Trout Fishing in Costa Rica? September 02 2015 1 Comment
Trout in Costa Rica? Isn’t Costa Rica located near the equator, and known for it’s tropical rainforests and beaches? Yes and yes. However there is a robust population of ‘Tico Trout’ inhabiting some of the high mountain streams. So when my friend David Johnston, an American running a manufacturing operation outside of San Jose called me up and stated a 2 weight Drifter Covert might just be the perfect tool for pursuing these jungle trout, I told him I’d hand deliver it.
Stories vary as to how a population of Rainbow Trout came to be located in Costa Rica. As one version goes, back in the 1950s and 60s, US Military stationed in Panama (who happened to be fly fishing enthusiasts) brought in eggs and minnow stock via airplane for introduction into the high altitude lakes and streams to create a sport fishing experience similar to what they enjoyed at home. Eventually, these fish grew into a self sustaining population and migrated up-stream into Costa Rica. Another story, is that the Costa Rican government stocked these streams at the bequest of locals, in need of a protein source in the narrow valleys where there is little room for grazing and maintaining livestock. Whatever the initial source, it is generally agreed that Kamloops Rainbows and Mount Shasta Rainbows are amongst the fish that were imported. Today, the hybrid strain known locally as ‘Tico Trout’ maintain a healthy, self-sustaining population in a handful of rivers and streams.
We journeyed bright and early one morning from the outskirts of San Jose towards the Rio Savegre. After about an hour of fighting traffic through congested city streets the landscape turns rural, and the road begins it’s non-stop corkscrew of twists and hairpin turns ascending into a cloud forest. This part of the drive is an experience in itself, tempting fate to pass 18 wheelers on a 2 lane mountain road, with only a short line-of-sight to the next corner, beyond which the next Costa Rican Mario Andretti may be barreling down. At the same time, the meaning of a ‘cloud forest’ becomes apparent, as clouds literally form right before your eyes and the tropical vegetation begins to assert itself.
The Rio Savegre is located in a region named San Gerardo de Dota, and if not for the Spanish language on the road signs, you’d think you were driving through the Trout country of Southwest Montana. Images depicting Rainbow Trout and signs for ‘Trucha’ are literally everywhere. The Rio Savegre is a crystal clear spring fed stream that starts near 9000 feet in elevation. Turning off the main road and down the steep dirt grade towards the valley floor, you descend roughly 2000 feet of elevation in 5 miles. Over the last mile or so the pitch levels out a bit, and the valley floor is dominated by Eco-Lodges catering not so much to fishermen, as to bird watchers. Apparently San Gerardo de Dota is a bird-watching mecca, with tourists traveling across the globe for a chance to see the rare ‘Quetzal’ – a greenish-blue tropical looking creature with a red belly, a mohawk on it’s head, and a long tail, the length of which is roughly double the height of its body. Many of the eco-lodges have established their own fish hatcheries, utilizing the cool water of the Savegre to feed their pools, offering stick and dough-ball style fishing out of the ponds to their guests, and featuring pink fleshed trout as a primary menu item.
We parked streamside at the road’s end, and at a glance the fishy potential for the Rio Savegre was apparent. The stream is a lazy cascade of gin clear water, full of pockets and naturally defined pools that vary from two to ten feet deep. On average, the river is anywhere from twenty to thirty feet wide. It’s mostly fishable from the banks and hoping from boulder to boulder, though a full armamentarium of short roll casts and off-shoulder throws is a must given the dense jungle growth and narrow confines. The trout population is astounding, as you can see schools of them holding in typical feeding lanes through each pool. Most are small – 6 to 10 inches, but on this day we caught a few twelve-inch trout, and I’m told sixteen-inch fish are not unheard of. Ultimately though, we didn’t come trout fishing in Costa Rica looking to catch a trophy, we came for the experience of stalking trout in a truly unique environment.
The jungle setting creates as serene and peaceful a fishing spot as I’ve ever found. Lush green foliage is everywhere, with a tall canopy overhead. There is no wind, comfortably mild temperatures, and no sound other than the flow of the river and the chirping of birds originating from high overhead, and echoing off the bedrock and hillsides. The riverside trail creates several miles of stream access, and is well established thanks to the bird watchers and occasional tour via horseback. While we saw signs of other fishermen (one or two broken off lines in the overhanging brush), we didn’t actually see another fisherman all morning long.
Morning by the way, is without question the time to go. Rainy season occurs here about nine months out of the year, and while I’m told during this season the rain can come at any time of day, in the afternoon it seems to happen almost routinely. As you might expect, I had to learn this the hard way.
The day started out majestically: Sunshine, blue sky, and wispy clouds skirting the summits of the highest green mountaintops surrounding the valley. Based on my on-line research, I brought a small sampling of mostly attractor style bugs. Being a dry fly enthusiast, I started out with a single fly setup consisting of a little rubber legged Stimulator. Looked like a jungle bug to me. The fish instantly took interest, but after a couple looks on each cast and a few ‘false strikes’ I added a dropper. A size variation on the dry might have helped, but as my fly selection was limited and could see fish feeding sub-surface, I figured dropper was the way to go. Attractors are the formula when nymphing as well – anything with a bead head gives depth and also serves as means for attraction. Red and copper seemed to be the preferred colors on this day.
Unfortunately the dry fly action never did heat up that morning, but the dry-dropper setup served perfectly for detecting the incredibly subtle strikes. Tico Trout proved to be nimble and quick! While we each caught our fair share of fish – somewhere in the teens, mostly little guys; we probably had 50 missed hook-ups and fish lost during the fight. With so many fish in the water competing for food and lack of pressure from fishermen, these fish were eager to take and weren’t shy of a human body standing on the bank. Sometimes it seemed as though they were staring right at you, completely unafraid. These little Ticos did put up a surprisingly strong fight, and on light tackle were a heck of a lot of fun to play to the riverbank.
I’m told the dry fly action can be very good during the dry season, and I did see a couple fish rise here and there during the morning we spent on the river. When I go back (how can I not go back?), I think I’ll take some smaller flies. Maybe some baetis patterns or midges - I’m told there are no ‘hatches’ per say on the Sevegre – at least not the type of hatches we’re used to at home. But natural bug life abounds, and it seemed as though the fish were keying in on pretty small insects both above surface and below.
Over the course of the morning clouds filled in, until around 1:00 as we were working our way back upstream, David glanced through the canopy to assess the gray tint of the sky, and announced that rain was near. Of course this was about the same time that we discovered what I’d call the fishiest hole of the day. It was brilliant pool situated just below a section we’d hit up earlier that morning, and while there was no obvious path to reach the bank, the water looked deep, and was moving at a very fish-friendly pace. We identified an over-boulder scramble that would get us into casting position.
Upon reaching the water, I could see a generous drop-off and narrowing in the stream, just above the deep (couldn’t see the bottom) 25 foot wide pool, creating the equivalent of all you can eat buffet line for Tico Trout. There were a couple dozen fish lined up just in the fast moving water at the head of the pool, with additional fish holding through the mid section and into the tail end above the next rapid. Not only that, but these were by far the largest Trout I’d seen all day. First cast, my Royal Wulff vanished below surface indicating a take on the nymph below. I reacted aggressively to set, as the feeling of a hearty tug turned quickly into dangling 7x tippet from the end of my rod. I stepped aside so David could take over my position, and he proceeded to pull a twelve-inch fish out as I re-tied my rig, and a few raindrops started to fall. ‘Yep, rain’s coming.’ David announced. ‘Want to head back to the car?’ My reply was of the typical one more cast variety – ‘I don’t know, there’s some big fish in this hole. You’ve got to let me pull one out of here’.
Now keep in mind, I live in Colorado. The rain we get here never lasts long, and is pretty manageable if you have a decent Gore-Tex jacket to throw on – which we both did this day in Costa Rica. But what happened as I finished up my final knot was not like anything I have experienced in Colorado. Suddenly, the rain came straight down as if issued from the heavens via a giant fire hose. Within seconds, anything not wrapped in Gore-Tex was soaked through and saturated. Our gin clear trout stream quickly turned the color of chocolate milk, with little ‘feeder streams’ popping up everywhere on what had once been dirt hillside or hiking path. Clearly, our fishing day was over.
We wrapped up the day with a short 5 minute drive up the dirt road, and stopped at one of the local restaurants overlooking the valley. The rain cleared, and we were treated to a view of clouds dancing around the peaks of the lush green hills, while tropical birds with colors representing a full spectrum of greens, yellows, and reds fed on the leftover rice laid out on the feeder. The traditional Costa Rican lunch with ‘Trucha’ as the entrée could not be beat. The hearty pink fillets were seasoned to perfection, and complemented with rice, beans, and grilled home-grown veggies. Throw a little Costa Rican Lizano on top for a touch of spice, and not a bad way to end the day.
When I think back upon the fly fishing experiences I’ve had in my lifetime, this one ranks right up there at the top. We didn’t catch the biggest fish – not even close. But the sheer numbers of fish in the river and their eagerness to take sure made for non-stop action. Not that catching these Tico trout is easy - We certainly had more misses than we did landed fish on this day. But the beauty of the river, the surrounding rainforest, and the challenge of fooling these fish with feathers all came together to make for an incredibly unique and enjoyable day on the river.
Ultimately, if a big hoss of a fish and a fight is what you’re after, Costa Rica can deliver that too. I’m told the Tarpon fishing can be excellent, and it’s not unthinkable to go from mountain trout stream to saltwater skiff in two hours time. Already thinking about next time….