How to Fish Costa Rica with Jigs and Poppers

For a feast of action and variety, trying jigging and popping the Zancudo Area of Costa Rica

Costa Rica fishing - a bluefin trevally
Just one of the many game fish waiting to clobber jigs are bluefin trevally like this big boy caught by John Bretza with Okuma (right) and Capt. Tito Mendoza Gutierrez.Adrian E. Gray

Throwing topwaters (poppers and stick baits) and dropping metal speed jigs is, for many anglers, the ultimate in active sport fishing for big fish. Costa Rica is known as a great spot to troll for billfish and tuna, but what about jigging and popping. A group of anglers traveled to Zancudo Lodge on the country's southernmost coast to find out.

Costa Rica fishing - locator map
Zancudo Resort sits near the bottom of the Golfo Dulce, just above the border with Panama.Courtesy Google Earth

Big Swells Change Up the Game Plan

“The largest swell we’ve had in years is supposed to start hitting the coast tomorrow.” Not exactly what one wants to hear at the start of a long-awaited fishing trip. Tomorrow was just when I was scheduled to fly into Golfito, in southern Costa Rica, to fish those waters for several days.

Costa Rica fishing - drift fishing
While the swells around the outer reaches of the Golfo Dulce were sizeable, the ocean remained reasonably calm.Doug Olander / Sport Fishing

The news came from Gregg Mufson, the owner of Zancudo Lodge, on the eastern side of the vast Golfo Dulce. I was dining at a restaurant in the capital, San Jose, joined by Mufson and three longtime fishing friends, John Bretza (with Okuma), Adrian Gray (with the International Game Fish Association) and Paul Michele (with Navionics). All of us would be flying out early the next morning — and would be on the Pacific, fishing, a few hours later.
"Guess it's time to change up our game plan," Michele said.
We had originally talked of working in close to the rocky coast on our first day, fishing for some of the huge roosterfish that prowl those waters. But a big swell would make that far too dangerous.

Costa Rica fishing - roosterfish
This coast is known for the roosterfish that patrol around rocky outcroppings and along sandy beaches — when conditions are right to fish those areas.Adrian E. Gray

But we wouldn’t be resting on our laurels or our butts back at the lodge while waiting for the swells to subside. We’d come armed with jigs and poppers, and we weren’t afraid to use ’em. (Well, except near the rocky shore.)

An Obligatory Bait Stop

Costa Rica fishing - Zancudo Lodge Contender center console
Having a plan, on the first morning the four of us headed out the mouth of the Sabalo River (which borders the lodge on the east) on one of the resort's 32-foot Contenders, in its eye-catching blue wrap, with Capt. Gutierrez at the helm. (While resort guests can request a mate, typically the skipper will do it all.)Doug Olander / Sport Fishing
Costa Rica fishing - fishing for live bait
Before we headed to the outside of the Golfo Dulce, keen though we were to start fishing jigs, Mendoza first stopped at everyone’s favorite sabiki spot in these waters, the rusty but reliable marker in the channel just outside the Golfito harbor.Doug Olander / Sport Fishing

Local wooden boats had already staked out spots and, armed with hand lines, were bringing in their bait for the morning.

Costa Rica fishing - depthsounder
Thick schools of Pacific thread herring drifted this way and that in the 15- to 20-foot depths around the marker, forming solid red clouds on the sounder.Doug Olander / Sport Fishing
Costa Rica fishing - herring
We invested a good half-hour catching silver wigglies for the baitwell, until we had enough for Mendoza to announce, “Keep ’em in the boat. Let’s go fishing.”Doug Olander / Sport Fishing

Fishing Around the Monolithic Rock Called Matapalo

Shortly after that, still in the gulf, we stopped over one spot in Mendoza’s book of GPS numbers, but found little action and moved on — to the most popular realm of roosterfish in these parts, Matapalo Rock. Like a sentinel guarding the western entrance to the Golfo Dulce, this unmistakable monolith juts from the Pacific just offshore.

Costa Rica fishing - 3D Contour Map of  Matapolo Rock
3-D contour imaging reveals of the subterranean topograph around Matapalo and shows why we found jigging so productive in the waters nearby.Courtesy Mark Pringle / NSIWorldwide.com

Despite the nearly constant attention roosters here receive from boats, with several resorts and charter operations in the vicinity, Matapalo is still hard to beat.
Today, though, it would be hard for us to fish, with each of the massive swells that piled up as they hit shallower water threatening to engulf the tall rock.
But away from shore, the swells were in fact so far apart that we scarcely noticed them on the otherwise smooth ocean. Mendoza stayed well clear and chose to drift a good way outside the rock, in the Pacific.

Costa Rica fishing - depthsounder shows fish
The meter showed very clearly that there was no lack of life beneath the surface; from about 40 feet to bottom (80 feet and deeper, as we drifted), thick bands of bait and smaller marks of predators were evident.Doug Olander / Sport Fishing

It didn't take Bretza long to score. From the corner of my eye, I saw his rod (one of Okuma's new spiral carbon technology, or SCT, models) yanked down violently at the top of a jig sweep.

Costa Rica fishing - an African pompano
Bretza's prize turned out to be an African pompano that slammed his speed jig. Clearly it wasn’t alone: Shortly after, while working a white bucktail jig with a plastic Gulp! tail, a happy Paul Michele pulled in a twin.Doug Olander / Sport Fishing

A Piscatorial Potpourri

Those African pompano marked the start of some great variety fishing. That day and the next, we added to our list of jig-caught fish a number of other game fish. That included a good almaco jack and trophy-size amberjack that Michele and Gray manhandled to the boat, a big bluefin trevally that Bretza jigged up, Pacific red snapper, and a very large yellow snapper. Add a Pacific horse-eye jack, and we ended up with five species of trevally.
We also saw one roosterfish and hooked another, though it came unbuttoned before arriving boatside.

Costa Rica fishing - a yellow snapper
Adrian Gray realized only after the fact (“the fact” being filleting of the fish for dinner) that his big yellow snapper could have beaten the existing 12-pound record for the species. (Given Gray’s position with the International Game Fish Association, the irony of that missed record was not lost on any of us!)Doug Olander / Sport Fishing
Costa Rica fishing - an amberjack
We found both amberjack and almacos willing customers for jigs dropped their way. Here, Paul Michele is about to release a monster AJ.Doug Olander / Sport Fishing

Currents over these nearshore shelves moved at a good clip; that may have accounted for the activity of predators here. It did require us to make pretty frequent drifts.
We tried jigging farther out, in water 300 to 350 feet deep, but found the action much better in closer.

Costa Rica fishing - an Okuma spinning reel and jig
While longer metal jigs did produce, it seemed that we had better luck when fishing smaller designs like this one.Adrian E. Gray

"We get more and more jig fishermen at the lodge every year," says Mufson. That's not news for European and Japanese anglers who come here, but interest in fishing jigs among guests from the United States and Canada is on the rise as well.
Lodge boats carry a variety of jigs and Yo-Zuri poppers, as well as Okuma rods and reels with heavy braid for fishing those lures. Mufson says that Zancudo boats also like to have live bait on board, just as our skipper did. The idea is that it's always nice to have a live bait out while jigging.

Tuna on Top

While the swell remained too big to throw poppers in close, most in the group seemed to have forgotten about that part of the plan, busy with jigging and enjoying the various game fish we were hooking.
But we had brought a bunch of poppers with us, and on our last day, we decided to use 'em — offshore. So Mendoza headed the Contender west, and we began looking for birds and/or dolphins (of the cetacean kind) — something that would signal feeding yellowfin tuna.

Costa Rica fishing - a frigate bird
We looked for wheeling frigate birds to signal fish or activity beneath.Adrian E. Gray

With a flat-calm ocean, conditions were outstanding, both for spotting surface activity and for throwing topwaters. Even so, for a while it seemed a pretty lifeless sea. When we did find some activity, the good news was that there were big tuna busting hard on bait schools — probably triple-digit fish. The bad news turned out to be the capricious, unpredictable nature of the activity: They'd be feeding explosively on top for a minute or two, then disappear and come up some distance away a bit later.
But with anglers on the bow ready to throw poppers, Capt. Mendoza worked to dial in the movements, spending time running-and-gunning at high speeds to give us shots. And shots we got, including some seriously explosive blasts, with one tuna knocking a popper five feet into the air (and somehow missing it).

Costa Rica fishing - hooked up to a tuna
John Bretza hooked up, fighting a good yellowfin right to the boat only to have the braid part in the guides, with the fish just out of reach.Doug Olander / Sport Fishing
Costa Rica fishing - a yellowfin tuna on a popper
Bretza later connected on a medium popper, and after a fight lasting about 1½ hours, boated a 100-pounder.Doug Olander / Sport Fishing

Of course, trolling lures or pitching livies produces tuna aplenty for Zancudo boats; still, says Mufson, “There are times when poppers are the only thing tuna will eat.”

Costa Rica fishing - a speed jig
At times, Zancudo skippers mark yellowfin deep; then, dropping speed jigs to them can produce fish.Adrian E. Gray

By any measure, fishing these waters lends itself to just about any method and tackle, depending on an angler’s preferences and objectives. But for those who enjoy very active fishing (versus, say, trolling lures or drifting bait) and the feeling of never knowing what will come up next, it’s hard to beat jigging and popping southern Costa Rica.

PLANNING A TRIP TO FISH ZANCUDO

Fishing

Costa Rica fishing - the dock at Zancudo Lodge
The sport-boat fleet at Zancudo includes two 32-foot Contenders with Raymarine electronics, tuna tubes and carbon-fiber outriggers, as well as two Twin Vee catamarans. The lodge's skippers can accommodate all styles of fishing, offshore and nearshore. The resort offers all tackle needed, though if you want to bring some of your favorite jigs, it's worth noting that we caught fish both on metal speed jigs and on lead heads with soft plastics.Doug Olander / Sport Fishing

Accommodations

Costa Rica fishing - Zancudo Lodge
The lodge, which bills itself as a boutique resort, boasts 16 rooms and suites; I stayed in a suite and will say that it truly impressed me as unusually spacious, luxurious and modern.Adrian E. Gray
Costa Rica fishing - Zancudo Lodge
In fact, I haven’t experienced better accommodations in any Central American fishing resort as this shot of the living area in my suite shows.Doug Olander / Sport Fishing
Costa Rica fishing - a large crocodile
Don't Miss the very big, bold crocodiles gather around the Zancudo dock each afternoon to feast on any carcasses from filleted fish.Adrian E. Gray
Costa Rica fishing - a large crocodile
It’s a great time to take photos — but a lousy time to go swimming.Doug Olander / Sport Fishing

Travel and Stuff Besides Fishing

Fly via any of several major airlines into San Jose, then overnight in San Jose and fly out early morning via Nature Air Flights Costa Rica to Golfito, at the far southern end of Costa Rica's Pacific coast. From there, take a taxi to a dock where a lodge boat will whisk you south to the lodge.
There's plenty to do here, including world-class surfing on Playa Zancudo, with its long, left-breaking waves; eco-tours; stand-up paddleboarding; jungle and rainforest hikes; horseback riding; mangrove-river boat tours; and forest-canopy zip-lining, to name a few activities.