Day 6: Sport Fishing & A Canal Tour
When we met Elvin at 5:00 a.m. for this morning's fishing excursion, he had good news and bad news. I asked for the bad first and he told me that the ocean was even rougher than it had been two days ago. A look of horror must have registered on my face -- I had been worried about seasickness and capsizing in the "calmer" seas -- because he laughed and told me the good news: we would be fishing the canals and not venturing into the ocean.
Good is relative, of course. Ocean fishing generally yields more fish, so staying in the canals was a gamble. It was a necessary one-- even the bigger boats that head to Barra del Colorado, a famous fishing zone an hour north, couldn't make it through the choppy surf. When I asked Elvin, or "Primo" as he's usually called, what had caused such rough waves, he answered that the unseasonal rain and wind had really affected Tortuguero's ocean conditions. Elvin, who co-owns Tortuguero Sport Fishing with his wife Antoinette, has more than 20 years of professional fishing experience in Tortuguero -- he knows what he's talking about -- and so I took his words seriously. October may be the rainiest month for the rest of Costa Rica, but in the Northern Caribbean, it's usually blue skies and smooth sailing.
I'd been fishing twice before in my life, so I only had the faintest idea of what to expect. Elvin began by trolling his favorite spot, but we didn't get a nibble, so we moved on to a "hole," where the canal dropped to a depth of nearly 30 feet. He handed me the fishing pole and told me that I should yank hard three times if I felt a bite. I nodded, but wasn't sure of myself. We were trolling slowly, but I still felt constant pressure on the line; would I know when a fish actually bit?
The answer is a resounding yes. I was watching the sunrise -- light pink and purple stretched out over the morning sun -- when I felt a sudden yank. By the time I had come out of my sunrise trance and yanked -- no more than a second had passed -- the nibbler had gone. I was disappointed but hopeful -- surely there were other hungry fish in the area.
A few minutes later, I got one more nibble, but it was so quick that I couldn't hook the fish. Elvin decided to move to another preferred spot, and this time we dropped in sinker lures that resembled shrimp. I loosened my line and let the bait drop down, down, down to the bottom of the canal and then started to pull up with jerky motions -- we were mimicking bottom-feeder shrimp, the diet of many freshwater fish.
We motored over to Cano Palma, the black canal from earlier in our trip, where snook are known to bite. As we began winding our way down the canal, I felt a few definite nibbles. Then, suddenly, Elvin had a fish and he handed me the pole. "Reel her in!" he cried.
Every time I catch a fish, I remark to myself what good fighters they are. Then, as soon as it's over, I forget. This morning, I was shocked at the strength of the hooked fish. I pulled my pole sideways, then reeled in the slack, pulled, reeled, pulled, reeled. I felt like I had a billion-pound tarpon on the line! But no, it was a tree. I had reeled the fish into a tree, which was why the reeling had gotten so difficult. We reversed a bit, and the fish was free from the tree but not my hook. Hurray!
He still felt like he weighed a ton. I wanted to check the fish sheet to see what the record was for tarpon, snook, snapper, and jack -- I didn't know which was on my line. We fought and, finally, I saw his scales break the surface of the water and I knew we were close. I pulled him out of the water and Elvin said that I had caught a fat snook. "Fat?" I inquired. I knew it! He was a record-winner. "Yes, a fat snook. That's the name of the species." Oh, so he wasn't particularly plump. "But he's pretty heavy, huh?" I asked, hopefully. He didn't look big... "About two pounds," responded Elvin.
So a two-pound fat snook almost bested me. It was the only fish of the day -- it seems that they just weren't biting. So I filed this in the "win" category for the trip and vowed that I'd some day catch one of the 20-pound snook or 80-pound tarpon I'd heard so much about.
After a sumptuous lunch -- Mawamba's buffet-style restaurant always has plenty of options -- it was time for a canal tour. I love wildlife and was on a roll, so I couldn't wait to see what we would observe this afternoon. Not surprisingly, the first sightings were of ever-present waterfowl: green-backed herons and blue herons peppered the canal shorelines. We also observed a female anhinga, who had begun to berate a male (her mate?) with a loud, gulping call.
Coming around the bend, our captain motored the boat into a small alcove. We were surrounded by creeping water vine, and had no idea why we had stopped. Standing up, our guide pointed to the bushes in front of us: there, curled up in the branches, was a bright yellow eyelash palm pit viper. One of Costa Rica's most poisonous snakes, these brightly-colored serpents come in many colors, including yellow, green and brown. When walking in the jungle, always look before you grab: eyelash palm pit vipers live low to the ground, so hikers looking to balance themselves must be careful that they don't grab onto a viper instead of a low-hanging branch.
The afternoon's canal tour continued with many exciting animal sightings: a three-toed sloth munched on leaves high in the trees above, a black river turtle sunned itself on a log, and toucans flew from one side of the river to the other. Then, our guide motioned toward a dark crevice and identified a tiger heron hiding in the shade. I looked but couldn't see him; his camouflage was fantastic. When he moved, however, my eyes latched on -- he was huge! About 30 inches long and weighing about three pounds, tiger herons are named for their striped plumage. Their call also reminds me of a large cat -- their hwok hwok hwok and hrrrrow! are very throaty, and sound almost like a low, hoarse cat roar.
The final sighting of the day tied for most exciting with the tiger heron: a huge osprey, or sea hawk, perched in a tree above, drying his wings. If you've never seen an osprey, take it from me that they are GIANT. Though I'd seen them before in Virginia, this version seemed much larger and more intimidating. With a wingspan of six feet and a body length of up to two feet, I wouldn't want to be a small fish, which makes up 99% of the animal's diet. After a few minutes of quiet contemplation -- he looked directly into my eyes, I swear! -- the large raptor decided he was dry and flew off, flapping his wings gracefully as he disappeared into the distance.