RIO COLORADO, Costa Rica — The lightning crackled...the thunder rumbled...and the 140 lb. silver king launched himself toward the heavens. His gills flared out as he whipped his whole body back and forth in an athletic display that just about stopped my heart. It was if once free from the encasement of the water he became a lighter-than-air astronaut, flipping and rolling freely without the drag of gravity.
Ralph set the hook with two sharp pulls on the fly line and hung on because he knew that once this tarpon did eventually come back to earth he was going to be in a hurry to go somewhere. Sure enough! As soon as the huge fish made a circular dent in the Gulf water he was off toward Nicaragua.
The Redington wide-arbor reel was screaming in protest as the 80 lb. backing line quickly disappeared from the spool. Ralph held the fly rod aloft with his tough hands, but right then he was merely a spectator as this huge tarpon had his way with the equipment. It was a knob-blurring, knuckle-rapping burst of blinding speed. Absolutely nothing ever prepares you for the immense energy generated by these wonders of the Rio Colorado.
As if this wasn’t enough, the spitting rain that had been keeping us cool in the early morning, turned into a deluge. The large golf ball-sized raindrops made divots in the ocean as we shrugged on our foul weather gear. It rained so hard there for a while it almost washed my sins away.
Ralph Pino and I had flown into San Jose, Costa Rica on Monday, stayed overnight in a nice hotel, got picked up at 5 a.m. and flew by tiny plane into a little jungle airstrip just down river from the Silver King Lodge. We were met by Roseanne Coty, the manager of the business, who is a local Gloucester woman. In a matter of minutes our gear was loaded into a boat and we headed upriver to one of the most beautiful jungle resorts in the world.
We went to breakfast as the guides took our gear to our room. Within an hour of landing, we were in our boat headed toward the mouth of the river. This river, that marks the northern border of Costa Rica, is at least three times the size of the Merrimack. It rolls out of Lake Nicaragua, located some 150 miles to the west, and flows east down through the rain forest, emptying it’s muddy, nutrient-filled water into the Gulf.
There are hundreds of silver and yellow-bellied tarpon cruising back and forth in thirty foot water, pouncing on anything that flows out of the river. We start the drift right at the mouth where the water is only seven feet deep and let the river current carry us out over the fish. Using black over red streamers, one hundred and fifty pound leaders and six hundred grain fly lines, we work the water slowly. It was in about twenty feet of water that Ralph got this first strike of our trip.
Like most jungle environments, violent weather can clear in minutes. As Ralph fought his fish, the rain cloud that had covered us moved inland to be replaced with high, puffy pillows and rainbows. Off in the distance we could see other rain clouds march across the Gulf with streams of sunlight in between.
After several long runs that filled about an hour and a half, my partner finally got the tarpon to the boat. With practiced ease, our guide reached over the side and with a quick twist of the hook, let the big giant back into the muddy water. With a flick of his tail, the tarpon dove toward the dark bottom from which he had come.
We headed back to the river mouth for our next drift. By now the skies had cleared and the bright sunshine just filled the air. The lines had not been out for more than fifteen minutes when I felt a hard tug on my line. There was no slashing run or leaping strike, the line just stopped. Not knowing for sure what was on the other end, I just pretended it was a tarpon and struck the leader as hard as I could... twice.
I am not sure if the fish knew he was on a line at first. I think he just swallowed the fly and thought there was a sharp bone going down his gullet. But when I really set the hook the second time, he realized that something wasn’t right. There was an explosion of water as he came up out of the muddy Gulf. His whole body got at least three feet above the waterline as he shook his head side to side, trying to rid himself of the sharp hook.
When that didn’t work, he stripped line off my reel so fast the spool was just a blur. Out he went at least the length of two football fields before he went airborne again. Our guide turned the boat in his direction and went slowly toward where he had disappeared. I would turn on the reel as fast as I could to take up the line, trying to always keep pressure on the hook.
The fish seemed to sulk there a minute or two, so we ground our way back to him. I am not sure if I was pulling him to the boat. It felt like he was stationary and I was pulling the boat to him. Once I got close to him, he tried to shed me by diving under the boat. It was only luck and quick hands that prevented him from breaking me off under the hull. As with Ralph’s fish, it took about ninety minutes of constant pressure to tire this giant of the Rio enough to bring him to the boat.
Over the next several days we hooked and sometimes landed giant tarpon after tarpon. Every so often a jack crevalle would latch on as well and go screaming into the horizon. Although we never saw the big two hundred pound fish we had on for about thirty seconds a year ago, there were plenty of huge tarpon to wear us both to a frazzle.
If you are interested in tarpon fishing, contact Roseanne. The Silver King Lodge has flat screen tv’s and air-conditioning in every room, a jacuzzi, swimming pool, bar, massages are available, and the food is first rate. But what really makes this an outstanding place is the quality and size of the tarpon and the knowledge of the guides that pursue them.