Kings of the Jungle

Tarpon and Snook Dominate Nicaragua’s Wild Caribbean Coast

Guatemala Tarpon

Guatemala Tarpon

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.

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.

Taming the Tropics

Jungle shrouds the Rio Indio Lodge, complementing its polished-wood craftsmanship in the same way that vines adorn trees. Nicaraguan artisans created the lodge’s main building, with its 40-foot ceiling and Spanish-tile floors. Twenty-seven cabins fan out from that building along elevated wooden walkways above the jungle floor. At times, spider monkeys and tropical birds visit the lush foliage, and flowering plants add vibrant color.

Cabins come with two queen-size beds, a full bath, a room ­air-conditioner and fans. The lodge's diesel-fueled ­generator runs at specified times during the day and evening, and remains off at night. Plans are under way to add energy-storage banks to harness more power for longer periods of time.
The lodge employs a top-notch chef and staff, who prepare all meals. Fare ranges from locally caught fish to beef tenderloin and roasted chicken accompanied by regional vegetables and specialties.

Fishing packages start at $2,225 for five days/four nights with three full fishing days, and include round-trip transportation from San Jose, Costa Rica, double-occupancy lodging, all meals, open rum bar, tackle, etc. Call 866-593-3176, or visit the​rio​indio​lodge​.com.

Adventure Travel

To reach the remote, southern coastal region of Nicaragua, my husband and I took a commercial flight to San Jose, Costa Rica, where we met Erik Gibbs, director of sales at Rio Indio Lodge. We planned to connect to a Paradise Air charter for a 35-minute flight to Barra del Colorado near the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, but low clouds kept us from leaving that afternoon. We spent the night in San Jose and flew out the next morning.

The paved airstrip at Barra runs through the middle of a small village. A few steps off the runway, we boarded a covered, 10‑seat ­riverboat, powered by a 115 Yamaha. During the two‑hour boat ride to Rio Indio, we passed scattered wooden, open‑air ­houses, waving children and a myriad of small transport vessels. We stopped at several military checkpoints, and paid a $15 tax for Nicaragua entry and exit.

Rio Indio Lodge lies within the Indio Maiz Biological Reserve, just up from the mouth of the San Juan River and a quick boat ride south of San Juan de Nicaragua, where a new airstrip should be completed this month. Visitors in 2012 should be able to board a 35‑minute charter flight from San Jose directly to San Juan de Nicaragua.