Monday, March 5, 2012

return to the northern zone

Special to A.M. Costa Rica

If you read any literature on fishing in Costa Rica, you are probably reading about offshore bill fishing, or at the least, ocean fishing.  That’s because fishing in Costa Rica is almost synonymous with sport fishing.  Of course there are plenty of other fish out there beside the sailfish and marlin to go after, but I get sea sick!   So I have found other opportunities for wetting the line. And since I have been fly fishing for most of my adult life, I am catching these new to me types of fish, on a fly.

A few months ago, a very dear old friend with whom I have fished when we lived in Colorado, contacted me about fly fishing in Costa Rica.  He was coming down with his brother and wanted me to take them on an adventure.  Mike and Rob were staying in Playa Potrero, and I live in Jacó, so we made arrangements to meet in Upala, a small agricultural town on the northern edge of Costa Rica.  Upala has many local rivers that eventually flow into Lake Nicaragua. The rivers flow south to north.  We would fish the Rio Niño.

They didn’t get lost, and we all linked up around noon at some local cabinas where I had made arrangements.  The plan was to eat lunch, relax, catch up on each other’s lives, have dinner and get ready for an early start the next day.

At 4:30 a.m. I was up making coffee to take with us, and by 5, we were on the road.  At riverside, we met up with my friend and local boatman Gilberto, who owns a nice 15-foot open panga with a small outboard.  It’s a good thing Gilberto knows the river like his backyard, as we were constantly moving from one side to the other to avoid submerged logs and fallen trees.  It was not quite sun up, the jungle sounds  were overwhelming, and I had two guys from a world away, just soaking it up. And we hadn’t even begun fishing yet!  That is one of the extras about fly fishing down here. It gets you out there.  We weren’t going to run into any tours.

We motored up river for about an hour, which would equal to around five hours of float time for fishing.  Once Gilberto turned us around, he cut the engine and grabbed an oar, which he used to paddle and steer us for the float downstream.  Since Mike was an experienced fly fisherman, we set him up quickly, and he was ready to go.  Rob, on the other hand, was not a fly fisherman, and had brought a light spinning rod set-up. My plan was to rig him up with a casting bubble, a clear plastic bob that floats, to give his line some weight. Attached to that with about a foot of small clear line was a floating fly.  Basically, the set-up allows a spin fisherman to fish with a fly.  We were fishing for a local river fish called machaca.  And these fish have very sharp teeth, so between the very end of the fly leader and the fly we add some stainless steel braided cable, so the fish do not bite through the line.  We were ready to go.

The best fly for these omnivorous fish are bass poppers, floating balsa wood imitations of baby frogs and other attractors.  For years I was having friends and clients purchase them to bring down to me until about six months ago I decided I could do it myself. After all, balsa wood grows in my back yard.  

I began slowly shaping my first bug.  I still had my old fly tying kit from Colorado, which though moldy from lack of use, still had a few boxes of hooks which were the perfect size. I needed enamel paint, but didn’t want to invest in a pint for my first popper. What if it didn’t work?  So I bought some inexpensive nail polish and went to work. I cut up some rubber bands for legs and used some super glue.  The results were not bad for a first try.  Good enough that I had a friend in the States send me a box of plastic model paints, feathers, and rubber strands, to make a real go of it.   Mike and Rob
big fish
Rob’s big machaca
popper kit
The kit to make poppers

would be the first time my creations would be put to the test.
So for the first fly of the day, I tied on the old store-bought poppers!  I just really wanted them to catch fish, and I knew what worked for sure, so I went with it.  Hey, we had five hours to fish. My bugs would get a chance! 

And, yes, they did catch fish!  Then I tied on my creation.  It was a little bigger bug than what they had been using.  I told them, bigger bug, bigger fish.  And then the action really got going.  My poppers worked.  They each caught fish well over seven pounds, a good size on small tackle.

Our day turned into one they will long remember.  For the full five-hour float, it was non-stop hits, misses, and many, many catches.  Everyone came off the river with a smile, and all the fish lived to be caught another day. 


Monday, January 25, 2010

Back to the North Country

Joey really wanted to see where I was bringing clients in the northern areas, as well as wanting to try some kayak fishing other than out in the ocean, so with a few loaner kayaks from my friend Neil Kahn at Kayak Jaco (, we set off on another adventure.  Since I actually have a real job, we didn't get on the road until about 4:30 Thursday.

getting everything cinched up

We made it up to Canalete by about 7PM, found some food, and settled in for the evening.  We had a 6AM meeting at river side with our boatman Gilberto, who would shuttle us up the river with our kayaks, so we could fish while floating down the river.

We arrived a little late, having decided to catch a quick bite to eat and some coffee. Right away we had an omen!  As I was helping to unload one of the kayaks, I didn't see that the driver's side rear view mirror of the car had moved (!) under the kayak I was handling , and  the kayak and mirror had a small "interaction" which in turn separated the mirror from said RENTAL car (it cracked off!)  I admit it, it was my fault!  We did get the other boat off the roof without any problem, though, and so we finished loading up the boat, and were soon heading up river.

ready to go

The river was noticeably lower than 3 weeks ago when I was here last, but Gilberto easily navigated his boat around any trouble spots, and we were soon at our drop-off spot.

off loading for a day on the river

Let me just say up front, that I am not a kayaker (!), so this was all a new experience to me.  Trying to throw  a fly line while sitting down, making sure the kayak is heading in the right direction, making sure no trees are behind you when casting,  making sure you don't lose the paddle, and then, if you actually hook a fish, trying to land it while controlling the kayak!  Whooaa, this ain't easy!

Of course it wasn't all that hard at tmes either; there were many stretches when the kayak needed no attention, there was plenty of room to cast, and it was actually fun.  That is until I hooked a fish and I had to think about ALL of the above aforementioned possible screw-ups.  And I certainly had my share, from snagging overhead branches to having to redirect the kayak out of harms way.

nice machaca on a 5 wt

We were only fishing half day, since we wanted to get over to Cano Negro for some early morning tarpon action, so we did not start as high up on the river as usual.  We did catch machaca, although not in the abundance of my last trip.  Trying to determine why there were less fish, led me to consider that we had only fished half the distance of river.  Besides not fishing the upper river stretches, I also realized that when fishing off a kayak, you only get your line in the water perhaps not even half as much time as if floating and fishing off a boat!  When I added in those variables, I decided it was a decent day after all!

We stopped off for lunch at a local soda before heading out to Cano Negro.The road to Cano Negro from Upala is all dirt, and can be a bit challenging at times.  We made pretty good time, arriving in less than an hour.  My friend Carlos, who's father Antonio was born in Cano Negro, had set us up in his cabinas, and we found we were the only guests there, so it was "muy tranquilo".

And since it was getting late in the afternoon, (about beer thirty), we decided to head over to the Bar Del Lago (bar of the lake).  Unlike the main bar in the center of town, Bar el Lago is very much off the beaten path and took some doing to find.  The draw of this place is that it is very much a locals bar (no tourist could ever find it), and it sits right on the lagoon, where at sundown, you can watch the fish feed.   Our timing was perfect, and our front row seats gave us a ring side few view the "show".

Perfect spot for happy hour

After enjoying a beer, we headed back to the car.  We noticed a darkened house next to the bar, with many plastic tables and chairs.  It looked like they might feed people there (not quite sure if it measured up to being called a restaurant).  The lady of the house was in the yard at her grill, frying up a bunch of fish heads,  and judging from the size of the heads, they had been nice size fish.  We inquired if she might cook us up some dinner, and after quizzing us on what we might want, she said she would cook up some fish, with of course the usual rice, beans, and salad.  Not too long after, our food appeared.  It was a little disconcerting eating in the dark, not knowing exactly what was on the plate, but it did taste good, and eventually, after a few sparks, the lights did come on and we saw we were eating fried guapote; and not the heads!  And just about the time we were finishing up the fish,  our rice, beans and salad came to the table to complete the meal.  We left with full bellies and smiles.

The next morning we were at Carlos's house by 5:20, a few minutes early.  Antonio, his dad invited us in for coffee, while we waited for his son to arrive.  Carlos arrived right on time and we headed down to the lagoons.

 Antonio had the coffee ready
It wasn't quite sun up yet, and there was a slight rainy mist when we got the kayaks to the water

getting rigged up

The water in the lagoons was falling daily, so we had to paddle the kayaks a bit to reach the boat, where we loaded them up for a few hours of fishing.


The river current was strong, and we struggled to keep the kayaks in the area of the fish, which we could see rolling and jumping.  There was a bunch of gar rising as well as tarpon explosions.  Joey landed a nice gar which we documented below.

nice gar fish
If I could figure how to rotate this photo, i would, but right now I can't figure it out.  These critters have huge teeth. Joey also hooked up with a few tarpon, but was not lucky enough to land one.  Of course just watching one of these monsters  leap out of the water a few times before throwing the hook is still worth the price of admission.  And it keeps you coming back for more.

"The charm of fishing is that it is the pursuit of what is elusive but attainable, a perpetual series of occasions for hope"*(John Buchan)

And then of course we had to deal with the mirror!


can you say "10 minute epoxy?"

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Tractor Fishing

*"lookin for adventure, and whatever comes our way" was what today was all about.  There turned out to be 3 of us today, as I added Joey from Kayak Fishing Magazine to the troupe of would be adventurers.  With fly rods and beer in the cooler, I left our house at 5:30 this morning and picked up Joey, continuing on for Russ.  We then back tracked to the local bakery, with the intention of picking up some coffee, pastry, and a sandwich for lunch.  Well, sometimes the best laid plans don't materialize, as in today.  Nothing was ready at the bakery, so we had coffee and waited. 20 minutes later we finally got on the road.

Right away I knew things could get sticky when I missed the turn off the highway, but I recouped in enough time to only go a few minutes out of our way.   For the next hour and a half, we climbed into the mountains and passed through very rural and agricultural pueblos, as we asked along the way for "Flaco's house"!  And everyone seemed to know who we were taking about, and they all agreed on one other thing; we needed to make a right at the cemetery.  Hmmm, if we could just find that cemetery!

We did go the "round about"way, having to turn around a few times and retrace our tracks, but in the end of course, we did find it, and not too long after, we found "the house of Flaco",  he in his rocker outside, smiling and waiting for us.  After a few minutes of pleasantries, our talk turned to the subject of the day, fishing.  Flaco explained that my car would not be able to make it to the river, and right away I am thinking  this day is going to be a bummer.  I think Flaco sensed my apprehension, because he started smiling and explained that he planned on taking us to the river; in his tractor.  Pura Vida! His big ol Massey Ferguson was parked next to his house with an attached trailer, and he proceeded to fire it up!

Flaco was the "captain"

And so Joey. Russ, and I threw all our gear into the cart  and hopped in.  It was quite a scene, as Flaco took us across the river, then down stream.  We zig zagged through the water, jungle vegetation, and back to the river.  There were of course no seats; just a few old slippery plantain skins from a previous harvest.  We had to hold on to the sides, as we bounced along the river bank.  For the next 4 hours we fished, moved on, and fished some more. We traveled many kilometers down river, and each time we moved , we hopped into the trailer and were "driven" to our next location.  Sure, you've heard of float fishing a river, well, how could you call this anything else but "tractor fishing!".

And it was an awesome day on the river.  Toucans laughed and sang to us while we fished .  They seemed to know more than they were giving up.    A few times we encountered colorful scarlet macaws and blue morph butterflies also came by to see what we were up to.  We were fishing light tackle 5wt rods, and small streamers, trying to imitate small silver-like minnows, which the locals used for bait.

We met friends of Flaco along the way; fishermen friends.  They studied our flies and made suggestions. They kept telling us that there were snook, but we did not spot any They also showed us their catch, 3 smaller fish of unknown name, not snook, but respectable by any fisherman's standards.

Flaco with friends, talking "fish"

movin' up stream

No, we didn't catch anything.  Joey reported a few "hits", but no fish.  Of course every fisherman had the same advice;  we needed to fish at first light and last light of the day, not mid day.  So now I am thinking a camping  trip.  We'd go to the river and set up camp; an easy concept since Flaco could haul it all in for us.  Then we could fish the late afternoon, sleep over, fish the morning and then return home; unless of course the fishing was so good we needed to stay a second night.  Sounds like a plan

The toucans were laughing overhead

  hasta luego
*Born to be Wild, written by Mars Bonfire

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Lookin' for "new" Adventure

Right now is a bit of "down time" as i await the next guided trip, so we are going exploring this weekend.  I live on the central Pacific coast, and unfortunately, this area is not close to any of the fishing I have described in past posts.  So we are going out to check a few of the rivers in our neck of the woods.

I depend on the locals to get an idea of where to fish, and as usually happens, I got a lead in a most unusual way.  Each Friday is our farmers market, and I go there to get our weeks fill of fresh produce.  I always buy my watermelon from "Flaco" (that would be "Slim" in English), because he always cuts a fresh one open for me to "test".  Last week I started asking questions about where he lived and grew his produce, and of course the talk moved in the direction of fishing. "Si, hay rios con pez" (yes, there are rivers with fish) !

So this weekend we are off to Flaco's place, to see exactly what might be in store for a fly fisherman.  His farm is about 2 hours or so from my house, which is doable for a day trip, but we are bringing our expedition hammocks to sleep in, just in case we're having too much fun. And I say "we", because I am  taking a Canadian friend, Russ, who "claims" to be a fly fisherman; we'll see!  It's always more fun traveling with a sidekick, anyway.  Russ spends his winters in the Canadian wilderness, blowing holes in the ground searching for "black gold" (oil and gas).  He is an outdoors man, which gets him in the front door with me.

We will be fishing in the mountains, above Parrita.  The rivers here should contain machaca and snook, although the machaca are a different strain than the ones we fish for in the northern rivers.  I expect this machaca to be smaller, but still have TEETH!  The snook, on the other hand, could grow large.

Today I also received a call from my good friend Neil Kahn, who runs Kayak Jaco
Neil told me he is entertaining an editor from Kayak Fishing Magazine , who has asked to do some fresh water river fishing, my forte.  So I am hoping to get together with this guy,and maybe we'll get on the water together.  Either way, I expect to have some good stories in my next post.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Mission Accomplished

Just 3 weeks ago, I was contacted by deGlee family out of Ft Lauderdale to take them fly fishing.  They were a party of 5, with 3 fisherman; the dad and his 2 sons.  Jim (dad) wanted to fish for tarpon along with Ben (21yrs old) and Jake (24 yrs old).  I explained that it was early in the season for tarpon, and that the machaca bite was hot right now. Jim begged for tarpon.  We split the difference and they booked a 3 day adventure to fish for both.  That didn't leave me much time to get this trip together, but I intended to give it my best.

the "family"

To find good waters to fly fish down here, we have to put some time into traveling, and that meant their very first day in Costa Rica began at 4AM, which is when they were picked up by our van in San Jose to  head north.  It would be a 4 plus hour ride through the  central mountains of Costa Rica, eventually arriving in Upala, an agricultural community near the northern border with Nicaragua.  We stopped at daylight for breakfast and some much needed locally grown COFFEE!

A few hours more on the road and we were river side.  If I could see the future (at that time) I would have told the guys the theme for the next 3 days: "fish on".

We float fished a local river til dark, and in that time there were too many fish caught to count.  We were catching machaca, a fish that can get up to 8 lbs. Our rods were 5wt and 6wt, loaded with floating line.  Trailing off the leader we used stainless steel tippets to keep those needle like teeth from ripping off the poppers we were throwing. These  poppers we used were frog patterns of pretty decent size (1/0), and while the fish here are not scale tipping, they fight well and are way too large to grip with one hand; of course their most distinguishing feature is their TEETH.  Gotta step carefully when removing that hook!

needle like teeth

Since there were 3 fisherman, we split up into 2 boats, with my good friend Peter Gorinsky handling his "Outcast" inflatable pontoon boat for one fisherman, while I accompanied the 2 other guys in the larger "lancha", with Gilberto being our captain.  

Jim and Peter

                                 Ben and Peter

We took turns alternating boats, so that all had a chance to fish solo with Peter, while the remaining 2 guys fished out of our larger drift boat.

                     Gilberto shuttling the boats up stream 

Jim hooked into a nice size fish early on, with his sons, following suit
                             Jim with nice machaca

Having started out so early from San Jose, we were all pretty well beaten up by the time we finally turned in (around 9PM); everyone thinking about our scheduled  6AM rendezvous  back at the river.  Are we having fun yet?!

It rained most of the night and it was still raining when we hit the river at daybreak, but the fish didn't seem to notice, and by mid morning, not only had the guys caught plenty of fish, but the sky cleared up as well.  We only were fishing a half day on this river today, because we had an afternoon date with tarpon at Cano Negro.

                            Jake eying a fish 

                             Jake with said fish

The waters of Cano Negro were still pretty high, and the recent rains had turned the water brown, but Jake and Ben couldn't wait to get their lines wet.  These boys were raised as Idaho trout fisherman,  and nothing was going to put a damper on their day.

Again we split into 2 boats, with my friend Carole taking the 2 boys, with Jim and I in the second boat.  Here in tarpon country, we put away the light rods and brought out the heavyweight stuff; 10wt and 12wt rods, throwing weight forward lines with a shooting taper.  Lashed to the end of the leader were 100lb shock tippets; we were after big fish.   It didn't take long to start seeing tarpon, belly rolling for air, and generally teasing us most of the afternoon;  that is until about 4PM when Jake set his hook on a nice size,  powerful young fish.  Jim and I looked over from our boat to see what the excitement was about when we saw Jake's rod all bent over. The tarpon was hooked right out in front of the local bar, so not only was he fighting this powerful fish, he was the evening's entertainment for "happy hour".

                                  Jake's cheering section

                            The holy grail of fly fishing

                         another kodak moment

So with beautiful Latin music from :Bar El Lago serenading the scene, a 40 minute battle began between Jake and his prey; and in the end, Jake stood proud with his tarpon for his Kodak moment;  applause from the bar added a little local flavor.  And of course the fish was returned to the water, to go tell his side of the story.  What a day; the daily double; machaca and then tarpon.  Another long day on the river and this time a 5AM get together beckoned us for the morning "rise".  "Ya gotta pay to play" was probably looping through everyone's mind as we settled in for the night.

When  I opened my window shades at 4:45 the next morning and saw darkness at the other  cabin, I figured someone forgot the alarm, so  I got my stuff together and roused the guys up, and by 5:30, (still a commendable hour), we were in the boats.  We saw few tarpon and by 9:30, we were ready to call it a morning.  Ben had been casting to a deep hole under some trees, and begged for just "5 more good casts".  Well, we couldn't say no, so Joel (our capitan) and I sat back to watch and wait.

It was the 3rd cast.  Taken slowly, but there was no doubt there was a fish on.  Ben yanked back 3 or 4 times to set the hook and all of a sudden there was an explosion out of the water in front of the boat!  This fish was HUGE, easily 4 feet long and 150 lbs (or more).  It was almost unfathomable that a fish that large would be living in such a small river.  The problem we understood immediately was that the fish had done his aerial act in front of the boat, but the fly line was off the left side of the boat; we're thinking LOG. Eventually, with no way to extricate the line, I decided to cut the fly line and hold the fish with my hand while Ben reeled in the line from under the log, then i quickly tied the line back together, with the fish none the wiser.  Ben still could feel the fish as the line pulled deeper into the water still off the port side of the boat, but this time the fish broke the water off the right side of the boat, and then as we all watched in vain, spit the fly.  It all happened quickly, but it plays over and over in slow motion each time I think about it; it was some fish.  We were still smiling when we met everyone a short while later for breakfast.

                     decisions, decisions

After breakfast,  we realized we actually were off til the afternoon , (around 2PM), so we headed back to the cabins.  Nap time; how civil, and so needed.  It was the first time since we all met up at 4AM in San Jose 2 days before that we had some down time to really relax.  We all slept well, but were a bit bummed to awake to rain.  We geared up and met Carole and the 2 boat captains down at the dock.  It continued to rain on and off all afternoon and we saw few tarpon.  By 5:30, it was evident that our luck had finally played out, and we called it an "adventure".

In the 3 days of fishing, the deGlee family caught a boatload of machaca, hooked 2 tarpon and landed one.  I hope it will be an adventure they will long remember.  Mission accomplished.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

coming into season

the rains are coming less frequently these days and it won't be long til we're officially in "high season".  high season equals dry season.  as the landscape dries up,   a new cycle of life begins along the rivers.   the rivers start running clearer and lower without all the run-off, and the fish become more active.

i'll be starting the season on the northern frontier of costa rica, in the Upala area.  this area has many small rivers that get few visitors.  the rivers are loaded with machaca (see "fish with teeth" blog), although it is not unheard of to hook into a nice guapote or other exotic is a photo of a nice machaca

also in this area is Cano Negro, one of Costa Rica's little know natural jewels.  as a national refuge, Cano Negro is well patrolled by park rangers as well as local police (because of close proximity to nicaragua), and because of this vigilance, the fish population as well as the sports fisherman are well rewarded, since
commercial fisherman are banned from these beautiful backwater lagoons.  and there is more than just fish here, with incredible bird and wildlife to be discovered along the banks.  GIANT TARPON live here too!

last year was my first year exploring these lagoons; it was awe inspiring to see.  we would see literally hundreds of tarpon on the feed, some running up to 80 and 90 KILOS!  the picture above was a smaller one, weighing in at about 30 kilos.many of these monsters never return to the sea, a fact not completely understood by the scientific community.  presently, there are studies going on to tag and investigate this phenomenon.

if you are looking to find true fishing adventure; a trip to tell your fishing buddies about, please contact me for details on our offerings.

Monday, November 2, 2009

fish with teeth

It seemed like most rivers you see while traveling around the country, but this one was special.  We were out looking for adventure, and decided that this stretch of water deserved some further investigation.  One reasonwas,  it was easy to get to.   that's always a problem; you're driving by or over a river, you slow down (it's what you do when you're a fly fisherman), then look around to see what kind of access might be handy.  Most of the time it is tough.  You are either too high above the water and can't see a way down, , or the surrounding terrain is just too much to bushwhack through.  But this river was different.  A small dirt road paralleled the water, which made it  easy to get stream side.  We first looked around for possible crocs (!), then found a local (vecino or neighbor) to interrogate.  Yes ("si, hay pez!") there was fish, machaca.

 Machaca is a common costa rican river fish, not too great for eating; too many bones, but great fighters; good for the soup pot as well.  They can grow up to 8  pounds, and a light 5 or 6 weight road is just the ticket.

In this instance, we hired a local boatman to take us out for a few hours.  Heading up stream, we enjoyed the river flora and fauna.  But when henri (Henri is our "captain"!) made his U turn, it was time to get serious.

For the next 4 hours we caught fish; a bunch.  we used top water poppers of varying colors (although the green ones seemed to be the most alluring).  And as you can see from this photo, these are "fish with teeth"