Fly Fishing for Costa Rica Sailfish

By Scott Richmond

When you were a kid, did you ever fantasize about fish? I know I did. When I was nine years old, I dreamed of hooking a big marlin, or maybe a sailfish. I'd seen grainy black-and-white movies of these huge fish leaping out of the water, shaking their big heads and tailwalking across the water. And I wanted one.

I was vaguely aware that billfish didn't live near Seattle, my hometown. The cold inland sea of Puget Sound, and especially the slightly warmer but unsalty waters of Lake Washington, weren't exactly the right habitat. But that didn't stop my imagination. Every eight-inch perch I caught was extrapolated into one of those jumping giants.

Boyhood fantasies fade with time and confrontations with reality. But somewhere in my psyche the billfish dream lingered on, unfulfilled. Until last Sunday.

Hedging Bets

My wife Barbara and I are celebrating our 40th anniversary this year. So we set up an eco-tour vacation to Costa Rica, with our two grown daughters joining us.

Costa Rica is a wonderful place. The flora, fauna, and scenery are incredible, and the people--they call themselves "Ticos"--are as nice as anyone you'd hope to meet. We toured San Jose, then prowled the Monteverde Cloud Forest, and finished up in Manuel Antonio National Park on the Pacific coast.

Turns out that Quepos, the town nearest Manuel Antonio, is a sportfishing hub. For billfish. I knew this before we left Oregon, and felt some boyhood fantasies stirring. I'd contacted my friend Ken Morrish, who runs Flywater Travel. He gave me the names of a couple of good charter outfits that work with fly anglers. Just in case.

After a couple of days in the Manuel Antonio area I checked into one, Good Day Team, and set up a trip for last Sunday.

How You Fly Fish for Sailfish

We board the green-hulled Good Day at 7:00 a.m. on a bright, warm, and mostly windless day. The skipper, Manuel, points the 31-foot green-hulled Good Day One toward open water, and we motor through gentle one-foot swells until we're about 19 miles offshore.

Good Day Team has supplied the rod, a 14-weight Sage Xi2. At eight feet, it's the thickest, stubbiest fly rod I've ever seen. The fly has a white foam head with blue, red, and (mostly) pink hackles; it's about seven inches long and has two large trailing hooks. There's a heavy shock tippet fastened to a 20-pound leader with a Bimini Twist.

How do you cast a rig like that? You don't, or least you don't cast it far.

It works like this. The boat trolls at 6-7 knots, with an outrigger on each side. Each outrigger has a line with a baitfish attached. There are no hooks in the baitfish; they just provide a scent trail. Closer to the boat and inboard of each outrigger is a rod with a "teaser" that splats and pops on the surface.

None of these is intended to catch a fish. Instead, a sailfish detects the scent trail and the splashing of the teasers, and comes up to investigate. The first mate--Alvero in our case--spots the fish and starts reeling everything in. The fish follows the teasers up to the boat.

Eventually everything is out of the water except one teaser, which is now about 20-25 feet behind the boat. I'm supposed to put my fly in the water, and when Alvero says "Cast!" I fling the fly about 30 feet to my left, under the teaser line, just as Alvero jerks the last teaser out of the water. The sailfish grabs the fly, and all hell breaks loose. That's the theory, anyway.

Obviously, timing is everything. Things happen so fast when you're saltwater fishing, especially with billfish. You can troll around for hours before you have an opportunity, and you have scant seconds to take advantage of it when it comes. Everything has to work in perfect synchrony.

Ready Anytime You Are, CB

After we get into position, I ask Alvero if I can practice since I'd never done this kind of fishing before. So I grab the rod, and suddenly there's excited talking and pointing. When Ticos speak Spanish slowly, I understand about one word in ten. When they speak English quickly, I also understand about one word in ten.

"Huh?" I say, wondering what I'm supposed to do.

There is more fast talking, and arms are pointing in a different direction. "What? Cast over there? Where?" I cast, but it's too high, crossing over one of the teaser lines. My fly dangles uselessly about two feet above the water. Uh-oh. I pull the fly back and get ready for another practice cast.

Then Barbara says, "I see him!" See what? I don't see anything. My eyes are darting everywhere. Dios mio, I'm confused! If this is practice, it's very realistic.

It dawns on me that there might be an actual sailfish out there and that's why everyone's so agitated. "Cast! Cast!" Alvero yells. I make my backcast and . . . ooops, the fly and leader wrap around the outrigger behind me. About six times.

It's quiet now. The skipper, Manuel, comes down and untangles my fly from the outrigger. He's in no hurry. There was a sailfish--three in fact. They're now all gone. My only reactions to them were Huh? What? and Ooops.

I look down at my right hand. I'm holding the rod by the fighting grip halfway up the butt section, and not by the casting grip near the reel. D'oh! Everyone is looking anywhere but at me.

It gets worse.

Alvero explains that because this is an El Nino year, the ocean is warm, pushing 90 degrees. Sailfish won't come to the surface when it's too hot, so the bite is usually first thing in the morning, or maybe late in the day if the wind comes up. In other words, I was handed three sailfish in about 90 seconds, blew them all off, and may not have another opportunity for the rest of the day.

Second--Or Is It Fourth?--Chance

We resume trolling, and after awhile there is some brief excitement when a pair of dorado rush behind one of teasers. But they peel off before getting close enough for a cast. One of them jumps, shimmering gold, yellow, green, and indigo in the brilliant sun. Nice.

After my "practice" session I feel muy tonto, but there is no point in dwelling on it. I sit back and close my eyes. I rehearse over and over what I'm supposed to do. I visualize each action. I resolve to maintain my cool and my focus when things--if things--get exciting again. I'm about to ask Alvero for another practice session when he jumps down from the bridge and starts reeling in teasers. I know what this means.

"Put your fly in the water!" he tells me. I pick up the rod--by the right grip--and do it. Stay cool. Focus. Remember where the outrigger is. You can do this.

I see it! A dark head pokes up near the teaser about 20 feet behind the boat. It's huge. Don't cast yet. Wait for it. Focus.

"Cast!" Alvero says. I cast to my left just as Alvero jerks the teaser from the water. The head appears again. My slack line is zipping out. The line is on the reel. The rod starts to flex, and I can feel some weight from the fish. I don't strike, but move the rod to my right, away from the fish--like setting up on a steelhead. The rod goes into a deep bend and I feel more weight than I've ever felt before from a fish.

"He took it!" I yell. Thirty feet out, the sailfish comes to the surface, head shaking. Diablo! It's enormous! He clears the water and lands with a splash like someone dropped a Buick, then slashes to my right. Another jump, clearing the water.

Now sixty feet from the boat, he leaps again, then again. Ninety feet out, ripping to my left, tailwalking, water everywhere. Back to the right, with another water-clearing jump that includes a full 180-degree direction change. Off to my left. A hundred and twenty feet out; more jumps, then more and more, deep into the backing now. It's a miracle the leader is holding up to this!

It's just like the old movies, except it's color, high-def, 3-D IMAX with Dolby surround sound. And I'm in it, both actor and camera.

POW and Good-bye

It takes 20 minutes to get the fish near the boat. More exactly, get the boat near the fish, because Manuel's skilful maneuvering has let me recover line while keeping pressure on the fish.

There's another run after the sailfish sees the boat, then it's obvious that he's tiring. He's not the only one; my left arm aches, my reel hand has a blister, and I'm hot as blazes.

I can see the sailfish in the water. He's maybe six feet long, indigo in a cobalt sea. The bill sticks out like a spear. The shape and proportions speak of speed and power. It's a beautiful, magnificent sight. Alvero estimates the fish at 85 pounds.

Most of the leader is inside the rod now, with the line-leader knot at the stripping guide. The sailfish is counted as landed, but I'd like to get some photos. So I lift the rod to bring him up another foot. POW! The 14-weight shatters, the butt section broken just below the first ferrule.

So my first sailfish--officially landed--slides off without me getting a decent photo. Still, I'm a very happy guy. And exhausted. Sweat is pouring off me, and my left arm is practically numb. I collapse onto the cushions, swig a bottle of water, and hope we don't see another sailfish for at least half an hour.

Conventional Fishing

We don't have another fly rod and resort to conventional tackle. About an hour after the first sailfish, a dorado (mahi mahi if you prefer) takes a bait and I land it. We keep it for dinner.

Then about 1:30, when nothing should be happening, a sailfish grabs a trolled bait. I land it, and we get some photos before letting it go.

This fish is estimated at 120 pounds, and although it's nearly half-again the size of my first sailfish, it's much easier to land. About four times easier, in fact. Conventional tackle does this sort of thing very well.

Conventional vs. Fly Fishing

In retrospect, I'm glad the fly rod broke because it allowed me to compare fly gear to conventional tackle. Believe me, the conventional stuff is much more suited to landing big fish. The reel drag is better, the line is stronger, and you can put a lot more muscle on the fish with the short, stiff rod.

On the other hand, I'll take fly gear any day when chasing these big guys. The thrill is in the first couple of minutes, when the fish is airborne and going berserk. With fly tackle, this happens close to the boat and is spectacular beyond description.

Either way, anglers have to realize that this is a team sport. It's you, the captain, and the first mate. And up until the fish is hooked, the other two guys are doing all the work while you're just around for the suntan. Even after the fish is hooked, the captain is maneuvering the boat so you can recover line.

Actually, much saltwater fishing is teamwork. If you're after tarpon or bonefish, the guide is poling the boat, spotting the fish, putting you in position. With billfish, you add a third player to the team.

Costa Rica Fishing

Costa Rica is one of the top destinations for Pacific sailfish. I don't know about other locations, but the Quepos area has excellent services for visitors. Manuel Antonio National Park is a major tourist draw, as are the beaches. So there are lots of hotels from very simple to luxury. Costa Rica is a clean country, and you can trust the drinking water in most parts. The restaurants are excellent, and the people are friendly and helpful.

In non-El Nino years, there are phenomenal numbers of fish out there. A few years ago, the winner of a fly-fishing tournament out of Quepos caught 53 sailfish in four days. My arm aches just thinking about it. There are also three species of marlin, dorado, and wahoo. In addition, there is inshore fishing for roosterfish and jacks.

Chasing sailfish is not cheap. You're paying for two guides, an expensive boat, a lot of specialized gear, and gallons of diesel fuel. Figure what one guide would cost you in the states, then double it and add a bit.

I'd recommend the Good Day Team to anyone coming down here for sailfish. Manuel and Alvero were great to fish with, and the boat was clean, in good shape, and well-equipped. And they took care of my boyhood fishing fantasy. You couldn't ask for more!

Scott Richmond is Westfly's creator and Executive Director. He is the author of eight books on Oregon fly fishing, including Fishing Oregon's Deschutes River (second edition).