This may sound self-serving, but anyone can put together a trip in which the sole objective is to catch fish. It's a no-talent job. Child's play. Particularly if your destination is the bountiful waters in and around Costar Rica.
But to put together a fishing trip in which the fish are plentiful yet none longer than 14 inches is hooked; in which boats are deliberately rammed over fallen trees and engines break down; in which volcanoes spew fire and soot, and guides spew partially digested sandwiches; in which erudite fly-fishermen are reduced to tying flies that resemble bird and iguana droppings—to put together such a trip as this is surely a special gift, and one I humbly lay claim to.
I cannot truthfully say I anticipated these goings-on. When first planning a Costa Rican adventure last November, I envisioned 100-pound tarpon and sailfish leaping at the end of our fly lines. Costa Rica was, I had heard time and again, a fishing paradise. Within its boundaries and off its shores one could fish for dorado, roosterfish and wahoo in the Caribbean, for sailfish and marlin in the Pacific, for tarpon and snook in numerous estuaries, for trout in mountain streams and for exotic species like rainbow bass (guapote) and machaca in inland lakes and turbid lagoons. We had just seven days to sample the piscatorial opportunities, and I honestly felt the most difficult part would be deciding where to begin.
"How tough is it to catch a sailfish on a fly?" I asked Leigh (Perk) Perkins Jr., the president and CEO of Orvis, my fishing guru and a longtime friend.
February 20, 1995
"Not particularly tough if conditions are right." he said. Perk then described a trip he had taken to Panama a few years ago, in which four boats landed 27 sailfish on flies in four days. However, it was not a caster's game. The technique used was the classic bait and switch. A couple of mullets were trolled without hooks, and when a sailfish rose to the bait, slapping at it with its bill, the mullet was teased nearer and nearer the boat. Finally, the bait was jerked out of the water and a fly was cast in its place. "They'll hit any old hunk of feathers you throw out there," Perk said.
It is something less than a Herculean task to lure Perk on a fishing adventure, and before our conversation ended, he had signed on. In the course of the next few weeks we worked out a makeshift itinerary: We would depart on Jan. 1, after the rainy season, and spend two days flyfishing for sailfish in the Pacific; two more fishing for guapote and machaca on Lake Arenal, in the shadow of an active volcano; and then three days on a houseboat that would take us down the virtually unfished waters of the San Juan River, which serves as the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua.
Having snagged the best fly-fisherman I knew, I decided I should now land the luckiest. I called an old friend, Peter Seaman, a California screenwriter (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Doc Hollywood) who in earlier years was described by a guide in Key Largo, Fla., as "luckier than a dog with two tongues." That isn't an exact quote, but it's pretty close. Little did I know that fisherman's luck is a fickle companion, and it had long since fled Pete's side for parts unknown.
Rounding out our party was photographer Bill Eppridge and our driver-guide-translator, Dave Meyers. A native Texan, Meyers is one of an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 expatriates from the U.S. living in Costa Rica. He has been there since 1971 and is now manager of the Casa Mar fishing club. Colorfully gruff and candid, Meyers spent much of the three-hour drive from the San Josè airport to Quepos, a sailfish hotbed on the Pacific coast, regaling Perk with stories about Orvis rods that he had seen shatter on tarpon.
"I tell you, I've seen some of those babies ex-plode!" Meyers said.
"Come on," Perk said, disbelieving.
"You issue goggles with those things?"
"Now just a minute."
Meyers, sensing rising indignation from the backseat, backed off. "The rods had an o in them, I know that," he said. "Might have been Loomis, at that."
Perk offered a bottle of rum to any of us who shattered one of his rods on a fish. It was a safer proposal than he knew, even if rum had been $4,000 a bottle instead of the $4 the local stuff sold for.
The next morning at 7:30 sharp, brimming with confidence, we boarded two charter boats, Huntress and Flyfisher, open-cockpit craft about 27 feet long, and headed out to sea. Neither of the captains or the mates spoke English, so Perk, going native, introduced himself as Pablo. Pete, feeling as if he were back home in Santa Barbara, comfortably introduced himself as Pedro. I spoke no Spanish, so my compadres introduced me as Gordo Blanco, which, I later discovered, meant "fat white."
Accompanied by what appeared to be the entire Quepos fleet, we proceeded 20 miles out to sea—an hour's jaunt—at which point the captain slowed to six knots. The mate put the mullet baits in the water. All eyes were directed behind the boat to a nondescript stretch of ocean with nothing to recommend it other than the six fishing boats beside us. Fifteen minutes later the captain cried out from the bridge, "íPez vela!"
A sailfish had risen to the surface and was slapping at one of our baits, just 25 yards away. The fish was sort of swerving in the smooth wake of the boat. But when the mate grabbed the rod and tried to tease the fish closer, it disappeared as suddenly as it had come. Still, what a sight, that great sail sticking out of the water, dark blue against the emerald sea. It got everyone's heart racing.
As did the next one. And the next. By 10 a.m. three sailfish had risen to our bait, but none had followed the tease. If we had been fishing conventionally, with hooks in the mullets, we would have had three strikes. We had also seen a dozen other sailfish tailwalking crazily across the ocean's surface, each jumping 10, 11, 12 times consecutively for no reason we could discern. Our efforts at communication with the captain and mate divulged only that sea lice were somehow involved. A more likely explanation, we later learned, was that the aerial displays were some sort of mating ritual. One phrase the mate kept repeating that did have the ring of truth was, No tienen hambre. They're not hungry.
At 11 a.m. we came to a stop—a dead stop. Flyfisher's engine was leaking oil. A half hour later the word came that Flyfisher was being towed back into port. We were invited to join Meyers and Eppridge aboard Huntress. "This is not a good sign," Meyers said, reluctant to let us aboard. "This is not a good portent. One of you guys is an albatross."
Pablo and Pedro, united in their mastery of pidgin Spanish, pointed to me. "Gordo Blanco," they said.
Emboldened by the smile this elicited from our new captain, Pedro struck up a conversation, saying, "Mon capitaine, necesito un grande pez vela, ahora."
The captain smiled down benignly. "What's it mean?" I asked.
"Captain, we need to catch a large sailfish now."
"Good thinking. Now he hates us."
"No he doesn't," Pedro said, smiling up at the captain. "Ahora, mon capitaine."
The man nodded. "Ahora." Three hours later his benign expression remained unchanged. We still had not cast to a fish. With increasing annoyance we had watched sailfish jumping spectacularly, greyhounding across the calm ocean all afternoon. No tienen hambre. Maybe tomorrow the fish would cat, but today they had love on their minds.
At 9 a.m. the next day, aboard a new boat, the Enchantress, we had our first look at what is known in the trade as a "hot" sailfish. It came up behind one of the baits, and when the mate reeled in the bait, the sailfish seemed oblivious to the boat. Its sail broke above the surface, less than 30 feet away, when the captain cut the engine and shouted, "íAhora!" The mate jerked the mullet from the water, and simultaneously Pedro cast his pink mackerel tube fly, which looked like a Mardi Gras costume. The sailfish, its skin tone a fluorescent blue, weaved in search of the mullet. Finding the fly, the fish sucked it unhurriedly into its mouth. When the fish started to turn away, Pedro struck, pointing his rod at the fish. For an instant he felt resistance, then the fly reappeared, wafting beneath the surface. The hook had failed to sink.
Then the sailfish, still searching for its lost mullet, swam beside the boat—we could have practically gaffed it—and Pedro cast again, stripping the fly past the fish's head. The fish—perhaps 100 pounds and more than six feet in length—looked up, eyed the bizarre clump of feathers and cork, and finned slowly away. It couldn't have been less spooked. Pedro cast three more times before the sailfish finally left us.
It was great theater. It was also the end of our action for the next six hours. Once other boats arrived and began working the water, crisscrossing the same area time and again, it was apparent that the sailfish had gone into a sulk. "Go give the captain an ultimatum," Pedro suggested.
"What would you like me to say to him?" I asked.
"Necesito un grande pez vela, ahora, mon capitaine."
"It worked so well yesterday."
"We need to do something to change our luck."
I climbed up to the bridge and delivered the message, saluting the captain respectfully. The captain nodded and saluted back. Within 30 seconds the closest boat to us—and there were several less than 100 yards away—hooked a sailfish. It leaped like the ocean was in a boil.
We admired the fight. I felt like a child kept in from recess watching his mates have all the fun. "You got the pronoun wrong," Pedro accused me. "You must have said, 'They need a large sailfish now.' "
"Shut up and have a sandwich."
"They're too soggy."
As the hours went by, it became clear to us that for fly-fishing purposes we were wasting our time. It wasn't until the Enchantress was starting for port that we got one more chance at a pez vela. A sailfish grabbed one of the two trailing mullets and stripped out 30 yards of line. The mate had to give the rod three mighty jerks to yank the bait out of its mouth. Then he let the mullet hang back there to see if the sailfish, which had tasted it, wanted more.
Its bill broke the surface of the ocean just behind the mullet. The mate reeled as fast as he could, and we could see the dark shadow of the sailfish beneath the skittering bait. It grabbed the mullet again, and the mate jerked it away again. Pablo, rod in hand, shouted, "Now!" The captain cut the engine, and the mate yanked the mullet out of the water. Half-eaten, it flew 25 yards in the air, smacking into the cabin, beside my ear. Pablo cast beyond the sailfish. We lost sight of its dark body for a moment, but as he gave the fly two strips, the sailfish suddenly appeared below it.
Heading away from the boat, the fish took the fly in its mouth. Pablo struck it hard twice, the rod bent, then...nothing. Once again, the fish hadn't hooked up. Affecting a British accent, Pedro broke the silence. "As they say when you miss a bird in Scotland, 'You touched him, sir. I believe you touched him.' "
Our boat headed in. We had missed our chance at a sailfish. Still and all, we had our health. We had kept our good humor. That was more than could be said for our compatriots aboard the Huntress. True, they had caught one dorado, putting away their fly rods and resorting to trolling with baited hooks. But one dorado was small recompense for the misery brewing in Meyers's guts. He claimed he had been poisoned by one of the soggy ham sandwiches our charter outfit had served.
"I don't recommend their chef," he barked, loading us hurriedly into his Isuzu Trooper. We made an emergency pit stop in town, but he still looked awful. The hotel was a 10-minute drive into the hills, and Meyers's shirt was drenched in sweat before we had gone another mile. "I gotta cry Ruth," he said, as he stopped the car.
Meyers was out the door before I comprehended. "Ru-u-u-th!" he vomited, with gusto. "Ru-u-u-th!" Meyers was circling the car, stopping every few feet to hurl anew. Meanwhile, the Trooper, out of gear, began rolling backward, down the hill. Meyers, loudly convulsing behind the rear bumper, was in its path.
Pedro, Pablo and I were trapped in the backseat, helpless. Eppridge, thank heavens, understood Meyers's warning and yanked the hand brake an instant before the ear put Meyers out of his misery. Meyers wiped his brow and returned to his place behind the wheel. "All set."
After an appropriately sympathetic silence, Pedro was the first to i speak. "You wonder why they hate Americans," he said. "You stop, throw up in their front yard, then leave without saying goodbye."
That isn't true, incidentally. Costa Ricans don't hate Americans in the least. They don't seem to hate anything, which is part of what makes traveling in their country so pleasant. The scenery is dazzling, mountainous and lush, the roadsides speckled with wild impatiens. Birds are abundant and colorful: some 850 species are found in Costa Rica, more than in all of the U.S. and Canada. The soil is rich: bananas, beans, carob, coffee, flowers, macadamia nuts, melons, palm, pineapple and yucca are all grown for export. And the temperature is moderate the year round, cooled by breezes off the Caribbean and the Pacific.
The six-hour drive north to Lake Arenal gave us plenty of time to soak it all in. The roads were dreadful, so the going was uniformly slow. Meyers, still queasy from his attack of food poisoning, spent much of his remaining energy dodging potholes the size of queen beds. Fortunately there wasn't a lot of traffic, since most of the local populace use horses or oxcarts or buses for transportation. We were in no rush. We had left a couple of fly rods rigged up in the event we passed any good-looking stretches of water, and we fished a couple of streams. Pedro, Mr. Lucky, got our only strike. Something called a Jesus Christ lizard, so named because it walks on water, leaped out of the bamboo and scooted across four feet of water to grab his popper in its cute little mouth. Pedro was late striking, of course, so as a group we were still 0-for-Costa Rica.
But not for long, I'm happy to say. Lake Arenal, which was referred to in our guidebook as "guapote heaven," gave up three guapote and a machaca to Pablo and Pedro together in a day and a half of fishing, though none of these monsters exceeded 12 inches. "Why you no come in April?" Felix, one of our guides, wondered. "Catch big guapote in April."
A big guapote—the world record is 11½ pounds—would be an interesting creature to see. Small guapote aren't very different from smallmouth bass, but as it matures, the male guapote begins to grow a knob on its forehead that makes it one of the ugliest creatures on earth. (A humorist must have named the fish, since guapote means "most handsome" in Spanish.) Made of gristle and purplish-blue in color, this knob is thought to be used for head-butting other guapote. The guapote is also a savage carnivore. My guide, Dave Anderson, had twice seen guapote kill and eat a jacana, which is a meadowlark-sized bird that cavorts in the shallows.
The machaca, by contrast, which looks like a shad and is purported to leap like a steelhead, is not a carnivore. It's a...well, I don't know what the word for a machaca is. Revolting, maybe. It eats guano. Bird droppings, iguana droppings, people droppings. Drop it, a machaca will eat it. True, a machaca also eats fruit, leaves and other vegetal matter that falls into the water. But guano is a staple of its diet, and the idea of fly-fishing for such a creature is absurd.
Anderson wouldn't even admit what we were doing, knowing that most anglers feel squeamish when they learn the depths to which they have sunk in pursuit of the machaca. Without explanation, he had me casting a white fly to the base of some dead trees standing in the water, trees in which cormorants liked to roost. "Don't move the fly," he told me. "Just let it sit there." Sure enough, a machaca would hit.
Not that I was able to hook one. Their little mouths, filled with piranha-type teeth, which they use to chew fruit and seeds, seemed unable to swallow my poppers. So Pablo tied me some smaller ones at lunch. "The all-important bird ca-ca fly," Anderson said approvingly, holding one up to the light. "You ideally want something that emulsifies when it hits the water. Maribou or cotton imitates it best."
Lake Arenal, which is actually a reservoir 17 miles long, had one thing going for it that outweighed the success or failure of the fishing. It sits at the base of an active volcano of the same name. With a great thunderous rumble, Arenal, whose last catastrophic eruption was in 1968, belches several times a day, sending ash and soot hundreds of feet into the air. Usually the rim of the volcano is shrouded in clouds, but at night, when the sky tends to clear, you can see the red-orange lava trickling down the side of the volcano and, if you're lucky, the primeval display of magma shooting into the air.
On our last afternoon at the lake, after the weather had cleared, the volcano gave us a show. Pablo and I, numbed by hours of fruitless casting, dropped our rods in the boat and scrambled for our cameras. Suddenly, strangely, amid the rumbling there came a splash. A small female guapote, driven to suicidal impulses by the eruption, had viciously swallowed Pablo's Sneaky Pete popper. He put down his camera and reeled the poor thing in, an ash cloud billowing high in the air above him. It was our only fish of the day.
As for me, even the bird ca-ca fly didn't improve my sorry record. I got off the water still pitching a Costa Rican shutout.
I knew that the best, though, was still to come. The houseboat. Virtually unfished waters. Tarpon that we had been told reached nearly 200 pounds. Wily 40-pound snook. Endless runs of calba, or baby snook. The only negative was that we were entering the land of botflies.
I had first read about them in the Adventure Guide to Costa Rica, by Harry S. Pariser, in the section subtitled "Loathed by Humans." That would definitely be the botfly. The botfly's larva, inserted by female mosquitoes, matures inside human flesh. It isn't a pretty process. The lump each larva creates before hatching grows to the size of a goose egg. Pariser explains in his guidebook that there are several ways to get rid of the botfly worm before it hatches. One can, for example, tie a piece of raw meat over its air hole. The larva, which needs to breathe, eventually burrows out of your body and into the meat. Then you throw the meat away. No shrinking violet, Pariser suggests that another alternative "is to leave it to grow to maturity, giving you an opportunity to experience the transmogrification of part of yourself into another creature."
The odds of encountering this loathsome insect were not as remote as you might imagine. In a week in Costa Rica I met three different people who had been bitten, including Peter Gorinsky, the 55-year-old Guyana-born guide who had arranged for our stay on the Rain Goddess, a 65-foot houseboat that we had rented for three days of fishing on the San Juan River. He had been bitten by a botfly as a child. "It leaves a helluva hole in you, half an inch deep," he told me. "My older sister squeezed it—she thought it was a pimple or something—and this great big worm jumped out, and she fainted."
Gorinsky smoked a pipe with a big sweeping stem, like Sherlock Holmes's, and wore the continually bemused expression of someone who had seen and survived it all. He wasn't about to work himself into a lather over a botfly. "We've got a lot worse things than that, I assure you," he said and proceeded to list a few. For example, there was the bushmaster, a poisonous snake that will actually hunt a human being. There were peccaries—wild pigs that hunt in packs—which, according to Gorinsky, had eaten an American tourist a few years back as he slept in his sleeping bag. "All they found was the feathers," Gorinsky reported. There was a fly that carried malaria, another that gave you elephantiasis, and the dreaded eye fly, which lays its eggs in your tear duct. "Three or four days later you'll have a worm swimming around your eyeball."
This pleasant conversation took place aboard the river taxi that was speeding us up the San Juan River to where the Rain Goddess was anchored, at the junction with the San Carlos River. Then I noticed something strange in the water ahead. It was the wing and fuselage of a plane that may have been shot down by the Contras a number of years back. "Ollie North's handiwork," Gorinsky said. "Ten years ago when we were fishing this river, it was not unusual to see a body float past. You couldn't touch them because they were often booby-trapped with grenades."
It was odd to be fly-fishing in such a place. The Costa Rican side of the San Juan had been cleared and was primarily grazing land. The Nicaraguan side was virgin rain forest. There were no roads in the area, and the few people we passed traveled by dugout canoe. The houseboat, which trailed four runabouts for the fishermen, drafted only two feet of water, so it was able to navigate the river the year round. It was co-owned by two doctors: an American, Paul Shirley, an orthopedic surgeon from Jacksonville, and a Costa Rican, Alfredo López. López was the only doctor the people who lived on the river ever saw. During each fishing trip he made the rounds, treating their illnesses and handing out medicine like a frontier doctor of old. In exchange Lopez accepted fishing and hunting advice and, sometimes, the villagers' offerings of huge, delicious prawns netted from the river.
Goodwill, though, couldn't guarantee fish, and during our first afternoon on the river eight rods produced a grand total of one machaca and one small guapote. We had seen any number of rolling tarpon, but Shirley was the only man who hooked one, and it jumped once and got away. Pedro, Pablo and I were all skunked using flies, but even the pieces of shrimp and the jigs used by the spincasters were unsuccessful. Floating lines, sinking lines, plugs, poppers, streamers—nothing worked. "I don't understand it," Gorinsky said. "There should be fish jumping everywhere. But nothing. I think perhaps it was the earthquake. We had an earthquake that measured 4.5 last week, and ever since there's been no fish caught in the entire country. Fish don't like earthquakes."
Still, it was magical living on the river. As dusk descended, a white fog seemed to roll across the surface of the water. It was millions and millions of mayflies. Fish bats appeared, as big as robins, buzzing wildly over our fly lines. A pair of rare green macaws flew overhead. We could hear wild animal noises from the jungle. Two sloths cried to each other. Crested guan squawked back and forth. Howler monkeys, small primates with unearthly, gorillalike voices, screamed bloody murder about a nearby puma or ocelot. Our trusty guidebook had warned us about the unseemly habits of howler monkeys. "If you should see a colony, don't get underneath," Pariser cautioned. "A favorite pastime is to urinate on Homo sapiens."
The next morning I caught four machaca. Vile creatures. We were casting poppers beneath overhanging branches when we noticed four iguanas sunning themselves on a limb. As we moved closer for a better look, one of the iguanas, perhaps out of nervousness, relieved itself in the river. I am not making this up. That splash was immediately followed by a fish splash. Feeding time in machacaville. I cast my bass bug and as soon as it slapped down—bang!—a fighting 14-incher. It even jumped two or three times.
No snook, though. No tarpon. It was pretty thin pickings all around. Our last morning we made a command decision to try to reach the lagoon at the top of one of the larger creeks, where Gorinsky hoped the tarpon and snook were holding. "It will either be an adventure or an ordeal," he predicted.
Loading our fishing and camera gear, a chain saw and a machete into three runabouts, we started up the creek. The canopy of the rain forest closed overhead, and vines hung 60 and 70 feet from the uppermost branches, brushing the muddy water. Our first impasse: a huge ironwood tree lying across the creek bed.
The tree was far too stout for the little chain saw, which sputtered and died before making any headway. One of the boats slipped under the log easily. Another we abandoned as hopeless. The third boat was about six inches too high to get beneath the log.
"Everyone in," Gorinsky ordered.
"This is a job for Gordo Blanco," Pablo said. We crowded into the craft and, sure enough, sank it enough that it floated comfortably beneath the log. That buoyed our spirits for about 30 seconds, until we rounded the next bend. Two tree trunks of slightly smaller size lay across the water. Gorinsky ordered everyone out but the pilot, whose name was Mon. Mon gave the boat a running start. It crashed into the log and teetered to a halt on top. He raised the engine, and a call came for not one but five gordos blancos. Pablo, Pedro, Eppridge, Gorinsky and I piled into the bow of the stranded boat. Our weight tipped it forward, over the log. Thus we proceeded—loudly, haltingly, accompanied by billowing clouds of blue gasoline smoke—upstream for the next two hours.
"Almost there," Gorinsky would say, standing in the bow and signaling with his hands for Mon to steer right or left. Every 50 yards or so there was a new obstacle, and the horrible sound of propeller against wood was never long out of our ears. At one point the smaller of the two boats tried to tow the larger boat over a log obstruction. Mon gunned the engine full throttle, and the cleat pulled out, rocketing backward and hitting the trailing boat with a startling whack. "This may not be worth dying over," Pedro said.
We never did reach the lagoon. We turned back shortly after running across a small caiman. We approached within four feet and dropped a frog popper on its nose. Even the caiman wouldn't strike.
The great thing was, we got to do it all over again on the way back.
But, as advertised, our visit to Costa Rica qualified as an adventure. We didn't catch fish, but we certainly had a visual feast. We saw an electric blue butterfly fluttering in the rain forest. We saw toucans. We saw tapir tracks. Pablo got to swing on a vine. Unfortunately, this wasn't a Tarzan movie. The vine broke, and he took a plunge. And, finally, we heard howler monkeys feeding nearby.
Pedro howled back at them. Actually, it was more like a series of grunts. The howler monkeys answered him, which pleased him no end. They began coming closer, swinging on vines, moving through the uppermost branches of the trees with remarkable speed. They were black, about the size of house cats.
"Uh-oh," Gorinsky said. "Let's get out of here. I know what they have in mind."
"Indeed," Pedro said, slipping on his hat. "The final word on our trip."