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Recent events in the Central American country of Nicaragua have created some weird backfires here in the US. Remember Ollie North and his alleged scheme to fund the contras with money earned by the secret sale of arms to Iran? Remember the Sandinista chief, Daniel Ortega, who created a front page splash in New York by buying designer sunglasses an act which the press seemed to equate with a "betrayal of the revolution"? Weirdest of all, do you remember the word "sandalistas"? The sobriquet was used to describe left leaning ragamuffins from the US who wore sandals, hung out in Nicaragua’s capital city, Managua, and cheered for the communists.
None of this is funny, of course. Not for us here in the US, and certainly not for the Nicaraguans who find themselves in the mid 1990’s with a giant ideological hangover, a confused economy and an infrastructure that is skeletal at best. The only bright spot in all this misery is tourism specifically ecotourism, including sportfishing.
Mind you, we are talking about a very bright spot. It’s not farfetched to predict that Nicaragua will one day give nearby Costa Rica a run for its money as the No. 1 place in Central America to gawk at monkeys and toucans. It is entirely possible Nicaragua will drive some of Costa Rica’s tarpon camps out of business.
The excitement about Nicaraguan eco tourism is directly related to this country’s "backwardness." Thanks in part to a long civil war, followed by years of communist bungling, the Nicaraguans simply haven’t geared up to pollute as many of their rivers as the Costa Ricans have, or cut as many of their forests. Pull down a World Atlas and just look at what’s available! The entire Caribbean coast (called the Costa de Mosquitos) is utterly undeveloped except for a village or two.
What makes all this so interesting from a sportfishing point of view are the stories that are beginning to surface about the possible reopening of fishing camps that thrived here some 20 years ago, back before the current boom in fishing travel. Most famous of all was a place called Los Sabalos ("The Tarpon"). It was located along the San Juan River that runs from Lake Nicaragua down along the border with Costa Rica before emptying into the Caribbean Sea. Dave Bennett, a long time Central American sporting agent and now a lodge owner in Belize (*), recalls a visit to Nicaragua in 1979 during the height of the Sandinista Revolution that left him convinced the San Juan was "…the premier tarpon spot in the entire world."
He has cooled on the area somewhat after a second visit in the late 1980’s, but he still goes somewhat wide eyed at his recollection of tarpon rolling in the river. He says he set up a video camera along the river one evening and let it run for three minutes. "I still pull that film down once in a while and look at it," he said recently in a phone interview. "Throughout that three minute film there is never less than one 50 plus pound tarpon in the air not just rolling, but in the air!"
Another person who fished this camp is Mark Sosin, whose television show "Mark Sosin’s Saltwater Journal" is aired weekly on ESPN. He recalls fishing the San Juan some 25 years ago with Billy Pate. The fascinating thing about the river was the chance it offered to fly fish for tarpon in rapids. "One thing we had to do was come up with a quick release anchor. We’d hook an 80 to 90 pounder in the rapids…hit the quick release…and float down to quieter water to fight him. It was a blast. We caught fish every day."
It’s unclear just how the tarpon have held up in the San Juan. Bennett says he not only saw fewer fish in the river on his late 80’s trip, but he also saw evidence of netting. The whole experience made him turn away from trying to redevelop the San Juan as a fishing destination.
Enter Morgan Mac Donell, of Miami based Transmarine Special Interest Tours (*). Mac Donell has made several recent visits to the San Juan and is much more bullish about its potential. It was an assistant of his who took the recent photo that appears on page one of this issue. "The fish are definitely still there," Mac Donell says. "You can see their wakes, even their fins. Occasionally, you can even see the fish themselves in the shallows."
On his last trip, Mac Donell says he personally jumped some big tarpon with light spinning tackle. Several were far too large to land. He is so confident of the San Juan’s potential he is accepting bookings now for exploratory trips. The seven day, six night itinerary involves a flight from Managua to the town of San Carlos and a 45 mile boat ride down the river. The all in cost (double occupancy), including airfare from Miami, two nights at the Hotel Camino Real in Managua and four nights at the lodge along the river is $1,925.
If you are hearty and flexible and you like to be among the first to enjoy an area, this trip should be right up your alley. Just be aware that accommodation will be in a thatched roof ecotourism hotel that has no air conditioning and only a 12 volt electrical system. There are conflicting rumors about mosquitos and other insects.
The boats available are like the one depicted on page one of this issue that is, they are large dugouts, powered by medium sized outboards. The lodge is located on the Bartolo River, a tributary of the San Juan about 20 miles upstream from the site of the former lodge here. Getting to the good fishing each morning will require a boat ride of about 15 minutes.
The guides at the lodge are not fishing guides as such, and serve only to position you where the fish are. No tackle or fishing tips will be provided. Early clients will be true explorers in the sense that no one knows right now what the tarpon in the San Juan are feeding on these days and what kind of lures and flies will be needed to take them. This is an edge of the jungle kind of experience. Malarials are a good idea….
Another camp that may be about to reopen is on the east coast at the mouth of the Matagalpa River, about halfway between Bluefields and Puerto Cabezas. The original developers of this camp back in 1971 were a Texan by the name of William Lanford (who likes to be called by his nickname "Pirate") and Hal Moore, a former AP/Reuters correspondent. In phone interviews at press time, they both told stories of catching tarpon back in the 1970’s over 200 pounds on baitcasting tackle (this was before fly fishing became universally accepted) and snook upwards of 20 to 30 pounds.
The camp’s location is very similar to that of camps in Costa Rica along the Parismina, Tortuguero and Colorado rivers. The only difference is, Lanford’s camp is located on a river and laguna complex that hasn’t been sportfished in nearly 20 years or harmed by banana plantation runoff. If netting hasn’t decimated the local fishery (and there is good evidence it hasn’t, according to Moore), this means it will almost certainly have more and bigger fish. Plus, it will probably not have to deal with the so called rivermouth problem, which has cast a pall over tarpon fishing in Costa Rica.
Continuing subscribers know the rivermouth problem in Costa Rica started quite a few years ago when something (banana pollution, probably) drove most of the tarpon out of that country’s major east coast rivers. This forced lodge owners to bull their way out into the ocean in search of fish, braving rivermouth waves that are notorious for flipping boats. Several anglers have drowned in recent years; two were actually eaten alive by sharks. Until this newsletter blew the whistle, almost nothing was being done about this carnage either.
Today, most of the east coast lodges have bought larger and better powered and thus more nimble boats and the safety situation is vastly improved. However, there are still many days when anglers in Costa Rica can’t get outside. When they do, they have to fish in the open ocean, largely with deep running jigs. The fantastic river and laguna fishing that made this region famous is virtually over in Costa Rica.
It is, so to speak, the good old days of Costa Rican fishing that may be on their way back in Nicaragua. Lanford says he has stayed in contact with his former camp manager and cook throughout the Sandinista period and has even been sending them both money. He’s planning an exploratory trip into the Matagalpa early this month. Assuming everything is as expected, Lanford says he should be ready to accept paying clients in 1996. No prices are yet being discussed, and Lanford considers the trip so speculative he doesn’t want his number listed yet. We hope to have an update as early as next month.
In the meantime, there is one other Nicaragua trip worth mentioning. It involves a flight to the east coast town of Puerto Cabezas and a 35 mile motherboat journey out to the little known Cayos Miskitos. Largely uninhabited, except seasonally by lobster fishermen, the Cayos Miskitos are a genuine fishing and ecotourism frontier. National Geographic photographers have been on the island and the magazine is reportedly about to release a story on the area, which is sure to generate a lot of interest.
Mac Donell says many of the 80 odd cays that make up the Cayos Miskitos are surrounded by flats that have bonefish and permit, and those fish are the intended target of his upcoming "exploratories" into the area. Frankly, we don’t know enough about these cays to have an opinion on them. For certain, the upcoming trips there are for adventurers only.
The boat to be used on these trips is a converted commercial fishing vessel that has already been used to host scuba diving trips, Mac Donell says. It measures 55 feet and is "safe and comfortable," he says. The Cayos Miskitos itinerary runs for seven days and six nights, with four of those nights being spent on the motherboat. The cost, including all airfare from Miami, is $1,450.
An underlying worry about all these trips, we must point out, is the lingering possibility of violence. The US State Department does not have a formal advisory against travel to Nicaragua, but it does note the existence of "armed bandits." Hal Moore, who covered the conflict in this country for various wire services and who now lives in Managua, says most of the bandits are former soldiers. They tend to stay in very remote country, far up the east coast rivers. There is almost no reason to fear them along the San Juan, or in Puerto Cabezas, where the Cayos Miskitos trip originates. They may be more of a threat along the Matagalpa, but then that trip is not ready for booking anyway.
Talk of violence, I realize, may help create an impression that Nicaragua is far from being ready to accept ordinary fishermen. But that is not the case. According to a US public relations firm here in Miami that was hired by the Nicaraguan government to drum up interest in tourism, Nicaragua is now the third most important tourism destination in Central America. Moreover, it leads the region in the rate of increase in tourist arrivals.
One important barometer of what is going on in Nicaragua is the level of interest fishing agents are showing in the country. Several are actively pursuing trips other than those mentioned above. It would not be surprising if some of those opportunities started appearing soon in printed materials. For certain, we hope to have a writer in Nicaragua soon for an on site inspection. In the meantime Tensh hut, adventure junkies! What are you waiting for? Don Causey.