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Billfish Angler’s Guide to Costa Rica

What to expect, who to charter, when to go.

March 1, 2020
Marlin jumping out of the water
Costa Rica is fortunate to have two billfish ­seasons. Will Drost

Not until the early 1990s did sailfishing off Costa Rica’s Pacific coast attract major international attention, and by the turn of the century, Costa Rica was billing itself as the “sailfish capital of the world.” Just after that, however, sailfish numbers began to take a major hit, and many anglers ended up more disappointed than excited. But thanks to the adoption of regulations limiting the commercial exploitation of sailfish about 10 years ago, as described in more detail on page 60, sailfish populations have rebounded and remain strong enough to justify the country’s self-anointed title. For example, consider the one-day total from 43 boats during the second leg of the Los Sueños Triple Crown in 2016, when 1,103 sailfish were caught and released.

But there’s more to Costa Rica’s billfish story than sailfish alone. Marlin were, of course, always here and part of the action, but until recent years, Costa Rica wasn’t really known as a marlin destination. That has changed as well, in part thanks to the overnight trips to seamounts and FADs (fish-aggregating devices) far offshore, trips a number of charters now offer. When boats start raising close to 30 marlin in a day, the international billfishing community takes notice.

Marlin off the coast of Costa Rica
Marlin were always ­available off Costa Rica, but sailfish were the main target. In part, the focus on FADs far offshore has changed that, with world-class marlin action in the offing. Will Drost

This is not to suggest that catching 30 marlin or dozens of sailfish in a day is a foregone conclusion off Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. But are such days possible? Absolutely.

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Costa Rica is fortunate to have two billfish seasons: The fishing peaks from November through April in the central and southern regions and from May through December in the north. There are fishing clubs such as the Club Amateur de Pesca and the National Fishing Club that have been around for decades, but tourists traveling to Costa Rica is relatively new.

Billfishing in Costa Rica

Wherever you fish for billfish in the world, the approach is a little different; each location has its own style. Costa Rica is no exception.

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Most charter captains here troll a combination of teasers, lures and natural baits, including bonito and ballyhoo.

Costa Rican Pacific coast
The entire Costa Rican Pacific coast offers gorgeous vistas of unspoiled jungles, beaches and headlands such as Playa Mina, shown here, south of Flamingo. Stefan Neumann

No matter where along the country’s Pacific coast you look to charter a sport-fisher, keep in mind that communication is key to any good charter-fishing trip, and that should start before you step on the boat. Many wholesalers and captains rely on repeat business, so they want to be sure your trip provides more than a boat ride.

If all the info you need isn’t on an operation’s website, feel free to call and ask about such things as fishing hours, type of equipment, if fishing licenses are provided, if the crew are women- and child-friendly, and the level of English spoken on board.

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One of many Costa Rican charter boats
Visiting anglers can choose from a wealth of charter operations that offer top-quality boats and gear. Adrian E. Gray

Once you arrive for a chartered day and step on the boat, have a conversation with the captain and crew before you leave the dock. Be honest about your level of experience as far as fishing for billfish is concerned, and remember, there are no stupid questions—particularly if billfishing is a whole new ballgame for you. Most crews will be happy to give you as much or as little help as you want.

When a fish appears in the spread, often the captain on a tower boat is the first to see it, and will start shouting the position of the fish behind the boat to crew and anglers on deck. In these first crazed minutes, the captain’s adrenalin might have him frantically blurting this out in Spanish for the crew, using words that mean: short, long, left and right, depending on which teaser the fish came up.

Six words that can help during the melee of hooking up are often shouted out in Spanish:

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marlin = marlín (mar-LEEN)

sailfish = pez vela (pays BAY-la)

left = izquierda (ees-KYEHR-dah)

right = derecha (deh-REH-chah)

long = largo

short = corto

Though most crews speak at least some English, it might not hurt to learn a few simple phrases in Spanish before traveling to Costa Rica because that is the native tongue. Long before you arrive at the coast, you will have probably already learned “Pura vida!” which is a Costa Rican greeting that basically means “Everything is great.” “Cerveza fría” will get you a cold beer. Crews love to teach and love to hear about the fishing you do back home, so don’t be shy. Their world is much smaller than yours. Share it.

Many Costa Rica charters practice bait-and-switch fishing, a particularly exciting method for catching billfish that requires a well-coordinated effort, with the captain keeping track of where the fish is, the mate keeping the fish interested, and the angler presenting the bait at the right moment. With luck, the sail or marlin is interested, but you need to wait for it to eat, turn and start to move away, while feeding it line. The use of circle hooks is required in Costa Rica when using natural baits, so calmly place the reel in gear and just start winding.

Read Next: Fishing Vacations for Anglers

If you understand everyone’s role in the process, you have a much better chance of hooking up the first fish in the spread rather than learning from your error.

A fishing license, which is required by law, can be purchased online at the website of the fisheries agency INCOPESCA (incopesca.go.cr) before your trip. A permit good for up to eight days is $15. The agency allows sport fishermen to keep a total of five fish per boat. (Selling fish is not legal for anglers or sport-fishing charter crews.) By law, all billfish must be released.

Charter and lodge map of Costa Rica
There are more than 600 boats registered to charter for billfish and other gamefish in Costa Rica. freevectormaps.com

A Sampling of Fishing Operations, North to South

Today, there are more than 600 boats registered to charter for billfish and other gamefish in Costa Rica, most of those operating along the country’s 780 miles of Pacific coastline. Here’s a sampling of time-tested operations, most with a good variety of boats to choose from. All of these operations and crews speak at least functional English, and many individuals are fluent. “Cost” refers to one day of fishing unless noted otherwise.

Flamingo

Flamingo Bay Pacific Charters (fishcostrarica.com)

Area fished: Northern Guanacaste (Papagayo to Flamingo)

Years in operation: 34

Getting there: One-hour drive from Liberia airport

Fleet: 10 boats, 27 to 40-plus feet

Crew: Captain and one or two mates

Season: May-October; peak for sailfish May-August, for marlin June and July

Accommodations: Can be arranged by Flamingo Bay Pacific Charters in Flamingo and Tamarindo

Tackle: Penn and Shimano

Fly tackle: On some boats

Average run to billfish grounds: 30 minutes to one hour

Fishing day: 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Cost: $950 (half day) to $2,200 (full day)

Comments: Operation moves to Quepos in January during the central region’s prime season; decades of experience

Phone: +506-8713-3386

Gamefisher Charters (gamefisher2.com)

Area fished: Fishes both seasons, Flamingo in the North and Quepos in Central

Years in operation: 35

Getting there: One-hour drive from Liberia airport

Boat: 31-foot Palm Beach twin diesel

Crew: Captain and two mates

Season: May-December; peak for sailfish and marlin June-August

Accommodations: Beachfront condos or private houses can be arranged by Gamefisher Charters

Tackle: Penn International reels, Shimano rods and reels, 20- to 80-pound

Fly tackle: 14- to 18-weight, with Billy Pate and Able reels

Average run to billfish grounds: About an hour (20 miles)

Fishing day: 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Cost: $800 (half day) to $1,450 (full day)

Comments: More than 50 years’ combined captain and crew experience; comfortable teaching newcomers or the most seasoned anglers; specialize in fly-fishing

Phone: 904-410-1041

Fishing Nosara (fishingnosara.com)

Area Fished: 3 to 30 miles from Nosara

Years in Operation: 21

Getting there: 2 ½-hour drive from Liberia airport

Fleet: Four boats, 23 to 32 feet

Crew: Captain and mate

Season: Year-round; peak for sailfish and marlin July, August and November

Accommodations: Private houses on a nature reserve are part of Nosara’s fishing packages

Tackle: Shimano Tiagra conventional and Penn spinning

Fly tackle: None provided, though some crews have fly-fishing experience

Average run to billfish grounds: 30 minutes to an hour

Fishing day: 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Cost: $600 (half day) to $950 (full day)

Comments: Friendly, responsible atmosphere with local, English-speaking crew; on-site staff always available; deep water quite close to beach, often making for a short run to the fish

Phone: 904-591-2161

Los Sueños Resort and Marina
Los Sueños Resort and Marina is popular with private boaters and charter anglers in pursuit of billfish. Chris Sheeder

Herradura

Maverick Sportfishing, Los Sueños Resort and Marina (mavericksportfish.com)

Area fished: 20 to 40 miles from marina; up to 150 miles out on longer seamount trips

Years in operation: Four

Getting there: 1 ¼-hour drive from San Jose

Fleet: 10 boats from 32 to 50 feet

Crew: Captain and one or two mates

Season: Year-round; peak for sailfish January-April, marlin November and December plus July-September

Accommodations: Condos, private homes or Marriott Hotel arranged per anglers’ wishes by Maverick

Tackle: Alutecnos conventionals with 20-, 30- and 50-pound-test

Fly tackle: On select boats

Average run to billfish grounds: One to two hours

Fishing day: 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.; two to three days for FAD trips

Cost: $1,900 to $3,250; FAD trips from $2,700 to $14,000 (depending on size of boat and number of days offshore)

Comments: Professional, well-maintained boats; benefits from close affiliation with Los Sueños Resort

Phone: 866-888-6426

Quepos

Ifish, Quepos Marina Pez Vela (ifishquepos.com)

Area fished: 15 to 40 miles off Quepos

Years in operation: Six

Getting there: 2½-hour drive or 20-minute domestic flight from San Jose

Fleet: Represents large fleet sport-­fishers from 26 to 57 feet

Crew: Captain and one or two mates, depending on boat

Season: Year-round; peak for sailfish January-April, for marlin November and December plus July-September

Accommodations: Villas available

Tackle: Shimano and Penn, 20-, 30-, 50- and 80-pound gear

Fly tackle: On some boats

Average run to billfish grounds: One hour

Fishing day: 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Cost: $950 (half day) to $2,600 (full day); multiday FAD trips run $4,000 to $7,000 per boat, depending on duration

Comments: Experienced, professional captain; Ifish organizes tournaments at the marina

Phone: +506-2774-9006

Puerto Jimenez-Golfito Area

Crocodile Bay Resort (crocodilebay.com)

Area fished: South to the Panama border and out to 25 miles or more

Years in operation: 20

Getting there: Six-hour drive or 45-minute flight from San Jose

Fleet: Ten 24- and 25-foot Boston Whaler center-console Outrages, and 33- to 35-foot Strike inboard tower boats

Crew: Captain only on outboard boats; captain and mate on tower boats

Season: Year-round; peak for sailfish January-April, marlin November and December plus July-September

Accommodations: 28 rooms and three private houses available as part of all-inclusive-package trips (daily rates also available)

Tackle: Penn International 30s and 50s, Fathom levelwinds and Spinfisher spinning reels

Fly tackle: Templefork 10- and 14-weight rods

Average run to billfish grounds: About an hour

Fishing day: 6:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.

Cost: $895 to $1,650; more for FAD trips

Comments: Named by Sport Fishing magazine as one of the best places for a family fishing vacation; many of the staff have worked at the resort for more than a decade

Phone: 800-733-1115

Zancudo Lodge resort
The upscale boutique resort, Zancudo Lodge. Chris Sheeder

Zancudo Lodge (zancudolodge.com)

Area fished: Southernmost Costa Rica out to 12 to 45 miles; up to 60 miles for FAD fishing

Years in operation: 32

Getting here: 45-minute flight from San Jose to Golfito

Fleet: Five 32-foot Contenders with twin 300 hp outboards, five 28-foot open-fish pangas with single 140 hp

Crew: Captain only unless mate or mates requested

Season: Year-round

Accommodations: 12 standard rooms, two junior suites, two master suites

Tackle: Okuma Makaira 10-, 30-, and 50-pound lever-drag reels and Okuma Azores spinning reels

Average run to billfish grounds: 30 minutes to an hour

Fishing day: 6 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Cost: $1,750 for Contender, $995 for other boats; $1,750 for 45-mile FAD trips and $2,050 60-mile FAD trips

Comments: Many improvements made in this boutique lodge by new ownership the past several years; lodge located on the beach

Phone: 800-854-8791

Also, coastwide, Fish Costa Rica (fishcostarica.com; 800-407-9438) can help anglers find the right operations for them. With 30 years of arranging fishing trips, Fish Costa Rica represents many operations and captains, from inshore to FADs.

Fisheries Management Making a Difference

Early in this century, the number of fish caught by anglers off Costa Rica began a steady decline, leaving tourists disappointed and charter fleets scratching their heads. Then it was discovered in 2008 that more than 600,000 pounds of sailfish meat were being exported to the United States each year, often ending up in restaurants as smoked-fish spread. Most consumers had no idea the tasty fish they were eating was sailfish. A small group of charter captains formed La Federación Costarricense de Pesca, or FECOP, a nongovern­mental federation of sport-fishing interests to lobby the government, backed by science, to better manage Costa Rica’s territorial waters. (The country’s territorial waters are 11 times greater than the size of its land area.) The group lobbied INCOPESCA, the governing agency of Costa Rican fisheries, citing the importance of sport fishing to coastal communities; in March 2009, Costa Rica banned the exportation of sailfish. A decade later, sailfish numbers have come roaring back. Sailfish can still be taken as accidental bycatch and sold on the national market, but they must be released if they’re alive on a line when captured.

Fish-aggregating device in Costa Rica
Fishing FADs like this has become the hot ticket for billfish off Costa Rica in recent years. Adrian E. Gray

In 2013, FECOP showed the government that the country’s tuna resource was being given to foreign purse seine boats for as little as $37 a ton, and that the purse seiners also were affecting populations of pelagic species that attract tourists. When the purse seiners’ nets actually wrapped up some sport-fishing boats out of Los Sueños Marina as the seiners encircled a pod of spinner dolphins, it was the final straw. In 2014, a decree was signed moving the tuna boats out 45 miles from the coast to protect numerous seamounts, creating an area of 77,220 square miles where purse seiners could no longer operate. Their catch was limited to 9,000 metric tons a year, down from a onetime high of nearly 25,000 metric tons, and that catch had to be sold to the local cannery in Puntarenas. Moises Mug, a scientist for FECOP, analyzed observer onboard reports for the purse seine fleet in 2018 and discovered that moving the purse seiners farther out was saving 25 tons of marlin annually from ending up as seiners’ bycatch. During the past six or seven years, the recovery of various pelagic species off Costa Rica has been remarkable.

Then there’s the FAD issue. Critics of fish aggregating devices claim that they are akin to hunting in baited fields, putting too much pressure on the fish, and once commercial boats find the locations, they end up killing too many marlin. But more study is needed to really assess the situation. Toward that end, a Stanford University team led by Larry Crowder, Ph.D., made trips to Costa Rica every few months in 2019 to place satellite tags on marlin and sailfish. At the time of this writing, biologists Danielle Haulsee and Hanna Blondin had placed tags on 33 marlin and 14 sails. They tagged many of the marlin on FADs. The tags were set to pop off and transmit data at intervals of six, nine and 12 months. As they return data, scientists should have a clearer picture of how FADS are affecting these fish.

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