When Ted Smith first experienced the generally flat-calm, loaded-with-billfish waters off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, the wheels started turning in his head. Having experienced great fishing in destinations spanning from Mexico to Australia, Smith felt that the coast of the Central American nation had tremendous potential. With his wife, Joni, Smith visited Los Sueños Resort and Marina in 2003, purchased property, and eventually moved their fishing operation there permanently a few years later. Since then, the family’s 70-foot Weaver, Southern Pride, has become a sport-fishing school of sorts for the next generation of Smith anglers, which now includes their 10-year-old grandson, Jonah Smith.
Starting at the age of 3, Jonah began fishing in Costa Rica with his father, Ashley, and grandparents Ted and Joni. As with most kids, it starts with a fascination with the bait—Jonah loved making sure that the silvery ballyhoo always had plenty of ice to keep them company. From there, it was on to catching small dolphin, then sailfish—always with an adult nearby to keep him safe and secure in the cockpit.
As his angling experience progressed, it was time to start learning the art of hooking his own fish—he still wanted to reel in every one hooked, but Jonah was ready for the next step. Spending some time in Los Sueños over the Christmas holiday in 2021, he was able to hook and release his first Pacific blue marlin and his first sailfish—all without a backlash or a blister—amid the smiles and prideful looks of his grandparents. Next up: tournament fishing.
“We had talked about the Pelagic Rockstar tournament, and maybe fishing it with Jonah because they had a junior angler division,” Joni Smith says. “I had won the top female angler award there in 2020 and 2021, and was also the top overall angler in 2021, so we knew it was a really fun tournament where we would all have a good time.” As with most youngsters these days, Jonah hopped on Instagram and began following the tournament; that’s where he came across the account of Pelagic Gear’s regional marketing director, Zac Yarbrough.
As much a human force of nature as a representative of the worldwide fishing community, Yarbrough is a walking inspiration. Jonah was not only fascinated by his fishing adventures, but also the fact that Yarbrough is undergoing his second round of chemotherapy treatments for a rare form of male breast cancer, all in his signature ultra-positive manner—if he’s having a bad day, you’d never know it. Jonah was all in at this point, with two goals: win the top junior angler trophy and meet Yarbrough on the docks.
Day One of the two-day Rockstar event kicked off with an early-morning start out of Marina Pez Vela in Quepos. As Capt. Chris Garner slowed to lay down the riggers, the anglers set up in the cockpit: Ted, Joni and Jonah, with Michelle Jenkins rounding out the foursome.
In the days leading up to the tournament, the talk on the docks was of the blue marlin bite—one of the best in quite a few seasons was still going off, and just in time. According to Joni, their first fish of the day was a red-hot blue that streaked across the spread and pummeled Ted’s bait on the right flat. Because Rockstar tournament rules allow an angler to hook a fish and hand off the rod to a fellow angler, he locked it up and turned the rod over to his young grandson. Keep in mind that there were 83 teams fishing for $1.3 million in prize money, making this the richest tournament in Central America.
Jonah skillfully handled the marlin as it darted from side to side, testing the maneuverability of the big Weaver before making an unstoppable dive into the depths. Jonah continued the battle for a back-breaking 45 minutes, eventually moving to the chair to gain a bit of additional leverage. “He kept telling himself to not give up—never give up,” Joni says. “It didn’t take much longer and we were able to release that one, which was his very first tournament marlin.” After a quick rehydration, Jonah was back on the right flat, where he released two more sailfish later in the day.
Back at the dock, Michelle “Shellfish” Keeney introduced him to Yarbrough, to whom he recounted the marlin battle in great detail—as all offshore fishermen are prone to do, with plenty of exaggerated hand gestures.
Day Two found Jonah once again camped out on the right flat, and by the end of the day, he had tallied an additional four sailfish. That afternoon, Jenkins hooked a blue marlin and handed off the rod, where Jonah immediately said that he was not going to let this one fight as long as his first. With Garner backing the boat up hard and Jonah steadily keeping pace with the fish, the team was able to get a quick release in just a few minutes.
As Southern Pride returned to Marina Pez Vela, the team initially thought that Jonah had finished in second place for the Rockstar’s junior angler standings, so it came as a very pleasant surprise when emcee Tyler Kapela announced that, with two blue marlin and six sailfish releases, the winner of the 2022 Rockstar Top Junior Angler trophy was Southern Pride’s Jonah Smith. Followed by his beaming grandfather, he accepted his award and returned to his seat at the table, where it suddenly occurred to him that he was not able to take advantage of his brief moment in the spotlight. Jonah headed back up to the stage and asked Kapela if he could say a few words.
In a proud, clear voice, Jonah said: “Zac, this is for you. Never give up!”
This article originally appeared in the April/May issue of Marlin.