On Wednesday September 15th, Costa Rica celebrates it´s 200 birthday. I also have an anniversary that day, 30 years of living full time in Costa Rica. I have been lucky enough to manage major fishing operations, starting 30 years ago at Archie Fields Rio Colorado Lodge, and most currently at Crocodile Bay Resort.
In this time I have employed hundreds of Costa Ricans, many who got their start in sport fishing working with me. Over the last three decades many have gone on to run large sport fishing boats in the different marinas around the country. It feels good when I visit Marina Pez Vela or Los Sueños marinas and see how successful some have become.
The Government and Fishing Sector
Those who have read my columns of late know I am very passionate about the ocean. Costa Rica´s oceans could be so much healthier if the government and all the fishing sectors could work together instead of fighting each other. Looking back over the last 30 years has given me plenty of “something to tell your grand-children moments,” so I thought I would lighten it up a little and take a step off my conservation soapbox and share some of them.
I have always affectionately called my employees, “my niños.” Like all niños they have brought me moments of pride, happiness, disappointment, and anger and lots of stories. This is one of them.
It started when a fishing rod resting in a rod holder on one of our Strike boats doubled over and line screamed off the reel. The water exploded as this massive head cleared the surface in an attempt to jump skyward, but the huge snook could only launch part of its body out of the water. The boat was tied to the pier at Crocodile Bay.
I happened to be in a meeting in San Jose that day. When I returned, I starting hearing rumblings of a huge snook caught at the pier and the giant ceviche party that followed in the pueblo. In this little town there are no secrets, and gossiping is a pastime for many.
My employees describe me as very strict but very fair, and I am also the king of second chances. I understand that everyone makes mistakes and if they acknowledge them, then we go one. If they choose to play me for stupid or lie to me, sorry for them. Some of my best captains and your favorites, are ones in their beginning years I fired once or sometimes twice and after some time allowed them to come back. What some of them don´t understand is I also like to have fun.
So began the Criminal Snook Investigation (CSI)
Employees fishing off our pier is strictly forbidden. When you are not out fishing clients, you are supposed to be working on your boat or tackle. This I understand is difficult for a person who has fishing in their blood but I also understand there is always something to do on a boat. That job is never really finished.
I called a meeting of all the employees working at the pier that day and asked them about the snook incident. No one responded. So, I told them to think about it overnight and I would talk to them individually the next day.
The next morning, I started my interviews and I have to say my employees are a well bonded team. It was like talking to well-trained parrots. Every story was almost exactly word for word, the same as the others. No-one knew anything.
So, the next morning I called another meeting, telling the crew I didn´t feel in my heart that they had been completely truthful with me and this thing was not finished and I was launching a full investigation and I would get back to them. I went on to say that they all understand I consider the snook that hang out at the pier personal pets and the whole thing had me really upset.
Then for the next two weeks, I did ……… absolutely nothing.
I then called a third meeting of the suspects and told them after an extensive investigation I had learned a lot. I said, “Tomorrow I am going to interview you guys one last time. I have had enough time to figure it out and also cool down a bit so here´s the deal. If you are truthful with me, no one loses their job. If you choose to continue to lie to me, I can´t make the same promise.”
The following day I called them all to the fishing gang room, took all their cell phones and called them in the office one by one. When finished each interview, I gave them their phone and sent them straight home so they could not talk to the crew waiting for interrogation. You would think I had them under bright lights and was whipping them with chains as they one by one, began to spill their guts.
As I pictured the scenario in my mind as they each began to tell their stories I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing out loud while attempting to keep a serious expression on my face. Each person had a little something to add to the story and they all had one thing in common. Nobody was going down alone and everyone was confessing and also ratting out their fellow employees. At one point I excused myself to the restroom so I could laugh a minute in private.
When all was said and done this is what went down. There was a total of 13 employees directly related to the poaching of the snook. One of the employees put out a live bait while “working” on his boat.
When the fish hit and tried to go airborne, the captain grabbed the rod. As snook often do when hooked, it headed for cover and swam under the boat tied up to the side. Working the rod to the other side of the boat, maneuvering around the tower, he passed the rod to the next captain. The fish made it´s attempted escape, and ran under a total of 7 boats.
With the art of moving a soccer ball down the field, Captains and mates, passed the rod from boat to boat, under dock lines, and around pilings. Then it turned around and made the same route in reverse. This time the crew was not as graceful. Some stumble, one nearly fell in the water, but the fish was still hooked up.
About this time, my assistant at the time showed up at the pier. As those who have been here before know, the pier is a long on. By the time he made it to where the boats are tied up, the crew had landed the snook, stuffed it in a fish box on one of the Strike boats, and everyone was working as if nothing happened.
My assistant was standing next to the boats, observing the crew when the snook went crazy. It sounded like the local marching band which is made up of only drums as it flopped inside the fish box. A quick-thinking captain ran over and started the boat so the idling diesel motors would drown out the noise. After my assistant left the pier three other employees put the snook in a Boston Whaler, transported it to one of the locals on the beach, who received the fish with a big smile.
That evening the entire crew met at their favorite watering hole at the beach where there was a giant dish of fresh snook ceviche waiting for them. They pounded a few beers and filled their bellies having enough to share with other bar patrons. It was quite a celebration of their “perfect crime.”
The Morning Meeting
The morning after the last interrogation, I called a meeting of all the crew. I asked two questions. First, I asked how many understood we do not fish at the pier while working on the boats? Quickly, a unanimous show of hands. Secondly, I asked, how many understand when something happens, I will get to the bottom of it? Again, another unanimous show of hands. I then sent them to work. They headed to the pier wondering how I had figured it all out, and I was quite proud of my detective skills.
When they were gone, I went into my office, took a sip of coffee and spit it all over myself laughing.
Todd Staley has run sport fishing operations in Costa Rica for nearly 30 years and works in marine conservation. He currently is Communications Director at FECOP, the Costa Rican Fishing Federation (www.fecop.org), serves on the International Game Fish Association’s Central America Council, and oversees the fishing operation at Crocodile Bay Resort. Contact him at [email protected]