Meet Tom Enderlin, owner and head guide of Release Fly Travel in Costa Rica. Tom is also a professional photographer and writer specializing in adventure, nature, and conservation subjects. We are excited to add Tom to our ongoing blog series “Behind the Guides” presented by Costa Sunglasses.
Flylords: Who is Tom Enderlin?
Tom: I am a fly-fishing guide, photographer, filmmaker, conservationist, surfer, father, and husband, amongst other things.
Flylords: What drives you to get on the water every day?
Tom: I love to catch fish, but what drives me is everything surrounding the fishing. I love the wildlife one encounters, the smells and sounds of the natural world chugging along, the cultures and people. I also love to share with people and teach people. Seeing a person catch their first tarpon or learn to appreciate some part of the natural world is what keeps me going. It allows me to keep appreciating it all myself as well.
Flylords: When did you make your way to Costa Rica?
Tom: It seems like I’ve been drawn to Costa Rica since I was very young. My first few experiences started back in the mid-90s as surf trips. A lot has changed around the country since those good old days, but it’s still a special place. Later in 2005, I returned on a more full-time basis to work for a coffee company. This of course was an excuse to get immersed in a place where I could surf and fish as much as possible. I left Costa Rica in 2006, but ultimately what sealed the deal was marrying a great girl from Costa Rica. I’ve been back since 2012, have become a citizen, and we started a family. No escape now, but regardless I am still amazed every day at the beauty and diversity Costa Rica has to offer.
Flylords: What is it like guiding in Costa Rica?
Tom: Costa Rica is an awesome place to guide. Much of the country has a distinct rainy season and dry season, but in-turn every season has a fishery that heats up. I spend the rainiest pasts of the year from August to December in the Jungle Tarpon Reserve, which is a huge flooded delta filled with tarpon that migrate there from the ocean. As our summer starts in January so does the sailfish and machaca bite, and that lasts until about May most years when the rains start again. Throughout the year, rainbow trout can be caught in the incredibly beautiful highland cloud forest rivers. And chasing blue marlin on the seamounts is at its best August through October but can fire at any point throughout the year. There is always something “on”, and this variety keeps me ticking from one species to the next.
Besides the fish, I am also a huge wildlife nut, especially birds, so I am constantly spotting interesting species and behaviors while on the water. It’s a well-known fact that Costa Rica is one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet, so it’s a great place to appreciate nature. And then there is always the chance of a jaguar crossing one’s path in many of the wild places I guide!
Flylords: What makes Costa Rica so special when compared to other fisheries.
Tom: In a word, diversity. Costa Rica has two oceans and a huge variety of rivers and lakes all within a very short distance, so one can really diversify and target a lot of different species. One of the most exciting trips I offer is the “Costa Rica grand slam”, where over the course of a week anglers chase billfish in the Pacific, rainbow trout in the cloud forest, and tarpon in the Caribbean. It’s an amazing trip and highlights that incredible angling diversity.
Flylords: What’s your favorite pair of Costas to chase fish with?
Tom: I love the Half Moon frame, but that’s really just related to fit. The most important part is the glass, and for all freshwater, like machaca, and flats applications I opt for the green mirror, which has a copper base. For the bluewater fishing, I do a swap for the blue mirror, which has a gray base. I’ve also recently been really into the Sunrise Silver mirror, which allows less light to be filtered and is amazing very early or late in the day or when fishing under the towering trees of the rainforest, which I often do. Unfortunately, the Half Moon frame doesn’t come with this lens yet…hopefully soon!
Flylords: What’s your preferred species to target?
Tom: Such a hard question to answer. I think for me this is as much about how to catch any given fish as it is about a specific fish species. I love a challenge, and sometimes even question whether or not I am borderline masochistic. I would rather not catch anything then catch something that’s too easy. I also love anything visual, so in the end, it’s really all about the hunt. You see your desired catch, choose your fly, get into position, and what follows is what makes this game so damn addictive and fun.
Flylords: Can you tell us about your thought process when your creating content?
Tom: I think the most important aspect of any image or film is the story. Does it say something or move someone? How can I share what this feels like for someone who isn’t right here? It’s not always easy, but it’s a critical part of making powerful images.
Flylords: Any favorite fish recipes you care to share?
Tom: My wife and I sometimes collaborate on photography projects, and currently we are in the process of finishing a cookbook on traditional Costa Rican cuisine. One of my favorite fish and seafood recipes comes from Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. It’s called Rondón (Run-Down)… Click here to see the whole recipe
Flylords: What are your plans for the Fish for Change program you’re running at your lodge next year?
Tom: I am beyond stoked about this new collaboration with Fish for Change! Currently, I am working on 3 distinct programs around Costa Rica. The first is in the Talamanca mountains following a river designated as a UNESCO biosphere reserve from its source to the Pacific, fishing trout in the high parts and machaca in the lowlands and engaging with rural communities the entire way. The second will involve some of the machaca and jungle tarpon rivers and the nearby communities in the north and Caribbean parts of Costa Rica, as well as some jaguar research and other fun stuff. Finally, the last will be on the Osa Peninsula bringing together biodiversity conservation, community outreach, and some great bluewater fishing. Overall, all these programs will integrate elements of transformative tourism, where student-clients embark on an experiential journey throughout the course of their trip to Costa Rica, creating a deep shift within each of them, and planting a seed for lasting change long after they return home. We also plan to involve local Costa Rican students from some of our prominent fishing communities via a scholarship program, so there will be a lot of possible cross-cultural learning and inner development. Check out @fishforchange to learn more or get involved. It’s going to be awesome!
Flylords: Besides Fish For Change, are there any fishing-related non-profit initiatives your part of?
Tom: I really support Bonefish Tarpon Trust’s mission around the world (@bonefishtaropntrust) and was active in a tarpon genetics study they did a few years back. I am still part of their Conservation Captains program and am currently working with Dr. Andy Danylchuk out of UMASS Amherst on a more focused genome mapping project in the Jungle Tarpon Reserve to see how our tarpon fit in with the global population. All my clients have an opportunity to be a part of said program by landing their tarpon and taking a fin clip.
I also operate my own small non-profit, also in the Jungle Tarpon Reserve, to help drive education, socio-economic development, and conservation around the reserve and in local communities. This non-profit is called Asociación Conservacion Bosque del Sábalo, or Jungle Tarpon Conservation (@jungletarpon)
Finally, I am an ambassador with Keep Fish Wet (@keepemwetfishing), and have helped translate all their materials into Spanish. I am currently working on a KFW fish handling best practices short film, which will be in Spanish and will be aimed towards the Latin American fishing community at large. Spanish is such a widely spoken language, and I hope to be able to help share some of the terrific science-based best practices the KFW team has painstakingly developed with this audience.
Flylords: Do you have a favorite epic fish- fight/ chase story to share?
Tom: So many, but one that comes to mind right away was fast and furious. Almost over before it even began. A few years back I was fishing between client groups at the Jungle Tarpon Reserve. We catch a lot of adult triple-digit tarpon, but every couple of years “the one” shows itself. What I mean is a true monster female – well over 200 lbs., some 7 feet long and almost 2 feet wide. We usually just see her… maybe she stays in an area and rolls a few times, showing off her broad back as we admire her from afar. Maybe we even have a fleeting shot at her before she is gone again. This particular morning such a fish was blasting bait at the outflow of one of the lagoon mouths. We were able to get the boat setup for casting, but I really didn’t think she would allow us to approach before she ghosted away. Fish this big are roughly 50-70 years old and those years have brought with them some serious wisdom. Lucky for us, she just kept on doing her thing. A few casts later I came tight, and she immediately came charging right at the boat. I leader landed her before she probably even realized what was going on, and she hung for a few seconds straight below the bow in the current before all hell broke loose. I knew I had very little chance at controlling this immense fish as she raced under the boat. A millisecond later she came fully airborne just a few feet behind the motor, and we all just froze in disbelief. Obviously, I was unable to bow or do much of anything, so the fly was returned, and she was free. But we had our kicks and saw one of nature’s great creatures up close and personal. Sometimes a super quick release is the best outcome for all involved.
Flylords: What are some actions people can take to help protect Costa Rican fisheries?
Tom: Besides the obvious like leaving no garbage behind and reducing your use of single-use plastic, I think one of the best things an angler can do is to practice the Keep Fish Wet principles. What better way to give respect to your catch prior to release then treat it in an appropriate way to ensure its survival.
Another big one specifically for tropical ocean fisheries like Costa Rica would be to keep your billfish in the water. We all sometimes want a hero shot, especially with a large or bucket list fish like a marlin or sailfish, but dragging a billfish out of the water and onto the boat severely reduces the survival rate of that fish. You can see it in photos when the bright lite-up colors start to turn dark blue, brown or purple. Best to keep all billfish in the water at all times.
Speaking of pollution, while it may seem insignificant don’t drop your mono or fluoro clippings on the ground. That stuff never goes away and stays in the ecosystem forever. I’ve fished with many people from all around the world and from all walks of life, and I’ve been amazed when some of the most experienced fishermen and even guides just clip and drop their knot tag ends. Please don’t do it.
Finally, support operations and outfitters who have active stakes in the local community, since when the community has a dog in the race, they also become an active steward for the ecosystem. It creates a sustainable symbiosis and ensures that travel to a given fishery can have as positive an impact as possible. If anglers put their travel dollars towards the right types of operations it really becomes a win-win for the entire industry.
Flylords: How has your season been affected by COVID?
Tom: What season? Haha. In all seriousness, we’ve been extremely lucky and so far Costa Rica hasn’t been hit as hard as other countries around the world, but international travel is definitely still not going to bounce back anytime soon. There have been some rumors of Costa Rica opening borders to international travelers from select countries in August, but that all remains to be seen. I have a feeling the tarpon will likely get a little break this year, but I am hoping that by the time our dry season (Dec onwards) fisheries like machaca, rainbow trout, and everything ocean are starting to happen the world has also found a solution or slowly learned to adapt to the problem. I am taking the temporary break to spend quality time with my family and work on a few film and photo projects – so I am honestly blessed. I really feel for the many families that are struggling through this crazy pandemic and hope we can come together and overcome COVID very soon.
Flylords: How can people book a trip with Tom Enderlin?
Tom: I operate a boutique outfitter called Release Fly Travel primarily focused on Costa Rica but also offering hosted trips to some unique locations around the world. I am in the process of launching a new outfitter, Fly Fishing Costa Rica, which will only offer Costa Rican single and multi-day trips, and Release Fly Travel will morph into something a little more focused on community-based fisheries and sustainable operations. Working directly with communities is something I am very passionate about, so I am excited to see where it all goes. @releaseflytravel @flyfishingcostarica
Thank you to Tom Enderlin for the amazing stories, images, and insights! If you want to see more by Tom, check out his website and Instagram. Also, thank you to Costa Sunglasses for making this series possible.