Jun 27th, 2012
It’s amazing how a few days of focused fly fishing can dislodge you from your daily groove, relax your soul and sooth your spirit. As the Ascension Bay portion of my trip concluded and I pointed the Jeep northward, I let the interior peace that comes to an angler fulfilled by incredible fishing wash over me.
I didn’t have long to bask in the afterglow of countless permit shots and numerous encounters with bonefish, jacks and barracuda. With destinations in my future appropriately named “Tarpon Cay” and “Tarpon Island”, it was time to get jacked up for Sabalo!
In Cancun I met up with Marco Ruz who would serve as my gracious host for the next five days. Marco is a gentlemen and hard core angler that owns and manages four operations on the Yucatan. He is both a skilled fly tier and remarkable fisherman. Marco is extremely passionate about his fisheries and keeping his operations running smoothly is more than a full time job. I was fortunate to have him as my personal host for the coming days.
Marco set me up with a guide named Enrique at a fishery just north of Cancun called Isla Blanca. This destination is primarily set up for day trips and is reachable from Cancun in only 30 minutes by van. Anglers embarking on day trips at Isla Blanca have access to a number of permit flats that also hold a few bonefish. There are also some prolific baby tarpon mangrove nurseries that are chock-a-block full of 5lb – 15lb fish with a slightly longer run in the boat.
I had high hopes of finding a permit this day as Brian from Fly Water Travel hooked five in one day only a year prior. A persistent 25 – 35 mph gale quickly doused that idea, so Enrique decided that we should make the 45 minute run to an area thick with mangroves that would offer some wind protection and a plethora of juvenile tarpon options. Within 5 minutes of slipping the 18 foot Panga skiff through a small hole in the mangroves, we began seeing tarpon. As Enrique pushed and prodded ever deeper into the maze it was clear that these babies lived in mangrove nirvana. Everywhere I looked were small baitfish, snapper, crabs, insect life, birds of all sorts and lots and lots of tarpon!
These fish were some of the happiest tarpon I found on the trip. Generally not spooky, willing to eat, and relentlessly cruising, these fish would leisurely ease up to our flies and suck them in from underneath with a gentle puff of their gills. After which they would immediately launch themselves into the air, tearing apart the serene calm of life in the mangroves. We hooked a nice handful of fish this day and missed many more opportunities. At times we made presentations to fish deep in the mangroves and I hooked one with a bow and arrow cast that landed the fly a mere 8 feet away (the length of my leader). As the fish catapulted into the air it crashed into a tangled web of mangrove branches and spit the hook. This result was par for the course in this game and an absolute thrill! My trusty 8wt Winston rigged with a floating Tropical Clouser fly line and a shortened tapered leader rigged with 40lb shock was ideal. The fly of the day for Isla Blanca baby tarpon was the Megalopsicle in orange and tan.
If you’re an angler and are planning a trip with the family or spouse to Cancun, you simply cannot deny yourself a chance to fish the waters around Isla Blanca. With more perfectly suited permit flats than you can shake a stick at and loads and loads of baby tarpon to play with, it simply makes day trips out of Cancun a no-brainer.
As I was finishing up my spectacular day at Isla Blanca, Marco headed to the Cancun airport to pick up Rob. We had been plotting this trip for months over the phone as Rob had a trip booked through Fly Water Travel at Playa Blanca for the week following ours and so we simply decided to link the two weeks together.
Our friend Rob is one of the true good guys on the planet. Over the course of his angling career he has fished all over the world including many trips throughout Mexico, Christmas Island, the Indian Ocean, Alaska and Venezuela. Rob’s vast experience, good natured humor and genuine fishiness would prove invaluable for the rest of the trip and I was excited to have a partner on board for the remainder of my time in Mexico. Rob, Marco and I met up at a Cancun convenience store, hopped in Marco’s air-conditioned van and set out for the small commercial fishing village of San Felipe located about 4 hours away.
It’s not hard to fall in love with San Felipe. This simple Mexican fishing town may be the best kept secret on the Yucatan. The streets are swept and cleaned by a small contingent of house-wives that walk the roadways and sidewalks at 3:00AM every morning. Its small pastel colored buildings line narrow streets and at times it seems the number of Pangas on the beach awaiting their captains outnumber the humans. Tarpon Cay Lodge is positioned on a small marina in downtown San Felipe overlooking the sea. The simple, clean and uniquely down-home accommodations serve as a perfect home base for a tarpon bonanza of epic proportions.
One of my favorite aspects of the fishing program at Tarpon Cay Lodge is the split shift day. Anglers hit the water at dawn most days and return to the lodge around 11:00AM. A fantastic lunch is prepared and time is allotted for a valuable and restorative siesta in the comfort of an air conditioned room. Anglers then head back out around 3:00PM and fish through the sunset, returning to the lodge for dinner around 7:00PM.
We found that neutrally buoyant flies were effective when tied with deer hair or small amounts of foam. Top water gurglers also proved irresistible, as surface strikes were vicious and spectacular. Baitfish patterns and various suspended shrimp imitations were are also readily devoured. Rob and I found that rigging one rod for top water and one for submerged baitfish was a deadly combination.
Most of the fishing at Tarpon Cay Lodge occurs over very shallow flats that are covered by a dark colored, broad leafed turtle grass. Roving schools of tarpon in the 5lb – 15lb class can number just a few or several hundred. The guides are excellent at scanning for rolling fish and would expertly pole the boat to intercept a school on the move and get us in position for a cast. At times we would anchor the boat and wait as football field sized shoals of fish would cruise to within casting range. We’d launch the fly in the general direction and retrieve with a brisk strip that kept the fly off the bottom. After that, it’s just a game of watching your fly disappear into a big, black bucket of a mouth and holding on! The resulting aerial display is breathtaking, as they tail-walk, leap, and launch themselves into the air with reckless abandon.
The name of the game is to keep a sharp eye out for nervous water and rolling fish. At times we would nudge close in to the mangroves to fish the channels, but rarely ventured into thick cover. It’s impossible to say how many tarpon we actually hooked as the uncontrollable laughter, good natured ribbing and constant fly changes to find one they would not eat interfered with keeping track.
Rob summarized our time at tarpon cay by saying:
“Marco and crew are the “most” when it comes to hospitality. Simple but “special” Mexican fare in a clean, convenient hotel in the best kept town in the Yucatan … This is tarpon sight fishing on open water SHALLOW mangrove flats at its finest.”
After our time at Tarpon Cay Lodge came to a close, we hopped in Marco’s van and made our way 4.5 hours to Isla Del Sabalo. We wound our way through narrow country roads, across picturesque Yucatan landscapes and ancient Mayan villages where the locals still live in Adobe huts with woven palm frond roofs. As we crossed the bridge from the mainland onto Isla De Arena it became increasingly clear how far away from civilization we had ventured. Isla De Arena is inhabited by a small contingent of commercial fisherman and is void of any activity relating to tourism, save for Marco’s small band of yellow beach cottages. As the only fly fishing outfitter in the area, Isla Del Sabalo provides a stark contrast to the bustling, more pressured scene of Campeche that lies approximately 50km to the south.
As the first anglers to visit the lodge this season, we were giddy with excitement at the possibilities of the day ahead and we settled in to our cozy, air conditioned beach cabanas. In the morning we shrugged off the foreboding, rain soaked clouds that threatened to dump on our tarpon parade and pushed our 18ft Panga off the beach in front of lodge. We then set out on a 45 minute run to some of the most prolific juvenile tarpon flats in the world. Our guide Sam navigated the boat to an expansive 8ft – 10ft deep turtle grass flat several miles off shore. Throughout the course of the morning light rain began to drizzle. As the wind died and the surface of the water began to calm, the tarpon began to roll and soon all hell would be breaking loose!
Fish eventually began rolling in all directions and tarpon in the 20lb – 50lb class were heaving their bodies out of the water for no apparent reason everywhere we looked. Some fish were clearing the surface by as much 6 feet and soon we realized we were having a firsthand encounter with tarpon nirvana. We crazily began sending our flies in the direction of cruising masses of 30lb fish and for the next 6 hours we wrecked ourselves with near constant hook-ups, slashing strikes, jumping fish, and top water madness. These fish pulled hard and did not relent!
On one cast I counted five takes before sticking a fish thoroughly. Short takes, violent slashes and lightning fast strikes were occurring on literally every cast. On two other occasions I briefly hooked and jumped a fish using Morrish’s Tequila Popper only to have the fly slip out, land in the boiling water beneath the airborne fish and then immediately get eaten again by another slashing beast. At times it seemed these tarpon were content to climb over each other to get at our flies.
I think Rob said it best when he summarized in a note to me:
“Hands down. Best tarpon catching I’ve ever seen or heard of. You need to lie about how good this was because nobody will believe us!”
To give you an idea of how remarkable the catching was on day 1, I decided to keep track of the number of fish encountered on day 2 (not including takes, boils, or various slashes). Overall on day 2 we experienced a noticeable slowing of the action to about half of day 1, which was representative of a more “normal experience”. I tallied 13 fish solidly hooked between us before 11:00AM.
The fishery at Isla Del Sabalo is dramatically different from that of Tarpon Cay Lodge. Generally, the fish are found in much deeper water throughout and further out from shore. These tarpon are substantially larger and don’t have an ounce of quit in them. We found the fish to eat well on every pattern we threw including Morrish’s Tequila Popper, various sardine inspired baitfish, tarpon toads, gurglers and Puglisi baitfish. The key is to use the best saltwater hooks money can buy. We fished floating lines on 9wts exclusively but a slow sinking sink-tip line would be good to have rigged on a secondary rod.
The dream trip, if you would like to experience some of the best juvenile tarpon fishing in the world, is to spend three days at Tarpon Cay Lodge and three days at Isla Del Sabalo, with one day to transfer (and rest sore arms) in between. Packages are available to visit multiple destinations including Isla Blanca, as Marco oversees all three operations and will be your host for the duration.
Bruised and battered from an epic couple of days on Isla De Arena, Rob and I traversed the peninsula on an 8 hour journey by taxi south to the small town of Mahahual to fish Chetumal Bay and several small inland lakes for tarpon.
Please check in with me for Part 3 of this report in the coming days as I head to Mahahual on the southeastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula to fish Chetumal Bay and a series of inland Cenote fed tarpon lakes.
Please find part 1 of this report HERE.
Please find part 3 of this report HERE.