By Ben Bergovic
They say a picture tells a thousand words. If “they” are correct, the photo of a traveling angler with grin from ear to ear aboard The Hooker releasing blue marlin under the watchful eye of Capt. Skip Smith speaks volumes. It’s an exotic image like this snapped off the beaten path that triggers the adventurous spirit in all of us.
For anglers young and old, novice and pro, Central America’s Pacific Coast is synonymous with world-class offshore fishing. Few destinations produce the quantity and quality of yellowfin tuna, dorado, sailfish, blue, black and striped marlin. Knock off some bucket-list roosterfish, and you have the foreign destinations where dreams really do come true.
Ever since I was a kid growing up fishing on the pier, I always fantasized about the vast Pacific Ocean and the rugged Central American coastline. My friends and I would read magazines, research fishing reports online and study all the wild fishing opportunities that adventurous captains and crew were discovering at the time. The same country consistently came up when it came to world records and that was Costa Rica. Today, even with coronavirus hindering travel, it is simply unbeatable in accessibility and vast angling potential.
Of all the places I’ve been, there is something about Costa Rica that always brings me back. While Los Sueños serves as an awesome home base, this time we were headed to Quepos for a strike mission aboard The Hooker out of Marina Pez Vela. The history of this boat is unmatched, and along with her hand-painted pink Cummins QSM 11 diesels, the classic G&S was recently outfitted with new Shimano tackle, Garmin electronics, PipeWelders outriggers, a Northern Lights generator, Dometic a/c and Lindgren-Pitman dredge reels.
Excited was an understatement as we landed in San José and embarked on a three-hour taxi ride to Quepos. The drive and scenery were nothing short of classic Costa Rica, but traffic is sometimes an issue on the Caldera Highway, and there is a domestic airport in Quepos that is serviced by Sansa and Skyway. Arriving at the Marina Pez Vela complex, we easily settled into a three-bedroom villa overlooking the ocean. The marina resort is located right in downtown Quepos and has blossomed into a truly world-class marina destination, complete with modern facilities and yacht yard with a 200-ton Travelift.
Quepos is growing quickly yet it remains a sleepy beach town at heart. Manuel Antonio National Park is nearby, there’s a variety of eco-tours, nightlife, restaurants, bars, hotels, art galleries and gift shops, but the game plan for us was straightforward. Because we’re snook junkies at home, the first two days we booked inshore trips with Roy Zapata of Zapata Fishing Charters, who holds multiple records for Pacific snook. After that, the itinerary had us aboard The Hooker with Capt. Skip Smith at the helm for a double overnighter.
Catching a roosterfish was on all our bucket lists, and in Quepos the prime season extends from January through March. It was July, but as fishermen, we know that fish must eat, and we were still excited to give it a shot. The journey began at 6:00 a.m. as we departed Marina Pez Vela. Roy mentioned to us that we would be catching sardines on sabiki rigs similarly to the way we would back in Florida. As curious as
we were, we made our way south roughly 20 miles, where we began to fish in front of a river mouth in about 100 feet of water. There was a very distinct current edge where the outflow of the river met the cobalt-blue Pacific Ocean. We quickly made work catching bait that looked like a hybrid of a threadfin herring and a sardine. As we dehooked them into the livewell, it reminded me of prepping for an upcoming sailfish tournament.
We made a quick run up the coast of Quepos and began to slow troll along the beach, where powerful Pacific swells were crashing against the black sand beach. The atmosphere gave off a mysteriously haunting aura, so untouched, so solitary that it seemed as if we were suddenly back in the time when dinosaurs ruled the earth. While admiring the surroundings, we were interrupted by little roosterfish pushing the sardines to the surface. We pulled on quite a few in the five- to ten-pound range and were able to coerce a couple fish above the 40-inch mark. Roy did a phenomenal job keeping us on the bite all day, which also included some tasty corvina we had prepared at a restaurant in Quepos that fed ourselves and the locals.
Even with the great start, we were all still very eager for the FAD trip with Skip. We departed on a Tuesday afternoon to begin the trek offshore. Typically, because of travel time to the FADs, the afternoon departure allows the crew to casually make way offshore and begin to catch fresh pitch baits for the next morning. The crew alternates night watch, making sure that everyone aboard gets a good rest and that everything is ready for a day of fishing the next morning.
Skip’s hardcore passion for billfishing stretches across every aspect of the trip. This included how the bait and tackle were prepared and that the mates were ready for any opportunity to put a hook in a blue marlin. He’s the only fisherman I have met that had every line class rod ready to fish from four-pound to 50-pound. On top of it all, the food was incredible, with breakfast, lunch and dinner made by either Skip himself or the mates, with typical native dishes being served fresh. From the moment we left Marina Pez Vela, we knew that this was a first-class operation.
When the alarm on our phones let loose at 4:30 a.m. Wednesday morning, we awoke to Skip and his crew already pulling a full spread. Both mates were in the pit ready to go, and Skip was fired up in the bridge, hoping to raise and catch as many marlin as he could.
As the sun began to crack at the first 60-mile FAD, a fish showed up hot on the left teaser, knocking it completely out of the water on multiple occasions. As the fish was being pitched to, a second fish reenacted the same scene on the right teaser. Both fish had fresh bonito skipping in front of them, and they couldn’t resist the presentation as they piled on. If that wasn’t enough, while clearing the spread, a third fish decided to join the commotion and crash the right long. Triple header blue marlin and some of the guys had yet to brush their teeth!
We proceeded to raise 10 fish the first day, including an awesome bite on a live bonito, which looked like someone dropped a bowling ball from outer space. Everyone got to catch a few blues including multiple fish on the pitch. We worked a couple different FADs that day and it was interesting to see how the current and bait conditions could be so vastly different at each. As the sun set, we all enjoyed a wonderful end to the day with a great dinner while squid danced in the underwater lights.
The second morning felt like déjà vu, as three fish showed up in the spread at first light. Here we go again! Two fish cooperated but the third wouldn’t take the bait. With hooked fish peeling drag and jumping, Skip shouted, “Striped marlin!” Everyone was ecstatic after we released each fish, a first striped marlin for both Chris Graham and John McTurk.
McTurk really wanted to have an attempt at a fish on light tackle, so Skip pulled out a 12-pound outfit. Just moments later, we heard Skip shout, “He’s all over the left teaser.” John quickly pitched to the fish and was head-to-head with about a 300-pound blue on 12-pound test. After about 30 minutes, the fish made a sounding run and ended up breaking off, but the memory was all the mattered. He was able to hook a fish on the exact tackle that had broken multiple world records and it was awesome to see how Skip communicated with the angler throughout the fight.
We may not have won the release, but there were still smiles all around, and we proceeded to raise 11 blue marlin throughout the day. The Hooker arrived safely at Marina Pez Vela after a slow ride in Friday morning. We were all thankful for such an amazing trip, and to fish with Skip was the icing on the cake. Hearing all the legendary stories and classic one-liners made the trip even more memorable.
The Hooker is now under new ownership with Casa Vieja Lodge and is available for charter out of Marina Pez Vela. It’s certainly a special operation, and the fishing experience and panoramic vistas set against the beautiful backdrop of lush jungle and sheer cliffs that fall steeply into the ocean are enough to excite even the most jaded of travelers.