Sailfish on the Fly
Costa Rica – February, 2002
By Dave West, Sportfishing club of the British isles
Every different saltwater angling technique brings with it its own particular set of challenges and thrills. And each one is often the catalyst or a progression to the next.
Hunting Bonefish – and hunting is the most appropriate word to describe the challenge – on the shallow water Flats is a case in point. Going back to 1979 I can vividly remember seeing that first small pod of tailing Bones off Islamorada, with the ‘cat and mouse game’ as the guide stealthily poled us into a position where I could cast a free-lined shrimp on light spin gear. It wasn’t a particularly accurate cast but luckily the fish, now just 30 feet away, continued moving in that direction. The tension built. I was literally lying on the prow of the skiff so as not to appear in their cone of vision. One tailed, and the curve in the line imperceptibly lifted. I struck and the fish, which is still my biggest to date, a nine and a half pounder, spooked together with the others in the pod and accelerated across the Flat. There was a rooster-tail coming off the lightly tensioned line as we poled after him; rod held high above my head to avoid a cut-off on the isolated mangrove shoots.
So having, over a number of years, caught several more on conventional tackle the opportunity of tackling them on the fly presented itself. I joined a group organised by John Goddard to fish the Andros Island Bonefish Club in the Bahamas. The visual thrill was still there, the adrenalin rush as you spotted – normally long after the guide – fish purposely cruising down the Flat towards you. But this time I was ‘hampered’ by a fly rod, not something I’m particularly adept at using, unpredictable fish and often-windy conditions. In hindsight some of the shots were relatively easy whereas others were particularly challenging. With each one though there was still the same buzz, the same thrill. None more so that when out of the skiff wading, and casting to fish in what was occasionally just ankle-deep water.
So, well and truly bitten by the saltwater fly-fishing bug, I also targeted Sharks and frustratingly Permit on the Flats, together with Blackfin and Little Tunny offshore. But that wasn’t to the exclusion of catching those species on light spin gear. It was different, but just as visual and just as much fun.
Where was the next fly-fishing challenge though? I suppose it was conversations with Duncan MacKenzie and John Reynolds that inexorably led me down the route of targeting Sailfish. But, where to start? Where could you guarantee success? Guatemala’s Pacific coastline seemed the logical answer. So in May 2000, tagged on the end of a trip to Key West where we’d encountered an unexpected run of Atlantic Sails, six of us headed off for three days in Iztapa.
We learned the hard way there’re no guarantees of success in fishing! The area had literally just been ravaged by a tropical depression. So for the skippers, who hadn’t been out fishing for a week, it was ‘back to the drawing board’, trying to track down the fragmented schools of Sails.
We managed to release a few on spin gear, but the odd shots that came on the fly failed to stay hooked up. So, in terms of our primary objective, the trip was a dismal failure. The only real excitement came when two of our crews found, some 38 miles offshore, what is euphemistically described in ‘Stateside parlance as ‘square grouper’! Enough said! It hits you though that you’re in a third world country, one in which a civil war hadn’t long since finished; and one with a surfeit of guns. So from a viewpoint of self-preservation it was very much a case of turning a blind eye.
After that brief diversion though back to the quest. I’d experienced enough to know I really wanted a Sailfish on the Fly. And when Andy Sale rang this January suggesting a trip to Golfito Sailfish Ranchero in Costa Rica I leaped at the opportunity. This was the lodge that Dave Hoenes and Terry Smith enthused about, having had such success there the previous year. They’d also booked to return literally two weeks before our proposed trip.
So to the all too familiar trip down to Miami, and then on to San Jose – Costa Rica’s capital. Just a cautionary note – post 9/11 there’re no transit facilities in Miami – you have to pass through US Immigration and Customs and then immediately repeat the experience in reverse for your onward flight. Checks are particularly thorough if a tad chaotic and, in our experience, you should allow at least two and a half to three hours for the process – from arrival to departure.
We over-nighted in San Jose and caught an early flight – 6:30 am – out to Golfito the following morning aboard a 15 seat Sansa Cessena, a single engined turbo-prop with an under-slung luggage hold. Given what is a daily flight schedule the Lodge is able to be very flexible in their attitude to trip duration – you’re not constrained to any particular length of charter. The Americans who accompanied us down were there for, in the main, three or a maximum of four days.
And they were to prove an interesting bunch, particularly Danny and Tommy – natives of New Jersey – and as different as ‘Chalk and Cheese’. Tommy was an excitable ‘born again’ Christian, a reformed alcoholic and talked ‘nineteen to the dozen’ – a diminutive ’40 something’ with a quick whit. And this was literally his first time outside of the ‘States. Then there was his companion Danny, a rotund giant of a man similarly of Irish descent – articulate, albeit sometimes brusque, reflecting I suppose his background as a union business manager. He had a fascination with the technical aspects of fishing and most evenings would either tutor the long-suffering Tommy in the art of knot tying, or spend time salivating over his newly built light tackle and fly rods. Seriously though with their banter, and often full-blooded rowing, they were to prove the most entertaining of company.
So where is Golfito? It’s in the extreme southwest of Costa Rica, just west of the Panamanian border. Twin peninsulas flank the entrance to the Gulf on which it is located –Golfo Dulce, the ‘Sweet Gulf’ – which cuts some thirty miles back into the mountainous terrain. On average it’s ten miles wide. And large tracts of the surrounding rain forest are within the boundaries of the Corcovado National Park.
The ocean current runs past Isla Coiba (Panama), some 100 miles to the south-east, to the point that the Osa peninsular diverts it outwards, into the Pacific again. But it is the Gulf itself – a breeding grounds for vast shoals of sardines and other forage species, constantly being swept out to sea – that acts as the magnet for the gamefish species in this area. Not just gamefish though Humpback Whales also calve in its warm waters.
Golfito Sailfish Ranchero is located on a private beach, backed by rain forest in an isolated cove, reachable only by boat – a 15-minute trip from Golfito itself. Without seeing the location itself it’s almost impossible to visualise the scale of the forest – a sheer green wall on a steep ridge, reaching hundreds of feet upwards. The landscape literally dwarfs the Lodge. And down this ridge runs a cascading waterfall of ice-cold water that channels into a plunge pool. It was to prove quite refreshing at the end of each day’s fishing.
The Lodge was purchased in early 1998 by the current owners – Betsey Bullard, a lady from Virginia, and her husband, Abraham Concepcion – and has since been extensively renovated. It’s perhaps the nicest lodge I’ve stayed in – the bedrooms, of which it has ten, are particularly well equipped, comfortable and spacious. And, just a couple of points, each room has a large walk in shower, a safe and rod holders outside. The cooling ocean breezes keep temperatures comfortable at night, but the vaulted rooms also have ceiling fans.
In addition the Lodge has a fleet of ten modern – new in 1999 and 2000 – 27-foot centre console Ocean Masters. With their 300 horse Cummins diesel inboards they comfortably cruise at 25 knots, and are fully rigged for fly and light tackle fishing. They’re equipped with a good electronics package and importantly, for lady anglers, have the ‘luxury’ of a ‘head’. Additionally their crews – skipper and mate – are well tutored in fly and light tackle techniques by Abraham and all spoke at least a modicum of English. There was certainly no difficulty in making one’s self understood.
Following our arrival, after breakfast and importantly the unpacking of our tackle, we were straight out on the water with our crew – Melvin, the skipper, and Caesar the mate. The first task of this, and every day, was catching bait – small sardines – near the port itself. And then, a 30-minute run out to the fishing grounds just a few miles outside the gulf’s entrance. Given the area’s topography the 100-fathom curve is literally just outside the heads.
We came off the plane and slowed to our trolling speed of six to seven knots. Our port side ‘rigger was raised to facilitate casting – we both being right-handed – with three well-spaced pink softhead teasers deployed to starboard. The long teaser was rigged with a hookless ‘Panama Strip’ bait – dorado or skipjack belly – bound with twine.
Andy and I fished with 14 and 16 weight rods loaded with fast sinking lines. Reels were right-hand wind, anti-reverse models. The pink Edgewater poppers were rigged with twin 5/0 hooks on 4 to 5-foot leaders. That comprised of a 12” 125lb shock, 15” 20lb class tippet, with a 60lb butt, necessary for turning over those big, air-resistant flies.
Caesar would take great care in setting the drag, just sufficient to prevent an overrun. He’d flip 30 to 35 foot of line into the water and would then drag it back; carefully reverse coiling it onto the deck. The rod was positioned on the edge of the transom; reel resting on the deck on a dampened towel, with fly and leader system laid along the port gunwale – with just a foot of line outside the tip eye.
Then it was a case of waiting, scanning the ocean for the telltale sign of a Sail – the ‘knitting needle’ bill slashing behind the teaser, or a sideways ‘attack’.
Andy was first up on that first day. And the first fish came quickly, attracted to the middle teaser in the spread. With the boat still moving forwards Melvin took the rod and started slowing to wind it in, keeping the fish’s interest but preventing it seizing the teaser. The frustrated fish was, I imagine, now close to being vertical in the water, jaws snapping at the slowly moving, but elusive teaser. Caesar quickly wound the nearer of the teasers in to prevent any possibility of it distracting the Sailfish. The furthermost teaser was left out, again to prevent any likelihood of distraction.
Melvin instructed Andy to flip the fly off to the side, and let 15’ of line slip through his fingers tensioning the line in preparation for the first back cast. (Should you attempt this it’s important to deploy the fly to the side – thrown over the stern there’s always the possibility that the fly would get caught in the turbulence behind the transom and fail to tension the line.)
Our Sail came closer and Melvin instructed ‘Casting, Casting!’ Andy aerialised the line, rod held out at a 45-degree angle, allowing time for the bulky fly to turn over. Teased closer the fish was now just under 30 feet the boat. Melvin had Caesar knock the boat out of gear – necessary to conform to IGFA regulations – he then jerked the teaser from the water, out of its cone of vision, and got Andy to cast behind the fish and to one side. At this stage, with the Sail having ‘lost its meal’, it spun round searching for its prey. Andy popped the fly once and it seized it, not unlike a ‘ fast-forwarded’ ‘nymphing’ trout. (The sinking line angles the buoyant head downwards so the pop is particularly effective, creating lots of disturbance.) He set the hook immediately with a strip strike. (It’s important not to attempt to strike with the rod; it just isn’t effective.)
The startled fish went airborne, shaking its head and huge dorsal, and then accelerated away from the boat, running off perhaps 150 yards of line against the light pressure. It stayed on the surface and again started jumping. I tried retrieving the long teaser, rigged with the bait, and another fish immediately seized it. (You often find that several fish, sub-surface, will shadow the one showing in the pattern.) And it would not let go. I screwed the drag down and shook the rod, but it doggedly held on. It must have been several minutes before it finally gave up its unequal struggle!
Back to Andy, and the Sail. With the fish having quietened down Andy tighten the drag. And, in that the single screw doesn’t make for easy backing-down, Melvin circled round on the fish with Andy winding rapidly to keep the fluorescent 50lb gel-spun backing under tension.
(You’ll perhaps recall that I’d earlier mentioned that we both fished the reels right-handed, even though we cast right-handed. It’s just that the right is stronger and consequently makes sustained ‘speed-winding’ much easier. And there’s more that adequate time to swap hands between casting and striking, and then finally winding.)
Although Andy managed to initially raise the fish in the water column, we were now positioned directly above it, line soon started to trickle inexorably off the spool. The fish seemed comfortable holding position just on the thermocline. That’s when the ‘war of attrition’ started, Andy maintaining constant pressure – thrusting the rod from side to side, and strumming the tensioned line – with the Sailfish refusing to budge. It’s during that part of the fight that he was constantly having to ‘change hands’ – left to right and back again – to relieve the tension on tired forearm muscles.
Andy, little by little, forced the fish up. It spurted away from the boat and again started jumping. But this time the jumps were not as spectacular. Then again down it went. Finally, after what proved around 40 minutes, a tired fish laboured just sub-surface. (Those last few minutes, with the fish up in the water column, are often the most difficult. You’re constantly turning its head with judicious side strain and it’s often ‘figure of eight-ing’ just under the stern. Angler and skipper have to remain alert to prevent any ‘cut off’.) Thoroughly subdued Caesar reached out with a small fixed gaff to control and direct its bill upwards and, as it surfaced, he grabbed the bill in a gloved hand. The fish lay quietly beside the boat – its colour was checked to ensure that it wasn’t too stressed – and then it was cradled from the water for a quick photograph. We then motored forward for several minutes, reviving the Sail – Caesar holding its bill. Colours returned and the fish became increasingly active. Released, its big tail powered it slowly downwards, back into the depths.
So ‘one for one’ – it was an averaged-sized Costa Rican Sail around 80 to 85lbs. Now it was my turn. And everything that could go wrong did go wrong during the next five strikes! I had a popped tippet – too much drag on the first run, an abraded tippet (after 30 minutes), a hook hold that failed and even a nail knot that, under pressure, slip off the end of the fly line. The proverbial ‘comedy of errors’! Frustrated I offered the next strike to Andy. He caught a further fish, and then I got my first. As well as elation, you can imagine there was a certain sense of relief all round! We ended up just ‘three for ten’ that first day.
It was just that learning curve though and, in the other three days we went offshore, we had a further seven Sails on the Fly – all in the 70 to 100lb range. We didn’t lose any more.
On average the fish were taking 40 minutes to release. Although, at the extremes, I had one in in three minutes – that was hooked in the extreme tip of the lower jaw. Whereas Andy spent 90 minutes on a hundred pounder that, after its initial surface runs and jumps, spent most of the time cruising down on the thermocline. We were convinced that it was tail-wrapped and even attempted to pull for a break. But this was not the case; it was just a very difficult fish. It was only by circling the fish a number of times that we finally forced it to the surface.
In addition, on those days offshore, we had a further three on livebaits on 16lb spin gear. They weren’t necessarily targeted, but you’d occasionally spot then 10 or so feet down after one of the rare unsuccessful teases. The livebait would be rigged on a small circle hook, through the bait’s nose, and once flipped out you’d see the fish speed after it with its impressive Sail raised. (Importantly when fishing a circle hook resist the temptation to strike. Just wind into the fish until the line starts slipping, then gradually raise the rod to its normal fighting position. Without fail, wherever the hook finds itself, its inward curving point will bypass soft tissue and lodge itself in the scissors of the jaw.)
There were some Marlin offshore, Blues and Blacks, but realistically it was too early in the season for them to be present in any numbers. The main runs off Golfito starts in April. Although the crew always had a dead-bait rigged on a set of stand-up 80 for any such eventuality.
Whilst working a current line, slow trolling a bridle-rigged live-bait – around a waterlogged tree that was alive with immature fish, with Black Skipjacks and Dorado predating on them – we did spot a Marlin strike at bait some 60 or so yards in front of the boat. We couldn’t get a hook up from it though.
Going back to the immature fish what did surprise me were the vast numbers of Tripletails. I’d always viewed them as an Atlantic species, but I now understand that they are widespread throughout the Pacific and Indian oceans as well.
The only other thing we saw offshore, whilst Andy was engaged in that 90-minute tussle with the Sailfish, was a big Dorado. It looked easily around 60lbs. We fed it a live-bait (on the 16lb spin gear), which it readily engulfed. But after 10 minutes or so it threw the hook. We got some spectacular jumps out of it though.
That said the other boats – never more than three or four – that were trolling conventionally with dead-baits, on 30 and 50lb test outfits, and occasionally lures had greater numbers of Sails than us, together with Dorado, Yellowfin – including a 150 pounder – and a single Marlin, a Blue around 250lbs.
In addition we spent a couple of days fishing inshore and – trolling livebaits and plugs, bottom fishing and casting surface poppers – took a range of Snappers – including Cuberas – Jacks, Grouper, Barracuda and a large Houndfish. Andy also had a 25lb Roosterfish on a live-bait.
But, true to form, I lost a much larger Rooster around 40lbs, which somehow managed to avoid the circle hook! We were fishing a large, bridle-rigged Blue Runner. I got a strong run and, after a slow count of five, wound into it. It appeared to be a good hook-up, but almost immediately the fish surfaced and started thrashing around – it was then we spotted that the head of the bait and hook were still clear of its jaws. Why the fish hadn’t turned the bait was unclear. That Rooster refused to let go until, when within 20 feet of the boat, it finally threw the bait in a welter of foam.
A good trip, and a ‘tick in the box’ as far as challenges go. Just some concluding points; and firstly, importantly, an indication of costs. Return Apex flights to Costa Rica cost in the order of £550. The rates at the Lodge – priced in US Dollars, per person – work out to 2230$ for four days fishing, based on double occupancy, or 2120$ for a group of three. Extra days equate to 440$ and 390$ respectively. Those rates also include:
- · the first night’s accommodation in San Jose, together with reception and ground transportation
- · round trip air service to Golfito from San Jose
- · boat transportation to the Lodge
- · accommodation, all meals and drinks, and a laundry service.
The only extras are gratuities for the crew and Lodge staff, and the Costa Rican airport departure tax.
Further information, including a weekly updated catch report, is available from their web site on www.golfitosailfish.com.
I’d mentioned earlier that, for what is the second year running Dave Hoenes and Terry Smith also fished out of the Lodge in late January, just before us. They were part of a group organised by Stu Apte, one of the doyens of the American saltwater fly-fishing scene. Concentrating on ‘the fly’ they released seventeen fish in their six days fishing – all similarly in the 70 to 100lb range. Dave also had a hookup, albeit brief, on a small Blue Marlin and Terry released an estimated 40lb Roosterfish on 30lb conventional tackle.