I’ve been fortunate enough to catch tarpon in Cuba and Panama in the past, but always with either live bait or lures. I decided that my next attempt would be to try catching them on the fly tackle in Costa Rica. This raises the bar somewhat and would be a real test of my angling skills. I think it’s really important to do things in angling that put you out of your comfort zone every now and then, it’s a good leveller!
My visit saw me seeking a fly caught tarpon in the north of the country, close to the Nicaraguan border. Here, the tarpon migrate into the estuary systems and creeks that make their way down to the Caribbean Sea. They are there for one reason only and that is the abundance of baitfish that provide them with an ample larder on which to gorge.
I had made good connections with a local lad ‘Charlie” that had grown up in the jungles of Northern Costa Rica and he agreed to be my guide. The plan was to spend 5 days exploring the backwaters and estuary systems looking for the ‘Silver Kings’ that the area is famous for. Armed with an #11 weight fly rod, floating line, selection of leader material and a box full of flies we were good to go.
The boat we had was simple but fine for our needs, powered by a 40hp yamaha outboard. There was just enough room for the both of us and our equipment with a small casting platform at the front. It was the ideal craft for navigating the overgrown waterways and picking our way through the maze of channels that these impressive fish inhabit. The environment was simply stunning, a vibrant jungle full of wildlife.
On our first morning we were on the water in the dark, a good half an hour before first light. We chugged our way to a hotspot where two channels met that Charlie favored for our first bite and dropped the anchor. As we sat and waited for the light, there were eruptions all around the boat as tarpon started smashing in to bait. It was an incredible sight, some of the fish were well over 100 lbs too!
I started casting and stripping the fly back, sometimes dead drifting with the current and twitching my offering as well. After changing flies a few times, bites were not forthcoming. There seemed to be such a huge amount of natural food that my imitations were not getting a look-in. We moved on and tried another spot. Again, there were plenty of fish in evidence but they just weren’t having it and by mid-morning the feeding spell was over.
It wasn’t until late afternoon that the fish began stirring again and I started casting once more. The fish were deep in cover, right under the branches of the overhanging trees tight to the banks. It was tricky fishing, really testing my casting abilities as I tried to tease my fly through the tiniest of gaps. After many fruitless casts I then got my first opportunity. A huge fish charged down the fly right by the boat at the end of my retrieve and tore off with it.
I set the hook and then all hell broke loose. A fish of 100lbs or so started leaping and thrashing its head in an attempt to throw the hook, as they so often do. Fortunately, the hook held and then the fish tore off on a blistering run downstream towards the sea. Charlie fired up the engine and we gave chase as I desperately applied side strain where I could to keep the fish out of the many snags and submerged trees.
We followed the fish for a good 20 minutes and it was looking like we were going to get our prize when the fish jumped again and the line went limp. My heart sank at that moment. Upon inspection of the leader it was clear to see that the abrasive pads in the fish’s jaw had worn through the 100lb leader. It was a long fight. I was gutted, but that’s tarpon fishing for you. They reckon if you get one in ten you hook to the boat you’re doing well…..and that was the end of the first day.
As I woke the next morning, I could hear the pitter patter of rain on the roof of my cabin. It was the middle of the dry season and totally unexpected too. Charlie didn’t like the look of it, suggesting that rain is bad news for the fishing. We donned our waterproofs and headed out anyway, it was only a bit of rain after all.
Very quickly, we discovered a group of tarpon feeding in a run tight to an overgrown bank and set about covering them with the fly. It was hard work in the pouring rain but to my amazement, almost immediately the fly line pulled tight in my hand and I instinctively set the hook. The fish tore off on a crazy run seaward and then cartwheeled in the air some 80 yards downstream of us. It was bigger than the first fish, Charlie reckoned getting on for the 150 lb mark.
Another run ensued with the reel spinning in my hands before once again the line went limp and the fish was gone. At this point I was heartbroken; it was a huge fish. The leader was intact this time, the hook had simply fallen out of the fish’s hard, bony mouth. That was the last action of the morning too.
The rain never let up and continued all of the following night and morning. The estuaries turned the colour of hot chocolate as dirty water from the distant mountains raged through towards the sea, sadly taking the all tarpon with it. We persisted for the last 3 days in the terrible conditions but never raised another fish. The out of season deluge put an end to any opportunities we may have had. That is the chance you take when you travel half way round the world to go fishing. There’s always next time.
After the tarpon trip, I made my way out of the jungle and headed down to the central pacific coast to meet up with my old buddy Benn Gilmour at Jackpot Sportfishing in Quepos for a day of inshore fishing. You never quite know what you will catch when fishing inshore in this part of the world, the huge variety of available species always keeps you guessing. As it turned out, this trip was going to do exactly that!
There’s some lovely ground around 20 miles east of Quepos which is where we headed. The first job as on any inshore trip with Benn was to fill the live well with bait, after which we made the trek down the coast to the rocky ground off of Dominical.
With livebaits fished from the rear of boat and taking it in turns to chuck lures from the front we managed to find reasonable success trolling slowly along the ledges. The livebaits attracted some snapper and sierra mackerel which kept the rods bent while the lures were attracting the occasional roosterfish.
They can be finicky at the best of times and although they’d chase our poppers right to the boat they’d shy away at the last moment. Frustrating fishing at times but our persistence paid off with some nice ones in the end!
In the afternoon, we spotted a load of birds working and sped over to see what was happening. On arrival there were fish everywhere, smashing bait on the surface. We had a crazy time catching some big jack crevalles and bonitos on our top water lures before the bite fizzled out. The action was hectic with a fish a chuck and at times all 3 of us hooked up together. It was fast and furious rod bending fun. What’s not to like!
To finish the day off before returning to port we used the last of our livebait up just off a large river mouth. It’s a spot where Benn often catches some nice roosters and almost immediately, I had a finicky take. The rod then hooped over and I found myself playing a very powerful fish, it pretty much emptied the spool on its first run and we were all guessing that it was indeed a large rooster. It had some real power and after I regained most of the line it took it all again, it was a very strong fish. Then it jumped and we were all gob smacked to see a milkfish of a very good size attached to the line!
It’s a most unusual catch on a livebait as they are technically a filter feeder more prone to eating algae and microorganisms, but here it was hooked fair and square in the mouth. It was a real surprise and I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to catch such a creature. As a global specimen hunter, I was over the moon….even if it was just a little lucky! They are known as one of the trickiest fish to catch in all of the world’s oceans. I have to say, it more than made up for the disappointment with the tarpon. Costa Rica once again producing the goods and a wonderful time as always!