Zancudo – Mixed Species Mecca

As I sit here at Hotel La Mariposa overlooking the Pacific watching a storm roll in I find myself reflecting on the past week. My latest adventure started seven days earlier, when I departed the UK for a quick pit stop at our office in the US to say hi to the team and have various meetings. After spending two days there, myself and Anthony from our US Marketing Department departed for Costa Rica where we would be visiting Zancudo Lodge and the guys from Flamingo Bay in Quepos, where the billfish World Championship was taking place.

We met at Pittsburgh Airport at 6am for our flight to Atlanta. From there we would be flying to San Jose, Costa Rica. This route was taken so I could fit in the visit to the US while I was on the other side of the pond. Normally from the UK you can take a British Airways flight direct to San Jose from Gatwick on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The direct flight time is 10 hours.

Having not visited the US for a while I found travelling through the airports to be an enlightening experience, everyone was so friendly and wanted to talk, except for the TSA agents who were somewhat miserable in their demeanour. Our flight from Pittsburgh to Atlanta was slightly delayed but apart from that the journey went without a hitch. Once we cleared immigration and collected our bags, we were met by Francisco who was our transfer driver. It turns out we were about to take the shortest transfer in history. The Sansa terminal is located a three minute walk from the main building. Given the humid heat we certainly did appreciate the assistance with our bags which were over-flowing with fishing and photographic equipment. Sansa luggage policy states “1 piece with maximum weight of 30 lbs/14 kg”. My main bag tipped the scales at 47lbs with my two hand luggage bags adding another 20lbs, fortunately they were small and didn’t attract much attention. The Sansa team appeared to be fairly flexible with the overweight luggage charging $1 per pound we were overweight. This does, of course, depend on the flight you are on; we had one spare seat which might have been one of the deciding factors. If your luggage is overweight and they can’t get it on the plane, they will withhold it and get it on the next possible flight, so please consider this when packing.

My fishing gear on this trip was pretty simple. Two rods; a twelve weight and a ten weight, both Sage Motives. One saltwater reel for each rod, each loaded with a suitable line, I used a Rio GT for the 12 and a Rio Permit for the ten. If you are going to target roosters and sailfish with your fly rods you will need to have solid drags as they are both strong and powerful fish which will melt the drags on any unsuitable reel. In terms of the leader/tippets I took 75lb Mono and 20lbs fluro which should have you covered for most situations. For flies I took a selection of various colours and sizes of clousers, crease flies in blue and silver and some sailfish flies in pink. Outside the kit mentioned above I tried to keep it fairly simple except for my clothing. As we were just off the equator saltwater UV protective clothing is a must as the midday sun is brutal, I even went as far as to wear a pair of zip off trousers!

Our Sansa flight took off 45 minutes late. This appeared to be caused by Diego, our pilot of Spanish decent who appeared to be more interested in grooming his hair than departing on time. The reason for this quickly became apparent when his co-pilot arrived who was a rather fetching Costa Rican senorita! Before long we were cruising through the clouds in our Cesena caravan en-route to Golfito. The flight time of 55 minutes whistled by as mother nature put on a stunning cloudscape for us which was lit up by the setting sun. Coming into land at Golfito is rather an interesting affair, you basically fly directly towards a mountain before the pilot makes a sharp turn and drops you onto the hidden runway nestled in the rainforest. Unloading the plane was done in a quick and timely fashion and before long we were being driven the 10-minute drive through the small town of Golfito to Banana Bay Marina for the final leg of the journey to Zancudo Lodge. At the Marina we were met by Tito who would be our captain for the next two days of fishing. With all of our luggage safely stowed on board Tito navigated us out of the channel and across the bay to Zancudo. The journey to the lodge from the marina takes twenty minutes, it is normally a very calm stretch of water and you can enjoy the sights of the vast rainforest that covers most of Costa Rica.

We were met at the marina by Greg and Goldine who are the owner/managers of Zancudo Lodge. Greg is originally from San Francisco and Goldine is originally from Hong Kong. Following the sale of Goldine’s business they purchased Zancudo some twelve years ago. They now spend their time between the lodge and San Francisco. Once the introductions were out of the way we headed up to the lodge which is a three-minute walk from the marina through the gardens which supply the lodge with fresh fruit and vegetables. The gardens are awash with tropical trees that Greg has collected over the years, which makes for a bright and vibrant scene.

The lodge is broken down into five main buildings, the first and arguably the most important, houses the gamefishers restaurant and bar. This is the main social area of the lodge where guys congregate for meals and evening drinks. As well as the bar and dining area there is plenty of seating areas which are under shade and make the perfect place to relax and watch the world go by. There is also a pizza oven and outdoor kitchen where the team will sometimes prepare your meals depending on what is on the menu. Located next to this building is the main accommodation wing. This building houses the standard rooms which are 350 sqft rooms, each room has two king sized beds and a en-suite bathroom. The rooms are clean and comfortable and come with all the amenities you would expect like coffee machines and a safe. Across the saltwater swimming pool there are the suites of which there are 4. The junior suites are 450 sqft and have a private veranda for some added privacy. The 2 master suites are 1,200 sqft and come with their own living room and private veranda/balconeys.

On arrival at the lodge Goldine normally likes to sit clients down and give them a brief introduction chat about the lodge and the timings for your stay but we arrived late so we skipped the briefing and headed straight for supper. Suppers at Zancudo generally revolve around fresh delicious seafood, and this evening did not disappoint. We were to be treated to a delicious salad combined with some fresh snapper caught by one of the guests. As we ate Goldine outlined the plan of action for the next few days of our stay. We had three days of fishing so the aim was to do two days off-shore and one day inshore. The 2016/7 season has been difficult in Costa Rica; due to a mini El Niño the water temperature is 2 degrees higher than normal, the result of this is the sailfish have not come down the coast in their normal migratory pattern. We should have been right in the middle of the peak season which runs from February through to April. The good news for us was the marlin bite was on and the lodge had caught 36 marlin in the last 7 days from just 2-3 boats. With supper over and having spent the last 2 out of 3 days travelling, and with an early rise of 5am on the cards, I turned in for the evening.

It felt like I had only been asleep for a few minutes before there was a knock on my door and it was time to rise. Breakfast was a fairly speedy affair of scrambled egg and bacon, as I wanted to get to work with the camera. At 6am we were on the dock with Tito loading our kit onto the Contender getting ready to depart. Zancudo has two different types of boat that each come with their own price tag. They have the normal centre console boats which are better for those on a tighter budget, but they are slower and not as comfortable as the Contenders. The Contenders are a different beast, with their twin 300 hp engines they are designed to get you to and from the fishing as quickly as possible. Greg and his team have added some bean bags to the back of the boat which make the journey out and back much more comfortable for their guests. With all of our kit stowed we settled into the bean bags as Tito opened the throttle and we were on our way.

The lodge has two main spots for their offshore fishing. The first is 53 nm from the lodge and the other is a further 20 nm on from that. In the Contenders the journey time is approximately one hour fifteen minutes. What makes these spots is, in both cases, there are underwater mountains that rise up from the sea bed to only 30 feet below the surface. This structure is home to hundreds of thousands of bait fish, in this instance they are benito and juvenile yellow fin tuna. The sailfish and marlin flock here for this fruitful bounty.

We pulled up at the spot to find two other boats from different lodges out but that is not an issue as the area is easily large enough for 4-5 boats. It became clear we had arrived at just the right moment, one of the other boats was already into a marlin that was putting on a hell of a show for us. Not long after that I saw a couple of sailfish break the surface and this was before the guys had even got a bait on the water. Once the rods were rigged it did not take long for us to get in on the action. Tito tossed out a dead bait and almost before it hit the water a sailfish struck. On the run over Anthony and myself had agreed he would step up first. He took the rod from Tito and spent the next 6 minutes taming our first and only Costa Rican sailfish. As mentioned previously, this year has been very difficult fishing and we were somewhat lucky to get that fish. In a normal year boats will regularly land 8 – 10 sails in a day but this year they were looking at 2-3 a week. Despite Greg’s warning we were rather enthusiastic as we had a fish on the boat in 5 minutes and had seen others, maybe something had changed. The minutes turned to hours though, and it became clear that things had not changed…we had just been very lucky. Through the morning the other bit of excitement was a mahi-mahi hitting the baits but sadly as hard as we tried we could not get the hook to set. Before long it was time for lunch which was your typical fly fishers fare of a sandwich, some fruit, biscuits and a packet of crisps. After lunch I had a brief stint of trying to fly my drone off the boat. This proved to be a disaster, contenders have highly sophisticated electronics systems and I think something caused interference with the on-board compass. When I told the drone to take off it had a mind of its own and thankfully it hit the centre console before falling onto the deck of the boat, rather than flying off into the ocean. I had one other attempt to get it airborne and that resulted in the same. After that I decided it was time to put the drone away for the day and concede defeat.

The hours drifted by and it appeared the billfish had also drifted away. The last few days of travel started to catch up with me and my eyes started to droop, before long I was nodding contentedly. I woke with a start to Tito shouting “marlin, marlin!” A marlin had hit one of the centre lines and it was screaming off the reel. Tito gave me the rod to hold while he and the mate stripped in the teasers. At this point the drag was not set so I was just holding the rod horizontally watching the line go. Once the guys had all the other lines in they put the fighting belt around my waist and it was time to start the hard work. With the rod set in the belt Tito started to tighten the drag. Almost instantly the fish reacted and breached the surface in a series of dramatic jumps, leaps and tail dances. The fight had started, lift, drop and reel, lift, drop and reel. It did not take long before my muscles were starting to burn. To set the scene I am 5 foot 8 with about 160 lbs of middle age flab with a smidgen of muscle. I was fighting a 300lb blue marlin that was solid muscle that is often described as the F1 car of the ocean. After 15-minutes Tito declared I had felt the pain and he would make it easier for me by adding the shoulder straps to my fighting setup! Thanks Tito! The shoulder straps certainly helped, it enabled me to let go of the rod and give my arms a break. The fight lasted for about 35 minutes from start to finish. During that time I think I sweated a pint and by the end of it my muscles where shaking. We grabbed a few photos then it was time to release the beast down back to the deep. As his tail powered him away from us the clock struck 3.30, the end of the fishing. With that we turned for home and ran back to the lodge.

The second day saw us return to the same place, when we arrived it was immediately evident that something had changed. Yesterday we could see pods of baitfish moving across the surface constantly. Today when we arrived the surface was like glass and there was no sign of bait at all. This did not look promising. As we had caught the sail and the marlin on the previous day we decided to press on with trying to catch a sailfish on a fly. The guys set up the teasers and I rigged my 12 weight. The setup was simple, if a marlin came up the guys would toss out a dead bait and Anthony would take the fight, if a sail came the fight would be mine. 10 minutes in and a marlin came, the dead bait went out the teasers came in and the whole process started again. Anthony had his fish in the boat in 30 minutes, Tito was nicer to Ant and gave him the full setup from the start. The fishing Gods were not smiling on us that day, in fact I think they must have been laughing. The sun was merciless and the wind was non-existent and to make matters worse the only other boat out that day landed 4 fish to our 1, including a double hookup on marlin. The end of the day’s fishing came to close and we returned to the lodge for a few drinks, supper and an early night.

The next day saw us up early once again and onto one of the centre console boats for our day of inshore fishing. Unfortunately the conditions had changed overnight and a big swell had come in which would make the day more challenging than under normal conditions. We headed across the bay with Cleo, the inshore captain. We pulled up at a large rock about 200 meters of the coast. Cleo assured us this was where the large rooster fish like to hang out and he was not wrong. Within 5 minutes I was into a monster rooster that fought like a Spartan warrior at the battle of Thermopylae. We managed to tame him and get him on board the boat for a quick photo, he was an estimated 60lbs. Not long after we had released him, we noticed a school of jack on the surface. With my ten weight in my hand I tried and tried to get one to take the clouser but they were just not playing ball. We headed down the coast looking for some roosters that we could try and tempt in with the teasers. Due to the conditions we had to take the same approach as fishing for sailfish, getting closer to the beach was not an option for safety reasons. It did not take long before we had 5-6 roosters on our teasers. Cleo pulled them in and I made the cast. My crease fly landed in the same spot as the teaser as he lifted it out. The roosters were onto the fly straight away. As I stripped the fly in, one shot forward out of the pack and inhaled the fly, fish on. This fish, while smaller, put on a much better aerial display than the larger one, but inevitably his fate was sealed.

At the end of three days fishing we had caught sailfish, marlin, tuna, bonito and rooster fish in far from ideal conditions, but that is what Zancudo is about. If you want to fish for a mixed bag of species, then this is a great lodge. Zancudo also caters exceptionally well for non-fishing partners. They have a wide range of activities that will suit most people, these include National Park Hikes, Surfing, SUPing (Stand Up Paddle boarding), Horseback riding, wildlife sanctuaries and for the more adventurous zip-lining.

Thank you to Greg and Goldine for hosting us and if you are interested in visiting Zancudo I will be hosting a group out there from the 14th to 19th of April 2018, this will be an ideal trip for couples or individuals.

The next stop was Quepos where the billfish world championships was entering its final day. To highlight the point I made earlier about the difficult conditions this year the stats for the last two years competition are as follows:

1,495 sailfish
12 blue marlin
1 black marlin
1 striped marlin

202 sailfish
49 blue marlin
2 black marlin
1 striped marlin

At Quepos we unfortunately did not have a chance to fish as all of the Flamingo bay boats where being used in the competition, but we had a good look around this beautiful town and some of the hotels that our clients like to use on their visits. We work with a superb on-site organisers and can arrange wonderful tailor-made fishing and non-fishing itineraries from Quepos.

For those that are looking to travel to Costa Rica the best period is from February to April. As a recently married fisherman Costa Rica is now on my destination list to bring Mrs Scrope. There is so much to see and do for non-fishers particulary for those that interested in flora and fauna, Costa Rica covers 0.03% of the earths land mass but has 6% of the the world’s bio diversity, which is pretty incredible.

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