InTheBite Inside the Lines Episode 5! Providing you with the latest news in big game sportfishing.
InTheBite Inside the Lines Episode 5! Providing you with the latest news in big game sportfishing.
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.
Reel Addiction Wins the Mississippi Gulf Coast Billfish Classic with 796.9-Pound Blue Marlin
After a pursuit lasting more than a decade, Team Reel Addiction finally topped the field of 117 boats to win the 2018 Mississippi Gulf Coast Billfish Classic. Angler Chase Pate of Pensacola, Florida, Capt. Scooter Porto, owners Rocky and Laurie Jones, and mates Zach Taylor, Seth Brennan and Nate Dennis boated a 796.9-pound blue marlin after a 30-minute fight Saturday morning. The largest marlin of the week earned the team $405,705 for the top tournament award and optional entries. The overall tournament prize money was nearly $2.2 million.
“Winning this one was on my bucket list,” Rocky Jones explained before Sunday’s awards breakfast. “We won top release boat 12 years ago and I’ve been trying to win the whole shooting match ever since. We finally did it!” Reel Addiction, a 56 Viking and regular on the Gulf big-game circuit, is based in Pensacola Beach. With the win, the team also earned an invitation to compete in the 2019 Offshore World Championship in Quepos, Costa Rica.
Team Supreme, with anglers Alex Krake, Chris Howell and Capt. Chase Lake, didn’t go home empty-handed, even though their Friday night marlin weighed 739.1 pounds. The 76 Viking from Destin went back out and caught a 156.6-pound yellowfin to boost the overall winnings to $313,115 for the second-place tournament award and optionals.
Pearl took the third-place tournament award and pocketed $122,970. Angler Edgar McKee and Capt. Shawnie Clemons and the team aboard the 48 Viking based in Orange Beach boated a 611.5-pound blue to earn that payout.
The Catch and Release Division was close and final standings were determined by time of catch. Relentless Pursuit (Capt. Robbie Doggett), was the overall winner with 1,800 points (three blue releases), earning a check of $265,050. The 95 Jim Smith calls New Orleans home. Done Deal (Capt. Jason Buck) came in second in the division, also with 1,800 points. Angler Katie Gonsoulin took top Lady Angler honors and the team won $133.830. Money Shot (Capt. Dale Bergeron) was the third-place release team with 1,200 points, good for a $12,000 payday. A Work of Art, Born2Run and Wynsong also won optional money in the release division. Ryan Cooper, fishing on CE, was named the top junior angler based on his two white marlin releases.
Angler Robeau Whibbs and the family/friends team aboard Swee Pea, a 50 Topaz from Pensacola, captured the top tuna. Their yellowfin weighed 182.3 pounds, good for $24,000. No tuna topped the current Mississippi record of 205.8 pounds, so the special $500,000 bonus went unclaimed. Bennie Goldman and his team on Reelentless, a 37 Freeman from Dauphin Island, took second place tuna honors with a 172.8 yellowfin. That fish was worth $139,725 in category and optional money. Fourteen-year-old Sawyer York, competing aboard First Choice, a 60 Hatteras based in New Orleans, whipped a 166.3-pound yellowfin tuna to earn his team $90,585 in prize money. Triple Threat also won optional prize money for its 159.2 tuna.
Anthony Stauffer (Hayride) boated the largest swordfish, a 144.1 broadbill, good for $39,600 in tournament and optional money. Matt Carpenter, on Long Straw, was second with a 125.2-pounder ($20,160), followed by Anthony Lopez on Titan Up (123.5 pounds/$26,940).
Johnny Moore, fishing aboard Alma-Ann, a 48 Cabo (Capt. Nick Jones), made MGCBC tournament history when he finally landed the new record dolphin after a two-hour waiting game. The 57.2-pound bull earned the team $66,750. Kevin Berry, on Deadline, a 52 Viking, was second with a fishing weighing 45.2 pounds ($18,000), while Michael Burroughs whipped a 44.6-pound dolphin for Team Quicktime ($37,650). Amnesia, Big Torch, Heads N Tails and Questionable Judgement also took home optional prize money for their dolphin.
The wahoo this year didn’t quite meet normal Classic averages but were respectable fish nonetheless and earned nice payouts. Lined Out and Jeff Dees caught the largest, 61.4 pounds, good for $48,300. Seament’s Doug Lake was second with a 48.5 wahoo ($37,125) and Neal Foster, betting heavily on Team Intensity, took home $82,425 for three entries in the optional categories.
“We had great weather and some exceptional fish brought to the scales this week,” said Tournament Director Bobby Carter. “I’d like to congratulate our champion Reel Addiction and thank all the teams, our wonderful sponsors and my staff for making this 22nd annual event so special. We hope you’ll join us again next year from June 3-9, 2019.”
The Golden Nugget Casino and Hotel was this year’s tournament host. High Roller sponsors included the City of Biloxi, Release Marine, Visit Mississippi Gulf Coast, Gorenflo’s Tackle and Marina Store and Yeti Coolers.
When it comes to fishing regulations, changes in Costa Rica are usually slow and deliberate. The government typically requires extensive technical and scientific support before it considers adding or changing fishing laws or agreements. The studies are also usually conducted in Costa Rica territorial waters.
Greenstick fishing or “palo verde” as it is known in Spanish is not a new technique. It has been used successfully for years in Japan and the United States in commercial and sport tuna fishing. The set-up of a tall single center outrigger trailing surface baits behind the boat’s stern is an effective way to harvest tuna without almost any bycatch.
Studies on local greenstick fishing were directed by fisheries biologist Moises Mug of FECOP (a Costa Rican sport fishing advocacy group), INCOPESCA, (the government agency in charge of fisheries) and INA, the technical learning institution that teaches different trades including preparing students to work in the fishing industry. The joint project to study greenstick fishing began in late 2016 with the purpose of offering an alternative method to capture tuna by the national fleet and reduce bycatch at the same time. Mug was appointed last month to head INCOPESCA by Costa Rica’s new president, Carlos Alvarado.
The required criteria was submitted to the government by FECOP in December 2017, approved this past March and recently published in the Government Gaceta, the official publication of Costa Rica’s Laws and Decrees. Commercially, only yellowfin tuna, bigeye tuna, skipjack tuna, swordfish and dorado (dolphinfish) can be harvested using the greenstick method and all other species must be released alive.
“The possibility is approved that, for a period of 12 months counted from the publication of this Agreement, any interested party that holds a longline fishing license, whether commercial or medium-scale commercial fishing, may request INCOPESCA to add it to their vessel the art of Green Stick; or completely change the traditional longline for the art called Green Stick. For this purpose, the interested parties must comply with all the requirements established by INCOPESCA for this purpose,” the agreement states.
“These boats will be authorized to carry up to six lures with lines attached to the rod and reel or winch. In no case shall INCOPESCA allow a boat that uses the Green Stick to carry and use other fishing gear in the same boat, except for the traditional longline and the hand rod (rod and reel).
“In cases in which INCOPESCA serves as certifier that the catches have been made using the Green Stick art on a vessel that also has traditional fishing gear, the Institute should require that the vessel carry an observer on board or a technological device that guarantees the traceability of the product. In this case, when the longline vessel has an observer on board, catches of non-target species made with Green Stick, should be released alive in the best possible condition.”
Recreational fishing in Costa Rica is divided into two categories: sport-fishing and tourist fishing for those that hire for charter. The new agreement allows boats with tourist fishing licenses to fish green sticks but not boats with regular sport-fishing licenses. The charter boats are allowed to pull three lures at a time attached to rod and reel. No type of winch is allowed.
Changes to better protect Costa Rica’s marine resources are slow coming and this one regulating greenstick fishing will need to be fine-tuned. But the country also recently joined Global Fishing Watch to combat illegal fishing and the equivalent of the Supreme Court upheld the ban on shrimp trawling for the second time, outlawing the practice. So FECOP and concerned citizens are hopeful the country continues in this positive direction.
For more information, contact: email@example.com
Located in the Golfo Dulce of southern Costa Rica, the Golfito Marina Village offers world class amenity surrounded by some of the best inshore and offshore fishing in Central America. A full service marina, with slips up to 265’, the Golfito Marina Village offers berth ownership and private residence options as well. Golfito is an offload point for yacht transport services and a focal point for sportfishing and mega yacht traffic in Central America. The Golfo Dolce provides a naturally-protected harbor and is home to an incredible fishery for roosterfish and other inshore species. The proximity to the sea mounts provides a world class blue marlin fishery that is complemented by consistent sailfish numbers and a highly productive yellowfin and trophy dorado fishery. Beyond the great fishing, the marina is a perfect place for touring the rainforest or paddle boarding around the protected waters.
Leg three featured 43 boats. For the third leg, the Gunsmoke (3800 points) out dueled the Geaux Fly (3700), catching the winning sailfish with 20 minutes of fishing remaining. The Geaux Fly’s second place finish was highlighted by a grandslam on day two– a black, two blues and a pair of sails. The Jaruco, the new 90′ Jarrett Bay, rounded out the top three with 2800 points.
Leg three also decided the Triple Crown winner for 2018. With all said and done, it was Tarheel (10,600 points) with Captain John Bayliss taking home top honors. The Agitator and Capt. Jon Duffie, 2016 and 2017 series champions, fell a sail and a marlin short of a third straight crown, with 10,100 points. Geaux Fly wins third place honors in the series with 10,000 even.
InTheBite congratulates the winners. Please enjoy the following photos and videos from the 2018 Triple Crown.
Congrats to all the winners of leg III of the Los Suenos Signature Series Billfish Tournament in Costa Rica this past weekend. Here were the top teams for Leg III.
For full results CLICK HERE.
San Jose, Costa Rica-February 27, 2018- Twenty-seven years ago, Didiher Chacon was a young biologist from the National University in Costa Rica. Todd Staley, co-creator of 12 Fathom Jigs that forever changed tarpon fishing in Boca Grande, Florida, in the late 1980s, had just moved to Costa Rica to manage Archie Fields’ Rio Colorado Lodge, a world-famous tarpon destination. Chacon stopped by the lodge one day to explain he was collecting tarpon samples for analysis by Dr. Roy Crabtree in Florida. Staley, who was familiar with Crabtree’s work, jumped at the chance to catch a few tarpon and help science at the same time.
Chacon went on to become well respected in marine conservation circles. He is currently the director of the NGO, Latin American Sea Turtles, as well as a professor at the National University in the post-degree program. Staley moved to the Pacific side of Costa Rica after Archie Fields died and for two decades managed famous billfish destinations like Golfito Sailfish Ranch and Crocodile Bay. He began working full time for FECOP, a Costa Rica sport-fishing advocacy and conservation group, last May.
“I first saw a tarpon roll in the Pacific back in 1995,” Staley explains. “For a minute I thought I was losing my mind but then I thought, I have seen tarpon roll my whole life, I know one when I see one.” Eventually one of the charter captains returned to the dock one day with a 40-pound tarpon and had no idea what it was. Since then clients have hooked five to 10 tarpon a year, occasionally landing and releasing a few. The largest tarpon taken was estimated around 130 pounds. It has always been assumed that the tarpon, which are not indigenous to Pacific waters, passed through the Panama Canal and took up residence on the Pacific coast.
The puzzle got even more interesting when Saul Porras caught a baby tarpon while snook fishing at the mouth of a creek on the Osa Peninsula in southern Costa Rica. Chances that little guy passed through the canal and swam that far are extremely slim. So, are tarpon now breeding in the Pacific? They have been caught all along the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, especially in the southern zone. An increasing number have been taken in the Sierpe and Coto Rivers. Tarpon have also been have recorded as far south as Colombia and as far north as El Salvador.
FECOP agreed to sponsor a project to find out more about tarpon in the Pacific. Staley contacted Chacon (the two had remained friends over the years) and he agreed to work on the science part of the project. “The Sierpe Wetlands are perfect habitat for juvenile tarpon,” Chacon says. “That very well may account for the increase in numbers of tarpon caught there in the last few years.” Most of the river tarpon are small, less than 30 pounds, but some as large as 100 pounds have also been captured.
Tropical Storm Nate delayed the project when massive amounts of rain fell, which not only caused major landslides but also completely flushed everything out many of the coastal rivers.
Phase 1 of the project will concentrate in southern Costa Rica. A DNA comparison will be done between Pacific-caught tarpon and tarpon taken at various locations on the Caribbean side of the country. Biologists will also study what the Pacific tarpon have been feeding on. This can be accomplished with a small tissue sample without sacrificing the fish. All Pacific-caught tarpon will also be tagged.
Chacon notes that there is a possibility tarpon could change the ecology of the rivers over time. So far it is not yet known what these tarpon are feeding on or how they will affect native fish. But the ever-increasing encounters along Costa Rica’s Pacific coast make it worth finding out.
Photos and Story By Michael Marks
The amount of variables, outliers and wild ass decisions that go into a successful fishing trip are ridiculously hard to quantify. It seems like many times as fishermen, we zig when we should have zagged, but on this particular trip we zigged, and zigged, and kept zigging ourselves right into an unbelievably successful trip. And the fact that I’m starting to write this with a cold glass of Johnny Walker in hand, while watching Thursday night football (Bengals v Texans), on a ridiculously comfortable sport fisher 120 miles out in the pacific shows that, when it all comes together….it truly all comes together….
This particular trip had been planned for months in advance. Due to a successful auction bidding at the Houston Big Game Fishing Club’s annual banquet, we had a 4 night trip booked at Cebaco Bay, Panama to chase black marlin, throw poppers at tuna, cluck at roosterfish, or whatever else our hearts desired. Unfortunately for us, and millions of Floridians, hurricane Irma showed up, turned every normal wind pattern within 1000 miles of the Caribbean completely upside down, including the standard winds offshore of Panama, and then decided to beat up Florida. A mothership trip to Cebaco Bay was no longer in the cards, so we needed a new plan.
After too many hours on the phone with United, Cebaco Bay, and the fishing squad, we rearranged everything and came up with a new course of action. Instead of leaving on Thursday evening, I exited Honolulu on Saturday night bound for San Jose, Costa Rica. New game plan was hitting the offshore FADs outside of Marina Pez Vela/Los Suenos on “Mi Novia” a beautiful 2009 47’ Viking owned and operated by good buddy, Chris Bays. Everything about the new plan sounded off the charts….accept that the weather looked terrible and there was a 12’ south swell running when we were supposed to leave. Interesting.
I arrived in San Jose Sunday morning, took a quick puddle jumper to Quepos, was on the ground by 2pm, and in the water for a quick surf at the nearby beach break by 3pm. The swell was just starting to show. The boys, Chris and Houston fishing friend, Edward, got in that evening. A few drinks and dinner were followed by an early night.
Got up early Monday with plans to surf a fickle left point but the tide was out of whack in the morning so I loitered around for a few hours. Did I forget to mention that Mi Novia had been having all sorts of engine issues for the prior 5 months? Ideas as to the cause of the issue varied from fouled fuel injectors, to alignment issues, a bad running gear, or potentially even deranged satanic elves. After buying the boat just under a year ago, poor Chris had dropped close to $50K into figuring it out, and while I was thinking about this point break shaping together, he had a meeting scheduled with some key mechanics that would essentially figure out if the vibration Mi Novia had been having would keep us under 8 kts the whole trip or if it was isolated to a certain rpm.
All told the sea trial went well, essential moving parts checked out, and we were given a clear bill of health to go fast….as long as not between 1400-1650 rpm. Fair enough. Game on! To celebrate, Chris threw me off the boat as I was trying to get dropped off outside the point break on the way back to the harbor. Ended up surfing a 150-yard long head high lefts for 3 hours with one other guy. Things were clearly starting to look up!
The plan at this point was to leave Tuesday night….or maybe Wednesday depending on the weather. Tuesday morning started with a Flor de Cana-induced hangover and indecisiveness. The swell had picked up considerably, and the point was looking to shape up and properly fire with the low tide. However, with the clean bill of boat-health, thoughts were swirling to leave around lunchtime, slow-ride it out to the close buoys (70 miles) in the light because it was rainy season and there were reports of lots of debris in the water, or to leave that evening and 8 kt it out overnight to be at the 70 mile buoy at first light. The decision was made, and as much as it hurt my soul to watch the point absolutely firing while we were leaving, this was meant to be a fishing trip from the get-go, not a surf trip.
The ride out was boring. No bites and the fish finder decided to go on strike after working during the sea trial the day prior, but when we came across a debris field about 40 miles out that was literally stacked with—trees—like proper freaking trees, not just branches, but things with roots that had been growing in the ground for 30 years…. We congratulated ourselves for not leaving in the middle of the night, and I felt better about missing the waves.
That first night sucked. 12’ of open ocean south swell, and 15kt winds blowing from the west. We put out the sea anchor, which put us directly sideways to the open ocean swell. I’ve never jumped on one of those silly mechanical bulls before, but I think trying to sleep that night would have been similar to riding a bull after taking 2 Xanax. Everyone was bucked out of bed and onto the floor at least 3 different junctures. It was highly unpleasant.
Morning was a joyous sight, knowing that we could get underway again. We were just about 2 miles off the 70 mile buoy at first light and started circling at 6am. As we got the lines out, I was adjusting the positioning of the tag line on the long corner as we came up on the buoy. Out of nowhere, the line was ripped violently out of my hand by our first marlin bite of the trip. I was lucky to dump the line immediately and retain all my fingers, and the fish quickly removed the hook from its face.
We continued to work that buoy for another couple hours, taking another 5 strikes, but all were very short lived. No one actually ended up putting on the fighting harness….the bites all seemed to be pure aggression bites, with the fish not trying to eat….so we headed to bluer pastures. Leaving a 6-bite morning after growing up on Oahu, where a 6-billfish-bite-day happens as often as a solar eclipse, was kinda hard to stomach, but the tales of 20 bite days in this area drove us further offshore.
The next buoy out at 80 miles was dead, so we made the executive decision to head to the 120 mile buoy. We tagged our first marlin of the trip and a sailfish on the 5 hour troll out which lifted everyone’s spirits. Then we got to the 120 buoy and shit got crazy.
We arrived at the 120 mile buoy at 2:30pm and within our first 1 hour at the buoy we went 4 for 5 on blue marlin. After the first strike, we never had a chance to get a full spread out before taking another strike. At the time, I decided that it was literally the best trolling bite one could ever ask for. The one fish that we missed in that first hour came when I was clearing the short rigger with another fish hooked and ripping line off the long corner. I had the short rigger lure at the clip, and as I reached to grab the leader and pull the lure in, another marlin popped up a few feet behind the transom, grabbed the lure, and ripped the line out of my hand. I narrowly missed finger loss for the second time that day, and although we tagged the fish responsible for the original bite, my fish shook itself free shortly after.
All told, after going 0/6 at the first buoy, we went 7/10 at the 120 mile buoy in 3.5 hours and ended up 7/16 with 2 sailfish released. As you would expect, spirits were VERY high, and celebration was due.
There was one other boat fishing the buoy that we spoke with. They had fished a buoy 13 miles further out that morning and registered 20 bites, but headed to the 120 after the bite at the outside buoy slowed and ended up with 4 fish in the afternoon as well. Now we had options.
As the sun set, we threw out the sea anchor and talked about our options for the following day. The bite we came across at the 120 was nothing short of legendary…..but 20 bites in a morning at a buoy just 13 miles away was, well, very tempting. A rum-fueled debate followed. The primary topics discussed were: You don’t leave fish to find fish, and that the captain of the other boat was full of crap, because how in God’s green earth would could anyone drive away from a 20 bite morning.
Night #2 was surprisingly similar to night #1. The open ocean swell was still solid and kept up at 10-12 ft. The wind continued at about 15kts. And we proceeded to get our asses handed to us yet again. How pleasant. The only real difference between night 1 and 2 was that all 24 of the remaining eggs decided that their time on earth was well overdue, and committed suicide by kitchen-counter dive at some point in the night. That made for an enjoyable start to the morning after being a human pinball all night.
In addition, the current flipped in a major way overnight, and instead of being right near the buoy that we fished the prior evening when we woke up, we were 10 miles away, and just 12 miles away from the buoy that the other boat fished at the prior morning. We flipped a coin and headed out to the new buoy at 133 miles out.
For the first hour we were ready to punch ourselves in the face for that decision. At this particular location there are 3 buoys placed on a seamount. We had 2 of the 3 marked on our GPS. Both had lots of bait, but no predators and no bites. We were dejected, annoyed, and questioning one another’s sanity for deciding to leave the other buoy from the day before. As we were making our minds up as to our next stop, 1st deckhand and local genius, Melvin Mora Fallas, busted out a map that showed a 3rd buoy on the same seamount. This. Saved. Our. Day.
It’s amazing how concentrated the fish are in these waters. The 3 buoys on this seamount are all within 2 miles of each other. All 3 had plenty of small tuna right on the buoys, but only the last of the 3 held marlin.
As soon as we made a pass on our newly-found buoy we hooked up. We then went from 1 of 1, to 3 of 4, to 7 of 11, all between 7 and 10 am. The bites were exceptionally aggressive. These fish were very, very hungry, fought like hell, and simply weren’t messing around.
At day’s end, we ended up 10 for 21. Highlights included 5 doubles, 2 of which had the second fish biting right off the transom while clearing lines. Sadly, we never were able to get both fish off the doubles. A solid 450lb fish (definitely on the larger side for Costa Rican waters) that fought like a demon, caught by Edward on 50 class stand up gear. And a number of fish putting on absolute fireworks shows behind the boat and doing a wide variety of gymnastics maneuvers for our amusement. The afternoon bite slowed considerably, but at the end of the day we were blessed with an at-dark long corner bite that put us at 10 fish released for the day. Getting into double digits of tagged blue marlin in a single day would have to make the saltiest of the salty smile.
All the charts prior to departure showed the offshore weather improving starting tonight, and with the swell declining as well, we had high hopes for a calm and relaxing night after getting beat senseless the last 2 nights. Unfortunately that was not in the cards. I woke up at 3:30am, as a result of flying out of the bunk and hitting the floor yet again. The boat was pitching worse than any of the prior nights and the only way that I was able to effectively remain horizontal and not airborne involved laying on the ground and wedging myself in between the bunk and the wall. Staying put in the bed was just not happening.
Morning finally came and it all made sense. We found ourselves in the middle of an open ocean storm complete with thunder, lightning, side-ways rain, and plenty of new short period wind swell mixed in with the ground swell to liven up the ride.
We pushed the 5 miles back to the 120 mile buoy, where we caught all our fish on day 1, as best as the conditions allowed. With high hopes for a solid morning bite, we dropped lines, and were treated to a bite that can only be described as legendary.
Without getting too far into the details, we started trolling just after 6am and went 4 for 4 by 7:30am. Then we were greeted with 2 back-to-back triples, catching 2/3 and 1/3 respectively. By 8:30am we were 7 for 10. By 10:30am we had released 10 fish out of 15 bites. It was at this point in the morning that everyone on the boat agreed that we were officially at adult Disneyland, and that life could only get crappier from this point forward. The bite slowed through the rest of the morning, and had essentially shut off by the time we left the buoy at 4pm to begin the overnight cruise back to the inside buoys.
All told, we finished the day with 15 tagged fish out of 22 bites, which was an official record day for “Mi Novia” and left everyone with sore backs, legs, and arms, but smiles that greatly outweighed the discomfort.
We motored through most of the night back toward the inside buoys with the intent of fishing the 70 first thing in the morning before an early exit to get back to harbor. The ride in was uneventful and calm, but as soon as we threw out the sea anchor it was déjà vu all over again. I woke up on the floor again around 2am and stayed there til dawn. The coffee maker, which had a very secure spot in the kitchen and had survived the prior 3 nights without issue, decided that its time on this planet had come to an end and hurled itself at the kitchen floor creating yet another lovely mess to start the day with.
Daybreak came and we were greeted by another squall with heavier rain than any we had seen so far. We were 2 miles from the 70 and trolled over to find, of all things, a freaking sailboat doing laps on the buoy. We spun a few as well without a bite and decided to head in to the nearest of the buoys, the 63. On the way over we took a double sailfish bite that both shook free, and then hit our first blue of the day about 5 miles off the buoy. Interestingly enough, Edward was in line for the next fish, but uncanny as it may be, he was in the head at the time of strike, so I brought it in.
The 63 was definitely holding fish. We went 3 for 5 in the first 90 minutes in the midst of a torrential downpour, and were then greeted by the highlight of the trip. First the long rigger went, then the long corner, and then the short corner. All stuck firmly on the strike unlike our 2 prior triples, and all 3 fish headed in different directions. We had a chance…And we pulled it! A triple with all 3 fish tagged and released!! Got mine in first, then Eddie’s, and then Chris’s. This was a first for everyone on the boat including Tico deckhands, Melvin and Yiyo, who have 60 years combined experience fishing Costa Rican waters.
The energy and excitement was through the roof!!! What a way to end an unbelievable trip….in 3 hours at the 63 mile buoy we were 6 of 8, and 38 for 68 in 3 days and 3 hours of fishing. Chris’s initial reaction was, “It doesn’t get any better than this, keep the lines in, we’re headed home.”…..but the temptation of trying to get to 40 tagged fish nagged at us and one more pass around the buoy was in order. And just like that we took a double. It felt like it was destiny….Eddie and I went to work but mine shook off 30 yards from the boat and dashed our hopes. We decided to call it after Eddie tagged his and make our way back to Quepos. We got 1 last shot out of nowhere on the way back in, but that fish decided that instead of running away from the boat at the initial strike, that it wanted to hang out in the boat with us and made a mad greyhounding dash at the transom. We couldn’t get away fast enough and it threw the hook. 40 was not meant to be….but complaining would just be rude.
All told this was hands down the best trip that any of us had been on. A ton of singles, 6 proper doubles, and 3 triple strikes. Records set for the boat were, most blue marlin tagged and released in a single day at 15, most fish caught in a single trip for the boat at 39, and the only triple blue marlin strike with all fish being released for anyone on the boat. All told we were 39 for 71 on Pacific Blue Marlin and 2 sailfish in just under 3.5 days of fishing, and come to think of it a 55% hook up rate on blue marlin is pretty darn decent as well.
I’d like to thank a number of folks for making this unbelievable trip happen, first and foremost Chris Bays for planning the adventure and for having us aboard his beautiful boat, Mi Novia. To Melvin Mora Fallas and Didier “Yiyo” Guzman, the best damn crew anyone could ever ask for. Also, a huge thank you to Brett Crane of Crane Lures, Jon Niiyama, and John Lau for hooking us up with some absolutely world class lures to put behind the boat. To Jerry Meredith of Seamount Harnesses for the best stand up harness that money can buy. And to everyone who I’ve fished with along the way, especially Larry Peardon, Robbie Brown, Pat Murphy, Jesse Eurich, Wayne Akimoto, and Alan Faulkner….it’s always a learning experience, and I truly value and appreciate the knowledge, and insight that you and many others have passed on to me over the years. Aloha.
The Fish Tank team documents Costa Rica the 2015 tournamen [Read more…]