Jerry Ruhlow, lanky and slender with a brilliant patch of silver hair parted neatly to one side, leans back in an easy chair in the living room of his home in Santa Ana, southwest of San José.
Above him is a painting that would make any fisherman smile: a rainbow-speckled guapote tugging on the end of a fisherman’s line, a smoking, jungle-flanked Arenal Volcano in the background.
It’s just a painting, but for the past 25 years, it’s been the story of Ruhlow’s life. Born in 1932, in Herrin, a small coal-mining town in the U.S. state of Illinois, his love of fishing, and journalism, started early.
He enjoyed a long, successful career as a reporter and columnist for the Los Angeles Times in California, where he also served back-to-back terms as president of the Pacific Coast Press Club.
His love for fishing led him to retirement in Costa Rica, where he began writing The Tico Times’ fishing column and founded Costa Rica Outdoors, a booking agent for fishing and outdoor adventures and now a popular magazine.
For almost 24 years, Ruhlow’s widely read Free Spooling column was a service to the fishermen of Costa Rica – both residents and visitors – who benefited from his refreshing reports and unfailing willingness to answer readers’ questions and give guidance.
After more than two decades, Ruhlow is retiring from The Tico Times to go fishing, of course, and to spend time with his wife Cecilia and his family. From a previous marriage, he has a son, Rick, who is a charter boat captain out of Carrillo, on the northern Pacific coast, and a daughter Jerilin, who lives in the Caribbean province of Limón.
Another son, Mike, died in a tragic accident in 1998. He has two grandkids in the United States and two in Costa Rica, as well as a step-granddaughter who lives with him in Santa Ana.
The Tico Times sat down with Jerry last week to reminisce, celebrate his years at the paper and, of course, probe him for some of his secret fishing holes. Excerpts:
TT: How did you get started fishing?
JR: I’ve always loved to fish. I started when I was 4 years old, fishing for bluegill and perch with worms and a bobber. I had a lot of uncles who were fanatic fishermen.When you get a kid fishing at that age, he’s hooked for life.
I fished quite a bit when I was in California, too, up in the mountains for trout, but also in party boats off the coast for albacore, barracuda, the occasional tuna and bottom fish.
What was the fishing like when you first arrived in Costa Rica?
There was one boat in Flamingo when I got here. And one lodge – Roy’s Zancudo Lodge, in the Golfito area (on the southern Pacific coast). That’s all there was for fishing on the entire Pacific coast. It’s amazing how it’s changed. Now there are hundreds of boats.
On the Caribbean, there were two lodges – Casamar and Río Colorado. Those early days were some of my most enjoyable trips, up at LakeArenal (in north-central Costa Rica). I fished in a 12-foot inflatable. There were no guides fishing there like there are now. I fished like crazy; the fish were all but climbing in the boat back then. We loaded up on guapote. There were no hotels close to the lake, so we would camp out, sleep in our cars.
And how did you get started with The Tico Times?
One of the first things I did when I got to Costa Rica was start reading The Tico Times. I stopped by the office one day to tell them I thought they were doing a great job. I offered to write them a fishing column, hoping it might get me a few free trips (he smirks and winks).
Dery (Dyer, TT publisher and former editor) and her dad (Richard Dyer, former TT publisher) wanted to take a trip to Europe back in the ’80s, so I edited The Tico Times while they were gone. Ever since then, I’ve been writing the column, with just one short break.
What is your favorite place to fish in Costa Rica?
I think it would be LakeArenal, for guapote. Did I tell you I’m the one who (coined the English term) “rainbow bass” for guapote? In my writings, I started to call it rainbow bass, not because it looks like a bass, but because it sounded more glamorous and was easier to pronounce.
Any best-kept secrets?
The river fishing – it’s low cost, and you can fish from shore, on your own, and catch mojarra, machaca and rainbow bass. Recently, I ran a photo of a guy who even caught a tarpon from a riverbank (TT, March 2). Some of the Caribbean rivers, like the Sarapiquí, and the rivers along the southern Pacific coast are best.
What is the biggest fish you’ve ever caught? And the smallest?
The biggest fish I caught in Costa Rica? Probably blue and black marlin in the 300-pound-plus range. The smallest? (A boyish grin comes across his face.) Well, that would be a mojarra, probably six to nine inches.
They’re good eating, though.
What’s your favorite fishing story?
When you’ve been fishing close to 70 years it’s hard to choose, and besides, the worst day of fishing is always better than the best day of doing anything else… I do remember one day, out on Arenal, when my little inflatable sprung a leak in the middle of the lake. The fishing was so good I couldn’t leave, so I would cast, hook a fish, put the rod in the holder for a minute and bail, then fight the fish, then bail some more.
What do you plan to do in retirement?
I’m going to enjoy my grandkids. I’m already making plans to take my 4-year-old granddaughter to LakeArenal, to go fishing.