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January 14, 2010

Costa Rica's Jurassic Park

A huge new Costa Rican marina/resort complex promises five-star luxury, pristine jungle and wide-open fishing

Roosters Rule the Roost
While acknowledging that nothing beats a live bait, I still couldn't resist throwing out some poppers while the mates bridled 'em up. My first cast of the morning scored a wahoo that nailed a Strike Pro Tuna Hunter Junior lure in a vicious and spectacular strike. That result encouraged me the next morning to have at the ready, on my medium spinning outfit, a Yo-Zuri Surface Bull. After a few throws, a respectable cow dolphin (dorado) whacked it for a great visual battle.

While that fish helped make my morning, I couldn't quite forget about the all-tackle world-record dorado of 87 pounds caught outside the Gulf of Papagayo in 1976. Other Papagayo records include two impressive fly-rod fish, a 124-pound Pacific sail on 8-pound tippet (1989) and a 57-pound wahoo on 12-pound tippet (1995).

Interestingly, not long after I landed that dorado, right in the same area, something inhaled a slow-trolled runner. In this case, Joey Prochazka of Z-Man Lures was ready on the starboard corner to make the grab. He had his hands full with what turned out to be a pretty impressive first-ever roosterfish in the vicinity of 60 pounds. On a TLD 20 spooled with 30-pound Momoi IGFA-rated mono, Prochazka - who knows about tough fish from amberjack and jack crevalle off his native North Carolina coast - discovered in a protracted battle how powerful roosters are. That afternoon, Sjon (pronounced Shawn), Harless' charming spouse and as enthusiastic an angler as you'll find, boated another rooster almost as large.

Enough anglers have made the discovery that "We get more and more guests coming each year just to catch big roosterfish," Harless says. "We release several every year in the 80- to 90-pound range."

Deep in the Jungle
The 30-mile run to Playa Blanca takes about an hour and 20 minutes from Marina Papagayo. En route, you can expect to pass miles of pristine coastline and rugged headlands and reefs, including the famed Bat Islands. And pass them you will: This area is part of the Santa Rosa National Park - a huge chunk of the state of Guanacaste that's off-limits to development, and the surrounding waters to any sort of fishing. That prohibition extends out from shore to depths of 50 meters (just more than 150 feet).

Marina Papagayo has the distinction of being the closest major facility to Playa Blanca's happy hunting grounds. It's part of a multibillion-dollar new development known as Peninsula Papagayo that includes a five-star resort, an Arnold Palmer Signature golf course, much more under construction and even more coming.

Somehow "development" and "pristine wilderness" seem antithetical. But we're not talking tract homes and strip malls. This development has big money behind it and is intended for well-heeled players. Marina manager Roberto Koppel stresses that nothing happens arbitrarily on these 2,300 acres overlooking the Pacific. Planning has been meticulous in keeping "in harmony with the environment," as the development's literature says.

But beyond the hype, the facilities already completed along with those under way are impressive. The peninsula retains its pristine quality, yet the resorts, estates, condos and villas offer world-class luxury.

The villa in which we stayed qualified in all respects. At the same time, we never had to go far to remember where we were. In fact, we didn't even have to get out of bed for a memory check, at least in the pre-dawn darkness when troops of howler monkeys within a peashooter's range of the villa obviated any need for an alarm clock. Definitely not Kansas.

Bait-and-Switch for Record Fish
While Koppel keeps busy overseeing development of the very impressive Marina Papagayo, with 180 slips ready now and 200 more slips on the way, he did take some time out one day to join us. His short sabbatical from the office paid off with the biggest rooster of many on our trip, estimated at close to 70 pounds. We'd become believers in Playa Blanca's popularity as a hangout for some massive roosterfish. Sjon holds the women's 130-pound-class rooster, a 64.4-pounder, but she's hoping to beat herself with a pending 68.2-pound Playa Blanca catch. She also holds the 130-pound line-class record for the Pacific almaco jack she caught here, weighing 56.2 pounds. In fact, the Papagayo region has recently produced a number of line-class records for almacos to 85 pounds. Also, Harless cites many big cubera taken in the area, as one would expect, given the rocky headlands and reefs, along with other reef-loving species.

Of course, billfish generate particular interest and are a major target of the aptly named Billfish Safaris. "Our specialty," says Harless, "is bait-and-switch" with light tackle, though these boats hook plenty of good fish pulling large, high-speed trolling lures. Besides the Playa Blanca area, says Darrell Furton, Billfish Safaris' general manager, good action can start just off the mouth of Papagayo Bay itself, as well as south of the bay off what's known as "the shelf," where depths plummet from 700 to more than 2,000 feet.

If wahoo are your cup of tea, time your visit for late summer through early fall when they can be so thick, says Harless, they actually make a nuisance of themselves, at least to billfish hopefuls, chopping up live baits right and left.

Papagayo Winds
While fishing is definitely a year-round sport here, from December through March not much effort occurs to the north of the bay thanks to the "Papagayo winds" that blow from the northwest at a steady 15 to 25 knots, gusting to 40. Harless says skippers during the winter generally work waters to the south. Don't expect calm conditions there either, "But it's fishable," Harless says. And the good news is that it's an excellent time for close encounters of the marlin kind, for both blues and blacks.

When conditions prove rougher than anglers may prefer for a long run or when clients have just a half-day, Billfish Safaris boats can do quite well fishing inside the large Papagayo Bay for nearshore, light-tackle game fish - roosters, sierra mackerel, Pacific jacks and possibly the odd snook, plus in deeper areas, football yellowfin and school-size dorado at times, Furton says. Just before we arrived, says Dan Eaffaldano, Papagayo Marina manager, a sailfish was spotted swimming just outside the marina. Inside the marina, by the way, huge snook reportedly prowl. You can look, but don't touch: Fishing in the marina is verboten. However, Harless says, at times clients can work shorelines within the bay and along the coast, spotting and casting to snook and jacks.

If winter means some rocking and rolling, early fall, while calm, usually requires daily use of foul-weather gear; it's a fishy but wet time.

Anglers looking for shots at billfish and other blue-water pelagics as well as big roosterfish all in a day's fishing can do it in five-star luxury at Peninsula Papagayo - whether staying at opulent resorts to fish with charter boats or staying in a private boat docked at the new, top-shelf marina.