Part of running a charter boat is knowing when to cancel trips because of weather, but last summer the tables were turned on us just hours before the trip of a lifetime. Sometimes Mother Nature makes it easy to cancel with vivid reds, yellows, and even purples showing on the radar map for everyone to see and understand. Other times, my smartphone radar app feels like a magic 8-ball that I’ve already shaken three times and gotten three different answers before the 4:30 am pot has finished brewing. It’s a balance of radar interpretation and people reading, followed by a tactful phone call placed at 6:00 am. Some of my repeaters are so well-trained that they answer the phone with “I can move.” It’s about balancing expectations, experience, and safety while being flexible. Often my clients can move to another day, because they are on vacation and, for a rare week in their lives, are not locked into the frantic work-family schedule.
Brian and I were just hours from jumping on a jet bound for a dream fishing trip to Costa Rica when we got that call. It came from Captain Sheeder. He had been chased in early from a multi-day FAD Marlin trip off Costa Rica’s pacific coast. (FADs are man-made Fish Attracting Devices.) We are used to rough seas as North Carolina’s coast is notoriously rough, but we were supposed to fish almost 150 miles offshore. We would be beyond reliable offshore weather reports, radio range, cellular coverage, and help.
How flexible are you?
After hourly weather updates and dozens of texts, we all agreed that we would fly down. Tickets were paid for, housing was set, and we had shifted charters in the height of our summer season to make this trip possible. Costa Rica has plenty to do without fishing, we kept telling ourselves as we got closer to Quepos. The look we got from Chris when we met at the marina restaurant did not instill confidence. We’ve known him for a decade. We have fished with Chris and his first mate Nico Melendrez for a decade in Guatemala. They are part of world-renowned Casa Vieja Lodge and have become members of our extended fishing family. We all might be captains, but this is Chris’s world. We totally trusted him to keep us safe.
Over dinner, a plan was formulated. The three of us are avid photographers, so we did a monkey safari on the first day and explored Manuel Antonio National Park on the second, with almost hourly weather checks by Chris. After the park hike, lunch, and another weather check, Chris felt that we had a window between low-pressure systems. If we were willing to make the run out in remaining rough seas, we would have two fishable days, possibly three. Within two hours, the “Finest Kind” was running towards the sunset with Quepos at her stern.
The further offshore we ran, the bumpier it got, but it was tolerable. After dusk, Chris took her off plane and we continued the overnight journey at a slow 10-knot pace. Brian and I settled into the V birth, Chris took the salon, and Nico and his son and second mate Genry stood by on the bridge.
At dawn, we were still 20 miles from the first FAD we wanted to fish, so Chris put her on plane while Genry made breakfast and Nico began to move tackle into the cockpit.
We weren’t alone when we reached the FAD. Another boat was already working the area, which felt comforting being so far from safety. We were also greeted by birds and baitfish schools shimmering on top. Our baits went out and we ate breakfast. “Marlin” boomed down from the bridge, instantly stopping my heart. Within a half-hour of arriving, we got our first Marlin in the teasers. The travel and worries came down to this moment. I eased the reel from its gunnel-mounted rack, tossed the fly overboard, and allowed it to slip in the boat’s wake. I let it hide about 30 feet back in the froth and whitewater coming off the port-side stern. I kept the rod low and angled, so that the fly would stay hidden, skating in the turbulence, but easily pulled from the surface for a cast. I stood at the stern, waiting for the call, and scanning the water for a bill, tail, dorsal, flash of color, or shadow. I heard the boat come out of gear then “Cast!”
With two hands, I powered the phone pole with attached pigeon high and back to a stop, then launched it forward. It landed on the blue hole between streaks of white just as Nico daftly led the Marlin to the blue hole with his hookless teaser, almost to my fly. Nico ripped it off the water and the fish disappeared while my fly innocently swayed in the remaining currents of the sliding boat.
Pop! Pop! Pow!
The fly was sucker-punched with an uppercut! Instantly I made a low and straight back sailfish strike. This is like a batter trying to anticipate a pitch, or returning a tennis serve -- almost a defensive move. It’s the go-to set when you can’t tell if the fish is moving right, left, or straight back.
The fish greyhounded straight back from the boat then went for a shallow run. After several seconds I could feel the line part. Done. I wound in the slack, turned on wobbly legs, and looked up at Chris. “It wasn’t you. I think the tail hit the leader on that shallow run. We’ll see more.” Chasing blue marlin on the fly is like chasing unicorns. You rarely get a shot, and it usually ends badly, so it was hard to embrace Chris’s calm. To regain composure, I relied on routine by checking the broken class tippet for telltale scuffs (none), replacing it, checking drag, putting the outfit back in its ready position, and finally returning to my teaser watching perch.
A short time later with no more bites, Chris decided to move further out to his favorite FAD area called Cervesa. Within the hour we pulled up on an area that had pods of bait and wheeling birds. This place looked fishy! Almost as soon as the last hookless teaser went out we heard “left flat!” I stepped up to the plate. Chris shouted “cast”! The fly hit the water, and a blackfin and bill silhouette grabbed the fly going from left to right. My rod moved to the left, and in two seconds my reel’s normal sailfish run screaming sound turned into a screech! As the fish shot straight away, Chris black smoked the boat, and I got hit with a wall of blue water. My right hand was doing wind sprints around the reel while my left arm was doing hill repeats. I did the shuffle back and forth across the stern. Finally, the orange wind-on connection between the fly line and the leader made it to the rod tip. “Release!” After a few short surges at the boat I backed up and muscled the leader towards Nico’s hands.
Getting the leader to Nico was not the end. This is when his knowledge and patience was crucial, as well as our shared experience at landing sailfish together. Several times he had to transfer the leader and fight smoothly to me, with his arms acting as shock absorbers when the fish surged.
Finally, Genry was able to grab the bill, and the two were able to get the double hook set out of its mouth. After a quick flurry of boat side photos, the 100+ pound fish glided away from Nico’s hands.
Billfish on the fly is ABSOLUTELY a team sport. Chris, Nico, and Genry are such a cohesive team that their critical, high-speed activity is almost imperceptible. I love being a temporary part of this fishing machine, but I learn even more when I can watch them in action with another angler. Over the years I’ve seen them work successfully with every skill level.
Chris put the boat back into gear and trolling spread was redeployed while I changed to a fresh leader. When I tried to hand the rod off to Brian for his turn, he refused. He said, “Babe, I’ve caught two over the years. You keep fishing until you catch up.”
By sunset I had passed Brian’s record, landing a total of three blue marlin and a bonus sailfish. These numbers were already an outstanding fly tally for a multi-day FAD trip. But, it was just a warmup.
The second night aboard “Finest Kind” we dined on fish tacos and rehashed the day’s fishing. Sometime late in the afternoon Genry disappeared into the cabin where he prepared all the fixings for our meal. He also vacuumed the cabin and laid out towels for the shower. Our tiny floating hotel was surprisingly civilized. The sea anchor was deployed and Brian and I rocked to sleep in the softly rolling boat. Chris stretched out in the cabin where he could hear Nico and Genry, who bunked in the tower where they took turns keeping watch.
I woke before first light and crept out to the cockpit to watch the tropical sunrise. Soon everyone was stirring, coffee was brewing, and breakfast was started. As Genry placed a full package of bacon in the electric frying pan, we trolled the 10 miles we had drifted back to Cervesa. The bacon was still cracking when the marlin came in. I stumbled out on precaffeinated legs and the mates flew past me, grabbing rods and winding as they went.
Cast! Boom! Crank! Crank! Crank!
I was slammed with a blue water bath and black smoke, but the leader was in the rod tip within seconds. The leader broke after the official release when the highly-caffeinated marlin made a surging jump at the boat. It still counted as my first striped marlin, and it happened before breakfast!
The smell of bacon and biscuits was wafting from the cabin when the next blue hit. Again, Brian deferred to me, perhaps because he was hungry and he thought food was just moments away. An hour later we finally enjoyed a not-so-hot breakfast, though I could hardly lift my biscuit after wrestling with a 200+ pounder. That beast was unforgiving! She greyhounded, made ripping surface runs, and then popped up hundreds of yards from where I expected her to be. Several times Chris was able to help me gain almost all of my backing and line, then the fish would make a demoralizing (for me) run of several hundred yards. This fish also went deep and sulked. When this happens with sailfish, they can be coaxed back to the surface by moving away from them and waiting.
At least I got to eat before number three crashed the party. This fish was more reasonable. While it did greyhound and run, it was a much smaller fish. I was beginning to understand and feel the difference between the blue marlin and sailfish fights. FAD blues hit so hard, and move so quickly, that they self-set the hooks. Getting through the first jumps without bills and tails breaking the leader is critical. Long runs also lose fish, because a lot of moving line out generates enough water resistance to pop even a 20 class tippet fished on only 2 pounds of reel drag. I would not touch the drag adjustment until we got the official release. After that, I started steadily increasing drag to full “whup-ass" just to experiment with how much pressure I could put on a fish. After hundreds of sailfish fly fights, I had never put a Mako drag up to maximum. I tentatively crept it up to max, but the fish did not break off! It was exciting, uncharted territory for me. I did it with every fish after. When fighting in max drag, I had to be perceptive to surges and line belly. Most importantly, I had to be patient with the fish, and with myself. I’ve never put such extreme pressure on a fish.
After the third fish, Brian finally picked up a rod. My quivering arms were happy for a brief break, and I was looking forward to seeing the fish fights from a different perspective. I didn’t have to wait long!
Brian’s first fish was the perfect size and temperament. It took about 20 minutes in which time I was able to shoot video and regroup. Blue marlin were coming into the spread every 15 minutes and for several hours Brian and I traded off fishing duties. I honestly lost track of fish and bites.
By lunch Brian had released two marlin and I was up to four blues and a striped. Fish kept storming the bait through and beyond lunch, but not sticking around to actually eat flies. I watched from the bridge as a 300+ pound marlin that had plowed through teasers, lurked under Brian’s fly, with peck fins glowing, before fading off. We were all secretly happy that monster decided to eat elsewhere.
After lunch, marlin would come in behind the long rigger and never tease into the fly, or they would pulverize a flat line and vanish. It’s a wonder we were able to entice any fish. The two Cervesa FADs were like a candy store. Fish could dine on endless 2-5 pound yellowfin tuna and flip-flop sized dolphins. The mates were able to catch both species at will on small feather jigs dropped down 10-15 feet behind the boat. You could see dozens of schoolmates flashing as the jigs were dropped back. Small fish were turned into hookless teasers and bigger tuna became our dinner!
Later in the afternoon I connected with my fifth blue of the day. It was a big beast that made sure I was reminded of all the new bruises on my hands and belly. After an intense hour, Nico and I gave each other one more tiered hug and Chris climbed out of the bridge for a pow-wow.
Seas had begun to build, and it was time to make a decision. Should we stay for one more day of fishing in rough and potentially dangerous conditions or start the long run in?
As the sun set behind the beautiful, but ominous tropical clouds, we reeled in baits and said goodbye to the twilight zone.