Many are the people who can catch fish. Few are the people to fish with before you die… Kiwi is one such person.
Captain Chris “Kiwi” Van Leeuwen is a hell of an interesting guy. Like somebody named “Tex,” you might guess where Kiwi grew up.
If his nickname didn’t give it away, the accent and content of Van Leeuwen’s speech belie his origin. Kiwi delivers his stories (and he surely has some good ones) with a characteristic ease and understatement that is every bit New Zealand.
These days you can fish with Van Leeuwen aboard his 40’ Allure II while staying at the lodge that he and his wife, Liz, own and operate in Guatemala. The Sailfish Oasis, as it is known, is a wonderfully appointed backdrop that is perfectly suited to making fishing stories.
A stay here is welcoming and hospitable. The food is good and the drinks are cold—but it is the ambience of the place that makes it remarkable.
The Van Leeuwens seem to enjoy life—their resort exudes this fact. Some places make a big spectacle to try to make you feel welcome—a bottle of champagne at check type of deal.
There is no pretense or flash in the Sailfish Oasis’ brand of hospitality. It is rather the welcome that you feel when you are surrounded by nice, authentic, interesting people who have invited you to spend some time with them.
This brand of hospitality does not always result from the transactional arrangements of charter fishing. It is the type of welcome that you’d like to repay over a beer and a steak at your own house.
This is part of what makes them people to fish with before you die.
Then there is Guatemala… A place straight out of a Hemingway novel.
The Pacific Coast of Guatemala is as productive of a sailfish fishery as there is in the world. It is not uncommon for boats fishing here to see 50 fish—days of catching 100 of them are not out of the question.
Think about these numbers in context…
For most of the world’s fishermen (from an aggregate, strictly numbers context that includes freshwater and inshore anglers) catching a single Pacific sailfish might be the crowning achievement of their angling lives.
Guatemala’s blue marlin fishery is also very good. There are piles of dorado here and the tuna fishing can be pretty good too.
It’s waters generally very calm, most always deep blue. Were that not enough, there are lots of lots of sea turtles to look at too.
The place is something of a legend in the fishing world. The upwellings of nutrient rich waters—brought to the surface after deflecting off of the walls of underwater canyons—support one of the most extravagantly productive big game fisheries in the world.
Guatemala’s insane fishing—some captains here release an incredible 2,000 sailfish and 100 blue marlin in a year- has been attracting dedicated, adventurous fishermen from around the world for going on three decades. It is in this place that Guatemalan captains mix with Americans—both of the mainland and Hawaiian variety— and a pronounced South African and New Zealand influence.
The Charm of the Place
Those first visiting might be surprised that the place is such an enduring Mecca for anglers. The coastline here offers none of the high rises of Miami or sparkling luxury of some places within Costa Rica.
The fact that Guatemala has perhaps (and you could make this case quite reasonably) the best bluewater fishing in the world without all of the bullshit is part of what makes it so wonderful. It’s a fisherman’s fishing destination…
If you’re after an experience that includes golf, going to the mall, ziplining with monkeys, eating at $500 buffets, petting the stingrays or hugging caged porpoises, you might should go someplace else. If you are looking to catch a mess of sailfish, tangle with multiple blue marlin (with maybe a black or a stripe mixed in) while fishing in predictably calm water, Guatemala is pretty high on the list.
An Interesting Guy
The fishing in Guatemala is good. There exists a hand full of operations that, like Kiwi’s, provide charter services here.
Most all of them are great. In fact, this “People to Fish With Before You Die” campaign will be back to the same dock… probably more than once.
The reason to fish with him is not just the fact that Captain Kiwi Van Leeuwen is a highly skilled captain who fishes in an incredibly productive place. In fact, that’s not the half of it.
This fact more proximately results from the combination of his fishing skill and his laid back take on the world. As a general rule, it seems that the more a person has seen and done… the more diverse his or her baseline of experiences… the more interesting they become.
An International Fishing Odyssey
The Van Leeuwens have seen and done. The journey that has taken them to where they are could never have happened by accident. It could well be interpreted as a commitment to living a full and exciting life.
In my experience, spending time in the presence of people who have done such things is good for you.
Kiwi hails from the North Island of the Bay of Plenty on New Zealand’s east coast. Growing up 40 minutes inland, he cut his teeth traversing the bush and fly fishing for rainbow and brown trout in lakes and rivers.
Van Leeuwen’s early saltwater adventures took place aboard his father’s buddy boat that they launched out of Whakatane—targeting yellowfin tuna, (yellowtail) kingfish, and snapper. It wasn’t until Kiwi was in early 20s that he began to venture offshore.
It was fishing out of Waihau Bay (and tangling with his first marlin) where his affliction began. He was bitten by the marlin bug.
Van Leeuwen then decided to go overseas to learn bait and switch fishing and big game fly fishing. In New Zealand in the 1990s, most offshore fishing in volved dragging lures.
Chris and Liz were married and left New Zealand in 2000. After spending a year in Europe—fishing for bluefin tuna around the Straits of Gibralter, the Van Leeuwens headed to Florida.
It was here, through a series of connections, that Kiwi met Tim Choate. Choate hired Van Leeuwen to run a boat in his charter operation in the Galapagos Islands.
After 10 months of great fishing and interesting experiences (a man never commits another man’s best stories to writing… you’ll have to ask Kiwi about these yourself), Van Leeuwen was off to fish at Choate’s operation in Guatemala.
That was 2002. In 2005, Choate’s operation shut down but Kiwi stayed in country and kept fishing. If you plan on going offshore fishing while in the Galapagos, there are plenty of captains nearby with sportfishing yachts that can put you on the bite.
In 2010, the Van Leeuwens bought their lodge. After a nine-year partnership with Texans Hill Dishman and Craig Johnson, Kiwi and Liz bought the Allure II in 2016.
Today they own and operate both the lodge and the boat. They can accommodate groups up to 20 people and have arrangements to fish up to six boats.
People to Fish With Before You Die
Some 20 years after leaving their New Zealand, Chris and Liz Van Leeuwen not only own a wonderful boat and fishing lodge in Guatemala, but an incredible book of stories, experiences and perspective. From the mountains of New Zealand to the Galapagos Islands to the Straits of Gibralter and the incredible fishing on Central America’s Pacific coast, Captain Chris “Kiwi” Van Leeuwen has seen (and caught) it all.
This perspective—and the fact that self-reliant, adventurous people who live life on their own terms are often the most interesting— is palpable upon walking into the Sailfish Oasis. A humble, understated guy (who would never tell you this himself), Captain Chris “Kiwi” Van Leeuwen is most definitely one of the people to fish with before you die.