A cruise on the 65-ft ‘Rain Goddess’ provides access to the rich fishing grounds near the mouth of the San Juan River in Nicaragua. Surf fishing for snook or tarpon is best during the summer. Tropical freshwater exotics are found upstream.
Near the mouth of Nicaragua’s San Juan River, against a backdrop of lush tropical rainforest, stands a giant, rusting dredge from the 1920s. It is a souvenir of a lost opportunity–a failed attempt to establish a cross-isthmus shipping route from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Today, it’s a landmark for a remarkable fishing destination.
The southeast corner of Nicaragua is remote and beautiful: the mouth of the San Juan holds snook and tarpon in abundance, and the numerous upriver creeks yield tropical freshwater exotics, such as the guapote (a.k.a. rainbow bass), a relative of the peacock bass that can grow to 10-pounds; the machaca, which looks like a big-toothed, silvery bluefish and jumps like mad; and the colorful mojarra, a panfish that grows to 2 pounds and fights like a bull. And snook–at least two species.
Until just two years ago there was no practical way to fish this unique and extremely dense jungle so interlaced with rivers, creeks, lakes, and miles of dark volcanic beaches. With no land-based accommodations available and the nearest fishing camp almost 3 hours away in Costa Rica, a houseboat seemed the best answer. And with that in mind, Dr. Alfredo Lopez of San Jose, Costa Rica, went to Lake View Yachts in Kentucky to have one built to his specifications. The result is the 65-foot Rain Goddess, three decks tall and powered by a pair of 135 hp. I/Os. Remarkably, the boat draws less than 3 feet of water (such shallow draft is an absolute must for maneuvering in a wide range of locations and situations).
The Rain Goddess lacks little in creature comforts. Two generators produce enough electricity for air conditioning, lights, hot water for the three bathrooms, and an excellent fan in each of the six staterooms. A bona fide chef prepares meals that are superior to those you’d find in many of Central America’s better hotels. And from the comfort of the mother ship, the fishing is unique.
The biggest snook consistently hold near the river mouths from April through June, and from August through October. Some are available all year, but these are the peak months. As to which period is best, opinions are divided, but if you want to mix fishing the surf for big snook with some tarpon fishing in the nearshore Caribbean, go in the fall, simply because there are more calm days.
The snook here can run as large as 40 pounds, but anything over 30 is a trophy, and you can handle them with conventional casting or spinning tackle, using 12- to 20-pound-test line. If it’s windy, surf fishing for snook remains good, but you can forget boat fishing for tarpon outside the river mouth. We learned quickly, however, that the tarpon are attracted to the rough surf, too, probably for the same reasons as the snook.
But if you decide to go for the big tarpon in the surf, which range from 50 to just over 100 pounds, you’d better put the lighter tackle away. When you hook one of these fish you are instantly rewarded with a rocketing leap that explodes through breaking waves. If the tarpon stays hooked, it then goes ballistic, and makes its next skyward appearance 50 yards farther out, followed by another leap at 100 yards, then 150, and finally 200, now a tiny silver icon flashing in the sun with crashing breakers on a dark-green backdrop. Or, if you didn’t tie the line to the reel arbor properly, you’ll just be staring at an empty spool.
One afternoon four of us hooked almost forty of these big silver rockets in the surf. Not one was landed. Most just delighted us with a sensational leap or two before tossing the lure. But if you really want to wrestle one of these heavyweights all the way to the beach (as one angler did the next morning), you should use a stiff 8-foot rod, 20- to 30-pound-test line, and a reel that holds at least 400 yards of line. If your knots are good and everything hangs together, you’re in for one of the wildest rides of your life, and it will probably last upwards of an hour.
Big snook in the surf call for a lot of casting. . . and patience. Long casts are not necessary. Most of our fish were hooked within 20 yards of the beach where they cruised a dropoff looking for something to eat. Unless schooled for spawning or ganged up around a major underwater structure, snook are wanderers and these fish are no exception. You pay your dues, and sooner or later you’re rewarded with a robalo that will typically range between 15 and 25 pounds. On a good day you can hook two to six, maybe more.
If faster action is your game, A smaller species of snook locally called calba storms into the rivers and upstream lakes by the hundreds from November through March. Most likely this is actually the fat snook (Centropomus parallelus), which rarely exceeds 10 pounds. But you can catch a dozen or more that average around 5 pounds On most days. Calba are found in waters ideal for some wonderful fly fishing, which just isn’t really practical for the bigger surf snook.
No trip should be made to this area without sampling some upstream fishing for guapote, mochaca, and mojarra. One morning, guide Jimmy Nix took Duncan Barnes and me up the Rio Indio into Fish Creek where we had a morning of fast action, throwing small rattling plugs and flies against stumps and under overhanging jungle vines. After lunch we ran further up the Rio Indio to Black Creek, where our angling techniques were sharply critiqued by a troop of nearby howler monkeys. In spite of their noisy attention, we caught a lot of fish, especially big machaca. This kept us busy until almost dusk.
That night we ate dinner while listening to the sounds of the nearby jungle, hoping to hear the plaintive call of a jaguar in search of a mate. Many species of birds were evident, but no big cats this time.
The next morning we went way up Black Creek and caught many machacas and mojarra, as well as several husky guapote and two snook (the largest around 15 pounds). After lunch aboard the Rain Goddess as it cruised downriver, we spent our last afternoon back at the mouth of the San Juan with good snook and tarpon action to keep us entertained. Had things gone a little differently seventy years ago, the place where we stood would be busy with ships and seamen, carrying goods from all over of the world. But things didn’t go differently, and the place where we stood was serene and beautiful and the water was full of fish. And we had no complaint about that long-ago lost opportunity.
To survive in the often turbulent flood and ebb of tidal waters, bass and other inshore saltwater gamefish are constantly on the move, sometimes swimming great distances to find baitfish, crustaceans, and annelids where the water temperatures and feeds are suitable. So casting from a moving boat in moving water allows you to hit different targets from different angles–which greatly increases your chances of connecting with a fish.
Ideally, you should make a few casts to each likely target from different angles. If you get a strike, you can try the same presentation again, or you can switch lures or angles of retrieve–up, across current–changing from surface to swimming lures, or vice-versa. Your chances of a strike from any particular spot are best first good presentation you make to that spot. Don’t flog After you have made a few casts, your odds of hooking up greatly. Move on.
For saltwater anglers on the move, your best friend could be an motor Even a 4,000-pound boat can move along smartly equipped with a 36-volt electric mounted on your lower unit. under 20 feet, bow-mounted electrics are ideal because like front-wheel-drive cars, they facilitate a change in direction by stead of pushing.
Motorguide’s Great White Lazer is the current state-of-the-art t electric motor. By pushing buttons on the Great White’s small, lightweight radio-frequency control panel, you can adjust the speed and direction of your boat from anywhere on board. I wear the control panel on my chest with a homemade harness. With this setup, I can easily work my boat along a shoreline beach or around a rocky island, casting to likely spots, then speeding up or slowing down, correcting for wind and current drift as I move on to the next likely target.
In general, moving your boat at the same speed and direction as the water creates the most tantalizing retrieves for shallow-running or slow-action lures. Fast-sinking bucktail jigs, plugs, and metal squids can be fished successfully by retrieving at an angle, even against a strong current. Popping plugs and fly-rod poppers are very effective for at least revealing fish in water 15 feet deep or less; if you move a fish or miss a strike with a popper, switch immediately to another type of lure. An excellent game plan is for one angler to cast a surface lure while another prospects deeper with a bucktail or deep swimming plug. A pair of fly fishermen could work a popper on one rod and a quick-sinking fly ahead of a deep-running shooting head on the other.
Casting on the move in the salt requires real boat handling skills, plus knowing how to “read” fishy water. But doing it right means connecting with more fish than you’re likely to encounter by anchoring and hoping the action will come to you.
Unless you’re dedicated to catching big tarpon in the surf, a moderately stiff 7-foot-spinning or bait-casting rod, 12- to 20-pound-test line, and a reel that holds 200 yards will do the job. Fly rodding for big tarpon is only practical from a boat; for that you’ll need a 12-weight rod and a fast-sinking line.
Upriver fishing calls for spinning or bait-casting gear and 8- to 12-pound-test line. For fly fishing, a 7- to 9-weight is fine, with a floating or intermediate line.
The best lures for snook and tarpon in the surf are leadhead jigs, 1 to 2 ounces. White is the most popular color, but yellow will work at times. You’ll get more strikes if you add a soft-plastic shad body, or a curly-tail plastic worm to the jig. Effective colors are black, black/white, red, and yellow. Tarpon fishing from a boat is most productive with fast-sinking plugs in almost any color; green/white and red/yellow are very popular
Upriver freshwater fishing calls for small jigs, 1/4 ounce or less, or small plugs (2 1/4 inches or less). Poppers, floater/divers, and noisy crankbaits are good, especially in colors with brown and brown/orange. On a fly rod, Clouser minnows in those colors are deadly, as well as small poppers and sliders. Brown/orange imitates a local shrimp, but also bring bright-red fly-rod poppers because they look like a berry that machaca feed on heavily.
You take a commercial flight to San Jose, Costa Rica, where you are met by a Rain Goddess representative. After a night in a quality hotel, you depart right after sunrise via twin-engine charter plane for the point where you’ll be picked up by boats from the Rain Goddess.
Our travel arrangements were made through Pan Angling in Chicago, telephone (800) 533-4353, (312) 263-0328, fax (312) 263-5246. Three- to five-day fishing packages range from $1,650 to $2,100 and include everything except gratuities, once you arrive at the airport in San Jose, Costa Rica.