May, 2017

Costa Rica’s Peak Billfish Season

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In a dozen years of working in Costa Rica’s sport fishing industry one of the questions I have fielded the most is “when is the best time of year to fish for sailfish and marlin?“  While we catch billfish twelve months a year here, anyone with brain bigger than a dorado’s will tell you that Costa Rica’s peak billfish season is December through April.  Those five months also happen to coincide perfectly with the North American winter and Costa Rica’s dry season weather, or summer, so for many anglers the questions stop there. Peak billfish season plus dry season weather minus a week of the North American winter = what’s not to love?

Don’t feel bad if you are among the 98% of anglers who over simplify things and assume that Costa Rica’s peak billfish slows down due to the rains we experience in our green season months of May through November, the real answer is much more complicated than that.  Many anglers are already familiar with the adage that ‘the fish don’t care if it rains, they are wet anyway‘, so if it’s not the start of rainy season that ends Costa Rica’s peak billfish season then what is it?  The answer is a complex equation of not one but two major ocean currents, North American weather patterns, geography – both on land and underwater, water temps, and perhaps most important of all – oxygen levels in the coastal waters.

The warm coastal waters off Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast are generally in the range of 80-87 degrees Fahrenheit and are not inherently conducive for pelagic game fish like marlin, sailfish, tuna and dorado due to the low oxygen count.  Central America, and Costa Rica in particular, is the benefactor of being located at the confluence of two major ocean currents: the California Current in the north and the famous Humboldt Current, or Peru Current, in the south.  These two surface currents bring in much needed cooler water to the Pacific Coastline of Central America that is full of both oxygen and rich nutrients which in turn creates, and sustains, an incredible amount of marine life.  The range of the Pacific sailfish is from Baja California to Ecuador, and it is believed to be one single population of sailfish that lives in these same oxygen and bait-rich waters.

There is good reason why famous marinas like the Los Suenos Marina and Marina Pez Vela in Quepos were built where they were built, why major billfish tournaments are held in the same spot the same month year after year, and why few places on Earth can hold a candle to the phenomenal billfish numbers Costa Rica reports every year.  The other natural phenomenon occurring during the peak billfish season is that strong winds from the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean blow from east to west during the months of Dec through April all across Central America.  This is in part due the North American winter pushing colder air south into the Gulf as well as the famous trade winds blowing across the Atlantic.  Here in Costa Rica they are known as the “Christmas Winds”, due to the time of year they make their annual return, or the “Papagayo Winds”, named after the Gulf of Papagayo in northwest Costa Rica.  Just as the oxygen-rich water make their way to Costa Rica by the two aforementioned currents they are in turn blown back offshore by these strong winds, which are just behind death and taxes in terms of inevitability.  When the winds blow the oxygen rich water away from the coast it creates an upwelling for the oxygen-depleted water to return, thus making the sailfish leave in search of water in which they can survive.

Over the past four months we’ve taken screen shots from one of our favorite websites in the whole world wide web, Windytv.com.  Below are four images, one from each month from January 2017 to April 2017, to help you visualize this phenomenon.  You can see the actual wind speed in the spot where our mouse was at the time the screen shot was taken, ranging from 18 mph to 26 mph.

January 7, 2017

February 12, 2017

March 2, 2017

April 7, 2017

All is not lost however because just as Mother Nature influences fishing with ocean currents and surface winds, our favorite grade school subject of geography weighs in on the matter.  Central America is of course part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, and throughout it’s violent natural history of shifting tectonic plates it has seen it’s share of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.  Over the course of thousands of years they have formed massive mountain ranges in Costa Rica like the Tilaran, Central, Guanacaste and Talamanca which serve as bouncers checking the strong winds at the door.  Meanwhile in northern Costa Rica the wind is able to howl across Lake Nicaragua into the entire Guanacaste region as there are no mountains to impede it’s natural path.  As explained above, when these winds howl from land out to sea they take the oxygen-rich water with it and force the sailfish to congregate in water in which they, and their prey, can survive.  Therefore when we experience days of 10-20-30+ sailfish bites in the peak season it is not so much that the waters of Costa Rica are abundantly full of sailfish but more-so that the fish are so condensed into certain habitable zones that billfishing hot spots are created.  Once these winds die down in May the sailfish population has more water to thrive in and more room to spread out.  The winds die right around the start of Costa Rica’s green season, or rainy season, which leads people to think that the rain slows down the bite where in reality the fish are still here they just have more room to roam and are harder to find in peak season-like hordes on any given day.

The three most popular destinations to billfish during Costa Rica’s peak season are the Los Suenos Resort & Marina, Quepos/Manuel Antonio, and the Osa Peninsula.  All are located in the Central & Southern Pacific regions of Costa Rica, and it should be no surprise looking at the WindyTV maps above that these are all in areas protected from from the winds.  To put it another way, they are all located in one of the sailfish-dense zones which spans from the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica to Coiba Island, Panama.  As much as the above ground geography has a role in creating that angler and billfish-friendly environment, there’s a lot going on under the surface that comes into play.  Looking at the Google Earth image of Costa Rica below you can see that the continental shelf lies no more than 18-22 miles off the coast from each of these locations.  The continental shelf often times serves as the start of the offshore fishing grounds as it’s there where the nutrient rich upwelling occurs and the food chain begins.  It’s here where you’ll find the main prey that attract and hold so many billfish like bonito, flying fish, squid, and small dorado and tuna for the bigger marlin lurking around.  As that relates to sport fishing in Costa Rica, a typical run to the fishing grounds is a mere 45-60 minutes away which tournament-hardened anglers and novice, day-tripping tourists alike appreciate.  Once lines are in the water most days feature 1-3 ft seas, which is why boats as small as 26′ have no problem putting up big billfish numbers offshore in the peak season.

With nearly a 780-mile long Pacific Coastline and over 300 beaches, and just about as many hotels to match, it can be very hard to know where to stay for your next Costa Rica fishing vacation.  Many people love the idea of an all inclusive resort, but if your goal is to experience Costa Rica’s world class billfishing in peak season book one at your own peril as they are all located in northern Costa Rica where the winds will surely be waiting for you.  Brave the winds and try not to turn green when the sea gets choppy in the afternoon, it will likely be wasted effort as the sailfish and marlin simply won’t be residing in that oxygen-depleted water anyway.  Don’t believe us?  Ask Marlin University where and why they schedule their week in Costa Rica.  Ask the Offshore World Championship why they’ve scheduled their tournament every April for the past five years in Quepos. See why some of the best boats in Central America compete in the three-leg Los Suenos Triple Crown every January, February, March.  Or, go ahead and book your all inclusive resort in northern Costa Rica and find yourself a day charter – just don’t say that we didn’t warn you.