Winters in Wyoming can be brutal, this past one was especially so. The old timers in Sheridan tell me that this is what winters in Wyoming are supposed to be like... tough... not the banana belt, candy-ass winters we've been having for the past six or seven years. Being a west coast transplant, I kind of liked those cushy, mild winters. Well... nothing good lasts forever! And to add insult to injury, our brutally long winter was followed by a spring that just refused to arrive. We have also had too many days of Seattle-like rain and a huge run-off that's now still going strong and its mid-July! By May I was totally over it! I needed to get away and fish like never before. Mexico, here I come!
Hopefully, Mexico's warm tropical climate would be the antidote for all that ailed me. I had my fingers crossed. Why this superstitious pre-trip ritual? Because we've all had trips where you arrive and the weather falls completely apart, the fish seem to mysteriously vanish or your luggage fails to show up. It's always something. How many of you have heard this one... "You should have been here last week." Or perhaps... "Wow mon, sorry, I don't know where the fish have gone?" PLEASE, just once, can't everything, in terms of weather and fishing, go perfectly? I'd like to be that guy who gets to say for once, "Man you missed it, we railed on fish all last week, our weather was great and everything went perfectly." It happens once and a while, but I was definitely due for a great trip. So, let me begin this Yucatan tarpon trip report and say: "Man you missed it! You should have been with us on this one!"
Everyone knows that tarpon fishing can be tough. Big or small, tarpon are still tarpon and at times they can be extremely tough to catch. More than in any other facet of fly fishing, to do well in this arena requires passing through the proverbial tarpon school of hard knocks. The only way to do it is to do it... again and again, and screw up over and over until you get it right. For the past four years our group has been doing just that, all the while gaining experience for our shot at the big tarpon. Along the way, we have assisted many of our faithful traveling anglers in cutting their teeth on the Yucatan's acrobatic baby tarpon. For many anglers, the visual aspects of fishing for baby tarpon, combined with the ease of landing them, makes them one of fly fishing's favorite target species. The techniques perfected while fishing for baby tarpon are what it takes to hook the big boys. The basic skills for hooking tarpon, big or small are essentially the same, but there are a few noteworthy exceptions when dealing with big fish after the strike and hook-up. If you took a baby tarpon, added 100 pounds and accelerated the game to N.F.L. levels in terms of speed and reaction time, you would get the difference. Make no mistake... fishing for giant tarpon with a fly rod is the Super Bowl of fly fishing!
This year we visited two tarpon destinations, both completely different and yet, both located at the northern shore of the Yucatan peninsula. We visited the first spot, San Felipe, for its prolific baby tarpon and then traveled to Isla Holbox for a shot at the big boys. Why did we split our trip and visit two destinations? Well, it's a little like hitting the driving range before playing a round of golf at Pebble Beach... you gotta get ready and practicing on the babies is the best way! Most of us could use some practice, especially if you don't live near any tarpon. Certainly the babies are a blast to catch, but after a few days, most of us were ready to move on to something a bit more challenging. Three days was the perfect amount of time to hone one's skills and beat up on a bunch of agreeable baby tarpon. We all looked at the San Felipe portion of our trip as a really fun, pre-game warm-up for the giant fish to come later in the week at Isla Holbox.
So let's talk about those big fish at Isla Holbox. Holy shit, for those who have caught the GIANT variety of tarpon at over 100 pounds, they stand among an elite class of fly anglers. Bottom line... not everyone has what it takes to cast to, hook and land a big tarpon on fly tackle. Catching a 100-pound plus tarpon on a fly is extremely difficult. But if you do, it's an angling accomplishment of a lifetime. Being prepped, relaxed and yet ready to take your shot at a giant is incredibly unnerving and exciting... especially, the first few times you step up on deck. While adrenaline races through your system, your knees shake and your heart pounds. It is then that everything has to go perfectly. This is where practice pays off. Many things can (and will) go wrong in this potentially tackle destroying process. Understand this... subduing giant tarpon on fly gear often borders on complete insanity! It is semi-controlled chaos at best. You must be ready because what follows in the split seconds after the take of a giant tarpon, can instantly reduce even the most veteran of anglers into an incompetent angling neophyte.
If you are a beginner to tarpon angling, remember this... it's the little technical things you do that makes the most difference. After your fly is eaten, tarpon do not discriminate based on angling acumen. They abuse everyone! Eliminating those simple correctable mistakes will tilt the odds of landing a giant tarpon in your favor. With perseverance and experience, an aptitude for this extreme angling will work its way into you're neuro pathways and eventually it will become second nature. It takes time, but once those autonomic, reflex reactions take over, you won't have to think as much about what you are doing or not doing. In addition, the fear factor lessens and that's when good things start to happen for a tarpon fisherman.
The concept of targeting the baby fish first gave our anglers the opportunity to refine some core skills. First it's the all-important strip strike, and then it's managing 50 feet of recklessly coiled fly line as it departs the casting deck at Mach-Two. In addition, developing an awareness of your fly line under foot is also critical while casting and clearing line. And last but not least, one must remember to bow to a jumping tarpon of any size. Individually, these tasks might seem easy, but simultaneously... look out! It's hard, fast-paced multi-tasking! Fail to execute any one of these elements and they become perilous obstacles between you and success. Each small mistake can be a showstopper in the chaotic mayhem of the moment.
So once again, to work the kinks out, we made San Felipe our first stop. San Felipe is a sleepy little fishing village at the northern tip of the Yucatan. It's not a large area in terms of fishable habitat. But what this region lacks in quantity, it certainly makes up for in quality of habitat and numbers of fish. Near San Felipe, there exists roughly 10 miles of pristine mangrove coastline, all perfect habitat for a tarpon nursery. On the correct tide profile, at the proper time of year and if you happen to catch a break on your weather, the results can be fantastic... just like ours! We, for once, hit all three elements perfectly. The other benefit to fishing San Felipe is there is only one operator who sends out only four guide boats from the only hotel in town. If you happen to be part of an intact eight-person group, you won't run into anyone during the day that you don't know. It's hard to get too upset when that other boat across the bay is catching tarpon and its one of your friends. It's even better when you can run up along side your buddies and share in the fun. That's what fishing with friends on a hosted trip is all about.
Over our three days of fishing in San Felipe, everyone in our group experienced outstanding baby tarpon fishing at some point. Sure... we did see the same water a time or two, but who really cares when you are constantly casting to fish. These were "fun size" baby tarpon that generally ran in that 3 to 7 pound class. Fish that were a perfect size for a 7-weight rod. However small, they were mighty in terms of athleticism and provided the repetition necessary so that all our anglers left San Felipe with the basics of tarpon fishing dialed in.
What makes some trips pure magic and others just so-so? Often it's just a specific moment or two that becomes etched into your memory. Here's one such moment for me: At one point, on a slack low spring tide, we floated motionless while staked firmly to the turtle grass bottom. The well-worn red mangrove push pole we were tied off to positioned us some 300 yards from shore in 24 inches of glass clear water. Because of the tides, we had fished a split schedule this day. Now nearing the end of our evening session, the sun would set in a short while and the ocean was oily slick and still. Our plan was to fish until dark. We would be guided back to town by the distant lights of the village.
On this night, the spring tide had virtually emptied the mangroves of water and dry-docked this impenetrable labyrinth where baby tarpon seek their food and shelter. They had no place to go, but out. They needed to find a place to swim. So there, in two feet of water, swam what had to be the entire San Felipe fleet of baby tarpon. For nearly two hours, droves of fish swam casually by. It was a constant procession that made me think of an Alaskan sockeye salmon migration. The numbers were staggering. As they passed, I could not help but be amazed by the sheer number of baby tarpon I was seeing. It was re assuring to know that for now this fishery seemed secure and not threatened by the destructive hand of man and his subsistence gillnets.
In my role as a booking agent, it's hard to believe that there has been a few anglers come back and complain of poor results. We have heard "the area is too small" and "the fish are too pressured". They conclude that the local fisherman must have netted all the babies and they just aren't there. These types of reports from disappointed anglers make for some anxious post trip conversations. We are the first to admit that it does happen every now and then and at those times, tarpon are damned hard to find. But make no mistake; the fish are here in significant numbers. At times like this it is important to note that tarpon are shy creatures ruled by the tides and migratory by nature. The instinctive forces that drive their behavior are designed to protect them even from traveling anglers and this is why they are sometimes hard to find. Think about it. Every tarpon trip is a gamble at best. Sometimes you hit it perfectly, sometimes you don't. What you have to decide is this... is catching baby tarpon something you like to do, is it worth the gamble? If it is, you must commit to the species, invest the time and enjoy the process. It is probably best to go more than once before you decide if a place is good or bad and then understand that some trips will be epic and others will not. That's just fishing.
Looking back, our visit to San Felipe "this time" was fantastic. We fished a great habitat, enjoyed good food, guides and lodging. This trip was everything I had hoped for. Now, with the warm-up portion of our trip behind us, it was time to switch venues and head east to Isla Holbox and the "big show". It was time to see if we could put all our polished skills and techniques together and see if we could land some giant tarpon.
First of all, Holbox is one of the coolest spots that I have ever visited in Mexico. I loved everything about this place: the narrow sand streets, the off road golf carts that everyone uses to get around and especially the miles of undeveloped sugar-sand beaches. As a Southern California native, this place took me back to my childhood and spoke to me at a very core level. This is also the kind of spot where mid-way through the visit, you are asking for directions to the local real estate office because you are interested in buying property and moving here permanently. Here's a measure I use of the appeal of any foreign fishing spot. If the Europeans have moved in, most notably the Italians, you can count on two things... First, the place has style and secondly, there will be a few very good restaurants. What else would you need when surrounded by such a beautiful, laid back, ocean side community?
Clearly, Isla Holbox has an appeal that goes far beyond fishing. Visit and you'll see for yourself. But, we were here to fish! More specifically, we were after the large migratory tarpon that visit this area each year from May to August. While Isla Holbox does have a limited baby tarpon fishery and a mix of other species one can pursue during what I call the "slack time" (that's the point in the day when chasing the big boys is clearly over, but it's to early to head back in), the reason to come here is for the big tarpon. Let me say it again... "The reason to come here is for the big fish." We timed our trip perfectly. The big fish were there in good numbers. To our benefit, the month of May had had really tough weather, so any fishing pressure prior to our arrival had been minimal. Our tarpon should be eager and things were shaping up nicely for us. The anticipation was high for everyone in our group.
Fishing for giant tarpon at Isla Holbox is quite a bit different than what most people have come to expect from tarpon fishing in the Florida Keys. Here it's down and dirty fishing, but in many ways (which I'll explain later) it's an easier place to catch your first grande tarpon on a fly. So if you have giant tarpon on the brain and have never caught one, or been worked over in the Keys a few times by PHD tarpon, this spot might be right up you're alley.
Here's how it works. Take your standard 12 wt. fly rod and reel; attach a 500-grain fast sinking fly line spooled with plenty of backing. Understand that once you tie on the standard 4", lead-eyed, multi-colored flying chicken the guides here call a fly, the whole contraption becomes somewhat difficult to cast. (Be honest with yourself about your casting ability and invest some time in practicing this new system before you arrive. For some it can be hard to do, but rest assured, you really do not need to cast as far as you think.) Next, take your position on the casting deck of your 23-foot panga. (A panga is a Mexican-style, sturdy fishing craft that doubles as a commercial fishing boat in the off-season.) Once on the casting deck, balance will become your next issue. You are out in deep water, several miles offshore in 20 to 30 feet of water. There are times when the ocean will be glass calm, but on most days expect a one to two foot, highly disorganized wind chop. For some folks, that makes standing on the bow a real task especially when preparing to cast after cutting the motor and gliding to a stop.
So there you are, with stiff fly rod ready you scan the ocean's surface while precariously balanced on a slowly rolling tabletop. You're wishing you'd spent a little more time in the gym when the call comes out... "Senior... here they come. CAST!" Then they appear, tarpon, hundreds of them coming directly at you 150 yards away and closing fast. The fish you see rolling on the top are but the tip of the iceberg. Underneath is a massive school, certain to make your jaw drop as they pass beneath the boat. The drill here is to cast as far as you can, well in advance of the school. Let your fly line and weighted fly sink down 10 to 15 feet. Wait for the school to swim up to your fly, time it and then strip as hard and as fast as you can. If the line comes tight keep stripping hard cause it's game time and you'll need to get the hook set firmly.
If you worked quickly and had control of your faculties, you usually got a second shot, if necessary, as the fish passed. But as with most fishing, the first shot was always the best shot. If everything comes together and the fish were not spooked you stood a pretty good chance of getting a grab or two each day. The early morning from about 6:00 AM to just before 10:00AM was the most productive fishing window. We hooked all of our big fish during this part of the day. I suspect that the tarpon had just come off a night of unmolested feasting on the acres of sardines that school off this productive coast. In the morning's low light, it seemed they were still looking for those last few morsels to top off their nightly binge. It didn't take long though for the tarpon to wise-up cued by the boat's activity and flailing fly lines. At that point, they were done and so were we. Time to check your expectations and commit to "slack time" fishing and just have some fun. The big show is over about 10:00 AM and there's not a thing you... or the guides can do about it. This you must accept.
If you were the first guy up on deck your chances were extremely good at hooking a big fish during these morning hours. Several of our big fish literally came on the first cast of the day. The morning window was short and the tarpon's attitude predictably changed as the day wore on. "Goosey" was the term we all used as the fish began to react to each day's fishing pressure. Hooking a fish here was the classic good news/ bad news scenario. Great for the guy on the rod, but somewhat less great for your boat mate as a tarpon can take up to 90 minutes to land. This fighting time really cut into the most productive fishing time of the morning. For this reason, a really strong argument could be made to come to Holbox as a single angler. At least until you've gotten your first big fish to the boat. Then the pressure is off!
At Holbox, there can be as many as 10 guide boats scattered about the horizon on a given morning. All these boats work for the only outfitter in Holbox. So, as much as there is competition between guides, it's of a friendly nature as they all work together. Every morning each boat follows their GPS to where the fish were the previous day. This seems to work out most of the time. There can often be three to four boats working in concert to stay out ahead of a traveling school of fish. There can often be four or five large schools of tarpon working in the same general area too. Each boat takes turns at positioning itself in front of a traveling school. Care on part of the guides is taken to stay the proper distance from each boat and still position the anglers in front of the fish as many times as possible. That's how tarpon fishing is done here. It's not usually a solitary experience. Giant tarpon fishing seldom is. Although there are some boats here, it's definitely not the Keys in terms of fishing pressure! But, be prepared for the realities of this fishery. If you don't share space well with others, this might not be the fishery for you. Holbox is what it is and from what we experienced, whatever the destination lacked from a solitude standpoint, it made up for in solid opportunities at mega tarpon. Isla Holbox truly is a place where even a less than "expert angler" has a shot at landing a triple digit tarpon on a fly.
And that's what we did. Most of our group was new to the big tarpon game and collectively we had tremendous results. Five of our anglers hooked, landed and released triple digit tarpon in our short three-day visit to Isla Holbox. None of these anglers, prior to this trip, had ever landed a tarpon of over 40 pounds. The often brutal realities of this extreme form of angling became immediately evident when first hooked-up. We had some truly memorable moments. Most notably was Kay Dushane's 90-minute battle with 140-pound tarpon she landed on a broken rod that was cleverly lashed together by her guide with two camera wristbands. Then came Ed Exum's 90-minute battle with a fish that drove him literally to his knees. Ed was barely able to finish the fight when he faced total exhaustion in the waning minutes. Additionally, Tony Wendtland, David Livingston and Jason Spielman all managed to land a triple-digit giant tarpon on this trip.... which was our goal! These fish represented personal bests for all these guys and were considered by all of us as accomplishment of a lifetime.
Excitement and memories go hand and hand when angling for this magnificent species. Giant or baby, tarpon are always exciting. Thanks to everyone for coming with us this year and making this a tarpon trip to remember. For me, it was a trip of a lifetime. I was able to learn about two new unique destinations and share in everyone's epic angling moments. Secondly, I got to do it with a group of people I'd be happy to do it with again. For me, fishing is about spending quality time with quality people and sharing great experiences in the world's most beautiful locations. I am truly a lucky guy.
Written by Todd Sabine