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Tarpon Paradise - part 1

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Globetrotter and Fish&Fly correspondent Guy Elson has been working on a new film project called "Rod and a rucksack" recently. He was just down in Costa Rica not long ago working on footage for the new show and sends us his report on the fishing in what he now calls "Tarpon Paradise"!

Part 1 covers days 1-3, part 2 will cover days 4 & 5 and also include the video trailer to Rod and a Rucksack. See it here first on Fish&Fly!

On location shoot of Rod and A Rucksack - Costa Rica......

by Guy Elson

Traveller & fisherman - Guy ElsonA blurred alarm clock flashed in my peripheral vision warning that it was nearly 5am. I rolled into my clothes and checked that everything that should be was in my bag for the third time. Some quick goodbyes and then I was out of the door and into a taxi. Boarding my plane at Heathrow I arrived in Miami several films later. After pacing the length of Miami airport for another six hours I finally joined my connecting flight to Costa Rica.

On the descent into San Jose I could see a sparse scattering of lights twinkling through the forest canopy and clouds pouring out of the volcanic craters that surround San Jose. Another short taxi ride from the airport and I arrived at the Casa Ridgeway, the Quaker peace centre in downtown San Jose where I was to spend the night. I had been awake for 23hrs by this point and promptly passed out. The next day I spent walking around San Jose buying last minute supplies like Deet (an insect repellant) and sunscreen. That evening I travelled back out to the airport to pick up our camera man Andrew. I was full of nervous energy as the reality of the trip set in.

The following morning we boarded the chicken bus to Guapiles and Cariari, the two last outposts of civilization before you reach the jungle. After bribing the bus driver to secure our equipment from potential thieves during the trip we disembarked at Guapiles to be thankfully met by the lodge owner Memo who happened to be in town picking up supplies. The unpaved road from Guapiles to the port at Zapote was akin to riding on a washing machine during full spin cycle but the scenery was breathtaking. Giant figs that nested in dense jungle now stood as solitary reminders as the wilderness had retreated either side of the road for ranch land. A snake crossing the road in front of us reared 5ft into the air striking at a passing car before slithering back into the undergrowth. The air was heavy and a breeze was rapidly building. The daylight was banished behind a tidal wave of apocalyptic electric mauve clouds as we arrived in Zapote. Local fishermen where swiftly offloading their catch of prawns as we loaded our lancha. Slowly motoring through the dense jungle on a river hardly twice the width of the boat the wildlife began to reveal itself. Firstly monkeys and a myriad of wild fowl followed by glimpses of river crocodiles and the occasional manatee as we joined the main river. As the embers of our first caribbean sunset began to fail we silently drifted into the Barra Del Colorado which would be our camp for the next 6 days.

Day One We rose at 4.30am, had some coffee and made for our boat. Our guide who was conveniently nicknamed Cap (as in captain) was waiting for us and we motored out to the river mouth. Running the boat up the beach we strolled along the surf line casting for snook, but to no avail. Plan B was rapidly put into play and we jumped back into the boat and motored out over the bar of the river in to the ocean. Here we released our bucktail jigs (essentially a large fly with a A beautiful Golden Jackweighted head) and drifted out into the ocean. Soon the local boats that we had met the previous day unloading prawns at Zapote arrived on mass and we were able to score some fresh fish as bait. The hot bait was an odd slender silvery fish called a machete with a pair of fangs Dracula would be proud of. Without further ado we deployed our baits and immediately jumped a tarpon. I say jumped rather than hooked because about 90% of our takes resulted in the lures glancing off the tarpons seemingly hook-proof mouth and indignantly being spat out first jump. By lunchtime I had jumped well in excess of 500lb of tarpon and without a solid hookup. My only consolation was Cap had also failed to hook any either... we headed in for lunch.

Round two proved very similar to the mornings antics with 5 tarpon jumped and no hookup. As the day drew to an end both rods bent double and the drags hummed as the line payed out. "Hit it... hit it again", Cap spoke little english but was very clear about striking into fish. No jump?.... what does that mean?... well you can be certain that its not a tarpon. Ten minutes later a pair of beautiful golden jacks of 15 and 20lb respectively came boat side to conclude our first day fishing at the Barra. 

Day Two I decided to up the anti a little the following day by arranging to meet our guide at 4am to try for snook from the shore again. Blurry eyed we chugged off to the beach where we were met by a sunrise you will only see in the tropics, the horizon was ablaze. We spooked a couple of huge tarpon in the surf but still no snook so we returned to the bar. No sooner had we wet our lines we jumped a tarpon, then another and another. By lunchtime between my guide and myself we had jumped nine tarpon and faithfully each one had thrown the hook. I was perplexed, our camera man was sunburnt like a barbecued chicken breast and we weere all famished so headed in for lunch.

Guy Elson and a giant Costa Rican tarpon

For the afternoon I decided to change tactics, no more sitting waiting for the takes, I would stand ready to strike. As we reached our mark I cast my lure and assumed the position. I felt a tug and replied with a whiplash inducing strike. A small, rather shocked barracuda came flying to the surface. Another barracuda and two catfish later and it felt very much like the the tarpon knew I had adopted a new approach and had taken precautionary measures. A sudden thud and the ratchet on my reel screamed as I set the hook, but no jump! Ten minutes later a large tripletail of 12lb was released and a smile returned to my face. My rod was almost wrenched from my grip on the next take as a large tarpon launched skyward in slow motion. I hit it several times until I was sure the hook was set. Forty five minutes later a pristine silver king of 90lb was hauled into the boat for a photo. After returning the fish I looked like Peter Venkman from the film Ghost-Busters after he had been slimed, but I couldn't be happier. As I sat down to recuperate my rod jumped into action again. I set the hook and a monster tarpon jumped to our port side. This was a big fish and an hour long arm-wrestle ensued resulting in us boating a 130lb monster. I was spent but you couldn't wipe the the grin from my face all evening.

That night Memo, the lodge owner told me that 15 years ago if you hooked a tarpon in the Barra you would only ever get in the head due to the sheer number of sharks that once were found here. Unfortunately the Chinese demand for sharkfin soup had seen the Barra become almost devoid of all species of shark.

A large tarpon makes a splashDay Three In contrast to the previous day the fishing was quite slow. After jumping two tarpon in the morning we ventured offshore in search of pelagic species. As we reached the drop off some big yellowfin tuna broke the surface but they seemed unfocused and almost immediately dispersed. After an hours troll with no takes we headed in. For the afternoon session I decided to unpack the fly rod. Over lunch I was lucky enough to meet with the Barra's top fly fishing guides who tied me some flies and gave me some pointers, "Strip strike and hit it again and again, when he jumps bow to the king". Armed with this new found knowledge we headed back out. One cast and then we let the river do the work as we drifted out to sea. Suddenly my fly line tore north through the water column as a 60kg + tarpon tail-walked eighty feet from the boat. I was ecstatic as I set the hook and began to regain some line.... but something was wrong. I looked down finding to my horror that the gelspun backing had wrapped around the metal spindle of the handle. A frantic de-knotting session ensued but it was too late. The tarpon embarked upon another series of jumps whilst my reel was jammed. The dreaded crack of my leader echoed across the river mouth and my heart sank. We fished into the evening missing another tarpon on the fly rod as I was reeling in to pack up, I guess that day it just wasn't meant to be!

Check back in for the last 2 days of Guy's report from Tarpon Paradise in part 2!

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