The first thing you think when you hear ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ is most likely the historic boxing match which took place between Mohamad Ali and Joe Frazier in 1971 in Kinshasa, Zaire – now the Democratic Republic of Congo. For me, the phrase has shifted meaning following my very own ‘rumble’ in the jungles of Nicaragua where I came head-to-head for a no holds barred battle with the legendary giant Tarpon that inhabits the jungle’s rivers, creeks and lagoons – but who would blink first?
Having done my research, it was clear to see the adversary was no slouch. Tarpon (Megalops Atlanticusor) AKA the Silver King are perhaps one of the most acrobatic and violent creatures you could have the pleasure of hooking – it seems Megalops are perhaps the greatest of saltwater game fishes.
I have never fished for Tarpon and I lacked a basic knowledge and understanding about their behaviour – the odds were stacked against me. I would have to get so much right if I was to land one of the greatest gamefish on fly and I questioned how I ever stood a chance against a fish that is renowned for breaking even the most experienced Tarpon fishers’ tackle and spirits?
Thankfully, I would be fishing with the charming and extremely knowledgeable Matt Harris. Matty is a fishing photographer, journalist, destination angler and all-round nice guy. So of course, he was very obliging and patient as I grilled him on the basics of Tarpon fishing. What I was able to learn from Matt left me feeling slightly more confident. Perhaps there was a chance I could tame one of these beasts. These are the three key pieces of knowledge he shared with me:
- Hook setting/hooks – keeping tight to the fly and a hard strip set was essential, as well as a very strong and sharp hook (Gamakatsu sl12s 6/0 and Tiemco TMC 600Sp 4/0).
- Attrition and patience – keep casting and stay focused – a take could come when you least expect it.
- Preparation (the correct gear) – suitable tackle was crucial, including strong lines and tippets (125lb fluorocarbon) would be required to endure the rough mouths and prolonged fights from Tarpon.
It was apparent I would need an array of heavy-duty tackle if I was to stand a fighting chance against these leviathans, that reach weights in excess of 250lbs. I therefore armed myself with a selection of 12 weights: firstly, the ever reliable and powerful workhorse that is the Cross S1 1290 paired with an Opti Megaloop, this was spooled with 350yard of 80lb braid and a floating line with an intermediate clear tip. Secondly, the sleek, lightweight and mercurial 7X 1290 paired with the Opti Gyre, this was spooled with 350yards of 80lb braid and 400 grain sinking line. These two heavyweight setups would cover the basis of scenarios I was likely to encounter in the jungle and surrounding lagoons.
Weary after 34 hours of travelling, plus a 2-hour boat journey, we finally arrived at the local Miskito village. We were warmly welcomed by the villagers as we arrived at the lodge, which was situated on the banks of the vast river systems we would be fishing. After the long journey there was a sense of eagerness, we were all longing to get out on the water and so hastily began preparing the rods and tackle, knowing we would have several hours fishing before the sun set.
Before long we were out on the water in the depths of the Nicaraguan jungle – this was the moment we had been waiting for. We all began casting in silence as we waited for the sound of a crashing or rolling Tarpon and the potential impending chaos if we hooked one. It didn’t take long before the experienced Mr Harris hooked into a 100lb + fish. Wretchedly it didn’t take long for this beast to give us a fierce aerial display which resulted in the fly becoming unpegged. And wow, what a sight that was to behold, reaffirming my fears and everything I had read, learnt and heard was true.
Once back at the lodge, we commiserated and deliberated the one that got away. However, it filled us with hope there would be more action in the coming days, drowsily we made our way to bed ready for our 3.45am wakeup. Filled with confidence, we were soon back out on the boats before the sun had risen, even in the dark we fished with a Jedi-like focus and it wasn’t long before my boat partner hooked into a fish. Like the day before, the fish came fully clear of the water and threw the fly before it had landed back into the water: 2 – 0 to the Tarpon.
Throughout the first full day there were several more hook-ups of 100lb plus fish that resulted in lost fish, one of which rather unluckily happened in the closing stages of the 30-minute fight… that’s Tarpon fishing for you! 4- 0 to the Tarpon.
All rather dejected, we continued fishing into dusk (the witching hour), I was repetitively swinging my Jon Makim Black Sempher (6/0 SL12) in the current, when suddenly there was a most unusual vibration through the rod. This was followed by an immense tightening on the line. Coiled like a spring I aggressively set the hook – I was in! I now anxiously tried clearing the fly line from my feet, as whatever I had hooked headed to the horizon and in a matter of seconds the line hit the reel and drag started singing – thank god. The next thing I knew, a huge Tarpon erupted from the water’s surface, viciously shaking its head as I stood in awe (praying the fly would stay in its mouth). I was left shaking from the adrenaline at the front of the boat as we continued to battle.
Determined to beat this fish as quickly as possible and keep the solid hook hold, I tightened the drag and began pulling as hard as I dared on the loop Cross S1 – and what an immensely powerful rod it was to handle such a Goliath. I kept alternating my rod angles as the fish changed direction, in a hope to fatigue this huge bar of chrome. Every time I thought the fish was wearing out it would peel another 15 meters of line off the extremely tight drag. I had hooked the fish just as the sun was setting and 15 minutes into the fight it was almost dark, this made it extremely difficult to see the fish as we got it closer to the boat and into the final stages of the fight (which is always a nervous time, let alone when you’re hooked into a fish of a lifetime).
My guide made several failed attempts at chinning this beast boat side and it was heart in mouth stuff, as each time the Tarpon would serge away back into the depths. On the fourth attempt he firmly gripped the lip of the fish – I couldn’t believe we had done it. I slowly motored the boat to shore before we could safely get-out for the ‘hero shot’ but even this was problematic as I sunk into deep silt whilst trying to lift this 100lb plus Tarpon. I was so elated with this capture and it took a long time to sink in.
Matty was right, to catch a Tarpon on fly, it takes attrition, dedication, preparation and most importantly, patience. But there was most definitely also an element of beginner’s luck on my side. That said, I’m not complaining!