JUNGLE TARPON DIARIES – COSTA RICA (NOV.2015)
Our scouts and media crews have always been extremely fond of Costa Rica. Despite the early stories of Solid Adventures founder Christer Sjöberg who has fished the ocean side tarpon fisheries at their early high times, the land and people itself are intriguing enough to spend some extra time sightseeing. Bear in mind that Costa Rica just recently fell back to the 2nd rank of the overall well-being list in the world (Gallup-Healthways Global Well-Being Index). Even though the exciting high days of the ocean fisheries both on the Costa Rican & Nicaraguan side were seemingly over, new fisheries have evolved… some of them with a greater potential than ever. Combining both lagoon and river fishing for max 4 anglers and virtually no fishing pressure, this is exactly what brought us to San Jose, once again. Already in April 2015, our local Costa Rica Manager Tom Enderlin, had exciting news about the Jungle Tarpon project. His tireless efforts to scout the area and fisheries to provide the best possible setup with a low-impact sustainable fishing operation had turned out to be ready for a field-test. The countdown clocks were set to November 2015.
The group, consisting out of Vadim from Belarus, Marius from Lithuania and the three Solid Adventures reps. Rickard, Tom and Stephan finally met in the outskirts of San Jose to discuss the tactics over a solid Steak and some bottles of red wine. Partly to cheer the multi national group up because the weather forecast and the water situation had gone from promising to grim in a flash…. Just as much as El Nino influences our southern most Operation, Estancia Las Buitreras, with a strong and humid season, it effects the north too. Typically in the opposite direction offering a substantial lack of water. The sparse rain will then mud up the low water hence making it more or less unfishable. To make a long story short, Tom lowered his expectations during the picturesque early morning ride from San Jose to the Lodge, saying that he had never seen the rivers and lagoons as low as they were right at the moment. Little did we know that his grim predictions would still mean sport beyond our imagination.
Even before the last bags were unloaded around noon, the gear was rigged up and the entire group was dying to see the river. The predestined boat pick-up point in a lagoon right behind the cabins was too dry to enter or exit, as the water had dropped around 2 Meters compared to the previous week. A 5 minute car ride to the little landing dock in the village solved the problem, we split up on two pangas style boats and we were ready to go. Having seen a fair share of tarpon fisheries around the globe, the water conditions looked anything but promising. To our surprise, the boat stopped already after ten minutes going upstream. Boat No.2 dropped the anchor in the middle of the river. No time for foreplay, a triple digit tarpon showed it’s massive fin, patrolling and tailing all along the shallow bank, almost like a gigantic Permit showing it’s whole tail from time to time! The dumbstruck faces in our boat pretty much told the story and we immediately decided to dump Stephan on the bank with a camera to document the scene…
The versatility of this place not only provides an exciting fishery with many various facets, it also comes handy in adverse water and weather conditions. Lagoons all along the section of the river feed the main system with dark but clear water in case the river water level drops or muds up. These junctions turned out to be very productive hot spots. The constant flow of water washed the sardines out of the lagoons and the tarpon would stack up where the clear water mixed up with the colored river water. Despite the low visibility, the tarpon would absolutely crush the small baitfish and the flies. Surprisingly, dark flies or flies with a lot of flash didn’t really trigger reaction strikes – bright but subtle colors worked and moved a lot of fish. The first half a day session got us an overview over the area, as a matter of fact both boats would count bites but no landed fish. We saw tailing tarpon, fish hunting in packs pushing baitfish against the river bank, rolling fish and basically any type of tarpon behavior you can think of.
The filming from the bank sparked the idea of hooking one of these fish right off the bank with a crab imitation – these thoughts would stay with us for the entire trip, and especially Stephan had a hard time letting this idea go! There was even an incident where Rick woke up at 3 in the morning with a dirty sock in his face and a smiling Stephan across the room wanting to discuss the potential of hooking a monster from the bank. Stephan would get his chance though…
The group started our first full day with a little more visibility in the water that resulted in the first pack of landed fish. After changing from black to brighter flies, we would immediately connect to the fish. The mix of river fishing and swinging the fly into the hot areas and pockets whilst maintaining full tension every single second, was an interesting mix that demands full focus. Some of these fish will not turn right away, some of them will just lip it while others shoot directly towards the boat. The almost claustrophobic sensation of the lush jungle that is full of life, a river merely the size of a trout river and big silver bodies breaking the surface as they roll or hunt is mesmerizing enough. If you happen to jump one both the visuals and the acoustics on close quarters are unheard of. In fact, we would estimate the first jumped fish much bigger than it actually was – during the course of the week, we would get the idea of the real size and true monsters. They simple look much bigger and intimidating when they do their show up close and in front of a lush wall of green that echoes all the sounds. While Rick and Stephan were very happy to start it considerably slow with some 45-55lb fish, a couple of trout sets and the mandatory bullying that comes with it, Vadim had no time to loose. His contagious smile walking up the landing dock would tell the victorious story, but only the measurements confirmed his first fish to weight in at a whopping 150lb.
A big fish by any means, a normal fish according to the local guide who never doubted a second that we would touch fish in-spite of the water conditions.
Triple digit tailing tarpon (Stephan’s own words on an unusual tarpon tumble)
”The pace was set and the group kept it that way. Day No.3 started with a bang as I got the first real shot at the tailing fish off the bank. While Rick swung the fly across the school from the boat, I asked to be dropped off at the shore to swing the fly into the cutbank rather than the other way around. The first couple of casts with an andino diver didn’t really hit the nerve. Around 3 meters away from the bank, another big fish started to tail. The entire group marvelled about this very phenomena on the dinner the night before. Although we could never see crabs or other cretaceous animals ourselves, the locals would re-affirm that they do indeed tail for crabs. According to them, they blast some water into the cavities on the bank to wash them out. For some reason, I had a pair of Fulling mill 6/0 GT crabs with me – way bigger and a lot more hook than I usually fish for tarpon but good enough to see if they eat crabs indeed. The tailing turned into a periodic appearance and the fish showed more frequently. I placed the fly a couple of meters upstream to drift it right into the area. Just like I would czech nymph a jig, I high-sticked the rod to feed it some line. My eyes watched the tail gently moving with the current, trying to spot an unnatural twitch or tweak that would indicate a bite. The fish went deep as the fly approached. Before I saw the swirl, the line stopped and moved upstream… That fish had just collected it, like a candy really. The line went tight and a quick jab buried the hook into the right corner of it’s mouth – I could tell, because as soon as I came tight to the fish, it went ballistic! After the first attempt to keep up with the fish that bolted upstream like crazy, only a jump into the boat would save me from getting spooled. Unlike all the other fish that moved into the deeper part of the river after the first set of violent jumps so one could but the hurting on, this fish swam right through every piece of wood there was on his path approx. 1Km up the river. On two occasions, we had to go around the tree to get the line with the anchor, cut it and splice it back together. I couldn’t believe that the fish was still on after my first attempts to dive after him in the muddy floods… Ultimately, it stayed on, never chewed through the Hatch 80lb Fluorocarbon leader. Quick measurement would put this beast at 100-110lb into the books… and just like all other fish, a scale-sample to the good guys from the bonefish and Tarpon trust. Boat No.2 landed another fish meanwhile, which already took the pressure off as everybody had at least one landed fish on the score list. ”
Vadim’s Monster No.2
As the week proceeded the water level fluctuated quite a bit but the pulses of water would never render the fishing grounds unfishable. More fish had been hooked, jumped and landed – some of them off the bank again. Finally when the water came up and cleared a little, bigger numbers of fish started to move upstream into the lagoons. The push of fresh water on top clearly shuffled the deck and the bite was on! Vadim returned back to his favorite place where he had subdued the biggest fish of the trip already. With this confidence boost he went back… and the rest is history: The history of his biggest tarpon in his impressive career of chasing big fish on the flyrod around the globe. Luckily we had a camera running when the boat came back way after dark. We were already popping some brews when a text message informed us that Vadim had connected with a true monster. The fish was leadered after one hour of battle. They could get an estimated lenght/Girth of it before they popped the leader on it. With a fork length just above 200cm this fish weights in at 180-200lb. Another type of animal really and the stark example of what we signed up for in this jungle. Some more big fish up to 160lb were played and lost during the week. A bunch of smaller fish up to 70lb made it to the boat and were sampled – but nothing close to the monster that Vadim had landed. Having that said, fish of that size and even bigger would roll frequently in some of the deep spots. We are talking fish as wide as both of Rick’s legs next to each other (certainly wider that Stephan’s legs). in mind that the conditions were still anything but in our favor.
During the end of the week, we had the first realistic shots at lagoon tarpon. The push of water had finally risen the river above the lagoon water level and the outflow into the river was reverted. A lot of water was streaming now into the big bodies of stillwater and the tarpon followed to feast on the abundant sardines. Initially quite erratic as single fish would dart from one top end to another to check out what these lagoons look like. After a while they were on the baitfish where they would just hoover through like a vacuum cleaner. Especially in the early mornings, the fish would patrol the weed line for baitfish. A bigger, colorful but un-weighted fly that intercepted them was violently trashed – pretty much every time you got it in front of an active fish. It also resulted in a bunch of head-out-of-the-water takes right towards you and the boat. On this particular morning Stephan had just presented his fly to a random movement in the water, maybe 5 meters away from our position when this exact thing happened. Out of nowhere this gigantic tarpon head comes flying out of the water, mouth open and shaking like a tuned up tumbler and the whole jungle went silent! No more howler monkeys yelling, no more birds singing, no nothing. Just absolute silence and then this dinosaur shaking its armor sounding like a flushing airplane toilet!
Stephan kept his cool though (officially he did), managed to keep on stripping, and even had an attempt at a hook set. Rightfully, the fish jumped away from the boat and spit the fly back at Stephan and Rick. The fly missed Stephan by an inch and found some soft flesh on Rick’s butt. Luckily for him Stephan didn’t hook set again even though the adrenaline levels were pretty high at that moment… Although the barb never really made it in all the way, Rick was in for a vendetta. Last day: We arrived before sunrise, fueled by excitement and the first cup of arabica coffee that filled the air with it’s pleasant aroma. A day created to take shots of leaping monsters in a placid lagoon. The 11 weight Meridian was rigged up with a full floating line and a longer leader to be as stealthy as one can possibly be with an 11weight. The distant sound of a thousand birds, monkeys and jungle creatures tuned in with the rhythmic gentle gurgling of the push pole bringing us closer to the feeding areas. Every now and then, a silver back would break the mercury surface and the low pitch sounds that every tarpon angler know would electrify every follicle on your skin. Goosebumps. After one fish that followed all the way up to the boat, Rick placed a good cast well ahead of a rolling fish. The camera was rolling and it came tight after a bunch of strips – the music of a strip strike, played on a bass guitar string that is zipping into the horizon. The fish leaped into the rising morning sun and we decided to turn the camera into still photography mode to capture the long shadows and harsh contrast of the warm morning light. A solid 70lb fish was sampled and released that morning. What a perfect beginning of our last day. 2 more fish that morning finished the trip of with another stark impression of what the river would be like if the conditions were good. Of course we will find it out… next season. It must be mental, and just to give us an idea, Tom kept us up to date after we had left. A single client managed to get 60 bites in half a week! 60! His week reports will fill these pages here soon. Till then, We hope you enjoy these short clips and images.
Over the course of the week we would sample various local restaurants and diners al gusto. Fresh local ingredients, good food and cold beer we would find in all of them. Especially the local garfish as well as the rainbow bass hit the taste of our anglers. All in all a very pleasant way to get into the local rhythm. Every fishing week of course needs a proper fish-fry or BBQ, which is held at the lodge. Fishing stories, cigars, tackle discussions and drinks are a mandatory side dish!
See you on the water
Solid Adventures | Stephan Dombaj