I’ve been tarpon fishing in Costa Rica for over a decade now, and as challenging as landing a giant silver king is, that’s really only the second half of the battle. Here in Costa Rica so much of your success tarpon fishing has to do with the weather and sea conditions as the best tarpon fishing is done out along the coast at the various river mouths and reefs, and some days simply getting there is the most difficult part of the process. The isolated northern Caribbean Coast features no jetties and certainly no marinas, so whether or not you can exit the river mouth to get out to the open ocean is entirely up to Mother Nature or Poseidon himself. When the sea is rough it’s simply too dangerous to get past the breakers in the river mouth, and between the crocodiles, bull sharks, and strong currents this isn’t water you want to capsize in.
Based on weather patterns there are traditionally two seasons to enjoy Costa Rica tarpon fishing, the spring season of January through May and then the fall season of September-October. Last month we had anglers tarpon fishing throughout the month, and while April is statistically one of the best months of the year for tarpon fishing with more than a 90% chance you’ll be able to get out into the open ocean, the same wacky weather that brought spring blizzards in the US affected us down here. We had anglers tarpon fishing throughout the month last month, and while the first group had good weather and good fishing early in the month we had another group that fished at the famous Rio Parismina Lodge for 7 days and could only get out into the ocean 1.5 days – talk about excruciating! When anglers aren’t able to navigate the river mouth they are forced to fish “inside” on the freshwater canals and rivers, and while there are still tarpon there it’s no where near as prolific as fishing in the ocean.
My parents visited last week for the first time in years, and to show them something new I decided to bring them to Tortuguero. Part of the motivation for this was to not only show them one of most unique and beautiful destinations in Costa Rica, but also of course to go tarpon fishing with my good buddy and legendary tarpon guide, Primo. Typically the weather is good until mid to late May, but I knew we were rolling the dice a bit as we were trying to sneak in at the very end of the season. Turns out my dad is good luck, in all my years of tarpon fishing I have rarely seen the river mouth be so docile. We didn’t have to time our run out with a set of waves or pick a weak spot, we calmly motored over the one-foot waves as if there was no challenge to this process at all – if every day was like this we’d have a lot more tarpon boated. Once we got out Primo ditched the helm and told me to drive, then sat up front to chat with my dad as I sped us north to the Rio Colorado.
Not only was it hot and sunny and the river mouth as scary as a new born baby, we started our day catching 20 fresh sardines right along the tide line outside the river. I’ve been fishing here too many times where the weather was overcast and rainy or the rivermouth was downright nasty, so to have a day start like this you knew it was going to be special. My last tarpon fishing trip was both good and bad, we got about 10 bites but I didn’t release a single fish! I was determined to make up for that debacle this time around and had my routine on loop in my head – set the hook, bow to the king, keep the line tight. Primo radioed one of his captain friends who confirmed there were tarpon at the Rio Colorado river mouth, and once we arrived we could see tarpon rolling everywhere. Fishing with just three other boats we didn’t get our first bite until about 9:30 AM, and it came on my jig. I felt the tug, set up the hook hard three time, then blastoff – a nice 120 lb tarpon took to the skies and probably tossed my jig back at us – why didn’t I bow to the king?!?
With that miss my incredible tarpon schneid continued, but I didn’t lose confidence in my angling abilities nor faith that there would be more bites because we couldn’t go five minutes without seeing a tarpon roll. Primo had my dad, himself, and I set up to jig while one of our fresh sardines was cast behind us to drift in the current. Typically sardines don’t stay on the hooks very long, but for some reason we weren’t getting any bites on it this morning. We each missed a couple of nibbles and the action was as slow as the sun was hot, then the chaos started. Suddenly the rod with the sardine, sitting in the starboard aft rodholder, was hit and the reel started to scream but before anyone could get to it the fish was gone already. Seconds later Primo’s jig in the rod holder next to it started to scream, but as he was reeling in the now-baitless circle hook he wasn’t able to set the hook and after one jump the tarpon was gone. I was jigging in the port-aft position so I was next in line, and sure enough I got a heavy bite and set the hook with everything I had. This very moment was something I know my dad and I, probably Primo as well, will never forget. In a flash the tarpon took to the skies and was eye-level with all three of us. Still in the air just 15 feet from the center console, it let out what sounded like a deep guttural growl as if to show it’s displeasure with all of us. I’ve never heard a tarpon do that and actually had no idea they could, but Primo confirmed that our ears weren’t playing tricks on us as he’s heard it before. After coming home I did some research and basically found out that what we heard was air being forced from it’s lungs, the ‘tarpon burp’ as some refer to it, but in that moment seeing it go down the line tossing bait after bait until I finally hooked it – it sure sounded like a growl from an angry beast. I’d give anything to have that on video, but it will be crystal clear in my memory as long as I still have one!
Twenty minutes later I had the tarpon boatside and my streak had ended, I finally released another silver king. Shortly after that my dad got his first bite, and I think after seeing the battle I went through to land mine he was only partially excited about this. As his reel started to scream he began to nervously say “Uh oh. Uh oh. Uh oh!”. But as tarpon tend to do, they indoctrinated him into the world of tarpon fishing with a mighty jump and shaking of the lure, they were BOTH off the hook. The bite was fairly slow until about noon when we all started to eat lunch, then as so often happens the fish got hungry too. Another tarpon got away with our sardine, then I hooked an battled one for about ten minutes before it finally got off about twenty feet from the boat. Reeling in the jig it was amazing to see that whatever fish I hooked into had nearly straightened the hook. Then things go real chaotic as my dad hooked into another one, and as Primo was shouting at me to get out of the way so he could help my dad I got hooked up as well – double hook up! Sadly they both got off, but the action was heating up. It didn’t take long for the tarpon to give my dad another shot, and this time he didn’t let them get away. A flurry of jumps, including one that almost landed on the bow, and my dad had released his first tarpon.
After that flurry of action near the switch of the tides, the bite finally slowed down. We got a bite here or there, but we were seeing way less tarpon as well. We decided to start our hour long ride back to Tortuguero with eyes peeled in case we saw another school along the way, but we didn’t. It was about 4:30 PM now so I wouldn’t have blamed Primo one bit if he took us back in, but to my delight he motored right past the Tortuguero River mouth to fish the local reef just south of it. We weren’t seeing any tarpon rolling, but all manned our rods and started jigging anyway. After about 20 minutes of no action and no sightings my dad gave up, he was tired and satisfied because he already landed his tarpon. Primo and I are a bit more feverish, or stubborn, so we kept on. You could just tell that at any moment one of us was going to say “OK let’s go home”, but we just kept waiting – then boom! Fish on! A nice 80 pound male tarpon was on and I made quick work of him getting him to the boat just in time for sunset. So rarely do you actually catch a fish after saying “one last cast”, but this was exactly the reason we all try. The perfect end to a perfect day – 12 tarpon jumped, 3 released, and memories for a lifetime.