A SEA OF GREEN, A SPLASH OF RED
Stepping out of the tiny twelve seater Cessna that had just transported me on the short flight down to the coast from San Jose, I took in a deep lungful of the warm humid air, stretched, and smiled to myself, finally I had arrived at Golfito, a destination I had dreamed of fishing for many years. We had flown over the mountains and a seemingly endless expanse of steaming, verdant green tropical rain forest, broken only by the azure blue of the Pacific Ocean on our starboard side.
I collected my bags a taxi took me for the short ride down to the harbour, which is where I Dar Randal, owner of the Arena Alta Sports Fishing camp at Zancudo. I had expected we would go straight to the camp but no, we were going out fishing, which was absolutely fine by me! Aboard Dar’s 28ft centre-console sports boat I was introduced to Captain Antonio Chararria Concepcion and his son, ‘Elvis, and in no time at all we skimming our way across Golfito Bay heading towards Cabo Matapalo, southernmost tip of the Osa peninsula, a tropical paradise covered in lush primary rain forest.
Then we headed north up the coast of Osa, running parallel to and just outside of an unbroken line of swell that was rolling in towards the coast from the west, forming a perfect surf line that was breaking on one of the most exquisitely beautiful beaches I have seen anywhere in the world. Frequently flocks of scarlet macaws added a splash of colour to an otherwise unbroken expanse of green, and already I could see why the Spanish had named this country Costa Rica, Rich Coast.
Over the years I have been extremely fortunate and caught many of the world great species of sports fish, but at that time there was one species in particular that I wanted to catch more than any other. It is fish found only on the Pacific coast of South and Central America, ranging from Mexico south to Peru, the locals call it pez gallo, the roosterfish. Roosterfish are a member of the jack family, noted for both their tremendous power and stunning looks, characterised by an enormous cockerel like plume of a dorsal fin, hence the name.
I would like to be able to tell you how following a long and skilfully executed campaign that ran for several days, finally I hooked, fought and then boated my first roosterfish, the truth however was that less then five minutes after first dipping a bait into Costa Rican waters I had hooked and landed the fish I had waited so long to catch. During that first days fishing I caught four roosterfish up to about 15lb, which are small for the species, along with jack crevalle, African pompano, king mackerel and snapper.
The technique was simplicity in itself, the rig consisting of nothing more than a single hook tied to the end of the line. Bait was a live sardine, and this lightly hooked through the lip lobbed behind the boat as Antonio drove us at slow speed following a line parallel to and just outside of the breakers. With the bait working perhaps 100ft astern of us I sat holding the rod, all the time marvelling at the scenery. Bites were powerful arm wrenching affairs, the fish stopping the little sardine dead in its tracks; most had resulted in a solid hook up.
A little after six the following morning Capt. Antonio eased gently back the throttle and cut the engines. Slowly we glided to a halt near a huge shoal of sardinas that were dimpling the otherwise mirror calm surface of the Golfo Dulce. The four of us got to work with Sabiki bait catching rigs and within no time at all the boat live bait tank was once again heaving with fresh bait. Antonio cranked up the twin Johnson 130’s, and once again I sat back and marvelled at the National Geographic beauty of southern Costa Rica as we skimmed across Golfito Bay towards Cabo Matapalo and continued heading on a westerly course out into the Pacific Ocean.
After running for about five miles Antonio throttled back to trolling speed of about 6 knots, and Elvis set four rods out and fishing. Two rods were rigged with frozen mullet the baits fishing off each of the outriggers, the second pair were rigged with lures fished as flat lines just behind the prop wash. We were fishing for pez vela, the sailfish, and within ten minutes we raised our first fish
Costa Rica has a wealth of fishing to offer visiting anglers on both its Caribbean and Pacific coastline, but it is the exceptionally high standard of bill fishing, and especially its prolific sailfish, which draws the many anglers who fish here each year. Sailfish caught off the coast of Costa Rica are not just plentiful, by the standards of fish caught at most other destinations Central American fish are huge. Off the coast of East Africa an 80lb sailfish is a big fish, a 100lb fish is a fish of some note. Off the coast of Costa Rica sailfish weighing better than 120lb are a daily occurrence.
Costa Rican’s target their sailfish in several ways, one being the use of either trolled strip baits or dead mullet fished behind plastic skirts. They also offer another even more exciting way of hooking a sailfish, and this is where the live sardines we had caught came into play. A sardine is hooked and left swimming in the bait tank, ready for immediate use. When a sail is raised a crewman swiftly winds the bait or lure away from the fish, while the angler grabs the live bait rod and quickly free spools the bait back towards the fish.
Immediately the sailfish loses interest in the strip bait or lure, rushes at the live bait and eats it. This is one of the most visually exciting ways I have caught sailfish, its hands on fishing and you can both watch and feel the fish grab the bait, you allow it some slack as it swallow it, then when the fish turns away to swim off you push the lever drag to strike, allow the line to tighten and set the hooks.
The reaction of the sailfish is entirely predictable, it jumps once, twice, occasionally three times, then screams off at a mile a minute towards the horizon, before once again resuming the visually acrobatic display for which the species is rightly famous. If everything goes to plan about 15-20 minutes later you get to release what many regard as being the ultimate light tackle sports fish. My first Costa Rican sailfish was around 100lb barrier, my second was noticeably bigger. Most of the others Dar and I caught from the large numbers of fish we raised each day were of a similar size, the biggest well over 120lb.
On my last full days fishing, once again we headed out to the sailfish grounds at the crack of dawn, and barely had we started fishing when we released a 120lb fish that engulfed one of the lures. My trip was going very well, but I had one more personal goal I wanted to try and achieve: catching a sailfish on fly.
Fly fishing for billfish is a highly specialist form of angling that requires practiced teamwork from the the skipper, the crew and the angler. Hookless baits and teasers are trolled until a fish is raised and when it shows interest in a bait, the crewman allows the fish to get a tempting taste of the sweet flesh, before pulling it away from the sailfish. Immediately, the fish will swim after that bait, and once again the crewman lets it get a brief taste before pulling it free, all the time steadily working the fish towards the back of the boat.
While this ‘teasing’ of the fish is going on the angler gets ready to cast, and as soon as the now thoroughly enraged fish is within casting range, around 20-30ft from the transom, he calls for the boat to be put into neutral. At this point the capt stops the boat, the crewman snatches the bait out of the water, and the angler casts his fly.
Casting with the boat in neutral is not only a strict requirement for a legal IGFA capture, but it is the only way to secure a solid hook up when using a fly rod. Any attempt at setting the hook while under way would invariably prove futile, and almost certainly result in a snapped tippet as there is minimal stretch in a short length of 10kg BS mono line, and next to none in the fly line and backing.
I had rigged my Thomas & Thomas Vector 12wt fly rod with a Climax IGFA legal 10kg class tippet billfish leader to which, on Capt. Antonio’s advice, I had attached a lime green and chartreuse popper fly. The minimum legal length of tippet used is 15in (375mm) and this is attached to a maximum 12in (300mm) length of 100lb test mono shock tippet, that serves as some insurance against breakages caused by abrasion with the fish’s bill. The tolerances are fine, some would argue too fine, but I wanted my first sailfish on fly to qualify as an IGFA legal capture, so I played by the rules.
The ideal place to cast the fly is just behind or to the side of the fish, which will then have to turn to take the fly. This gives the angler his best possible chance of using the rod to sweep the fly into the corner of the fishes mouth, the best place to secure a firm hook hold. The angler then points the rod at the fish, drives the hook home by stripping the line until everything locks solid, then waits for all hell to break loose as the fish feels the steel and explodes into action!
The first two fish we raised failed to show any interest in the fly, but barely had we resumed trolling again when I spotted the spindle beak of another sailfish playing with the strip bait fishing off the starboard outrigger; the port rigger had been collapsed to give me room to cast. Elvis quickly grabbed the rod and allowed the fish to grab the bait, before snatching it free from its bill, winding in a few yards and repeating the process. Gradually he drew the fish into position and I shouted for Antonio to engage neutral and cast. Now the fish was eagerly swimming around astern of us, its enormous blue dorsal lit up an electric blue, looking for the bait Elvis had just pulled out of the water, but as I cast and then worked the popping fly it completely ignored it.
After several casts the fish drifted away from us and I had all but given up, when I saw the purple shadow what was possibly another fish gliding beneath the surface just 20ft back from the boat. I made another cast, jerking the fly to make it pop the second it hit the water, and this time the fish reacted instantly rising straight up to the fly and sucking it in. As I drove the hooks home with a couple of short strips, it swam slowly looking dumfound for a second or two, though it did not sit around looking dumfounded for long!
Realising its mistake it lit its after burners, and ran maybe 100 yards before exploding into the air in the first of a spectacular series of high, free-spinning jumps, which preceded a very long high speed run that in a blur ripped at least another 300 yards of backing from the reel. At this stage all I could do was point the rod at the fish, as I preyed the fragile tippet would hold.
Finally the fish settled down and I was able to start recovering some backing onto the now severely depleted spool of the reel, though it was over half an hour before we first saw the end of the 30 yard fly line. Three times I managed to get the end of the fly line through the tip ring and onto the reel, and three times it once again shot straight back out as the fish made a sudden dash for freedom, but somehow everything held and after 46 of the longest, most anxious, most exciting, most nerve-racking and most truly exhilarating minutes I had at the time ever spent with a fishing rod in my hands, Antonio leaned over the side and grabbed the bill of what he estimated to be a 80+ plus Pacific Sailfish.