San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Humiliation at the hands of handliners

I have to admit that the first time I saw a guy fishing with a handline, my first thought was, “There’s a guy who doesn’t have the means to buy a fishing outfit.”

Over time, through being both completely amazed and completely humiliated, I have changed my opinion. Today I consider handline fishing a true art form.

Handline spools come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The very basic is about 50 yards of line wrapped around a 16-ounce water bottle. Others consist of a hand-carved piece of wood with the spool about the size of a beer can and, below that, a thinner handle whittled on one end. And then there is the classic “Cuban yo-yo,” which is a roughly 6-inch plastic ring that can be bought almost anywhere for less than $2 and will hold 100 yards or so of 50-pound test monofilament line.

No matter the personal choice, anyone proficient with a handline can cast as far, retrieve a lure as fast, and catch a fish as big as someone holding a $500 fishing outfit in his hand.

My first experience with “handliners” came during the calba run at the delta where the San Juan and Colorado rivers meet. Calba are a smaller species of snook that average between 3 and 8 pounds. I was anchored in the middle of the river throwing a jig with a bait-casting reel I had invested several hundred dollars to own. Out of a nearby creek came two young boys who appeared to be brothers. They were in a homemade dugout canoe that their father had probably carved from a tree trunk, and were struggling against a strong current to move upriver. They finally reached a spot near where I was fishing and threw out an anchor that was actually an old crankshaft from some motor.

The boys took out a couple of handlines and started casting homemade jigs as far as I was doing with my casting rig. And they were catching fish – about four or five calba each for every one I caught. I will never forget the smiles on their faces as they made sure I noticed every fish that went in their boat. After a while I was so humiliated that I pulled anchor, took my expensive toys and went home.

On the same stretch of river, a few years later, one of my guides, Windell, told a tourist with whom he was fishing that as a kid he used to catch tarpon on a handline. The customer told him he would pay $100 to see that. Windell quickly took the line of his reel and wound it around a drink can. To make a long story short, the tourist went home with a story to tell his fishing buddies for the rest of his life, and Windell with a crisp Benjamin in his pocket.

I once took the editor of Field and Stream magazine snook fishing in southwestern Costa Rica’s Golfo Dulce. We worked the most pristine and perfect-looking mangrove shoreline under a baking sun while the no-see-ums were having a let’s-eat-some-Gringos party. We didn’t raise a fish all day. As we were returning to the public pier, we saw a handline spool get jerked off the dock and shoot a rooster tail in the air, spinning in the water as line screamed off of it. The owner of the spool jumped in our boat, picked the spool out of the water and landed a 22-pound snook. The editor and I just looked at each other; finally, I broke the silence and said, “Well at least we didn’t get skunked.”

Cristóbal, our hotel gardener who fished off the beach every day after work, constantly pressured me to take him fishing in a boat. I finally conceded and gave him a spinning rod to use. He fumbled with it for a while. Then he mumbled something in Spanish that I can’t repeat here, put the rod down in disgust and pulled a yo-yo out of his backpack. A short time later, he was hooked up with line racing off the spool, using the palm of his hand as a drag system. He would gain line and the fish would take off again in another lightning run. For 45 minutes I watched this tug of war in pure amazement, until at last he landed a 55-pound roosterfish.

This column has generated many emails to me from people telling me they are traveling to a certain part of the country and asking where is the best place to shore-fish. Here’s my advice: No matter what coastal town you are in, look for handline fishermen. They are fishing for food for their families more than for sport, so they fish in places proven to hold fish. Watch them. If they are fishing a lure, note the speed of retrieve and type of lure. If they are using bait, see what kind.

There are very few secret spots or secret baits in their world. You will find they will gladly share information, and you don’t have to speak perfect Spanish to communicate; you just might find out they speak a little English. Show them your tackle box and they will let you know what works best in that area. If you leave them a couple of lures when you’re finished, you will probably make their day.

Just remember: The more expensive your fishing outfit is, the more you will be humbled.



The Caribbean is still red-hot with action centered between Barra del Colorado and Tortuguero. Huge schools of tarpon are working the waters between the two river mouths, and boats from Barra are headed south and vice versa to get in on the action. The fish are hitting both jigs and sardines.

Guilmer Brown

Eleven-year-old Guilmer Brown plays tug-of-war with an 180-pound tarpon on the Caribbean coast. Courtesy of proud father Capt. Eddie Brown.

Eleven-year-old Guilmer Brown landed and released a monster 180-pound tarpon, much to the dismay of his mother. She was afraid the fish was too big for him and he might get sunstroke, but he wouldn’t have any part of giving up – the son of legendary tarpon fisherman Eddie Brown had something to prove to his father.

Down south on the Pacific side, the green water kept billfishing to a minimum, and a mysterious oil slick in the ocean didn’t help matters. There was a patch of blue water just a mile offshore, between Matapalo and Carate, and it yielded some very nice wahoo up to 60 pounds.

The news is much the same on the central Pacific coast between Quepos and Los Sueños. The fish have been slow to cooperate.

Up north, the fish seemed to have moved into the Guanacaste area right in time. Mark Sydney checked in with the following report: “The billfish seem to have moved up to the North Pacific. Fishing 18 miles due west of the new Papagayo Marina, the 35-foot Fish Tale II with Capt. Rick Morrow raised 25 sails and released 13. The next day Capt. Luis Ruiz brought the 42-foot Plautus to the same spot, and his guys came home well satisfied after a 15-5 day, perhaps not as spectacular as the day before, but definitely not to be sneezed at.”

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