Tarpon Tales in Tarponville

Over the last few years I have traveled to several different venues to fish for tarpon, the “silver king.”  August found me in Costa Rica, at Tarponville Lodge (https://tarponville.com/), located in the Manzanillo/Gandoca Wildlife Refuge near the border with Panama.  This location is fairly easy to get to from the USA, with many flights available to the very modern international airport in San Jose.  One can then fly to the nearby town of Limon and take a taxi to the lodge, or, in our case, take a bus and be driven the 4-5 hr distance past rainforest and banana plantations.

We were very unlucky with the weather, with huge waves and high winds the first three days. Such weather is not typical in August, but the enormous Hurricane Dorian was just passing through the Caribbean, which may have affected the weather. In general, when the fishing is slow or impossible, the lodge becomes more important. Tarponville Lodge is modest, but is set within a beautiful Wildlife Refuge and positioned nearby a footpath along the beach used by visitors to the Wildlife Refuge. The footpath and nearby grounds are maintained by workers, as the jungle would easily takeover if allowed.  Jungle sights and sounds abound.  Who doesn’t love sloths?  There are both three toed and two toed here, and the guides say they sometimes see them swimming.  There are lots of big spiders and bugs here; although the spiders are not venomous they are big and their huge webs are positioned perfectly to get you right in the face.  We did not see any vipers but did hear stories of people having been bitten in the past. It was not easy to get a good night’s sleep here. Thunderstorms lit up the sky and drummed on the metal roof. When it didn’t rain, howler monkeys partied on the roof and in nearby trees, making unearthly noise.

There was plenty of beer and rum to help pass the time in the lodge while the conditions kept us off the water, but next time I would bring cards or a board game to play until the guides give the signal that it’s now time to fish. We all had books to read, but eventually we wanted to interact with each other. Meals here were modest, with many variations on beans and rice. Consider bringing protein bars that will not melt in the heat; even the guides were happy to munch on these on the boat. The food here is mildly seasoned, so bring your favorite hot sauce to spice things up at the table.

Fishing for tarpon the first three days was daunting. The swells were enormous and the wind was howling. I was airborne a few times as the boats crested the waves.  At least two guests were seasick.  There were no tarpon to be seen outside the lagoon, but we did try to fish for them in likely water.  All of us wondered what we would do if we actually hooked up a big fish in the rolling seas.  There were no lean bars and no way to stay upright.  We went out the first day on the typical fishing schedule – about 3 hours before lunch, then return to the lodge for lunch, and 3-4 hours after lunch until dusk.  The next two days the guides, who are local residents, recommended waiting until 10 AM or so, and then going out on the water for a few hours midday, with a truly minimal lunch (bring those protein bars – and maybe some electrolyte mix) on the boat.

Although we could not spot any tarpon outside the lagoon the first three days, there was an abundance of sea life to marvel at in the rough waters.  Manatees popped up next to the boats, pods of bottlenose, spinner dolphins zoomed past, rays glided by, and even a big mako shark circled the boats.  Hammerheads are common here, but we didn’t see any.

Each boat got a couple of yellowtail amberjack a day as a side benefit of tarpon fishing.  Jacks are aggressive fighters that hit the fly hard.  We mostly donated any jacks we caught to the local village, but one night the chef deep fried chunks of one as an appetizer.  Jack is absolutely delicious, mild flavored and flaky. One afternoon we saw a pod of dozens of jacks move into shallow water and did our best to cast to them, but they are fast and tough to target.

There’s only one mangrove lagoon nearby, and it is not easily accessible. The water is but a few inches deep when approached from the sea, so it took some hard pushing of the skiffs in sync with the waves to get them into the brackish lagoon.  It was the only choice for fishing the second and third days, so we all pitched in to get the boats in.  While lagoon fishing was not as productive as we would have hoped, at least we were fishing. There were indeed a few baby tarpon and snook, but the fishing was achingly slow in hot, humid weather. I caught my first snook ever in the lagoon.  Locals braved the rough waves in front of the lagoon with spinning gear, while other hand lined for snook in the first calm pool of the lagoon. Snook are strong fighters and a favorite for the table.

Finally, by day four the wind eventually calmed a bit and the waves were less aggressively rolling the skiffs. It was time to fish for tarpon! I was the only guest who had fished for tarpon before, but this experience was so different than my previous trips that I was a rote beginner.  I had researched every formula for constructing leaders I could find on the internet beforehand and proudly presented my pretied leaders and homemade flies to the guides on the first day. The guides quickly dismissed my carefully constructed leaders in favor of straight fluoro and shrugged at my flies as being too small.  I had brought just a couple flies that were judged as adequate and mostly had to rely on of the one guests who had come better prepared. I had, after all, fished in two other venues for tarpon so how could I have been so wrong with equipment?

It makes me crazy to not have the right gear for a trip; why can’t pretrip lists be better?  In remote locations where the guides have almost nothing being prepared is essential for a successful trip. This is not just a problem at Tarponville, as it has happened to me at many fishing destinations. I’ve also been on many trips where the host/outfitter/lodge was happy to sell me an “essential” assortment of flies for maybe $200 that I never used.  “We don’t use that anymore” or “that doesn’t work here” seem good reasons to update websites and info packets in general. When a guide pulls a fly out of his kit and says, “use this instead” why not sell me that instead?  I’d happily tie 100 of those beforehand if I only knew. I have whole flyboxes that serve as shrines for unused flies from previous trips. Now, if I am returning to a venue to fish with friends, I make sure that I have tied everyone a “starter kit” of flies that I know worked previously. The guides can still change their minds in favor of the latest and greatest, but I did my very best to come prepared with what’s not on the official packing list.

We all wondered how we would deal with a fish that was 100+ pounds. The guides made it seem like the battle would be epic and lengthy. One guide told us that we had a deadline of 4 PM to hook one, as a lengthy fight could keep us out until after dark. Another guide volunteered to stay out late in the dark for such a battle. One guest made us all laugh by hoping he would only hook up “an old and sick tarpon.” We spent hours blind casting with a brisk retrieve, but mostly what we did was basically jigging a fly on an intermediate line. Because the boats are so long two anglers could fish at the same time, sitting or standing. We sometimes just trolled a fly behind the boat while slowly motoring parallel to the beach. The guides just told us to “strip faster if you see a tarpon rolling.”  We did see some tarpon roll and watched like little kids with noses pressed against a window as a boat from Panama caught a tarpon or two in front of us.

At 3 PM on the afternoon of day 4, while jigging a fly, I jumped my only tarpon of the trip.  So yes, this technique does work. There was no awesome take; the fish was just weight on the line and took a lot of backing, but was still manageable on a 12 wt rod.  Of course, I did not land it and might have had a lengthy and epic battle, but now I am pretty sure I could have handled it.  I got four jumps out of the fish before it sawed through 80lb leader. The power of these fish is astounding.  Eighty-pound fluoro could not stand up to a 100lb tarpon; the two adult tarpon that were landed that week were on straight 100lb fluoro.

After that we were all giddy with possibilities for the remaining two days. We went out to fish earlier in the morning in the hope of chasing the tarpon and we saw lots of them that came in with the tide, following schools of mullet. The tarpon moved so fast that the boats could not get ahead of them. After some frantic casting, with only a couple hooked during the course of the week, they were simply gone. We spent the remaining hours moving from spot to spot, jigging, sometimes even fishing in Panama waters, mostly fruitlessly looking for rolling fish.

As for targeting other species, we all passed on fishing for permit. Because the water was so rough the guides did not recommend even trying.  By the end of the week we were all wanting to get tarpon and did not want to give up a day to travel to better permit grounds. We had all hoped to fish for triggerfish from the beaches, but the rough water and flat light made the fish impossible to spot – until the last morning.  Walking to the lookout point through the park I spotted several triggerfish tailing and thought sadly of my gear already packed up for the trip home.

Reflecting on my other tarpon adventures, this could not have been more different.  In Belize we only sight cast to tailing fish, and although we got shots at fish every day, we might have only thrown a total of a dozen casts per day. The numbers in Belize were not especially different, as our group of 14 anglers only jumped two tarpon that week.  In Cuba we did blind cast to juvenile fish (say up to 60 lbs), but with much more success. There were also many more mangrove lagoons to fish there, with more sight casting to baby tarpon.  However, neither venue had fish the size of the 100+ lb tarpon in Costa Rica. To have a fish that size on the end of your line, well, that’s pura vida.