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Spectacular Guanacaste Sailfishing

by Steve Marshall

The steady drone of the diesel engine and the gentle ocean swells had lulled us into a temporary lack of concentration when the skipper's shout from the tuna tower galvanized us into action.

"Bill, long right," he cried—our prearranged code for a billfish cutting behind the rearmost teaser dancing in the wake behind the right outrigger.As the crew and I reeled in the teasers, my buddy Al Taylor grabbed a rod rigged with a fresh ballyhoo and let the bait drop back to the sailfish. The sail spotted the ballyhoo just as the teaser was about to be lifted from the water and turned its murderous attention to the bait.

Al let the fish run with the bait without feeling any line pressure and started the countdown. When he reached 15, he threw the reel in gear, cranked frantically until he came tight to the fish, and set the hook. A long, screaming run was capped with a spectacular jump that threw sparkling sheets of water into the air! The first of our many Costa Rica sailfish battles was on.

The time was mid-February and the place was off Playa Carillo on the northwest coast of Costa Rica. Al and I and our wives were successfully evading Michigan winter and sneaking in some fishing on the side. As it turned out, the fishing aboard Rick Ruhlow's 30-foot Palm Beach was fantastic. During the three days we fished, we raised 54 billfish behind the "Kingfisher," including two striped marlin.

While many of the fish were lookers and not takers, the action was fast and furious by any billfishing standards. While we ended up boating and releasing only 12 or 13 fish, the low batting average could be traced to Al's and my inexperience with the drop-back technique we were using. We lost many fish while learning the "feel" of when to set the hook. I'm sure that if we had left all the hooking chores to Orlando, we would have come away with aching muscles.

One thing I have learned from my billfishing trips over the years is that there are probably as many fishing techniques and variations thereof as there are boat captains. In the Florida Keys, I have fished for sails with live bait at extremely slow trolling speeds barely faster than a slow walk. Off Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, I fished with artificials at speeds where you could easily have water-skied while looking for marlin sunning themselves on the surface. Sometimes you would catch fish on the artificials; sometimes you would spot a marlin lazing on the surface in the distance, and throw out live bait while circling the fish. In Australia, I've fished for small black marlin strictly by high-speed trolling with artificials. All these methods work. But this was the first trip I fished with no hooks on the baits!

With the drop-back technique, employed by most of the leading boat operators in Costa Rica, you basically run up to four hookless teaser baits behind the boat, two short on rods and two further back off the outriggers. You keep two or three rods on the boat at the ready, baited with a ballyhoo for when the action begins. When a billfish comes up on the teaser spread, which imitate a school of baitfish, it will usually start to chase one of them.

This is when a variation of the old sales technique of bait-and-switch comes into play. Except in this case it's switch the baits. As the teaser is reeled up to the boat, the angler strips a ballyhoo back in front of the charging billfish. If the fish follows the script, it will shift its attention to the natural bait and the angler will almost literally drop the bait back into its mouth, and that's when angler skill comes into play.

The billfish will swim off with the bait in its mouth, but not necessarily hooked. The angler must not allow the fish to feel any pressure and free spool the line until the fish has had a chance to get the bait fully into its mouth. That's when he takes in the slack and sets the hook.

This requires skill, or more accurately, a "feel" that can only be learned by experience. If the fish feels any line pressure while it is running, it will drop the bait. If the angler tries to set the hook too soon, the action may yank the bait out of the fish's mouth. If the angler waits too long, there's a risk of the fish detecting something wrong and spitting the bait.

Al and I lost a lot of fish as we tried to gain the proper "feel," but fortunately, the fishing was so great we had ample opportunity to improve our limited skills by the end of the third day of fishing. Of course, we could have relied solely on the mate to handle the hooking chores, but it was a lot more fun getting involved ourselves—even if it meant fewer fish boated.

In addition to billfishing, we had a chance to witness a tuna spectacular. One afternoon we got word on the radio of a large school of yellowfin tuna about five miles south of us. We pulled lines and ran down into the middle of a sensational feeding frenzy. The air was filled with thousands of birds swirling and diving over huge schools of panicked baitfish. Hundreds of porpoises were slashing through the schools as they fed.

There were yellowfin tuna driving through the baitfish on all sides of the boat, as far as the eye could see...free jumping in all directions. Sometimes you could see as many as four huge tuna airborne at the same time as they fed voraciously. And these weren't just little 10 or 15 pounders. Our captain estimated some of the larger tuna would easily exceed 200 pounds.

In spite of the spectacular show, our success in hooking up with the tuna was less than amazing. The yellowfin were apparently patterned tightly on the specific bait they were feeding on, and largely ignored our offerings despite numerous bait changes in an attempt to "match the hatch." Out of five boats working the area, only three fish were reported boated. One boat took two: one ran about 150 pounds and another about 120. We were fortunate to take the third. My wife Joan and I hooked and landed a 75 pounder, which a local restaurant later prepared for us in fine fashion. Although the tuna refused our offerings, the tremendous show they put on was worth the price of admission; and the memory of that afternoon will never fade.

Costa Rica has a whole lot more to offer, however, than just fantastic fishing. For the balance of the trip we experienced the smorgasbord of activities for which the country is famous.

We enjoyed beautiful, uncrowded beaches and a great climate. We visited central highland cloud forests, tropical lowland rain forests and several active volcanoes, and toured coffee plantations, hot springs and the Lankester Orchid Gardens (Costa Rica is home to some 1,500 species of orchids). Along the way, we encountered a variety of Central American wildlife, including monkeys, birds and butterflies (but no bugs!).

Everywhere we went, we were warmly welcomed by friendly Costa Ricans, or Ticos, as they refer to themselves. All in all, it was a great experience and one we plan to repeat in the future.

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