The waters off the Costa Rica-Panama border on the Caribbean Sea side are a fantastic location for catching monster tarpon on the fly. I recently tapped into this adventure with my dad and our friend, saltwater fly fishing expert Captain Mark Martin, at his Tarponville lodge. Located on the dense rainforest shores of Manzanillo, Costa Rica, the lodge has several well-appointed rooms, a full staff and fishing guides who take you out twice a day to the waters near the remote border. Once you return from a long day of saltwater fly fishing, a cold mojito and dinner awaits. Departing early the next morning for more fishing isn’t too rough, assuming the howler monkeys didn’t keep you up all night.

Seven days spent in this remote fishing paradise chasing the elusive and spectacular Silver King teaches you a lot of lessons about tarpon fishing, especially the triple digit fish of a lifetime I hooked and battled only to have it break off nearly two hours later. Here I’d like to share some of those lessons with you.

Lesson #1: Hook Size Matters

Not only is it important to use a 2/0 saltwater hook for tarpon, but you’ll definitely want a very sharp hook. Tarpon have extremely tough, boney mouths, which are impenetrable with small, dull hooks. Larger saltwater hooks will simply stay in the fish’s mouth longer. However, keep in mind that while the hook is sharp and large, it still does not guarantee you will land a fish. These beasts will run, jump and shake them out in a moment’s notice. Also, be careful using these sharp hooks. When I tied on my first fly of the trip, I nearly buried the hook in my middle finger trying to secure the leader. They are crazy sharp!

Fly fishing for tarpon

Lesson #2: Look for River Mouths and Current Breaks

Costa Rican tarpon enjoy dirty water. Anytime you come across a current break or a river mouth, you are likely in the zone for tarpon populations. The reason they enjoy darker waters is the habitat gives them not only more cover from predators like sharks, but the brown waters are also big areas for baitfish and other smaller species. These areas are also where tarpon ultimately end up after living in the less-turbulent lagoons and rivers during their young years. Once mature enough, they swim out into the offshore areas surrounding these zones.

Tarpon streamer

Lesson #3: Streamer Selection is Key

This is a tricky one. Tarpon can be pretty picky when it comes to your fly selections, and their cravings vary depending on the bite that day. The safest bet when it comes to Costa Rica tarpon would be any large saltwater streamer that incorporates mostly a black body with either red or purple accents due to the darker waters. The EP Peanut Butter Streamer in size 2/0 is arguably your best bet. If you’re throwing black and purple or black and red without any luck, sometimes switching to chartreuse streamers will get them to jump on something that looks different. A group from Canada who was on the trip with us caught a few on green/chartreuse streamers. If the bite is really good, you can even use a saltwater popper on the surface and get them to rise. Minnow or fishy looking streamers with bold eyes will almost always be the best imitation. Look at how clear the water is and where they are feeding; this can change the color of your fly selection.

Lesson #4: Ocean Swell is Important

The first half of our trip was spent on a bouncy Caribbean Sea. A storm rolled in one day and really mixed things up out on the water. Swell can really shift the fishing around, because when the seas are choppy, bait fish are less likely to hold in tighter pockets near inshore areas. This means the fish who feed on the bait are going to be more spread out as well. Good fishing water in Costa Rica looks completely flat, allowing for fish to settle in more comfortably. Unfortunately, we spent most of our trip hopping over rolling waves and had to really balance ourselves when trying to double haul cast on the bow. Weather changes very quickly in Costa Rica and the swell can rise without notice.

Panga tarpon fishing boat

Lesson #5: Pangas are Very Versatile Boats

All of the fishing in this part of Costa Rica is done from a panga fishing boat. Forever in time will these boats remain unbroken; operating with a single Yamaha two stroke and a colorfully painted hull. They are super tough and stable, and provide a great platform for fly casting. The shape of the boat also reduces the beating from tearing through swells. On most days, you’ll calmly reach the fishing location and cast with ease on the bow of the boat. If you hooked onto a big one, you can use the boat to your advantage. Retrieving the fish in a certain direction will make the boat’s weight a burden on the fish, causing it to slow down and get very tired. Be sure to pay attention to which direction the fish is headed while retrieving and use the weight of the boat to essentially get the fish to pull the boat along.

Tarpon on the fly

Lesson #6: Low and Slow

The first initial mistake when retrieving a large tarpon is keeping the rod tip too high. When you pull directly back on the rod, it will actually make it even harder to catch the fish. Keep the rod tip low and reel it in at an angle, either to the left or right, to gain better leverage. Another component to keeping the rod low is when tarpon jump trying to spit the hook. If your fish jumps, immediately crouch down low and keep the rod tip low again (‘bowing’). This will keep the hook in their mouths and the line super tight. It is also important to consider how fast you’re reeling in the fish. Sometimes speed is not necessary, other times it is. Anytime the rod feels lose or limp, crank that reel down as fast as possible until there is heavy tension again.

Lesson #7: Follow the Leader

Your choice in leaders can make or literally break the game. Your typical store bought pack of “Tarpon Leaders” are likely 20-pound test fluorocarbon on 60-pound nylon shock material from big names like Rio and Scientific Anglers. This size will be fine even if you hook onto a fish well over 100 pounds, and the manufactures are hoping you do so they can say their leader is a world-record holder for 20-pound test (202-pound fish). However, you will have a greater chance to land one if you simply tie your own, heavier leaders. I was told that some of the locals will tie 100-pound test on 100-pound shock material for their leaders, giving virtually no chance of breaking off and a fish. Tying thicker leaders can be a safety issue, though. If you decide to beef up your leaders compared to conventional store bought grade, steer clear of your fingers or toes. 100 pound test is strong enough that in the event of your line being wrapped around your fingers, it can do some serious damage.

Fighting a tarpon

Lesson #8: Be Ready to Experience Your Backing

When you set the hook on a tarpon, the fish’s initial reaction will be to go on a run, sucking you well into your backing. I had never experienced catching a fish with such power and force, and my 12 weight Hatch reel was singing like a choir. In a matter of seconds I was deep into my backing, and tugging on the line even at this distance was unbelievably hard. It can sometimes take nearly an hour to gain all of this lost ground, but as I mentioned before, keep the rod tip low and reel it in steadily.

Lesson #9: You Don’t Always Have to Cast

The amazing thing about using heavy saltwater sinking tip line is that your casting distance can sometimes be virtually right in front of you. We’re talking two feet off the boat, you can plop your fly down, slowly shake all your line out and make a strip sequence. Repeating this process will give you as good of a chance of catching a tarpon as a 60-foot cast will. The reason is your line and fly will reach the same water column as a normal cast would. This technique of fly fishing is without a doubt much lazier than double hauling, but it will help you save your energy on a hot day.

Permit and tarpon fishing costa rica

Lesson #10: If the Tarpon Won’t Bite, Target Something Else

Costa Rica is home to a number of other prized species that are often sought after by fly fishermen besides tarpon. We focused almost exclusively on chasing big tarpon, but the jacks in the area were a fun catch as well. In the lagoon area, we searched for snook and while out on the turquoise flats, we scanned for permit and bonefish. All of these fish are a great species to catch on a fly rod, so I would definitely suggest not just focusing solely on tarpon, especially when they get lockjaw.

Bonus Lesson: Costa Rica is Bug Country

Just when you thought you escaped the creepy crawlers you find back home, Costa Rica takes it to the next level. There are thousands of species and varieties of insects that are unfriendly to humans. One morning we were about to leave to go fishing when suddenly a small scorpion stung a member of our party. Fortunately these little guys aren’t deadly and really feel like nothing more than a bad bee sting, but it’s still an unsettling experience. Be sure to bring plenty of bug repellent to wear when you’re not out on the water.

Greg May
About the Author

When he's not interning at the Gunn&Hook world headquarters in Fort Worth, Greg is either attending class at TCU or wetting a line in Montana.