Everyone has heard about the deep-sea action on the Pacific and the tarpon and snook of the Caribbean, but only a relative handful of resident fisherman really know Costa Rica's inland lakes and rivers.
It's a lot less expensive than chartering a boat or staying at a Lodge on the coast, and many of the most popular areas are within a couple hours' drive from San Jose.
Perhaps most important, the fishing can be absolutely superb, although you won't be catching what you've been used to on the rivers and farm ponds at home.
If you're visiting the country, I suggest renting a four-wheel-drive and make friends in a hurry with someone that knows his way around. There are a few tour agencies and guides offering inland fishing trips, some of them providing transportation, boat, license and equipment.
Lake Arenal is easily the most popular inland fishing water. Located about a four-hour drive from San Jose, it is Costa Rica's largest fishing lake, and it's loaded with guapote, or rainbow bass, a member of the cichlid family that displays the shadings of a rainbow trout and is fished as you would for a black bass, but is related to neither.
You do need a boat to fish the lake effectively, and when I first set up housekeeping in Costa Rica 13 years ago, my youngest son Mike and I fished Arenal regularly in a 12-foot inflatable with 10 h.p. motor. Back then, all you had to do was troll off one of the points or the island in front of the dam, and you'd have a five pound or better keeper every pass, with plenty of seven- and eight-pounders, often with double hook-ups.
Today, you have to work harder for your fish, but they're still there. During a 1 1/2-day tournament just a couple years ago, the winning two-man team weighed in a record 17 fish at 91 lbs. 5 oz., and most of the rainbow bass that weekend were taken jigging deep. On other occasions, they may be laying back in the shallows and spinner baits and surface chuggers are the ticket.
As with bass, fishing will vary tremendously with prevailing seasons and conditions and the angler that knows how to read and work the structure can usually do well.
You will also find guapote in the much smaller Lago Coto, above Arenal, and at Lake Hule (also shown on some maps as Lago Echandi), which you don't even want to think about fishing without a four-wheel-drive, preferably two of them and one with a winch.
The low-elevation rivers that feed into the San Juan to the north and the Caribbean Sea on the east coast also have guapote, although they generally don't run as large as they do in the lakes. These rivers have a variety of other species, however, including bobo (a type of mullet); another colorful cichlid related to the guapote that looks like a giant bluegill with teeth, called a mojarra; the machaca, often called sabalito, or little-tarpon, because of its acrobatic jumps that make it a favorite of fly fishermen; roncador or drum, usually found in brackish lagoons near the river mouths
An easy one-day trip from San Jose would be the Sarapiqui River at Puerto Viejo, reached via good paved road and relatively easy access. Depending on the time of year, look for most of the above species,. but bobo are the usual target.
Light bait casting or spinning tackle works fine, but for bobo bring a selection of spinners (large Mepps-type), shallow runners, poppers and a can of worms. Bobo have also been known to take a chunk of banana.
Another great trip is up the Rio Frio from Los Chiles, working up to its junction with Caño Negro Lagoon and the San Juan River as it forms the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Caño Negro is an immense inland lake that is home to the largest tarpon you're likely to find in Costa Rica. While none of the real giants have been weighed in to date, I've seen jumpers that would have pushed the 200 pound mark. It is also loaded with snook, drum, guapote and other species.
There's even trout fishing available in Costa Rica, but access to most the more productive areas is challenging, to say the least. Trout eggs from the U.S. were stocked in many of the country's higher elevation rivers and streams more than 20 years ago, and while there have been a couple of subsequent plants, the rainbows now propagate naturally. While a few browns have also found there way into the country, ignore the reports you sometimes hear from overzealous promoters claiming you can find golden trout here. . .it ain't so.
Rainbows are small, and access to the trout waters generally is very difficult and requires a guide and a horse. One exception is a stretch of the Savegre River on the Chacon Ranch out of San Gerardo de Dota. It's private property but wild and beautiful tropical river, festooned with orchids and one of the best locations to see the quetzal bird in the wild. A far-cry from the craggy mountains and tall timber streams trout fishermen are used to at home, it's tough fishing, with much slipping and sliding over mossy rocks, but you will likely catch a few rainbows to 10-inches if using cheese for bait isn't beneath your dignity, and they do occasionally get a three or four pounder. Overnight accommodations and meals are available.
First stop if planning any freshwater expedition on your own should be Carlos Barrantes at his Gilca Tackle Shop near the train depot if you prefer speaking English, or Keko's Tackle near San Juan Dios Hospital if you get along well in Spanish. They can advise on seasons, equipment, the current hot spots and may even be able to find you a guide.
Keep in mind that a valid Costa Rican fishing license is required for freshwater fishing in the country. To obtain a license for the year, Costa Rica citizens and legal residents may deposit 450 at any national bank and obtain an entero showing that the amount has been paid. The cost for non-residents, including tourists, is $30 U.S. for a 60-day permit and the procedure is the same.
Take the entero, a photograph and your cedula (passport if nonresident) to the Departamento de Control Silvestre, located about 150 meters east of the Santa Teresita Church in Barrio Escalante, on the diamond-shaped rotunda, where the license will be issued.
Lake Arenal is the only inland water open year around. All other lakes and rivers are closed to fishing from October 1 to January 1, although it is rumored that the time period may be changed this year.