In my first two days as fishing columnist for The Tico Times, I was nearly struck by lightning, washed to sea while crossing a jungle river at night, and carried away in a flash flood.
I didn’t catch anything, either.
Alex Rodríguez, an adventure tour guide from the Central Valley and president of the National Fishing Club, assured me the extreme circumstances were most unusual.
“At our tournaments, we almost always catch at least something,” he said.
I’d chosen the club, and this tournament in Sámara, on the northern Pacific coast, for my introduction, because what better way to learn about fishing in Costa Rica than from local fanatics: lifelong Tico fishermen, ranging in background from fishing guides to auto mechanics, cabinetmakers, high-school students and even an 84-year-old retiree.
The club revolves around monthly, shorebased tournaments like this one – each held at a different beach, river or lake along both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts.
Target fish range from snook, snapper, guapote, or rainbow bass, and machaca to tarpon, dorado and roosterfish, depending on the venue – and the ocean.
The playing field is brutally even: all participants fish International Game Fish Association (IGFA) standard, 12-pound test line (though the fish can weigh 50 pounds or more), use only spinning or bait-casting gear, and no boats are allowed.
There are teams and nicknames (of course), and a trophy and cash prize up to $120 or so for the winner – usually the sum of the entrance fees for each competition.
Tournaments last two days each, Rodríguez explained over a beer the night before at a bar in Sámara.
Fishing starts before dawn, and each night there is a weigh-in, at which contestants hoot and holler as fishermen show up, usually sunburned and soaking wet, to weigh their catches.
It seemed like the perfect crash course on Costa Rican fishing, and fishermen. “Do you mind getting up early?” Rodríguez asked casually before we parted ways that night. Did I mind?
As a former fishing guide in the U.S. state of Maine, I’d braved hypothermia, 12-foot tides, rocky granite ledges and ice-cold saltwater that freezes in winter, all in the name of good fishing.
Of course I’d be up early.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“To a beach just up the road. It’s our secret spot,” he said, winking.
That night, I dreamed of palm trees, big snook and warm, gentle Pacific waves lapping at my feet.
The next morning,my alarm sounded at 4 a.m. By the time I arrived, most of the crew – about 30 fishermen in all – had devoured plates of gallo pinto, eggs and bacon, and were raucous despite the early hour.
Six of us – my team for the weekend –crammed into the back of a pickup truck, and in minutes we were whisked away to the banks of a river.
I could hear the ocean roaring nearby and a pack of howler monkeys in the jungle behind us, but it was still too dark to see either attraction.
Rodríguez handed me my rod and a small red jig.
At that moment I noticed I was the only one of our team not wearing a life jacket.
As it turned out, we would be swimming across the mouth of a river – in the dark – to get to our “secret” fishing hole.
“Watch out for the crocodiles,” Rodríguez cautioned, before plunging into the dark river. I followed suit, fishing rod strapped to my back with duct tape.
The water was cold and high from the previous night’s downpour. I felt bottom at first, then lost it, and the current began to carry me downstream.
The nearness of the crashing ocean waves brought the morning’s gallo pinto to the back of my throat.
I kicked hard in the current, made it to the eroded bank on the other side and scurried up to the beach.
In minutes, the fishing club members had invaded the surf, the outlines of fishermen casting over the breakers silhouetted in the foamy waves all around me.
“Snook love this churned up water,” Rodríguez explained.
Fifteen of us fished for six hours and caught just one, small snook.
That afternoon, our team leaders decided this was no longer productive; besides that, a vicious downpour loomed and the river – the one we’d have to swim across to get back to our cars – had risen dramatically in just the past five minutes.
Rodríguez blew a whistle and everyone ran from the surf, graphite rods in hand, just as lightning began to crash down on the palms that lined the hillsides behind us.
We swam back across the river, hopped into the back of the truck and escaped to the safety of a flooding road.
Back in Sámara, the floodwaters drifted us into an oncoming bus. We regained control and swerved off just in time. The tournament was over.
At weigh-in that night, it appeared we weren’t the only ones who had caught little or nothing – only one other snook appeared, along with a long, skinny needlefish.
None of the fish caught made the minimum weight required, so the prize would be carried over until the next weekend, announced the leadership committee.
War stories started to circulate with the occasional Imperial and generous bowls of sopa de mariscos and ceviche. One man, Rudy Dodero, a fishing guide from Dominical, had survived a near-miss lightning strike. He’d found himself strewn on the beach, rod and tackle bag a few meters away.
“No idea what happened,” he said, shrugging his shoulders as if this kind of thing were normal.
Another had broken off a big fish, but never saw it. Everyone had gotten soaked, and most attributed the bad fishing to the floodwaters and heavy surf that had dirtied the water and made some of the better spots unfishable.
On the ride back home to San José, I had a much clearer idea of the fishing scene in Costa Rica, and what this column would be about.
I’d hitched a ride with Alfredo Arguedas, a cabinetmaker from Atenas, northwest of San José, who joined the club five years ago.
Before that, he told me, he’d never fished for fun before. Now he’s been all over the country, and knows the best spots in every province, from the OsaPeninsula on the southern Pacific coast to Parismina on the northeastern Caribbean.
He mentioned a favorite river near Jacó, in the central Pacific region, that regularly produces enormous snook, but only on a certain tide.
We stopped at the bridge over the TempisqueRiver, at the northernmost point of the Gulf of Nicoya, and despite the late hour and a wife waiting at home for him, he insisted we stop so he could show me the river.
We walked out onto the bridge. It smelled of salt. Two kids fished from the bank below the bridge.
Arguedas pointed north, far upriver to a patch of mangroves where he’d caught a large snook the year before.
“That’s what I like most about the club, and fishing. It let’s you get out to places in Costa Rica you wouldn’t normally see,” Arguedas said.
That, in so many words, is exactly what we hope to do with this column.
If you’d like to join the National Fishing Club,or would like more information about the club and its schedule of tournaments, visit www.clubpesca.com or contact Alexander Arias at firstname.lastname@example.org or 827-5630.