“Costa Rica’s Tarpon Action is Getting Better Every Year - Here’s Why”
In a world of dwindling fish stocks and overstressed sportfisheries it is encouraging to find a success story such as Costa Rica’s tarpon revival. Although never threatened with extinction, the large tarpon cruising its Caribbean coastline were getting impacted by heavy netting at prime river-mouth feeding zones and uncontrolled shrimp trawling nearshore. In 1995 legislation was adopted banning nets within one mile from all river mouths. Initial enforcement was limited to the fat snook season from December to February when a major harvest took place. Enforcement was soon expanded to cover the entire year and, unlike many countries that pass paper laws that are unenforced, Costa Rica got tough and continues to confiscate nets, boats and levy fines for illegal fishing. Costa Rica ’s Coast Guard utilizes a roving military vessel (a U.S. donation) that patrols the coastline and appears to be an effective deterrent simply by virtue of its presence in an otherwise placid natural environment. In addition to the net ban, shrimp trawling is no longer permitted in Caribbean coastal waters.
EYE POPPING CATCHES
George Molina, a 30-year veteran of Costa Rica tarpon fishing, says “ I’ve never seen as many tarpon before from the Rio Parismina to the Rio Colorado beginning about 1997” or two years after the net ban. According to Ray and Shawn Barry, owners of the famed Silver King Lodge near the mouth of the Rio Colorado, big catches are becoming more common. One lodge boat jumped 84 tarpon and released 28 in October of 1997 while in September of 1999 five boats released an incredible 65 tarpon during a wild full moon bite. And the tarpon are big. Fish under 60 pounds are rare and the average “sabalo” weighs 70 to 80 pounds. “When the tarpon get over 100 pounds around here we call them “yellow bellies” because they take on a yellow coloration” said Shawn. “Our biggest tarpon so far weighed 208 pounds and it had a beautiful golden belly” she added.
During several trips to the tarpon coast since 1992 I’ve found reliable fishing from the Rio Parismina north to the Rio Colorado. The fish were especially thick off the Colorado in October of 1999. Captain Edwin “Ginder” Clark guided Californian Rick Casparian and myself aboard one of the 23-foot center console deep-vee skiffs from Silver King to a hot bite five miles up the coast. The sea temperature was a warm 84 degrees with only a slight swell disturbing a calm surface. Tarpon could be seen gulping air in every direction. Although most fish seemed to be milling around randomly, several times we noted large schools of big fish rippling the surface like tuna as they headed in specific directions “en masse.”
Ginder gunned the engine and we set up a drift in the pathway of one school. We soon found that these “surface” schools must have held immense numbers of fish as we hooked up by deep jigging in 80-feet of water as well as near the surface. A solid vertical column of tarpon 80-feet thick in the “yellow belly” category is an impressive sight. With a triple hook-up going (Ginder likes to fish) we couldn’t help but notice that almost every boat in the area had bent rods actively working tarpon. The fish just kept marching through the fleet unperturbed by jumping, splashing tarpon and screaming anglers. Many fish were released over the 100-pound threshold. Some weary anglers actually started looking for smaller prey in the rivers by the second or third day to recuperate from sore muscles.
WHY SO GOOD
“Tarpon fishing was good before the net ban but now the bigger fish are free to roam in the rivers or ocean without getting spooked by gill nets strung halfway across the river. With nets the tarpon scatter and are harder to find” says Ray Barry. The small mesh diameter nets don’t kill big tarpon but eliminate tons of forage such as sardines and juvenile snook from the habitats food-chain. Another tarpon staple, shrimp, are impacted by trawling as well as killing a myriad of bottom dwelling organisms as unwanted bycatch. “Now the tarpon are settling down in reliable spots, gaining weight with lots of forage available and busting tackle” adds Ray.
The key to maintaining this environmental stability is constant vigilance. The Barry’s are tireless in this regard. They react quickly when illegal netters arrive and the patrol boat is not around. A quick call to the Commander of the Coast Guard in San José , the inland capital of Costa Rica , invariably results in a positive response to the situation. The Barry’s frequently augment the Coast Guard crews meager diet with sumptuous meals sent out directly from Silver King Lodge, freshwater and any other assistance they can provide. I have seen this hospitality lift spirits and help create a good relationship between this enforcement agency and its benefactors.
Another important conservation factor is that tarpon are not considered edible by most standards. Without a market appeal, commercial fishermen do not attempt to tap the tarpon resource. Other species such as snook, fat snook and jack crevalle have benefited greatly from the net ban. It’s not unusual to catch a dozen snook per day during the peak season from March to May with a second showing of larger fish from September to November. Tarpon are available all year.
Costa Rica ’s Pacific Coast is the magnet for commercial fishing centered on the port city of Puntarenas . There are more marketable fish species, better infrastructure such as roads and utilities with a network of ice houses on the Pacific side that support the industry. The Caribbean Coast is dominated by lowland rainforest drained by twisting river systems navigated by a sparse population. Banana plantations and ecotourism are important industries as well as the sportfishing lodges strategically located at the Rio Parismina and Rio Colorado . The lack of development and fishery exploitation should remain well behind the pace of the Pacific Coast which is good news for tarpon fans. It doesn’t hurt that Costa Rica President Miguel Angel Rodriguez is a promoter of tourism and supporter of sportfishing interests. It’s exciting to ponder that this world-class tarpon fishery could get even better in the future. Where else in this world of shrinking resources can you make a prediction like that?
TAPPING THE TARPON BONANZA
The Silver King Lodge is a premier tarpon resort. With 10 large rooms elevated by wooden piers above a grass and tropical floral landscaping and 12 center console outboards capable of fishing safely offshore, the lodge can comfortably accommodate twenty anglers. Ray and Shawn Barry started constructing the lodge on the east bank of the Rio Colorado in 1991 and opened its doors in 1993. Amenities include a large swimming pool, jacuzzi, tackle shop and possibly the best food served in Costa Rica . A high percentage of repeat clientele, up to 50% during the fall peak season, is testimony to a well-run operation and productive fishing. In addition to tarpon, offshore blue water fishing is offered for blue marlin, wahoo and yellowfin tuna. Inshore, the lodge has eight skiffs that can probe the calm river backwaters for feisty guapoté, machaca and occasional snook and tarpon.
Anglers arrive by plane after a brief flight from San José and are taken on a short river boat ride to the lodge. Effective lures and tackle are provided, however, many anglers bring favorite outfits and test new lures which is also encouraged. Metal jigs such as the Coasthawk and soft plastic tail leadheads that can simulate shrimp by jigging in 40- to 80-feet of water will produce well. Also, trolling swimming plugs can be effective.
For additional information or to book a trip to Silver King, see their web site at: www.silverkinglodge.com or contact Adventures at (800) 231-7422; website: www.adventures.com; or Rod and Reel Adventures at 800-356-6982; 209-785-0444; Fax 209-785-0447; or e-mail: email@example.com; website: www.rodreeladventures.com
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The Roving Angler