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Costa Rica Fishing for Tarpon in Barra del Colorado

February 23, 2021

Multiply the unnerving sound of an aggravated rattlesnake by 1,000 times and you will know the sound of the rattling gills of a tarpon when it jumps. It is a sound that vibrates through your body and enters your soul.

The tarpon is a prehistoric fish that has been around for thousands of years. They have the ability to enter salt or freshwater at will and have been recorded to have life spans of 60 years or more.

Barra del Colorado, on Costa Rica’s northern Caribbean coast, is one place on the planet where tarpon gather by the thousands. They school together in groups that cover several acres, and you can see them roll on the surface all around you. They also travel up the Río Colorado into the Río San Juan and all the way to Lake Nicaragua, entering every tributary and lagoon along the way.

Years ago, Barra del Colorado was a small village of mostly loggers, turtle hunters and fishermen. When a turtle hunter captured a turtle, he would carve his brand in the turtle’s shell and hold the turtles in pens until a boat from Key West, Florida, would arrive to carry them alive back to Florida. They were also held in pens until slaughtered.

The 1935 hurricane that destroyed U.S. tycoon Henry Flagler’s railroad to the Florida Keys washed many of these turtles back into the sea. The next turtle season, these same branded turtles were captured again between Barra del Colorado and Tortuguero.

Today, the loggers are long gone, and turtle hunting was outlawed many years ago. The village of about 900 inhabitants survives on small-scale fishing for snook and lobster, and on tourism. For the past 40 years, a big part of that tourism has been tarpon fishing.

Carlos Barrantes, Bill Barnes and Archie Fields built the first lodges in Barra. All three have passed away but left a legacy of accomplishments in Costa Rica sportfishing. Barnes catered to fly fishermen. A great fly fisherman himself, and photographer, he recorded much of the nature of the area on film, including a photo of a jaguar that got published all over the world.

Early fishing in Barra was done in small johnboats with 25-horsepower motors. A lot of the fishing was done in the river and back lagoons, because for most of the year the breaking surf at the river mouth did not allow a small boat to venture out to the ocean. Lodges now have bigger boats and can get to the larger concentrations of fish outside with much more frequency.

September and October bring the best weather to the Caribbean side. The sea is almost always flat as a pancake, making rolling fish easy to spot. The fish generally bite all day long except right on top of the full moon, when the bite is in the early morning and late afternoon.

Río Colorado Lodge had four anglers hook 130 tarpon in a four-day period last week. Capt. Eddie Brown once had his anglers jump 126 tarpon in one day at this time of year. My personal best was 60.

There is a big difference between what is known as “jumping” a fish and landing one. Tarpon have hard, bony mouths and are often contortionists when they jump. Keeping a hook in one is not always easy. Many say the hook-to-land ratio is arguably about 20 percent.

If you have a 100-pound-plus fish rip line off your reel and jump two or three times and escape, it is not the end of the world. One of my most memorable days of fishing was when I put 19 tarpon in the air and landed a big fat zero. Aggravating it was, but what an adrenalin rush!

Tarpon in Costa Rica average 60-80 pounds, and over the years the population of big fish seems to have grown – that or fishermen’s eyes have gotten bigger. In the past five years, I’ve heard more reports of fish going 160-200 pounds than ever before. Tarpon have a very poor food value, and all tarpon are released alive.

It is an easy type of fishing. Just drift out the river mouth using a bucktail jig with a plastic grub tail. Make sure the jig is heavy enough to get to the bottom. Lightly lift and drop the rod tip. It is usually not long before you launch your first missile.

If the fish aren’t cooperating there, your guide will move out to the color change where the coffee-with-cream-colored river water meets the Caribbean Sea.

The action and flat seas will last through the middle of November. You may not hook 100 fish in a day, but if a tarpon is on your bucket list, now is the best time to go.

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