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Fishing Caņo Negro

by Jerry Ruhlow

Caño Negro National Wildlife Refuge sprawls over nearly 25,000 acres of humid rain forest just out of Los Chiles, in the northern zone of Costa Rica, a virtual water wonderland of birds, wildlife and tropical flora.

At the center of the refuge is Caño Negro Lagoon, fed by the Frio, Monica and Caño Negro Rivers, and covering more than 22,000 acres to a depth of 27 feet during the rainy season when the area gets up to 158 inches of rain. During the dry season, precipitation drops to 110 inches, and the great lake turns into a labyrinth of lagoons, channels and islands.

But the region is an angler's paradise throughout the year, the waters of the lagoon and tributary rivers abounding with the biggest tarpon you're likely to find anyplace, along with snook, drum, machaca, rainbow bass and gar.

Long the province of local anglers with their own boats, it has only been over the past few years that guides and boats have opened the area to the visiting angler. Martin Bernard's "No Frills Fishing Service" was the first to begin fishing visitors to the area in 1988 and offers overnight and multi-day trips, providing tackle, guide and 16-foot boats powered by 55 h.p. outboards.

The Flor de Itabo Hotel in Playa del Coco also offers trips out of that area, and can combine a day or two at Caño Negro and on the Río Frio with some offshore blue water fishing at the northern Guanacaste Hotel.

A number of individual guides out of Los Chiles and Fortuna will also put together a trip, but fishing is more often aboard the big tour boats used to haul the bird watchers and tree huggers through the lagoon, and you are well advised to bring your own tackle.

On a recent two-day trip my fishing partners and I jumped over 20 tarpon in two days, some of them Rambo-class fish, including one that took a live machaca on a deep sea outfit spooled with 80-pound string that looked like a locomotive coming out of the water.

Unlike the more typical tarpon caught in the coastal rivers and in the Caribbean, which are silvery in color, the big freshwater tarpon are deep copper or bronze, resulting from the tannic content of the water.

Largest actually weighed in that area was a 205 pounder, boated by Eugene Wasosky on his first tarpon fishing trip three years ago. Wasosky is editor of the Singapore-based publication "Expat World."

The fish measured 7 feet, 1 inch in length and was weighed in at the police barracks in Los Chiles where it made dinner for the entire rural guard that night.

"We were fishing back in one of the rivers and had already jumped four smaller tarpon on light spinning gear when we saw the monster rolling on top," Martin said. "We baited a heavier outfit spooled with 60-pound line with a four-pound guapote and spent nearly an hour trying to tempt the monster which continued to cavort around the boat.

"When it finally hit, I knew there was little chance of getting it to the boat unless we could work it out of the narrow stretch of river into the open waters of the lagoon away from the brush, so Eugene hammered the drag all the way down, and we literally towed it out," he added.

Even in the open water, the battle went on for 90 minutes aboard the outboard launch, without benefit of a harness or even a butt belt.

Record for tarpon in the country is a 207 pounder, taken by an angler out of the Río Colorado Lodge on the Caribbean. All-tackle IGFA record for the species is 283 lb. 4 oz, caught at Sierra Leone in 1991
The more abundant tarpon at Caño Negro are obviously juveniles, running around 30 to 40 pounds&3151;much smaller than the 80 pound average taken on the coast.

Snook are also accustomed to making the 100-mile run up the San Juan River from the Caribbean, and while we weren't particularly looking for snook on our trip, we lucked into a hot spot one afternoon and on five casts caught four calba (Fat Snook), that ran six to eight pounds each, and a big machaca. We've talked with other anglers that have caught a lot of snook in the 25- to 40-pound class in that area as well.

Guapote (rainbow bass) are plentiful and big, and on one occasion on this recent trip I made a bad cast with a crank bait that hit the bank and bounced into the water where it was immediately smashed while still sinking by what could only have been a big guapote.

Declared a refuge in 1984, the Caño Negro region hosts such bird species as the green heron, least bittern, and purple gallinule, northern jacana, great heron along with many raptors, migratory species, parrots, toucans oropendulas, etc.

Animal species indigenous to the area include the raccoon; weasel; kinkajou; river otter; porcupine; possum; howler, white faced and spider monkeys; white-tailed deer; collared peccary; tapir; jaguar; puma; ocelot; margay and jaguaraundi.

Crocodiles are abundant, and there is a crocodile farm at the tiny village of Caño Negro where the eggs are hatched and the juveniles returned to the wild. As you head up the Río Frio from the town of Los Chiles and enter the expanse of the lagoon, there's an unlikely family-run restaurant perched on stilts in the middle of the water, sort of a drive-in for boats, where you can get a cold beer or soda pop and plate of gallo pinto. You won't need reservations.

We met a couple of park rangers there, and also ran into them while running around the lagoon, so be sure you have a fishing license if going up on your own. The license is included in the packages offered by those packaging trips into the area..

Perhaps the most significant information gleaned from our observations is that large populations of very young tarpon, 12- to 18-inches in length, are also found in the area, which would suggest that Caño Negro may be a tarpon nursery still undiscovered by biologists.

Thus far, the only tarpon nursery identified on the east coast of this country is at Gondoca, in the southeast corner of Costa Rica, run by Didiher Chacón and William O. MacLarney, of the non-profit ANAI research project, who have done extensive research on tarpon in other areas of the country. There would appear to be a demand for research in the Caño area. A pamphlet titled "The Tarpon, Ecology and Management," was published a few years ago by Asociación Anai, and is the only scientifically-based work we have seen on the tarpon fishery in Costa Rica but apparently did not cover the northern zone rivers or Caño Negro.

Anai is a small, independent non-profit organization founded by Dr. William O. MacLarney in cooperation with various local agencies and individuals. It is involved in conservation work on the Caribbean slope of Costa Rica and financed primarily by private donations.

The pamphlet was prepared by Anai marine biologist Didiher Chacón following a lengthy study in collaboration with U.S. biologists Dr. Roy Crabtree of the Florida Marine Research Institute and Drs. John Mark Dean and Ned Cyr of the University of South Carolina.

The study focused on mapping the nursery areas, determining habitat requirements of tarpon at all stages from egg to young adult, determining age and growth rates in Costa Rican waters and genetic research to determine the relationship of Costa Rican tarpon from Gandoca and Barra Colorado with each other and with tarpon found in the waters of other parts of the world.

According to Anai, tarpon inhabit the entire tropical and subtropical Atlantic Ocean, from Nova Scotia in Canada to Brazil and the entire West African coast. They have been caught as far north as Ireland and found on the Pacific coast of Panama, having passed through the Panama Canal.

Highly mobile, the fish can travel hundreds of miles upstream, as evidenced by their abundance in the Caño Negro area and Lake Nicaragua, and are frequently found in rivers, creeks, inlets and lagoons and on coral reefs, as well as the open sea.

Adults are found in waters ranging in salinity from totally fresh to full strength sea water; in fast moving rivers and stagnant lagoons. Larval tarpon are commonly found in the open sea, hundreds of miles from the coast, while juveniles live in rivers, creeks, lagoons and mangrove swamps with little or no salinity.

Apart from those we have seen at Caño Negro, the only nursery zones in Costa Rica where tarpon less than three feet have been found are in the area of the Gandoca Lagoon, near the Panama border, and the Mojones or Los Portillos Lagoon, north of Barra del Colorado on the Nicaragua border.

In light of the reports from fishermen in the northern zone, that region might well be added to the list and could well be the largest nursery zone for fish in Central America.

For the first few months after hatching from the egg, the tarpon is a tiny, totally transparent ribbon-like leptocephalus, incapable of directed locomotion, that drifts along with the plankton until it reaches a length of about 1 1/4 inches, then begins to shrink to half its original size while gradually acquiring pigmentation and more conventional form.

After two or three months it begins to grow again and by the age of five months, has regained its former length and is recognizable as a baby tarpon

Relatively little research has been done on the tarpon, despite its long popularity as a sport fish, and little is known about the age at which it begins to reproduce. However, it is believed that they mature at three- to four-feet long in about 10 to 15 years. In Costa Rica, the smallest male and female which have been found with eggs and milt weighed in at 24 and 42 pounds, respectively.

It is supposed that mating only occurs at sea, well off coast, a theory supported by the fact that larval tarpon (leptocephali) have rarely been found in rivers in any part of the world and are usually collected in the open sea.

Except during the breeding season, tarpon are believed to remain in rivers, feeding and accumulating fat to produce eggs or milt. Spawning times vary from one area to the other, the Anai booklet says In U.S. waters, tarpon breed from May to August, in Colombia from September to December, in Brazil from October to December and in Costa Rica begins between June and August and ends between December and February.

Primary foods of the juvenile tarpon appear to be mosquito larvae, insects, small fishes, shrimp and crabs. Adults feed on jellyfish, shrimp, fish and crabs, and on occasion bottles and plastic bags have been found in tarpon stomachs, perhaps mistaken for jellyfish or other food items.

Chacón emphasizes in the pamphlet that the nursery areas are characterized by special conditions and a delicate ecological equilibrium and while tarpon are found widely through out the Atlantic Ocean there are relatively few places suitable for development of juveniles.

"When the condition of these sites is altered, adult tarpon populations are seriously threatened and with them the sport fishery," he wrote.

"In order to protect the sport fishery and the economic activities it supports, it is essential to adequately protect the nursery and feeding grounds."

He also writes that as recently as the early 1970's there was a tarpon fishery in the Rio Moin, just outside of Limón, but the fishery is gone, "due not to over exploitation but to destruction of that environment by an oil refinery.

For a copy of the book or more information, contact Dr. William O. MacLarney, Anai, 1176 Bryson City Road, Franklin, North Carolina 28734, or in Costa Rica, write B.Sc. Didiher Chacón Ch., Asociación Anai, PO 170-2070, Sabanilla de Montes de Oca, Costa Rica.

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