It had been a typical winter day in southwestern Costa Rica, with plenty of sunshine, calm seas-and fish. The action started early and fast. Just 15 minutes after leaving the dock, a 22-pound roosterfish had grabbed a live threadfin herring as we slow-trolled along a rocky ledge west of Punta Matapalo. That catch was followed by action with jack crevalle and barracuda before we noticed the bait-well pump had failed and most of our herring were belly-up, prompting a switch to offshore trolling.
After making the 45-minute run to blue water, I added two sailfish releases and a dolphin to the day's tally. Then it was back inshore, where I concentrated on casting plugs for roosterfish and other species that live among rocks. It wasn't long before a three-foot houndfish was skipping across the foam-flecked surface, intent on devouring my pencil popper. But the fish wasn't fast enough, for the plug suddenly disappeared in a shower of spray that erupted alongside an underwater rock. A few minutes later, a 22-pound cubera snapper was gaffed aboard, completing an unexpected and trip-saving super grand slam in the waters off Crocodile Bay Resort, located on the western edge of Golfo Dulce.
Gulf of Plenty
Located at the extreme southwestern end of Costa Rica, Golfo Dulce is hardly a secret fishing spot. The area has long been known for its calm waters and excellent inshore and offshore fishing, which has supported several lodges on the gulf's eastern shore at Golfito and Zancudo. Robin Williams's (not the actor) Crocodile Bay Resort on the Osa Peninsula is the first lodge to provide a quick and easy means of fishing the western side of the gulf, as well as the popular spots from Punta Matapalo west.
Williams opened the resort in late 1999, but it hasn't taken long for word of the great fishing to get out. The place was packed last winter, and I was only able to squeeze in for three days with Mark Weidhaas of Adventures, a fishing travel agency in Bozeman, Montana. Weidhaas had first fished at Crocodile Bay in October 1999, and was delighted with all the changes that had occurred at the resort since then.
Crocodile Bay is just a few minutes drive from the Puerto Jim¿nez airstrip, which sees daily flights to and from San Jos¿, the capital of Costa Rica. San Jos¿ has a year-round, spring-like climate, and northerly winds were howling there when Mark and I flew in from the states last February. Fortunately, light winds and calm seas are the norm during the January-to-April dry season along Costa Rica's southern coast, and that's exactly what we found upon our arrival at Crocodile Bay.
The resort's landscaped grounds include four two-story buildings housing rooms with air conditioning, spacious bathrooms and hot water. The main building includes a large bar area, plus a gift shop and a dining room staffed by the most attractive and attentive waitresses in Costa Rica. Omelets are prepared to order for breakfast, and when you get back from fishing you can cool off in the pool and enjoy a drink at the swim-up bar. Colorful birds fly by regularly, scarlet macaws roost in the trees, and at times you'll be serenaded by howler monkeys. Eco-tours are an important part of this operation, and guests not interested in fishing every day will find plenty to do.
The lodge's 20-boat fleet departs from a floating dock at the end of a very long pier that's needed to handle the region's big tidal changes. In addition to the Strike 33s, there are 27-foot center consoles and 17-foot flats skiffs, which are ideal for prospecting deep into the gulf.
Despite the excellent fleet and fine accommodations that greeted us at Crocodile Bay, the short duration of our trip had me concerned. You see, my experience with short trips to tropical locales generally hasn't been good, even though I've never lost a day to bad weather in more than a quarter-century of fishing the eastern Pacific! Fishable weather is almost a given in these parts, except during easily avoidable times of year, primarily October and November. Unfortunately, the fish are never so dependable. The odds will almost always fall in your favor at some time during a six-day trip, but bad luck can easily follow you around for three days.
This was my big concern, and our experience on day one didn't exactly put me at ease. After flying in from San Jos¿ on the first morning, We immediately ran offshore with Captain Luis. On the way out, we learned that there had been excellent sailfishing in January, but that the action had recently slowed.
I asked Luis if he'd switched to rigging his sailfish baits with circle hooks, as many Central American fishing resorts now do. Luis replied that he was still rigging J-hooks in small mullet, which were pitched to sails that rose to plastics rigged with large hooks for marlin. I would soon be wishing for circle hooks.
Despite the negative reports, we raised eight sails on that first day, four of which took the pitch bait I dropped back. However, every one of those fish either pulled off right away or threw the hook during the first series of jumps. To compound our bad luck, a blue marlin crashed a lure, only to return it after two leaps. Only a 20-pound dolphin saved us from a skunking.
We decided to concentrate on roosterfish the second day. Despite an adequate supply of threadfin herring, we couldn't buy a rooster in what may well be the most consistent place in the world to catch them. Later, back at the lodge, it seemed that every other group I talked to had caught from two to six roosters that day, while Mark and I only managed a few jack crevalle and houndfish. Jack crevalle are among the hardest-fighting fish in the world, and great sport on poppers. However, roosters are even tougher and often make spectacular jumps, so the jacks are basically considered a nuisance by most Golfo Dulce anglers.
With one day left to fish, things weren't looking good. However, as you now know, everything came together on the final day. Indeed, luck was truly on our side, for if the bait well hadn't failed we wouldn't have made the move offshore and caught those sails and a dolphin.
Awesome Inshore Action
The wide variety of game fish available in Golfo Dulce may be the area's chief claim to fame. There is no offshore bank to attract pelagic species, and long rides offshore are often required to find the requisite blue water. Though sailfishing can be very good at times, it isn't as consistent as nearby Quepos during the winter or Costa Rica's northern Guanacaste Province from May to September. Blue marlin are available, but are also far from a sure thing. Even the dolphin fishing can be spotty.
Fortunately, there are always fish to be caught inshore, and the number of roosterfish in the area is amazing, considering the intense angling pressure they receive. The fact that live bait is readily available means that anglers have the best opportunity of hooking these great game fish. Crocodile Bay keeps a floating bait pen filled with threadfin herring and blue runners whenever possible so that anglers don't have to jig their own.
Though jack crevalle, barracuda and houndfish are abundant in the Golfo Dulce area, I've never seen many bluefin trevally, bigeye trevally or mullet snapper. Some large cuberas are taken on live bait, but there's a relatively limited amount of structure for casting to these fish. In fact, the locals were impressed by my 22-pounder, which would be considered an average cubera in Panama.
The most obvious piece of structure is the large rock off Punta Matapalo, which is pounded by the fleets from both sides of the gulf every day, but still produces roosterfish, cuberas and amberjack on live baits with some regularity. Casting can be tough due to the boat traffic, but I once plugged up a 50-pound rooster there.
An area that deserves a lot more attention is the upper part of the gulf, which includes a large river mouth. Todd Staley, the manager of Crocodile Bay and a veteran snook fisherman, has been making experimental forays deep into the gulf, during which he has caught up to a dozen snook a day.
As a fishing destination, Golfo Dulce is hard to beat. It's sunny, calm and offers excellent fishing for a wide variety of species during the winter dry season, and continues to produce plenty of fish throughout the year. With the addition of Crocodile Bay Lodge, it's now also possible to explore the area in such comfort that you'll never want to leave.
Crocodile Bay Travel Info
Many fishing travel agencies represent Crocodile Bay, including South Fishing,(800) 333-3347, or contact the lodge directly at (800) 733-1115. There are several fishing operations on the other side of Golfo Dulce, including the rejuvenated Golfito Sailfish Rancho and the long-established Roy's Zancudo Lodge. Though it's possible to carry plenty of clothing and gear on international flights to San Jos¿, Travelair allows only 25 pounds before imposing excess fees, and they even weigh carry-on bags.
Crocodile Bay provides good tackle for casting and trolling, so it's wise to only bring specialty gear with you, plus any plugs and flies you'd like to cast. Restrict rod cases to six feet or less, since Travelair sometimes uses small planes and may not be able to fit longer cases aboard.
Don't waste your weight allowance on a lot of clothing. Costa Rica is informal, even in San Jos¿, so it's possible to keep clothing to a minimum, as outfits can be rotated through the wash at the lodge. Raingear isn't necessary during the January-to-April dry season. I get by with shorts and bathing suits, plus a few short-sleeved shirts, but those with light skin should bring clothing that offers more protection from the tropical sun.-Al Ristori