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The Tapam Tarpon Experience
These Nicaraguan tarpon may top 200 pounds and they’ll test an angler’s resolve.
By Matt Harris

The Miskito Coast stretches from the Costa Rican border all the way up Nicaragua’s Atlantic seaboard. The region is named not for the insects, as is often assumed, but, instead, for the Miskito Amerindians that are indigenous to this remote part of the Central American isthmus. The vast region is an extremely wild, half-forgotten corner of the world. But don’t overlook it; it offers one of the most exciting fly-fisheries in the world.

Tapam is the Miskito word for megalops atlanticus—the tarpon. The name is now synonymous with a remarkable fishery that was discovered several years ago by a pair of intrepid young European anglers, Daniel Goz and Jan Bach Kristensen. Tapam is a maze of interconnecting rivers, lagoons and one intriguing manmade canal. These watercourses are packed to the rafters with shrimp, sardine, mullet . . . and, most intriguing, mobs of absurdly large tarpon.

Don’t come here if you want numbers. The fish are often in deep water, and for long hours they skulk out of sight in the dark, tannin-stained waters. Anglers use fish-finders to locate them and then employ sinking lines to reach them.

However, for short periods Tapam’s monster tarpon come to the surface and go hard on the feed. The lagoons and rivers can provide astonishingly exciting fishing, but the fish that frequent the canal are surely the most exhilarating of all. In the lagoons and rivers these tarpon favor shrimp and small sardines as their regular ‘plat du jour’; the canal fish feed on big mullet, fish that often weigh two or three pounds. To watch these giant tarpon erupting out of the glossy, golden waters, tossing mullet skywards, and then catching them in mid-air, is a rare and unforgettable experience. Fattened by an almost inexhaustible food supply, and with few, if any, natural predators, these fish turn into giants. A 200-pounder, or heavier, is a very realistic proposition here. I think there is every chance that a new fly-caught record could come from this remote little corner of the jungle.

To catch these magnificent fish, you need your A-game: make sure you have sturdy, bulletproof gear and all the right patterns, as these fish are stubborn and almost unbelievably picky. When fishing the lagoons and rivers, small, flashy blue and silver sardine patterns and, later in the season, black and purple and salmon-pink shrimp imitations, are the go-to flies. But, in the canals, you need something that mimics mullet.

Forget trying to imitate the bigger baitfish: the larger the pattern, the more there is for the tarpon to find fault. In addition, big flies are much harder to throw accurately and quickly. There are mullet of all sizes here, and the best way to go is to present a fast-to-cast pattern representing the smaller fish. My great friends Tomasz, Tomek and Rafal, at Pike Terror Flies, based in Poland, tied me a pattern developed by Jaap Kalkman, an experienced Dutch angler, and a veteran of the Tapam fishery. The fly is a perfect copy of the natural. Even when retrieved at ultra-high speed, it swims straight and true, and it is exactly the pattern you want when targeting the mullet-feeders of the “cut.” Crucially, it is tied on a 4/0 Tiemco 600SP short-shank hook that doesn’t lever its way out of a tarpon’s mouth. The pattern is a snap to cast and sinks fast. This is important, as the fishing is all about speed—get that fly in front of the fish and move it fast. A fast-sinking line of around 400 grains is perfect, as it quickly loads the rod and gets the fly down a foot or so in very short order. Imitate the terrified mullet that streak across the surface by putting your rod under your arm and stripping the fly back as fast as you can, hand-over-hand. You can’t fish the fly too fast, and the fast-sinking line keeps the fly tracking just subsurface.

Once a fish takes, get yourself together, very quickly, because mayhem is about to ensue. Forget the old adage that big tarpon don’t jump—these brutes almost always light up the jungle with flashing, silver cartwheels that leave anglers speechless. If the hook stays in after the initial mayhem, you have a chance. But be warned: the canal has a powerful tidal flow and is 30 feet deep.

Many battles are lost with these behemoths—even if you survive the first, spectacular aerial blitz, the game isn’t won. Hook-holds give out at any stage of the fight with these bony-mouthed brutes, and even the stoutest leaders are often fatally abraded.

Be assured, the rewards are worth every last ounce of your effort. If you do get lucky, and everything holds together, you may eventually get up close and personal with a big—possibly very big—megalops, maybe even a world-record fish.

Weather plays a role in your success. Wind and rain are almost certain to put the fish down, but some mornings, when the wind lays down and the water turns to glass, your odds are good.

Just such a morning greeted our small group on a recent trip to Tapam.

A little after 5 a.m., as we paddled silently across the canal’s glimmering, mirror-bright surface, I knew we would have a shot at a big fish. The water was untroubled by even a breath of wind, and the air was already heavy with the warmth of the coming day. As we reached a spot where tarpon had been active for the last couple of days, I took up my rod, carefully laid out the coils of line on the deck, and stood ready on the bow.

For long minutes nothing showed itself, and then, abruptly, a big boil materialized to the left. My excellent young guide, Bismark, quietly paddled the boat around, and suddenly a mullet shot high into the morning mist. An instant later, a monstrous tarpon climbed high in the air, gleaming in the first rosy hues of the dawn. For an instant, at the apex of its jump, it seemed to balance the wretched mullet on its nose, and then both fish crashed back into the water.

It was a long cast, but I got a good shot, just to the left of the commotion. Tucking the rod under my arm and retrieving the fly as fast as possible, I felt a subtle tremor come down the line. I kept the fly coming. Suddenly, in a magical moment, everything came up impossibly tight and heavy. Fumbling the rod out from under my arm, I jabbed back hard, and watched as the line knifed up through the surface and a vast, chrome-plated colossus shot high into the air in a spectacular silver cartwheel that I will remember until the day I die.

That fish gave me three impossible jumps before towing us almost a mile up-current. Finally, a long time later, after two torrential downpours and with the sun now high in the sky, I finally jumped overboard in the shallows to embrace my adversary. Bismark and I briefly cradled her, just out of the water, for a couple of quick pictures. And then we watched in awe as the fish glided back into the dark waters and was gone, hopefully none the worse for wear.

We estimated her weight—perhaps a little conservatively—at around 160 pounds, although a number of extremely experienced Keys anglers have since told me that, in view of the fish’s tremendous girth, she may well have weighed more. Whatever. She was, by a distance, my biggest tarpon to date and a fish I will cherish forever.

There are fish here that would dwarf that tarpon—I’ve seen them. One, a fish that took my fly just three feet from the boat, would surely have obliterated the current IGFA fly-caught record, currently held by Jim Holland with a 202-pound fish.

Heartbreakingly, that fish spat out my fly after a few seconds.

No problem. I’ll be back next year.

And I know that my chance will come again.

Logistics

Not for Numbers: Be warned, the fishing on the Moskito Coasts is potentially very rewarding, but it can be tough. And accommodations are very basic. There are also fish here that will make your hair stand on end. There are also huge snook that go well over 30 pounds.

Flies: Source the perfect Tapam patterns from Pike Terror Flies.

Matt Harris
Matt Harris is a globetrotting photographer who catches fish wherever he goes. Check out more of his work on IG @mattharrisflyfishing