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HomeFishingFishing in Costa Rica: Catching roosterfish in a washing machine

Fishing in Costa Rica: Catching roosterfish in a washing machine

I have never enjoyed fishing under pressure. I prefer to fish for fun. There was a time in my life I fished a few money tournaments, and even won one or two. Nowadays, if I am fishing a tournament, it’s a charity event, where the winners are generally children with illnesses.

Even when fishing with a client, I prefer someone who is more interested in having a good time on the water than catching a ton of fish, or a giant fish. A much better fisherman than I who was actually just inducted into the IGFA Fishing Hall of Fame explained it very simply to me. Larry Dahlberg said, “Your chances of catching a really nice fish are directly related to how much you deserve it.”

I have noticed over the years that a good attitude catches fish and a bad attitude eats dirt. One’s relationship with the fish gods play a big part. Inexperienced anglers with good mojo have better luck than a good angler with a bad attitude.

On one particular day I can recall, the pressure was on. Gray Fish-Tag research center coordinator Bill Dobbelaer and marine scientist Travis Moore were down from Ft. Lauderdale to place another archival electronic tag in a roosterfish.

Usually this would be a simple task. Today was different.

Todd Staley / The Tico Times
Todd Staley / The Tico Times

An ominous gray sky loomed on the horizon, and the breeze was much stronger than usual for an early morning. We needed a fish around 30 pounds so it could comfortably wear the device that needed to be implanted.

The event was co-sponsored by Crocodile Bay Resort and the Costa Rican Fisheries Federation (FECOP), a sport fishing advocacy and marine conservation group. Crocodile’s crew was Oldemar Lopez and Sharlye Robles. Anglers: Christian Bolanos from Gray Taxidermy in Quepos and myself. Capt. Lopez suggested we try Matapalo Rock, a popular roosterfish site at the mouth of the Golfo Dulce. The overnight showers had muddied up some other popular inshore spots, so it made sense, and fishing conditions were just plain lousy.

Roosterfish is the perfect choice for this kind of study. It is a strong fighting popular inshore game fish, and Gray Fish-Tag has already learned a lot about them from the traditional spaghetti tag. Because it is a coastal animal, a good number of tagged fish have been caught again.

The spaghetti tag is inserted on the shoulder of a fish and has a serial number. The number is reported to the research center by sport fishermen who recapture the fish. With this method, the information is limited to where it was caught and what size it is. When it is recaptured, we learn how much it has grown over the period between captures, and how far it traveled. The electronic tag records much more information; the fish must also be recaptured, but the success with spaghetti tags makes it worth the betting $1500 per piece that the fish will be caught again.

Four have been placed so far in Costa Rica: one in Marina Pez Vela, one in Los Sueños, and two around Golfo Dulce in the Southern Zone, at Crocodile Bay Resort and Zancudo Lodge.

Todd Staley
Todd Staley

As we reached the mouth of the Gulf, we were hit by a wall of wind in our face. Still a half-mile from Matapalo Rock, we soldiered on. As we finally arrived, I thought about renaming the famous landmark – at least for this one day – either Whirlpool or Maytag. The rock was like the spindle of a washing machine and the surrounding waters were on the agitate cycle.

We worked a nearby pinnacle, but it was almost impossible to do a decent drift over the spot. Over and over we worked the area, fishing with one hand and holding on with the other. Somehow the conversation turned to the relationship between biologists and fishermen. I explained that over the years I have worked with many biologists, and found biologists and fishermen have a strange relationship. A lot of biologists have never fished, and a lot of fishermen don’t know the difference between an otolith and an eyeball. They are times at wits’ end with each other because at times neither respects the opinion of the other.

Travis laughed and said, “I can tell you a whole lot about roosterfish, but to be honest, I have never caught one.”

About that time, Bolaños’ rod twitched and then slammed down towards the water. Line screamed of the reel. After a 20-minute balancing act he had a 35-pound roosterfish on the surface. Travis jumped into action, made an incision in the fish’s belly, and had the tag inserted and stitched up in less than two minutes while running water over the fish’s gills. The rooster took off like he had a firecracker under his butt when placed back in the water. Mission Accomplished!

Todd Staley / The Tico Times
Todd Staley / The Tico Times

We had heard some chatter on the radio about a school of tuna working a couple miles off the beach, so we ran out. We found the dolphins and tuna, but the tuna wasn’t interested in anything we had to offer. Then we made a unanimous decision. Let’s go back to the rock and see if we can get Travis a rooster. Back to the washing machine!

It took about thirty minutes, but finally Travis was hooked into his first rooster. He got the fish to the boat a dozen times and each time it would peel off another 50 yards of line. Eventually he had the fish to the boat and it went an easy 50 pounrds. That is like winning the lottery the first time you buy a ticket.

I think we made a fisherman out of Travis, my biologist friend. I know one thing for sure: He knew a hell of a lot more about roosterfish than he did when the day started.

See also: Reader not fond of ‘torturing fish,’ but sportfishing isn’t the problem

Read more ‘Wetline Costa Rica’ columns here.

Todd Staley has run fishing sport operations on both coasts of Costa Rica for over 25 years. He recently decided to take some time off to devote full time to marine conservation. Contact him at

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