Chasing Freshwater Machaca In The Coastal Rivers of Costa Rica
October 27, 2017
Nothing beats bumming around foreign countries looking for adventure. When the folks at Howler Brothers invited me to Costa Rica for some fishing, surfing, and drinking I cleared my schedule. That's how I ended up in Manuel Antonio National Park—where there are more monkeys than people—for a week of fishing on Costa Rica's west coast. Funny money, local beer, beachside fires, good company, and language barriers make for good stories.
You can't hit that part of the world as fly fisher and not chase roosterfish. Notoriously challenging and strange to look at (they look a little like a Dr. Seuss character) roosterfish make you work for it. While I've managed over the years to land a few small ones, I'm still looking for "the man."
In Costa Rica, roosterfish are offshore, which means you can only get at them with a boat, using the classic bait-and-switch technique. We used live sardinas as teasers to bring fish to within casting range, and tried to get them to turn off the live bait and switch their attention to our ball of feathers.
The mate becomes critical when the fish elevates in the water and lights up on the teasers. He finesses the teaser rod as fast as possible to keep the roosterfish engaged, and then comes the moment of truth. When the fish gets within casting range, the mate yanks the teaser from the water, and you try to land the fly right in front of an eager mouth. When it all goes well it's a beautiful exchange. More often, it's a chaotic dance on tangled line with confusing Spanglish instructions shouted from the captain. Fly line possesses a magical ability to wrap itself around any- and everything at the most inopportune times, and the fish can either simply become uninterested, or steal the free meal from the mate before you get a chance to present your fly. It makes for challenging but fun fishing.
We trolled the edge of the breaking waves, keeping one eye on the sardinas, and one eye looking out for slightly larger waves that might roll in. We kept two sardinas in the water at all times, one close (within casting range) skipping on the surface, the other free-swimming 150 feet behind the boat.
The roosters often came in hot, their combs cutting through the surface while they tracked their prey. They often rushed the fly, but then turned away at exactly the moment you thought you had the deal sealed. We even tried having one angler false cast continually, so he could drop the fly quickly without any false casting. This led to a few eats, but we still couldn't get connected. A couple of "trout sets" combined with some bad luck meant the only fish we got to touch were the ones that ate the teaser bait so aggressively that they hooked themselves on the size 10 Sabiki hook we had through the nose. Tough fishing, but a solid reminder of why I need to spend more time chasing these things.
Making it Look Easy
After our saltwater adventure, we hit the town for fish tacos and Imperial, the local cerveza. One of the best parts of traveling is sampling the local culinary scene. We aren't talking fancy restaurants here, but the taco stands on the street where the locals hang out. We practiced our Spanish, worked on some intel, and planned the next leg of our adventure.
We decided the next day to hit the local break and catch a few waves. I don't fancy myself a surfer, and I didn't grow up with it, but I've always thought I would enjoy it. A couple years ago I took a week of surf lessons, and can paddle a longboard well enough to stand up on the kiddie waves. Many places I've fished also have excellent surfing—French Polynesia, Nicaragua, Panama, Costa Rica—and when it's too windy for fishing, the surfing is often excellent. It's a complementary addiction.
I managed to catch a few breaks, and I even shared a wave with a nice roosterfish that I would have loved to cast at the day before. Sitting on the beach, I watched in awe as experienced surfers danced up and down their boards, spinning in circles and hanging ten.
Being a great surfer implies a commitment of time and thus a passion—those are the people I seek to surround myself with. It makes for better adventures and an examined life.
Fly casting is similar—nothing beats watching a master Spey caster's fluid, smooth, and effortless movements. It's the guys who make it look easy who are most impressive. The surfers on their long boards were the same way. It pushes me to improve. Not just the surfing, but all of it.
Costa Rica also has mountain freshwater rivers with snappers, mojarras, and other freshwater-tolerant species, but we were looking for snook and machaca. River snook in pure mountain water sounded intriguing, and machaca were completely unknown to me before this trip. These silvery fish are omnivores, and eat flower petals and other plant matter in addition to bugs and small baitfish. High-volume action with a hyper-acrobatic fish sounded right up my alley after a tough day of roosterfishing.
We launched rafts with oar frames into a river that could have been in Montana if it weren't for coconut trees, wild bananas, and howler monkeys. We even used 5-weight rods rigged with floating lines and heavy black streamers. The river was stunning, and rapid elevation drops meant some legitimate whitewater bordered by steep cliffs and waterfalls.
Our guide was a South African from Montana who runs an eco-resort called Rafiki Safari Lodge (rafikisafari.com). Carlo Boshoff has carved out a home and a business in a cool corner of the jungle, and has spent years refining his tactics for machaca. His strongest advice was that machaca love the "plop" when food hits the water. He encouraged us to make the fly hit the water with some noise to attract the predators, not dissimilar from the technique for pacu.
It was a beautiful float, but fishing proved challenging. My hope for a high-volume day didn't pan out, but my partner Alvin Dedeaux from Austin, Texas, managed to land a freshwater river snook, and I did check a machaca off my list. As promised, it was a beautiful fish that crushed the fly and got airborne in a hurry.
Despite the slow day, I saw enough to realize I want to get back there when the fishing is hot. Twenty to forty fish days are common, and Boshoff told me snook up to 40 inches come up the river to chase shad. He hasn't figured out how to get them to eat flies, but that's right up my alley.
Most adventures are full of hero shots and glory, this one was full of tough fishing and good times. People and friends make the world go round and I'm a happier and better person getting out there and playing in the world, even when you have to work for a fish or two on a trip.
Oliver White is a partner in two fishing lodges in the Bahamas, Abaco Lodge and Bair's Lodge in South Andros. He travels extensively, hosting small groups in exotic locations and guiding in the American West. He cofounded IndiFly (indifly.org)—a nonprofit that works to help indigenous people use sport fishing as a method of conservation.