By Gene Bourque
One of the best parts of living in New England is the change of season. Even though we sometimes look at places like San Diego with its almost perfect year-round weather and imagine how nice that would be, most swamp Yankees I know like being able to look forward to something different. And besides, if our weather was perfect all the time, what we have to complain about?
If you’re into skiing, snowboarding or zooming around on a snow machine, winter is great and maybe even a bit too short. Along the coast though, snow is not something most of us look forward to. Worse yet, more typical is day after dreary day of high 30-degree weather, with perhaps a bit of mixed precipitation just to make things a little more depressing. Most fishermen do what they can to get out and feed the need to fish, either by heading north to drill holes in the ice or bundling up and trying for a few trout in ponds that haven’t frozen, or a few sad little holdover schoolies in some of the estuaries.
What to do? Some get fed up and look longingly at pictures in magazines of guys wading the flats in some exotic locale in the Bahamas or the Keys, or battling a huge billfish off the coast of Costa Rica. They imagine evenings sitting on the veranda of the fishing lodge, sipping a beer or a frozen rum drink, pretending to be Jimmy Buffett. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Well, if you’re one of those who are lucky enough to be able to afford the time and money involved with a trip to such places and have been saying to yourself, this is the year I’m going to do it, the next step is planning. And the time is now if you’re going to get the best bang for your hard-earned bucks. Here at are a few tips to start you on the road to sunny days, exotic sportfish and memories that will make you smile when you return to the cold and damp.
The biggest question of course is, just where do you want to go? As with most other travel, the farther you get away from the continental U.S., the more money you’ll spend. But contrary to what most anglers may believe who haven’t taken a trip like this, there’s no need to totally cook the family nest egg to do it. Yes, travel is pricy, as are most decent accommodations. The key is research, and plenty of it.
Knowing someone who’s done this before is great, even if it’s just a trip or two. That person can speak with experience about many things, like how much tackle to bring (no, you do not need every lure or fly you’ve seen in pictures hanging out of the mouths of those bonefish and marlin in the magazine ads), charter captains you should (or shouldn’t) use, and the really important things like which beach-side bar has the best conch fritters and cold brew.
Whether or not you know such a person, some extensive digging for information is still required. This is where today’s anglers have a huge advantage over our brethren from only a generation ago. Not only are there more magazines out there than ever that deal with fishing in southern waters, the Internet is an unlimited source of information – maybe too much, actually. Besides the obvious Google searches for specific destinations, species and techniques, fishing web site forums often have areas devoted to fishing in tropical places and a question posed on those forums will get you plenty of answers. Just don’t be surprised if you get conflicting information, another reason to do as much research as you can stand.
Directly related to the question of where to go is what species of fish you are looking to catch. And they key word there is catch. Are you looking for the challenge of wading the flats? If you want the maximum amount of action, the more remote the destination, the better your chances. Bonefish – and especially permit – that see many anglers over the course of the winter are extremely wary creatures. A few fish a day in such places must be considered a success, and you’d better be a darned good caster. On the opposite extreme would be a place like the offshore Pacific waters off Costa Rica, Guatemala and Panama. Assuming you time it right (more on that later), jumping a dozen sailfish a day is a reasonable expectation if you’re using the trolling gear that is the norm in those places. Of course, if you’re going for a light tackle experience the numbers will be lower but the number of fish in that area is absolutely astounding. On my last trip to fish out of Los Suenos on the Central Pacific coast of Costa Rica, we experienced what I can only describe as a sailfish blitz. There were constant double hook-ups on all five boats in sight including ours, and free jumping sails could be seen in every direction. While absolutely an epic fishing experience, it was what we more or less expected based on the information we’d received from a guy who fishes there all the time. It was why we went to Costa Rica.
Getting back to timing, know that most places have peak periods within their overall season, just like the waters you normally fish. Using my Costa Rica trips for an example, sailfishing is great from late January to mid March but water temperature can effect that time table a couple weeks in either direction. There are tarpon in the Florida Keys pretty much all the time, but if you want a trophy the time to be there is April and May. Some northern fishermen may find it curious (and disappointing) that the best bonefishing in the Keys happens during the summer when the weather is hot enough to be almost intolerable.
In other words, don’t just assume that because those sunny southern destinations are much warmer than New England most all the time that the fishing is equally hot for months on end. Again, this is where your research pays off and lets you plan accordingly.
Back to the question of allotting funds, and how it relates to catching fish. There is no question that hiring the services of a charter captain makes sense, especially on your first trip to an area. Their jobs depend on putting you on fish and you can waste plenty of time trying to find those fish without them, no matter how much research you’ve done. Hiring a charter is worthy of an entire article in itself but in my view it’s essential to have some back-and-forth with anyone you’re considering chartering before a deposit is sent. Some questions to ask are:
1. What species will we be targeting, and is the time I’ll be there a peak period for this species?
2. What type of tackle do you prefer, is it provided, and is it OK for me to bring along my own gear if I choose?
3. How long is the trip and what is the cost (don’t forget to factor in a 15%-20% tip)?
4. What is your cancellation policy?
5. Will this be a strictly catch-and-release trip, or can I bring a fish back to the motel to cook on the grill if I choose to?
6. How many people can comfortably fish from your boat?
7. What type of fishing will we be doing? Casting? Trolling? Bottom fishing?
(To me, this is the most important question.)
Keep in mind that if you are in some far away destination where everything else is inexpensive, you will pay American prices for the better charters, particularly if you’re on an American-owned boat even if it has a local crew. This scenario is quite common in the Caribbean and in Central America.
There are a couple of other options you might want to explore. In many places you will find locals with smaller boats (in some places called pangas) who will take you fishing for a very reasonable cost. This can be a bit of a crapshoot because these boats don’t have the range or seaworthiness of the larger charter boats, and you may have to deal with language barriers and poorly maintained fishing gear, if you don’t use your own. But the panga experience can be a great adventure and make for quite a tale when you get home. A friend and I booked one on that same trip to Costa Rica, and while we could barely understand the young captain and only saw a couple sailfish that we did not catch, we caught plenty of smaller fish like mahi, Spanish mackerel and roosterfish, with a 2-hour lunch stop at Tortuga Island for the meal and some snorkeling, followed by more fishing. It was a 9-hour trip and the cost (split between us) was $250 plus tip.
You could also consider renting a boat yourself if you have the required boating experience and feel confident enough to explore the area on your own. We did this last winter in the Islamorada area of the Keys and had a great time, fishing the flats in the morning and the outside reefs in the afternoon. The cost of renting a decent boat can come close to taking a small boat charter however, and it is vital to study charts of the areas you’ll be fishing before setting off for the day.
When it comes to accommodations, it’s totally your call. There are some amazing fishing lodges in the Bahamas, Yucatan, Pacific-side Central America and in the Caribbean but you should expect to pay well into the thousands of dollars to stay and fish at these places for a week, not including transportation or tips for the guides. Some of them are dream destinations where you’ll fish for bones, permit, roosters and other exotics that see very few anglers and are almost easy to catch, followed by gourmet meals in Fantasy Island style. If you can swing it, you deserve to try it at least once.
For those of us with shallower pockets, you can usually find reasonably priced accommodations and food not too far from good fishing by doing Internet searches of the town, district or province where you hope to go. Those fishing web site forums can be very helpful with planning this type of lower budget trip because they tend to be frequented by like-minded fishermen.
These are all just starting points for that winter getaway. The best part may be that the planning can be almost as much fun as the trip itself. If you’re lucky enough to have a fishing buddy or two (or dare I say, your spouse!) that you can share it with, so much the better.