Day 2: Barra del Colorado - A Bow to the King
We ate breakfast on the dock overlooking calm waters and blue skies. Just six weeks earlier, Vincent and I had paid our dues fishing some fierce seas off Quepos. I had prepared for the worst, and was relieved that our fishing karma had finally come through. Actually, anglers in Barra always have the option of fishing farther inland in the ever-calm river system where snook, guapote and tarpon are regularly landed.
Today we were fishing the river mouth of the 600 meter-wide Rio Colorado. Here, fresh water flows into the ocean, creating a giant bowl of tarpon soup. As I climbed aboard our 23-foot boat, Dan shouted a reminder to "bow to the king". He smiled and explained that tarpon immediately take to the sky when hooked,
and in order to give them slack, anglers must keep their rod tips down -- bowing to the king. These acrobatic fish are affectionately dubbed "silver rockets" due totheir aerial jumps and 360 degree mid-air turns.
Vincent and I were in good hands with captain Speedy, a tall and reedy fellow with 12 years experience running boats in both Costa Rica and Nicaragua. He spoke with a soft Patois lilt and gave us a sly grin. We cruised about 15 minutes into the river mouth, meeting up with boats from our lodge and others. Pods of bottlenose dolphins joined us in the flat waters, doing a little fishing of their own.
I wondered if Speedy would use ultrasound to home in on the fish, but within minutes one and two-hundred pound tarpon were rolling everywhere. They looked like carp but bigger and meaner, like mullet on steroids. Speedy turned off the boat's engine and cast a few lines; the current was strong enough to keep the jig moving without trolling. I heard a hoot in the distance and saw another angler hook a silver rocket. The giant tarpon took to the sky and twisted its body, trying to throw the hook to no avail.
A few casts later and it was my turn. First I jumped a nice 15-pound jack crevalle, and reeled it in with ease. As we released the jack, a tarpon hit the other rod and rocketed into the air. Now this was fishing. Speedy strapped the fishing belt around my waist as the tarpon nearly dragged me overboard. This was one of the hardest fighting fish I had ever come across.
After three or four good jumps and a half hour of serious sweaty work, I got the tarpon close enough for Speedy to gaff. The monster weighed in at over 100 pounds, and we could barely heft a quarter of its six-foot long body out of the sea for a photo. Tarpon, like other game fish in Costa Rica, are always released alive.
It was 10 am, and every angler around us had a tarpon (or two) on the line. It was a surreal experience, almost too good to be true. The fish were practically jumping into our boats. In truth, it takes some skill, patience and a lot of endurance to get the behemoths boated. If you keep the line too tight, the tarpon will snap it in a heartbeat, as many of us experienced that morning.
The action was still hot when we took a break at 11:00 am for lunch and a well-deserved siesta.The staff at Rio Colorado Lodge had created another Southern smorgasbord of barbeque pork sandwiches topped with tangy coleslaw, along with salads and fresh iced tea or beer. We celebrated a fellow angler's birthday with a coffee-liquor coconut cake, yet another reason to stay at this fabulous place.
Rio Colorado Lodge offers both all-inclusive fishing packages (including everything from airfare to fishing tackle and open bar) as well as standard packages for the budget-minded. The lodge has a recreation room with game tables, and satellite TV is available for those who need their CNN fix.
Anglers can also fly fish the rivers or ocean and hook some beautiful snook ranging upwards of 30 pounds. Tarpon are usually landed in the river mouth but can be fished further up the Rio Colorado when they migrate through the Rio San Juan to Lake Nicaragua.
Other than fishing, most folks associate Barra del Colorado with its wildlife refuge, a wetland area rich in biodiversity but extremely isolated and difficult to navigate. Barra is the largest wildlife refuge in Costa Rica, and includes over 50 kilometers of canals, rivers, lagoons and marshlands that connect with Nicaragua to the north and Tortuguero to the south.
Over a couple of beers, Dan enlightened me on Barra's other wild side as a maverick frontier.
During the Nicaraguan skirmishes in the 70's and 80's, Barra was a known hideout for Contra generals and CIA operatives and hosted its share of covert activity. Pirates once used the river system to sack Granada, and its remote location attracts an eccentric and surreptitious group to this day. As a guest at Rio Colorado Lodge, you're just as likely to fish alongside a Russian mobster as you are an accountant from Texas. You never know.
We fished again from 2 pm to 5 pm, and several anglers boated more tarpon, two barracudas and a fat triple tail. I had already boated several hundred-pound prehistoric beasts that day, so I wasn't too disappointed with our afternoon luck. We fished through a brief thunderstorm under heavy skies and returned just in time for a Technicolor sunset and cocktails before dinner.
Once again, I found myself the only girl in a sea of male fishermen. But this wasn't a good old boy's club -- the walls were splashed with photos of beaming female anglers, all proudly posing with record tarpon and snook. And my photo was soon to join their ranks. Dan barbequed some chicken to accompany the batter-fried triple tail that night. Over supper, I promised Tetsuo, a businessman visiting from Japan, that I'd email the photos we took of him fighting a 200-pound tarpon.
Maybe it was the rum or the sun or my battles with gigantic fish, but I could barely keep my eyes open after dinner. This was our last evening in Barra del Colorado, and I was already dreaming of my return. I'd come back for the good company, the tales of pirates and mercenaries and the incredible food. But mostly, I'd return to fish for more monster tarpon and once again bow to the king.