Sweet Dreams

The fishing in Costa Rica's Los Sueños is already legendary. Catch-and-release rules are going to keep it that way.

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I have a mentor, a crusty old charter captain whom I believe may actually have sailed with Herman Melville, who taught me his three well-guarded secrets to catching fish. "Location, location, location," he intoned through graying beard. "Fish don't just swim aimlessly through the ocean. You've got to know where they'll be, and why, if you want to catch fish." Words I've since learned to live by.

When it comes to Costa Rica, however, the old captain was wrong. "There's always lots of fish, calm seas, and sunshine. It's like paradise," says Joe Recupero, owner of a 52-foot Viking now on its fourth season at Los Sueños Resort. An average day offshore provides 12 to 15 shots at sailfish, all year long. Six or eight sailfish is considered slow, and one charter boat recently released 42 in one day. (Really, they did.) To add a little tension and excitement, there is always a good chance of raising a blue, black or striped marlin, as well as dorado or big yellowfin tuna.

"I love it when it's slick calm and the sailfish are piling on," says Recupero. "One day about a hundred sails were balling the bait, and all of a sudden two-hundred pound yellowfin tuna were crashing through the middle. I hooked one up on a sailfish rig and fought it for over an hour before the knot pulled."

But while the fishing is extraordinary, it's Costa Rica's stable government, prosperous economy, ideal climate and a recently constructed first-class resort and marina that make this a prime destination for well-traveled yachtsmen. Add to it rain forest canopy tours, horseback riding, whitewater rafting and kayaking and the long, low Pacific swell surfers love-a lot of sportfishing guys are longboarders--and it's easy to see why Costa Rica often becomes home to many vacationers who simply never leave.

Until recently fishing the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica meant roughing it. Not limited amenities, virtually none at all. Enter William Royster. Exhausted from battling a 700-pound marlin, he gazed ashore at the 1,100-acre cattle ranch that is now the resort-hence Los Sueños, "The Dreams" in Spanish. Construction began in 1997 and the Marriott Ocean & Golf Resort greeted its first guests at the millennium. A year later a well-protected 200-slip marina opened, accommodating yachts to 200 feet with floating docks, reliable power, and in-and-out storage for boats to 30 feet, with marine supplies and facilities on par with any destination marina in the States. Nearby Jacù, a $6 cab ride away, offers shopping, casinos, night life, even surfing schools for first-timers and their grommets.

Conservation of Costa Rica's abundant resources is why the Los Sueños Signature Billfish Tournament requires all circle hooks and 100 percent release. I was there as an International Game Fish Association Certified Observer, providing fish identification and checking rules adherence. "It's the future of sportfishing," says Ron Schatman, a renowned sportfishing captain. "There's no reason to kill anything in any tournament." That means a lot coming from a man who used to brag that he sold more fiberglass in fish mounts than Hatteras did in yachts.

Schatman prefers observers to photo identification, citing fish fought long after their official release point in order to get a clear picture. But the program is not without its controversy. Etiquette is a nagging issue, from muddy shoes in the saloon to bringing bananas on board, according to Lynda Wilson, the IGFA observer program coordinator during its development in 2002. "Occasionally observers will take a militant I'm-in-charge-here approach," she says.

Owner complaints usually arise when there aren't enough IGFA Certified Observers for an event, and non-certified observers are pressed into action. Certification isn't that hard-the IGFA's seminar only lasts one day-but not everyone who passes the test ends up on board a boat. Wilson notes that confidential evaluations and reports from past events are passed along to tournament directors, who make the choice of whom to invite.

Even though I can be opinionated, my evaluations were apparently good enough. While it was difficult not fishing, it was fun being right in the middle of the action. And I also picked up a few new techniques after seeing what top tourney crews do when there are a couple of hundred Gs on the line. With all the fish in Los Sueños, doubles and triples are necessary to win. One boat had a slick trick for improving its chance for a second hookup: As soon as a fish pulled a line from the outrigger-let's say the port long-the crew would immediately move the starboard long rigger bat across to the port halyard, which kept that bait fishing properly as the captain turned to port to chase the hooked fish.

That trick may pay off for me one day, although it has to be well rehearsed. The more important lesson, based on my experience, is that successful crews keep things simple and pay constant attention to detail. That's advice my salty old mentor would agree with.

So how does a newcomer prepare for Costa Rica's abundant fish opportunities? First, hire a captain or mate, whether American or local. There are plenty around Los Sueños and Costa Rica. I fished one day with Jason Peer, a mate from Stuart, Fla., who'd first come down to surf for a couple of weeks. "The marina was just getting started," Peer said. "I rode my bicycle there every day for two weeks until I finally got hired." He's been there since. Services from boat washing to repairs are readily available, and a large yacht yard is slated to open soon in Quepos, barely 50 miles south.

You don't need to bring the boat to enjoy Costa Rica's fishing. Los Sueños is home to a first-class charter fleet-as opposed to the boats in some tourist destinations that simply go to the nearest reef and catch whatever's easy. I fished one day of the tournament aboard the Spanish Fly. This local charter crew on a Costa Rican-built 42-footer, the underdogs in every measurable way, edged out nearly 50 $2-million and $3-million sportfishing yachts to win the tournament-and a six-figure check.

Larry Drivon, a California trial attorney and tournament angler aboard the Spanish Fly, loves the lack of crowds. "On the biggest day of the year maybe 100 boats go out," he says. "That's for the whole country."

Drivon came to Costa Rica for a weekend to compare two boats, a Cabo and a Costa Rican-built Maverick sportfisher. "Now I own two boats and a condo." In fact the typically calm seas, maximum 50-mile run and in-and-out storage facility at the marina make Los Sueños a perfect place for a fast center console and year-round vacation home. The rainy season is prime time for butterflies, if you're into them, or yellowfin tuna if you're not.

My mentor is still around, retired to Ohio and of course always lingering in the back of my mind. I haven't got the heart to tell him he was wrong all those years ago, though he knows it. "If I do my job right, you'll be better than me," he used to say. "You'll take what I can teach you and add to it, and then pass it on to some young kid who'll eventually out-fish you." To which I can now add: Only in your dreams-in "los sueños." n

Sweet Home Costa Rica "The resort is second to none, but when you walk outside it's a Third World country," says sportfishing enthusiast Joe Recupero, when asked why he returns to Los Sueños year after year. But Third World is a misnomer; with a 95 percent literacy rate, $40 billion GDP, and 6.5 percent unemployment, Costa Rica's economy and standard of living are perhaps better than some cities back home. The government-the original democratic republic established with Costa Rican independence in 1821-abolished the army in 1949, spending the money instead on education and health care. The last major conflict occurred 150 years ago; not surprisingly, interactions with the locals are a pleasure.

The dry season from December to April corresponds with the prime tourist season. In the rainy season from May to November afternoon showers may shorten though not ruin the day. During the North American winter, cold fronts in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean funnel Papagayo winds through the mountains, but Los Sueños is at the southern end, with calm seas just a few miles south and a weather shore providing a smooth ride back to the marina.

Because Costa Rica is part of a narrow isthmus connecting two continents, migrating birds and animals have brought diverse wildlife, even 1,240 species of butterflies. In fact, this country the size of West Virginia holds 6 percent of the world's biodiversity, with over a quarter of its land set aside as national parks.

"You can go out and feel like Tarzan. Swing from the trees, go whitewater rafting, be a part of nature, and then go home and have room service in the jacuzzi tub," says Luìs Pèrez, a real estate salesman at Los Sueños. Currently about 350 private residences meld surprisingly well into the hillsides, with plans for 650 more. Founder William Royster actually reforested much of the old cattle ranch and set aside 600 acres for parks, over half the property.

Getting There

Dockwise Yacht Transport costs roughly $30,000 one way for a 50- to 60-foot sportfisherman, with about seven sailings per year making the trip from Ft. Lauderdale directly to Costa Rica in about a week barring delays at the Panama Canal, and then on to Mexico and Vancouver, British Columbia.

The trip by boat from Ft. Lauderdale through the Panama Canal and up the Pacific Coast takes at minimum seven days, if the weather gods are smiling, at roughly the same cost as Dockwise, plus wear and tear on the boat. Most boats are loaded to the gunnels, with only fuel stops along the way, but it's tempting to try the winter sailfish bite in Isla Mujeres, at the top of Mexico's Maya Riviera, on the way down. On the trip back in the spring yachtsmen will likely find blue marlin, wahoo and yellowfin tuna at Colombia's San Andreas Island, or perhaps Henry Morgan's pirate booty, supposedly buried in island caves.

American, Delta, Continental, Taca and Liberia airlines and perhaps a few more as routes change offer three- to five-hour nonstop flights from Miami, Atlanta, New York, Los Angeles, Houston and Dallas into San José, Costa Rica's centrally located capital. The irony is that a destination perfect for seasick-prone anglers requires a two-hour winding mountainous drive from the airport at 4,000 feet down to the coast. Of course, the resort staff could always arrange for a helicopter.

Contacts

Los Sueños Resort & Marina 011-506-637-8886; (866) 865-9759; www.lossuenosresort.com

Dockwise Yacht Transport (954) 525-8707; www.yacht-transport.com

All About Travel (Specialists in travel to renowned fishing destinations) (772) 465-6565; www.billfishingandtravel.com

International Game Fish Association (954) 927-2628; www.igfa.org