Exploding out of the water, the 200 pound tarpon ran and jumped as night began to fall.
Photos and text by Mary L. Peachin
“This is extreme fishing. You’ll be fighting tarpon deep in heart of the Nicaraguan jungle,” La Esquina del Lago fishing lodge owner Philippe Tisseaux told us. Tarpon, larger than a 100, some 200 pounds (right!) may be jumping within sight of the 23 foot panga, but skill and luck are required to catch them.
Philippe thinks Rio San Juan tarpon fishing is the ultimate challenge, but one for experienced and patient anglers.” Or, as Brian O’ Connor of Corolla, North Carolina more pointedly argued, “it’s a knock-down dragged-out brawl with the tarpon controlling you.”
Pioneering in San Carlos seven years ago, in 2003, Philippe bought a corner of land edged by Lake Nicaragua (Lago Cocibolca), Rio San Juan, and Rio Frio and built La Esquina del Lago, which translates to “corner.”
“Finesse, always finesse,” sighs Philippe. He prefers to fish light tackle using 20# test braided line because “it doesn’t stretch like monofilament.” He ties a shock Bimini knot to a short double line followed by a clinch knot with ten feet of 100 pound test leader.
Most of the fishing is done in Reserva de Biosfero Rio San Juan, a lush rain forest of towering trees, winding vines, exotic shore birds, monkeys, sloths, deer, nutria, and other jungle wildlife concealed by the canopy.
Rio San Juan is a birder’s paradise. White egrets, roseate spoonbills, tiger and blue heron, cormorants, anhinga, jacanas are just a few species that territorially stalk bait-size fish along the river’s bank.
The journey begins in San Carlos, a non-descript village that once served as a Spanish fortress. After landing on a 1500-foot partly dirt, partly grass strip in San Carlos, the transfer from a taxi to a panga to Philippe’s Lodge takes only minutes.
A puff of volcanic ash expelled from Rincon de la Viera rising over Lake Nicaragua’s horizon dissolves into a beautiful orange-colored sunset. Approximately 31 miles in the distance, Costa Rica’s forested mountains loom.
Sipping Nicaragua’s finest, Flora de Cana Grand Reserve rum, we sit on rocking chairs on Philippe’s mahogany porch sharing fish tales and our eager anticipation, while watching fire flies flash among the trees.
Night time in the jungle is a symphonic cacophony. The repetitive shrill of an unidentified jungle bird screeches a cry that sounds like “where are you?” Different species of frogs and toads croak and gargle. Rain beats on the corrugated roof. Howler monkeys grumble in the distance. Dogs bark.
At six the next morning, my husband David, friend Bob Greenberg, and I climb into a 23-foot uncovered panga for five days of fishing with Chale “Chili” Jairo Montilla and Francisco “Chico” Narvacz. Just a few minutes from the lodge, we begin trolling four lines with different colored rapalas. After a few runs without any strikes, we reel in. Chili and Chico know the river’s “hot spots.”
Rio San Juan flows southerly from Lake Nicaragua in San Carlos pass the villages of Sabalos and El Castillo, where picturesque ruins of a Spanish fortress tower on a hillside above a wide stretch of rapids. This natural barrier stopped marauding pirates, and in the 1850’s gold rushers bushwhacked around them on their way to California. The rapids stop us as well.
Men in small wooden canoes fish for bass-like guapote. They sell their catch to locals or the few restaurants along the Rio. Others fish along banks with nets, sticks, or hand lines for mojarra. Women wash clothes and dishes in the river. Stilted houses, without electricity, are scattered. The friendly Nicas wave as we pass. Industrious, subsistence farmers, they raise livestock and grow produce. Locals flagged down long boats, operating like ferries, to carry them between destinations. Occasionally a larger boat will pass carrying logs of mahogany, or maybe a truck or appliances.
My adrenaline races when the first tarpon strikes my rod four hours later. It’s a big one, a six-foot silver king weighing approximately 155 pounds. Hooked in the cheek, it’s a two hour battle to the release. David releases a toothy gar. Bob catches a snook, which Sabalos Lodge grills, providing us a delicious lunch. Nicaragua is not a foodie’s destination, so we relish every bite.
Philippe likes his clients to “follow the fish.” Having told us to bring enough clothes for “one or two nights” we fished our way to Sabalos lodge, a two hour non-stop trip on the Rio San Juan. The wood planked hotel has small rooms opening along an open corridor above the river. Like La Esquina del Lago, Sabalos Lodge has no hot water for showering, but their small rooms include a fan. Regardless, we are happy to rinse off the grime of a day’s sweat and sun tan lotion. And, we stay for three nights.
In Sabalos, dusk brings clouds of sayulas, a non-biting fly-like bug attracted to light. We dine on the dim outdoor porch seated as far as possible from several green and red florescent ceiling lights.
During the night rain again pounds the steel corrugated roof. Rio San Juan, measuring as much as 200 annual inches of rain, is one of the wettest regions in the world. Whenever a torrential downpour soaks us, it’s cooling, and preferable to the blazing heat of the equatorial sun.
It’s 5 in the morning, the best time for the bite. “Comida mucho,” Chili tells us. Tarpon tend to be more active before dawn. Grabbing a quick sip of coffee, we climb into the panga.
Most of the day it’s “fundo, fundo, fundo.” Other than snagging the bottom, we jump a few and miss the same.
After fishing Sabalos, we return upstream to El Castillo. The rapids north of the city are known to produce big tarpon. But, not today. We jump several more and lose one.
Instead, we enjoy listening to the growling of howler monkeys, watch a sloth clinging to tree top, admire white egrets fishing almost every hundred yards, and colorful jacanas darting around water lilies.
Patience can be spending a day or more waiting for a strike by a “big one” in Rio San Juan. When it happens, Philippe’s theory of fighting “finesse” comes into play. “Point the rod toward the fish to allow the tarpon to run freely. When it explodes wildly into the air to toss the hook, simply turn your wrist to twist the rod away from the fish. That prevents the silver king from swallowing the lure. Whenever tarpon jump, lower the rod toward the water.
Its late afternoon when David jumps a tarpon and Bob releases one. They are two happy anglers. I’ve spent a frustrating day without a single strike. Most of the day we fished below the rapids of El Castillo. During the midday sun, we take a break in town at El Topal restaurant for a typical lunch and dinner: chicken and pico de gallo, a fried mixture of beans and rice.
Along the river, Median and her 82-year-old husband Enrique Montian have a compound, connected by a rickety boardwalk crossing the swamp-like area. Multiple buildings house their 24 children. It is obvious that the homestead, built by Enrigue, expanded along with his family.
Phillipe has an arrangement for his anglers to stop there for lunch. Seeing some fisherman paddling along the shore in a canoe, we buy some guapote for lunch. We were surprised to find them keeping the fish in an iced container. Median cooks it up for us on her wood-burning stove rather than serving us chicken. The lunch including beans, rice, and plantains costs $2.00 a person.
There is more than just tarpon fishing at La Esquina del Lago. Philippe talked of catching rainbow bass or lagunero weighing in their teens, mojarra, and guapote found along Lake Nicaragua 36 islas in Soltiname Archipelago. With 12-weight line, spinning gear, and plugs, we made the 45-minute run. The weather was nasty, the fishing repetitive, so we opted not to stay overnight. We returned from Mancarŕon back to Sabalos for two more days of tarpon fishing. Soaked by the wind-swept waves of the Lake, the trip back to the Rio San Juan proved worthwhile.
Minutes after dropping our lines, Bob hooked into a 200-pound monster. Exploding out of the water, the tarpon ran and jumped as night began to fall. Extremely fit, Bob struggled to even move the fish. After the sun set over the jungle canopy, we had visions of Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea”, when the Cuban fought the fish throughout the night. Bob brought the fish to the boat time and again, only to have it make another long run.
In the dark, we used a flash light to follow the tarpon while one of us readied the gaff and long-nosed pliers each time Chili leaned over the side to reach for the leader. After two and a half hours, Bob finally released the tarpon into the darkness of the night. We were unable to see the silver king’s beauty, its length or girth. We motored downriver under a crystal clear star-studded night relishing the experience. Two hundred pounds of tarpon was hard to believe, but it was true. That silver king was truly magnificent.