Fishing on a full moon is folly

Posted Jan. 24, 2009, at 12:57 a.m.

Sudden jumps in temperature aren’t usually a good sign during flu season, but a week ago I endured a 100-degree change in temperature and not only was it a good thing but also much appreciated. At 6 a.m. it was 15 below zero with the wind chill at Portland Jetport, and a mere seven hours later I stepped into 87-degree sunshine at the airport in San Jose, Costa Rica.

As always, the dense, humid air immediately slaps visitors like a wet washcloth, but it doesn’t take long to acclimate, especially when the mercury is dipping to 40 below back home.

Costa Rica lays between Nicaragua and Panama, near the equator, offering temperate, tropical weather while much of the U.S. is suffering with winter. Along with surfing, snorkeling, sunbathing, swimming, sailing and many other beach and water sports, there are tours galore. River outings allow visitors to view huge crocodiles and a myriad of lizards and birds up close and personal. One of Central America’s largest, most pristine rainforests harbors rare scarlet macaws, toucans, sloths, iguanas, agouti, capuchin monkeys and dozens of shapes, sizes and colors of unique frogs. There are active volcanoes to view as well as a multitude of scenic, secluded waterfalls to explore and resplendent runoff pools in which to swim.

Sportsmen travel to Costa Rica to fish for sailfish, wahoo, dorado, tarpon, rooster fish and striped, blue and black marlin as well as several species of tuna. Bordered by the Caribbean Sea on one side and the Pacific on the other, this small country offers world-class deep-sea angling for billfish as well as great in-shore fishing for novice and veteran nimrods alike. Having enjoyed memorable results for three years, I returned once again earlier this month with two specific goals: I desperately wished to catch a sailfish on a fly rod, a difficult but not impossible feat, and also to finally hook and land a marlin. During each of my past three trips I’d managed to stick a marlin, but in each instance the hook pulled free within short order.

Full moon faux pas

Los Suenos is situated on the Pacific coast a full two-hour drive from the San Jose airport, and although the scenery along the way is magnificent, the mountainous terrain in conjunction with the narrow, winding roads and wild drivers, gives new meaning to the word breathtaking. Marriott’s beach and golf resort and the nearby marina make the Los Suenos area a big draw for holiday family getaways and New Year fishing excursions, so naturally rooms and boats are at a premium when booking January trips.

Since I was juggling vacation dates around both my wife’s and my work schedules, I jumped at the first dates when a room and three days of fishing on a boat from Costa Rica Dreams Sportsfishing overlapped. Not until I actually arrived and visited the docks to see how the current fishing results were did I realize my mistake. It was the full of the moon, not an auspicious time for any angling outing, let alone deep-sea fishing, a fact most sportsmen understand but one that had never entered my mind when booking dates.

A few sailfish and an occasional marlin were being caught, but daily numbers were notably less than the previous week. Nonetheless, I was just as excited as ever, believing that a bit of luck can overshadow any dismal circumstance.

Dream One, a 36-foot Luhrs Express Sportsfisherman, was my craft for three days, captained by Dean Jacobs with mates Victor and Ariel working the deck. It was an experienced crew used to locating, hooking and catching big billfish, especially Captain Jacobs, who possessed vast knowledge and years of experience saltwater fly fishing.

Hooking up

Customarily, seven rods are deployed when trolling for billfish, four with hookless teasers and three with weighted ballyhoo on circle hooks. Teasers are just what the name implies, colorful, plastic baits that bounce along the water surface and make intermittent shallow dives all the while splashing a wake and making noise. Most teasers have eyes painted on each side of a heavy hard plastic head and several dozen thin plastic strips that wiggle behind like a tail fin or tentacles. The noise and continuous surface disturbance is supposed to simulate a school of bait and attract game fish to attack.

Thanks to a 20-foot outrigger pole with snap releases for lines extending from each side of the boat, several teasers and baits can be deployed without tangling. Some of the teasers are only 25 yards behind the boat, just out of the whitewater caused by the wake, while others are 75 yards back or more. When a fish takes a hooked ballyhoo, the line snaps free of the release clip, the reel set with light drag lets out line, and then the angler grabs the rod, snaps on the drag and the fight begins.

When a billfish surfaces and attacks a teaser instead of a bait, the angler grabs a baited rod and drops a hooked bait fish into the wake until it swims in front of the striking fish, and at the same time the mate reels the teaser quickly away from the fish. With luck the worked-up billfish will switch interest and bite the bait and then the fisherman lets out line to assure the ballyhoo and circle hook are in the mouth before flipping on the drag and setting the hook. It’s a tricky process with 50-50 results.

Hooking a sailfish on a fly rod presents even greater hurdles. For one, since there must be room for a back cast, only one downrigger can be utilized and the shotgun rod (a line straight behind the boat played out from a rod set in a holder high in the boat’s spotting tower) can’t be deployed either. Suddenly you’re down from seven lines to only three, and these are all teasers, so chances of attracting fish drop by more than half. For this to work out, there must be a lot of billfish in the area and at least a dozen sails a day need to be coming up to check out the teasers.

If and when a sailfish does appear behind a bait, the mate pulls the teaser closer, bouncing and jerking the line to enrage the fish. At the angler’s command the mate snaps the teaser out of the water and the sport casts the huge, heavy fly into the spot the teaser just vacated. Screw up the cast, miss the location, snag your line on the back cast, or worst and most painful of all, hit yourself with the long, cumbersome fly and sharp hook, and the opportunity vanishes.

Even if everything goes perfectly the fish may refuse the fly and sink into the depths never to be seen again. If destiny smiles and the livid sailfish slashes the fly with its bill, then tries to engulf the gaudy wad of feathers and plastic, timing the strike is crucial. Two out of three times there’s either no hookup or the fly pulls free on the first long run and aerobatic leap. This is why actually catching a sailfish on a fly is such a unique and gratifying feat.

Few fish

For any or all of these hurdles to be overcome, first there must be interested fish at hand, and that proved to be our downfall on day one. After a run of 1½ hours from the dock to an often-productive segment of ocean, we rigged our three teasers, prepared the fly rod and began waiting and watching.

Six hours later, having seen nary a fish, I threw in the towel and allowed the very bored mates to rig all seven rods as I stored my fly rig for the day. During the next hour I caught two good-sized and very lively, leaping dorado on trailing ballyhoo and one very memorable sailfish.

This particular sail hit the long shotgun line bait and made its first leap as I was pulling the rod from the gunnel slot and fitting into my fighting belt’s gimbal. Over the next 25 minutes of the fight, there were cartwheels, somersaults, lateral greyhound hurtles, surface rolls and tailwalking head shakes, 18 in total, the most I’d ever experienced from one billfish. When the mate finally grasped the great fish’s bill and severed the leader, my arms felt like rubber, my shirt was soaked with sweat and I had a grin from ear to ear. Half an hour later we hooked and landed a second sailfish, this one about 100 pounds, just a fraction larger than the first but with only seven leaps in its system, and then we motored for the marina.

Day two offered no better billfishing and attempting to use the fly rod proved fruitless. Captain Jacobs got word of several blue marlin and a few striped marlin being caught the previous day way out at the 50-mile mark, and knowing I was primed to finally boat a marlin, suggested we investigate. Even at top running speed of 23 knots it took us two hours to reach the honey hole, and it would be as long a return trip so our eight-hour day was diminished to four hours of fishing. Well worth the sacrifice if the big fish were at hand. They were not. I did manage to catch four dorado, including one big, colorful male more than 40 pounds, as well as two more sailfish.

Both sails were hooked during the last 90 minutes of fishing and both struck long-line baits. The teasers just weren’t bringing up fish, which usually means there just aren’t a lot of sailfish in that specific area. The last sailfish of the day put on a real show at the end of our battle. After a strong fight sprinkled with eight jumps I had the fish near the stern ready for the mate to grab the leader. Suddenly, not 20 feet from the boat this neon blue rocket came three-quarters out of the ocean and tail-walked along the surface in a large circle for at least 30 seconds. The captain got photos of the unique event as I fought a real topwater tussle.

Last chance

As radio reports between boats and day-end results at the marina verified, most anglers were in the same boat, so to speak; catches were discouraging. On my last morning Captain Jacobs had a hunch and set the GPS for The Corner, a spot 32 miles off shore where currents and a depth change often drew billfish. We were the first craft on site and took a 25-pound dorado within 10 minutes and then a 75-pound sail about a half-hour later; both ignored the teasers and ate the trolled baits. Within an hour there were five other sportfishing boats within sight.

Before noon we boated another sailfish, about 100 pounds, and then hooked and played a 35-pound female dorado. When I finally fought the colorful fish near the stern, we could see a second larger dorado, a male, following the female, so I handed the first mate my rod, grabbed a second baited pole and tossed a ballyhoo to the trailing fish. With a flash of fluorescent green the big-bill dorado tried to tear the rod from my grip and after several leaps and strong, deep runs we finally landed my largest mahi-mahi of the trip and my first-ever double on dorado.

By the end of the day I had caught and released five sailfish, only one of which had come to the short teaser, so my fly fishing efforts went for naught. I’d also landed five dorado, and oh yes, I’d hooked a blue marlin of 200-250 pounds that made a long run, leaped and then fell back onto the leader, snapping it like a strand of spider web. Another goal not accomplished. On the bright side, now I have a valid reason to return to Costa Rica, warm weather and wild fish, and I did end up with 10 sailfish and 14 dorado on three tough, full-moon days of fishing.

Just in case some of you sportsmen feel the urge for sun, sea, saltwater fishing and more, check out the Los Suenos Marriott online at www.marriott.com or call 1-800-228-9290 and plan a vacation from the snow and cold. Then book a boat with Costa Rica Dreams Sportfishing, www.costaricadreams.com or call direct, 011-506-637-8942, be sure to check the moon phase. But always remember, a bad day fishing is always better than the best day at work.

bgravesoutdoors@ainop.com

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