Fishing in Paradise

Winter angling doesn't have to mean frostbitten fingers and sluggish bites. A quick journey to Southern latitudes will have you wading wet for drag-burning fish.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

It's deep-freeze time, all right. The snow machine won't start. Your coveralls are stiffer than a flattened beer can and the duck blind is as cold as a cryogenics vault.

You fish while staring through a hole in the ice or on open water that freezes solid in your rod guides. You're layered with so much insulation you look like the Michelin Man and you cast with the grace of a troglodyte. But wait. There are lands not too far away that can change all this, places where the breeze rattles through palm fronds and the only ice is in the frozen rum runners at the nearest tiki bar. Here the sun is hot, the fish are biting and between casts all you need to do is sink your naked feet in the sand and sigh that life is good.

**Bahamas **
On nights when sleeping comes hard I conjure up the colors of Bahamian waters. I see the alcohol-clear shallows where boats seem suspended in air, the middle flats that shade from pale turquoise to electric blue and, finally, the indigo of the deep. Mentally, I begin to fish, hunting bonefish and permit in the shallows and snappers and snook in the lush mangrove-lined creeks. I move to the inshore reefs for jacks, 'cudas, cuberas, sharks, sierras, groupers and maybe kings. Lastly, out in the blue water, I see the awesome take of a marlin, sailfish or wahoo before it explodes through the surface.

Fifty miles from southern Florida the islands of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas begin. There are really two Bahamas: the glitzy resort settings of Freeport and Nassau, and the Out Islands. Fantastic fishing is available at all these locations, but the Out Islands are my favorite. Laid-back doesn't begin to describe these places. If you arrive by mail boat, don't be surprised if some locals ask you to dinner. Most of the Out Islands have dedicated inshore lodges or small operations that house you in cottages. White sugar sand beaches are everywhere. During fishing breaks at the Peace and Plenty Lodge, you can ride the free ferry to Stocking Island and grab an ice-encrusted bottle of Kalik beer and a side of conch fritters before returning to wade the azure waters.

Some lodges, such as Andros's Mangrove Cay, give access to the little-fished southern and eastern sides of the island. For bonefish you'll need spinning gear rated for 8-pound-test and light jigs, or an 8-weight fly rod with a selection of weighted and unweighted flies. A 12-pound-test rig or a 10-weight will handle permit. Use heavier plug or spin gear for barracuda and tarpon. Blue-water charters come equipped. For the most complete reference on every island's activities, lodging and more, get The Bahamas Fly-Fishing Guide (it's far from being just for fly anglers) by Stephen and Kim Vletas (bahamasflyfishingguide.com).

[pagebreak] Los Roques
It was a little spooky at first, watching the boatman motor off, leaving us alone in knee-deep water miles from the main island. But the flat was perhaps the most beautiful I'd seen. Our boat, a peñero, looked like a South Pacific war canoe with its high prow cutting through the water. It stopped way out in front of us. This was some big flat, brother, but it was easy wading in the hot sun thanks to the cooling breeze.

Then the bonefish began to eat. When we finally reached the peñero and climbed aboard, I thought, This is cool. You don't even have to slosh back to the starting point. Away we zoomed to the next place. A typical fishing excursion, Los Roques-style.

Los Roques (the rocks) National Park is an archipelago some 80 miles off Venezuela's north coast, a scant three-hour hop from Miami. You stay in one of many posadas-small guest houses-on the island of Gran Roque, or live aboard a sailboat. Most dedicated fishing programs are run from posadas like the Pez Raton operation, which also has flats skiffs for areas you can't wade, plus a small blue-water boat for tuna and wahoo. Alternatively, you castay at some posadas and simply book fishing trips by the day. When you're not fishing you can roam the lonely beaches with sand as fine as talcum powder, take free boat rides to various islands and nosh on gourmet picnic lunches. But you've come for the fishing, and it's world-class.

Bonefish is the key species but you'll find permit on the deeper flats and African pompano, mackerel and yellowtail on points and drops. There are baby tarpon up to 30 pounds in some lagoons. And always be ready with a spare rod rigged for the Moby Dick- size barracudas you'll frequently see cruising. (A 10-weight for fly anglers or a 15-pound spinning rod with tubes will do the trick.)

Costa Rica
Years ago, on my second visit to Costa Rica, I worked out a tricky deal just to prove a point. Starting early in the morning at the mouth of the Parismina River on the Caribbean side, I fought a tarpon to the boat, went in for breakfast, hopped into a little Cessna, flew across the country to the town of Golfito on the Pacific, climbed into another boat and went to catch a sailfish. Two oceans in one day was the story; it wasn't very hard, given that the flight across was only an hour.

You might like to try this yourself to sample the two distinct and terrific fisheries. (But be sure to take a few days in each location. It's worth it.) On the Caribbean side you'll catch tarpon in the ocean and in lagoons on the Parismina and Colorado rivers. You'll fish the rivers from neat little johnboats. Reaching the ocean from the inlets requires a white-knuckle ride in a 21-foot center-console. The skilled captains hang like surfers in troughs, waiting for just the right wave series, then fly on out like rockets. You'll also catch big snook in the surf and up the rivers, plus a collection of wonderfully exotic river species like guapote, machaca and mojarra. Snappers, tuna, wahoo and other species hang out on a reef a couple of miles offshore.

On the Pacific side you get lots of sailfish and some marlin, along with dorados and tuna. Inshore are roosterfish, snappers, groupers, amberjacks and crevalle, African pompano, trevallies and more snook. Be aware that most lodges on the Caribbean side close in December for the last month of rainy season but are running full tilt again when the weather dries up in January.

On the Pacific side from December through the winter, sailfish are sizzling-especially from the port of Quepos. Dorados (a.k.a. dolphinfish), school yellowfin, some roosterfish and marlin are on tap here, too. North around Punta Guiones there can be excellent winter marlin fishing. Other water-oriented activities are at hand at most venues-there's diving, snorkeling, kayaking, tennis, beach explorations, horseback riding, surfing, waterfall rappelling (no kidding!), jungle treks and more.

[pagebreak] Key West
People who live at any edgy extreme, especially at land's end, tend toward the quirky. So it is with Key West's residents and visitors alike. One example: Back on April 23, 1982, the U.S. Border Patrol blockaded U.S. 1 coming out of the Keys at Skeeter's Last Chance Saloon in Florida City, ostensibly to search for illegal aliens. Key West mayor Dennis Wardlow promptly announced secession from the United States, formed the Conch Republic, declared war, surrendered and then demanded foreign aid. The operation's motto was "The People Who Seceded Where Others Failed."

Other than winter weather, if you can't find it in Key West, you likely won't find it anywhere, especially when it comes to fishing. From December until spring, Key West is your best hope for finding water warm enough for tarpon in the continental U.S. If you get a few warm days in a row, you'll find permit and bonefish and snappers on the flats, and even when it's not so hot there'll be barracudas that'll eat the kinds of plugs and spoons you'd throw at largemouth bass.

Winter is also prime time for muscle-bound blackfin tuna the size of footballs on steroids. You can catch them with live pilchards or use artificials, including flies. You can also ply inshore reefs for groupers and snapper or offshore wrecks for goliath specimens of the same. Offshore sailfish or wahoo? Sharks so big they'll curl the hair on your neck? Key West has it all.

Many top guides operate both inshore skiffs and larger, specialized center-console boats capable of making offshore runs. You won't go wrong for inshore angling by bringing a 7-foot medium/heavy-action spin or casting rod with a quality reel that can hold about 180 yards of 10- to 12-pound-test mono for permit, barracudas and most snappers. A reel with the same capacity but a somewhat lighter-action rod is right for the large bonefish living in these waters.

After a day's fishing you'll want to stroll down to Mallory dock for the sundown celebration, an evening ritual with performances by street musicians, mimes, sword swallowers, jugglers and fire-eaters. When the great tomato-red sun squats below the horizon, everyone applauds and cheers. Nobody goes to bed, though. Key West is an all-night party town. You can spend it at Sloppy Joe's, with its Hemingway memorabilia, or hit the Hog's Breath Saloon to watch a biker tattoo contest, or find some parrothead hangout where the frozen rum runners come screaming from the tap.

[pagebreak] Cabo
If Cabo San Lucas, at the tip of Mexico's Baja Peninsula, can't get you cranked up, someone better check your pulse. This magical vacation spot glitters with glamour gamefish inshore and off. The nightlife is, well, intense (try Pancho's, the Giggling Marlin or Cabo Wabo Cantina), the dining is world-class, the beaches are mind-blowing (check Lover's Beach and its towering landmark rock arches) and the extracurricular activities-diving, golf, kayaking, windsurfing, back-country exploring, to name just a few-are countless. The marlin (Cabo is known as "marlin alley"), sailfish, dorados, tuna, wahoo, roosterfish, sierra mackerel, snappers, jacks and groupers all ply these waters at different seasons. If you've ever had a yen to catch striped marlin, this can be the spot with a blistering bite right now.

Some major hotels like the Solmar Suites have their own sport-fishing fleets or can book you with a local panga fisherman. Baja Anglers, located at the south end of the marina, specializes in near-shore fishing for roosters, dorados and sails on light tackle or fly gear. The charter boats will have all the big-game tackle you need except for specialty fly gear. The East Cape south of La Paz down to the Gulf of California mouth-especially the Bay of Palmas-is a step back in time and far quieter than San Lucas.

Winter is also prime time for muscle-bound blackfin tuna the size of footballs on steroids. You can catch them with live pilchards or use artificials, including flies. You can also ply inshore reefs for groupers and snapper or offshore wrecks for goliath specimens of the same. Offshore sailfish or wahoo? Sharks so big they'll curl the hair on your neck? Key West has it all.

Many top guides operate both inshore skiffs and larger, specialized center-console boats capable of making offshore runs. You won't go wrong for inshore angling by bringing a 7-foot medium/heavy-action spin or casting rod with a quality reel that can hold about 180 yards of 10- to 12-pound-test mono for permit, barracudas and most snappers. A reel with the same capacity but a somewhat lighter-action rod is right for the large bonefish living in these waters.

After a day's fishing you'll want to stroll down to Mallory dock for the sundown celebration, an evening ritual with performances by street musicians, mimes, sword swallowers, jugglers and fire-eaters. When the great tomato-red sun squats below the horizon, everyone applauds and cheers. Nobody goes to bed, though. Key West is an all-night party town. You can spend it at Sloppy Joe's, with its Hemingway memorabilia, or hit the Hog's Breath Saloon to watch a biker tattoo contest, or find some parrothead hangout where the frozen rum runners come screaming from the tap.

[pagebreak] Cabo
If Cabo San Lucas, at the tip of Mexico's Baja Peninsula, can't get you cranked up, someone better check your pulse. This magical vacation spot glitters with glamour gamefish inshore and off. The nightlife is, well, intense (try Pancho's, the Giggling Marlin or Cabo Wabo Cantina), the dining is world-class, the beaches are mind-blowing (check Lover's Beach and its towering landmark rock arches) and the extracurricular activities-diving, golf, kayaking, windsurfing, back-country exploring, to name just a few-are countless. The marlin (Cabo is known as "marlin alley"), sailfish, dorados, tuna, wahoo, roosterfish, sierra mackerel, snappers, jacks and groupers all ply these waters at different seasons. If you've ever had a yen to catch striped marlin, this can be the spot with a blistering bite right now.

Some major hotels like the Solmar Suites have their own sport-fishing fleets or can book you with a local panga fisherman. Baja Anglers, located at the south end of the marina, specializes in near-shore fishing for roosters, dorados and sails on light tackle or fly gear. The charter boats will have all the big-game tackle you need except for specialty fly gear. The East Cape south of La Paz down to the Gulf of California mouth-especially the Bay of Palmas-is a step back in time and far quieter than San Lucas.