Tarpon (Megalops atlanticus) watch out for your fingers

When I first caught the fly fishing bug about 6 years ago I found myself obsessed with all the different species you can catch on a fly rod. Trout were fun and still are, of course, but when you think about it, the possibilities of going after various species of fish in fresh and saltwater all around the globe are almost endless.

It was winter ’05 when my fishing buddy Billy asked me if I wanted to go to Costa Rica with him during our break from school and workouts in May. The first thing that came to my mind was “I wonder what kind of fish we can catch there?” Thinking back on it, I didn’t have a clue what fly fishing in saltwater is all about. So, I did a lot of research and found “The Rich Coast” offers good variety of waters to fish. You can either go deep sea or off shore fishing on the west coast for Marlin, Rooster-fish, Dorado etc. while the Caribbean ocean on the east coast offers more of a tropical flats style of fishing, maybe some bonefish or permit and this a fish called a tarpon. At the time, I didn’t really know what a tarpon was, and was completely clueless as to the incredible fighting abilities it possessed. However, Billy and I soon found out.

We flew into the capital, San Jose, and hopped on a bus headed for a small town in the most southern tip of the eastern coast. Just north of Panama, the town of Manzanilla sits in the midst of a jungle lush with various species of primates, birds, and insects that never stop chirping, humming, and singing to you.

Within minutes we found a fishing guide, Delroy, who greeted us on his rusty bicycle outside what appeared to be the only bar/restaurant/hotel this tiny town had to offer. He said, “You FLY FISH?” in his broken english and we set up a trip for the next day. The next morning we boarded his ponga and motored down the coast until we reached a large river mouth spewing its muddy water into the clear blue ocean at the edge of a dense green jungle. He pointed to the water and said “cast.” We didn’t have a clue what we were doing so he showed us. He flopped the fly in the water and let out some line and let the fly sink. He demonstrated stripping the fly in against the current letting his fly line fall and collect on the floor of the boat. All of a sudden his line went taut and his fly line started flying around everywhere, he hooked a TARPON! It was like he hooked a train. Out in the distance we saw a large silver fish flying out of the water completing a full back flip. Delroy struggled to let the line through his fingers as it wrapped around his thumb. “Oh shit” Billy yelled as I tried to help Delroy unwrap the line tight around his finger. Suddenly, the line went loose, the fish broke off. I asked Delroy “Man, what would you have done if it didn’t break off?” He responded, by lifting his opposite hand and showing us his other thumb that was severed at the knuckle. He said “Thats how this happened” pointing to his injured thumb. Apparently fishing the same technique cost him half of his thumb.
426446164205 Delroy needed a nap after the tarpon almost took his other thumb.

You’d think he would learn a new technique. Like the technique Captain Clifford Ramos taught us at the Barra del Colorado (Barra is spanish for “place where river current meets sea tide.”)

After a day of fishing off Manzanilla we traveled north for a few days ending up in the Barra del Colorado, a small fishing village nestled where hundreds of miles of river maze ends and flows into the Caribbean Ocean. The Barra del Colorado is only reachable by boat or plane. When we arrived by a small passenger boat, little did we know that we were in one of the best places to fish for tarpon in the world. The large river mouth provides a low salinity breeding ground which tarpon prefer for spawning activity. We spent the next two days with Clifford who taught us a technique that would NOT result in a severed thumb by simply not stripping line, rather jigging it, letting your line stay taut with the pull of the boat against the current and holding the same spot in the line and retrieving it back and forth against the current. This way, when a tarpon takes the fly, you don’t have to worry about all of your slack shooting up and potentially wrapping around something, like your thumb.

We finished the two day trip jumping about 20 fish between the two of us. The tarpon, completely annihilating our gear.
670888105205 This one I hooked right next to the boat while I was reeling in my line. He immediately jumped right over the back of the boat 6 ft in the air nearly knocking out Clifford, He successfully ducked, dodging the fish. He then smiled while telling us it wasn’t the first time that has happened to him. He estimated it weighed about 180 lbs. The beast snapped my fly line in two.

While Billy surrendered and moved to conventional tackle the silver kings still managed to strip the drag on his spin reel. It was making loud cracking sounds as he reeled in. 843234305205 Despite the equipment problems he still managed to land this nice 60 lb tarpon.

Honestly I was disappointed I didn’t land a tarpon on that trip, but after talking to other tarpon anglers and reading up on the subject, I realized that jumping a handful of giant tarpon like that was a pretty good accomplishment. Anglers typically don’t “land” tarpon that often, its usually a game of “I jumped a couple tarpon today” rather than “I landed a bunch.” To land a big boy is quite the feat. So I was now officially obsessed with Megalops atlanticus.

After landing a couple Puerto Rican baby tarpon on my Angling the Globe trip I still think about those 180 pounders I hooked in Costa Rica.

This spring I got a chance to head south to Boca Grande, Florida to chase after some big tarpon on the flats and beaches. Tarpon migrate north in the late spring early summer in search of spawning grounds. They daisy chain and swim in circles surrounding the spawning female and follow each other along sand bars up the coast. This time of the year (late spring early summer) is best for sight fishing to a 100+ lb fish. With a good guide and a decent cast you can put a fly right in front of their face, its just a matter of getting one to take your fly…

So if you haven’t yet, go after some tarpon. So far, I haven’t found a more exhilarating fish to catch. Just watch out for your thumb.


~ by Nick Clement on June 1, 2009.

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