flies when those linesiders appeared on the flats. Bonefish most often eat the fly on a tight line while you’re stripping line, and the fish are swimming toward you. We’ve all had experiences where a bonefish picks the fly up two or three times before you can actually stick the hook in—our tester experienced fewer of these missed strikes with the low-stretch DirectCore Bonefish line and reported feeling the strikes, in addition to seeing them, more often. The hard, tropical coating stood up to the Mexico heat and the line was particularly good while wading because the running line has a larger diameter (.041" on the 8-weight), floats better, and is easier to handle than most narrow-diameter running lines that are meant to shoot from the deck of a skiff. rioproducts.com
A writer and angler at heart, and a marketer by trade, Alex Ford got his start in outdoor media seven years ago when he became editor of the Amberjack Journal. He currently resides in Boston, Massachusetts, and spends all his free time and money on the water.