Our Costa Rican fishing experience

Fishing in Costa Rica

fishing boat in the channel

Parker likes to go fishing. So, one of the activities we made sure to work into our trip there last February was, of course, fishing. Just outside of Cabuya, there is a place on the shore, right by Isla Cabuya, where all the fishermen have their boats. There’s also a small shack for cleaning their daily catch. There is no pier, no boardwalk. Just a collection of small boats, the shack, and some opportunistic birds hanging around. We wanted a real, authentic experience. So, one afternoon, we dropped by to see if anyone might take us out the next day.  The local fishermen pointed Carrie, unable to speak Spanish, in the direction of the nearest English-speaking person there. We made arrangements to meet up at 8am the next morning.

Going Fishing!

It was already hot. No clouds in the sky, just pure sun. Our guides pushed the small fishing boat into the channel used during low tide. The small motor started; we made our way out into the Gulf of Nicoya. We didn’t need to go far. Peering over the edge of the rusty old boat, I could see all the way down to the sand below, probably 30 feet through the turquoise water. Our expert fisherman on board stopped the motor, got out a cutting board and knife, and chopped up some fish to use as bait. Then, he showed us how to bait our hooks.

Ticos fish with something called a “hand line”, as does most of the world. This was something new we learned. A hand line is a simple and compact alternative to the fishing poles many of us in the US are more accustomed to. Really genius, I thought. So much easier to grab and take with you. A hand line consists of a small, round, spool-like piece that the fishing line gets wrapped around. To use, bait your hook, then lower it into the water. You allow the hand line to spin on your hand until the bait reaches the desired depth. Hold the hand line with one hand, in my case my left, and the fishing line taut with your other hand, feeling for a bite.

We were fishing for Snapper. Red Snapper, to be exact, and in no time, our fishing expert was pulling in fish after fish after fish. Most of the rest of us were not quite at expert status yet. Looking over the edge of the boat, I could see that the water was teeming with fish! None of them seemed to care for my technique, though. I felt only a few bites before I was overcome with seasickness and had to stop for the rest of the trip. Parker got a few bites and a few close calls, and was finally able to bring in a fish of his own! Carrie and Reese fared the best. They were able to catch 3! Finally, everyone hot, sweaty, me seasick and Carrie well on her way, we decided we had caught plenty.

Fishing shack

While Carrie ran to the nearest grocery store to buy some fish-frying supplies, our English-speaking guide kindly offered to clean all of our fish for us. Parker, not deterred by blood and fish guts, offered to help while Reese and I sat at a safe distance on a rock. Carrie returned a little while later with olive oil, salt, and a small bag of limes. Our guide unearthed a huge cast iron pan from somewhere. Carrie took it down to the water, scrubbing it clean using sand and salt water. From things found on the beach- a big rock, a cinderblock, and some driftwood- our guide built a roaring fire in the shade. We poured the oil in the pan and added about 3 whole fish at a time.

While the fish cooked, it suddenly occurred to me that we would need something to put them on when they were done. We had no plates, no forks. Nothing even to turn the fish in the pan. I said these things out loud to our guide. He looked around, found a long, sturdy stick, and showed me how to use it to turn the fish. Then he looked up at the trees, found one with giant leaves, and plucked several. He laid these down on a nearby log for the fish. When the fish came out of the pan, we laid them on the leaves. Parker’s job was to squeeze lime juice on each; Carrie, as usual, liberally salted them.

Parker, squeezing lime juice on the fish
Carrie eating fish by the ocean

Words cannot convey how good that fish smelled. We probably should have waited to let it cool more, but it smelled so good and we were so hungry. We ate those fish with our bare hands, right there on that beach with the waves lapping maybe 5 feet away. A squeeze of lime and a sprinkle of salt was all that we needed to bring out the fresh, almost sweet taste. I have never tasted such good fish in my life as that fish that I ate with my hands, off a leaf, while sitting on a log on a beach in Costa Rica. Parker and Reese, wary of seafood at first, took one bite and even they were hooked.  No one spoke, not even the kids. We sat there, eating our fill of the freshly caught fish, felt the breeze on our faces, and stared out into the ocean.

Bellies full, we put out the fire and began to clean up. Our guide bid us adios and we thanked him profusely for the experience that we would never forget.

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