Alone in Tarpon Paradise

The civil war is over in Nicaragua. The tarpon, unfished for 30 years, are hungry. And no one knows.

Field & Stream Online Editors

Before we head out into the steamy afternoon on Nicaragua's remote San Juan River, Philippe Tisseaux wants me to pay a visit to the hospital. Or rather, he wants the hospital to pay a visit to me. "Carlos! L'h¿¿pital!" he calls in French to one of the barefoot boys who are always in evidence around the new two-story lodge on almondwood piles he built here at the junction of the San Juan River and Lake Nicaragua.

Carlos returns with his "hospital"-a wooden box filled with the mangled bodies of large Rapalas. "My wounded," Tisseaux says tenderly. He is a cheerful expat French businessman and angler who fell in love with this place after discovering that he could catch tarpon up to 250 pounds all year round. A few of the lures are merely chipped or gouged, or have had their stainless-steel intestines pulled partway out of their butts, but most have been totaled, the metal ripped from their flanks at crazy angles and twisted into corkscrews.

I climb into the boat with Elieser (El-ee-AY-sir), one of Tisseaux's top guides, and young Carlos (whom everyone refers to as Plomo, which, as near as I can tell, means "lardass"). We head downriver to a bend that has been productive lately. We pass dugouts with fishermen staking gill nets in the reedy shallows for guapote, a toothy, white-fleshed member of the perch family that makes wonderful eating when fried in garlic. Every so often, we pass a shack set on stilts by the water. But there is scarcely another motorized boat in sight-much less anybody fishing for tarpon.

This wasn't the case as late as the mid-1970s, when several tarpon camps operated along the San Juan. But the vicious civil war between strongman Anastasio Somoza and the rebel Sandinistas, then the Sandinistas and the Contras, put a serious damper on business. Thirty years of rest have done wonders for the fishing. There are a lot of big, unpressured tarpon here once again, and it's only a matter of time before the word gets out.

You wouldn't know it today, but this nearly deserted waterway was once one of the most important in the New World. After the Spanish relieved the Incas of their gold, they shipped it east across Lake Nicaragua and 125 miles down the San Juan to the Atlantic. Later, thousands of eager young men reversed the route to California during the Gold Rush. When the Panama Canal was built, the area returned to its former obscurity.

Nicaragua is a big, ruggedly beautiful place without a lot of people telling you what you can and can't do. The lack of infrastructure keeps the country well off the tourist circuit. What this means is if you like clockwork schedules and dependable electricity, stay the hell away.

Lake Nicaragua is the largest in Central America (3,300 square miles, most of it pristine) and contains islands with standing pre-Columbian statues, as well as the world's only freshwater sharks. The country is loaded with wildlife, short of guardrails, and subject to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, and mudslides. You are pretty much guaranteed not to run into anybody who went to your high school.

[BRACKET "Bowing to the King"]

At the bend in the river, Carlos idles the motor while Elieser and I rig four rods. When the water is low and clear, you can sight-cast to breaking tarpon with fly or conventional tackle. If it's running high and stained, as it is now, the sensible thing is to troll. We're fishing heavy rods and light lines: stout 7-footers with flexible tips, 12-pound-test, and 8-foot leaders of 100-pound mono spooled on Catala baitcasting reels. The drags are set just tight enough so that we don't lose line as we ride slowly back up against the current.

You want the drag as loose as possible for the initial strike, then you tighten down slightly for the fight. We make runs of about half a mile up the river, returning each time to the same spot at the bend. Elieser speaklittle English, and I less Spanish, but he is fluent in pantomime. He explains that you wait until the rod is well arced before you take it because a tarpon will often bruise a lure once or twice before biting. Set the hook three times with long, smooth sweeps of the rod at water level, so you don't goad the fish into an early jump. Pull too hard and you'll draw it out of his mouth; too soft and he'll spit it out. Make your move too early or too late, and there will be nobody there. You can screw up in any number of ways, it seems, and have one chance to get it right. If you connect, just keep the pressure on-not hard but constant.

Tisseaux has already told me that a good average is one hookup for every three fish that hit the lure. You can't overpower something as strong as a tarpon on light line. That you can catch Megalops atlantica at all, he says, is because the battle takes place as much in the fish's mind as anywhere else. There comes a moment in each fight, he believes, when the great fish begins to wonder whether its unseen opponent is stronger than it thought. If you're bearing down at this instant, you can break the fish psychologically. This is why 200-plus-pound fish are sometimes boated in 15 or 20 minutes. If you are not pressuring the fish at this juncture, however, the fish will fight on. And a defiant tarpon will fight longer than you can. On our fourth pass, the rod with the 43/8-inch redhead Rapala bobbles once, twice, and goes down hard. Elieser shouts. I grab the rod and do the triple hookset while he and Carlos scramble to reel in the other lines. Strangely enough, the fish is swimming toward me, and I have to crank as fast as I can to stay connected. Stranger still, it stays hooked. Elieser watches the angle of my line closely, and when he sees it starting to flatten out, he yells what sounds like "Brita! Brita! Brita!" It's an unlikely time to endorse a brand of water filter, but then it occurs to me that the fish must be getting ready to jump.

Tisseaux has talked me through the procedure of "bowing to the king," of lowering the rod tip to accommodate a leaping tarpon. But when I see the silver missile launch itself 50 yards away-see the impossibly vivid fish, clad in bright chain mail, levitated and soaring sidewise over the water-I have a brief out-of-body experience. I stand there mesmerized, watching as if from a parallel universe. The tarpon, exempt from the laws of gravity, is, by many orders of magnitude, bigger, more beautiful, and more violent than anything I've ever hooked.

Suddenly I am aware that the line has gone slack, and that everybody on the boat is busily looking anywhere but at me. My mouth opens as I struggle to join up brain and tongue. At last, demonstrating my keen grasp of the obvious, I blurt out, "Big fish!" Elieser, who has busied himself with some task at the front of the boat, doesn't turn around. But he nods his head once as if he has just heard something encouraging. Perhaps this gringo is not a complete fool after all; he knows when he has lost a big fish. (In the debriefing that follows, I discover that what Elieser had been yelling was not brita but brinca-"he jumps.")

[BRACKET "The One That Didn't Get Away"]

We head back down for a few more runs before dusk. Pushing my beginner's luck, I hook another tarpon almost immediately, this time on the shad-colored Rapala. Remarkably, again, it stays hooked. I've got nearly 100 yards of line out, and at first the fish feels like dead weight. Then it starts taking line and swims downriver and toward the far shore. Elieser positions the boat ahead of the fish, motioning for me to keep pressuring. By urging the tarpon to go where he's already headed, we make him change his mind and turn back.

After a few minutes, I gain some line. I'm concentrating so hard on feeling what he's doing that I'm not really watching the water. But now when Elieser shouts "Brinca!" I'm smart enough to drop the rod tip. The fish is a little smaller than the other, but still a good one. My guide thinks he may go 130 pounds, an average tarpon on the San Juan. When he jumps, I look to the side to avoid being mesmerized. I want this fish.

I am not aware of the moment of doubt in the tarpon's mind, but it must come because just 20 minutes later, Elieser has the leader in his hands. Then he mouth-gaffs the fish and disgorges the lure with pliers. The tarpon stays there briefly, riding in the current alongside the boat, surveying us with a wild, inscrutable eye. Elieser moves him to and fro in the current with a gloved hand. Then with a giant, indifferent shrug the fish disappears beneath the water. Elieser whoops and claps me on the back. It is only now as I finally smile and the adrenaline subsides that I realize that I've been fighting the fish with every muscle in my body. But I've done it. I've caught a tarpon.

[BRACKET "A Town in Darkness"]

It is nearly dark as we head back up toward the tiny port town of San Carlos, set where the river flows out of the lake. As we get closer to shore, Carlos and Elieser put on their sunglasses and motion for me to do the same. "Chayul," says Carlos. A moment later we are immersed in an endless cloud of tiny nonbiting insects. There are billions of them, so many that you cover your nose and mouth to avoid filling up on live protein before dinner. Light must increase their concentration, for the entire settlement is dark, a ghost town.

We stumble off the boat and directly under the roof of a cement-floored restaurant where a single red neon Carta Blanca beer sign provides the only illumination. Apparently the bugs can't see red light very well. Beer arrives at the table with a napkin over the mouth of the bottle and a straw poked through the napkin, the local version of bug armor. Meanwhile, night falls. Someone sets down a plate of what seems to be garlic-fried guapote, rice, and beans before me. It is delicious, even if I can't see it. Over-the-top Spanish pop ballads blare from the stereo. For dessert, someone hands me a stiff Flor de Cana rum and Coke with another napkin-and-straw bug guard. I down it and find that I can't stop grinning.

**[BRACKET "The Death of a Giant"] **

The next day, we motor over into Lake Nicaragua to fish for guapote and rainbow bass, its slightly larger cousin. Elieser outfishes me badly using the exact same crawfish crankbait, smiling all the time. The guapote run 2 or 3 pounds but hit like freight trains and are far stronger than largemouths. The rainbow bass, which run 4 to 8 pounds, are reputed to fight even harder. I don't know, because I don't get one. But Elieser hooks a 6-pounder. When it heads for some reeds, Carlos strips off his shirt, dives off the boat, and swims right into the coveruts "Brinca!" I'm smart enough to drop the rod tip. The fish is a little smaller than the other, but still a good one. My guide thinks he may go 130 pounds, an average tarpon on the San Juan. When he jumps, I look to the side to avoid being mesmerized. I want this fish.

I am not aware of the moment of doubt in the tarpon's mind, but it must come because just 20 minutes later, Elieser has the leader in his hands. Then he mouth-gaffs the fish and disgorges the lure with pliers. The tarpon stays there briefly, riding in the current alongside the boat, surveying us with a wild, inscrutable eye. Elieser moves him to and fro in the current with a gloved hand. Then with a giant, indifferent shrug the fish disappears beneath the water. Elieser whoops and claps me on the back. It is only now as I finally smile and the adrenaline subsides that I realize that I've been fighting the fish with every muscle in my body. But I've done it. I've caught a tarpon.

[BRACKET "A Town in Darkness"]

It is nearly dark as we head back up toward the tiny port town of San Carlos, set where the river flows out of the lake. As we get closer to shore, Carlos and Elieser put on their sunglasses and motion for me to do the same. "Chayul," says Carlos. A moment later we are immersed in an endless cloud of tiny nonbiting insects. There are billions of them, so many that you cover your nose and mouth to avoid filling up on live protein before dinner. Light must increase their concentration, for the entire settlement is dark, a ghost town.

We stumble off the boat and directly under the roof of a cement-floored restaurant where a single red neon Carta Blanca beer sign provides the only illumination. Apparently the bugs can't see red light very well. Beer arrives at the table with a napkin over the mouth of the bottle and a straw poked through the napkin, the local version of bug armor. Meanwhile, night falls. Someone sets down a plate of what seems to be garlic-fried guapote, rice, and beans before me. It is delicious, even if I can't see it. Over-the-top Spanish pop ballads blare from the stereo. For dessert, someone hands me a stiff Flor de Cana rum and Coke with another napkin-and-straw bug guard. I down it and find that I can't stop grinning.

**[BRACKET "The Death of a Giant"] **

The next day, we motor over into Lake Nicaragua to fish for guapote and rainbow bass, its slightly larger cousin. Elieser outfishes me badly using the exact same crawfish crankbait, smiling all the time. The guapote run 2 or 3 pounds but hit like freight trains and are far stronger than largemouths. The rainbow bass, which run 4 to 8 pounds, are reputed to fight even harder. I don't know, because I don't get one. But Elieser hooks a 6-pounder. When it heads for some reeds, Carlos strips off his shirt, dives off the boat, and swims right into the cover