Though I'd heard tales of fishing adventures in Costa Rica, I'd never pictured myself there, until my buddy Paul Michele of Navionics told me just what an avid awesome place it was. I realized that Paul, a world traveler and avid multispecies angler made a good point—I just had to go.
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Once arrangements were made to visit Zancudo Lodge, set in a beautiful forested area on the Pacific side of this Central American country, I checked fishing reports for the area and was excited to read of the big fish being caught there last winter. But nothing prepared me for the trip, accompanied by my wife Edie and daughter Meagan, a student at the University of Minnesota.
We flew from Minneapolis to the capitol, San Jose, and spent the night there after dinner at a fine restaurant across the street from our hotel. The next morning we boarded a small plane for the trip over the mountains to the Pacific side of this isthmus, which lies north of Panama. Nothing reveals more about a landscape than a low-level flight, and we marveled at the change in ecology as a rugged mountainscape gave way to a flatland jungle, with rivers running like veins, heading toward the Pacific Ocean.
From Golfito Airport, a boat transports guests to Zancudo Lodge.
Landing in the small city of Golfito, a driver picked us up and brought us to a dock for a short boat ride to the lodge. There we met our fishing guide, Captain Javier Chaverria and lodge owner Gregg Mufson, who showed us around and sat us down to a fine brunch. After our meal, we hopped into Capt. Javier's 32-foot Contender, hoping that the Pacific Ocean would live up to its name.
Our first stop was to gather livebait with Sabiki rigs (5-hook setups with a weight at the bottom designed to catch multiple baitfish), we soon had a good supply. We all enjoyed hauling in multiple herring and hardtails, competing to see who could bring in the most with one cast. Then it was off into the "Blue Water" to search for sailfish.
After a 40-minute ride, Capt. Javier began rigging lines in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. But he'd had success there recently with sailfish, and right away we saw one breaking the surface. Soon after, my rod had a strike and I was into the first fish of the day. With the 50-pound setup, it took me 15 or 20 minutes to bring the big sailfish boatside, after several acrobatic leaps, followed by determined runs into deep water. But once at alongside, Javier expertly planted a green tag in its back, enrolling it into the Gray's Fish Tagging Project which is an international program to collect data on migratory marine gamefish.
Zancudo guests often tangle with big roosterfish, a unique and powerful member of the jack family.
Captain Javier sets out lines.
Captain Javier shows the teasers used to lure marlin to the surface.
Saltwater crocodiles patrol the lagoons off the Pacific Ocean.
Bottlenose dolphins cavort around the boat.
Edie Quinn with her first roosterfish.
In-Fisherman Senior Editor Steve Quinn with his first cubera snapper.
Tag & Release
As Meg's sailfish came boatside, Captain Javier inserted a green tag in its back and released it.
Edie Quinn admires her first sailfish.
It took Steve Quinn an hour and a half to land his first blue marlin.
Meg Quinn determinedly hauled on her first sailfish.
Yellowfin tuna are another attraction at Zancudo Lodge.
Zancudo Lodge's fleet is moored in a quiet bay off the Pacific Ocean.
Soon after, Edie's line was hit and she was fast into another big sail. Having grown up fishing for striped bass and bluefish on Long Island Sound, the speed and antics of this species left her breathless! But soon enough, it came alongside and received a green token of its experience with Zancudo anglers. Then it was daughter Meg's turn and she gritted her teeth in determination to get her big fish in.
Not long after, we hooked up on three big sails, all at the same time, and had to dodge and pass rods as one fish or another swam around the boat at maximum speed, about 30 mph for this species, while executing amazing pirouettes.
To cap off the day, we headed inshore to try for roosterfish and snapper. The roosters roam the zone where waves start to crash on the beach, using the churning water to take advantage of preyfish there. Snapper, on the other hand, favored the deep craggy rockpiles. It was there that I hooked my first cubera snapper, a handsome and toothy fish that came aboard only after a most determined battle. After I set the hook, Captain Javier urged me to pull and reel as hard as I could on the 80-pound rod set in a fighting belt, to try and keep that big fish from regaining his rocky lair and breaking off. After getting the cubera aboard, we all managed to catch a roosterfish as well. Their power and acrobatic leaps were all that I'd heard about this amazing species of jack.
On our last day, Edie and Meg decided to visit a wildlife shelter near Golfito, where rescued wildlife were housed, including monkeys, ocelots, and sloths. They greatly enjoyed the experience and Meg was fascinated with the big, gentle, and shaggy sloths, as she hand-fed them jungle fruits. With this plan in mind, Captain Javier suggested that I get down to the dock early to gather bait and try for marlin. With excitement, mixed with a bit of trepidation, I got ready for this quest for yet another species I'd never caught.
With baitwells full, we headed farther offshore, heading to underwater sea mounts about 40 miles out where the big billfish were known to feed. I helped deploy an array of livebaits, including 2-pound bonita that we readily caught trolling, other livebaits, and teasers—large skirted pieces of hard plastic that skip along the surface and lure marlin to the top where the may then strike baits.
We had a couple of close calls, as what look to be a striped marlin took a whack at one bait with its bill, and a blue attacked the hookless teaser. Hours later, one struck a bait and I set the hook, but the fish raced for the boat, and quickly freed itself. As the day wore on, we kept staring out at the ocean passing behind us, scanning for activity. But finally, the captain said we'd better start bringing in the gear and start thinking about heading back, perhaps stopping near the lodge for roosterfish. But at the last minute I had a strike on one of the remaining rods and this time the hook set home.
Quickly clamboring into a backbrace-style fighting belt, I could only hang onto the rod as the huge fish ripped hundreds of yards of line from the big Shimano Tekota on its initial run, repeatedly leaping high in the air. I managed to retrieve line sporadically, which soon disappeared into the depths as the fish sounded. Forty-five minutes later, I had scarcely gained ground as sweat poured off my face and my arms and back began to tighten up. Javier told me to use my legs to pump the fish, dropping into a sitting posture, then rocking back to gain line. This advice was sound and some time later, a black marker on the line came into view, out of the depths. "He's coming," Javier announced, "tighten the drag a bit more." But as soon as I'd done so, the fish surged off again, and the black mark was gone. At one point, I suggested to Javier that he text Edie and the folks at the lodge that we'd be late for dinner, but he just laughed and urged me on.
It took Steve Quinn an hour and a half to land his first blue marlin.
This scenario was repeated five or six times until the marlin finally came into view, a spectacular streamlined creature with flashing blue and silver sides. After more boatside antics, Javier leadered it and inserted a tag, and we got the hook out for a quick release, just over an hour and a half after I'd hooked this fish. But it had felt like an even longer battle, and as we headed east toward Costa Rica, I settled on a couple of big bean bags and sipped an Imperial beer as Javier piloted us to the lodge.
The entire trip was fabulous, one of the most incredible fishing adventures of my life, and all the better to share it with Edie and Meg. Zancudo Lodge is a beautiful place, set between a quiet bay and the ocean where guests can swim, sail, or paddleboard when not fishing. Indeed, some visitors came for the jungle experiences and wildlife watching that were right out our door, as coatamundis occasionally walked the grounds late a night, while sloths could occasionally be seen high in the trees there. The Lodge's spacious rooms, fine meals, and gracious service put an exclamation point on our experience there. And as we reluctantly headed home, we all remarked on the cleanliness of the streets around the small towns as well as capital of San Jose, as well as the clear emphasis on conducting business in an ecologically sound way. Though it's a trip of a lifetime, I hope to make it back one day.
Contact: Zancudo Lodge, zancudolodge.com; Gray Fish Tagging. grayfishtag.com.