As the rising sun began to turn the clouds pink from behind the mountains, about two dozen fishermen began to congregate in the surf where the Río Nosara River meets the Pacific Ocean on the Nicoya Peninsula.
Although the nearby beach communities are known for having an above average number of expats and plenty of tourists, this was primarily a Tico crowd made up of teenaged, middle-aged and retirement-aged men who methodically come to the same place at the same time day after day, some for sport but most trying to either feed and earn money for their families.
Nothing seemed unusual that morning, but this was no ordinary day for these fishermen, and it showed as it look less than two hours for most of them to catch more than half dozen fish, which dangled limply on ropes tied around their waists.
“You picked the perfect day to come,” said Carlos “Chiqui” Yaniz, a Cuban-American permanent resident who acted as a guide last Friday morning.
Yaniz explained that the mouth of the Nosara is always a prime location to catch medium-sized fish like sea bass, snapper, snook and others that feed on schools of sardines that gather there. But the number of sardines has increased dramatically due to the El Niño climate pattern, which has recently began to manifest itself in local weather.
Temperatures of the eastern Pacific Ocean swing between warm and cool. The two stages can last from nine months to two years in a cycle that takes three to seven years to complete.
While the change in temperature is only about half of a degree celsius, both stages can have dramatic effects on global weather.
For Costa Rica, El Niño’s recent resurgence has resulted in an unusually dry rainy season. For sardine lovers, El Niño has made Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast heaven.
With the oscillation of ocean temperature, fish populations also rise and decline. Sardines thrive in the slightly warmer water that El Niño brings. Anchovies thrive in La Niña’s cooler water.
The massive schools of sardines migrate along the Pacific Coast and eventually get pushed to the beaches, resulting in a free-for-all for every nearby bird, fish – and fisherman.
However, Yaniz is quick to note that fishing this good is rare a treat that usually has to be earned.
“When you surf fish like we did, you have to put in your time,” he said. “If you do that, you catch you’re share.”
Like many of Nosara’s American immigrant population, Yaniz has operated a variety of different businesses in town over the years, including a hotel, a small real estate company and a fishing charter.
While some expats run or golf or read the paper every morning before work for mental and physical stimulation, Yaniz fishes at the mouth of the Nosara, sometimes even before sunrise.
After many years of taking tourists out on the open water to fish, he says that those fish come easy to him and the thrill has long since vanished. “This is a challenge,” he said as we began wading across the Nosara, about 100 meters from the mouth of the river.
“Shuffle your feet,” he added. That gently shoves small stingrays out of the way. If stepped on, these stingrays are much more likely to provide hours of pain.
We joined a group of straight-faced locals, most of whom used hand lines, twirling and tossing the bait above their heads like a lasso, then pulling in their lines by hand while wrapping it around a small piece of flat, polished wood.
Although most of the fishermen were visibly annoyed at the distraction I caused as I followed and observed them bringing in their catches, they quickly warmed to me after they had securely captured the fish, eager to pose with their prizes grinning from ear to ear. Once they cast their next line, they once again treated me with annoyed tolerance.
“I’ll do your first cast and then you’re on your own,” said Yaniz as he lent me one of his fishing poles.
Used to fishing out of a small boat for bluegill and smallmouth bass, very rarely northern pike and muskellunge in the calm lakes of Wisconsin, it took some time to adjust to casting in waist-high water while dodging waves, especially while using a left-handed reel.
Occasionally Yaniz would shout out directions and bring my attention to a local bringing in a big fish, in one case a very exotic looking rooster fish, or his own mackerel. While fishing in the surf was not coming naturally, it was clear that all of these fishermen got excited when any of them caught a fish, and this day that excitement was in overdrive.
In my most fortuitous moment of the day, I heard Yaniz call out to me, and I looked over to him pointing out to water in front of me. “There!” he shouted.
When I looked to the spot about ten meters in front of me, the water appeared to be boiling. Yaniz later explained a school of predatory fish were attacking a school of sardines.
I stopped trying to cast out in the distance and aimed at the spot of water that was swirling with activity. It took only a few seconds for me to feel the unmistakable pull of a fish on the other end of the line.
After struggling for about 10 minutes, a local named Uriel, who had been hand-lining, approached me and grabbed my line and signaled me to continue reeling.
I quickly got over the humiliation that I could not bring in my own fish. I watched him unflinchingly drag in the line with his bare hands while the fish struggled. I reeled in the excess line.
“Afuera! Afuera!” he said, gesturing me to move closer toward the beach.
When we finally had secured the fish, which Yaniz later identified as a jack crevalle. Uriel mechanically unhooked the flat, foot-long fish, held it up and said “Mio,” indicating that he wanted to keep it. I agreed without hesitation since he had been the one to bring it in. He took it back to the beach to bury it and keep it safe from waiting buzzards.
Yaniz explained that he usually gives his fish to the local fishermen, who either eat or sell them for a living. He added that jack crevalle are an acquired taste anyway.
Although I was unable to catch anything else for the rest of the day save for a sardine and a small crab that managed to hook themselves on my line at the same time, the other fishermen brought in fish after fish, mostly snook and sea bass.
Yaniz and I called it a day after two hours, so that he could go to a meeting related to his real estate business, but also he explained that he wanted to give room to the people who needed to catch the fish.
He did not leave without a trophy, though. We trudged once again across the river with our polls as he carried his two-foot-long mackerel over his shoulder and with an excited but satisfied demeanor that seemed to indicate that nothing could ruin the rest of his day.