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Guide to the World's Best Fishing
by Jerry Ruhlow
Two oceans, beautiful lakes and hundreds of rivers all add up to some of the best fishing for more species at any time of the year than you're likely to find in such a small and easily accessible area anywhere else in the world.
From the capital city of San José, fishermen are only 30 to 40 minutes flying time from the prime fishing regions on the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, with two national airlines providing daily service. There is hardly anyplace in the country you can't reach within three to six hours driving time.
Costa Rica's reputation for incredible fishing is well-justified, but like anyplace in the world, there are never any guarantees. Action will vary with the seasons and prevailing wind, weather, currents and other natural conditions at any given time, and the following breakdown should be considered only as a general guide.
NORTHERN PACIFIC COAST
Cabo Blanco to the Gulf of Papagayo Flamingo Beach, with its full-service marina, and nearby Tamarindo, Nosara, Samara and Playa Carrillo are the sport fishing centers in this area.
As previously emphasized, fishing will vary with prevailing conditions, but here's how it generally runs for the more popular species. Look for winds north of Cabo Vela from about December into mid-May.
Marlin: Caught every month of the year, with mid-November to early March exceptional, then slowing a bit from April into early June when it picks up again, peaking in August and September.
Sailfish: Caught throughout the year, with May through August normally the top season. They may begin to thin out in September, with the slowest months running through November.
Tuna: Peak months are usually August through October, but when all else fails, there are always tuna, anytime of the year. Yellow fin and some bigeye tuna to over 350 pounds are sometimes found well inside the Catalina Islands, 30-minutes or less running time from the beach, while schools of 12 to 20 pounders can frequently be found under the birds and dolphin, spread for acres on the outside.
Dorado: More properly known as dolphin, these colorful gamesters are most abundant from late May through October when the seasonal rains flood the rivers that carry out debris, forming trash lines close inshore they like to lie under. Troll past a floating log and you'll likely hook a dorado.
Wahoo: Caught in limited numbers throughout the year, the best showing begins about the time the rains start in May, peaking in July and August. Most are caught around rocky points and islands, but you may pick one up occasionally fishing offshore as well.
Roosterfish: Available all year, but more are caught in the Papagayo Bay area and around the islands from October through March.
CENTRAL PACIFIC REGION
Cabo Blanco to Drake Bay
Quepos is the center of fishing on Costa Rica's central Pacific coast, with 50 or more professionally equipped boats in the 27-feet-and-up range, and smaller boats well-suited to the excellent inshore angling in the area. Some sails are taken throughout the entire year. It's seldom more than a 12- to 20-mile run to the blue water where most of the billfish action is found. Boats out of Quepos also offer multi-day trips to the Drake Bay and Caños Island area, over-nighting at one of the several lodges centered around Drake Bay and there are a few boats based at Drake Bay, also a top diving area. This region is best known for its wahoo, big cubera and roosterfish, but there are also tuna, dorado, sails and marlin.
Marlin: October is normally the top month for marlin in this area, but action is also good in September and November. Occasional blues and a rare black are likely to be found anytime of year.
Sailfish: Mid-December to the end of April is rated the best season, but the big schools often move in about October and stay longer. A few sails always show among the catch from June through September, mixed with the other species that are found inshore during those months.
Tuna: Found throughout the year as they are all along the Pacific coast, but most abundant from about June through September. Most are the eight to 12 pounders, but a dozen or more over 200 pounds and maybe another two dozen in the 100- to 200-pound range are taken every year.
Wahoo: Pretty rare in the area around Quepos, but more abundant in the late summer farther south, especially the Drake Bay and Caños Island area from late June to early August.
Dorado: Best action begins with the winter rains that start in late May and wash debris from the river mouths, creating the inshore trash lines that the dolphin like to lie under.
Roosterfish: Fishing for this hard-hitting inshore species is little short of incredible with the best spots off the river mouths and the rocky drop-offs. Exceptional at the mouth of the Parrita River; Palo Seco between Parrita and Damas; just outside Damas; off the mouth of the Naranjo River; around the points at Dominical Beach and throughout the Drake Bay area. Best fishing is during the summer months, from June through early September.
Snook: Best spots are just off the many river mouths along the coast, up the Sierpe River and in the big lagoon on the Sierpe. The world-record Pacific black snook was taken a couple years ago in July just off the mouth of the Río Naranjo on a charter with Capt. Jim Geary. Although it is a new fishery, the best months seem to be from July through November during the heavy rainy season.
SOUTHERN PACIFIC REGION
Golfito and Playa Zancudo
Golfito is the center of activity on Costa Rica's southern coast. It's a rare day during peak season that boats don't raise a dozen sails and a marlin or two, along with plenty of jacks, runners, mackerel and perhaps an amberjack, roosterfish or big snapper inshore. Light-tackle fishing inside the bay off Golfito, with its profusion of small coves and rocky islets, as well as off the shoreline, is good for small barracuda and snapper, corbina and occasional snook to more than 40 pounds.
Across the bay there are lodges on Playa Zancudo, a narrow peninsula with miles of beach on the ocean side and the confluence of three rivers on the other side. Operators offer day charters and three- to five-day packages with all meals, lodging and an open bar. One of the lodges there has posted more than 40 IGFA records on various species. Fishing the drop-off outside Matapalo produces sails, marlin, tuna and other blue-water species, and inshore there are roosters that average more than 30 pounds (a couple up to 100 pounds), grouper, jacks, barracuda, trophy-size Pacific cubera snapper and more.
Zancudo operators also offer snook trips that have become increasingly popular during the past couple of years, working the river mouths and estuary at Zancudo, while some of the boats out of Golfito fish snook north of there, at the mouth of the Río Esquinas.
Marlin: August through December is peak season, but an occasional blue or black may be taken most any month if the water temperature is up. This year, the marlin bite was incredible from February in March, with some to 750 pounds.
Sailfish: A few taken off and on year-round with the exceptional fishing from December through March. Often slows from April into early June, then picks up again and begins to peak in August or September.
Tuna: Best fishing for the bigger ones corresponds with marlin and sailfish season, but the schools of footballs can nearly always be found outside.
Dorado: Best runs are traditionally from late May through October
Wahoo: Not abundant, but an occasional wahoo may be taken most any time of the year while trolling offshore for billfish, or around the structure off Matapalo.
Roosterfish: Region is famous for its big roosters and they can be caught virtually any month of the year, some to nearly 100 pounds.
Snook: All year, but best from middle or late May through July and January and February.
Fishing along Costa Rica's Caribbean coast can vary more from one day to another than from month to month. Historically, tarpon fishing is promoted by lodges on Costa Rica's east coast from about December through mid-May, while snook peak from about September through November. But the fish are there year-round, and it's mostly a matter of weather, which can change overnight. Rainy season starts about mid-May, and action slows for awhile as the dirty water sweeps out of the rivers.
Facilities catering to anglers are located at Samay Lagoon, Parismina and Tortuguero, and there are three quality fishing lodges around the Río Colorado. The Rain Goddess luxury houseboat serves as a floating lodge based near the mouth of the San Juan River, in Nicaragua, and provides access to miles of jungle rivers and small hidden lakes that others rarely fish.
Lodges offer full service, including transportation from San José, comfortable accommodations, meals, boats and guides. There are no roads to this area, and access is via the in-country airlines or charter flights, or by boat through the Tortuguero Canal system from Limón.
Most operators on the Caribbean have 23-foot center consoles that are able to get out the river mouths more frequently for tarpon when the surf is up and often connect on barracuda, jacks, kingfish, sierra, tripletail, cubera, grouper, jewfish, wahoo, tuna to over 100 pounds and the occasional Atlantic sailfish and blue marlin.
Light-tackle fishing up river in the backwaters and lagoons is unsurpassed, especially when the calba, or fat snook (Centropomus parallelus) are running. These are the small snook that swarm the Río Colorado area from about September through November, sometimes overlapping as much as a month either way. They average about five pounds, with eight and nine pounders fairly common. Rainbow bass (guapote), mojarra, vieja, machaca, catfish, drum, alligator gar and other light-tackle species also abound, so bring along that bass rod or a light spinning outfit.
Lake Arenal, at the base of the active Arenal Volcano, is easily the most popular inland fishing destination. Located about a four-hour drive from San José, it's 22-miles long and Costa Rica's largest lake. Arenal is loaded with guapote, or rainbow bass, a member of the genus Parachromis, which displays the shadings of a rainbow trout and habits of a largemouth bass. Limit is five fish per day, and they often run seven to nine pounds, although the average is closer to three pounds. A number of lodges around the lake offer boats and guides.
Rainbow bass are also found in the much smaller Lake Coto, just a few kilometers from the big lake, and at Lake Hule (also shown on some maps as Lake Echandi), near San Miguel—which you don't even want to think about trying to get to without a four-wheel-drive (preferably two of them and one with a winch!).
The low-elevation rivers that feed into the San Juan to the north and the Caribbean Sea on the east coast also have rainbow bass, although they generally don't run as large as they do in the lakes. These rivers have a variety of other species including bobo (a type of mullet); the colorful mojarra; the machaca, often called sabalito, or little tarpon, because of its acrobatic jumps that make it a favorite of fly fishermen; and the roncador or drum, usually found in brackish lagoons near the river mouths.
Light-bait casting or spinning tackle works fine, but for bobo bring a selection of spinners (large Mepps type), shallow runners, poppers and a can of worms. Bobo have also been known to take a chunk of banana.
Another great trip is up the Río Frío from Los Chiles, working up to its junction with Caño Negro Lagoon and the San Juan River as it forms the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Caño Negro is an immense inland lake that is home to the largest tarpon you're likely to find in the country. While none of the real giants have been weighed in to date, I've seen jumpers that would have pushed the 200-pound mark. Caño Negro also is loaded with snook, drum, guapote and other species. Boats and guides are available. Arrangements can be made to fish Lake Nicaragua out of Los Chiles.
There's even trout fishing in Costa Rica, but access to the more productive areas for natural fish is challenging, to say the least, with access to most waters generally requiring a guide and a horse. Rainbows average seven to nine inches, with the very occasional two to four pounders. There are exceptions, however, with some planted fish available on private ranches within a two-hour drive from San José.
Keep in mind there are closed seasons in some waters that may vary from year to year, and a valid Costa Rican fishing license is required for all freshwater fishing in the country.
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