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Whether fishing in Alaska or Costa Rica, how you succeed is as important as the success itself

Christine Cunningham fights a sailfish off Costa Rica. (Photo by Steve Meyer)

“You’ve got sweat dripping off your nose, “I said to Christine.” Stop it, “she uttered between cranks on the reel, staring at the metal exposed at the bottom of the spool.

The roosterfish had spooled her reel three times in 20 minutes and she was drenched, as if in a rainstorm. Except it was 100-plus degrees, the sun glaring from high above and off every surface of the surrounding ocean. She glanced at the skipper in the stern, who grinned and said, “Nice rooster.”

The deckhand in the bow sat placidly, watching for the 20-foot-high breaking surf, his feet soaking in the makeshift livewell ahead of the first bench seat, a couple dozen mullet cruising around his ankles.

Some months earlier, Christine had announced we would be going to Costa Rica in January and had quickly added we would be fishing. She had learned I had no interest in leaving Alaska unless it involved English setters and bird hunting. Visiting warm-weather vacation spots held no allure — unless we could hunt or fish.

Flying into the inland city of San Jose on a late January evening, we cleared customs and saw our names in bold letters on a cardboard sign, held by the driver who would take us to our quarters on the Pacific coast.

From the airport we entered a business district, and our driver, in broken English, asked if we wanted to get cold drinks. We did, and a few moments later he stopped in the middle of the street in front of a convenience store and beckoned us in while he left the vehicle running in the street.

Pulling up to the closed gate of the condo complex we had booked for the week, my expression must have prompted our driver to explain. Folks in Costa Rica were very friendly, he said, but they tended toward thievery. That explained the razor ribbon atop the concrete walls that didn’t quite fit the lush tropical vegetation in the courtyard.

Morning found us on the veranda, the aroma of steaming coffee mixing nicely with the smell of tropical flora. We discovered our mornings in Costa Rica delighted us with flights of scarlet macaws overhead on their way to feeding areas.

We spent a couple of days being tourists, eager to get to the fishing. The first trip was offshore for sailfish and maybe marlin. The trip 40 miles out was smoother than what we would call a good day on Cook Inlet. The norm, we were told.

The sailfish cooperated, in abundance, and in the aerial performance they put on as we fought them into the boat.

Like most offshore fishing, the actual fishing part didn’t amount to much. The deckhand rigged the rods and set them to troll. The captain, from a flying bridge high enough to require shouting to communicate, called a strike before it came, and the deckhand set the hook and turned the rod over.

Meanwhile, we lounged around the deck, working on our tans. A far cry from jigging a halibut rod all day while the Alaska offshore water beats you to submission.

It was all good as far as it goes, but it left us hopeful that the next day’s inshore trip would allow for some hands-on fishing.

The small inlet, lined by steep, rock-covered banks where we waited for our boat, was fed by a small stream on one end and the tide on the other. In the middle, there was an old wooden skiff, wrapped in fiberglass, with two fishermen throwing casting nets and pulling in mullet. We wondered if they were fishing for the local market.

The skiff motored to the shore, a steep 20 feet below us, and the fellow operating the smoking two-stroke outboard beckoned us down. We clambered down the slope and stepped/fell into the skiff. In broken English, the captain asked, “Ready to fish?” Yep, and off we went. No briefing on life jackets or first-aid kit instructions (because there weren’t either on board.)

Christine leaned over and whispered to me, “This is going to be awesome, these guys are fishermen to the core.”

We ran down the shore for 15 minutes and stopped short of a point where waves of 20-plus feet were breaking. The captain explained we would fish into the surf, while the mate slipped hooks through the lips of strapping mullet.

“You fish much?” the captain asked. “Yes,” we said. “Let your lines out about 20 yards, you’ll get the hang of it,” he said. We did.

For three hours we lost some bait and “got the hang of it,” learning along the way that a 15-pound roosterfish fought like a 25-pound Kasilof River king. Christine broke up the morning by hooking a frigatebird, an eagle-sized creature she had to fight to the boat, where it was released unharmed but not very happy.

Christine Cunningham holds her big roosterfish before releasing it off Costa Rica. (Photo by Steve Meyer)

When the big rooster hit, it was clear this was a different breed of cat. The fish paid no heed to a drag cinched down to the max. He ran hard away and then turned and ran back; he came out of the water, shaking his head, his long dorsal fins gleaming in the sun. A spirited fish indeed.

While Christine strained, the captain and the mate, both jolly fellows, laughed when the fish ran hard and threatened escape. No move was made to follow the big guy. It was clear the battle was between Christine and the fish, and if he came to hand it would be all her doing.

Thirty-seven minutes later, the captain gently placed the big fish in Christine’s arms. Spent, she said, “Please hurry, I want him to be OK,” before braving a smile for the camera.

Only after the big fish swam away did the captain get an Alaska-sized hug for knowing the way you succeed is as important as the success itself and letting Christine play it out however it went.

Costa Rica doesn’t quite compare to Alaska, but it was worth the trip, and the trip was brief enough to leave us, as wonderful places so often do, wanting a bit more.

Editor’s note: The original article by Steve Meyer published on Adn.com had Christine flying into San Juan. The writer as not totally wrong, the San Jose international airport (SJO) is called the Juan Santamaria. You can see the confusion.  Read the original here.