Jungle kings

tapam_tarpon_fishonPrompted by a fly fishing film in which two men fishing from float tubes do battle with enormous tarpon somewhere in Central America, Thomas Søbirk headed to Nicaragua with high hopes and wild dreams.

(Photography: Thomas Søbirk & Thomas Kristensen)

This story is not about two guys fly fishing for tarpon from float tubes. But no matter how much I twist and turn it, that will always be where it began for me, with the film Tapâm, a flyfishing journey (2011) in which Daniel Göz and Jan Bach Kristensen hook, fight and land one big tarpon after another from float tubes at an undisclosed location somewhere in Central America. The film created a lot of buzz amongst fly fishermen and received much well-deserved recognition. Not least because the footage of float tube fishing in the jungle was very different from anything the world had ever seen. Float tubes or not, what really got me excited was the sheer number of big fish. You didn't need to know much about tarpon to realise that this was fishing on another level. Man, I wanted to go there!

Over time, word eventually got out that the film was shot in Nicaragua, on the Atlantic coast where tarpon are found. But it was still only a vague lead. The coastline is about 300km long with countless rivers. It was a silver needle in a huge green haystack.

January 18, 2015

tapam_hotel“There are still places to be found…”, says Jan Bach Kristensen in the film. That was basically the overall message of Tapâm. And here I was, thinking to myself  ‘and we have found it!' 

We were the very first group to stay in the newly built lodge in the Nicaraguan jungle, and before we'd even had time to grab our rods, we spotted a tarpon free jump a few hundred metres away. In all honesty I don't remember much, but I can tell you that I was beyond excited as another two big tarpon then jumped nearby as a spray of mullet were thrown several feet up into the air. 

Needless to say, it didn't take long before our flies were pitching back and forth above us as huge swirls and big silver flashes just below the surface divulged that a number of tarpon in the 80-100lb range or more were within casting range. Granted, this wasn't classic sight-fishing as the river was still coloured from the winter rains, but I assure you, it was every bit as intense and exciting!

tapam_thomasOur first day of fishing in Nicaragua must have been less than 20 minutes old when a tarpon sucked in my friend's baitfish fly. It immediately jumped and the fly lost its hold in the bony mouth. A few strips later a smaller tarpon took the fly, but the 4/0 hook didn't find a good hold in that one either.  A blessing in disguise as it was only a few more casts before he hooked a much bigger specimen. This time he had the chance to set the hook before 100 pounds of silver caught the soft morning light as it rocketed out of the river with the lush green jungle in the background. Yes, we had found it…

As the sun set over the jungle on that first evening, the five of us – in two boats – reflected on an incredible day. Collectively, we had jumped 10 big ‘jungle poons', a few of which were fought right to the side of the boat with the leader in the guides but, alas, we were unable to land any of them. 

A few hours into our second day, my friend Jacob hooked a big fish. He has fly fished for GTs, king salmon and many other strong species, but never for big tarpon. 

Our guide estimated that this one was around 150lb, a nice fish around here but not in any way unusual. When Jacob saw 6ft of fish leaving the water in the first of several spectacular jumps, his jaw dropped to his chest. It took almost an hour of serious battle before Jacob had the tarpon boat-side, and after that struggle we were seriously worried that every big fish we would encounter would leave us ragged. Luckily, this was, apparently, a particularly powerful fish.

When I returned to the jungle two months later, my good friend the Carpenter landed a monster of a fish, estimated by his guide to be very close to 200lb. This one gave in after 20 minutes and a broken rod. Although the Carpenter weighs in at 120kg himself, and can lift and pull more than most people, it just shows how much the strength of one fish can differ from the next.

tapam_brokenrodAfter two trips earlier this year and a total of 12 long days of fishing in the jungle, there are way more stories to tell than there is room for on these pages. My second trip starts exactly as the first did, right in the middle of a crazy feeding frenzy. After only an hour of fishing, a little before 7am, upon finding that I suddenly had a signal on my mobile, I tried to send a text to lodge owner Jeroen: “Fished one hour, six jumped, one (approx 100lb) landed. One guy playing a fish right f*****g now!” Sorry about the language, but the adrenaline was pumping.

I landed the 100-pounder and, what's more, my boat partner Peter Christensen got it all on film. Shortly thereafter, we headed over towards the other boat to shoot the battle between Jan and a much bigger fish.

A lot of food and a difficult fish

tapam_grouperYou would be forgiven for thinking that we were into big fish from dawn till dusk, six days in a row. I'm afraid we weren't. From what I understood from the guides, we actually encountered pretty tough fishing during our first trip. The winter had seen way more rain than usual and the water temperature was low for that time of the year. The whole season seemed to be delayed. Still, all five of us were very keen to go back and I was delighted to have the opportunity to return seven weeks later. 

Although we actually hooked a good number of fish on the first trip, we only found them in a few select spots. In early February, however, I heard from a German group that the fishing had changed for the better. 

I would witness this first-hand when I returned in early March. I know many anglers out there have way more tarpon experience than me. Still, I have fished for tarpon eight or nine times in Belize, several times in Cuba and Florida and once in Costa Rica, and, without a shadow of a doubt, I have never seen as many big tarpon during six days of fishing as I did that week in Nicaragua. On the other hand, there were times when it was extremely difficult to get them to eat a fly – which I will admit I have experienced elsewhere too. 

tapam_mainSometimes we found lots of rolling fish in clear-water lagoons and went through entire boxes of flies – fishing high, deep, fast and slow – the fish just didn't care. What was particularly perplexing was when we could see them swirling on the surface, surely eating something, and yet they refused outright to take our flies. On my last day, however, I finally got a big fish to eat a shrimp pattern under such conditions. Maybe it was pure luck, maybe my reasoning held true that they weren't chasing fish but were instead eating shrimps as nothing jumped out of the water when they swirled?

At other times they were completely turned on. One evening, the Carpenter and Jan came back to the lodge with big smiles on their faces. They had spent the afternoon in a big, clear river where they had found lots of tarpon of all sizes – and a hell of a lot more fish fry. Stripping their baitfish flies with the fastest two-hand retrieve they could muster, the tarpon were following, noses inches from the flies while pushing a wave in front of them. Not that they were easy to fool on this occasion, but not exactly impossible either. During a leg-shaking, knee-rattling hour and a half, they had one follower after another, jumped five poons and landed two up to around 120lb. One of the fish actually took the fly after Jan had already stripped a couple of feet of his leader into the rod's guides!

There is still a lot to learn about this fishery. So far the conclusion must be that these fish have an exceptionally well-filled pantry. I can't find a better explanation for why they get so much bigger here than elsewhere. Luckily – when the tide is pushing fresh schools of baitfish up-river which triggers a tarpon feeding frenzy without equal – they can also be easier to tempt than anywhere else. I yearn to return…

The road to Tapâm – quite a coincidence

tapam_boatTapâm means tarpon in Miskito, a language spoken only by some 150,000 of Nicaragua's five million residents. The Miskito Indians are found along the Miskito Coast (also known as the Mosquito Coast) north of Pearl Lagoon and across the border in Honduras. The whole area is covered by jungle, the waterways the only connection between the small villages. 

During May 2014, steelhead guide and lodge owner Jeroen Wohe and his friend Jaap Kalkman visited Nicaragua on a longer tarpon expedition. Jeroen had done a good deal of research beforehand and was (partly inspired by Tapâm) sure that certain areas in Nicaragua held great potential for a new operation. If he found what he was hoping for, the plan was to start a tarpon operation.

Whether it was luck, skills or a mix of both is hard to determine but Jeroen and Jaap hit it spot-on and experienced fantastic tarpon fishing, hooking 23 fish in six days. This in spite of the fact that this fishery was unlike anything else they had seen and demanded a different approach; often stripping big flashy flies as fast as possible, which was not what they knew from previous tarpon trips. The biggest fish they saw were – to put it mildly – enormous! The verdict was clear: this was the place to fulfil your wildest tarpon dreams!

tapam_landedThe rest of their time in Nicaragua was spent negotiating exclusive fishing rights with the local Indians and establishing a partnership with the Nicaraguan-American couple Rosa Torrez and Randy Poteet. It was their boat they had hired for the expedition into the jungle.

Maybe they wouldn't have found so many fish if it wasn't for Rosa's brother, a fishing guide named Marco, who already knew some of the most productive spots in the area. Years ago, Marco had a girlfriend from one of the villages up north and on several occasions he had seen hunting tarpon at the same spot. Together with his brother Orlando and his brother-in-law Randy, they arranged some expeditions for their most adventurous clients. They found a few new spots and experienced some unbelievable fishing with up to 20 fish hooked in a single day! However, without some form of suitable base in the jungle, it was hard to do it regularly. It wasn't until Jeroen showed up as initiator and investor that it became possible to build the small lodge next to the Indian village. The lodge was finished in January 2015 and now holds the rights to all sport fishing in the area.

When Jeroen returned from Nicaragua, full of tarpon dreams and optimism, he couldn't help but watch Tapâm one more time: the film that had inspired this big adventure. Since the area up north is huge, he was certain that he had just found an equally productive spot. However, as the pictures started rolling across the screen, and with the recently fished locations fresh in his mind, he recognised several of them. He then realised that the film was shot in exactly the same location as he and Jaap had just fished. “There are still places to be found…”, sounded out in the living room. ‘Yep, but one less of them now,' he thought. 

Getting there

The season runs from January to June. Logistics are complicated so six days guided fishing doesn't come cheap (fishing trips to some of the world's hottest destinations rarely do). It's around $4,200 per person excluding flights.

For now the operation has very limited capacity (4 –6 anglers), and there are no plans to expand before the area is explored further and new spots are discovered.


Gearing up

tapam_tarponWith a very real possibility of hooking world record size fish, your tackle must be up to the job. We're talking top quality 11 or 12wt rods and reels with reliable drags and several hundred metres of backing. Fly lines should be intermediate and fast sinking saltwater models with a high breaking strain core. 

The leader should end in around 1mm (125lb) fluorocarbon, and many anglers use heavy leader all the way through. This is not a destination for IGFA leaders – the fish are too big, some spots are deep and in places the current is powerful. Being able to pull as hard as a fly rod will handle will shorten the fight-time considerably.

Flies are normally either baitfish or shrimp patterns tied on the best Japanese tarpon hooks – in size 3/0 to 5/0 – you can get your hands on.

Watch the film

Filmmaker Peter Christensen fished with the author on his second trip to Nicaragua and produced a short film entitled Early Morning Jungle Poon. You can watch it at www.tapamthelodge.com


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