You might read this and think we’re talking lions, tigers and bears, but we’re not. We’re talking about giant jungle tarpon—crazy aerials, massive strength that snaps rods and makes grown men cry. Stay with me and I’ll give you a little insight into a place that has left me a changed person.
Justin Hodge here, content creator and photographer/videographer for Hook + Gaff. I want to share some details about one of my recent trips. I recently traveled to Costa Rica in August to target big tarpon on the fly! This trip was a “fun trip” for me, but honestly I never leave home without my camera. I recently finished up a job with the Sportfishing Championship series on CBS Sports and it was time for breather and a mini-vacation. A good videographer friend of mine Jesse Males had worked with me on the show and invited me down to join him on this trip of a lifetime, so of course I was all in.
Costa Rica is a special place. Before I ever picked up a camera, I went on a trip there for my brother’s wedding. We spent 8 days on the Southern Pacific coast in Dominical and I absolutely fell in love with the country. If you ever ask anyone who has been down there about their experience you typically get a very similar response. It’s just an awesome vibe down there, beautiful scenery, nice people and great fishing. So when Jesse asked if I’d go, I didn’t hesitate to pack my camera and rods and jump on a plane.
Our guide service down there was 506 Outdoors. They specialize in tarpon, machaca, rooster fish, jungle trout, and billfish. Whether you want to break out the fly rod or use conventional gear, these guys will oblige and will put you on the fish! My friend Jesse worked as a guide/photographer for 506 Outdoors and lived in Costa Rica for quite a few years before moving back to the states. He and his fellow business associate Micah Baly were the guides on our trip. It was great having a good friend in charge of showing me the ropes. I think ultimately one of the main reasons people don’t travel to remote places as often as they’d probably like is because of that unknown “off-the-grid” factor. Without knowledge of the language or of a locale, things could go wrong. I’ve traveled quite a bit over the last few years and it certainly does help to have people you trust there to guide you, so having these guys show me around was reassuring.
Welcome to the Jungle
Our first day in Costa Rica was all about getting down to our final destination. I arrived in San Jose and was picked up by Jesse and two others that were there to fish with us—Court Douthit, and Aaron Gates. Court is a Tampa native and is a tarpon guide by trade. Aaron is a donut maker with a fishing problem, he is the owner of one of the longest standing family-run donut shops out of Corpus Christi, TX. I met a dude named Micah for the first time as well as Mac Elliot, a fellow saltwater photographer out of Houston. Lastly, Jordan Horan, a highway patrolman out of Colorado was the last to join the group. There are 3 things I enjoy most in getting to travel to different locations around the globe; great food, great fellowship, and great scenery. That first night we hit a home run with all three, and we were just getting started. I could tell this was on track to be a great trip. We spent the rest of the evening tying flies to prep, and we made sure our equipment was ready to go before heading off to bed.
The morning of the first full day we loaded all of our gear and supplies for the week onto a shuttle bus and set out for the jungle on what would be a 4-hour ride to the northeastern tip of the country, right on the border of Nicaragua on the Caribbean side. We traveled as far as the road could take us, unloaded all of our gear onto a panga that was there waiting for us, and set a course upriver. Jampa, a local fishing guide with 40 years of experience in the region and head guide for 506 Outdoors for this area, steered us to the fish camp. Along the river we saw homes, makeshift fish camps, and livestock. The water had a strong chocolate milk tint to it. It reminded me a lot of how water looks on the Broad River when the tarpon are running in South Carolina. Before the trip Jesse gave me a list of items I would need to have success. A 12wt set up with a heavy grained sink tip was truly the only way to have the best chance of success to catch these fish on the fly. Once I saw the color of the water I understood why I needed the sinking line, and once I saw the first tarpon roll I understood why I needed a 12wt! After our 20 minute panga ride we arrived at our home for the next 4 days. We were met by the owner of the lodge, Edwardo. He showed us around the property and introduced us to his wife Melania as well as the rest of the staff. Melania is the head cook at the lodge and made sure we were well-fed all week. After we jumped off the boat we got settled in and ate an amazing lunch prepared by Melania and her staff, then immediately set out to do some fishing.
We split off into two groups and headed out the mouth of the river. It wasn’t a far run to the tarpon grounds. Once we got into position and cut the motor, it didn’t take long to locate the first tarpon rolling. One turned into 10 and 10 quickly into 20 until I lost count. Absolute tanks jumping and rolling all around us; we knew it was only a matter of minutes until someone hooked up. The group that was there the week before us jumped 97 on the fly in just 4 days of fishing. 10 minutes into our first drift, I get my first taste of what a 140-150lb tarpon feels like on the other end of my fly line. I’d started doing more serious flyfishing the last 2 years, and this was my first experience coming tight on a tarpon of any size. Everything I thought I knew went out the window as soon as that fish figured out it was hooked! It only took a few jumps before this one spit the fly. I think I even looked at Court and asked what had just happened because I was pretty sure I blacked out! For some reason bull riding came to my mind. What I had just experienced in a very short amount of time infused an incredible amount of adrenaline throughout my body. I’d spent plenty of time photographing guys hooking up on tarpon, and I know the stoke is real, but I’d never had my own experience. It made more sense to me now why tarpon fishing on fly is so addicting. I was ready to go again as soon as it was over. The rest of the afternoon each of us had a handful of shots. I had never seen so many angry tarpon in one place before! Micah boated and released a 190lb class fish to end a truly epic day.
For the next 3 days we fished morning and afternoon sessions. They told us the bite was a bit slower for us than it was for the group that fished the week before, but in all my travels I had never seen so many tarpon in one place and it really made no difference to me. The group as a whole jumped 67 tarpon in 4 days of fishing. WOW! I was able to jump 12 of my own in those 4 days but never landed a single one! I certainly would have liked to have had my picture taken and a tarpon boat side for the proverbial notch on my belt, but every fish I happened to jump was well over 140lbs, and the power of those fish was unbelievable. This trip would be a great experience for both the experienced fly angler as well as those that have never raised a tarpon before. I learned quite a bit as a fly angler, and I’m glad I was able to come tight on some true kings of the jungle.
As the trip came to an end that Friday it was hard to leave with unfinished business. We packed up all of our belongings and headed back to San Jose. The whole ride out of the jungle, I reflected on my week. I often think of H+G’s tagline “time well spent” when I’m on the road. It allows me to think about everything on a sensory level and to appreciate everything just a little bit more. I can’t thank my friend Jesse enough for asking me to be a part of this experience. It truly was time well spent, and I will most certainly be back again.