This may sound self-serving, but anyone can put together a trip in which the sole objective is to catch fish. It's a no-talent job. Child's play. Particularly if your destination is the bountiful waters in and around Costar Rica.
But to put together a fishing trip in which the fish are plentiful yet none longer than 14 inches is hooked; in which boats are deliberately rammed over fallen trees and engines break down; in which volcanoes spew fire and soot, and guides spew partially digested sandwiches; in which erudite fly-fishermen are reduced to tying flies that resemble bird and iguana droppings—to put together such a trip as this is surely a special gift, and one I humbly lay claim to.
I cannot truthfully say I anticipated these goings-on. When first planning a Costa Rican adventure last November, I envisioned 100-pound tarpon and sailfish leaping at the end of our fly lines. Costa Rica was, I had heard time and again, a fishing paradise. Within its boundaries and off its shores one could fish for dorado, roosterfish and wahoo in the Caribbean, for sailfish and marlin in the Pacific, for tarpon and snook in numerous estuaries, for trout in mountain streams and for exotic species like rainbow bass (guapote) and machaca in inland lakes and turbid lagoons. We had just seven days to sample the piscatorial opportunities, and I honestly felt the most difficult part would be deciding where to begin.
"How tough is it to catch a sailfish on a fly?" I asked Leigh (Perk) Perkins Jr., the president and CEO of Orvis, my fishing guru and a longtime friend.
"Not particularly tough if conditions are right." he said. Perk then described a trip he had taken to Panama a few years ago, in which four boats landed 27 sailfish on flies in four days. However, it was not a caster's game. The technique used was the classic bait and switch. A couple of mullets were trolled without hooks, and when a sailfish rose to the bait, slapping at it with its bill, the mullet was teased nearer and nearer the boat. Finally, the bait was jerked out of the water and a fly was cast in its place. "They'll hit any old hunk of feathers you throw out there," Perk said.
It is something less than a Herculean task to lure Perk on a fishing adventure, and before our conversation ended, he had signed on. In the course of the next few weeks we worked out a makeshift itinerary: We would depart on Jan. 1, after the rainy season, and spend two days flyfishing for sailfish in the Pacific; two more fishing for guapote and machaca on Lake Arenal, in the shadow of an active volcano; and then three days on a houseboat that would take us down the virtually unfished waters of the San Juan River, which serves as the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua.
Having snagged the best fly-fisherman I knew, I decided I should now land the luckiest. I called an old friend, Peter Seaman, a California screenwriter (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Doc Hollywood) who in earlier years was described by a guide in Key Largo, Fla., as "luckier than a dog with two tongues." That isn't an exact quote, but it's pretty close. Little did I know that fisherman's luck is a fickle companion, and it had long since fled Pete's side for parts unknown.
Rounding out our party was photographer Bill Eppridge and our driver-guide-translator, Dave Meyers. A native Texan, Meyers is one of an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 expatriates from the U.S. living in Costa Rica. He has been there since 1971 and is now manager of the Casa Mar fishing club. Colorfully gruff and candid, Meyers spent much of the three-hour drive from the San José airport to Quepos, a sailfish hotbed on the Pacific coast, regaling Perk with stories about Orvis rods that he had seen shatter on tarpon.
"I tell you, I've seen some of those babies ex-plode!" Meyers said.
"Come on," Perk said, disbelieving.