For nearly a century, Costa Rica has been known as a promised land for anyone who loves the feel of a trophy game fish on the other end of the line.
BY SAM WHITE
From the mountainous northern Pacific coast to the central beaches to the southern lands that border Panama and across to the lush Caribbean coast, Costa Rica is a wonderland of verdant jungles, pristine waters and endless angling opportunities. The only questions are where to begin and which species to target.
The Pacific Ocean borders a long stretch of the southwestern coast, with a smaller strip of Caribbean real estate on the opposite side. Costa Rica maintains an extremely strong dedication toward preserving the great bounty of its natural resources, with roughly 25 percent of the nation’s landmass set aside as protected national parks. Despite occupying less than 1 percent of the world’s overall landmass, Costa Rica houses as much as 5 percent of the planet’s biodiversity, a testament to the richness of its rainforests, jungles, beaches and volcanic savannahs.
And the biological riches don’t stop at the water’s edge: Both the Pacific and Caribbean are filled with a tremendous variety of game fish. The annual run of Pacific sailfish is a great example — double-digit release days don’t even raise eyebrows back at the dock. It’s just another great day of sport fishing in paradise.
The Big Four
There are four distinct regions in Costa Rica for saltwater sport fishing: northern Pacific, centered around Flamingo and Papagayo; central Pacific, consisting of Quepos and Jaco/Los Sueños; south-ern Pacific/Golfito; and Caribbean. Each has its own season for certain species, while others may be found there year-round.
The quaint seaside community of Flamingo serves as the unofficial angling capital of the northern Pacific region, although there’s also quite a bit of fishing activity in Tamarindo, Playa del Coco and others. Marina Papagayo is the only true marina in the area, with several charter operations home-ported there. Capt. Skeet Warren has fished these waters since 1990 — and full-time in Flamingo since 2007 — at the helm of Bushwacker, a 42-foot Bertram.
When asked about the best times to fish in his area, he says, “For blue, black and striped marlin, the best time is generally November through March. We also get a second run of blue marlin during June, July and August. Sailfish can be caught year-round but the best fishing is usually November through August. We also have a great year-round fishery for roosterfish, bottom fish and dorado.”
While certain fisheries in other places are highly dependent on factors like the moon phases or the tides, Warren says these have little real effect on the fishing in northern Costa Rica. “I have seen a lot of clients book their trips around predictable factors like these and in my opinion, it is definitely hit-or-miss. Even unpredictable factors like water clarity are not as important. I’ve had plenty of days where the mate would grab the leader and the water was so dirty you couldn’t see the marlin or sailfish. The presence or absence of bait is probably the most important factor of all.” Warren concludes, “We have tourist seasons, not fishing seasons. We catch fish all year. Conditions are constantly changing, so we have to change and adapt as well. The bottom line is that the more time you can spend on the water the better your chances of a trip of a lifetime.”
By and large, the Central Pacific region of Costa Rica is the area traveling anglers know best. There are international marinas in Quepos and also in Los Sueños a bit farther up the coast, and the fishery stretches as far north as Puerto Carrillo and south down to Drake Bay.
For the past six seasons, Capt. James Smith has run the 42-foot Maverick charter Dragin Fly out of Los Sueños, reaching some incredible milestones in a short time. In 2012 his anglers won the first leg of the prestigious Los Sueños Signature Series, and then went on to capture the title of Top Series Team, a hard-fought honor that came with a $50,000 bonus. “We’ve got great fishing year-round,” he says. “And we’ve never had to reschedule two days in a row due to bad weather. Our marlin fishing is great just about any time. From June through September of 2013, we were making overnight trips to the offshore seamounts and having double-digit days on blues.”
He says that black marlin can also appear at any time but are most often found tight to the reefs and drop-offs in the area, while striped marlin are usually found in small pods farther offshore, with the best fishing occurring off Cabo Blanco from November through January. Sailfish are also year-round targets anytime clear water with a little current can be located. Capt. Franklin Arrieta Jimenez, who charters the Sea Hawk, a 36-foot Cabo Express from Quepos, is a native son and one of the area’s most respected skippers. Fishing in his region begins when cooler water arrives in December, with excellent billfishing through the end of April.
“On good days we’ll have more than 20 bites from Pacific sails,” he says. “There’s a lot of bait and the currents are also working in our favor.” Fishing usually starts about 20 miles off Quepos but they’ll go as far as necessary to find the fish. “During the 2013 Offshore World Championship we were running 40 miles,” he says. The team also catches a respectable number of marlin too. “Last season we released 113 marlin. Most were blues but we had a few stripeys and blacks in the mix.”
Capt. Richard Chellemi’s Gamefisher II, a custom Gamefisherman charter boat operation, specializes in billfishing up and down the coast but Chellemi says he especially enjoys Quepos. “I really love fishing out of there,” he says. “It’s out of the trade winds, which can cause windy conditions in the summertime in the northern part of the country. Quepos is almost always calm with very little rain from December through April, which means perfect fishing conditions. “I look for water temperature, bait, current and clear water,” he says.
For blue and black marlin, he prefers water in the 83- to 85-degree range, while striped marlin can be found in cooler water, about 80 degrees. Chellemi also points out that the water doesn’t have to be clear to hold fish. “Our best day of sailfishing ever was in army-green water, but there was a lot of bait and the fish were there because of it,” he says. “That’s the most important factor in fishing off central Costa Rica — the presence of bait. Find it and you’ll likely find good fishing.”
Because of this combination of nearly flat-calm seas and fantastic fishing, combined with the brand-new Marina Pez Vela, Quepos has been given the unique honor of hosting the ultra-prestigious Offshore World Championship tournament. Teams from the four corners of the angling world descend upon this region to take advantage of terrific fishing for a variety of species, but they also have the opportunity to experience what Costa Ricans call “Pura Vida,” loosely translated as “the good life.” From the jungle tours and exotic wildlife of nearby Manuel Antonio National Park to the laid-back, friendly vibe of Quepos itself, it’s a trip that you won’t forget.
The port city of Golfito takes center stage in this region, with an excellent protected harbor and several small marinas. In the last few seasons it’s been home to some incredible blue marlin fishing. Anglers exploring the distant seamounts that range from 60 to more than 100 miles from shore report marlin in numbers that are off the charts. It’s possible to release 20 or more blues on these multiday trips and see two or three times that many in the spread.
Capt. Bobby McGuiness helped pioneer this fishery, running his 37-foot game boat Cazador to the offshore seamounts and returning with eye-popping blue marlin numbers. He even offers clients a guaranteed marlin hookup if you book one of his two- or three-day extended charter trips. There’s also the Zancudo Lodge, a short ride by boat from Golfito, where guests fish from a fleet of fast outboard-powered center- consoles for a variety of species including marlin and sailfish, but also tuna on spinning rods and bottom fish via deep-jigging and more. Crocodile Bay in Puerto Jimenez has a similar operation, targeting the usual pelagics but also adding a wider variety of inshore fishing using both artificials and live bait in the expansive Golfo Dulce.
One species dominates the conversation when it comes to the Caribbean coast: tarpon. The fishery here is one of the world’s best for the silver king. Whether you’re fishing in the Rio Colorado or just off Tortuguero, tarpon can be caught year-round, with record-size monsters appearing regularly. Add some spectacular snook fishing, along with other rod-bending inshore species like jack and snapper, and you’ve found a special mixed-bag fishery. Popular lodges include the Rio Colorado Lodge and the Silver King Lodge in Barra del Colorado and the Parismina Lodge in Parismina. Wherever you go, Costa Rica has choice angling opportunities around every corner. So get out there and make some memories!