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April 29, 2005

Nicaragua's River of Tarpon

Fish the Rio San Juan where jungle rules reign.

The great fish rolled next to the boat. Our captain pointed to the water and said a few words in Spanish. Then, by way of translation, he said, "Gar."

Gigantic riverine gar cavort in the rushing brown water of the Rio San Juan. And while we couldn't have cared less about catching them, our captain, Eliecer Jarquin Mena, was happy to see evidence of life.

Nicaragua's San Juan River sleeps and wakes according to an ecorhythm that Mena has just begun to sense. When the river reaches full consciousness, it teems with triple-digit tarpon, gar, snook and other trophy fish. Along its banks, howler monkeys, wading birds and coati mundis appear in the trees and at the water's edge.

As the river tires, anglers see nothing and hear only the sound of a sputtering engine trolling back and forth over otherwise productive depths.

Truth be known, tarpon really shouldn't be here. The spot where Mena saw the gar lies almost 120 miles upriver from the Caribbean Sea and a few miles downriver from freshwater Lake Nicaragua. But bull sharks also live in the lake. They must know something. Indeed, something is different about this place.

Time for Action
After the gar's appearance came a long, breathless pause. The steamy-jungle July day lay on us like a blanket. I sought shade beneath the T-top of our 23-foot panga. In the distance, I could see green mountains.

Mena and my husband, Spud, sat in plastic bucket seats behind the helm, facing three lines trolled about 150 feet behind us. A Nicaraguan teenager named Chili, in a Tupac Shakur T-shirt, baggy shorts and California Angels ball cap, piloted the boat. Water bubbled and swirled behind us, but nothing happened.

Then, pop! The starboard rod snapped down hard, and a 50-pound tarpon jumped sideways before Spud's hands could reach the rod. The line slackened.

We all looked at each other. The game was on!

Quickly, Mena retrieved the line and checked the Rapala plug and the 100-pound leader. He clicked the conventional reel into free-spool, and the diving plug dug in and sank. Moments later, the line sizzled again.

"Ach, fundo!" Mena said, pantomiming and pointing toward the river bottom. "Fundo. Bottom."

For just a moment, I thought we'd hooked one of the 200-plus-pound tarpon our host Philippe Tisseaux had mentioned to me in his e-mails. Tisseaux, a French expat who lives in San Jose, Costa Rica, officially opened his Sabalo [Tarpon] Lodge on the banks of the Rio San Juan last fall. His e-mail newsletter reports routine tarpon catches of more than 100 pounds, some in the 200-pound range; hence our anticipation.
But our first afternoon on the river ended in disappointment. "Two bites?"

Tisseaux said when we returned from our trolling expedition. "This time of year, we'd usually get 12 bites a day with at least three fish to the boat."

We were not ready to doubt his numbers, yet. After all, Tisseaux certainly is not the first angler to target these grande fish. Since 1955, locals from the river town of San Carlos have held an annual tournament for tarpon, snook and lake fish such as rainbow bass (guapote). Three fishing camps thrived on the river during the 1960s and '70s, and scientists from all over the world came to study the infamous freshwater bull sharks.

War and Peace
Before that - way before that - indigenous people harpooned tarpon at various locations along the river. In fact, hundreds of thousands of humans have fished the Rio San Juan or at least used it for transportation. Tisseaux's Web site reports that during colonial times, Spanish captains ferried gold on the river from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic and then shipped it to Spain.

During the second half of the 19th century, pioneers who chose not to cross North America by land steamed to the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, then transited Central America via the river and sailed north to discover more gold in California. Mark Twain was among the travelers. He penned this description in the mid-1860s:

"Dark grottos, fairy festoons, tunnels, temples, columns, pillars, towers, pilasters, terraces, pyramids, mounds, domes, walls, in endless confusion of vine-work - no shape known to architecture unimitated - and all so webbed together that short distances within are only gained by glimpses. Monkeys here and there; birds warbling; gorgeous plumaged birds on the wing, Paradise itself, the imperial realm of beauty - nothing to wish for to make it perfect."

During the 20th century, however, few Americans would describe Nicaragua as "perfect." The atmosphere bristled with tension over the American plan to build a canal across Panama instead of Nicaragua. Strife continued through civil wars and unpopular regime changes, as the United States supported conservative leaders and opposed the liberals.

Leftist Sandinista rebels took over in the late 1970s, but almost immediately the Contras challenged them. After 10 more years of struggle, punctuated by the infamous Iran-Contra affair (where the United States illegaly sent weapons to Iran in exchange for money to support the Contras), elections in 1990 solidified a democratic government. In the 14 years since, Nicaragua has failed to create many headlines. But it has opened itself to tourism.

Seizing that opportunity, Tisseaux began fishing the river and guiding a few clients in 1999. Guests stayed at various lodges and hotels on the river and in San Carlos  - a mud-street town where grilled meats are sold on street corners and strains of music waft through open doors on dimly lit summer nights.

Life on the River
What Tisseaux now offers is a unique blend of seemingly less-trampled territory, ample and sometimes stellar tarpon fishing, and an experience probably unrivaled for most Americans today.

How many trips do most folks take where they have lunch each day with a family that lives in a wooden house built over a floodplain, a house that lacks plumbing, electricity and window screens, where the wife cooks on a clay stove fed by a wood fire?

How many lodges feature water pressure courtesy of a gravity-feed tower, pumped up by a generator? Breakfast is white toast browned in a frying pan and instant coffee. Guides sometimes spend hours trying to find expensive gasoline to power outboard engines. But the mild nights are star-filled, the only bugs we see are the gnatlike chayul that come out in the evening, and the only other fishermen are aboriginal cast netters throwing 5-foot nets out of dugout canoes.

Days blur as you start each dawn trolling the river. Mena and Tisseaux have found that the boulders in the river change the flow and create eddies and currents for the tarpon and the bait on which they feed. Upriver trolling produces more hits than downriver trolling, so Mena instructs Chili to run to a spot, then turn around and troll upriver.

Most times, Mena deploys Rapala Magnums and Super Shad Raps. When tarpon can be found in schools, anglers can cast to them. But when the river level rises - as during the summer rainy season - trolling works best. The river depths ranged from 10 to 30 feet during our summer visit, and the San Juan's width measured several hundred yards in most places.

The river's swift current makes it almost imperative to troll with diving plugs. Keeping dead bait on the bottom wouldn't work, and using livies would mean trying to cast-net bait blind and then maintain them in a livewell, something not designed into these Costa Rican-made pangas.

On our first morning, we had trolled only an hour or so before a 60-pounder nailed a silver Super Shad Rap. Tisseaux had already coached us on river fish-fighting tactics: With the drag set light so as not to immediately alarm the fish, making it jump before the hooks are set, start thumbing the spool to slowly embed the trebles. Then, give the rod three quick pops "like you're driving a nail," he said.

Once the fish is hooked, it will try to come to the surface to gulp air - standard tarpon behavior. Turn the fish over by pressuring down and to the side. Of course, with the 12-pound-test tackle we were using, "pressure" was a relative term.

Spud fought the fish to the boat in about 15 minutes, after it managed repeated leaps. Mena used needle-nose pliers to detach the sharp hooks before reviving the tarpon boat-side by greyhounding it through the water.

Tackle Up or Down
Tisseaux advocates catch-and-release, but not all the Nicaraguans do. The San Carlos tournaments involve killing and weighing fish. Tisseaux has tried slowly and politely changing that ethic by gathering better prizes for release categories. And while he will allow seasoned anglers to catch tarpon on light tackle with 10- to 12-pound-test mono, or sometimes braid, he'll also use 20-pound test with clients whose skill level is unknown.

Tisseaux's tackle arsenal appeared mostly new and well-maintained, and contained popular brands such as Ambassadeur and Okuma. Mena ties 2 feet of double line at the end of the main line, then connects a 10-foot piece of 100-pound-test monofilament with a double uni-knot. He attaches the Rapala plug with a loop knot. Rapala officials have visited Tisseaux's lodge and worked with him and Mena on plug presentation.

Along one stretch of river several miles down from the lodge, we trolled past a group of women washing clothes in the river. Mena and Chili spoke to each other in Spanish, and we learned from Tisseaux later that they constantly chatter about girls. Mena is called "Travolta" because he's a good dancer, Tisseaux says.
Among the staff during our visit, only Tisseaux spoke English. I understand some Spanish, so with sign language and some shared common words, I conversed with Mena. I came to understand that Mena had seen a lot of tarpon rolling - not a good sign. It means they're not eating. Spud pointed downriver to a big fish surfacing 150 yards behind our lures. Throw-pillow-size turtles popped up occasionally.

After a few more hits and no hookups, Mena rigged a fourth rod. His frustration showed. Midday clouds crowded the river, and soon gray walls of rain surrounded the panga. The plugs alternately caught on rafts of hyacinths - called lechuga - floating downriver.

The River Wakes
The following morning, Mena motored up to the lodge an hour later than usual. Gasoline proved difficult to find, and hard morning rain prompted us to stay on the lodge deck until almost 8 o'clock. But once our lines hit the water, we found quick action.

A 50-pounder slammed a plug, jumped and spit the lure. Mena smiled, "No problem."

To change up the action, he free-spooled out more line, dragging the plugs farther behind the boat and the engine noise. He grabbed the line periodically, giving it several sharp tugs. Minutes later, a fish slapped a plug, making the drag sing momentarily, then nothing.

The gar fish started rolling on the surface, and five minutes later a tarpon picked up the plug, jumped, shook and spit the hooks. Mena laughed easily. The hit parade had begun.

Thirty minutes later, a big fish hit and broke the braided line, which elicited a loud whoop from Mena. "Big fish!" he said, eyes lit up.

Anglers unused to fishing for tarpon might have started tapping a foot by now, but once you target these silver kings on a regular basis, you know how elusive they can be and how hard it is to stick hooks into their bony mouths.

At 9:15 a.m., another small tarpon hit, jumped, shook and spit. Spud likened the action to kingfishing. Often bigger fish decline to bite, and small ones just slap at the bait.

We suffered a two-hour lull, but then hooked what we thought was a double. One "fish" turned out to be fundo. And while we worked to dislodge that hook, the second fish - a legitimate tarpon of about 150 pounds - swam toward the boat. The ensuing tangle created havoc as Mena attempted to cut the snagged line while keeping the other line from becoming hopelessly entwined. In the end, he cut both lines and the fish swam off. Tarpon 7, Anglers 1.

An hour later, a fish estimated at 125 pounds hit, jumped three times and spit. Spud looked at Mena and me. "What did I do?" Tarpon make even seasoned captains into doubters. I made a note to ask Tisseaux if they had tried replacing the trebles with single hooks.

Evening the Score
At noon, we headed downriver to the home of a local man named Enrico, whose wife, 25 children and multiple grandchildren share his wooden river house and several other structures nearby. Rain drenched the tin roof and poured in buckets outside. We could see it through the open holes cut in the wood siding that served as windows.

One of Enrico's grandchildren, a girl maybe 4 years old, wandered close to Spud and me but would not speak. She smiled coyly. We called her chica linda, "pretty girl," which fit. She seemed to like it.

The señora served a bowl of eggs and onions fried and stirred together, black beans and rice and plantains. The four of us ate quietly.

After lunch, we trolled back upriver. Another 50-pound tarpon grabbed a lure and swam toward the boat. Once it finally felt the hooks, it almost jumped into the panga. Spud pressured the fish perfectly and brought it to hand a little less green 10 minutes later.

As the afternoon grew steamy again, I lounged on the front deck of the panga, dozing from time to time. We had run to a spot that Spud and I nicknamed the "cow pasture," for obvious reasons. A few Brahman cattle grazed the river grass, standing knee-deep in water.

I was relaxing when the 100-pounder hit. But there was no missing the sights and sounds of a well-struck fish and a downright gleeful captain and angler. The fish jumped multiple times but was stuck fast. Spud held the rod tip down and tried desperately to keep the fish from surfacing to gulp air, but he could not keep it from soaring.

The fish tired us all after 45 minutes as I shot multiple film rolls of its antics, but Mena eventually grabbed the leader and pried the plug from the fish's mouth.

Bass Will Do
Another day abbreviated by rain brought four bites with two jump-offs and a few more fundo fish. Once, when Mena could not work loose a plug - a brand-new plug - from the bottom, he sent Chili into the river to swim down the line and unhook the Rapala. "Diecisiete dolares," he said. "$17." That's the price of a Rapala in Nicaragua.

On our final morning, we opted for a quick trip to fish Lake Nicaragua and its "Sacred Islands" - the 36 jungled knolls comprising an archipelago called Solentiname. During the late 1970s, these islets became a haven for artists in the Primitivist movement. But the heavy foliage crowded any glimpse of houses or more ancient artifacts from the lake as we plied the grassy shorelines for guapote, bass, machaca and mojarra. The bass - an unusual variety we hadn't seen - and mojarra proved plentiful. Tisseaux reported that machaca also run thick and can easily be caught on fly from kayaks, which he intended to purchase and provide at the lodge.

The rain came in sheets across the lake as we cast and caught dozens of fish using crankbaits. Most wouldn't weigh more than 3 pounds, but the light tackle we used made things gamy.

In fact, this may have been the first time I fished fresh water and truly enjoyed the experience. Everything reminded me of saltwater angling, from the trolling plugs and tarpon to the marshy grasses and hit-and-run bass. There is - indeed - something different about this place.