This side of paradise
Sometimes fly fishing can be easy. Or at least maybe seem that way. I know that may sound ridiculous to newer fly fishers, but there are times when everything just “clicks”. Your casting is spot on, the fish are keyed up and you are throwing the right bug and the day is just magic. As you spend more and more time on the water, that “click” seems to happen more frequently. Part of it may come just from experience and learning from your mistakes. Another part of it may be since you are on the water more often, you have ample opportunities to apply your knowledge thus leading to success. Some even say part of it is just dumb luck, being at the right place at the right time where even an idiot could catch a fish on a bare hook with a little thread tied on it. It is hard to say who is right in that argument. It could be all true, I don’t know. What I do know is that sometimes, we as fly fishers need to challenge ourselves a little to find that “click”. Maybe it is experimenting at the tying bench, learning a new technique or chasing a new species. Whatever the case, it appears that we are always pursuing a novel way to apply our craft. This is the story of one such challenge.
I had fished in the salt water of the Gulf of Mexico a few times over the years without much success. I had caught a few snook and other smaller jacks. Usually when I would do this, I was going out with people that were not guides but rather just driving the boat. Then a few years ago, I actually hired a guide on the pacific side of Mexico in Puerto Vallarta that guided fly fishing. While it wasn’t a great day, fish were caught by all in the party and I learned a lot about the ocean, the fish and especially myself as a fisherman. I was looking for a “spark” in my fishing, something that was new and exciting so I could spread my wings. That opportunity came this summer, and it truly was one of the best fishing days I have ever had. Everything just “clicked” that day even though I was completely out of my element. I was introduced to Tarpon.
Covid has definitely put a hamper on many things in our lives, but fishing isn’t one of them. Now travelling for fishing is something entirely different. But as the cases of Covid started to diminish somewhat after the vaccine was introduced in the late spring and early summer, my family and I had to travel to Mexico. So I started to search out where would be a good place to take the family as well as scratch this itch I had about catching tarpon on the fly rod. With my past experience being somewhat dismal in the salt, I was determined to make up for it on this trip. Eventually, my wife and I settled on going to Holbox, Quintan Roo. Holbox is a neat little artsy town on an island to the north and west of Cancun a few hours. The historian in me started to research baby Tarpon around Holbox. Where to go, what to use and why to use it. In my research, I ran across a book written a few years ago called Fly Fishing the Yucatan written by Rod Hamilton, Rhett Schober and Nick Denbow. As some of you know me, I am not really all that shy and when I have questions about something, especially fishing questions and will ask anyone I can think of for answers. So after reading the book, I realized if this was going to be an epic trip, I was going to need a guide and a boat. To confirm this, I reached out to one of the authors Rhett Schober who happens to live in the Yucatan. Rhett, who is originally from Colorado I believe, told me three important things. Number one, get a guide and he had someone in mind for me. Number two, work on your double haul. Number three, fallback on your Carp and Smallmouth skills, not your trout skills. Man, he was not kidding either. As Rhett suggested, I reached out to Alejandro Vega Cruz aka “Sand Flea” of the Holbox Tarpon Club. Now Alejandro is an interesting fellow to say the least. He is one of those people that is instantly your friend when you meet him. This guy is a class act all the way. We pick the date I will be there, he checks for guide availability and we are good to go. Fast forward to June….
I am not even going to describe what it took for me to get to Holbox, Mexico. This wouldn’t be a blog post but rather a novel. So anyway, I get there. This place is great and my family and I are loving it. Bright and early the next day, the sarge and I head to the beach to meet our guide Valentine. Now Valentine, like most people in the Yucatan is a “chaparito” which literally means “little bush” in Spanish but is used to describe a short person. But the guy is thick, covered head to toe to block out the approaching Caribbean sun. As we speed away up the beach, I had a prepared some leaders and was getting them rigged. Valentine asked what pound test, I said 25, he said we need forty. Okayyyyyyy, we are just chasing baby tarpon right? Folks, if you do nothing else in this world, listen to your guide. As we approached the first mangrove I began to comprehend what he was saying and I was quickly stringing up a 6 ft leader of straight forty pound test.
Tarpon are an interesting fish. Their mouths are like steel so when you do a strip set, you do it twice (reason number 1 for 40 pound test). Their attitude reminds me of a big bull trout but they jump like a rainbow. These fish are super aggressive, definitely on the top of the food chain. And like all sport fish, fly fishers over complicate them from gear to techniques to flies. It isn’t that complicated people, these are apex predators and it all comes down to presentation. Now, I had purposely worked on my double haul, but still I was not mastering keeping the fly out of the mangroves (reason number 2 for 40lb test). After a while however, I started at least keep it in the right area, have the proper stripping cadence and started to connect. Eventually, the fish were moving about and I had a few strikes. However, like an idiot, I pulled the fly out of the mouths of the first few fish. This is where Valentine started to chide me a little. Eventually I was finally able to hook up on a good fish. Now this fish wasn’t a monster baby tarpon but was pretty big, at least to me. After a great battle and some serious hustle, I brought the “sabalito” to the panga.
After the release of this magical fish, I was ready for more. The sarge’s mind was blown. I ended up tangling with, and losing, a much larger tarpon in the mangroves before we moved off to the deeper slots out in open water. At this point we switched over to my clouser minnows I had tied and it was game on like donkey kong. I even asked Valentine to show us how it was supposed to be done. I honestly had never seen someone that stood 5’2 launch an 8wt that far into a stiff wind. He joked that the rod was just a little too light for the wind, better to use the 9wts. This guy was an animal with a fly rod! All three of us ended up catching multiple fish out in the slots and lost some due to weak hook sets. By this point, we were all beat tired and were running low on water
As we headed back to sand fleas place in Holbox for cold drinks and food, we passed around what was left of the chartreuse and white clouser minnow, just admiring the damage baby tarpon could do. I began to think of other challenges I had faced in fishing and in life. I thought of the tests that lay down the road for the sarge, both on and off the water. I realized these challenges, even self-imposed, can be good. Today, that clouser rests in the visor of my truck as a reminder of that. Just when things seem that hard, you may still find the “click” you are searching for.