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Yucatan Baby Tarpon

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   www.holboxtarponclub.com

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.

South Florida Nightlife on the Fly

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.