Crocodile Bay Resort – Twenty Years Later
It seems like yesterday that I made my first visit to Puerto Jimenez. It was well over 20 years ago. As I passed over the Golfo Dulce in the Travelair Trislander, a small three motor passenger plane we had nicknamed the “needlefish,” because of its funny shape, I was awestruck. The gulf was a near cobalt blue. Around the edges near the volcanic reefs at Mogos the water changed to different shades of emerald, and from the numerous rainforest rivers ran coffee cream water into the Golfo Dulce. Most impressive though were the schools of fish busting baits.
What a drastic change from spending five years in the jungle on the Caribbean side and a couple more in the concrete jungle of San Jose. Robin Williams had hired me as a consultant on his planned fishing and eco-adventure endeavor, and I was to visit a couple of projected sites and give an opinion. One was several acres on the North side of the public pier of Puerto Jimenez that had a few houses on it, and the other was 42 acres of an overgrown nearly abandoned farm on the South side of the public pier. Both were on the water, and both had a large flat in front of the property. The 6 to 11-foot tide swings required both locations to have a long pier to access the boats. The larger of the two properties became the final decision and is where Crocodile Bay Resort sits today.
The first order of business was to clean up the property, and 42 acres of waist deep growth was cut by 4 guys swinging machetes. I fished when I could and waited for our first boats to arrive. I concentrated on the inshore fishery, working the entire Golfo Dulce. I discovered some terrific places to catch roosterfish in the calm water of the far off reaches of the gulf. Several years later, the government expanded the park system, and fishing was no longer allowed in those areas.
We broke ground on June 1s’t 1999. Seventy men including Beau and Cory Williams at times kept 4 cement mixers churning all day, and we opened the doors to the first guests on the 15th of September which is also Independence Day in Costa Rica. By then, Robin and I got to know each other well, and he asked me to stay on as the Fishing Director.
The first year was my toughest. The locals were great fishermen, but they had no experience with sport fishing with tourists or how to speak much English. I had to bring people from outside Puerto Jimenez to fish with our clients. This presented a new variety of problems when they mixed with the locals at night. Gradually with time, local people were trained, and the fishing staff is all local today. I made a bad choice with boats when I brought down 5 Florida style flats boats, but I did manage a 36 lb snook while we used them. The huge tides limited the access to the mangroves, and as it turned out our demographic was a little older than I anticipated and fishing the backcountry in the tropical sun with no shade was not many folk’s cup-of-tea.
The biggest challenge though was that the two-cycle motors started blowing up like popcorn. We were losing them one right after the other, and I nearly lost my job because it was first thought to be abuse from the guys running the boats. We had a dealer in San Jose who never honored a warranty, and if not for the intervention from the factory, I probably wouldn’t be writing this piece today. The Mercury Factory told us at the time, the two-cycle motors could not function on the poor-quality gasoline being sold in Costa Rica at the time. Fortunately, things got much better after the first-year growing pains.
Our first 33-foot Strike arrived, and we were really getting dialed into the offshore business of catching billfish. Our biggest marlin was caught in our first few years. The fish was hooked at 1:00 pm and they finally returned to the dock at 8:00 pm after I listened to the battle on the radio. The fish was released and estimated at 850 lbs. It is easy for me to remember the arrival of our first 5 Boston Whalers. We took delivery on November 21st, 2003. We had to wait for the boats to arrive before I could go downtown and get married that day. In those days it took 4 hours to get to a paved road in a regular vehicle, much less pulling five boats in a caravan through the rivers as the bailey bridges were not trustworthy enough to hold such weight.
Our first celebrity guest was Taj Mahal, the bluesman and avid marlin fisherman. I had seen him in concert a few times before moving to Costa Rica and was excited to meet him. It turned out as kids we had both picked tobacco on the same farm for Culbro Brothers in Granby, Connecticut, though several years apart. Over the years Crocodile Bay has entertained Oscar-winning actors, Sitcom stars, Rock and Roll Stars, Country singers, and World Series and Superbowl winners. We also were highlighted in over 50 fishing TV shows. People I would have never met normally, but got to spend time with as fellow anglers, have become friends and we have stayed in touch ever since.
I have always promoted Crocodile Bay as a fun place rather than a serious record-seeking destination, although many records have been broken in Costa Rica and several at Crocodile Bay. The majority of our guests don’t get a chance to fish that often, and I wanted it to be the best experience possible. I encouraged our captains to be teachers and entertainers and to let the customers really enjoy themselves. Allan Smith, who took over the position of fishing director when I started working on conservation issues full time, has carried that message forward.
The conservation efforts have been paying off. The tuna purse sein boats have been moved out to 60 miles. Marlin, tuna, and dorado (dolphinfish) have made a significant recovery. So much that the countries fishing tourism industry has grown to over $500 million annually. Costa Rica was named one of the top choices to catch billfish, and best of all, Crocodile Bay was recently named by Sport Fishing magazine as the 2nd best destination in the world for a family fishing vacation, edged out only by Elbow Cay in the Bahamas.
It would take a book to relive all the memories I have of the last 20 years. Epic battles with 300 lb tuna, visions of greyhounding marlin rocketing across the cobalt sea, having my lunch eaten by a big cubera snapper and the inshore favorite, the roosterfish.
Then there was the behind the scenes adventures like the time a boat sunk at night in front of the pier. The guard called me at 5 am to tell me. I ran down to the pier to see just the tips of the outriggers above the surface. I asked where is all the stuff that was in the boat that should have floated. I sent boats in two different directions. One around the corner to the open gulf and another up the river near the resort. They found the coolers, life jackets and various other things floating about ¾ of a mile up the river in the mangroves. A quick look at the tide chart told me the boat sank sometime before 10 pm the night before.
Another time a guest got bitten on the hand by a poisonous snake that he came across on the road at 2am while walking back to the resort after spending the evening at the local bar. He explained he got a pebble in his flip-flop and when he reached down to take it out, the snake bit his hand. Well I come from ol’ Florida redneck country where many a person’s last words were “hey hold my beer and watch this,” and I knew if you get bit on the hand by a snake half drunk in the middle of the night there is about a 99.9% chance you tried to pick it up. I never let the guest know I thought his story was a little fishy.
I could go on and on with the adventures of guests and employees from the last two decades. I miss being around the place full time but drop by from time to time to visit return guests that have become friends, or just to say hi to my employees. I still promote Crocodile Bay because I am proud of what we accomplished, and I still have my email@example.com address.
To the Williams family, thank you for the opportunity to be part of the family, to the old guests, I miss seeing and visiting with you, to my niños (former employees), keep doing what you are doing, it works.
To all – keep a wet line!