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Tarpon Fishing at Rio Parismina

Destination: Parismina

There I was, all hot and bothered with $700 of graphite nearly bent to the breaking point, when the sleek tarpon took to the sky. Eighty pounds of prehistoric fish blasted out of the ocean in a show-stopping moment of acrobatic prowess. I let off pressure and "bowed to the king," sensing it would throw the hook. The reel screamed as the fish disappeared on a long, hard run. I was less than five minutes into a rollercoaster battle with one of the world's hardest-fighting game fish, the Atlantic tarpon.

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Two hours earlier, I had checked my fear of puddle jumpers at the door, and breathed deeply as the Twin Otter spirited me away from the daily grind and into a realm of unbridled beauty and unparalleled angling. A rush of hot, languid air tinged with brine enveloped us in Parismina. This Caribbean outpost is remote, known mostly among fishermen and the odd eco-tourist interested in turtle conservation. We were fishing the mouth of the Rio Parismina, where four International Game Fish Association (IGFA) world-record snook have been landed. FOUR!

But today we weren't casting for snook; this was tarpon season. And we were in experienced hands at the Rio Parismina Lodge, the oldest and most respected facility in the area. Speaking with the handful of other anglers on our plane, I quickly gleaned how epic the fishing would be. Clad head-to-toe in the latest quick-dry attire, a returning guest named Dick said that of the thirty fishing lodges he had sampled over the years, the Rio Parismina was the finest. No matter the weather or the season, the fishing is always phenomenal and it's complemented with a healthy dose of southern hospitality from lodge owner, Judy Heidt.

By 7:30 a.m., we were slathered in sunscreen and on the water. Standing on either side of our captain with life jackets on, we gripped the rails as he skillfully sized up the river mouth before making the cross. Dodging the larger waves, he circled twice before exploding over the channel into the undulating Caribbean Sea. Francisco punched up the speed and as we skimmed the tops of shimmering swells, I surveyed the raw jungle stretching for miles in every direction. This was the real Costa Rica and there was no other place I'd rather be.

To be honest, I'm not well versed in fishing tackle, terminology or techniques. But I'm a good listener and take direction well. Just hand me a rod and tell me how to cast or set the hook, and if fish are around, I usually catch them. As I later discovered, we were fishing tarpon with "light tackle," 30-pound rods that make an 80-pound fish feel more like Moby Dick. In other words, it's a lot of fun for your first giant tarpon, but exhausting work on your tenth.

In my excitement to go fishing, I had somehow forgotten the possibility of rough seas. By all accounts, the ocean wasn't choppy -- more of a steady rise and fall as baby swells cradled our 21-foot boat. A little green around the gills, my self-preservation gene kicked in, sending me into a drowsy, trance-like state. I looked over at my fiance, Martin, who gleefully chugged a beer while Francisco jigged for sardines. In my dazed condition, the sardines seemed to magically appear from the back of the boat; I had no clue that our guide was constantly replenishing our supply from the sea.

Just minutes after asking Francisco, "How will I know if a tarpon hits?" I discovered the understatement in his reply. BAM! A sixty-pound beauty hit my line hard, and before I could squeal, she jumped five, maybe eight feet trying to toss the hook from her bucket-sized mouth. I waited three seconds then set the hook with a quick lateral jerk. Following Francisco's advice, I kept steady pressure on the fish with my rod tip down, remembering to pump up and reel down. This went on for a good twenty-five minutes: a true testament to the power of the silver king.

We had chanced upon a school of tarpon, and while watching the metallic fish roll on the water's surface, I understood why they are dubbed "silver kings": their heavy, silvery scales flashed in the morning light. Two more tarpon hit Martin and Francisco's lines, validating my theory of the Parismina river mouth: it was one big bowl of tarpon soup. That morning we jumped five tarpon and boated three; the lightest weighed 60 pounds, and our prizewinner tipped the scales at 110.

Like most angling outfits, this was recreational fishing only, and after posing for a quick trophy shot, all tarpon were released live. The Rio Parismina Lodge stopped using treble hooks (three-pronged) and artificial lures several years ago to minimize any damage to tarpon populations. We fished with single hooks and sardines less than a mile off the Caribbean coastline, and by 11:30, after multiple battles, we were dog-tired.

A spread of gourmet home-cooked fare was waiting in the lodge's dining hall. I helped myself to seconds without a hint of guilt -- tarpon fishing is like sparring with a highly-trained prizefighter. Just when you think you've got them whipped, they go for another round, sometimes racing hundreds of yards from the boat. Fortunately, we avoided the heat of the day with a two-hour siesta before hitting the water again at 2:00.

Our lucky streak continued that afternoon, as Martin and I each boated silver kings in the 70 to 80-pound range. The horizon revealed rod tips bent in every direction, as other anglers reveled in the hot spot we'd found just 14 miles from the river mouth. Most guests at the lodge stay at least a week, and I now understood why. Even on off days, most folks jump a tarpon or two.

Cocktails in hand, we mulled over the day's events with fellow angler, Dennis Toll. This was his nineteenth year fishing the Rio Parismina, and he had some impressive tales of ones that didn't get away. A framed black-and-white photo of Dennis dwarfed by a 300+ pound grouper hung near the kitchen. And stories of predacious bull sharks and hammerheads were yet to come.

That night, we dined family-style on New York strip steaks, twice-baked potatoes and the fluffiest banana cream pie I have ever eaten. The lodge can accommodate up to 24 guests, but our small group of eight felt more like a family. Indeed, the guests knew one another and their boat captains well. And Judy remembered that Dennis avoids vegetables like the plague, but loves tomatoes and ultra-sweet desserts. How about that? A lodge with world-class fishing that also feels like a second home.

Tarpon Fishing at Rio Parismina in Pictures

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