A cruise ship is an excellent way to get teenagers into the outdoors and also fly fishing!
This past summer, my 15 year old daughter and I boarded the Norwegian Sky for a 3 day/4 night Bahamas cruise. We swam with dolphins in Nassau, kayaked through mangroves on Grand Bahama Island, and snorkeled with reef fish near Great Stirrup Cay. And I distinctly remember parasailing as well…
Between these ports-of-call, our time on the boat flew by. Immense buffets – and the gym equipment to work it off – kept me occupied. I also spent a fair bit of time scanning the open ocean, hoping to witness some tuna or mahi-mahi churning the surface to a froth. (I actually did see one feeding frenzy. Even though the species was unidentifiable, it kept me and another guy– also an angler – absolutely glued to our binoculars for a good twenty minutes.)
My daughter, Kerri, loved the boat’s supervised teen club. Hanging around with kids from all over the continent was a great experience for her. To be honest, once we were on the boat, I didn’t see too much of her at all.
But how does fly fishing fit into all this?????
Miami was our home base for a couple days before the cruise departed. We did some shopping, some South Beach sightseeing, and some fly fishing.
Hamilton Fly Fishing Charters (www.flyfishingextremes.com) out of Palm Beach took care of the fly fishing. The idea was to go just outside the reef and chum a bunch of false albacore up to the surface. However, the wave action was a bit rough and the albies stayed deep, so we headed back “inside” to the Intracoastal Waterway. As it turned out, this was a real blast! It was very visual – the guide tossing out bait and all kinds of jacks crashing it.
I was using a streamer and an intermediate line. My daughter was armed with a spinning rod. Both her and I thoroughly enjoyed it – Kerri was actually landing fish out on the boat’s deck in pelting rain. Unfortunately, some nasty wind and thunderstorms cut our day short.
The accompanying video shows the whole adventure. It isn’t in chronological order – South Beach and the cruise ship activities come first and then the fly fishing. (And then the nasty wind and thunderstorms.) I also have to admit that Kerri did all the video editing… Enjoy!!!
Baby tarpon react to a hook like their oversized parents; they try to put as much air as possible between themselves and the water. However, they are far more accommodating. When fishing for adults, a great day is 5 fish jumped and 1 landed. With babies, jumping 15 and landing 5 is definitely not out of the question. And the babies aren’t exactly puny – 5 to 10 pounds is a common size.
I am by no means a seasoned tarpon hunter, but over the last few years I’ve managed to visit some of the Yucatan’s premier baby tarpon fisheries. Although not definitive, my impressions might be helpful if a trip is germinating in your brain.
It should be noted that all my trips took place in July or August. Visiting the Yucatan in the heat of summer sounds a bit twisted but it’s actually prime time for baby tarpon.
The gear for baby tarpon is simple – an 8 or 9 weight rod, a floating line, and a reel with a smooth drag. Most baby tarpon will not take you into your backing. Some veteran baby tarpon fishermen recommend stripping them in without putting them on the reel. A decent fly selection would include baitfish patterns, poppers, and Seaducers – all on 1/0 or 2/0 hooks. A very functional leader looks like this: 5 feet of 50 lb mono for a butt section, 2 feet of 25 lb mono for the tippet, and 2 feet of 40 lb fluorocarbon as a shock tippet.
Now, here’s a look at some baby tarpon destinations…
Tarpon Cay Lodge in San Felipe (Rio Lagartos) www.yucatanflyfishing.com
San Felipe, about 100 miles west of Cancun, is a sleepy, pleasant village where walking around gives your camera a taste of real Mexico.
The baby tarpon fishing starts after a 5 minute boat ride. It’s mostly blind casting the mangroves off points or in the rios, which are saltwater creeks. Oftentimes, rolling fish provide targets.
Once you’ve shaken the jitters when fishing to babies, San Felipe can give you the opportunity to come unglued in front of much larger fish. A boat ride of an hour or so will take you to a spot offshore where migratory adults up to 100 pounds hang out. This is sight casting to rolling fish over deep water.
Isla del Sabalo at Isla Arena www.yucatanflyfishing.com
If San Felipe is sleepy, then Isla Arena is comatose – in a good way. Even though you are only 100 km north of Campeche, it’s like the edge of the world.
The fishing is very similar to San Felipe with the addition of sight fishing on the flats in front of the mangroves. (N.B. Tarpon are much easier to see than a bonefish.) Some of the guides like to go WAY up the tiniest of creeks. Bring a mosquito repellant and don’t forget to duck under that mangrove branch! I found a Sage bass rod a great tool for such close quarters.
You will likely fly into Merida, which is an incredible colonial city. It’s like being in Europe, but the tarpon are much closer.
Paradise Lodge on the Costa Maya Coast www.tarponparadise.net
Between Chetumal Bay and Espiritu Santos Bay, Paradise Lodge has a breathtaking variety of fishing opportunity.
Baby tarpon are the backbone of this fishery; they hang out in cenote lakes, which are land-locked lagoons connected to the ocean via underground channels. Each day starts out with a truck ride as your boat is trailered to one of these lakes. Bring your casting arm – you’ll blind cast the mangroves like crazy. Nevertheless, you’ll probably see enough tarpon to keep your motivation in high gear. One of the lakes has a good population of both snook and barracuda.
During your stay at Paradise, you’ll probably drive south to sprawling Chetumal Bay to chase bonefish and permit. I caught my only permit in Chetumal Bay. I’d like to say I made a 70 foot cast to a tailing fish but I actually flipped a crab pattern about 30 feet into a HUGE mud. The permit that popped out was VERY small. At dinner that night, I downplayed my catch and was promptly chastised by the lodge owner. “A permit is a permit!” he insisted.
If baby tarpon are the backbone of the Paradise Lodge fishery, then Espiritu Santos Bay is the jewel. It’s a long, pre-dawn drive to the north. Punta Huerrero, an obscenely picturesque fishing village, guards the bay’s entrance. Once your skiff ventures into Espiritu Santos Bay, you’re not on the edge of the world, you’ve actually gone over it!
Very few people fish Espiritu Santos. Its flats are beautiful, wild and abundant, just like its bonefish. Chances are you’ll see permit, too. My guide even pointed out a few wily snook underneath the mangroves. I didn’t believe they were there until he chased them out with his push pole.
Isla Blanca by Cancun www.yucatanflyfishing.com
Cancun, as you probably know, is fueled by thousands of beach and bar-seeking tourists.
However, 30 minutes north of the sunscreen-slathered hordes lies Isla Blanca and its tremendous variety of fishing environments – hidden lagoons, picturesque bays, mangrove tunnels, small flats, large flats. Is your boat careening towards a solid wall of mangroves? Relax, the guide knows exactly where the opening to the other side is. Baby tarpon, a few bonefish, and smallish permit roam all over these waters. The permit, although small, are numerous.
If you want a break from fishing, and perhaps Cancun’s frantic pace, there are loads of guided excursions to Mayan ruins, traditional villages, and cenotes.
Isla Holbox is comfortably touristed but in a golf-carts-on-funky-sand-streets sort of way. It is about 60 miles northwest of Cancun; the last part of the journey is onboard a ferry.
Although Holbox is noted for big, migratory tarpon in the open ocean, the backcountry flats and channels in the lagoon behind it have excellent populations of babies. Tired of slinging 500 grain heads on a 12 weight? The babies chase poppers and streamers and put on a great show when connected to an 8 weight. I found sight-fishing for the babies to be excellent.
Another attraction at Holbox is the opportunity to snorkel with whale sharks.
Nichupte Lagoon (Cancun) and Campeche
These are a couple places I have yet to visit. The former is the lagoon directly behind the Cancun hotel strip. The latter is a colonial city.
Late last week, I had to take a last minute business trip to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. With meetings scheduled both day and night, I would be lucky to leave the hotel during the entire three day stay. There was one opportunity for fun, on the last night of my stay. Given the last minute nature of the trip, I didn’t have the opportunity to even think about staying another day and possibly booking a day of fishing, let alone finding a captain available in early May. I know that Tarpon are primarily night feeders and I began to wonder if anyone ever attempts to fish for them at night. A Google search revealed that not only do people attempt, there are captains who provide such a service. I found a guide who was willing to work in a night trip despite having day trips booked on either side. His name is Captain Shawn Fairbanks (www.saltH20.com).
Embraced by the Atlantic Ocean, New River, and a myriad of scenic inland waterways, Fort Lauderdale is known as the “Venice of America”. It is the inland waterways that provide the greatest opportunity to fly fish at night. With over 300 miles of navigable waterways, it pays to hire a guide who knows their way around, especially at night. Captain Fairbanks fits the bill since he has been fishing these very waters for more than 20 years. Many of the homes located with waterfront have underwater dock lights which make the monumental task of parking some of the largest yachts I have ever seen, just a bit easier in the dark. The lights, while aesthetically pleasing, act as magnets for baitfish. Schools of glass minnows and other baitfish congregate around these lights like moths to a bug zapper. From this simple underwater oasis, an entire food chain aligns itself. Jack Crevalle, Lookdown fish, Snook, and Tarpon may all be present within a reasonable proximity to these lights. Now you might be thinking, isn’t that cheating? Akin to shooting fish in a barrel? Nope, these fish are easily spooked. This is true sight fishing and you had better make your cast count or you will be left counting glass minnows in a landscape otherwise devoid of the desired predators. Having said that, it isn’t making 60 yard casts with a ten weight on the flats in the wind, but if you have cast dry flies to rising trout, you understand the need for accuracy. More than once, I flopped a fly right into the light and watched in horror as every fish scattered as if I had cast a grenade. The idea is to spot the Snook or tarpon sitting at the edge of the light occasionally darting in and out in pursuit of their prey. You are targeting a specific fish and casting the fly such that you can bring the fly past his nose on the retrieve. I managed to land a couple of Jack Crevalle, and a Lookdown fish before truly focusing on the Snook. My dreams are filled with Tarpon but the Snook were presenting themselves far more often. I had Snook completely ignore my fly, even swim away from it, but more often than not, they would follow it; inspecting it very closely right up to the tip of the rod. We changed flies a lot! I varied the retrieve from long slow strips, to very short energetic strips. Apparently we found more followers than leaders on this night. At one point, Shawn had just cut the fly off to try another pattern when a LARGE shadow intently moved through the periphery of the light. TARPON! He was interested in what was going on, but didn’t stick around long enough for me to make any kind of presentation. I tried a few hopeful casts in the direction he was headed, but to no avail. That will be the fish that haunts my dreams for the next few months.
As we moved throughout the city at high tide, it became apparent why Captain Fairbanks had removed the poling platform from the Maverick. We went under some bridges that were so low that we both had to duck; and I mean crouch and duck. It was emerging from one of these low bridges that we spotted a tarpon hiding behind a dock pylon at the edge of the light. Shawn expertly positioned the boat such that I had the best shot at making the right cast. I began false casting, paying out line with each cast until I had about fifty feet of line in the air. Just as I made the decision to place the fly, I created a wonderful tailing loop, which caused the fly to firmly embed in my left pant leg. Yes, grace under pressure. Fortunately, all of the line piled up on the deck of the boat and in the water behind me, thus not spooking the fish. I patiently gathered myself, unwinding line from my ankles, from around the rod, and from around the trolling motor mounted on the bow; never once taking my eyes off the fish nervously munching away. The second attempt, although much more tentative, delivered the fly into the darkness beyond the light. As I began to strip, the fish instantly saw the fly and decided that he wanted it, and wanted it bad. The strike happened so fast that I swear I set the hook on pure instinct rather than by any measure of cognitive intent. The instant the line went tight, the fish went literally ballistic. It went straight out of the water much like a missile being launched from a submerged nuclear submarine. When it landed back in the water, it streaked to the boat so fast that I had to strip line as if my very life depended upon it. He swam right past me at the bow of the boat as if it were underwater lightning. Indeed that is the best way to describe hooking into a tarpon; it is as if you stuck the tip of a nine-and-a-half foot graphite fly rod into a light socket. Miraculously, I managed to avoid stepping on the line that I had just so feverishly stripped in, because the fish took that back through the guides of the fly rod in a nanosecond. When I finally got him to the reel, he launched out of the water a second time. I had heard that you are supposed to bow to the tarpon when they breach but that critical tidbit was buried too deep in my brain and any chance I had of retrieving it was overwhelmed by the massive adrenaline dump surging through my body. So I acted on instinct to keep the line taught. He landed with the fly still firmly lodged in his jaw as Shawn gently instructed me to take the slack off while the fish performs aerial acrobatics. As the fish rounded the stern of the boat, obviously intent on fouling me on the prop, I was running down the gunwale in hot pursuit attempting to foil his plans. Another show of aerial ability, this time accompanied by the appropriate postural tribute on my part; bow to the Silver King! A second later I was on another trip along the gunwale toward the bow making it to the casting deck just in time for another aquatic air show. The fish and I were circling the boat counter clockwise so fast that I wondered if even the tarpon in Florida are fans of NASCAR. Just as I made it to the stern again, he managed a tremendous black flip behind the outboard and the line went suddenly slack. The electric rod had been unplugged. The leader had finally succumbed to the sandpaper-like lips of the beast. Perhaps my inexperience the second time he launched had cost me after all. The fish always teach the most effective lessons, and this session, albeit short, will leave me pondering for some time. All hail the mighty tarpon! Well after the stroke of midnight, without spotting another poon, I walked up the dock toward my rental car, grinning from ear to ear. Captain Fairbanks was headed home to prepare for another client headed to the Everglades a mere five hours later. I was headed back to a hotel to grab a bit of shut eye before the flight that would carry me 2,500 miles away from this beautiful place, and the tarpon that I will never forget.
The Silver King. In my extremely humble opinion this fish is the epitome of saltwater fly-fishing. Of course I am talking about the Tarpon. These unique mysterious fish are simply breathtaking. I recently had an opportunity to travel to the Florida Keys to fish for Tarpon and these are my thoughts about the experience.
Now I consider my self a pretty confident and competent fly fisherman let me rephrase that, I consider myself a pretty confident and competent trout fisherman. However I learned quickly that saltwater fly-fishing is a totally different ballgame. Instead of throwing size 20 Midges on a 4wt I found myself using a rod unlike anything I have ever really utilized before. Comparatively 12wt fly rods are a gargantuan and the flies utilized are much the same way.
In preparation for this trip I did quite a bit of practicing to try and familiarize myself with the larger saltwater gear. I felt as I had done a fair job for preparing for this experience but alas I was gravely mistaken. Casting on top of a milk crate in a grassy field with little to no wind was beneficial but once I found myself on the front of that skiff with the boat rocking and the wind blowing directly into my face I knew I was in for a humbling trip.
The highlight of the trip was definitely the sight of a Tarpon 30ft away engulfing my scantly looking crab imitation. However I strip set the hook too early and found myself staring at the backside of a fish going the other way. Honestly that sight freaked me out and I nearly jumped off the front of the boat and that is probably why I screwed up my best shot. I was disappointed yes, but that 40 second experience has to be one of the greatest I have ever had with a fly rod in my hand. I was left standing on the front of that boat in awe of what actions has just transpired before me. The consolation was that I had an opportunity to see some eye-opening places and get a nice tan. So in all reality I am okay with that.
Overall this experience is exactly what I expected going in. Anything that you do for the first time in life is probably not going to turn out pretty and most likely is going to leave you wanting a different outcome. I know thing is for certain. I will be back to tangle with the Silver King. This experience has opened up the metaphorical Pandora’s box of fly-fishing and the best way I try to explain my thought is these fish and the waters in which they reside are new frontier and new way of challenging me as a fly angler. My hat is off to those who have put the time and practice in to become masters of this whole different venue of fly angling. Finally, next time I will be better prepared and will have practiced a lot more. Because we all know that old motto, practice makes perfect. In this case perfection is embodied in the form of the majestic Tarpon on the end of the line.
Here in the east, it’s been a mild winter, which has given anglers even more opportunities for cold-weather fishing. At the beginning of the month, I got a couple of days off from guiding for trout and working the shop here at Curtis Wright Outfitters in Asheville, NC and headed down to Charleston, SC, to chase some winter redfish on the fly. Through a mutual guide friend, I got put in touch with Scott Davis of the Low Country Fly Shop in Mount Pleasant (just over the Ravenal Bridge from Charleston). My fishing buddy Pat and I met up with Scott for drinks to come up with a game plan and the following morning at dawn the adventure into the coastal flats of the South Carolina coast began.
Unlike during the warmer months of the year, the redfish, also known as spot-tails, red drum, and channel bass, don’t venture as far into the spartina grass of the flats, where they commonly “tail” in the summer as they spread out from one another and root around for fiddler crabs and shrimp. Instead, they tend to group together in schools ranging in size from about fifty fish to hundreds at a time and, like a giant vacuum cleaner, work over the oyster bars and flats for shrimp, mullet, and whatever else they can find. For this reason, winter fishing can be both incredibly productive or incredibly frustrating; if you can find a school and keep up with it, you’ll have shots at lots of fish, but if you can’t find the school (this where having a great guide like Scott helps) you simply won’t have anything to cast at and you’ll return home smelling like a skunk.
Lucky for Pat and me, we were on the boat of a truly expert guide and the sight-fishing conditions the first morning we went out were postcard perfect: sunny skies and glassy water. Within twenty minutes Scott had us poling toward a school of about a hundred fish on a two foot deep flat, and as the sun began to rise so did the snouts and tails of the fish, which is not a common sight in the dead of winter. As far as tackle goes, we were slinging sinking shrimp flies and diving mullet patterns on our eight weights loaded with Rio’s Redfish Line. The fish weren’t all that selective; the name of the game was anticipating the path of the school and then casting your fly on the right trajectory (like with bonefish) and working the fly enough to catch their attention, but not so much to spook them. Most of the time, we retrieved the fly the way you would work a big streamer for trophy trout, but occasionally we’d slow it down to give the fish an extra few seconds to see it if the school changed direction at the last-minute. From the get-go, the action was heart-pounding, with several especially nice fish boated and several more lost. An added bonus was the fantastic scenery, numerous porpoise sightings, and the simple fact that we didn’t see any other boats. The best part, though, was knowing that we got to do it all over again the next day. If you ever get a chance to fish for this hardy species on the fly, I highly recommend you go for it. When these bull-headed fighters take a run into your backing there’s no slowing them down…
In the state of Washington there is a body of water that stretches from Deception Pass in the north to the state capital Olympia, WA. At approximately 100 miles long and reaching depths ranging 200-600ft and a max of 930ft; The Puget Sound is a massive body of water teeming with life. Between Halibut, Crab, Ling cod, Rock fish, 5 species of Pacific salmon, and Steelhead Puget Sound is a fisherman’s Paradise. With most people trying to go big or go home with their fish they are missing one of the most fun, most exciting, line ripping fish that Puget Sound has to offer. There is a species of trout that most people don’t even know of that fish the vast waters of Puget Sound. The Sea-Run Cutthroat Trout.
The Sea-Run Cutthroat Trout is a species of trout that stays in Puget Sound, and is only found between south Alaska and North California. It does not travel out into the Pacific Ocean. It stays local and can be fished all year long. The nice thing about this fish is that it is extremely pron to hit flies. With streamers being the most productive of patterns that are used to catch these fish you know that they are going to be aggressive takes and hard fighters. Averaging from 12-15 inches and trophy fish that do reach18-22 inches in length. But there is something special about this Sea-run trout. I have had 15 inch Sea-Run Cutthroat Trout strip more line of my reel that 20 inch Rainbows. These fish are as if they are on steroids. Easy to find and easy to catch these Sea-Run Cuts stay close to the beach so there is no boat needed to target these amazing trout. Staying in 2-5ft of water and in normal conditions no farther than 20-60ft from the shore. Experienced or beginner it’s a great fishery and a fun way to spend your day. You can fish them any time of the year; personally my favorite time is the beginning of January through mid February and the end of march into May.
In the month of January Sea-Run Cutthroat Trout begin to stage outside of their home rivers, creeks, and streams for spawning. I love this time because you have your highest chances of catching trophies. This goes on through February. Last January I had Three days of back to back to back fishing were I landed 27 fish with 8 of them over 15 inches and 3 over 18 inches. 2 of which were on back to back casts.
In the Months of late March through May the trout are back from spawning and hungry….. VERY HUNGRY! and to feed them are thousands of Chum Salmon fry. The Chum Fry are fresh out of the creeks and rivers and swimming around the local beaches getting smashed apart by Cutties… (CUTTIES) WESTERN WASHINGTON SLANG FOR – SEA-RUN CUTTHROAT TROUT. This time of year is explosive with excitement. Casting into this massive mound of swimming bait trying to get one of the many Cutties in the vicinity to find and tear into the small fly that is attached to the end of your leader.
But even then the fishing is not done. Through the summer the fishing stays fantastic and as it goes on so does the entertainment. For those that are dry fly fishermen you are not left out. In the month of September there is a Termite hatch that breaks out and even the Cutties can’t resist. That’s right…. I am talking about dry fly fishing the beaches of Puget Sound. This orange Termite is one of our favorite hatches in Western Washington. The only thing you got to keep in mind is that light tippet won’t work. They hit them so hard that your tippet can snap with ease if you don’t use at least 6lbs test. My favorite fly to fish is a size 8 Elk Hair Caddis with a long dark wing and a bright orange body.
When it comes to fishing for Cutties; staying with in 70ft of the shore and your fine. Though when you start you need to make a few casts before you get too close because they will sit right up close to the shore. A lot of the time I end up walking out to knee-wast deep water and start casting parallel to the shore line. Rocky beaches are best, and those that have a creek, river, or some kind of fresh water trickling in just increases your chances. Moving water is also preferred. So check your tides before you head out to go fishing. Night fishing is also a great idea. In the winter time when there is little day light, hitting the beach with glow flies can be really fun. Remember when your fishing at night there are more things in the water around you. While using glow flies i have had nights were I got nothing but squid, and every now and then a Black Mouth. Ranging from 20 inches to 10lbs, and rarely some up to 20lbs. BLACK MOUTH: RESIDENTIAL CHINOOK SALMON.
GEAR: 5-6wt rod is preferable, at night 6-7wt. 8-11ft leaders, but if you use a sink tip then a 3ft tippet section is perfect. These fish are not leader shy. A net is also a great idea. Waders even in the summer are smart. Puget Sound is full of Jellyfish and it’s not fun when you get hit by them.
FLY BOX: Clouser Minnows in about any color that you can think of, Shrimp patterns, and Sculpins are best for year round averaging 1-2 inches in length. In the summer Sliders can be a great option. Watching trout fins come to the surface and chase down your fly like a shark. Its an exciting site to see, and if your not careful you can set to early and pull the fly from the fish before it even gets to your fly… I know because I have done it my self.
Remember… Sea-Run Cutthroat Trout are CATCH AND RELEASE ONLY. So please care for your fish and release all the Cutties that you catch.
Most people don’t think of Dakine when they think of fly fishing gear, but I am here to tell you that they should. A perfect example is the Dakine Waterproof Duffel. This gear bag is made of waterproof fabric and all the seams are sealed. It features a roll-top that runs along the long side of the bag and a small zipper pocket on the outside. The roll-top closure can be secured to clips on the side or by clipping both ends together.
Fly fishing isn’t always perfect sunny weather and, frankly, I don’t think we would want it to be. Fishing takes us to tropical climates where afternoon rain is expected and to rivers where steelhead swim and often times we are hoping it rains. Honestly, we would be surprised if it didn’t. In the modern world, most of us are packing electronics (phones, cameras, etc.) and, if we are smart, carrying a dry change of clothes…for that unexpected swim. A good dry bag should be of extreme importance and there are plenty of choices out there. The Dakine Waterproof Duffel is the most simple and well thought out one I have found. The biggest problem with most dry bags is that they open on the small narrow end. This means it is difficult to rummage and find what you need. This bag opens on the long side, providing better access to everything in your bag and allowing it to stand on its own while you are working inside. At 23″x16″x12″, it is a great size for stowing in the bottom of the boat or tossing in the back of your truck. It can also adapt to bigger or smaller loads by simply rolling the closure a few more times.
Easy access: Wide opening on the long side of the bag.
Waterproof: As long as it is closed.
Adjustable size: Roll more to take up excess space.
Multiple carry options: padded shoulder strap, carry handles or by the roll-top clipped together.
Side Pocket: While it is a zippered closure, it will allow water in under extreme conditions. Don’t learn this the hard way (like I did). The pocket is so small that it is almost inconsequential.
If you haven’t already figured it out, I am a huge fan of this product. If you ever intend to fish when the weather might be less than ideal, I highly recommend this bag.