Increase the odds of winning your next fishing tournament in Costa Rica by using these proven rigs and tackle.
Use these tips to get more billfish to the back of your boat.
There’s no doubting the caliber of the contestants. The Lucas Oil Offshore World Championship pits the top teams in the sport against each other. Each has demonstrated the skills, know-how, and execution in local waters, culminating in the exclusive invitation to compete against the best in big-game fishing. Yet tactics that work so well at home may not convert as easily to Costa Rica’s rapid-fire, light-tackle pace. With roving packs of Pacific sailfish and marlin, the final out-come will come down to the teams that maximize their opportunities quickly and successfully, as the 2016 championship demonstrated.
The 2016 title ultimately hinged on three critical releases, all coming in the final 15 minutes of the last day. Those extra points were enough to put the Trinidad and Tobago team (winners of the St. Lucia Annual Invitational Billfish Tournament) over the top. By scoring 45 total sailfish, the champions edged two teams from Brazil that were within easy striking distance with 42 and 38 fish apiece. The anglers were the ones who hooked, fought and successfully released those fish, with conclusive video documentation as proof. But the local crews played an integral role too. So to handicap the odds for all contestants this year, we asked a couple of veteran crews to share their proven formulas for winning.
Large spinning outfits have proven to be very effective on Pacific sails, with more and more boats incorporating them into their arsenal.
The OWC rules allow teams to use their own tackle, and many do because of the comfort level and to eliminate any potential problems with provided gear. It should be suitable for the special conditions typically encountered though.
“The biggest mistake anglers can make is bringing tackle meant for Atlantic sails,” says Capt. George Beckwith, a previous OWC contestant. “Those outfits just don’t have the line capacity needed for the bigger Pacific sails and the techniques used here for multiple hookups.” Beckwith is also a managing partner of Dragin’ Fly, the top OWC boat for two of the four years the event has been held in Costa Rica, including 2016, and a perennial circuit contender. Capt. Santiago “James” Smith Tucker runs the 42 Maverick with mate Alberto Ramos manning the pit.
“When a fish is hooked, we don’t immediately start backing down,” Beckwith adds. “The captain starts a slow turn to entice other fish into striking, so you might need 200 yards of line to keep that first one on.”
Dragin’ Fly uses Shimano Tyrnos 30 or Talica 25 two-speed conventional reels mounted on 6-foot, 6-inch Tallus rods. The Talicas have a slightly higher gear ratio (5.2-to-1 versus 5.0-to-1), so they are preferred for competition. The shorter rod lengths make it easier to grab the line out of the tips. The reels are spooled with high-visibility green Suffix or Diamond line for quick spotting.
“A couple of the Brazilian teams recently made a splash with big offshore spinning combos like the Stellas,” Beckwith adds. “They are super effective, with no backlash and no resistance when the line pops out of the clip. The mates either twist the line several times before locking it in or use a copper wire on the reel to hold it in place. The teams fishing with spinners had some solid hookup ratios.”
Michael Moretti regularly fishes the Central American tournament circuit, including the Quepos and Los Sueños events as a partner with Ken Cofer aboard Tranquilo, a 57 Spencer run by Capt. Victor Julio Lopez. The boat is based in Marina Pez Vela. Moretti uses Shimano tackle as well, including 30-pound-class reels spooled with 50-pound high-visibility yellow Momoi line. Seven-foot Key Largo rods complete the setup. For pitch baits, Tranquilo keeps a Talica 50 combo at the ready. Both crews use wind-on leaders with top shots of 50- to 100-pound fluorocarbon leader. The leaders are scaled down to the lower end of that range if the fish are especially finicky. Tournament rules stipulate that leaders are limited to 30 feet (9.14 meters). The combined length of the double line and leader cannot exceed 40 feet (12.19 meters) overall.
Squid dredges have become very popular in their effectiveness in raising billfish.
Dredges and Teasers
“We mix our dredges up,” Moretti says. “We [use] a lot of Mudflap fish, along with some plain Squid Nation squid in pink or red in smaller sizes. We’ve found the sails really like the squid if they’re smaller and longer. The plastic stuff works pretty well, but we’ll sometimes pull real mullet dredges too.”
Beckwith is a Squid Nation fan as well, rigging six to eight pink plastic squid on 300-pound monofilament. The lures don’t tangle as much with that test leader and are easier to retrieve using a Penn manual downrigger positioned in a gunwale rod holder. Holographic strip fish, plastic wedge tails with plenty of flash, and natural mullet round out the boat’s dredge possibilities.
“We don’t use daisy chains,” Beckwith says. “We prefer clean water. But we certainly do pull teasers, up to three of them in fact, including a big one for marlin. We run Laceration Lures off Daiwa electric reels down each side from the outriggers about 100 feet back. The third one is off the flying bridge, in the middle. It’s a good combo.”
Tranquilo runs a pair of teasers clipped off the transom to keep them down in the water. The crew puts out a selection of soft plungers like the Pakula Softease, as well as hard ones from Black Bart Lures.
“These sailfish are so fast, they can pop into the pattern in the blink of an eye, and they’ll often stay on the teasers all the way to the boat, so don’t ever give up on them,” Moretti says.
Chin-weighted ballyhoo, larger pitch baits for marlin, and your favorite teaser with a belly strip are top options for a successful day in Costa Rica.
The Offshore World Championship is a strictly dead-bait, lures or combo format. Live bait is not allowed in the tournament. Non-offset circle hooks are also required whenever bait is used, and the universal bait of choice is ballyhoo.
“Good fresh baits are sometimes a challenge to find in Costa Rica. You can’t always guarantee availability, so we always bring down our own ballyhoo,” Beckwith says. “And we always want a selection of different sizes so we can adjust to how the fish are biting.”
Dragin’ Fly’s ballyhoo are rigged naked with chin weights, floss and Eagle Claw 7/0 or 8/0 2004EL circle hooks, depending on the bait size. “We’ve experimented with other hooks, but we always come back to these,” he adds. “The smaller diameter wire and stickier points give a lot better penetration.”
Chin weights are the biggest variable, and Ramos uses sizes ranging from 1/4 ounce up to 1 ounce, depending on the sea conditions. Heavier rigs allow the baits to swim deeper.
“All the mates down here are professional riggers,” Beckwith says. “Some like the ’hoo to skip on the surface, while others prefer them down 2 feet so the fish can spot ’em. There’s a local saying, ‘the heavier the weight, the dumber the mate,’ but you really do need a variety to match the conditions and how the fish are reacting.”
Under the OWC format, teams rotate each day among the participating charter boats. All include professional, full-time crews, but there may be slight differences in how each one operates. Beckwith recommends pre-fishing at least a couple of times before the tournament to learn some of those different crew tendencies and acquire valuable experience. If you find a mate you like during the practice sessions, you can get him to rig your ballyhoo in preparation for the main event.
Moretti prefers to use local ballyhoo to ensure they are fresh. He says he hasn’t had any difficulty acquiring them. The Tranquilo mates also rig with the same sizes of Eagle Claw circle hooks and floss, adding chin weights of 3/4 to 1 ounce. Different colors of floss help distinguish sizes quickly.
“It’s not unusual to have double and triple hookups, even quads at times, and when you do, having the heavier chin weights helps keep the baits in the water during all the maneuvering of the boat. You’ll often score another release because of that heavier weight,” Moretti says.
Pacific sailfish grow larger than Atlantic counterparts.
Even though Costa Rican marlin are just as likely to eat the smallest ballyhoo in the spread, the majority of tournament boats opt to carry a larger pitch bait rigged on a heavier outfit in case the higher-scoring billfish show up. In Tranquilo’s case, that offering will be a horse ballyhoo with a chugger-style lure in front to attract instant attention. Dragin’ Fly stays with a natural presentation. A medium-size bonito is ideal, although a large mullet is a suitable backup. Either bait is rigged with a circle hook to match its size.
“The pitch bait will usually ride in the cooler all week long. But it pays to be ready whenever the man in the blue suit shows up. Those extra points could really make the difference in the final standings,” Beckwith says.
Even though there is no limit on the number of rods permitted in the championship, Capt. James and the Dragin’ Fly crew prefer a simple spread of four rods. The dredge is close, off the port transom corner with a naked ballyhoo bait trailing not far behind. A teaser running farther back off the starboard corner is matched with another trailing bait. Twin teasers off the outriggers, 100 feet back, run slightly ahead of the dual companion ballyhoo.
In ideal sea conditions, Tranquilo normally deploys a six-rod spread with twin flat presentations off the stern, plus two short and two long baits off the outriggers. Two teasers and two dredges complete the presentation. On both boats, a marlin pitch bait is always within quick reach in the cockpit.
Fishing teams must be prepared for that less-common marlin bite. The extra points are vital for a tournament win.
“The fishing in southern Costa Rica can be really fast-paced, but it’s pretty straightforward,” Moretti says. “It pays to follow the radio reports. The fleet certainly does, and you’ll usually encounter a crowd whenever there’s a big concentration of fish. When the bite is on, it’s really on, and it can be nonstop, so you have to take advantage and score as many points as possible when it is.
“I like to leave it 100 percent on the captain. That way you can blame him or give him all the credit,” he adds, with a laugh. “Seriously, these crews have been fishing all their lives, and they know these waters extremely well. They know where to find the bait using electronics or by spotting birds. And once you find the bait, the billfish won’t be far behind. Then it’s up to you to catch them.”
Beckwith has similar advice for all championship contestants, novices, and veterans alike.
“Trust the captain to put you on fish,” he says. “Don’t try to outthink him. These crews are all very competitive. They want to do well, and they want you to do well. So let them do their jobs. But you’ve got to be on top of your game too. If you want to sit inside the salon and eat guacamole and chips, go ahead. If you want to really compete at the highest level, then you’re better off sitting out on the covering boards all day long with the rod in your hand, ready for action. Reaction time is so much better when you can feel the line as it goes through the rigger clip. The less resistance there is, the more bites you’re gonna get, and that’s how you pad the scorecard.”
Like any professional team sport, big-game tournament fishing requires talent, skill, coordination, the proper equipment (and baits) and a strategic game plan. The local knowledge is already provided by the charterboat crews. So it’s up to each team to execute, to get on the scoreboard and keep on scoring with each available opportunity. Because in the Offshore World Championship, every single billfish matters, and that Grand Champion trophy is going home with those having the sharpest competitive edge.