- By: Chico Fernandez
IT WAS A BRIGHT, SUNNY DAY, BUT you wouldn’t have known it from where we sat. In dark green shadows, only a few thin rays of light sneaked in through the heavy cover of red mangroves. We were in a panga skiff, watching baby tarpon in front of us roll on the water’s surface. This narrow section of the creek, maybe a mile or two from its mouth, barely gave us room to move a fly rod.
On my turn to cast, looking at the close quarters I had to deal with, I chose a bass-type fly rod—7 feet, 11 inches—and a short 8-foot leader. And because this narrow creek was fairly deep, maybe four feet, I selected a popper that I didn’t think would spook the tarpon and would still act as a good attractor.
As I started to false-cast, mangrove branches brushed me from above and behind, so only a side cast would do. The distance I had to cover was about 30 feet, but a tough 30 feet. The short, stiff rod was a great help, and after a couple of attempts, I finally got the popper between two rolling fish. Everyone in the panga knew we were going to see a strike. And sure enough, when the tarpon came to take the yellow popper, we could see his head and part of his silver body as he inhaled it.
I used a strip-strike, as there wasn’t any room to raise the rod anyway, and the five-pound tarpon came out of the water on a big somersault and made a short run and then another jump, landing over a long skinny branch that hung 10 feet out into the water. The leader, now wrapped on the branch, held the struggling but tired tarpon. All we had to do was pole the panga to the branch and the guide lifted up the little silver king. Episodes like this went on and on throughout five days of fishing in the Yucatan; almost every hour brought some action. A great trip.
In our part of the world, the tarpon, Megalops atlantica, has a wide range from above Cape Hatteras to Brazil, and grows to well over 200 pounds. He is a popular game fish with fly fishermen because he takes a variety of flies, including surface flies, he can produce some spectacular strikes and, if that’s not enough, he often jumps frequently during the fight. And that’s great.
But when you think of baby tarpon, think of all of the above only faster. He often takes a fly so fast he may spit it back out before the angler can strike. And he jumps so much faster than his big brothers that it’s hard to take a photo of his aerobatic leaps. The fights do not last as long as with the big boys and the tackle is much lighter and fun to use. I just love these little guys.
The problem is finding baby tarpon in any kind of quantity. Certainly South Florida, and some areas of the Bahamas and Central and South America, have baby tarpon, but it’s usually for a short period early or late in the day; if you are lucky you hook and jump a couple of fish or land one. And that’s okay. But I was looking for more—I wanted to fish them all day long.
This is the account of a trip I hosted last summer, looking for a truly great area in which to fish baby tarpon. And the chosen places were a couple of small fly-fishing camps located in the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico.
Our plan was to fly to Cancun and then drive five hours to the first camp in the small, quaint town of San Felipe, fish three days, drive four hours to a more remote camp, fish three more days for a total of six fishing days, and then drive all the way back to Cancun and fly home. It worked very well. And I might as well tell you from the start, no area that I know has as many baby tarpon. Though the fishing was certainly better early and late in the day, there was plenty of action throughout the day, too.
The first camp we visited was Tarpon Cay Lodge, were you stay in a hotel located right in the center of San Felipe, atthe top of the peninsula. The baby tarpon here ranged about 4 to 20 pounds, with an occasional fish over 30 pounds. The area had a few creeks where we took the smaller fish, and plenty of open flats where we took those 30-pounders. Some days we traveled more than an hour to fish a remote area, but we also had good action just 15 minutes from the lodge. It was great fishing.
On calm mornings during the summer, the area can offer tarpon of more than 100 pounds. We got one calm day out of the three, but did not get a shot at the big fish. I did see, as we were leaving to try the baby tarpon again, one very large school of tarpon, averaging probably 40 to 80 pounds. Maybe next time.
The area has another unique environment for the tarpon. Some flats have what the locals call cenotes (pronounced “seh-no-tehs”). These are underwater springs that start in the mainland and surface in three to five feet of water on the flats. You can see the water boiling. This infusion of fresh water draws tarpon around and we took some of the bigger tarpon of the trip around them. Often, you may hook a snook or a grouper on a fly while fishing these springs.
Our next stop took us that four- or five-hour drive to Isla del Sabalo, in a more remote region of the Yucatan, facing the Gulf of Mexico. This camp was more rustic than the first, but very comfortable, with cabins a few meters from the water, air conditioning and, like the other camp, had very good local food. Service in both camps was great, with the locals very polite and friendly. Couldn’t be better.
This area offers flats and outside shorelines, but it was very windy during our three-day stay, so we mainly fished inside the many rivers and creeks. With the low tides we fished the creek mouths and the many flats inside; when the tide came in, we fished way back, in more confined areas. It was all good. But the bigger fish tended to be closer to the creek mouths. On the flats inside the rivers, pods and whole schools of tarpon were often abundant and if you made a good cast, chances were in your favor that they would take the fly.
I found this beautiful area unspoiled, full of wildlife and lush foliage in the back rivers and creeks. And because there are no other camps around, we practically saw no other anglers. The camp only runs three pangas so the “hot spots” do not get hammered. And the owners do not plan to expand the camp. Instead, they grow by opening new camps many miles away, in other remote areas. It’s a great way to assure good fishing for years to come.
While there is some good fishing close to the camp, most of us decided to make a long run, maybe 90 minutes, to fish the remote areas, and then come back toward camp hitting every flat, river or creek. This way you are closer to the camp late in the day when you’re ready to come home.
You can’t take a trip like this to the Yucatan and live only for the moment of the strike, because there is so much else to see. While driving to the camps, you’ll encounter many quaint towns with incredibly friendly people. Most of the houses are brightly painted, and small, even tiny, restaurants offer fish and seafood in the summer. If you like photography, as I do, you’ll want to stop and take a photo tour. Don’t miss this part of the trip.
In San Felipe, where commercial fishermen have worked the area for more than 200 years, our group got to see a bull fight, where they do not kill the bull, incidentally. People yelling, vendors with all kinds of foods, matadors elegantly dressed—it was a good show!
And the area of Rio Lagartos, where we fished, is world known for its large concentrations of pink flamingos. We took many photos of them. The jungle way back in the creeks is home to many types of birds, deer, turkeys and a great variety of palms and other trees. Actually, one day in a very narrow back creek, while moving in on a school of rolling tarpon, the guide saw a jaguar, close to us. Jaguars are frequent visitors to the area. Is that cool or what?
I am also glad to report that the baby-tarpon fishery has been designated a marine preserve. And areas with tiny tarpon, where thousands can be seen, are totally protected. Local wildlife managers are also very aware of the role that the red and black mangroves, among other trees, play in the environment—acting as a buffer to stop erosion of shorelines and protection from hurricanes, which in turn protects a great variety of plants and animals in the area. Bravo!
Getting back to the fly-fishing, there is one more thing I must tell you: Bring your cast. Yes, you do need to cast. These baby tarpon don’t get pressured that much, but they are not stupid, especially on the flats. You will have to make 40- and 50-foot casts, and for the schools or single tarpon in shallow waters, casts of 60 feet and more often are an advantage. So take casting lessons, and practice, before you go. As for me, I’m headed back next year.
Chico Fernandez is a saltwater fly-fisher of vast experience and is one of fly-fishing’s leading all-around teachers. He lives in Miami.