Silvio tackles giant tarpon along the jungle rivers of Costa Rica.
Catching big fish has been a focus of mine pretty much since first picking up a rod. After seeing the movie ‘Tapam’ and being blown away by the big tarpon footage, I needed a taste of that kind of action.
This may be a good point to mention that 95% of my past flyfishing has been chasing trout, mainly in New Zealand. My only non-trout flyfishing experiences have been catching kingfish on New Zealand flats, and trips to the Tiwi Islands and the Bahamas. The biggest fish I’d caught on a fly before this journey, was really only a large baitfish in the eyes of the tarpon I was planning to tackle!
The idea was to do an unguided trip; and to make it a bit more challenging, to fish from an inflatable kayak on my own. Given that I had no prior tarpon experience, this was the equivalent of trying to climb a decent mountain in sneakers. It can be done, but it’s certainly not recommended! I was going to have to learn a lot, learn it fast and hope that luck was on my side.
First came months of research, finding the best locations, fishing equipment, watercraft, and unearthing answers to my many logistical questions. Fortunately, the internet made this part of the equation much easier. Eventually the plane ticket was booked, the gear all packed, and I embarked on an adventure that I hoped would match my Tapam dream.
While sitting on the plane, a stream of thoughts ran through my mind. Especially the ever-present question, how to land a big tarpon from an inflatable kayak, possibly in a rainforest-enclosed environment? A few experienced tarpon anglers had kindly supplied me with some hints, mostly along the lines of, “I hope you hook one small enough to land from a kayak”; through to “Best not to try. Get yourself a guide, a boat… and try to get to the shore once hooked up.” Or, “Watch out for the crocs and the bull sharks”; and simply, “You have got to be nuts!” I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but that is exactly why I was embarking on this adventure.
After flying halfway around the world, it was a huge relief to finally arrive on location. I was staying close to the shores of Lago Nicaragua, a central base. Tarpon can be found in the lake itself, as well as the adjoining wetlands, tributaries and the main outflow, the Rio San Juan. To say I was pumped is an understatement – so much preparation had gone into this.
The story from here is best told via extracts from the journal I kept.
Morning: A really exciting day, the dream has finally started, and I just want to get to the water, quickly!
Evening: It was a happy moment to see the kayak inflated and looking good, with all the shiny new fishing gear loaded and fixed in place. Full of hope to see my first tarpon feeding or rolling, I paddled up a flooded river flowing through the jungle. It was then it really dawned on me how difficult it was going to be to land a good fish in this environment. There was hardly any chance of reaching land, as the shores were pretty much flooded rainforest. The jungle was very thick, and lots of dead trees lined the river’s sides. I never saw any fish today; starting at midday in full sun probably did not help. Still, it was great to finally get an idea about the place and to be here doing it.
Morning: I am feeling a bit more confident today, relieved that the new kayak worked well yesterday. It should get a lot of use over future years.
Evening: A lot of wildlife encountered today, all kinds of monkeys, heaps of caiman, birds of many colours, giant tree lizards, but no tarpon. Tonight, I heard there had been unseasonal heavy rain prior to me getting here. The rivers are carrying lots of water and the adjacent lagoons are much bigger than usual. This unfortunately is diluting the fish, making them a lot harder to find. Luckily, I have plenty of time.
Morning: Just got up, 4 am, trying the early start theory today. The moon is getting weaker and the rivers and wetlands are slowly dropping so my chances should be improving.
Evening: Lots and lots of paddling all day today, checking out likely spots and hoping to finally see a tarpon. I’m starting to wonder if I’m here at the wrong time of the year. However, the country, the people, the environment and the food have been brilliant. All that is missing is tarpon!
Morning: Conditions keep improving and the fishing should be heating up too, assuming the tarpon are here. Today, I will explore a new area. So far, my closest tarpon experience is learning the Spanish name for tarpon, ‘Sabalo’.
Evening: Today I paddled up a more open section of river and started fishing in a likely-looking spot at the junction of two streams. The result again? Nada (Spanish for nothing). By mid-morning, I got a bit sick of casting blind, even though the area looked promising. Nothing was happening at all! Feeling a bit down and to get rid of my frustrations, I started paddling upstream against a very strong current. About a kilometre upstream, I stopped to get some air and luckily there was a small muddy beach to go ashore. While standing there, wondering what to do next, I heard what could have been small explosions further upstream. It’s quite difficult to describe the sound; a bit like a barra boofing, but much louder. Seconds later, I was paddling like a maniac towards the mystery sounds.
Once it became clear what was making all the noise, I just about skimmed across the water towards the incredible sight. Over a 20-30 metre stretch of riverbank, there were several huge tarpon eating their hearts out. All of them were surfacing on a regular basis, about a metre from the shore in a quiet eddy adjacent to an emptying wetland. Sometimes, the whole fish would come out of the water as they speared through the baitfish schools. I had never seen anything like that before, and when the sheer size of the fish became clear, it was truly scary.
The big question was how to approach the tarpon without spooking them? My first instinct was to paddle upstream and then cast into the area while drifting past. However, due to the current, the drift was too fast. The next idea was to fix the kayak to the shore vegetation and cast from downstream. After about 100 casts into the boils, I was starting to doubt my chances of hooking one of these fish. Why did they not take my fly, or maybe, why should they? There were clouds of baitfish and all the tarpon had to do was to hoover them up.
A new approach was needed and fishing from above could have been the answer but, given the spot, it would have meant anchoring right amongst the fish. For a careful trout angler, this was an absolute no no! (How wrong I was, as at a later stage of my trip, I had fish touching the sides of my kayak while still frantically feeding.) Another hour of futile casting and the activity suddenly stopped, just like a mad barra session often does.
Morning: I didn’t get much sleep last night, with the thought of enormous tarpon feeding like mad keeping me awake. What fly could possibly imitate a baitfish school well enough to hook one of these monsters? If they don’t switch to different food, it could well be an impossible task. I have desperately checked my fly boxes, trying to find a fly which could kickstart my dream. There’s going to be a lot of fly testing today, assuming the fish are still there and feeding.
Evening: With a handful of possible fly patterns set aside, yesterday’s hot spot was approached. When it became obvious that the fish were at it again, my hopes were at an all-time high. Fly choice number one was a popper head for flotation, followed by 3 differently-coloured fluffy tube flies, tied by friend Jarred Martin. This 20 cm concoction looked nothing like any fish that has ever lived and ever will. A frantic casting session began, with fish feeding all over the place. Nothing happened for a long time and my concentration faded, while being in total awe of what was happening right in front of me. Then, after a rather sloppy cast, I was just about to grab the fly line to start stripping, when BOOM, my fly got inhaled. So, a tarpon finally took my fly and I was unable to strike! It’s not necessary to describe how that felt at first, but gee, it still made me happy to get a bite. This provided much-needed hope and energy for persistence.
I’m not sure how many more casts it took, but strike number two will not be forgotten in a hurry either. My reflexes were spot on this time as the fish took off. I was hanging onto the line to drive in the hook, just as recommended. Two things marked that moment: the line burning my hand, and the sheer power of the fish. Once the line was on the reel, it started peeling off at an amazing speed, even though my drag was set at about 15 pounds. The hook pulled after about twenty seconds, the fish never jumped (apparently a sign of a big fish), but it was still a scary experience. Sooo much power, unbelievable! How am I going to land one of these titans, if that is the way the pull? It felt like I was connected to 10 double figure-rainbows at once. Simply amazing! The action stopped soon after and I knew where tomorrow would be spent.
Morning: Exciting, exciting! Hopefully a day full of action with the new wonder fly!
Evening: Nada. The fishing has gone dead, the water was probably too cold. The ideal water temperature for tarpon is above 24 degrees and it would struggle to be 20 at present. It has been raining every day since I arrived, with very little sunshine. The locals wonder what happened to their dry season. Good old fishing, the conditions need to be right or it’s just about a waste of time – assuming you are there to catch fish. So, I’ll take a few days off until it heats up again. Maybe the bait feeders were just a one-off and I was very lucky to have experienced tarpon feeding like that.
Morning: The weather is supposed to be clearing this morning and I’m in need of some action.
Evening: As soon as the spot was in sight, the sun broke through the clouds. What a greeting! Finally, some heat and after a couple of hours, the feeding activity started picking up. This was a very happy moment, as another shot was possible. With the weird popper tube fly, my belief in a hook-up was high, and indeed, it only took a few drifts. After the by now familiar cannon sound BOOOM, my reflexes were sharp. A tarpon was hooked and it immediately jumped a couple of metres out of the water. It felt as if the fish was trying to scare me by shaking its head, flaring gills and flexing mid-air. A few more crazy jumps followed, then suddenly the line went slack. Broken off.
Still, those 20-30 seconds of mind-blowing action showed exactly why I was here and it all made sense now. Right there, right then, even though I lost the fish, one of the most intense moments of happiness eventuated. I had finally experienced the emotions and actions of being hooked to a big tarpon. Not too surprisingly, it’s nothing like seeing it on YouTube; this was sooo much more extreme than any video or story will ever be able to tell. Right now, I was a very happy, contented man.
The tarpon continued feeding, although less regularly, and my one and only bait school fly was gone. Replacement flies number two, three, four were tried, but none worked. Hopes for another tarpon high were diminishing and I landed back on planet earth.
Morning: A good night’s sleep after a happy day, but I want more, just to confirm that it was really that good. Is this what they call addiction?
Evening: As I was about to tie the kayak to the shore beside the luck spot, I noticed that the water had dropped enough that a small muddy patch was exposed, just big enough for me to stand on. Once on the bank, the fish were coming up right in front of me and along the grassy shore upstream. Today’s fly choice, a 20 cm piper fly, with tens of little black marker spots (supposed to imitate bait eyes) was cast into the reasonably muddy water. Today, the feeding explosions happened only sporadically, but still caused me to jump and my heart to race every time. After no takes for a while, I decided to move a few metres up into the tall grass. Casting in the head-high grass was impossible, so I dangled the fly over the side, hovering it just below the surface. Then out of the blue, BOOM, I felt a tug. However being so surprised, a trout strike followed. This is no good and the hook never stuck. Did the fish take my piper fly or was it just inhaled by mistake, while hoovering in hundreds of baitfish?
A very quiet patch followed, when suddenly I started hearing feeding noises further upstream. No time was wasted and I jumped back onto the kayak. While approaching the pool, it became clear that a couple of fish were feeding hard: one right in the middle of the pool and one against the bank. As I floated towards the fish working the bank, it came up for a quick feed, almost touching the kayak. Gosh, this was not a big tarpon, it was a huge tarpon: almost 2 metres long and very deep. Never in my life has a fish been too big, never has a fish scared me, but right there my plans were put in doubt.
Then logic left me and addiction took over. I paddled about 10 metres above the fish’s location and threw my anchor into the bushes. The piper fly slowly floated towards the tarpon and once I considered it was in the right area, the fly was left to move freely at the edge of the eddy, with the odd twitch. The fish kept feeding about every minute, completely ignoring my fly.
Eventually, the tarpon must have gotten sick of seeing the fly flash about. There was a cannon shot, a strike, little resistance felt at first, flat out stripping, and then the line came up tight. When this thing surfaced right next to my kayak, I realised trying to hook it might not have been a good idea, but it was too late. With the fish bigger and certainly stronger than me, total mayhem followed: a tarpon rushing upriver, my kayak connected to the bank, stuff tangling everywhere, just a mad mess.
Then the fishing gods jumped in and next thing, I was being towed upriver, creating a bow-wave just about big enough to surf on. The river here meanders and being towed in a kayak, bumping into the banks and trees while trying to navigate obstacles, required a lot of things to work in my favour. The fish decided to tow me over 1.5km upriver, against strong current. I was a good 100 to 150 metres behind, well into my backing and wondering where I was going. After 15, 20 or maybe 30 frantic minutes, I managed to catch up, as the tarpon had decided to stick to the bottom of a deep pool.
Finally, I had some time to take a deep breath and consider the next move, but there was no obvious solution. Then the decision was made for me when for no apparent reason, the hook pulled. Maybe it was just as well and weirdly enough, I was somehow relieved. When this fish first came out of the water, almost landing in the kayak, there was little doubt who was going to win that fight, and sure enough, it was the queen of the river.
It was surreal, crazy experience and so much more – I could now die a happy angler.
Morning: Yesterday, I was happy thinking that I never needed to hook another tarpon. Today, well, if one happens to swim by… Anyway, it would be awesome to finally land a tarpon, but it’s not a necessity anymore.
Evening: Another scary joyride today. After having been towed a good 2 kms downstream by a big tarpon, I managed to get it (about 100-120 lbs worth) on the leader three times, before losing it in some fallen trees. It was total exhaustion and I had no will nor energy left for another similar struggle. I was still sweating an hour later and was ready for a beer. Realistically, getting one of these tarpon to the leader is about as much as I can hope for, unless the bank can be reached somehow. In a confined river, so many things can go wrong and almost did go wrong this time. It was a miracle the rod or something else didn’t break, as the fish and I ended up tangled in a dense cluster of trees. It was once again crazy stuff, and this is definitely the summit of my fishing life. Pretty stoked really, one lucky person to have the chance to experience this!
Morning: To properly land a tarpon, it seems a smaller fish is needed. Only one problem: there don’t appear to be any smaller ones! The kayak this morning was lying flat on top of the 4WD like an empty banana skin. After the bumps and scrapes yesterday, a few punctures needed fixing.
Evening: Finally, a tarpon in my hands today – I am over the moon! The fish was hooked under a tree and its first jump was right into the branches, to the point that I lost sight of it. I managed to get it on the leader half a dozen times. But as soon as the fish was brought close to the surface, it would take off again, pretty much jumping right in front of the kayak every time.
After an hour and no end in sight, my luck changed when a couple of local fishermen motored past. They offered that I could jump into their boat to continue fighting the fish. From the boat, things were much easier, and I was able to apply real pressure. This is when it became clear that the fish had still been green, as the tug-of-war lasted another quarter of an hour. The good news is that I finally landed my first tarpon and got a few photos. A good bottle of vino tinto tonight!
On paper, the trip was reasonably tough, averaging about one take a day. But golly, it was worth putting in the effort, given that all the fish were big (starting at 80 lbs) and fought like demons. During my stay, I was lucky to get about 15 takes, jump maybe 10 fish and do battle with seven tarpon for between a couple of minutes and a few hours. I got three to the leader, and two in my hands.
Would I recommend fishing for big tarpon in the jungle from a kayak? Yes and no. If you worry a lot about things that can go wrong, the answer is definitely no. There are easier and more sensible locations to hook tarpon; with a guide, from a boat. However, if you are slightly bananas, have plenty of time, good fitness and don’t mind fighting big fish in punishing heat in dangerous waterways, give it a shot. It’s heart-stopping and you will never forget the experience.
In conclusion, no keen flyfisher should ever hang up their rod without having been connected to a big Sabalo. They leave you stunned, breathless and begging for more. The saying goes: ‘There are two kinds of fisherman, the ones addicted to tarpon fishing and the ones yet to hook one.’