Alone in Tarpon Paradise
The civil war is over in
Nicaragua. The tarpon, unfished for 30 years, are hungry. And no one
by Bill Heavey
Before we head out into the steamy afternoon on Nicaragua’s remote
San Juan River, Philippe Tisseaux wants me to pay a visit to the
hospital. Or rather, he wants the hospital to pay a visit to me.
“Carlos! L’hôpital!” he calls in French to one of the barefoot
boys who are always in evidence around the new two-story lodge on
almondwood piles he built here at the junction of the San Juan River and
Carlos returns with his “hospital”—a wooden box filled with the
mangled bodies of large Rapalas. “My wounded,” Tisseaux says
tenderly. He is a cheerful expat French businessman and angler who fell
in love with this place after discovering that he could catch tarpon up
to 250 pounds all year round. A few of the lures are merely chipped or
gouged, or have had their stainless-steel intestines pulled partway out
of their butts, but most have been totaled, the metal ripped from their
flanks at crazy angles and twisted into corkscrews.
I climb into the boat with Elieser (El-ee-AY-sir), one of Tisseaux’s
top guides, and young Carlos (whom everyone refers to as Plomo, which,
as near as I can tell, means “lardass”). We head downriver to a bend
that has been productive lately. We pass dugouts with fishermen staking
gill nets in the reedy shallows for guapote, a toothy, white-fleshed
member of the perch family that makes wonderful eating when fried in
garlic. Every so often, we pass a shack set on stilts by the water. But
there is scarcely another motorized boat in sight—much less anybody
fishing for tarpon.
This wasn’t the case as late as the mid-1970s, when several tarpon
camps operated along the San Juan. But the vicious civil war between
strongman Anastasio Somoza and the rebel Sandinistas, then the
Sandinistas and the Contras, put a serious damper on business. Thirty
years of rest have done wonders for the fishing. There are a lot of big,
unpressured tarpon here once again, and it’s only a matter of time
before the word gets out.
You wouldn’t know it today, but this nearly deserted waterway was
once one of the most important in the New World. After the Spanish
relieved the Incas of their gold, they shipped it east across Lake
Nicaragua and 125 miles down the San Juan to the Atlantic. Later,
thousands of eager young men reversed the route to California during the
Gold Rush. When the Panama Canal was built, the area returned to its
Nicaragua is a big, ruggedly beautiful place without a lot of people
telling you what you can and can’t do. The lack of infrastructure
keeps the country well off the tourist circuit. What this means is if
you like clockwork schedules and dependable electricity, stay the hell
Lake Nicaragua is the largest in Central America (3,300 square miles,
most of it pristine) and contains islands with standing pre-Columbian
statues, as well as the world’s only freshwater sharks. The country is
loaded with wildlife, short of guardrails, and subject to earthquakes,
volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, and mudslides. You are pretty much
guaranteed not to run into anybody who went to your high school.
At the bend in the river, Carlos idles the motor while Elieser and I
rig four rods. When the water is low and clear, you can sight-cast to
breaking tarpon with fly or conventional tackle. If it’s running high
and stained, as it is now, the sensible thing is to troll. We’re
fishing heavy rods and light lines: stout 7-footers with flexible tips,
12-pound-test, and 8-foot leaders of 100-pound mono spooled on Catala
baitcasting reels. The drags are set just tight enough so that we
don’t lose line as we ride slowly back up against the current.
You want the drag as loose as possible for the initial strike, then
you tighten down slightly for the fight. We make runs of about half a
mile up the river, returning each time to the same spot at the bend.
Elieser speaks little English, and I less Spanish, but he is fluent in
pantomime. He explains that you wait until the rod is well arced before
you take it because a tarpon will often bruise a lure once or twice
before biting. Set the hook three times with long, smooth sweeps of the
rod at water level, so you don’t goad the fish into an early jump.
Pull too hard and you’ll draw it out of his mouth; too soft and he’ll
spit it out. Make your move too early or too late, and there will be
nobody there. You can screw up in any number of ways, it seems, and have
one chance to get it right. If you connect, just keep the pressure on—not
hard but constant.
Tisseaux has already told me that a good average is one hookup for
every three fish that hit the lure. You can’t overpower something as
strong as a tarpon on light line. That you can catch Megalops atlantica
at all, he says, is because the battle takes place as much in the fish’s
mind as anywhere else. There comes a moment in each fight, he believes,
when the great fish begins to wonder whether its unseen opponent is
stronger than it thought. If you’re bearing down at this instant, you
can break the fish psychologically. This is why 200-plus-pound fish are
sometimes boated in 15 or 20 minutes. If you are not pressuring the fish
at this juncture, however, the fish will fight on. And a defiant tarpon
will fight longer than you can. On our fourth pass, the rod with the
43/8-inch redhead Rapala bobbles once, twice, and goes down hard.
Elieser shouts. I grab the rod and do the triple hookset while he and
Carlos scramble to reel in the other lines. Strangely enough, the fish
is swimming toward me, and I have to crank as fast as I can to stay
connected. Stranger still, it stays hooked. Elieser watches the angle of
my line closely, and when he sees it starting to flatten out, he yells
what sounds like “Brita! Brita! Brita!” It’s an unlikely time to
endorse a brand of water filter, but then it occurs to me that the fish
must be getting ready to jump.
Tisseaux has talked me through the procedure of “bowing to the king,”
of lowering the rod tip to accommodate a leaping tarpon. But when I see
the silver missile launch itself 50 yards away—see the impossibly
vivid fish, clad in bright chain mail, levitated and soaring sidewise
over the water—I have a brief out-of-body experience. I stand there
mesmerized, watching as if from a parallel universe. The tarpon, exempt
from the laws of gravity, is, by many orders of magnitude, bigger, more
beautiful, and more violent than anything I’ve ever hooked.
Suddenly I am aware that the line has gone slack, and that everybody
on the boat is busily looking anywhere but at me. My mouth opens as I
struggle to join up brain and tongue. At last, demonstrating my keen
grasp of the obvious, I blurt out, “Big fish!” Elieser, who has
busied himself with some task at the front of the boat, doesn’t turn
around. But he nods his head once as if he has just heard something
encouraging. Perhaps this gringo is not a complete fool after all; he
knows when he has lost a big fish. (In the debriefing that follows, I
discover that what Elieser had been yelling was not brita but
We head back down for a few more runs before dusk. Pushing my
beginner’s luck, I hook another tarpon almost immediately, this time
on the shad-colored Rapala. Remarkably, again, it stays hooked. I’ve
got nearly 100 yards of line out, and at first the fish feels like dead
weight. Then it starts taking line and swims downriver and toward the
far shore. Elieser positions the boat ahead of the fish, motioning for
me to keep pressuring. By urging the tarpon to go where he’s already
headed, we make him change his mind and turn back.
After a few minutes, I gain some line. I’m concentrating so hard on
feeling what he’s doing that I’m not really watching the water. But
now when Elieser shouts “Brinca!” I’m smart enough to drop the rod
tip. The fish is a little smaller than the other, but still a good one.
My guide thinks he may go 130 pounds, an average tarpon on the San Juan.
When he jumps, I look to the side to avoid being mesmerized. I want this
I am not aware of the moment of doubt in the tarpon’s mind, but it
must come because just 20 minutes later, Elieser has the leader in his
hands. Then he mouth-gaffs the fish and disgorges the lure with pliers.
The tarpon stays there briefly, riding in the current alongside the boat,
surveying us with a wild, inscrutable eye. Elieser moves him to and fro
in the current with a gloved hand. Then with a giant, indifferent shrug
the fish disappears beneath the water. Elieser whoops and claps me on
the back. It is only now as I finally smile and the adrenaline subsides
that I realize that I’ve been fighting the fish with every muscle in
my body. But I’ve done it. I’ve caught a tarpon.
[A Town in Darkness]
It is nearly dark as we head back up toward the tiny port town of San
Carlos, set where the river flows out of the lake. As we get closer to
shore, Carlos and Elieser put on their sunglasses and motion for me to
do the same. “Chayul,” says Carlos. A moment later we are immersed
in an endless cloud of tiny nonbiting insects. There are billions of
them, so many that you cover your nose and mouth to avoid filling up on
live protein before dinner. Light must increase their concentration, for
the entire settlement is dark, a ghost town.
We stumble off the boat and directly under the roof of a cement-floored
restaurant where a single red neon Carta Blanca beer sign provides the
only illumination. Apparently the bugs can’t see red light very well.
Beer arrives at the table with a napkin over the mouth of the bottle and
a straw poked through the napkin, the local version of bug armor.
Meanwhile, night falls. Someone sets down a plate of what seems to be
garlic-fried guapote, rice, and beans before me. It is delicious, even
if I can’t see it. Over-the-top Spanish pop ballads blare from the
stereo. For dessert, someone hands me a stiff Flor de Cana rum and Coke
with another napkin-and-straw bug guard. I down it and find that I
can’t stop grinning.
The next day, we motor over into Lake Nicaragua to fish for guapote
and rainbow bass, its slightly larger cousin. Elieser outfishes me badly
using the exact same crawfish crankbait, smiling all the time. The
guapote run 2 or 3 pounds but hit like freight trains and are far
stronger than largemouths. The rainbow bass, which run 4 to 8 pounds,
are reputed to fight even harder. I don’t know, because I don’t get
one. But Elieser hooks a 6-pounder. When it heads for some reeds, Carlos
strips off his shirt, dives off the boat, and swims right into the cover
to flush the fish out. Elieser yells and dances a little jig when he
gets it aboard. It makes a very tasty dinner.
Back on the San Juan the next day, I pay for my earlier successful
hookups by missing three fish, one per hour. Then, at about four o’clock,
the big one hits, once more on a shad Rapala. It takes about 50 yards of
line, then starts swimming back and forth downriver. I move up to the
bow, barefoot and crouched, feet spread wide for stability. Carlos
sneaks up and buckles the fighting belt around my waist, and I jam the
rod butt into it. Every time I feel the fish change directions, I
counter so that I’m always pulling back across the length of his body.
The weight and strain on the rod signify a fish bigger than the one I
landed, and even bigger than the one I lost. He takes line at will, and
when Elieser shouts, “Brinca!” I see that the fish is so heavy he
can’t get his whole body out of the water. He jumps, but only two-thirds
of him appears. Then he crashes back like a falling tree. Even so, I bow
to him, so far that I nearly lose my balance and go into the drink.
I try to calm down and force myself to concentrate. You don’t
“play” a fish this big; you just attempt to keep from breaking off.
When he jumps again, only half his body emerges. After a while, I start
to gain on him. Twice he comes close to the boat, but when he sees us he
surges. On the third time, Elieser snatches the leader and gaffs him in
the mouth. The fish lies glistening alongside the boat just under the
water, wide and long enough to walk on.
My guide looks inside the tarpon’s mouth and shakes his head
ruefully. He has taken the lure deep, down into his gills, and the fight
has torn them up. If we release him he won’t make it, but there are
folks along the river who can use every ounce of the meat. It takes
three of us on the long-handled gaff to haul him over the rail into the
bow of the boat, whereupon we all hightail it to the stern. Elieser says
he’ll go about 185 pounds.
The great fish lies there, occasionally slamming his body around,
sending scales spinning across the deck like big silver medallions.
There is enough power in that body to break your leg and then some. I
watch him die, watch him change colors as he goes, a veil of purple
descending over his silver scales, the black of his back deepening. The
colors are fleeting and beautiful, like something that burns too bright
to last long in the ordinary world. The moon in his eye sinks away to
nothing, and the eye goes cold. I am glad to have caught him but sadder
than I ever would have expected to be the agent of his death. And I am
afraid to go near him until I’m sure the last spark of life has left
We stop at one of the shacks on the river, where a small boy and I
wordlessly drag him up the path with a rope, like you would a deer, to
where his father sits on his haunches sharpening a knife on a stone. His
wife and four more children watch shyly from a distance. I shake the
boy’s hand, and his father thanks me. We walk back to the boat as the
sky darkens. In my pocket is my trophy, a single round scale, thick and
hard as a toenail, flecked with silver. We head back up the river. Five
hundred yards from the unlit town of San Carlos, Elieser gives the
signal and we all put on our sunglasses.