Chasing Tarpon, Tarponville, Costa Rica

Written for Leatherman

Winding through the erratic streets of downtown San Jose, Costa Rica, our driver skirted between oncoming traffic, crossing double lined lanes weaving his way until eventually the concrete and barred windows fell way into ruins and the greens of the jungle took over. We travelled the coastline of Costa Rica leaving the restless capital, driving deeper into the mountains, where paved highways turned into gravel and eventually into sand where we could no longer drive. Met with a local Costa Rican at a small suspension bridge, we loaded our duffles, rods and gear into a wagon and made way on foot to the lodge located just north of the Panamanian border into a jungle of sloths, howler monkeys and snakes.

We arrived the day before the tragic wake of Hurricane Dorian and despite it being on the other side of the Greater Antilles, we still felt her wrath. We were met with towering walls of muddy water between the already large swells in now seemingly small pangas. -Perhaps here is also where I divulge my somewhat irrational, yet crippling fear of sharks and my exceedingly sensitive stomach to motion sickness on nearly all bodies of still or moving water, (ironic given my line of work). This was a big trip for me, conquering two fears or three if you throw in the massive golden orb spiders which took up every head-level-hanging branch. The waters were full of bull sharks, hammers, rays and big crocodiles that could reach up to sixteen feet long but it was also full of some of the world’s largest tarpon, and that intrigued me enough.

Photo: Ebi Fisher

During the first three days we were at the mercy of the ocean. Once the winds would break for a moment, we would run to the boats to make way past the raucous cresting waves, trying to seek refuge somewhere in the unforgiving salt, sometimes even having to leave early because it became too dangerous. I knew we had no chance at hooking into fish in these first few days and the guides knew it too. Waves were towering over head, the horizon never settled and deep down there was apart of me that didn’t even want to hook into a fish because I was so busy hanging my head over the side of the boat and I was a little frightened on how one would even land a fish in such conditions. Impressively, a few of us managed to land some jacks, which would go home with the guides to their families.

I would ask the guides at every spot we stopped if they would ever swim there, and they’d always reply never because “tiburónes grandes señorita” aka- big sharks lady. And sure enough there were.

After three days, the storm passed and it felt like a completely different ocean. Waters calmed, passages appeared, dolphins began surfacing and we could see big tarpon suddenly start to move chasing mackerel bait balls. I stood adrenaline pumped and bear footed on the hot plaster cast panga floor, warned that if my fly line wrapped around my shoe I would most certainly loose a toe, frantically casting to feeding schools as fast as I could and stripping my fly back towards the boat in hopes one of these 100 pound plus fish would take. Sure enough one of the boats hooked up and it was a moment too perfect for a camera. The orange sun was rising to the east, silhouetting their boat in a brilliant display of warmth, when suddenly a massive tarpon leaped into the air, her line going tight and his gill plates echoing over the sea; it was perfect and gave us the confidence that maybe there were some big fish roaming below.

Photo: Jordan Olerich

By the sixth day I still hadn’t hooked up onto a tarpon, and was feeling pretty deflated. We had rough fishing conditions which pushed the tarpon further out into the ocean, and at times terrifying moments thankfully eased by the impressive boat skills from the guides (although they later admitted in a few of those moments they were just as afraid as well). I accepted that perhaps it just wasn’t meant to be as I routinely stripped my line in slowly and let it flow back out. (It was an interesting technique, one I had never used before, but it kept your fly in the water more often than the air.) I was grasping with the fact that I just wouldn’t feel a tarpon this trip when I felt the lightest bump in my line mid strip. I hammered my elbow into my hip and stripped twice more as hard as I could praying I would pierce through his bone hard plate, when my line went from zero to sixty before I could blink. It was the last hour of the last day with the swells on the rise and this tarpon had taken me into my backing before I realized what was happening. I watched him jump well above the peak of the rising swell, doing the tarpon dance consequently spitting my fly. My heart was coming through my mouth and all I could mutter was “how do people actually land these?” I had one more take after that moment as the sun began to drop beneath the horizon signalling our time to leave. I hadn’t been home for more than a day before I was looking into booking another trip for this upcoming winter, because that was a bite I will never forget. Until the next time Costa Rica, Hasta luego.