The Little Country That Didn't

Costa Rica has saved itself for your enjoyment.

Field & Stream Online Editors

_When the last river was polluted...

When the last forest was cut down...

When the last fish was caught...

People suddenly discovered they couldn't eat money._

From a sign in the San Jose, Costa Rica, airport

In a world filled with violence and despoliation, Costa Rica is notable for two achievements. In 1948, the country decided it could live without soldiers, so it disbanded its army and turned army headquarters into a national museum. And despite the fact that its tropical hardwood forests are worth many fortunes, Costa Rica decided it could do without logging them, and so they stand today, probably the last unspoiled wilderness of that kind in the world.

Costa Rica is gorgeous. It is lush. It is very difficult for a person to visit and not experience sensory overload. Colors assail you--birds, butterflies, flowers, all come in shades of blazing red, yellow, green, blue, and every possible variation. It is no place for pastels to show themselves.

Wildlife does more than abound. It fairly teems. The Osa Peninsula on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica (where I fished) has been called "the most ecologically intense place on earth" by National Geographic magazine. There are 130 species of freshwater fish, 160 different amphibians, 208 types of mammals, 220 species of reptiles (including several very, very serious snakes), 850 types of birds, 1,000 varieties of butterfly, 1,200 sorts of orchids, and 34,000 kinds of insects (and oddly, very few mosquitoes, at least where I was).

I had never been in a tropical rain forest before, and the Osa Peninsula has the best and most pristine in the world. People come here for what are known as "ecology tours," where you can walk through the jungle on paths and marvel at the birds and get ogled at by the monkeys, of which the most common species are spider and howler. The spider monkey is innocuous and peers at you from the treetops. The howler tells you what it thinks of you, and its thoughts do not sound benign; it sounds like a freshly ruptured lion.

Off the paths, the jungle looks impenetrable. If I had to navigate it, I would pick a tree 50 feet away (which is about the farthest you can see), take a compass heading, walk to the tree, and then find another tree, and on, and on.

I was there because of the saltwater fishing on Costa Rica's Pacific coast, having been lured down by retired Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Bob Newman, who gave up shooting people and blowing up things for flogging the world's waters and writing about it. He was particularly adept at spotting monkeys, attributing this to his Marine recon training. "You learn in recon," he told me, "that the quicker you spot something, the quicker you can run away from it."

Gunny Newman now drags me around the Western Hemisphere, trying to make me cut down my number of false casts and maybe catch the occasional fish in the process.

Crocodile Bay

Crocodile Bay Lodge was built four years ago. It occupies 44 acres near the town of Puerto Jimenez, and in describing it, I think of the words uttered by the master of ceremonies in Cabaret: "In here, eferyzing is beeeyoooteeeful." The furniture is hand carved from an exquisite tropical wood called cristobal, by a local artist named Erik Chanto. It is a luminous, reddish-blond wood that reminds me of Bastogne walnut. There are flower gardens by the acre, a butterfly farm, and beaches with not a soul on them. The sunsets are tropical, and spectacular. Beeeyoooteeeful.

Aesthetics aside, Crocodile Bay is a fishing resort, and it is in a nearly perfect location. The bay feeds into the Golfo Dulce, which in turn is fed by the rivers Tigre, Rincon, Coto, and Esquinas.

Depending on your pleasure, you can take a 30-minute run out on blue water for sailfish, marlin, dorado, wahoo, yellowfin, and black skipjactuna; or take a flats boat into the rivers and mangrove estuaries for snook, snapper (at least five species), barracuda, corvina, and others. Or you can fish the shoreline for roosterfish, Pacific jack crevalle, bluefin trevally, amberjack, snapper (yellow, Colorado, cubera, greenbar, and black), grouper, barracuda, African pompano, and Sierra mackerel.

Blue-Water Battles

Marlin and sailfish are the glamour species, so it was decreed that I should try for them. I had been warned by the Crocodile Bay people that August was the worst time to go for billfish (January through March is the best), but it was the only time I had. Gunny Bob and I brought our rods aboard a 33-foot blue-water boat skippered by Capt. Scott Stimpson, the Ultimate Surfer Dude and owner of the most uncanny sense of balance I have ever seen in a human being.

Stimpson's time riding the curls has enabled him to scamper around the scuppers in a ground swell that had me hanging on with both hands, my teeth, and feet, and wishing I could grow a tail so I could use that, too. Blond, in his 30s, of medium height, Stimpson is also gutsy. At one point, our propeller fouled in some flotsam, and he put a knife between his teeth, said "Keep an eye open," and dove into the Pacific, where schools of feeding tuna attract several species of man-eating shark. As he sawed away beneath the surface, I wondered exactly what we were supposed to do if some fanged horror came rocketing up from the bottom. I would probably faint. Newman would probably dive in to join the fray. Ah, but in a match between the U.S.M.C. and a great white, who knows what would result?

The fishing itself is pretty simple. You steam in a huge oval, roughly northeast to southwest, trailing baits from rods on four outriggers. The theory is that the billfish will follow one of the baits, whereupon you sit in the fighting chair, put the rod butt in the socket, and try to get the fish to take the bait. Then you hang on and haul. It sounds easy, but you have to have a feel for the precise instant when you should haul on the rod. Otherwise, the fish will simply fall away to one side, and you will be left to eat your liver.

I can't tell you that I caught a billfish, but I can report that I had a sailfish come right up to the transom, rocketing through the water like a torpedo, iron gray the length of its body, its dead fish eye looking more like a sensing device than a living organ. But I was slow, and it peeled off. On the other hand, a friend of mine and his wife went to Crocodile Bay, and on her very first try, the wife hooked and boated a monstrous sailfish. Timing is everything. It's not uncommon for boats to "raise" more than a dozen sailfish daily.

As you cruise, pods of pilot whales swim by, their black bodies shining in the sunlight. They are mountains of muscle with a little blubber as a covering.

Garbage

Riptides are narrow, fast currents running out from beaches. They are easy to spot because they collect foam and garbage. Some of it is from the land--branches and coconuts. But most of it is plastic--all forms of plastic: kids' toys, designer-water bottles, furniture, toilet seats, water pistols--the most unlikely stuff. I saw the exact same thing in the waters off Midway Atoll, thousands of miles away. These plastic objects are a major cause of mortality among seabirds, but they are also a sign of one of man's most monumental achievements: We have succeeded in transforming the Pacific Ocean, in all its immensity, into a garbage dump. Ironically, fish use the trash as structure and gather around it.

Terciopelo

The word is Spanish for "velvet," and it is what Costa Ricans call the most unpleasant resident of their country, the fer-de-lance. This serious serpent is a pit viper, related to rattlesnakes, that grows to over 9 feet in length and has a bad temper and a large supply of highly toxic venom, which it will share with you at the slightest opportunity. On the day I left Crocodile Bay, some local folks killed a fer-de-lance right next to the airstrip where we had landed.

In reality, your chances of a meeting with a terciopelo are slight. There are about 500 cases of snakebite reported each year (mostly agricultural workers), and only 3 percent of those are fatal. If you would like to gaze on a fer-de-lance under controlled conditions, you can visit the Serpentario in San Jose. Me, I'll fish.

The Crocodile Will Make You Smile

I've been to resorts in Latin America where there was a wall around the place, broken glass embedded in the top of the wall, and guards with dogs patrolling the perimeter. Not here. People smile at you and do not think gringo behind the smile.

I've been to fishing lodges where, when the weather was bad or the fish were not biting, you could sit in the cabin and do crossword puzzles, or have a farting contest, or retell the same war stories you'd already told several times.

This is not the case at Crocodile Bay. A bad fishing day here is a good fishing day anywhere else. If they are not hitting on the ocean, they will take your fly in the river. If you don't want to fish at all, you can sit in the sun, or take an ecotour (if you do not take an ecotour you are 10 kinds of a fool, because the Osa Peninsula is like nowhere else on earth), or look at the butterflies, or sit by the pool. My last night there, Nature even provided a small earthquake for my amusement. I had never been in an earthquake before and appreciated Nature's thoughtfulness.

The Little Country That Didn't has proved wiser than most of its fellow nations on earth by turning aside from war and greed. And that is _una cosa muy grande_--a very big thing.

temper and a large supply of highly toxic venom, which it will share with you at the slightest opportunity. On the day I left Crocodile Bay, some local folks killed a fer-de-lance right next to the airstrip where we had landed.

In reality, your chances of a meeting with a terciopelo are slight. There are about 500 cases of snakebite reported each year (mostly agricultural workers), and only 3 percent of those are fatal. If you would like to gaze on a fer-de-lance under controlled conditions, you can visit the Serpentario in San Jose. Me, I'll fish.

The Crocodile Will Make You Smile

I've been to resorts in Latin America where there was a wall around the place, broken glass embedded in the top of the wall, and guards with dogs patrolling the perimeter. Not here. People smile at you and do not think gringo behind the smile.

I've been to fishing lodges where, when the weather was bad or the fish were not biting, you could sit in the cabin and do crossword puzzles, or have a farting contest, or retell the same war stories you'd already told several times.

This is not the case at Crocodile Bay. A bad fishing day here is a good fishing day anywhere else. If they are not hitting on the ocean, they will take your fly in the river. If you don't want to fish at all, you can sit in the sun, or take an ecotour (if you do not take an ecotour you are 10 kinds of a fool, because the Osa Peninsula is like nowhere else on earth), or look at the butterflies, or sit by the pool. My last night there, Nature even provided a small earthquake for my amusement. I had never been in an earthquake before and appreciated Nature's thoughtfulness.

The Little Country That Didn't has proved wiser than most of its fellow nations on earth by turning aside from war and greed. And that is _una cosa muy grande_--a very big thing.