by Elliott Stark
With all of modern Costa Rica’s ease and amenity, it is easy to forget that Costa Rica hasn’t always been this way. The infrastructure enjoyed by residents and tourists are a relatively modern innovation. The first wave of traveling sportfishers came to the country in the 1980s. What these pioneers encountered upon their arrival was magical— virgin fisheries and rugged, untouched terrain. Sportfishing consisted of pockets of four boats here, six boats there, fishing without GPS or advanced bottom machines (rather as Captain Bubba Carter says— “using paper sounders and taking landmarks off of mountains.”)
What these early adopters may have lacked in marinas, logistics and the modern concept of civilization, was more than made up for in adventure. The incredible sailfish and black marlin bites is the stuff of legend. This is story of how Costa Rica of the late 1980s came to be the Costa Rica of today. It is told by those who were part of its evolution. If you do not find this fascinating, either I need to stop writing (for lack of skill) or you need to take up golf (because you do not like fishing)!
The Early Days
Bubba Carter is widely recognized as a central figure in the 1980s sportfishing scene. “My first time in Costa Rica was to Flamingo in 1985. We chartered Tom Bradwell on the Barbarella. At the time, there were four or so boats in Flamingo,” Carter reminisces. “I came down with Charlie Cippola from Canada the next year. He had a 43-foot Merritt and wanted to try something different. It started out as kind of a dare.”
“‘Can you get the boat down there?’ Charlie asked. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘there’s water between here and there…’” There was no GPS, no marinas and no range. Our first trip took 19 days from West Palm Beach to Flamingo,” Carter describes. “We had 300 gallons in deck and 300 gallons on deck. We had a range of about 350 miles… maybe 450 if we were chugging. We were so loaded down on our first trip that the tuna door started taking on water when we left he marina.”
Carter’s route would become a familiar one to the many who have since followed. He island-hopped his way through the Caribbean, transited the Panama Canal. From Panama City, he ran to Golfito; from Golfito to Flamingo. “At the time Golfito had a four-slip marina. Quepos had the banana boat pier. Tamarindo had four or five boats. Cocos had a couple, too. If everybody showed up all at one place for a tournament, there might have been a dozen boats,” says Bubba of the entire Costa Rican fleet.
“Flamingo was the place to be back then. You could fly into Tamarindo, but you’d have to chase the cows off the runway first,” Carter recalls. “It was kinda clannish back then. The group in Golfito and the guys in Flamingo, nobody really liked each other back then,” Carter recalls with a laugh.
Carter’s operation provided a testing ground for other of Costa Rica’s early entrants. One was Captain John Skubal, who now works as a yard manager at Merritt. “I headed to Costa Rica in 1990 for a couple of years. We were fishing out of Flamingo aboard the Ambush, a 46-foot Merritt,” Skubal recalls. “The fishery was unbelievable, everything else was pretty primitive. It was kind of jungle rules.”
“Flamingo was very quaint back then. There was one floating dock. You either tied up to it or anchored offshore. There were a couple of hotels, a couple of restaurants and basically that was it,” Skubal says of the old days.
Another of CR’s early adopters, and perhaps one of sportfishing’s nicest individuals, is Captain John LaGrone. His first trip to the country was in 1993 running the Magic for Tim Choate. “Flamingo was a thriving fishing village at the time. That was its heyday. Flamingo had a marina and a fuel dock and a maintenance section,” the veteran captain recalls. “Logistics were easy. The food truck came one day, the vegetable truck came one day, the coke truck came one day and the beer truck came another. Nobody drank bottled water then.”
Bubba Carter describes the early days of the fishery with a characteristic ease and understatement. After all, when you’ve done and seen as much as Carter, you don’t need to embellish anything. “The fishing was awesome. Now there are a lot more boats with a lot more tech, which make it seem good. Back then there were three or four boats fishing landmarks off the mountains. We had paper sounders. There were acres of sailfish—and the fishing was better.”
“Over 11 years, we averaged over 1,000 billfish per year. That was fishing around 200 days per year. Back then, many of the charters were record fishing on two and four pound. It wasn’t the numbers fishing like it is today,” Bubba describes. “My best day in the early days was 52 sails. My best year was 1,444 in 204 days. Last year was my best year overall—2,200 sails and 318 blues (in 46 days) in 198 days.”
While the fishing in Costa Rica was great then, as it is now, there were differences. John LaGrone provides context, “The size and number of sails and blue marlin were much different. In those days, it was very uncommon to catch a sailfish under 100-pounds. In the 1990s, they averaged 100-125 pounds. An average day was 15 sails and two blue marlin,” he describes.
“It was easier to target a black for your marlin— fishing the humps out of Flamingo. The average black was around 400-pounds, with some bigger fish around. You couldn’t fish ballyhoo for more than five minutes because there were lots and lots of dorado. Big dorado, too. Another difference was the size and amount of yellowfin tuna – there were lots of them. You could target the schools of yellowfin by following travelling birds. This was very common and there were lots of big tuna.”
“Some of the best days I had were a grand slam with my wife. We caught 35 sails, a black and a stripe. Fishing out of Cocos Island, we had 18 slams and two super slams in 43 days. The numbers were not the important part. It was the numbers, size, and variety of the fishery. I can’t say that the fishing was better then than now, but there were bigger fish before,” recalls LaGrone.
A Florida Keys native, Captain Randy Rode made his first fishing trip to Costa Rica in 1982 aboard a 31-foot Rampage. His first day of trolling, Rode caught eight big sails and two blue marlin in four hours. The experience was such that Rode shortly thereafter purchased a half acre tract in the town of Nosara for $1,200. Nosara, then with a population of 150 people, is located about 10 miles north of Carillo. Rode kept his boat in the half moon-shaped Garza Bay that was protected at its mouth by a stretch of reef with a gap in the middle. Getting to Nosara from San Jose in those days was a six to seven-hour drive that required crossing 13 rivers. Rode estimates that there were approximately 1,000 people living in the region at the time.
Randy ran his operation, Rode Runner Sportfishing, for the next 15 years. Rode placed moorings made of heavy equipment tires in the bay. He loaded and offloaded guests and fishing supplies to and from his boats via panga beach-launchings. For bait, he would fly 150-quart coolers full of Keys-caught ballyhoo down from the states. “In those days, you could bring anything down on the airplane,” Rode says.
The Story of Los Sueños
Just as the nation’s incredible fisheries draw tourists from around the world today, it was the great fishing and lifestyle attributes of Costa Rica that attracted investment and development. The story of how Costa Rica of the early 1980s became the Costa Rica of today cannot be told without first relating the story of Los Sueños. While there exist many other developments in the nation, Los Sueños Resort and Marina has been transformative. Just how impactful has Los Sueños been to the Costa Rica? Mr. William Royster is the founder, CEO and President of Los Sueños. He was also the man behind the vision for the project.
“In 1991 I decided to take a sabbatical. I had recently purchased a 92-foot long range sportfisherman. The marlin fishing is not great in southern California so he headed south in January of 1991, fished Mexico and Mag Bay. We kept heading south and got to Acapulco. We decided we didn’t want to go back so we went to Costa Rica. It is 1,100 miles from Acapulco to Playa del Coco, Costa Rica,” Mr. Royster recalls.
“We explored Costa Rica and kept moving south to get out of the Papagayo winds. We arrived to the tip of Guanacaste—around Nicoya. We were fishing about 60-miles offshore when we caught a roughly 800-pound marlin. At the time, there was not much in Costa Rica. We came into Herradura Bay and celebrated,” he says. Anchored in Herradura Bay celebrating the fish of a lifetime, Royster looked upon the coastline.
“I saw the Los Sueños property. It was an 1,100-acre cattle ranch. There was no infrastructure. I owned a large general engineering company with experience in development. I had the skillset,” Roster describes. “I contacted the owner of the property and began performing due diligence—country research, currency analysis. This was not my first development project, but it was my first time internationally,” Royster says.
“At the time there were around 120,000 travelers to Costa Rica each year. I scratched out the concept on a piece of paper. Over the next two years I travelled throughout Latin America to research resorts. We started predevelopment in 1994.” In 2015, an estimated 2.6 million tourists visited the country.
In the early 1990s Costa Rican law prohibited development within 50-meters of the coastline. Coastal construction setbacks are standard in many parts of the world, but make development of marinas a difficult task. “We had to legislate law through the Costa Rican congress to allow access within 50-meters of the coastline,” Royster describes. “In 1998, the president signed the Marina Law. It was the first time that a law was passed by 100% of the Costa Rican congress. We are pretty proud of that.”
“Since that time, we’ve grated over four million cubic meters of rock for the breakwater,” Mr. Royster details, providing scope of the project. “We put in all of the infrastructure—it’s similar in scope to the backbone of a small city. There’s a hook up for telecom and power at the gate, but we manage everything else.”
“In 2001, we created a completely vertically integrated company—everything is in house. We operate all restaurants, own the hotel, which is managed by Marriot. We own everything else,” he says. Vertical integration describes the fact that Los Sueños controls all variables of the construction, development, landscaping, etc. on the property. This integration provides quality control and the ability to deliver products and services as demanded by the market.
Today Los Sueños is the setting for 600 residences (the output is to be capped at 1,000 units—with 600 of the 1,100-acres of the development to remain rainforest in perpetuity). The marina contains 200 wet slips and 118 dry slips. The marina is at 100% occupancy, with some 64% of occupants also owning a home within Los Sueños.
When asked about the evolution of the property, Royster is reflective. “The Master Plan has been achieved. In many ways, we’ve achieved more than I thought. The demand has created a higher end product than we imagined. The profile of our customer has driven the increase.” Whereas Royster initially envisioned units ranging from $250,000 to $750,000, demand for larger, nicer outputs have steered production to units ranging from $750,000 to five million. “A vertically integrated company allowed us to control all of the variables and to steer to where the market dictated. People wanted bigger, nicer products,” Royster says. Los Sueños has delivered.
Modern Costa Rica
The Costa Rica of today is a veritable fishermen’s paradise. The elements of mystery, danger and isolation of the mid-1980s have been replaced by amenity and ease of access. The isolated natural bays that once sheltered handfuls of adventurous souls—fishermen, hippies and surfers— have been replaced by marinas, hotels, and tourism infrastructure capable of comfortably hosting even the least adventure-minded of individuals.
How does the modern fishery compare to the way it once was? Captain Terry Robinson provides a great bit of perspective on the relationship between the fishing then and now. Robinson’s first season in Costa Rica was in 1995 when he worked the cockpit on the Tyson’s Pride under Captain Timmy Hyde. “The fishing was fantastic. We fished what we knew. We fished the areas with infrastructure. The biggest change is that now there are so many boats and marinas. In the early days, you just wonder what was out of reach,” Robinson recalls.
“In the early days, we fished shallower, closer to the beach or on the edge. We caught more blacks. As more boats came, fishing expanded offshore. Now there’s no rhyme or reason for where fish congregate—it’s about finding bait and birds. Today radar, range, and gyro binoculars make it so much easier to find things offshore.”
“Today most of the winning boats in the Los Sueños tournaments are now fishing the 50-mile boundary. You just wonder what we would have found out there with a larger fleet in the early days,” Robinson ponders intriguingly. The answers to such questions are indeed the thing of legend.
The pockets of four boats here and six boats there described by Bubba Carter are now world class marinas in Golfito, Quepos, Los Sueños, Flamingo and other locations. The sportfishing fleet in Costa Rica these days compares favorably to Palm Beach or most anywhere else in the world. The flavor of Costa Rica may be different, but the charm remains and it is undeniable.
How about the fishing? In nine days of fishing, 43 boats fishing the three Los Sueños Signature Series Tournaments released 6,700 billfish. Yes, 6,700—that comes to around two fish per minute of fishing. Then there are the FADs. The numbers of blue marlin released out of Golfito are most normally reserved for days of dorado fishing, not targeting stick nose.
It is always tempting to long for the past. For most anyone who has ever fished, there is a desire to experience what captains Bubba Carter, John LaGrone and others witnessed in the early days of Costa Rican sportfishing. The paths blazed by the likes of Skubal, Rode, Royster and others have had the effect of opening Costa Rican sportfishing opportunities to the world at large. Pura Vida is open for business. While there are many differing opinions on the matter, one thing can be said with confidence. Costa Rica was… and Costa Rica is one hell of a place.