Fishing in Costa Rica: 13 lessons for tackling tropical seas

Where do I even begin with recalling a week long stay in Costa Rica? It has been an epic way to celebrate my 40th Birthday in great company, sharing inshore and offshore boat fishing days with Keith Armishaw (who runs the Angling Heritage project with wife Sandra, and was kind enough to invite me along in the first place). We wanted variety and certainly got it, catching a whole slew of species with Jackpot Sport Fishing– a guided boat fishing service run by angling mad ex-pat Benn Gilmour.

Trips into the unknown are exciting for any angler, albeit something of an occasional treat for most of us with the distance and expense involved. But with a baby on the way soonish and the big four-zero beckoning it seemed perfect timing. The whole adventure deserves at least a couple of full length articles, to be frank…  especially with the lure and fly fishing aspects. For now though, I thought I’d share some of the pictures and lessons learned along the way, should you fancy taking a trip to Costa Rica. That said, a lot of the following would apply to any adventure in warmer seas where bigger fish lurk, for that matter.

Bring some of your favourite gear (even if it’s not essential)

Travel rods adventure fishing tips

Ok, so you could easily rock up on any charter boat in central America (or most of the world) and just borrow their gear. But if you have rods that pack in a suitcase, I always find it nicer to mix and match with your own. One thing you’ll often find is that most boats only have quite heavy gear – and they won’t cater for those who like to mess about smaller fish and light rods.

I took a 9 wt fly rod, a mid to heavy spinning rod and also a cute little LRF setup, and caught fish on all of them! Four section rods or travel models are best- and with a large suitcase, cut down rod tubes and bubble wrap are all you need (always stash rods in the main luggage to avoid airport jobsworths).

Listen to the locals and keep plans flexible

Good Day Jackpot Sport fishing Costa Rica

Following on from the above, unless you are hell bent on achieving one particular goal, or are sharing the trip with a whole bunch of fellow lure or fly fanatics, be flexible. The locals will tell you what’s working (hint: they know the locale and the current formbook way better than you do). By all means have an ambition or two, but don’t be shy to take plan B or C. No destination will quite match the picture you created in your head, so as the saying goes: “When in Rome…”

Don’t be a one method man

Sharing a boat with Keith was easy for two reasons on our trip: we’re both all rounders who are fairly relaxed and willing to compromise (be wary of booking with companions who hog the show or have to catch the biggest!). Yes, given a preference I love the fly or lure best of all- but why get sniffy about other methods if those are your best chance? The roosterfish were a classic example of this. I got only a couple of these to follow in literally hundreds of fly casts, but boated this 40lb beauty on a sardine. No complaints from me; the fact it took bait rather than a bit of fluff didn’t make it any less determined to pull my arms off!

Be prepared for relentless heat

Hot weather fishing

Ok, I hear what you’re thinking… no sh*t, it’s hot out there! Don’t be like the nameless American pensioner we spoke to who got virtually cremated: a hat with sides is a must, as is a ton of factor 50 sun cream. Get a buff too; it must be the best tenner I’ve spent in a while (even if it makes me look a bit like I’ve joined a terrorist group). You’ll also need to drink shed loads, literally a bottle of pop or water at least every hour, unless you want to visit headache-central. Be safe, not singed!

The fish grow bigger and fight brutally hard

This incredible heat also helps to explain why the fish grow so huge in Central America. Warm waters and loads of prey equals scary growth rates- and seas that rarely get below the mid 20 degrees. The heat also means our cold-blooded quarry are super active and angry when hooked. Even those that don’t look so deadly- like the jack crevalle (above) which we had on bait, lure and fly alike.

Strong lines and leaders are a no-brainer therefore. 40lb braided reel lines and 30lb leaders should probably be seen as a minimum. You’d also be advised to learn and practice the strongest knots you can find- such as grinners and surgeon’s loop. I learned a couple of new knots from Benn and crew while out on the sea, in fact. Be honest: 99% of us can improve our knots, it’s just that we get lazy!

Check connections and step up your lure and fly gear

Punishing fishing requires only the most dependable gear. For fly guys, you’ll need a robust line designed for warm saltwater use. Before the trip I considered my nine weight pretty tough- but even this gear felt light at times! Connections such as leader knots, snaplinks and the rest must be hard as nails too. If your tackle has any weakness, the fish will find it! Double check all knots and set drags carefully, too, as well as checking and sharpening hook points. If you don’t, the fish are sure to teach you the hard way.

Prepare to deal with teeth

spanish mackerel on fly fishing

Another good reason for beefy tackle is the regularity of finding fish with brutal teeth. The mackerel family are a classic example of this. Sure, you might land them on 30lb leaders; but thicker gives much better bite off insurance. I learned this the hard way, battling with a real pick ‘n’ mix of crazy, toothy suckers on fly and lure gear, but still got bitten through on 40lb leader by some of them! It might be an idea to take some wire, too, especially for targeting species with really mean jaws, such as the larger mackerel.

 

Keep lure and fly retrieves FAST

best retrieve speed for fly lure sea fish

Tropical seas mean that most predators can shift like sh*t off the proverbial shovel. You will learn the hard way that they want it fast, when the fish follow but refuse to bite. Speed up! Yes, it’s a ton of hard work, especially with the fly rod, but you need to shift that thing to get them going. Tropical predators can swim a lot faster than you can retrieve, so you’re not going to put them off by really going for it. If your arms aren’t tired by the end of the day you’re not doing it properly.

Insist on the proactive approach

Ok, so this point is relevant all over the world where fishing boats and crews are booked. Typically, a lot of tourists fancy catching some fish but come with little expertise, hence the locals get quite used to taking over and just passing the rod over when fish are hooked. It can be helpful to see how the locals fish, but having someone else take care of the whole process is obviously not what most serious anglers want! Communication is key then- so let them know you want to do most of it yourself.

Picking a good crew who understand this, like Benn’s chaps at Jackpot Sport Fishing, is also healthy. Even with totally unfamiliar aspects like big game, they soon had us trying new things and becoming part of the team rather than mere spectators. So much more rewarding!

Take plenty of poppers

They might be on the periphery for UK saltwater fishing with the lure or fly rod, but out in the Pacific (and any warm sea), the popper is often the first option out of the box. Why? Well, with the fish being so super aggressive and having sharp senses, nothing calls them in like an enthusiastically popped artificial.

They’ll catch you loads of species, from jacks and mackerel to snappers (above), and the takes are sensationally exciting. The locals swear by big ones- my largest were their “fun size”! Personally, I think a black popper is the best of all. I just wish I’d taken more because the one above was literally bitten off the line in a brutal take!

 

Have your camera and tools ready at all times

This is a great shout for any fishing- but especially true for saltwater bruisers that fight themselves to a standstill. After a jack crevalle or rooster smashes you all over the shop, the last thing you want to do is have it gasping for air for minutes on end. Benn’s boat was exemplary at this- cameras ready to go and GoPros already switched on to capture the action with minimum faff. And if you spot crazy jumping dolphins, pelicans or other wildlife, being camera ready is just as vital.

Big game fishing is definitely worth a try… even for the less patient

In fact, it’s deeply fascinating and exciting. I’ll be revealing a little more about the madness of catching sailfish in my weekly Angling Times column shortly, but suffice to say it blew my expectations out of the water. We had several of these fish each time we went for them- and tried our luck with classic big game gear, spinning rods and even the fly. That’s all I’m saying for now, but the main point is to give it at try, even if you have misgivings (like I did). Playing a sailfish is one of the most exciting things you’ll ever do as an angler.

Mix and match boat and shore fishing for variety

Boat fishing gives you amazing access, even if it will set you back more than guided fishing from the shore alone. Leave a bit on top to tip the local guides and crews, too- they are good, honest guys who depend on visitors, so be kind.

Mixing boat and shore days will give you the best variery of all and of course, a guide like Benn will tell you where to try locally. On our trip, we asked for variety and got it- with some amazing fish taken from 200ft reefs and inches of water alike.

It might seem silly when you’ve fought sailfish of over 70lbs, but the mini species would also definitely make my “highlights reel” for the trip. Me and Keith were in our element using little jigs, Isome and scraps of prawn in a little inlet outside the harbour just 18″ deep, to add another six or seven species in quick succession. Oh, and the General caught a Sargeant Major fish. How appropriate!

 

READ MORE FROM ME THIS MONTH…

If you enjoy my blog, do look out for my other current work. You can read me every issue in both Angling Times and Fallon’s Angler (issue 15 is out very soon!), grab one of my books or arrange a guided fishing trip with me this summer. Meanwhile, you can also keep an eye on current news and meet some of the heroes of the sport in the Angling Trust’s Lines on the Water blog.


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