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Part II: Tarpon Fever at Rio Parismina

Destination: Parismina

Thunderous booms resonated through the night sky, chased by intense flashes of light. Caribbean downpours are notoriously unpredictable, and I hoped Mother Nature's impressive display would blow over by sunrise. Our 5 a.m. wake-up call -- a gentle tap on the door along with fresh coffee and juice on the veranda -- lifted my spirits. The rain had almost dissipated and, according to lodge manager, Fernando, the outlook for getting on the ocean was good.

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At Rio Parismina Lodge, water safety is always a priority. During rough conditions, the river mouth crossing can get too dodgy, even for experienced captains on sturdy, center console boats. On such days -- and this is the beauty of Parismina -- anglers can fish the backwater lagoons and canals for snook, machaca (a species resembling a large bluegill), guapote (a cichlid that fights like a rainbow bass), and mojara (a bluegill-like cichlid). Keep in mind that the area holds four world records for snook, including a 49-pound beauty caught by Judy Heidt herself. August through November are ideal months for such freshwater fishing, especially along the rivers within Tortuguero National Park, a few minutes from the lodge.

Before we hit the water, I took a pill by the name of Bonine, a miracle drug that Judy keeps on hand for less than sea-worthy guests like myself. I was caffeinated, fed and raring to shoot through the river mouth to catch some more monster tarpon. Those aerial displays were addictive, and our guide couldn't start the boat fast enough. The breaks in the channel appeared tame, but as a precaution, a rescue boat is always positioned at the river mouth just in case.

Francisco scanned the water for glints of silver and schools of bait; no need for a fish-finder with this man. We tag-teamed with another boat and sped up to the Pacuare river mouth where the fresh water left a dark slick on the sea. Within the hour, the silver kings were biting, and the reels began to shriek. By my second tarpon, estimated at 85 pounds, Judy's breakfast chatter began to make sense. "Give me a 50 or 60-pounder any day; those are the fish you want." Indeed, those 50-pounders made for a fun yet challenging battle. I could boat them in less than 20 minutes. But when you hook a six-foot goliath, be prepared for the fight of your life.

Drenched in sweat, I cursed my lack of upper-body strength as the tarpon dragged me around the front of the boat. Muscles aching, I attempted to steady myself while tiring the tarpon with full-on sideways pressure. Martin and Francisco chuckled, "This is what you were waiting for, now pull that fish in!" The sheer strength of the tarpon is best described as unrelenting. But, after two leaps and a half hour of muscle, I landed my fish. That day we had ten silver king "encounters" and boated five.

Our guide usually struck off on his own, but when the bite was hot, word got out quickly, and within minutes three or four other boats from the lodge would sneak in. It was a game of cat-and-mouse, and I never tired of watching other anglers hoot and holler as their tarpon flashed across the sky. Most catches were in the 50-120 pound class, with one 150-pounder that took two hours to land and provided some entertaining dinner conversation.

I was glad to know that bull sharks rarely made an appearance these days; not long ago anglers were routinely denied their spoils. Just as the tarpon neared the boat, the sharks would attack, leaving little more than a head on the giant, silver hooks. Fernando recalled some twenty years ago when a local fisherman was dragged out to sea by a 21-foot hammerhead. His tiny skiff was about to go under when a larger catamaran cut the line and pulled the shark to shore. The dorsal fin alone was more than five-feet tall and the fish weighed some 1200 pounds. To me, it was tales like these that sweetened the Parismina fishing experience. It is a wild place, completely unscripted, and until you glimpse the end of your line, it's anyone's guess.

Amidst the wild tales and flashing tails, extras like sunrise coffee service, banana-cream pie for returning guests and fresh-baked cookies brought a sense of civility to our stay. The meals were downright fabulous, like the best of Paula Dean's cooking on a daily basis. And I loved that the lodge was owned and operated by a spunky, Carolina-turned-Texas woman who adored fishing as much as I did. Back in 1990, Judy Heidt opened the lodge and never looked back. Set on 50 acres, with gorgeous landscaping, the lodge backs right up to the jungle so toucans, howler and white-faced monkeys can mingle with the guests. Our three-day fishing escapade now seems like a dream, but here's the reality: the Rio Parismina delivers one of the best tarpon fishing experiences on the planet.

Part II: Tarpon Fever at Rio Parismina in Pictures

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