I caught a marlin and it was great, but the marlin totally hated it

Karl Kahler | May 18, 2017
A 200-pound marlin goes airborne in the Pacific Ocean off the Golfo Dulce as the author struggles to reel it in.

PUERTO JIMÉNEZ, Puntarenas — Forty miles south of the Golfo Dulce in the open Pacific Ocean, a 200-pound blue marlin was about to have the worst day of its life. And I was about to have one of my best.

Capt. Oscar Villalobos picked us up at Crocodile Bay at 6 a.m. with first mate Jesús and three friends, and we motored past Matapalo for an hour and a half until we got to “the Marlin Hole,” which Oscar said doesn’t have a name, which is why I just gave it one.

Captain Oscar Villalobos.
Captain Oscar Villalobos. Karl Kahler/The Tico Times
The bow of the Maestro as we head to sea.
The bow of the Maestro as we head to sea. Karl Kahler/The Tico Times

At first we tried trolling with big lures, then we jigged for some little tuna to use as bait. A nice fat yellowfin was seduced by our plan, and we unkindly returned it to the sea impaled on a hook.

Jesús hooks a small but feisty tuna that is about to become bait.
Jesús hooks a small but feisty tuna that is about to become bait. Karl Kahler/The Tico Times
Jesús unhooks a perfect bait fish.
Jesús unhooks a perfect bait fish. Karl Kahler/The Tico Times

The next fish to stumble into our trap was our 200-pound marlin. Oscar and Jesús saw the strike immediately and went into catch-a-fish overdrive, grabbing the rod, throttling down and reeling in all other lines.

Jesús, holding a rod that was jerking in his hands, signaled to me and I came forward. He handed me a rod that felt like a live anaconda being towed by a monster truck — very squirmy in my hands, and with a lot of power trying to pull it out of them.

I've got a live one!
I've got a live one! (Courtesy of Oscar Villalobos)

The fish was far from the boat, but I could feel its every move. It was fast and furious.

“It’s like catching a bull,” Oscar remarked later. “They are very aggressive, they are very dangerous fish and they’re super, super fast.”

Someone strapped a fighting belt on me and Jesús showed me how to anchor the rod.

“Pull up, and then reel as you go down,” Oscar said. “Reel fast.”

I pulled with all the power in my left arm until the rod was curved like a giant fishhook, then I lowered the tip and reeled.

“Reel fast!” said Oscar and Jesús. “Fast!”

Faster! Faster!
Faster! Faster! (Courtesy of Oscar Villalobos)

The one thing I didn’t expect about catching a marlin was that I had to catch it fast. I was using every muscle in my body to fight this monster. I was sweating, I was stumbling, I was wincing — and they wanted me to do all of this faster.

Suddenly my quarry showed himself, flying out of the water twisting and turning, trying to shake the hook. It was a spectacular jump, and I saw it, but I was so busy fighting the fish it barely registered on my consciousness. It was like seeing a double rainbow when you’re about to vomit.

I was hunched over like a gargoyle, and Jesús told me to stand up straight and use my arms. I tried that for a while, then I collapsed on a cooler to sit a spell. Jesús gave me a few seconds to rest and then said, “Stand up.”

I felt like Rocky Balboa — my opponent was pounding the hell out of me, and my trainer kept shouting at me to fight harder.

I believe Oscar helped by moving the boat closer to the fish — if the mountain will not come to Muhammad, then Muhammad will go to the mountain. The fish sometimes helped too by swimming toward us, but sometimes he swam in the opposite direction, dragging out a bunch of line I had just labored really hard to reel in.

But I kept pulling and reeling, and then pulling and reeling faster, and finally we could see our prey just under the water next to the boat.

Watch the video, courtesy of Michael Palazzo:


Our marlin.
Our marlin. (Courtesy of Michael Palazzo)

Under Costa Rican law, all marlin or sailfish caught by sportfishermen have to be released. This is done in the water beside the boat — no, you can’t pull the fish out of the water and hang it by its tail for a picture, or you’ll kill it.

Jesús bent down to try to free the marlin and it made a desperate last attempt at escape, but I had it on a pretty tight leash and all it could was swim to the other side of the boat. Jesús was finally able to let it go.

Jesús grabs the big fish by the bill and struggles to break off the hook.
Jesús grabs the big fish by the bill and struggles to break off the hook. (Courtesy of Michael Palazzo)

I was so exhausted I could barely lift the celebratory beer with my trembling left hand. I could hardly believe it when Oscar said the whole fight lasted only eight minutes.

I caught a marlin — what now?
I caught a marlin — what now? (Courtesy of Guiselle Vidal)

It occurred to me that if marlin knew they were going to be released, they would swim directly to the boat and bob in the water like a dolphin to have the hook removed. Speaking of which, I asked Oscar if fishermen didn’t sometimes accidentally hook dolphins, and he said, “They’re too smart.”

Next thing you know we had another big one hooked, and the rod was handed to Guiselle. When this happened I was on the roof of the boat perezeando, lazing on a white couch in the shade with the fifth food group, beer. But when I saw Guiselle dragooned into action, I pulled out my phone and started snapping pictures.

Guiselle springs into action.
Guiselle springs into action. Karl Kahler/The Tico Times
The fight is on.
The fight is on. Karl Kahler/The Tico Times

It turned out to be a 120-pound sailfish, which are smaller than marlin but still big, strong fighters. Guiselle did everything I did — staggered, sweated, cursed, pulled, reeled — but she finally asked someone else to take the rod. Michael Palazzo, 67, stepped in and finished the job in short order.


The fishing director

Todd Staley, fishing director at Crocodile Bay Resort, bought me a beer and explained to me the inshore and offshore fisheries here, saying the place was world-famous for sailfishing.

“There’s a quite detailed scientific reason that has to do with oxygen in the water,” he said, “but it’s the same population of sailfish that swim between Ecuador and Mexico. It’s all the same group of fish.

“And during the months of December through April, there’s three really strong winds that blow out of the Caribbean into the Pacific. … And what that does is it blows the surface water offshore, and the upwelling doesn’t have enough oxygen to support sailfish, so it moves the population of sailfish into pockets — one of them in Guatemala, another one in southern Mexico, and another one, fortunately for us, in central and southern Costa Rica.”

Guiselle, who refuses to use sunscreen because it feels "sticky," finds shelter from the sun.
Guiselle, who refuses to use sunscreen because it feels "sticky," finds shelter from the sun. Karl Kahler/The Tico Times

The marlin fishing is also excellent here, peaking in November to January, he said. Sailfish here average 80 to 100 pounds and marlin 200 to 400, with the big ones in the 500 to 600 range. Other top species are tuna, dorado (mahi-mahi) and occasionally wahoo.

This area is also justifiably famous for its inshore fishing, which means fishing anywhere in the Golfo Dulce to within about a mile out in the ocean.

“The cream of the crop would be your roosterfish, that would probably be the No. 1 inshore bucket list fish for the tourists,” Todd said. “And then there’s 10 or 12 different kinds of snappers, five or six different kinds of jacks. It just goes on and on, the possibilities inshore. It gets very, very deep fast here, so within a mile of the shore, you can be fishing for grouper in 3- or 400 feet of water.”

This gulf is remarkably deep, and it gets deeper the further in you go.

“The Golfo Dulce here, there’s a canyon that comes up the center of it from the ocean, it’s about 300 feet, then once it does a dogleg here at Puntarenitas out to Rincón, it’s like a big soup bowl, 5-, 6-, 700 feet of water. There’s a hole up near Rincón that goes to 900 feet. But what happens up there is, according to the scientists, there’s not enough water movement down below because of the soup-bowl effect that it’s not real quality water for deepwater species.”

Sailfish and marlin caught by sportfishermen have to be released by law in Costa Rica, but Crocodile Bay captains also release roosterfish.

“We release roosters because they’re a sporting fish,” he said, “and in the tourist fishing world, that fish is much more valuable in the water than it is on a plate.”

Oscar and Guiselle check the footlong lures, which didn't work today.
Oscar and Guiselle check the footlong lures, which didn't work today. Karl Kahler/The Tico Times

The old man of the sea

Back on the fishing boat, one of our compañeros was a hilarious 73-year-old Spaniard named Alberto who kept us entertained with a string of bawdy jokes. He said he held the record for biggest marlin caught on Oscar’s boat — 1,065 pounds, they estimated, though I don’t know how they estimated so precisely.

The captain, Oscar, confirmed that this behemoth took five hours to land, from 3 to 8 p.m., with three people taking turns, but the old man bore the brunt of this battle at sea.

“He drank 17 bottles of water and didn’t go to the bathroom once,” said Oscar.

On the phone a few days earlier, Oscar told me caught seven marlins the day before. “How many marlins do you want to catch?” he said. “That’s what I ask people now.”

Oscar’s 36-foot boat is called the Maestro, and in fact Oscar is well known locally as a master of his craft, not exactly a fish whisperer but a damn good hunter. I asked him what’s the most marlin he ever caught in one day in his boat.

“Twenty-nine,” he said. “With one guy fishing.”

“He must be like the Incredible Hulk,” I said.

“It’s all in the mind,” he replied.

“I think it’s a little bit in the arms too.”

Oscar charges $1,500 to $1,800 for a full day of fishing, depending on the distance traveled. He also does multi-day fishing trips on a bigger boat that can sleep six, traveling 100 miles to a spot where he says they catch an average of 10 to 20 marlin a day.

When Oscar dropped us off at Crocodile Bay, he said for the second time, by way of congratulations, “I’m telling you, 99 percent of all fishermen have never caught a marlin.”

Guiselle, Oscar and Karl at the Crocodile Bay pier at the end of the day.
Guiselle, Oscar and Karl at the Crocodile Bay pier at the end of the day. (Courtesy of Oscar Villalobos)

It sounded like a made-up statistic, but one that was probably 99 percent true.

I’ll take it.

In the morning I woke up with a pain in my left arm the size of Texas. The word “sore” doesn’t describe it, more like “megapain,” like I had lifted an entire continent yesterday with this arm and not just caught a fish.

And I bet the marlin woke up thinking, “Never, ever, ever eat at that place again!”

Want to go fishing? Contact Oscar Villalobos at 8817-2850, or visit http://www.lasislaslodge.com. Contact Karl Kahler at kkahler@ticotimes.net.


  1. i use to fish years ago before i thought about the consequences for the fish. was my pleasure that important to torment these incredible creatures just for my enjoyment? so i stopped fishing and decided to go diving and snorkeling to enjoy the underwater life of the ocean. what a pleasure that is without torturing them.
    fishing causes so much pain. imagine someone putting a hook in your steak, then it hooking into your cheek. someone you can’t see starts tugging as hard as they can on it for a several minutes to over an hour while you struggle to get away, using every muscle in your body to do so. why do we get so much enjoyment out of this so called “sport”? does it prove our manhood or our power over the animal kingdom or is it just to be able to tell a great story? i am not sure but hopefully some day we will treat all animals like our dogs and cats with compassion and respect.
    studies have shown the intelligence and pain receptors in fish are equal to many other animals, but we think it is ok to torment them for our fun. sometimes i don’t understand our species and we think we are more evolved then others?

    Comment by Henry Kantrowitz — May 18, 2017 @ 10:46 am

  2. I respect your position on this, Henry. There are some things in life I’m happy to do only once, and this may be one of them.

    Comment by Karl Kahler — May 18, 2017 @ 12:38 pm

  3. Henry….please get a job. You must have more important things to do than worrying about the feelings of a Marlin…

    Comment by Mike — May 18, 2017 @ 11:28 am

  4. I agree with Henry – treat all animals with respect whether you are going to eat them, or not.

    Comment by June — May 18, 2017 @ 12:30 pm

  5. Did the marlin tell you that it hated it or are you making that assumption? If the marlin charged the boat, jumped in the cockpit and speared you then jumped back into the water after throwing the hook would the assumption be the marlin loved it? Why are you and Marlin here on earth. Why don’t you get non-sticky sunscreen so Guiselle doesn’t get skin cancer?

    Comment by Mike — May 19, 2017 @ 8:42 am

  6. Mike, I just read a true story about a small white marlin that jumped into a boat in the Bahamas in 1992 and speared a fisherman named Bob Fitzgerald through the thigh. I bet that fish told this story to other fish for the rest of his life.

    Comment by Karl Kahler — May 20, 2017 @ 5:46 pm

  7. Henry, If you’re ever served a plastic steak with a hook in it don’t eat it.

    Comment by Mike — May 19, 2017 @ 8:47 am

  8. mike, you don’t seem to have it all together with your comments. they seem to be all over the place. i was not actually talking about the marlin’s feelings but the actual pain it receives from being caught with a hook. you obviously can’t distinguish between the two. although i could talk about that topic as well.
    actually i was curator of zoo ave, here in c.r. for several years. we rehabilitated hundreds of wild animals that were mistreated by people and then released back into the wild. i have worked on a number of other conservation projects in costa rica as well. i have been a rain forest guide for over 20 years and still am to some extent. it sounds like you may need to read up on animal consciousness, i have. as far as work i have done my time and now have more free time at hand. maybe you are projecting the shadow theory regarding me needing to work.

    Comment by Henry Kantrowitz — May 19, 2017 @ 5:09 pm

  9. Some friends and I visited Crocodile Bay a couple of years ago – the first deep-sea fishing expedition for all of us. It’s a great place, and the Golfo Dulce is a wonder.

    I must say, I was equally-conflicted by the prospect of “sport-fishing”. Suffice it to say, I’m not a hunter, so the whole “catch and release” thing bugs me. Still, I reeled in (and released) a 125-lb sailfish and some nice-sized roosters. As others have said, once in a lifetime, perhaps.

    We did take a boatload of tuna, though. At Crocodile Bay, you eat what you catch, and some of the finest meals of my life came here – we shared our tuna with other guests’ catches – wahoo, dorado, you name it.

    Comment by Tom Mergens — May 22, 2017 @ 12:42 pm

  10. thanks for sharing that tom. i often wonder why we humans put a value on one species much more then another. we consider it ok to kill millions of tuna a year but not sailfish and marlin. they are all animals that feel pain. as for the big picture we are over fishing tuna at an alarming rate. they play a very important role in our ecosystem but because they taste good we continue to destroy their populations. when you consider the rows upon rows of tuna for sale in super markets and mini supers you can see that this is not sustainable but we continue to allow it because we enjoy catching them and eating them. there large populations in the ocean are needed to keep a balance of the ecosystem. not sure why there is such a disconnect between importance of species, but there is.

    Comment by Henry Kantrowitz — May 23, 2017 @ 9:36 am

  11. Think of yourself being pulled by the roof of your mouth for any amount of time with a hook. Do you think they don’t feel any pain? Is this enjoyable? Do you think they are not going to be more susceptible to being harmed by other animals?
    Do you feel better now?

    Comment by Zaida — May 24, 2017 @ 12:49 pm

  12. Todd,
    Still at Crocodile Bay, that is great to hear. Went fishing there with my friend Brant from St. Thomas U.S.V.I. When they first opened, can’t wait to go back. Golfe Dulce is Costa Rica’s last little secret. See you soon Todd!

    Comment by miguel hastings — May 24, 2017 @ 7:43 pm

  13. the golfo dulce isn’t going to be a little secret much longer as they continue building the marina in golfito and expand it. the whole area will change to allow yahts over 300 ft long. once that starts happening and cruise ships start coming in the golfo dulce will become the golfo basura, but that’s progress.

    Comment by Henry Kantrowitz — May 25, 2017 @ 9:12 pm

  14. Henry…sorry about the GET A JOB COMMENT. You sound like your trying to make the world a better place. Just hard for me to understand why you’d focus on the feelings of a MARLIN. We have children that need an education…parents that need a job. A culture lacking VALUES. IMPORTANT ISSUES!
    The Marlin eats the Bonita because he’s hungry. I don’t blame or damm the Marlin. I happen to like Marlin Tacos. It’s really quite that simple.

    Comment by Mike — May 26, 2017 @ 12:30 pm

  15. thanks for your response mike. i feel i speak for those that don’t have a voice, animals. there are many organizations out there to help the needs you bring up. my purpose in life is to help those that can’t speak up, those in the animal world.
    marlins need to eat bonita to survive. we don’t need to even eat animals to survive. i have been a vegetarian for many years and healthier then most people my age. considering that there are 10,000 new people on the planet every hour, raising animals and over fishing our oceans is not sustainable.
    i have no problem with indigenous people in the rain forest or in the arctic eating animals because that is the only way they can get their protein and they do it sustainably.

    Comment by Henry Kantrowitz — May 29, 2017 @ 12:52 pm

  16. Good luck with that….I believe we can eat Steak and Lobster and be able to keep this beautiful planet of our beautiful…your underestimating our intelligence..

    Comment by Mike — May 29, 2017 @ 3:18 pm

  17. is that why when i first moved to costa rica lobster tails were close to 12 inches long served in restaurants? they have over hunted the lobsters so much that now it is hard to find one that is six inches long. the orice has increased significantly because there are fewer and fewer lobsters to catch. i do underestimate our intelligence when people, who don’t read scientific journals on the topic of sustainability and the environmental systems, think that they know more than the scientists. your beliefs don’t match the reality of what we are doing to the ecosystems of the planet. i would like to leave this planet beautiful for my grandson and other generations but we are squandering that notion because many are ignorant of the facts.

    Comment by Henry Kantrowitz — May 30, 2017 @ 10:57 am

  18. When I was in Vietnam over 50 years ago we could get our choice of a lobster with a tail almost a foot long and about 3-4 inches thick or a crab about a foot wide and cooked for you on the coast at Vung Tau for $1.00 (one dollar) each with fried potatoes. I returned about a year and a half ago and the Lobster was about 1/3 the size and cost between $30-$50 and the crabs were about 4-6 inches wide. I asked the Vietnamese what happened to all of the big lobster and crabs, and they said people caught all of them. I was disappointed about the prices and availability and did not eat any.

    Comment by Carlos Gene Grant — June 2, 2017 @ 10:04 pm

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