It happens without warning, as is so many times the case: A rod at the rear of our boat convulses as though taking a fist in the solar plexus, and its heavy-duty reel rends the air with an electrifying sound.
Some reels scream, but this one wails like an injured animal. Hundreds of yards of heavy monofilament melt from the spool as we watch.
It’s my turn up, and so I grab the chunky rod from its holder and seat its butt against my body where leg and torso come together. Instinctively and stupidly, I start to thumb the reel to slow the fish’s run. In the millisecond that it takes to jerk my thumb away, the speeding line burns like a cigarette pressed to the flesh.
Only one fish we’re aware of makes runs like this. It’s got to be a wahoo - probably the fastest fish in the ocean and, pound for pound, one of the strongest.
We’re on the blue Pacific, a few miles off the mouth of Rio Sierpe, a muddy, serpentine river - aptly named - that drains hundreds of miles of Costa Rican jungle a little north of the Panama border. We’re on a poor man’s jaunt to a rich man’s playground.
Costa Rica is famous for its fishing; tarpon on its Caribbean coast, and billfish, wahoo, tuna, dorado, roosterfish and more in the Pacific. On nearly any modern list of best and trendiest fishing destinations, it would rank first or maybe second. But popularity has its price. On nearly any list of most expensive, it would not be far behind.
The challenge facing us was to enjoy this rich man’s sport at a price a working man could afford. We did it through Fred Contaoi (Con-ta’-we) at Rod and Reel Adventures of Modesto, Calif., recommended by a friend of a friend.
Rio Sierpe was the way to go, Contaoi said, tucked away as it is obscurely on the country’s southern coast, hundreds of kilometers and thousands of dollars removed from the plush resorts of Peninsula de Nicoya to the north.
“It’s half the price in Rio Sierpe compared to other west-coast destinations,” Contaoi said.
Why so inexpensive?
“A couple of major reasons,” he said. “One, there are no roads that go into the area. It’s an out-of-the-way place that isn’t known.
“The other is that it’s the only place I know of that close to the equator, and for sure in Costa Rica, that has a 12-foot tidal change. You have a river bar, and it’s a big river. So you have a rough crossing.”
And another reason that the cost was low: Rio Sierpe Lodge itself.
“This is a rustic lodge,” Contaoi said, “not a beach-front resort with Olympic swimming pool.”
Indeed it is. If we had been looking for any swimming pool at all we’d have been disappointed. Likewise hot water. Or electric power, except for a couple of hours each evening when the generator was fired up.
Fishermen comprise a minority of the lodge’s clientele. Eco-travelers are most abundant, those who come to see the flora and the fauna of the rain forest that surrounds the lodge and of nearby Corcovado National Park.
But the lodge’s operators have been offering fishing all along, Contaoi said, providing local guides with outboard-powered pangas, and now they’ve decided to promote it.
Fishing is good all up and down the Costa Rican coast, Contaoi said, although some species such as billfish move with the seasons.
“Best fishing is more toward the December time frame,” he said, “and then going into April.”
And the first couple of weeks of April? Say, from the fifth to the 12th? Would fishing still be good?
“You would definitely be catching sailfish,” Contaoi told us.
But you definitely shouldn’t say “definitely” when you’re talking fish.
The wahoo that is streaking from our boat finally stops his run. Gently at first, then more forcefully, I begin to pump the rod, drawing the fish closer with each upstroke and reeling rapidly with each downstroke. A lot of line is out, and this will take some time. Grudgingly the fish comes closer.
A couple of times he turns and runs again, but each run is shorter than the last. I keep all fingers clear, and let him fight the drag.
Finally, he’s almost to the boat, just out of sight a few yards off our stern. I raise the rod again, and expect to feel the solid reassurance of his weight. But suddenly resistance turns to mush. I can feel the hook pull out, and there’s nothing I can do.
The line goes limp. The fish is free.
It’s but a moment, and it’s the essence of our trip.
The sailfish that we’d come to catch are gone. Probably up the coast. They migrate north each spring toward Mexico, and it looks as though this year they started early. A series of storm fronts was moving through, agitating the usually placid sea. It was most unusual for that time of year, which normally still is dry.
This is the third of four days of fishing with Bob Callies of Seattle, John Callies of Enumclaw, Wash., and Mark Carr of Brinnon, Wash., and fishing is tough. Bob and Mark have seen one sail, seaward of Isla del Cano, some 17 miles off the coast, but they couldn’t entice a strike. John and I have seen none, and we’re not about to.
Conditions, says our guide, are muy malo.
Each morning we troll plastic squid - big ones - without result, skipping them behind the boat at seven to 10 knots. We watch in vain for a giant dorsal fin to overtake them.
Each morning, we can see that the sails are still not here, so we switch to lures - spoon-billed Rapala magnums in orange, blue or green. It is these that wahoo and yellowfin tuna hit.
One afternoon our skipper, Coco Veita, positions his boat in line with a point 8 or 9 miles away that yellowfin must clear as they swim along the coast. We intercept one after another, to eight or nine pounds.
Our skipper gaffs them at the side of the boat and bleeds them, before tossing them into the box.
Another afternoon we fish among mangroves in brackish water inside the river mouth. A person could get lost in here. We meander through the shallows with motors tilted up, from one channel to another, pulling the boat along by grasping mangrove roots. At times the guides jump out to push us over spots where keels are dragging.
In the deeper channels, we pull Mann’s Loudmouth rattling lures. Within minutes, we are taking fish, red snapper, and soon a grouper of about 20 pounds joins the mix.
Mark has brought his own equipment, light and medium-weight, including some metal jigs he wants to try. The rest of us use gear provided by the lodge, and its quality is good - Penn saltwater reels and rods, about medium-heavy, ranging down to spinning gear of medium to light weight. The lodge also provides our lures and baits.
The lightest gear we use just inside the river mouth, casting from the beach without success for snook. Mark gets a couple of strong hits, but no hookup.
En route back to Washington days later, I meet an American at the hotel. He’s from Alaska. He’s been fishing, and it’s been great.
I ask him where he’s been.
“Quepos,” he says.
That’s a place we had considered, too, before deciding on Rio Sierpe. It’s some 60 miles north of where we’d fished.
“My partner and I, we killed ‘em,” he said. “Fourteen sailfish in one day. We caught ‘em until we got tired of it, and then we went in.”
(Uh, you don’t say. Fourteen? Um, our fishing was a little slower. Who set you up?)
“Hey, the father of the woman who arranged our trip is in the lobby now,” he said. “Come on, I’ll introduce you.”
We step onto the veranda, where sits a Costa Rican of middle age. He gives me his daughter’s name and number. I go back to my room and make the call.
Yeah, she remembers the Alaskan. Fourteen sails in one day. There was another party, too, of seven. She sent them down to Quepos. Twenty-eight sails in two days.
Yes, she could do a trip for me, she says. She’ll send information to me.
Never give up.
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