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January 29, 2013

Kings of the Jungle

Tarpon and Snook Dominate Nicaragua’s Wild Caribbean Coast

We sounded like a gaggle of kids watching a fireworks show. “Wooowwww!” I said when a 100‑pound tarpon exploded off the transom. “All right!” said angler Erik Gibbs as a ­greyhounding poon angled away off our beam. But just as quickly as we rallied, we sank. In the span of about an hour, seven fish hit, seven jumped, and all spit the hook or lure. A tarpon jinx had rained on our parade.

Thankfully, though, the big fish had shown us their numbers. In this barely pressured area off Nicaragua’s southern Caribbean Coast, tarpon obviously thrive around the mouth of the Rio San Juan. Up in the rivers and creeks, snook patrol at strategic ambush locations.

Had we not scheduled this mid-October trip on top of a full-moon phase, chances are a few of those first marauding tarpon would have made it to the boat. But we had more time, and we had the right company.

Changing Times


Silver kings weighing well into triple digits flood the Rio San Juan delta off southern Nicaragua. (Pat Ford)

In many ways, Nicaragua seems like a land forgotten. Absolutely steeped in history, this region reflects all the wildness of a 17th-century coast. Long stretches of volcanic beach lined by thick jungle could have greeted Capt. Henry Morgan in the exact same way they welcomed me, my husband, Spud, our host, Erik, and our guide, Rito.

In 1665, Morgan led six shallow-draft canoes up the Rio San Juan to attack the Spanish city of Granada, an important trading center. Two centuries later, American transportation magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt secured a steamboat route up the river, through Lake Nicaragua and on to the Pacific to more quickly transport gold-rush investors and equipment from the U.S. East Coast to California.

A lagoon was named for Morgan, and a tall, rusting dredge left by Vanderbilt still stands in that same calm bay.

Many middle-age Americans remember Nicaragua for other reasons: the Contras, the Sandinistas and the overthrow of Anastasio Somoza in the late 1970s. Since then, the country has stabilized and tourism is blossoming.

Rio Indio Lodge, which hosted us for three days of inshore fishing, illustrates Nicaragua’s miniboom. The beautifully crafted hardwood, eco-friendly lodge winds through acres of jungle on a point overlooking Morgan’s Lagoon. Though it was built eight years ago, it has remained a very low-key resort because visitors have had to arrive by boat — a two‑hour trip from the closest airstrip.

However, this month, the Nicaraguan government is scheduled to complete a small airport just moments away. Rio Indio itself has plans to expand its marina, and add a spa, bakery, gift shop and wildlife-rehabilitation center. Currently, the lodge offers salt- and freshwater fishing trips, eco-tours and jungle-survival courses.

Secret Weapons

The fishing brought us here, of course. Like most other Caribbean coastlines, this one promised phenomenal inshore action, but with even less competition. During three fishing days, we saw only a handful of locals in pangas. Some hand-line the fish while others use conventional tackle; they do kill tarpon for food.


When river levels drop during Nicaragua’s dry season — November through April — anglers find more snook.

As we motored out the shallow, S‑shaped pass 10 minutes from the lodge, we encountered a panga carrying three Nicaraguans, a dead tarpon and a swordspine snook. The snook was small enough for bait, so the locals handed it to Rito.

Rito turned his 26-foot center-console east and ran just a few minutes before stopping over depths of 50 to 80 feet of green water. The underwater topography here consists mostly of sand, shallow holes and small rocky areas, but Rito uses no depth finder; he looks for slight rips and color changes to select drift locations.

Once he shut off the twin 90 hp Mercury outboards, the wind and current swept us south. Rito baited one conventional rod with the dead snook under an egg sinker, deployed it and began jigging a light spinner with a sabiki rig to find more bait.

Erik and Spud tied on weighted swimbaits and began bouncing them off the bottom. Spud and I had brought two Penn spinning reels — a Battle 7000 and a smaller Conquer 7000 — because we like traveling to new locations with at least some of our own tackle. We borrowed two spinning rods from the lodge.

Thirty minutes into the drift, a fish picked up the dead bait but spit it before the hook could take purchase. Spud reeled in his swimbait and announced he had brought a secret weapon: a bone-colored Jiggn’ Hogy.

The weighted head sunk to the bottom. A tarpon nailed it. Spud jabbed three quick hook-sets and the fish aired.

The 110‑pounder leaped again, and then dogged toward the bottom for 20 minutes. Spud short-stroked the tarpon, trying to gain an edge, only to have the fish streak off 75 yards of line. After another 10 minutes, the tired tarpon swam boat-side for a few photos and a quick release.