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Battling a Strange Beauty off the Coast of Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a sport-fishing paradise full of worthy prey, but on a recent adventure, the roosterfish stole the show.

At first, we didn’t notice the quivering tip of the rod, but when the reel began to buzz we leapt to our feet as if electrified by the bright clicking sound of line being dragged into the blue. I was closest to the rod, so I took it from the holder and struck a wide stance. As the line sung off the reel, I fought the urge to react, holding the rod expectantly, my thumb poised over the reel brake. One one thousand, two one thousand. I watched as the bluish line danced back and forth across the spool. Three one thousand, four one thousand. I pressed my toes down onto the Strike‘s fiberglass deck. Five one thousand, six one thousand. I dug the butt of the rod into the soft pocket of my left hip joint and gripped the rod tightly with my left hand. Seven one thousand. “Now!” shouted the captain.

I jammed my thumb onto the reel brake. The line stiffened and the tip of the rod curled toward the water. My arms strained against the sudden, thick weight on the line. I moved toward the stern of the boat and then leaned back slightly, pulling the rod toward my chest. Suddenly, the rod relaxed and straightened, the line went light and loose.

“Damn. Fish off.”

This is fishing along the western shore of Costa Rica: long stints of mind-numbing quiet punctuated by moments of chaos and frenzy.

Costa Rica is a dream destination for an impressive array of tourist attractions, but one stands out among the rest. Sport fishing makes up roughly half of the country’s tourism economy and sustains nearly 100,000 jobs annually. Anglers come from all over the world to fish for the marlin, swordfish, sailfish and yellowfin tuna, which are plentiful year-round. The financial might of this growing industry has already eclipsed that of commercial fisheries and comprises more than two percent of the total annual GDP, just shy of $100 million a year.

The roosterfish is stunning to the eye, as I would come to learn, a favorite catch among saltwater sport fisherman.

In the small ports that dot the Pacific coast, these jobs are invaluable. Positions as a mate, crewman or a captain are limited and the requisite skills take years to develop. According to a 2014 report, more than 30 percent of rural households subsist below the poverty line, and in Puerto Jiménez, life feels especially linked to the sea. Boats and small skiffs dot the shoreline expectantly. Little houses line the road to the ocean, the shade palms broken only by the occasional power line. Life is simple, but essentially tough, tethered to an industry that ebbs and flows and hinges on the interest of foreign anglers.

Entering this world, I found a trove of fishing lore. Captains retold stories of 1,000-pound billfish and fights that lasted whole afternoons. The walls of the Crocodile Bay Resort, our base camp in Puerto Jiménez, were lined with photographs of anglers and giant healthy fish of all species. But among the seasoned fishers, there was one fish that stood out from the rest as Costa Rica’s prize catch.

The Gear We Used on the Water

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Columbia’s Professional Fishing Gear is designed to perform whether you’re out on the open water being blasted by the sun or hiking through the woods in a cold rain. Built specifically for anglers, PFG ensures the only thing you’re worried about is the trophy fish on the end of your line. Here are our four favorite pieces from fishing in Costa Rica.

PFG Blood and Guts II Short: $45

PFG Zero Rules Long Sleeve Shirt: $45

PFG Bahama II Long Sleeve Shirt: $53

Freezer Zero Neck Gaiter: $20+

The roosterfish is stunning to the eye and, as I would come to learn, a favorite catch among saltwater sport fisherman. Its silvery blue body is strapped with dark stripes that begin slightly ahead of the gills and run down and away from the dorsal line to the sharp crescent tail. The feathery dorsal fin, after which the fish is named, is comprised of a series of flexible spines that rise 10 or 12 inches above the fish and taper to a fine and slightly curled finish.

Though the roosterfish’s habitat stretches from Baja California to Peru, Costa Rica is one of a handful of locations in the world where they can be found regularly. The waters off the western coast have been known to cultivate roosterfish of just over five feet and weigh up to 110 pounds, but most adults measure somewhere between two to three feet and weigh an average of 20 to 25 pounds. In the water, roosters are incredibly strong, and while they tend not to surface or jump the way sport pelagic fish like marlin or swordfish do, they are true fighters that will rip line off a reel with ease when you least expect it.

Fishing for roosters is actually relatively easy. As a freshwater fly fisherman used to the labor-intensive process of stalking and casting for trout, I found it refreshing to let the boat and the bait do the work. We’d cruise along the tropical coastline, four thick rods anchored in holders at the stern of the boat, each with an offering of live bait trolling 15 or 20 meters into our wake. As we trolled, the mate would busy himself with readying bait or casting a large surface lure to bring fish in toward the boat. Occasionally, we would hook a snapper or a bonito and the mate would expertly gut and fillet it in preparation for our dinner. Beyond, mountains coated with thick jungle plunged downward toward the water, strips of deserted white sand held the lapping water at bay. Rustic bungalows peeked from the green like the heads of worried birds.

The fight was jagged and spasmodic and knots of adrenaline began to tie themselves in my throat.

A few hours into the first day I hooked a rooster. We were trolling near a rocky outcropping referred to by the captains as “The Ear” when one of the starboard rods began to sing. I was closest to the rod and with a nod from a few of the other fisherman I snatched it up. The urge to set the hook was all but unbearable. I watched the reel, the line fizzing into the ocean. Seconds passed like days. Finally, I locked the drag. The pole doubled over and the full force of the fish was on me instantly. I slid across the wet deck and had to drive my knees into the fiberglass of the stern to steady myself.

The fight was jagged and spasmodic and knots of adrenaline began to tie themselves in my throat. I worked the fish — pulling back on the rod, then leaning toward the water and taking up line — and the fish worked me. One moment he felt like a cinderblock, the next some sort of muscle-bound rocket. Even feet from the boat, the rooster made strong runs for deeper water, stripping line effortlessly. My fellow fishermen were as excited as I and shouted with excitement. The mate, a wiry young man no older than 20, coached me through the fight and danced across the deck, clearing other lines and gear that would have interrupted the battle. Once it was close enough, the mate scooped the fish from the water in a single motion and handed it to me.

There was something primal in this fish’s fight that managed to capture part of Costa Rica itself. For a moment I forgot the sport’s statistics, the dollar signs, the tidy percentages of annual GDP. I thought of Puerto Jimémez, and of a way of life that reflects hardship, unpredictability and the fickle but beautiful nature of the sea.

The roosterfish’s powerful body worked against my grasp. There was a moment of stillness, a quick photograph, and then he was back in the water, gone.

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