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2014 Expedition Yucatan – Part 2
by Dylan Rose

Phase two of this year’s epic Yucatan adventure took me to the northern portion of the peninsula for my 3rd year in a row to target juvenile tarpon. The prolific waters surrounding San Felipe and Tarpon Cay Lodge was our first stop. Rob and I joined up with a group of friends to experience 3 full days of high flying baby tarpon action.  Arriving at Tarpon Cay Lodge feels like coming home. The warm embrace of an attentive and skilled staff, incredible home cooked Mexican fare, and enough baby tarpon to make your head spin continue to make the destination one of our all-time favorites.

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We experienced three solid days of fishing with very productive mornings. The afternoon sessions unfortunately were affected by persistent rain squalls that sometimes made fishing challenging. The inclement weather did make for some stunning sunset photo opportunities however.

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The group found fish both in and around the creeks this year and also out on the open water flats. With anglers new to the baby tarpon game there are a number of skill sets to be learned that differ from a lot of other saltwater trips. That’s party what makes the game so addicting. Hook setting skills, flies employed, knot and leader configurations and fish spotting practices are all a little bit different then your average bonefish or permit trip. As well, casting distance and line speed are crucial as often the boat is held in place by the guide or moving very slowly.

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The angler that can quickly launch a fly to 70 plus feet with a crisp double-haul will simply have access to more fish. It’s also important to understand that these fish have incredibly hard mouths. So much so that hook penetration is sometimes nearly impossible, so the task really is about getting the eat and jumping fish rather than landing every one. The reality is that landing fish requires a lot of luck and a proficient tarpon style strip set (or multiple strip sets!).

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After our time at Tarpon Cay, it was time to shift the playing field and head to the remote baby tarpon frontier of Isla Del Sabalo. On the way, we took an opportunity to visit an off-the-beaten track Mayan ruin called Ek Balam. This stunning ruin is only partially excavated and is massive in both scale and architectural artistry. At the height of its glory (approximately 770 – 840 A.D.) it’s believed that Ek Balam was a central and important habitation for the northern Mayan dynasty. It’s a fantastic experience to climb the massive staircase on the main structure and to walk in, around and on top of this beautiful relic. The stopover at Ek Balam added a fantastic cultural experience to the trip and all on the trip were please we took the extra time to check it out.

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After our time exploring the ancient ruins we arrived to the remote tarpon camp of Isla Del Sabalo in the small commercial fishing village of Isla Arena. This operation is located on the western shore of the Yucatan Peninsula, approximately 50 kilometers north of Campeche. Anglers stay in rustic beach cabanas, two per room and embark upon beach launched pangas to hunt for tarpon.

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Isla Del Sabalo is a fishery of many faces and in three trips I’ve been fortunate enough to see it through a wide range of varied conditions. At times the area can yield the most mind-numbing, out-of-this-world tarpon action that any angler could possibly imagine. I’ve seen it when you literally could not keep 30 – 50lb fish off of your waking fly for a full day. At other times, to even find one fish required a herculean effort. Part of my addiction about the fishery at Isla Del Sabalo is the fact that I never exactly know what I’m going to find when I set out on the water for the day. That’s indeed the beauty of fishing a relatively new destination. Everything is not exactly 100% figured out. The mystery of what the day will yield is in itself a highly addictive aspect of the trip and then toss in an incredibly sensitive, air breathing, prehistoric fish for your quarry and that’s where the magic happens!

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The fish-able terrain at Isla Del Sabalo covers a vast mangrove coastline fed by some 28 different river systems. Nearly all of the fishing is accomplished with floating lines and often waking flies are readily engulfed by greedy juveniles. Fishing zones occur anywhere from half a mile up the rivers to a mile or two offshore. Ideally, calm winds are preferred and this trip found some very calm mornings with good opportunities to jump tarpon every day.

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We took some time out from tarpon fishing to focus on snook one day and found a good supply shallow cruising fish that could be spotted along the mangrove edges. The bigger fish continually eluded us but we did manage to find quite a few smaller fish ready to attack the fly.

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Isla Del Sabalo and Tarpon Cay Lodge are the masters of their respective domains. They are the only operations servicing their fishing zones. Ultimately, with a total maximum capacity of 6 anglers at each lodge, fish in these areas are seeing very little pressure. This is a highly unique aspect across all of the operations in the world we work with. Isla Del Sabalo and Tarpon Cay offers anglers the chance to fish an exclusive area at a small operation where competition for the fish is essentially non-existent.

After three days at Isla Del Sabalo I left the group en route to the beautiful colonial city of Campeche. The morning of my departure my guide loaded our small 18 foot panga with two full barrels of gas and we headed south from Isla Arena for the 70 mile journey to Campeche. We stopped to fish several times along the way and at each little bay, river mouth or mangrove edge we came upon we found tarpon. The trip was a great opportunity to explore some of the most remote baby tarpon water on the planet. After a full day on the move and plying the endless coastline between Isla Arena and Campeche, my guide Eduardo pulled our boat in to the Campeche marina and hailed a cab for me. After a short 10 minute ride in the taxi I wandered in to the beautiful Hotel Plaza Campeche. With my strung rods in hand, a sweaty Buff around my neck and certainly smelling of tarpon slime, the incredibly friendly hotel staff didn’t miss a beat. They had definitely seen the spectacle of a wayward, tarpon crazed gringo walk in to their beautiful lobby before as they excitedly checked me in and wished me good luck in Spanish.

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The combination of fishing both Isla Del Sabalo and Campeche in a single trip provided for a fantastic contrasting experience between an extremely remote beach camp and a beautiful city environment. Campeche is a world heritage site and rich with fantastic restaurants, nightlife and unique cultural experiences. Although there is more competition from multiple outfitters on the water, they do a decent job of staying out of each other’s way and there is plenty of fishable terrain for everyone. I spent the better part of an afternoon sight casting for snook along the mangrove edges which provided for a nice diversion from all of the tarpon mania as well.

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Each night I retired back to my beautiful accommodations at the Hotel Plaza Campeche and wandered in to the main town square on foot for a meal. The restaurant in the hotel was open 24 hours a day so early morning breakfast was not a problem before fishing and wandering the streets of this beautiful old world Mexican town made for some fantastic photo opportunities in the evening.

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This trip, perhaps more than any other, was undoubtedly the most complete immersion yet into everything the Yucatan has to offer. From the incredible 20 plus pound permit of Espirtu Santo Bay, to reconnecting with some of my favorite guides on Ascension, incredible cuisine to the awe inspiring spectacle of ancient mayan ruins. From once again seeing my friends at Tarpon Cay and Isla Del Sabalo to spending time with fantastic anglers and meeting new friends, the trip had everything I could ask for and more. Special thanks also to my good friend and fishing partner in crime Rob for his companionship and unerring good-natured spirit, generosity and relentless unselfishness on the bow!

The Yucatan has so much to offer the traveling angler. My experiences fishing and traveling all over the peninsula, on both sides from top to bottom, is that there is simply too much to do and see to always limit yourself to one destination. I’d like to encourage anglers to consider combining 2 or even 3 destinations on a single trip. Travelling between prime fishing zones is quite easy and we are experts at connecting the dots and making it all happen. If you’re willing to stick and move a bit on your next trip, you may really be amazed at how easy it is to cover a lot of productive and varied fishing ground in a short amount of time to maximize your experiences across a wide cross section of the saltwater angling environment.

Click HERE for Part 1 of my Expedition Yucatan trip report