Costa Rica Season 2019 – Week 3, GUEST BLOG

Paying homage to the Silver King of Costa Rica

by Paul Danckwerts

The first time one connects with a tarpon, it is forever etched in your memory. My recollection is as vivid now as it was in that moment. On the morning of my first day in Costa Rica, the line was out on my third or fourth cast in the Atlantic before my fingers registered a gentle bump on the fly. It was hardly worthy of a fish whose reputation so precedes it, so I didn’t think much of it. But before my brain had time to realize what was happening, the fly line was powerfully wretched through my hands with terrifying speed and the coils at my feet whistled around my ears. It was only muscle memory that kept the situation under a modicum of control and I managed to hold on long enough for the silver king to first reveal himself. The opercula flared wide as the fish flailed it’s way skyward displacing so much water with each flick of it’s massive tail. The violent head shakes left me feeling quite helpless with nothing but the hope that the hook set was true. I had never before connected with a fish of this size on fly and I’ll humbly admit that it was scary. Alas, the fish shook the fly and the skipper, a veteran of twenty two years, imparted some timeless tarpon wisdom: the hardest part is setting the hook.

A combined twenty hours in the air leaves one with a lot of time to ponder the pursuit of new species, the fly fishing adventures that have taken us there and the people we have met along the way. There truly isn’t much that we wouldn’t put up with in order to pay homage to certain legendary fish. This time the journey started in Johannesburg, South Africa, and ended on the banks of the Rio Colorado River in Costa Rica, just south of the border with Nicaragua. Walking out of the Juan Santamaria International Airport terminal building, one is confronted by a multitude of porters, taxi drivers and passersby all looking to make a dollar. Marc Bielovich, Marco Dagnolo and Arthur Lello and I make our introductions while Pierre Joubert, one of African Waters’ top guides and our host for the week, secures a ride to the domestic terminal around the corner. After a short passport inspection we board a Cessna Grand Caravan for the twenty minute flight into the jungle. As the condensation streamed across the window we stare down at the lost waters of northern Costa Rica; brown rivers snaking their way through a vast green jungle towards the Atlantic. Before long, the mighty Rio Colorado comes into view and upon our descent we admire the river mouth as it belches forth an unfathomable volume of nutrient rich water into the ocean. And year after year, astonishing numbers of big Atlantic tarpon gather here to take advantage of an abundance of herring and other baitfish.

We step off the plane onto the lush lawns of the Costa Rica Tarpon Lodge, a simple yet comfortable family run guest house which is to be our home for the next six days. We’re welcomed by the friendly staff and handed a refreshing fruity beverage. The communal dining area had ample space for the group to spread out and organize fishing equipment which was exactly what happened the moment we put our bags down. Pierre weathered a storm of enthusiasm as we fired a barrage of questions at him. He checked all our rigs down to the last knot then briefed us on what to expect over the next few days. It was obvious that he was well versed in the tackle and techniques required to catch a big tarpon and proved his worth time and again during the course of the week, adding tremendous value to the experience.  He also had a fly tying table set up which was utilized on more than a few occasions. 

Fly fishing in Costa Rica arguably muddies the line between conventional and fly fishing. For a start most fish fall into the 70 to 180 pound bracket with the occasional specimen exceeding 200 pounds so nothing short of a fourteen weight will suffice. Early on the first morning we were out on a glassy golden surface and the fish were rolling everywhere at the river mouth; their dorsal fins scything their way through the surface like a pod of dolphins in search of prey. Just seeing so many big fish moving around like that was enough to raise the heart rate. It wasn’t long before Marc and Marco opened the batting with a double-up. Later on I raised two and Arthur released two including a 130 pound monster on a chartreuse jig. It was a start of good things to come. Later that afternoon after a lunch break we learned that keeping a weather eye on the horizon could be very productive. Frigates dive bombing into the surf a long way off got the good captain very excited so we fired up the engines and raced further out to sea. Frothy white water could be seen from a distance while more and more birds joined the fray. When we got there the scene laid before us was utter mayhem. The water boiled with baitfish as jack crevaille cut through the herring from below and numerous seafaring birds maintained a constant arial bombardment. The fly had barely wetted itself before it was hammered by a respectable jack. A close relative of the infamous giant trevally, jack crevaille are strong, powerful predators in their own right and landing this first one left me a very happy man. There was a point where it seemed that everyone was into a fish and the feeding frenzy, in anything, seemed to intensify. Keeping calm amidst the bedlam was impossible and trying to put together a decent cast was a tough proposition. I sent the line out again and stripped like a bewitched person. A jack hit the fly mid strip and I set the hook, locking my arm behind my back and watched the rod bend into the water. Eventually, the bait ball broke into smaller fragments and the onslaught subsided then disappeared all together. Between four of us on that first day, we successfully released seven tarpon and eight jack crevaille and each of us learnt that with tarpon there is always very little, if any, room for error.

The commute back to camp at the end of each days fishing involved breezing through the Barra Del Colorado Wildlife Refuge, Costa Rica’s second largest wildlife reserve, within which our lodgings were situated so I always scanned the treetops for a chance encounter with some of the country’s famed exotic birds. Upon arrival, we enjoyed fresh tropical juices with a splash of gin while the staff prepared everything from a delicious Caribbean chicken dish and an absolutely scrumptious local rendition of triple tail (blackfish) to cottage pie. The piece de resistance, however, was a lobster dish served on our final evening that just captured the essence of the whole trip. The relief of being able to then retire to a comfortable bed in an air-conditioned room after battling big fish in tropical heat guaranteed a blissful sleep in preparation for the next day.

On our second day we needed plenty of patience. Bites were few and far between so converting those opportunities was of paramount importance. Gazing out at an active volcano in the distance, watching the dolphins, listening to authentic central American music from the boat stereo or swapping fishing stories over a cold Imperial Lager was how we passed the time. On a few occasions we spotted big schools of tarpon rolling in the deep. Like Genghis Khan and his mongol hoards these huns of the sea were a challenge to catch up to as they blitzed their way through schools of baitfish. However, just moving out into the general area usually resulted in a hookup. On quieter days we would send out a ribbon fish (Atlantic cutlassfish) on a circle hook suspended beneath a float. Ribbon fish are long, thin silvery fish with a steel blue to silvery grey color that are readily taken by tarpon and jack and are without doubt the best looking dead baits I have come across. Later on in the trip I caught a 75cm jack in this way. Eventually our patience was rewarded and Arthur released his best tarpon of 140 pounds and Marc one of 130 pounds. With the pressure off so early on in the trip we set about just enjoying the experience to the fullest and just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, it did.

Following four wild, fierce leaps high into the air and a blistering run into the backing the tarpon, as with most of the fish we hooked in deeper water, went straight down. Holding stubbornly somewhere beneath the boat, these bigger fish were difficult to move, so with each swell I would wind half a turn on the Shilton SL8 and inch by inch put more and more pressure on my adversary. Of course, it got to a point when the line was singing under the strain and the fish refused to budge so there was nothing left to do except wait it out. Gaining line was only achievable after a lengthy tug of war and eventually when the fish neared the boat, it would suddenly change direction and make another desperate bid for freedom, introducing you to your backing once more. After the rigmarole of gaining and losing line repeatedly, boating the fish was a whole different ballgame. Somehow, tarpon just never tire and even with leader in hand, they always had something in reserve. Manoeuvring the fish alongside the boat for a photograph and a quick release was something of a challenge but a task Pierre and the skippers went about with enthusiasm. They were instrumental in helping me to release this 130 pound fish after 1h30m. They certainly had their work cut out for them the following day when Marc boated a 150 pound monster on the aforementioned chartreuse jig which kept him busy for nearly two hours. While that fish pulled them further out to sea, I had three hookups in quick succession, managing to boat both an 80 and 100 pound fish. On the fifth day I was taught a serious lesson by a 75 pound fish that changed gear so often I had my ribs against the gunnel and my knees on the floor of the boat several times as I tried to avoid breaking the rod. Anticipating the change of direction was key and often left the rod swinging over the bow just in time. The hard fighting, powerful, aerial reputation of the Atlantic tarpon, if anything, is watered down! It needs to be experienced to be believed!

As so often happens with fly fishing remote and exotic destinations there is always a dust up with an absolute behemoth that somehow gets away. It is the proverbial carrot that keeps you dreaming about a follow up trip for years to come. Our last full day was action packed with both boats raising multiple fish but only two were brought to the boat. Perhaps it was the sore muscles and frayed nerves. For most of the morning the horizon was a dramatic tapestry of thunderstorm activity. Lightning streaked across a darkening sky in the distance and the sound of rolling thunder rippled across a bumpy sea. I happened to be lost in a peaceful reverie when a tarpon thumped my fly so hard I very nearly fell off the boat. Surprisingly, it leapt clean out of the water towards us and then halving the distance, it heaved it’s giant yellow belly out of the water again before taking the customary dive to the depths. My left hand simply could not haul in the slack line fast enough and I failed to set the hook. The only thing left to do was sit in the bow and sip an ice cold Imperial to calm my shaking hands, soothe the adrenaline still coursing through my veins and reflect one a weeks worth of truly extraordinary fishing. 

The end tally was 24 tarpon (the majority of them over 100 pounds) and 10 jack to the boat with at least double that number in hookups. There can’t be many places in the world where one is offered so many opportunities at triple digit tarpon. Coupled with fantastic food, astounding natural beauty, efficient logistics and friendly locals, Costa Rica is one of the finest fly fishing destinations in the African Waters collection! And I will be back!