“In Costa Rica, the Los Suenos resort offers up a sea of dreams.
Jan 9, 2004
By William Boyce”
We headed out during our first day at Herradura Bay aboard the Dream II, a 32-foot Luhrs plugged with a bait tank full of live blue runners. Pinning these baits to 7/0 Eagle Claw circle hooks, we slow-trolled by the wash rocks a few hundred yards off the outer bay’s escarpment, a mesmerizing backdrop. Noting the dark, somewhat milky-green color of the water, Capt. Carlos Arguedas said that the fish here ran big but cautioned us that conditions were far from ideal. Just as I began thinking about how difficult it would be to wrest a big fish from the rocks, I felt my bait get very nervous. Bracing myself for a body-slamming strike, I fed out line.
But I felt only a soft pickup followed by a slow, deliberate run. The fish stopped, turned and fidgeted, then finally lit out on a sustained tear. “There it is!” I cried as I passed the rod to Adriana, another angler in our group, who subdued the 25-pound roosterfish with persistent pressure. We reeled up a few more cocky roosters. Meanwhile, another charter, fishing alongside us aboard a 25-foot Gamefisher diesel center console skippered by Capt. Eduardo Lizano, also put on a few good roosters. We decided to find some new grounds out of generous and selfish motives – to give Lizano some breathing room and to try some fresh, untouched structure.
Arguedas cruised a half-mile down the coast to a submerged rock pile he said held lots of cubera snapper, then eased off the throttles to slow-trolling speed. Earl Warren, senior vice president and general counsel of the new Los Sue-os resort, where the Dream II is based and where I was a guest on this trip, came tight with his circle hook on a 30-pound roosterfish. Adriana, meanwhile, hooked another fish, this one a 20-pound cubera. “Wow!” I wondered. “What if conditions today were average or better?”
After another roosterfish and a smaller snapper, Arguedas asked if we wanted to “really pull on something,” and mentioned a few pinnacles in the deeper waters just outside the bay. As he throttled up the boat, I paused for a sandwich break. But before I could sink my teeth into the minor masterpiece I’d created, we slowed to a crawl while Arguedas surveyed the structure he metered some 180 feet below.
“Get out the 50s and put on a lot of weight,” he said as he positioned us beside a fishy-looking tide rip above the rock pile he’d marked. Down went the sandwich, out came the stand-up guns, down went the baits. Before Warren’s runner hit bottom, a powerful adversary hammered it. Unprepared for battle, Warren lost. Next, I got smoked. A Penn 50 with a hammered drag and stout tuna stick proved no match for the beast tethered to the other end. Finally, Warren put the hurt on a respectable cubera snapper of about 40 pounds. But Arguedas wasn’t convinced that 40-pound snappers were the culprits taking us downtown. He suspected large broomtail grouper because he’d caught beefy specimens here up to 95 pounds. Many others he’d never weighed – they’d simply been unstoppable.
Having spent many of the past 20 years as a fisheries biologist on Central America’s productive waters, I’ve been impressed by the diversity, quality and quantity of fish found here. But I typically sampled Costa Rica’s awesome offshore fishery, rarely getting the chance to get in tight and pull on some rockers. And I can tell you that the nearshore fishery at Los Suenos, minutes from the harbor’s entrance, is just as awesome.
It all started with Bill Royster, the developer of Los Suenos (Spanish for “dreams”). Few of us make our dreams real, but Royster has had the persistence, expertise and clout to live his dream 10 years after first dropping anchor in the sandy substrate of Herradura Bay.
The Size and the Fury
During another afternoon, while I worked the rock pile with talented angler and good friend Dave Elm of AFTCO, we were rock-and-rolled by more mystery fish. We managed to stop only one – a girthy, 25-pound jack crevalle. Another large jack with a bad-ass reputation frequents these same inshore haunts – the mighty-muscled almaco jack, also known as the Pacific amberjack, which grows to nearly 100 pounds here. (The all-tackle record in the Pacific went 132.) These jumbo jacks also carry a well-earned reputation as great fighting fish. Those who come to the area for its outstanding blue-water fishing often overlook inshore fish of this size and fury.
Returning home late one afternoon after chasing sailfish all day, we came upon two charters working the rocky point at the entrance to Herradura Bay – Capt. Augie Misiak’s 36-foot Luna Sea and Capt. Tom Carton’s 37-foot Estrella del Mar. Both were hooked up, and I saw one fish clear the water like an acrobatic dorado. “What a nice dorado to be caught so close inshore,” I thought. But when they finally landed it, Capt. Carton radioed us that it was an 80-pound roosterfish.
The inshore bite runs year round. Water temperature stays pretty constant here, and the prime target fish aren’t known to migrate great distances. Inshore species in abundance besides roosterfish include the tasty corvina (a close relative to the white sea bass and weakfish), sierra mackerel and mullet snapper.
We didn’t target the large black Pacific snook because we never fished near any river mouths. This species, known to inhabit small deltas where the rain forests drain to the sea, is the snook family’s largest. The all-tackle, world-record snook (any species) of 57 pounds 12 ounces was landed down the coast a few miles in Quepos in August 1991. The locals prize them as food fish, and I’ve heard many stories of snook weighing 30 pounds and more.
Several large rivers feed the Golfo de Nicoya with large quantities of freshwater runoff. All this freshwater flow slightly decreases salinity within the Gulf, cooking up a productive brew at the bottom of the food chain – algae (phytoplankton) and tiny creatures (zooplankton). At times, these waters appear very green, which indicates active blooms, a life-sustaining soup for baitfish and shrimp. The resulting abundance of bait attracts pelagic game fish along the color breaks and structure contours offshore.
Weather plays a major role in blue-water fishing off much of Costa Rica, but Los Suenos enjoys a reprieve. It lacks the strong, seasonal Papagayo winds (named for the Golfo de Papagayo) that often plague fishermen to the north from December through April. The fishing fleets of Flamingo Bay, well north of Los Suenos (approximately 130 miles by sea), often have to move out during the windy Papagayo season to fish the sheltered waters of Punta Guinones, about 60 miles away. But these strong winds do not affect Los Suenos, and the hurricanes that can be a problem to the north from April to October typically move away from the central part of the country and pose no threat to Los Suenos. In short, weather factors seldom control fishing decisions at Los Suenos. In fact, only a handful of bad days each year keep boats from venturing offshore.
Good offshore grounds lie only 10 to 15 miles from Los Suenos, on the inner edge of the Herradura Bank, a plateau that extends another 10 miles out, with a few high spots of 20 fathoms on the chart. This bank, according to Costa Rica’s legendary Capt. Bubba Carter, is one of the fishiest structures in the entire country for bait and marlin.
The rich Furuno Bank lies about 40 miles away. Fishermen often find good numbers of marlin, primarily blues, off Cabo Blanco, a 30-mile run, and also pick up plenty of sailfish there. Anglers find many black marlin near offshore high spots like the Twin 26s and Furuno Bank, where small tunas congregate. The best seasons for marlin historically have been fall and winter, with blues and blacks usually showing up in September. Action picks up by November, with many fish raised through January and sometimes through March.
Striped marlin, less common than their larger brethren here, are found in these waters but appear in greater numbers at Cocos Island 320 miles away – too far for a typical run, although owners of the 180-foot Temptress Explorer may offer a multiday fishing-and-diving combo to the island in the spring. Anglers usually target blues with lures, although some tuna-tube-equipped boats can drop back live baits on raised fish. As elsewhere in the eastern Pacific, fishermen slow-troll live baits for blacks near offshore structure.
Anglers see sailfish year round, but sails peak at certain times. According to Capt. Jim Nix, December usually heralds their arrival in large numbers, and good sailfishing typically continues well into May. Peak season often occurs in March and April, says Lizano, and good numbers of sails sometimes can be raised through early August, subject to the vagaries of El Nino. When the feed’s there, the action can really turn on. A typical sailfish trip at Los Suenos in a good season involves a 10- to 15-mile run and the excitement of raising 20 to 50 sails a day. A slow day might bring five to 10 to the boat.
Don’t believe me? Then consider exhibit A: The private, 65-foot sport-fishing boat NuCo2 caught and released 1,162 sailfish in 80 days of fishing out of Los Suenos from January through April 2001. Larger than their Atlantic counterparts, Pacific sails weighing 120 pounds raise few eyebrows here. The average goes 80 or 90 pounds, with a true toad scaling the neighborhood of 150 pounds. Most captains troll rigged ballyhoo or pull teasers, using the tried-and-true bait-and-switch technique – trolling hookless, chugger-style marlin lures or squid daisy chains, then winding in the teasers when a fish is raised and pitching it a ballyhoo on a circle hook. The common use of circle hooks here demonstrates a commitment to protecting this fabulous fishery.
Autumn can produce great sailfish action when conditions turn on. A Los Suenos captain recently wrote me that one day last September his charter hooked 15 sails and caught and released 12 in just a few hours.
Look for yellowfin tuna accompanying spinner and spotted dolphin that come to these waters to dine and dash. Although you can encounter 15- to 30-pound schoolies all year, the tuna run all sizes and can get big here, commonly to 200 pounds and more. If you’re not geared up to handle these big bruisers, you may find yourself on the losing end of some burnt-out tackle. A common mistake is to troll through these schools with sailfish gear. Upon hooking a chunky yellowfin, most anglers suddenly wish they’d had the foresight to put out the 50s and two-speeds. Trolling feathers, Ilanders, Cedar Plugs and smaller Kona-heads or jets works well.
Don’t be surprised if the captain kicks up the speed a few knots to keep up with the school, because when dolphin are on the move, they can really move. And a churning wake often attracts tuna, which may come in very short and crush the lures closest to the stern. Once the fish have found your strike zone, it’s common for multiple hits to follow. To increase your chances for an afternoon sushi platter, have your captain or crew run a whisky or shotgun line down the middle a long way back. Tuna are notorious for grabbing such offerings. At times, the bigger yellowfin can be very picky eaters, and it can be maddening to watch them boil and jump on bait while your lures go untouched. Most local captains switch to live bait at this point. A spirited sardine, green jack or mackerel is hard for even a finicky fish to resist.
Dorado fishing never really wanes in these waters. Although they’re always present, their size may vary by season. The big dorado always seem to arrive around December and stay into May, according to Lizano. Anglers often catch several dorado per boat per day, with many weighing a husky 45 to 60 pounds. Big bulls think nothing of jumping on a large lure targeting blue marlin. During the rainy season in these tropical latitudes, lots of debris floats from the swollen rivers into the sea. Currents keep this flotsam close in, and dorado usually can be found hanging around it. Trolling the rip lines that collect these logs and debris provides a foolproof way of finding dorado. Once found, they’re not picky: Chrome jigs, soft plastics, live bait and even flies work. I like to cast Yo-Zuri poppers. It’s hard to beat the excitement of seeing a bull dolphin charge a skipping popper at full speed, maul it and take off on a sustained run that ends with a series of acrobatic leaps.
Wahoo roam local waters year round. The charter fleet rarely targets them, however, because these speedsters tend to travel alone or in small, roving packs. Nevertheless, local boats often pick them up incidentally on marlin lures. The ‘hoo, which range from 10-to 15-pound rats to full-length logs well over 60 pounds, stack up in numbers on the higher offshore banks. Trolling Rapalas, Yo-Zuri Bonitas or spinner-enhanced wahoo bombs (big, heavy trolling feathers with chrome, bullet-shaped heads and large, chrome spinners protruding from the hook) usually catches their keen eyes. Wire leaders are a must.
The bite for ‘hooies is most consistent, according to local captains, at the Twin 26s, where two pinnacles rise to within 100 feet of the ocean’s surface. A day there can bring close encounters with many species – marlin (especially blacks), sailfish, tuna, wahoo, dorado, grouper, cubera snapper, amberjack and jack crevalle – throughout the water column. Live-bait fishing the bank can yield an impressive mixed bag of fish.
Patience really becomes a virtue when live-baiting these wahoo. When they take a live bait, they typically scissor it in half first. Most anglers react too quickly, setting the hook as soon as they feel the pickup. Instead, fishermen should let the bait sit and slowly sink with slack in the line. The ‘hoo usually circle back to pick up the second bite. That’s the time to set the hook.
Ten years ago, many skeptics would have thought it unimaginable that Bill Royster could have brought to reality his dream of carving out a world-class resort from a jungle-edged rancho along Herradura Bay. They underestimated not only the power of dreams, but also of hard work and persistence. Now anglers can make their own dreams a reality at a resort on a level with the world’s top marinas, in the heart of some of the world’s finest, most diversified ocean fisheries.
Inventing the Dream
During the recession of the early ’90s, while on a six-month leave from work as a developer in Southern California, Bill Royster headed to the bountiful waters south of the border on his 82-foot Baratucci sport-fisherman. Fishing and touring the Pacific Coast of Mexico left him yearning to discover what lay beyond in Guatemala, Costa Rica and Panama. After reaching the Gulf of Panama, he turned back north and came upon a Costa Rican bay – totally undeveloped, as was much of the country’s coast in those years. This secluded spot north of Quepos and south of Cabo Blanco, then nothing but a seaside rancho, immediately struck him as the “place dreams are made of.” (It didn’t hurt that he had just battled a black marlin of about 700 pounds right outside the bay.) He decided to create a “real destination,” including a marina, first-class hotel, condominiums and bay-view homesites, and facilities for golf, tennis and diving, all within the confines of a parklike setting. Most important, it would lie within striking distance of some of the world’s best fishing. “I truly wanted to design and produce one of the top resorts in the world, period,” Royster says, “by taking on a worthy challenge and turning it into a legacy.”
Turning a 1,100-acre cattle ranch into Los Suenos Marriott Beach and Golf Resort began three years ago. Royster and his associates have sunk more than $150 million into the project while confining development to about 450 acres, including a world-class golf course designed by Ted Robinson Jr. In partnership with the Costa Rican government, Marriott International has built an exclusive resort hotel complete with beachfront sports, several exquisite restaurants, tennis courts, a gorgeous sprawling pool complex, waterfalls, ice cream parlors and bakeries. A full-service marina offers ample quantities of reliable fuel and first-rate dock facilities for nearly 250 boats, accommodating vessels up to 150 feet.
As a fishing resort, Los Suenos enjoys the distinction of being the closest to Costa Rica’s International Airport in San Jose, a 90-minute, scenic drive away. (The trip is scheduled to become even shorter – less than an hour – once new highway bridges are completed in early 2003 – and shorter still when a new highway is constructed by 2004.) This quick access can translate into an extra day of fishing. If you visit Los Suenos, you can make it to the resort the day you arrive, rather than staying a night in San Jose before embarking on a three- to five-hour drive. (Charter flights are available from San Jose’s airport to many resorts, of course, although at Los Suenos you could use your savings on a plane ticket to rent a car for a week. Having wheels can greatly increase your exploring opportunities and make it easier to haul fishing gear.)
Rental cars available at San Jose’s airport cost $50 to $75 a day. If you rent a car, take Highway 1 West toward the Puntarenas area, then 27 South, connecting to 34 South, and you’ll see the resort entrance. It’s very well marked. If you don’t want to drive yourself, a van taxi at the airport can take you to the resort for about $60 to $75.
Consider scheduling a few days for sightseeing. The nearest town, the seaside tourist enclave of Jaci, boasts 86 restaurants, several hotels, a shopping district with many vendors, and lively discos. You can find everything from great seafood to great pizza in Jaci, at about $10 per person for dinner. (American dollars are readily accepted, in addition to the local currency, the colon.)
You’d probably need a month just to begin exploring the interesting places within 30 minutes of Los Suenos. At the resort, sample the world-class golf course while you listen to monkeys jabber nearby. Try tennis at the Marriott, or take a dip in its spectacular pool. You can surf the Pacific’s rollers, or catch some reef and point breaks along the outer reaches of the bay and the surrounding area. Totally awesome, dude (or dudette)!
Personal watercraft and ocean kayaks are available for rent on the beach. Don’t miss the parasailing tour of Herradura Bay and the amazing vistas it provides – a truly magical adventure. When you get back down to earth, hike or jog along the nature trails cut deep into the 600-plus acres of tropical rain forest that Bill Royster has had the insight to preserve.
Many other attractions beckon. National parks such as Carara offer rain forests, where birds and wildlife are varied and abundant. Jungle river tours along the Tarcoles River, its estuary and delta will put you close to large river crocodiles and nesting sites of the scarlet macaw. Take a drive into Rainmaker Park, where you’ll feel like Indiana Jones as you cross a high, suspended ladder-bridge over a rushing river. Horseback-riding tours can take you to some breathtaking cascading waterfalls. For the coastal rain forest experience, Manuel Antonio National Park offers mangrove swamps, coral reefs and two stunning sandy beaches. The park is home to an impressive array of mammals, including squirrel monkeys, three-toed sloths and the rabbitlike agouti.
The Temptress Explorer fleet, owned and operated by the same company that created the very popular Aggressor fleet working in many of the finest dive areas in the world, offers great cruising accommodations and all dive gear for four- to six-day trips to many of the small, secluded bays of Costa Rica’s southern coast. The whole family can be entertained in this safe and friendly country – it’s a destination where fishermen can feed their addiction without feeling guilty about dragging the wife and kids to some isolated fish camp with nothing to do but fish.