I’ve been booking fishing vacations to Central America for a dozen years now, and like any job there is a certain amount of repetition involved.  Making phone calls each morning, responding to emails, building itineraries, and of course answering our clients’ questions about their upcoming fishing vacation.  As you might expect nearly everyone asks about the weather and when the best fishing season is, but one question I hear quite a bit is “Can I bring any fish home with me?

The answer is undoubtedly ‘YES.’  Yes, you are allowed to bring fish back with you from your fishing vacation to Costa Rica, Panama, or Belize.  Before you start dreaming of filling your freezer with tropical game fish however you need to know which species are protected and which fish are legal to become table fare.  In Costa Rica and Panama, all billfish (marlin and sailfish) are strictly catch-and-release and are protected by law.  In 2008 Belize became the first country in the world to pass a law that makes all bonefish, permit, and tarpon strictly catch and release species.  In addition to the legally protected species there are several others that are released by most captains for the purpose of conservation and the survival of a prized game fish.  In Costa Rica and Panama these would be roosterfish and tarpon for their incredible fighting ability and in recent years there has been a big push to release all cubera snapper due to their notoriously slow reproduction cycle.

cubera snapper Panama

Try to release prized game fish like cubera snapper who have slow reproduction rates.

OK so you’ve booked your fishing package to Central America, got on a plane, caught your meat fish, now what?  I’m sure the question of “can I bring fish home with me?” is as much a question of legality as it is logistics. So first things first, is it actually legal to bring the frozen fillets back into the US?  Yes.  US Customs and Border Patrol does require you to declare that you are bringing food/meat into the country, but they have no problem with you bringing back fish for personal use as long as it’s not an endangered species (duh!).   At the point of entry they’ll ask where you were, how long you where there, and what items you declared. Once again just tell them you were on a fishing trip to Central America and you are bringing back frozen fillets and most of them will simply wish you a safe journey home (I’ve had some agents ask me about the trip, how much it was, when’s the best time to go).

Now you know it’s legal to bring fish back, but how does it physically travel thousands of miles from Central America to your kitchen?  To be sure the infrastructure of Alaska and Central America is about as different as their climates, so unfortunately there is no option to put them on dry ice or smoke them and ship them back to your front door in a tidy UPS box.  Fear not, you’ll get that fresh fish back to your kitchen and on your plate the old fashioned way – bringing it back yourself.

Dorado Fishing Panama

One for dinner and one for the cooler!

The best way to way to do this is to have your fillets frozen solid before your flight home.  Depending on your accommodations you may have a fully furnished kitchen with your own freezer, but if not your hotel will be glad to put your catch in theirs for you.  Next you’ll need a small plastic cooler, which you can either bring down with you or buy here at a local store for $10-$20.  I’d highly recommend a plastic cooler over styrofoam because they’ll keep ice longer and more importantly they can handle more banging & jostling while in flight.  Have you ever seen the way those baggage handlers toss luggage around??  When it’s time to go simply collect your frozen fillets, wrap them in newspaper, and fit as many as you can into your cooler(s).  Leave a little bit of room for extra ice and you, and your catch, will be good to go for at least 12 hours.

How do I know this?  Just like the fishing vacations I book for my guests, I’ve done it many times myself from both Costa Rica and Panama.  My family still lives in Wisconsin, where I grew up, so many times in the past decade I’ve flown home with a bounty of fresh fish to share with them.  My travels would entail arriving at the airport a few hours before my flight, a 2.5-3 hour flight to Houston/Dallas/Miami/Atlanta, a 2-3 hour layover, another 3 hour flight to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, and then a 2 hour drive to my parent’s house in Wisconsin.  Every single time I’ve done it my fish has been frozen solid without a hint that they were beginning to dethaw much less go bad on me.  I most recently brought home tuna and dorado all the way to my lake cabin in northern Wisconsin after my Panama fishing vacation in May.

Fresh fish from Panama

Fenix & Hector inspecting my latest fresh fish haul from Panama.

The real decision is whether you bring it with you as a carry-on or check it.  I’ve tried them both and there are pros & cons to each method.  If you bring it as a carry-on you are able to check in on it, you can add fresh ice at the airport or by asking your flight attendant nicely, and you always know where it is.  The big bonus of bringing fish as a carry-on is it won’t count against your weight limit on your checked luggage, so if you end up slaying the tuna or dorado and are worried about airline fees for going over 50 lbs then bringing it as a carry-on is a good way around that.  The cons to bringing your frozen fish with you as a carry-on is that you’ll need to go through the security check points with it, it’s another thing to carry (remember you can only have one carry-on and a personal item), and you’ll be checking on it like it was a newborn baby that couldn’t possibly survive without you.  I’ve never had an issue bringing frozen fish though TSA security, although I’d say it’s 99% likely they’ll pull you aside and ask what it is.  In my experience once I tell them I’m coming back from a fishing vacation to Costa Rica or Panama and it’s frozen fish I caught the security agents actually get nicer, ask what you caught, and wish you safe travels.  They ARE human after all!  That said, they certainly have a lot to deal with every day and aren’t always in the greatest of moods so it’s always a risk one of the agents could get tough and tell you they won’t allow it (even though it’s legal).

When I bring fish back I prefer to put it in my checked luggage.  This way I don’t have to carry it, don’t have to bring it though TSA security (just because you never know!), and it stays even colder in the cargo hold.  The cargo hold of most planes stays around 40-50 degrees F so if you ever noticed that your luggage is cold when you receive it at baggage claim this is why.  The way I see it the cooler the temps the better for my precious fish fillets.  The bulk head area where pets travel is kept much warmer at 60-70 degrees F – I’ve traveled with my loyal chocolate lab & boxer Hector & Fenix as well!  The cons to this method is that you don’t have your eyes on the fish while you travel so if baggage handlers get too nosey they might relieve you of the frozen delicacies (not common, but it happens!) or if your cooler somehow opens you might have a lot of clothes that are wet and smell a bit fishy.  You can certainly get packaging tape and tape the cooler shut, and in a pinch you can even put a belt around it (I’ve done that too!).

Fresh tuna sashimi

I assure you this fresh tuna sashimi was not caught on this lake in Northern Wisconsin…

Like all conservation-minded anglers we love catch and release fishing as much as the next person, but certainly one of the joys of sport fishing is providing for yourself and being able to cook your catch.  If you catch table fare on your next fishing vacation to Central America I always recommend having the hotel or a local restaurant cook it for you one night because few things beat fresh fish cooked with local flavor, but should you have enough to bring back with you by all means please do!