Billfish Angler’s Guide to Costa Rica

Not until the early 1990s did sailfishing off Costa Rica’s Pacific coast attract major international attention, and by the turn of the century, Costa Rica was billing itself as the “sailfish capital of the world.” Just after that, however, sailfish numbers began to take a major hit, and many anglers ended up more disappointed than excited. But thanks to the adoption of regulations limiting the commercial exploitation of sailfish about 10 years ago, sailfish populations have rebounded and remain strong enough to justify the country’s self-anointed title. For example, consider the one-day total from 43 boats during the second leg of the Los Sueños Triple Crown in 2016, when 1,103 sailfish were caught and released.

But there’s more to Costa Rica’s billfish story than sailfish alone. Marlin were, of course, always here and part of the action, but until recent years, Costa Rica wasn’t really known as a marlin destination. That has changed as well, in part thanks to the overnight trips to seamounts and FADs (fish aggregating devices) far offshore, trips a number of charters now offer. When boats start raising close to 30 marlin in a day, the international billfishing community takes notice.

This is not to suggest that catching 30 marlin or dozens of sailfish in a day is a foregone conclusion off Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. But are such days possible? Absolutely.

Costa Rica is fortunate to have two billfish seasons: The fishing peaks from November through April in the central and southern regions and from May through December in the north. There are fishing clubs such as the Club Amateur de Pesca and the National Fishing Club that have been around for decades, but tourists traveling to Costa Rica is relatively new.

Billfishing in Costa Rica

Wherever you fish for billfish in the world, the approach is a little different; each location has its own style. Costa Rica is no exception.

Most charter captains here troll a combination of teasers, lures and natural baits, including bonito and ballyhoo.

No matter where along the country’s Pacific coast you look to charter a sport-fisher, keep in mind that communication is key to any good charter-fishing trip, and that should start before you step on the boat. Many wholesalers and captains rely on repeat business, so they want to be sure your trip provides more than a boat ride.

If all the info you need isn’t on an operation’s website, feel free to call and ask about such things as fishing hours, type of equipment, if fishing licenses are provided, if the crew are women- and child-friendly, and the level of English spoken on board.

Once you arrive for a chartered day and step on the boat, have a conversation with the captain and crew before you leave the dock. Be honest about your level of experience as far as fishing for billfish is concerned, and remember, there are no stupid questions—particularly if billfishing is a whole new ballgame for you. Most crews will be happy to give you as much or as little help as you want.

When a fish appears in the spread, often the captain on a tower boat is the first to see it, and will start shouting the position of the fish behind the boat to crew and anglers on deck. In these first crazed minutes, the captain’s adrenalin might have him frantically blurting this out in Spanish for the crew, using words that mean: short, long, left and right, depending on which teaser the fish came up.

Six words that can help during the melee of hooking up are often shouted out in Spanish:

marlin = marlín (mar-LEEN)

sailfish = pez vela (pays BAY-la)

left = izquierda (ees-KYEHR-dah)

right = derecha (deh-REH-chah)

long = largo

short = corto

Though most crews speak English, it might not hurt to learn a few simple phrases in Spanish before traveling to Costa Rica because that is the native tongue. Long before you arrive at the coast, you will have probably already learned “Pura vida!” which is a Costa Rican greeting that basically means “Everything is great.” “Cerveza fría” will get you a cold beer. Crews love to teach and love to hear about the fishing you do back home, so don’t be shy. Their world is much smaller than yours. Share it.

Crocodile Bay Resort, like many other Costa Rica charters, practice bait-and-switch fishing, a particularly exciting method for catching billfish that requires a well-coordinated effort, with the captain keeping track of where the fish is, the mate keeping the fish interested, and the angler presenting the bait at the right moment. With luck, the sailfish or marlin is interested, but you need to wait for it to eat, turn and start to move away while feeding it line. The use of circle hooks is required in Costa Rica when using natural baits, so calmly place the reel in gear and just start winding.

If you understand everyone’s role in the process, you have a much better chance of hooking up the first fish in the spread rather than learning from your error.

Fisheries Management Making a Difference

Early in this century, the number of fish caught by anglers off Costa Rica began a steady decline, leaving tourists disappointed and charter fleets scratching their heads. Then it was discovered in 2008 that more than 600,000 pounds of sailfish meat were being exported to the United States each year, often ending up in restaurants as smoked-fish spread. Most consumers had no idea the tasty fish they were eating was sailfish. A small group of charter captains formed La Federación Costarricense de Pesca, or FECOP, a nongovern­mental federation of sport-fishing interests to lobby the government, backed by science, to better manage Costa Rica’s territorial waters. (The country’s territorial waters are 11 times greater than the size of its land area.) The group lobbied INCOPESCA, the governing agency of Costa Rican fisheries, citing the importance of sport fishing to coastal communities; in March 2009, Costa Rica banned the exportation of sailfish. A decade later, sailfish numbers have come roaring back. Sailfish can still be taken as accidental bycatch and sold on the national market, but they must be released if they’re alive on a line when captured.

In 2013, FECOP showed the government that the country’s tuna resource was being given to foreign purse seine boats for as little as $37 a ton, and that the purse seiners also were affecting populations of pelagic species that attract tourists. When the purse seiners’ nets actually wrapped up some sport-fishing boats out of Los Sueños Marina as the seiners encircled a pod of spinner dolphins, it was the final straw. In 2014, a decree was signed moving the tuna boats out 45 miles from the coast to protect numerous seamounts, creating an area of 77,220 square miles where purse seiners could no longer operate. Their catch was limited to 9,000 metric tons a year, down from a onetime high of nearly 25,000 metric tons, and that catch had to be sold to the local cannery in Puntarenas. Moises Mug, a scientist for FECOP, analyzed observer onboard reports for the purse seine fleet in 2018 and discovered that moving the purse seiners farther out was saving 25 tons of marlin annually from ending up as seiners’ bycatch. During the past six or seven years, the recovery of various pelagic species off Costa Rica has been remarkable.

Then there’s the FAD issue. Critics of fish aggregating devices claim that they are akin to hunting in baited fields, putting too much pressure on the fish, and once commercial boats find the locations, they end up killing too many marlin. But more study is needed to really assess the situation. Toward that end, a Stanford University team led by Larry Crowder, Ph.D., made trips to Costa Rica every few months in 2019 to place satellite tags on marlin and sailfish. At the time of this writing, biologists Danielle Haulsee and Hanna Blondin had placed tags on 33 marlin and 14 sails. They tagged many of the marlin on FADs. The tags were set to pop off and transmit data at intervals of six, nine and 12 months. As they return data, scientists should have a clearer picture of how FADS are affecting these fish.

Article written by Todd Staley, published March 1, 2020 in Sportfishing Magazine.