Published Jan 30. 2019 - 5 years ago
Updated or edited Oct 28. 2021

El Grande

How James Widmaier caught a record breaking sailfish during his 50th wedding anniversary stay with his wife in Costa Rica

Approach to Zancudo Lodge
Golfito marina slip for Zancudo
Loading for boat ride to Zancudo
Entrance to lodge
Zancudo bound
James Widmaier

My wife and I planned to celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary coupled with my Bucket List fishing trip.
Starting out from Baltimore at 6 am on March 3rd, 2016, our destination was Zancudo Lodge on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. I wanted to catch a billfish on a fly rod, and this lodge responded that they could make it happen.

After a flight

to Miami and then a connection to San Jose, Costa Rica, we boarded an arranged chartered flight to the tiny coastal town of Golfido, which had only one landing/take-off airstrip. From there a 30 year old taxi took us to the marina where a lodge representative met us, loaded our bags aboard, and took us on a 30 minute boat ride in a 40 foot Contender fishing boat to the lodge.
When our party of four guests landed at the dock, we were greeted by the owner who handed us a cold tropical drink and an enthusiastic welcome. The elevated boardwalk from the marina to the lodge was amongst jungle trees with screeching monkeys and tropical birds. This environment was a far cry from the snowy Maryland landscape we left eight hours earlier.
We were escorted to our beautiful suite and given instructions about the time and place of dinner. At 6 pm we had hors d‘oeuvres, free mixed drinks of our choosing and a gourmet seafood dinner. Accommodations were superb, and I hoped the fishing report would be as equally positive. However, I was told that no one had landed a sailfish that week. I was a bit fearful about accomplishing my goal.

My assigned guide

was a seasoned local, Rafel Barret, who spoke some broken English. Everyone just called him Rafe. The boat Rafe ran for the lodge was one of their fleet of six 32 foot Contenders powered with twin 140 horse power Suzukis. I was to be the only fisherman on the boat with my wife coming along as a non-fishing partner.
At 6 am on the first day breakfast was custom-ordered and served. The chef prepared our lunches and drinks for the day then sent them to our boat. At breakfast I communicated to Rafe that if possible we should try to catch a sailfish using the most successful method - conventional tackle.

First sailfish on standard tackle
Fly rod, teaser, Abramson fly
First sailfish on standard tackle, Fly rod, teaser, Abramson fly
Joanne Widmaier - James Widmaier

After a fast

one hour run along the mountain coast and then straight offshore two miles into the deep blue water of the Pacific, we began trolling at 7 knots. We had five teasers in the boat wash skipping and chugging on the surface. Within an hour the first sailfish entered the wake and slashed at the teasers. I quickly flipped a nose hooked blue runner bait into the wash and as instructed drifted it back on free spool.
To our excited delight the sail took the bait at lighting speed and stripped off two hundred yards of of line before jumping and tail-walking several times. Within 15 minutes I had the beautiful blue and silver billfish boat side for Rafe to grab the shock leader and then the bill of the estimated 80 pound sailfish. Rafe tagged the fish with a green spaghetti like tag from Gray’s Fish Research Center while I took pictures.
It is the rule in Costa Rica that no billfish be brought into the boat, but must be released unharmed. Fine with me. This beautiful creature deserved his freedom.
High fives all around. We broke the ice and our confidence grew.
One hour later we hooked what Rafe guessed to be a two hundred pound blue marlin which bolted across the surface several times and threw the teaser mid air after a few exciting seconds. Later that first day I brought to the boat another sail. It too was tagged, photographed, and released unharmed.

At the boatside
At the boatside
Joanna Widmaier

The next day

with innocent confidence I convinced Rafe that I would like to try the 12 weight Temple Forks fly rod should we tease another sailfish into our wake. Our teamwork developed that first day, so on this second day I ran the boat out to the blue water while Rafe rigged the teasers for the day’s adventure. By 7:10 am the first sailfish was in our wash so Rafe quickly brought in the teasers while I cast out the Abramson Billfish Fly - a kind of big gaudy bass popper. Within seconds the fish shot across the wake to attack my erratic acting fly. In plain sight at 10 yards behind the boat the fish slashed, missed the fly, and was gone.
We set up the spread again and at 7:30 a second sail appeared and this time the fish did not miss the fly. The turn, take, and scorching run of 300 yards were all spectacular. Sailfish are known to swim 50 to 60 mph and I can now personally attest to that fact. I held on for dear life as hundreds of yards of backing line peeled from the screaming reel.
It was mostly "give" the first 25 minutes and finally "give and take" the later 15 minutes. After 45 minutes total both fish and I were whipped, but Rafe grabbed its bill while we took pictures, tagged, and released this fish, estimated to be 100 pounds!
High fives and a cold beer to celebrate my first billfish on a fly, let alone the largest fish I ever caught!

Fly rod catch, tag, photo, then release
James Widmaier

I went back

to two handed conventional tackle the rest of the day and miracously landed two more sailfish on artificial lures. A great day!
The third day at the lodge my wife and I decided to tour the local black sand beaches, but I kept thinking about those beautiful billfish and clear blue Pacific water. I kept thinking about the next day of fishing and what it might hold.
The third day of fishing Rafe and I used conventional tackle with artificials only and managed to tag three more sailfish ranging in size from an estimated 80 to 90 pounds.
"Have I died and gone to Heaven? Pinch me Dear. Is this really happening?"

My wife being

a good sport said I should fish our last full day at the lodge. Off we went again at 6 am in the Contender but this time headed to a buoy a mile out from the lodge.
Rafe’s task for new clients coming the next day was to catch some Blue Runners. We used this species of bait my first day. They were 6 to 9 inches and that looked like a small bluefish minus the teeth.

Fly rod hookup on El Grande
Fly rod hookup on El Grande
Joanne Widmaier

After anchoring,

we each used a light spinning rod rigged with a string of six number 10 hooks dressed with a small piece of tinsel for attraction. Since these baitfish bit like trout, I had the knack and it wasn’t long before Rafe and I had a live well full of Blue Runners for the group of anglers the next day.
Rafe fired up the Suzukis, I took the helm, and Rafe readied the teasers. At 7 am I had the 12 weight rod in my right hand with 15 yards of coiled fly line ready to go. At 7:30 am a long dark shape came into the wake with the teasers and it was "game on".
I quickly plopped the red Abramson fly into the wash and before I knew it the loops of line were gone and the reel screamed as it surrendered 350 yards in just seconds. A spectacular leap at 400 yards and then tail-walking began. Rafe got very excited and was almost too dumbfounded to realize what just happened.
Rafe shouted: "El Grande!…. El Grande!"

Rafe shouted: "El Grande!…. El Grande!"

I had told Rafe earlier

that any catch was to be "fair and square" and no backing the boat into the fish or chasing it down. Just keep the boat broadside and perpendicular to the direction of my fly line. These tactics worked.
After 45 minutes my right arm was going numb from the constant pressure.
My arm said to my brain : "I‘m in pain. I don‘t know if I can do this!".
My pride said: "Oh yes you can!"
At 50 minutes my arm was starting to quiver and I said:
"I don’t know if I can last any longer"
My pride said: "Don’t be a wimp! You better finish the fight!"
At one hour I put the "wood" to the fish as best I could hoping not to break him off. I gained enough backing to finally see the green fly line-the last section of 30 yards before the leader. However, I lost sight of the main fly line three more times on desperate surges.
‘Oh God! It’s him or me." I thought.

El Grande near boat for first time
El Grande near boat for first time
Joanne Widmaier

Rafe saw the leader

and quickly had the fish by the bill after the 70 minute fight. Quickly we took some pictures and a short video. We measured El Grande with a tape at exactly 10 feet long and an initial conservative estimated weight of 140 pounds! We tagged the brute and wished "El Grande" good luck. With my pat on his broad back, he eased away from the boat.
Celebration was in order for it was the largest sailfish ever brought to Rafe’s boat and then to boot on a fly. It unofficially breaks the Pacific sailfish world record for tippets up to and including 20 pound test.

Later my examination

of catch and release measurement charts estimated El Grande between 156 and 172 pounds!
Little did I know that during the course of the battle, Rafe was on the phone with other captains at the lodge and kept them informed of the fight. My wife later said that occasionally one of these boats would come within a quarter mile or so to witness what was happening. When I got back to the lodge later that afternoon, everyone there knew of the accomplishment.

El Grande in Rafe’s grasp
El Grande tagged and ready for release
El Grande
James Widmaier

As with the other tagged sailfish I had to fill out a detailed form-the tag number, fish length, estimated weight, lure/bait used,Captain’s name, water, date, etc. (Gray’s Research Center in Florida keeps the Internet record of all recorded/received data). A certificate was later sent to me for all 11 sailfish tagged and released.
To say the least I’m still on cloud 9 having fulfilled my bucket list wish and then some!

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