Jul 12th, 2013
Tarpon Tour 2013
by Dylan Rose
Eight intrepid anglers and I set out at the end of May to visit two of my favorite destinations. Tarpon Cay Lodge and Isla Del Sabalo are both operations that focus solely on the pursuit of baby tarpon on the fly. Of the eight experienced anglers only three had encountered tarpon before. The others took a crash course that placed them squarely on some of the world’s most productive tarpon water. Seemingly everything about these fish demands a unique set of skills from the saltwater fly angler. From the casting techniques to the fly patterns, from leader configurations to rigging and hook setting strategies, all aspects of this fishery have unique idiosyncrasies. By the end of the trip everyone in the group had landed multitudes of tarpon and experienced a dizzying array of eats, jumps, boils, take downs, slashes and follows from the mighty Silver King (or in the case of juvenile tarpon, the “Silver Prince” may be more appropriate).
The trip began with a 3.5 hour drive from Cancun to San Felipe. The anticipation of arriving at Tarpon Cay Lodge exponentially increased the closer we got and the welcome sight of Beto the lodge manager, holding a full tray of frozen Margaritas, was exactly what the doctor ordered for nine travel-weary gringos. Everyone eagerly scooped up a glass of the slushy concoction and raised them high to toast the beginning our epic tarpon adventure!
After a hearty dinner of fresh fish, rice, beans and an out-of-this-world flan for dessert, we settled in for our first evening at the lodge. Everyone was busy rigging their rods, attending to their leaders and discussing strategies for the fast approaching morning. Many questions surfaced as to the proper way to rig a leader for juvenile tarpon. I let the crew know that the most important aspect of these leader systems is to include a heavy section of shock tippet at the terminal end. No less than 50lb monofilament should be employed as the incredibly hard mouths of these fish will cut right through lesser strengths.
The knock on the door came at 5AM the next morning and I opened it to find a cheerful señor Beto holding a perfect cup of made to order, piping hot coffee to get me going. At breakfast, the energy and anticipation of the angling day ahead was palpable! By 6AM we had the boats loaded, all of the rods rigged, the guides were assigned, and as darkness was giving way to dawn we slowly putted out of the marina in our 18 foot pangas.
Action this first morning was fierce and consistent. Fish were found quickly by the guides and nearly everyone on the trip had multiple encounters with tarpon attempting to eat their fur, feather and foam creations. Some boats hooked in excess of 10 fish each. By the time everyone rendezvoused back at the lodge, stories of high flying tarpon attacking well presented flies punctuated our fantastic grilled fish lunch. Reports of schools numbering between a dozen and fifty fish flooded in. Group members marveled at how aggressive the fish were and how difficult they were to land.
After a frenzied early morning session we were back at the lodge around 11:30AM and by 2PM everyone in the group was experiencing the pleasures of a split shift schedule having had a relaxed lunch and an energizing air-conditioned siesta. We loaded back in to the boats at 3PM for the evening session, recharged and ready for action. The evening fishing was a bit slower than the morning, which we found to be the case on each day of our time there. The brilliance of the evening fishing experience, however, is punctuated by the opportunity to fish through a golden sunset each night. As the heat of the day wanes an incredible kaleidoscope of bird life springs in to action around the waters of San Felipe. Flamingos, osprey, fly catchers, ibis, green herons, great blue herons, frigate birds, spoonbills, egrets, and various hawks were all spotted by the group. Every creature around seemed to emerge from their hiding place to bid the day good bye. At times, it was hard to concentrate on the fishing as the sun slid towards the sea and the sky turned to brilliant shades of pink, orange, red and gold. Thankfully, the hard working and skilled guides of Tarpon Cay were always there to snap you back to fishing reality with an excited, “Sabalo! 10’oclock! 50 feet!”
Setting the hook on these fish as if a trout had just eaten your parachute Adams will almost always result in a failed attempt. Instead, we found that multiple swift and powerful strip strikes are required, followed by a low and powerful sweep of the rod to drive the hook home. Of course, the process is all too easy to imagine from the relaxed confines of my cozy office. The reality of trying to force your body to correctly set the hook while bobbing around on the front of a panga is much more difficult. Especially while a rampaging 10lb tarpon is attempting to annihilate you!
I tried to impress upon everybody on the trip that getting “the eat” and seeing them launch themselves into the air was the real goal. Success and failure should not be judged by how many fish are brought to the gunwale of the boat. There are simply too many variables at play that are out of the angler’s control with tarpon to judge quality fishing by fish landed. It’s very difficult to set a hook hard enough to pierce a tarpon’s mouth. In most cases even landed fish come to the boat with the point of the hook barely penetrating. The vast majority of encounters with baby tarpon involve a vicious attack of the fly and a head shaking leap that leaves the fish traveling a full meter into the air, resulting in a lost fish and the angler left shaking in their flip-flops.
We spent three days total at Tarpon Cay Lodge and mostly lucked into decent weather. Overall we experienced some incredible fishing and some tough fishing as well. At times we would find a mass of fish that would not eat a perfectly presented fly to save our life! While at other times, it was as if the tarpon were fighting each other to get at our offerings. Numbers of fish hooked varied greatly from boat to boat and session to session. Some would struggle to get one eat for the morning, while others would hook from 6 to 12. The learning curve of how to effectively target these fish was steep. I noticed near the end of our time at Tarpon Cay, that everyone was finding their groove with the casting, hook setting and knot tying aspects of the baby tarpon game. It was all coming together just in time for our transfer to Isla Del Sabalo.
On day four we packed up and made the 4 hour van ride to the small commercial fishing village of Isla Arena and our second destination of the adventure. On the way, we passed through Mayan villages where some of the locals are still living in adobe huts. In several places ancient ruins are visible from the road. Colorful locals, smiling children and families spending time together in town squares are regular sites along the route. Traveling the world always leaves me with a broader respect for how others live and life in the backcountry of the Yucatan instills a sense of appreciation for modern conveniences.
The extremely remote town of Isla Arena lies about 50 kilometers north of Campeche. The waters surrounding the island are a pristine, mangrove- lined oasis for juvenile tarpon. With more than 25 separate rivers draining a massive brackish marsh, this is the ultimate biosphere for raising, nurturing and growing tarpon. Perhaps the most amazing aspect of this vast fishery is that, like Tarpon Cay, Isla Del Sabalo is the only outfitter fishing these waters. This means that overall pressure on the resident baby tarpon population remains extremely low. A well presented fly almost always draws a vicious attack leading to an immediate explosion of water and an airborne fish.
On the first day at Isla Del Sabalo, Marco (the lodge owner) and I played the role of scout boat for the other boats in our fleet. At dawn we zoomed north from the lodge along the thickly coated mangrove coastline. We were all smiles upon seeing that the first three rivers we tucked into had rolling tarpon. Several times we gently nudged up the river with the push pole, eased around a corner and saw multiple pods of frolicking tarpon in a tranquil river. We had to bite our knuckles on each occurrence as we forced ourselves to leave the rods stowed and carefully backed out of the river without disturbing the fish. Clients first, now that is my definition of true will power!
The first two days of fishing at Isla Del Sabalo were action packed. Anglers reported good numbers of fish encounters with boats jumping anywhere from 4 to 15 tarpon with many other impossible to classify encounters including various bites, takes, boils and slashes. Fish found along the shoreline and up the creeks ranged in size from an honest 4lbs, up to 25lbs and every single fish fought like a welterweight prize fighter. We also managed to find some good concentrations of nice sized Snook which readily took the fly.
Each afternoon we experienced rain and a couple of substantial thunderstorm cells. One particular squall knocked out power to the island for the better part of 24 hours. It became very apparent during the trip, just how truly remote this destination is. The nearest gas station, for instance, is a two hour round-trip drive. With no grocery store on the island, the staff at Isla Del Sabalo does a remarkable job of keeping the boats running, supplies well stocked and the cabanas in good working order.
During the course of our stay at Isla Del Sabalo, Marco and I had been obsessively searching the open water areas for the larger juvenile fish. Only a year prior we found ourselves about 1.5 miles off shore enthralled in some of the most epic tarpon action anyone could possibly imagine. This larger class of fish run is sizes from 20lb – 50lbs and tend to inhabit the deeper 10 to 12 feet deep turtle grass flats some distance off-shore. The trouble is that finding these rowdy teenagers requires incredibly calm conditions and a smooth, glassy surface in order to spot them. We had been actively looking for these big schools of roving tarpon as we were eager to introduce them to the group. Unfortunately it was looking like all of the time we had spent off-shore searching was in vain. The final afternoon arrived and Marco and I were heading for the lodge to pack up and call it a day. On the boat ride back, the mid-afternoon Yucatan sun was blaring down on me and the drone of the 60 horse Yamaha was coaxing my eyelids closed with an inexplicable amount of force.
Suddenly Marco threw the boat into a full speed banking right turn and instantly all of my senses jolted into high gear. As Marco began hollering at the other guides via VHF radio, my heart started to pound as I looked up to see a school of 200 happy tarpon chasing bait and rolling on the surface. Marco cut the engine and we poled closer to the school inch by inch. I could see that several of our boats where within range of our radio call and they were happily starting to emerge from the mangroves to join us in the hunt. The fish seemed to be tracking ever farther away and creeping up on them proved difficult. At last the school slowly turned in our direction and with my longest cast possible, I put the fly in front of a threesome of 30lb tarpon. Within two strips of the line a fish snatched up my Puglisi pattern and I blew the hook set. Yet another fish grabbed the fly on the next cast, everything came tight and in a flash it was lost as well. Finally, after an intense internal pep talk I launched another cast in the direction of several more fish that had broken off from the main herd. That time it all came together! The fish ate my 4 inch Sardina pattern and was instantly airborne. Just like all of the other fish, this sub-adult was a leaper, except he had the body mass to really pull and instantly it put the shakes in to my knees.
The bigger fish do not relent like the smaller babies. It’s as if their added years instills a kind of meanness to them that super charges their efforts. They are perfectly suited to their environment and when you see their armor plated scales, huge eyes and witness them breathing air in hot, oxygen depleted water, it’s no wonder that they have survived for an age.
Most of the other boats were able to join in on the fun as the massive school of fish milled around for quite some time. I could not have imagined a better end to the trip as most of the members of the group got a chance to encounter these larger open water fish. After fishing everyone returned to the lodge, packed up and had a quick lunch. We loaded up the vans bound for Merida which is home to a population of around 1 million people. In the bustling modern city we had a fantastic celebratory dinner at La Parrilla and then checked in to the stunning Hotel Victoria Merida for a restorative last night prior to our early morning flights out.
Without a doubt, anglers shouldn’t expect to arrive at these destinations with the thought that this is a fish-in-a-barrel scenario. I liken the level of difficulty to being much harder than bonefish and much easier than permit overall. That’s precisely why I love it! Boredom infiltrates my fishing when too many fish are caught and the challenge is lost. At Tarpon Cay Lodge and Isla Del Sabalo the fishing can, at times, be absolutely lights-out. There are certainly days when the fly lands twenty feet from the boat and twenty feet away from the fish and they charge up and grab it anyway. However, tarpon are still tarpon. Good casts, proper presentations and correct fly choice is very important. Without a doubt, great casters are rewarded and the ability to reach out to distances of 70 to 80 feet with a minimum of false casts is a distinct advantage.
The raw beauty of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula never ceases to amaze me and Marco’s operations have everything we look for in brilliant, off-the-beaten-path destinations. The unpressured fisheries, attentive staff, pristine environments and brilliant home-cooked Mexican cuisine left me longing for more as I boarded the plane – headed for home. I was thrilled knowing that so many of the anglers in our group got a chance to hold their first tarpon. I’m confident the northern Yucatan Peninsula is the best locale on the planet for a fly angler to immerse themselves in all things baby tarpon. A return trip is in the works and now the hard part begins, waiting for my next shot at a marauding school of Yucatan baby tarpon and the next Silver Prince to bite my fly.
For further questions or more info about scheduling your own trip to these amazing destinations, give Dylan a call at 800-552-2729