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January 29, 2013

Kings of the Jungle

Tarpon and Snook Dominate Nicaragua’s Wild Caribbean Coast


Timing and Tackle


Rito says the greatest number of tarpon — what he considers residents plus some migrating fish — swarm the region twice a year, in April and September. In his 20-plus years of guiding, he has caught tarpon to 180 pounds and released as many as eight in a day.

Tarpon candy: a bone-colored Jiggn’ Hogy. Other soft-plastic baits, including swimbaits, work too.


Nicaragua’s dry season occurs from November through April. The rainy season runs May to October with June and July the wettest months. The best months for snook fishing fall in December and January, when Rito expects to catch 40 or 50 per day.


Most of the time, Rito uses live or dead bait rigged on circle hooks to drift for tarpon, but he occasionally trolls Rapala plugs when seas are flat and the lures run straight. Live baits — including snook, moonfish, blue runners and other species — caught individually by sabiki, swim in a bucket until needed. The local vessels have no livewells.


Barracudas roam the area, but we found few sharks. None of the locals has tried anchoring and chumming, which seems an intriguing possibility.


We loaded our Penn Battle with 50-pound SpiderWire and tied on 80-pound fluorocarbon leader. Rito uses 60-pound braid and 100-pound leader on conventional reels. We chose spinners to improve castability, though we found we didn’t much need that option.


Along with the reels, we brought an assortment of hard and soft lures — including a few from Hogy, Yo-Zuri, Storm and D.O.A. — in sizes for tarpon and snook.


River Work


On our third morning, we roused at 3:30 to a howler-monkey chorus — a resonant throaty melody that rolled down the river and through the jungle. I found myself waiting for the intermittent crescendos despite my drowsy state.

 

At dawn, we loaded into a 17-foot panga, which was built at the lodge and powered by a 25 horsepower Evinrude tiller-steer outboard. We headed north up the Indio River past two military guard stations. Thirty minutes later, we nosed into some tall cane at the edge of the river and cast toward a submerged tree.


Our light spinning reels carried 20-pound braid and a short piece of 30- to 40-pound mono leader. We baited up with plugs, and Rito struck first with a Yo-Zuri. The ­five-pound snook came to the boat, thrashing through the green water. That fish proved a lone resident, so Rito motored to a second snag upriver.


We ping-ponged along the main-river flow, trying spot after spot. But with high water, the snook had plenty of places to ambush bait. Rito headed for a favorite tributary called Fish Creek, where we branched off into a tannic waterway lined by thick jungle.


Rito set two plugs to slow-troll behind the boat while Spud continued casting to likely hideouts. A small bluegill grabbed Erik’s plug, and Spud’s topwater bait took two smashing hits from a snook without a hookup. We turned to troll downriver, and Spud hooked a swordspine snook.
At Casa Alta Creek, our path narrowed. We ducked for overhanging trees. Well above our heads, a near-gale-force wind whipped through the jungle. The creek eventually choked off with vegetation. Rito tied on a Rat‑L‑Trap and promptly caught another snook. “Lunch,” he said, dropping the second edible fish into the splashwell.


Double Down


The strong winds had subsided by the ­afternoon, as we poked the larger panga’s bow out the pass to try once more for tarpon. We had secured a bucket of what looked like star drum from a group of locals and deployed four dead baits under egg sinkers for the first drift.

 

During our full-moon-phase visit, the tarpon bite improved toward the end of each afternoon. The fish hit with more serious intent.

With a full moon at night, we knew the bite should improve as the afternoon lengthened. At about 4:15, a tarpon picked up Erik’s bait. Soon line sizzled off the reel as the fish felt the hook and soared, shaking massive gills. This estimated 130-pounder made Erik’s eyes grow big, as several times it powered into the air.


Just as Erik managed to subdue his fish’s first run, Spud’s line began to move. A 90-pounder took the circle hook and completely cleared the water. To avoid tangling and losing two great fish, the anglers worked toward opposite ends of the boat. Erik’s fish made multiple strong runs while Spud’s fish spent more time in the air.


Erik hauled his fish close several times before the tarpon saw the boat and sped away, making its effort seem minimal compared with the angler’s. Spud’s smaller fish came boat-side more quickly. Rito wired the fish just as the leader broke. His attention fell back to Erik, who muscled the big silver king once more to the waterline as evening darkened the sky.


Rito wired the fish and lip-gaffed it for photos. The exhausted men tried to hoist the fish high with hands and gaff, but could not make it clear the water. Led next to the moving boat, the fish revived quickly and swam away.


Rito motored the panga slowly through the shallow pass toward the welcoming lights of the lodge. Final score on confirmed tarpon hookups: anglers 3, fish 11.