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August 03, 2005

Costa Rica: Summertime Sailing

Costa Rica's North Pacific Coast Offers an "Off-Season" Option for Spindlebeaks.

The 32-foot Palm Beach hummed across the Golfo de Papagayo toward Bat Island. A mola-mola surfaced nearby, and turtles submerged at the rush of our wake. Birds squawked and hovered above a school of porpoises, feeding methodically.

As the captain slowed the boat, four sailfish swam by. A roosterfish comb raked the surface before our mate could deploy the baits.

And it was the "off" season.

Granted, the hot sailfish bite off most of Costa Rica's Pacific Coast occurs from January through April. But venture a little farther north, off Flamingo and Ocotal, and the late spring and summer - the beginning of the rainy season - signal great off-peak months for spindlebeaks.

In addition, a strong southwest wind brings wahoo, and roosterfish almost always range near shore. Blue marlin make an occasional midsummer appearance, and an abundance of other game fish from Sierra mackerel to bonito and tuna mean continual action.

Late July, when we made our trip, brings frequent afternoon rains to the shoreline, but 27 miles south of Ocotal and about 15 miles off the green, mountainous coast, we were treated to a flat-calm, griddle-hot sea and brilliant sun. Offshore runs average a bit longer during summer as freshwater runoff can affect currents and water clarity. However, conditions change daily, and captains may find the fish within just 3 or 4 miles of shore.

Hot and Hotter
Our first full fishing day began at 7:15 a.m. as our captain, Pablo Vicente from Ocotal Beach Resort, motored away from a quiet cove off the beach where dozens of sport-fishermen lay moored. Pablo brought the 32-foot Morgan, Ahi, up to cruising speed and settled in for a 90-minute run. His mate, Mauricio, opened a cooler full of fresh ballyhoo and began bridling chin-weighted baits for circle-hook rigs. With unweighted baits, he sewed shut the gills and threaded a circle hook through the bait's nose. My husband, Spud, and I staked out spots in the fighting chair and on the engine-cover bolsters to observe.

Moments later, we experienced a bad omen when hot oily water blew out of the engine hatch. But Pablo radioed the dock for a new belt, and we were back underway after a brief respite. We ran south, near Flamingo, then headed offshore. Pablo told me we were trolling at about 6 knots around a seamount that rose to within 350 feet of the surface.

Mauricio set out four outfits: an 80-pound-class Everol reel and three Internationals - two 30s and a 50TW. He deployed a pink Mold Craft soft head as a teaser and skirted all but the prop-wash 'hoo. He also used a Dancin' Dolphin as a hook bait on the port flat line.

Just a few boats dotted the horizon, all trolling lazy patterns over the vivid blue sea. We were lulled into a drowsy state watching the baits and the bubble trails. Suddenly, two sails swam into the spread, and Pablo rattled off instructions in Spanish to Mauricio. We watched one sail take the starboard rigger bait, and Mauricio lunged for the rod.

The second fish tapped at the prop-wash bait, uncommitted. Spud picked up the rod and dropped back the bait, hoping the sinking offering would tempt the finicky fish. Mauricio's fish jumped once and seemed well-hooked. Mauricio traded rods with Spud, and our first Pacific sail tail-walked wildly, slamming its 100-plus-pound body onto the surface in a frenzied fit. Then, just as quickly, it calmed, as though the heat of the morning made it sweat.

Spud had opted to catch the fish standing up, and placed the rod butt into a low-slung belt. He worked the fish close to the boat, and I shot photos as Mauricio removed the circle hook from the corner of its mouth, revived and released the fish. Rough handling, including hauling fish aboard for photos, can place undue pressure on sails stressed in warmer water. I usually request mates keep fish in the water.

Land of Plenty?
While my perspective may be a little extreme, I felt I was among agreeable anglers. Costa Rica does go farther than many countries with regard to conservation. In 2003, Costa Rica became the first nation to mandate the recreational use of circle hooks while billfishing. And though some captains and mates grumble over missed fish, they use the hooks.

But the country has lagged on some issues. A national fisheries law, passed in mid-February this year, finally prohibits the practice of shark finning. Some conservationists say that prohibition should have happened long ago. They have criticized the Costa Rican government for looking the other way while foreign vessels landed fins. The new law puts fines and jail terms behind the ban. The law requires the use of turtle-excluder devices on shrimp trawls, too. However, the government will still be allowed to grant free permits to foreign vessels fishing for tuna in national waters. Vessels that target tuna with longlines also catch billfish.

Recent efforts to tag Costa Rican sailfish as part of the Pacific Adopt-A-Billfish program should begin to tell researchers more about migration patterns and habitat. It is expected that a good deal of mixing occurs among the endemic populations throughout Central America. Conservationists hope to convince affected countries to manage billfish stocks cooperatively.

During the past three years, National Marine Fisheries Service researchers have tagged 30 sails, two blue marlin and one black marlin with satellite pop-up tags, according to David Holts at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla. Of all the billfish caught on circle hooks and tagged, 97 percent survived through at least 18 days, Holts said. The rest of the tagging data will be presented this fall at the fourth International Billfish Symposium in Avalon, California.

Maybe a Marlin

An hour after we released our last sail, another pair pestered the baits. One fish took mealtime a little more seriously and nabbed the starboard-rigger 'hoo. It jumped twice going away. The fish felt strong and took a series of short runs before nearing the boat. As its pulling strength began to wane, it became more acrobatic, providing a spectacular close-up show. At the boat, Mauricio handled the fish with care and released it.

After three hours of fishing, we had six knockdowns, released two fish and jumped one off. "Every day is different," Pablo said. "Sometimes you raise 10 to 15 fish a day. Today has been slow. One boat has raised seven; the others, six. On a new moon, the fishing is slower."

After a civilized box lunch from the Ocotal resort kitchen, Pablo put a shotgun line out using the center rigger with a bridled live bonito we'd caught as bait. In his 20 years as a captain in the Ocotal region, the biggest blue marlin he has caught weighed 900 pounds. From the bridge, he suddenly pointed: "Free-jumping marlin off the bow, 300 yards."

My adrenaline kicked up a notch, and I tried to tell myself that the chances we'd cross paths with that marlin and that it would eat a bait were not high. Then Pablo saw the fish nearing the spread.

"Marlin, marlin, marlin!" he yelled as he free-spooled the rig with the bonito. Against all odds, the marlin picked up the bonito and jumped twice. It spit the bait before Spud could get to the chair.  

Fervently, we searched for the marlin again. But after 30 minutes, we pulled the lines and motored back to port.

By the Numbers
In our three days fishing off Ocotal, we witnessed the meticulous nature of local mates such as Mauricio and Errol Donny Canales Acevedo, our mate on the Palm Beach. They kept hooks razor-sharp, baits properly prepped, knives honed and wet rigging towels ready. They worked as quickly to bridle baits as any production-line seam stitcher. And while we did miss some sailfish, the mates were able on the drop-back and prompt at retrieving lines.

The captains we met all had 20-plus years of experience. The boats were yeomanlike, and the gear was well-used but also well-maintained.

Capt. Nelson Mendez Garcia piloted his 30-foot Phoenix Tuna Fish on our final day to nearly the same waters we plied with Captain Pablo. Nelson's mate, José, prepped the ballyhoo with circle hooks similarly to Mauricio, though José used slightly shorter 4- to 5-foot leaders (instead of 6 to 9) and added strip baits to his spread. Running south, we passed pinnacles of rock offshore. They looked improbable, like dollops of meringue slung into the sea. Volcanic, we presumed.
José pulled out a variety of rods - Penn, Star, Kunnan, customs - all with roller guides. All featured Penn Internationals. He deployed a conehead teaser on a port flat line - blue, yellow and pink. A black-and-green Softhead went on a starboard flat line. I noted that the baits and teasers all ran on the second and third waves behind the boat. The sea filled with large swells.

Not five minutes after setting the spread, José spotted a sailfish on the
surface off our starboard beam. It seemed to have a partner lurking deeper. The first fish attacked a flat-line bait, dropped it. Then it picked up a second bait, but something seemed wrong. The sail lunged and shook but came quickly boat-side, its bill wrapped by the leader. José freed the fish, and it swam down and away quickly.

Nelson resumed his trolling pattern - a mostly north to south direction just inshore of half a dozen boats and a wide slick. Thirty minutes after our first hookup, a second sail approached from the port side. José picked up the port flat-line rod and reeled quickly, exciting the sail. He dropped the bait back, and the sail picked it up.

This fish fought better, using its 110-pound body to launch horizontal and vertical defenses. I remember remarking how much more finicky these Pacific sails seemed, compared with south Florida sailfish, yet how much bigger and stronger they were.

"Reel fast when he jumps," Nelson reminded from the bridge.

No Rest for the Weary
Once we were two-for-three, everyone relaxed a bit. But the action didn't stop. Two sails came up on the teasers but wouldn't eat the baits José offered. One fish stole the tail off a ballyhoo before departing. An hour later, we had a knockdown on the port rigger, but retrieved a bait cut in half.

Fifteen minutes later, another fish attacked the port rigger. José dropped back, reeled, dropped back, reeled. The fish finally bit a few feet from the boat. It came to hand green in five minutes. Thirty minutes later, we raised a seventh fish, then an eighth sail shortly after. These fish hit and spit. Nelson's ire seemed to increase as did the staccato sound of his comments to José.

While we expected to hit double digits before the end of this trolling day, we saw only one more fish - a free jumper off the starboard bow. We hung a peanut dolphin and kept it in the water to entice bigger bulls or the random marlin.

Not bad for the off-season.

Getting to Ocotal

A coastal town in the Guanacaste Region, Ocotal rises up on steep cliffs and clusters along small beaches. Though the area's local nickname is the Gold Coast, these mountains gush with green during summer.

Guanacaste boasts more national parks and wildlife refuges than any other Costa Rican province. The rugged landscape also features semiactive volcanoes, geothermal springs, endangered tropical forests, wetlands, rivers, lakes, sea-turtle nesting beaches and mangrove estuaries. Besides offshore and nearshore fishing, visitors can scuba dive or snorkel, surf, swim, kayak, windsurf, bike, hike, ride horses and explore spectacular land- and sea-based natural wonders.

During our late-July/early-August visit, we entered the country by river from Nicaragua, clearing customs in Los Chiles. Our Nicaragua host, Philippe Tisseaux (, drove us through the rain forest, past the legendary Arenal volcano and down to the sea and the Ocotal Beach Resort.

The resort had changed hands the day before we arrived, which created a few surprises for everyone. However, with help from Tisseaux and our Costa Rica outfitter - Costa Rica Outdoors - we soon enjoyed a spacious bungalow with a private pool on its terrace, overlooking a quiet cove and a colorful collection of fishing vessels. The resort's two restaurants served delicious seafood; on our last night we ate on the main restaurant's deck high above the Golfo de Papagayo. A brilliant sunset marked the day, and far below, two whales dove and blew.

If you must leave the resort, you can head down the hill to check out the tourist treasures in Playa del Coco, where there are also a few local eateries. Because of the steep inclines, the resort keeps drivers available for the short trips to and from town.

Ocotal Beach Resort runs several fishing vessels, and a handful of local captains are also available. Depending on the season, expect to pay about $450 for a half-day offshore charter and $750 for a full day. Most boats carry multiple passengers. Panga fishing is also available.

When it was time to head home, a van took us to the Liberia airport at a cost of $20 per person. We flew Nature Air from Liberia to San José, where we boarded an American Airlines flight to Miami.

Travel and Tourism Contacts:

Gabrielle Conea, Corporate Leisure Specialists
North Miami Beach, Florida

Jerry Ruhlow
Costa Rica Outdoors

Costa Rican National Chamber of Tourism

Costa Rica Tourism Board

Costa Rica Tourism and Travel Bureau

Ocotal Beach Resort

For current information on entry and exit fees, passport requirements and other travel issues for Americans, including safety and crime, check the U.S. State Department's Web site: