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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.