Wednesday, August 5, 2015

THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY – Hooked, Lined and Sinkered in Tortuguero

I suppose I should have known I was being had when Franklin, my taciturn Caribbean-Costa-Rican tarpon fishing guide, handed me that rusty, beat-up, medium-weight spinning rig. On the recommendation of our lodge in Tortuguero (in Costa Rica's northeast, Caribbean, corner), I’d paid him his $150 up front to put me on some of that magnificent, acrobatic game fish, revered by its aficionados as the Silver King.

Once he’d skillfully tiptoed his tiny, open boat through the swirling currents and standing waves at the river’s mouth, it appeared Franklin might just meet my expectations after all; there were tarpon everywhere. The mirror-bright flanks of their sleek, 50- to 150-pound bodies caught the sun, flashing in the murky, blue-green water as they “daisy chained” ‘round schools of six- to eight-inch sardines. The bait fish, hundreds of them, turned and darted in unison as if one fluid silver-blue organism.

I was ready.

PHOTO: Tony Cappechi

           There I was...shooting fish, as it were,
           entirely outside the barrel.

As quickly as my hopes had risen, that's how fast they fell again when Franklin reached under his seat and pulled out his "professional” fishing-guide tackle box. (It was really the small, cheap plastic kind a ten-year-old American kid would buy at WalMart for $9.95.) Inside, strewn atop the one swing-up tray, was a motley selection of well-used lures. He picked up a big, lead-headed jig with half of its red and white feather streamers still intact, and handed it to me.

“Poot deese own deah,” he mumbled indifferently, pointing to the swivel clip on the end of my line. Figuring he must know something I didn’t (After all, he is a professional guide, right?), I complied. Then he said, “Now drope eet ovah and let eet foal to dee boatum…dat weah dee feesh ah.”

I was nearly too dumbfounded to speak. “Ah-h-h, but I can see the tarpon! They’re feeding up here right next to us,” I protested. Franklin was unmoved. “No, dey own dee boatum!” So there I sat, jigging that red-and-white lure up and down off the sea bed twenty feet below as I watched the awesome monsters I was fishing for circle near the surface, feeding on those silver-blue herring.

Just in case, I grabbed my line just forward of the reel and pulled, checking the drag setting. It was set way too tight for these quick-striking, powerful fish, but when I tried turning the setting knob, it wouldn’t budge. Great! Even if I accidentally snagged one of these brutes, I’d have to pray it went easy on me.

My frustration simmered. I looked around and noticed another boat, even smaller than ours, drifting about 100 yards away. Standing in it was a man fly-fishing. I admired his effortless style as he flew his streamer back and forth over his head, feeding it another couple of feet of line with each false cast. Then, about 60 feet out, he let it drop. He watched it sink a couple of feet and then retrieved it with deft tugs of his free hand.

Suddenly, the man reared back, lifted the rod high with both arms and laid into whatever had taken his bait. Before he knew what hit him, a six-foot tarpon exploded from the water, thrashing wildly back and forth. It seemed like one of those sport fishing highlights films, where the action is captured in slow motion. Wow! I thought, this guy’s just caught about a hundred-pound Silver King...on a
fly rod!

And there I was, fishing the wrong lure in the wrong place at the right time—shooting fish, as it were, entirely outside the barrel. Maybe it’s because I’m from Minnesota, but it dawned on me that I’d been sucking it up to spare the feelings of the man who was robbing me.

       I hadn’t turned the crank more than five 
       times when it hit, the kind of strike you get 
       when you’ve suddenly snagged a log—
       except this one was moving.

My admiration for the fly-fisherman turned to envy; the envy to resolve. Enough
of this!

“Oh, my God,” I blurted, pointing to a random spot in the water just behind Franklin. “That one must be close to 200 pounds!” As he turned to look, I seized the moment, reaching down and opening the main compartment of his tackle box. And there it was: a six-inch long, silver-blue, Rapala type lure. Not only did it look exactly like what the tarpon were feeding on, it was practically brand new.

“How about this one?” I asked, my tone carefully measured somewhere between question and demand. As he turned back to face me, our eyes locked in gritty stares. He blinked first, and I picked up the lure. He started to reach for it, but I’d already unclipped my snap swivel. He scowled, mumbling something under his breath.

With the right bait on, I flipped open my bale, cocked my arms and wrists, and let fly a modest cast in the direction of the other fisherman. (I was so intent on my own hunt now that I didn’t even notice if he’d landed his fish.) The faux sardine landed with a splash and I started reeling. I hadn’t turned the crank more than five times when it hit, the kind of strike you get when you’ve suddenly snagged a log—except this one was moving.

I set the hook as hard as I dared with that pitiful equipment. From the moment
I’d casted, it couldn’t have been more than ten seconds till it happened: my drag nightmare came true. Before it had even jumped, the tarpon took off like a shot…and then that sickening sound fishermen dread, that of heavy monofilament line snapping. Just like that, it was over.

I’ve had many sport-fishing captains console me on the loss of a big fish. Sometimes they counsel me on what I might do differently next time. Most are eager to get another bait out there. Franklin? He was just pissed. Here this pushy white guy, obviously a man of wealth and privilege, had just lost his prize lure on, of all reckless things, a fish.

Red and white jig? Bounce it on the bottom? Proper drag? Trust me, I’m a professional? These and other snarky comments clawed at the thin fabric of my restraint. I realized, though, that shaming Franklin would accomplish nothing. Besides, I still had to rely on him to get me back, through those treacherous waters, to the lodge.

Still, though I was more than ready to end our laughable outing, I wasn’t about to let the man off the hook. So, with no more lures in his little Plano box that even remotely resembled a herring, I tied the red-and-white jig back on, dropped it in the water and kept jigging—for nothing more than jigging’s sake...and perhaps to drive Franklin's hourly rate as low as possible—for the rest of our contracted time.

Franklin just sat there brooding—calculating, I suppose, how to lure his next sucker.


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