Tarpon Nirvana

PAGE 62 TARPON by Dylan Rose The fertile mangrove edges at Tarpon Cay Lodge can yield some breathtaking encounters. Photo: Dylan Rose NIRVANA


The northern coast of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula offers fly anglers the very best juvenile tarpon fishing in the world.

Transcript of Tarpon Nirvana

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TARponby Dylan Rose

The fertile mangrove edges at Tarpon Cay Lodge can yield some breathtaking encounters.Photo: Dylan Rose


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The full dynamic expression of chasing fish with flies can be witnessed on a single day targeting juvenile tarpon. From the explosive top water annihilation of a gurgler skimming along the surface, to the deliberate pulsing throb of a Sardina pattern

being engulfed in deep water, these prehistoric oxygen breathing fish can send an angler’s adrenaline into overdrive and set their drag systems ablaze. Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula offers visiting anglers the most prolific juvenile tarpon waters found anywhere on the planet. Whipper-snappers in the 2-5 lb. range begin their predatory life in the fertile mangrove eco-systems, rivers, lagoons and cenotes that inundate the coast-al waters surrounding the peninsula. As the juvenile fish mature so does their insatiable ap-petite and those 5 lb babies quickly will turn into 50 lb predators. As they grow into a creature worthy of the Latin name Megalops Atlanticus one fact remains, their inexhaustible willingness to silently slide up to a fly pattern and crush it with all of their might. Two amazing operations on the northern portion of the Yucatan have developed unique programs to spe-cifically target these remarkable fish with a fly.

Tarpon Cay LodgeThe rich azure blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the charming vil-lage of San Felipe set the scene for an excursion to Tarpon Cay Lodge. Each morning a small band of women awake at 4am to sweep the streets with handmade brooms, making San Felipe the cleanest Mexican town-ship you’ll ever see and one of the best kept secrets in all of Mexico. The diverse tarpon fishery takes advantage of two major biosphere pre-serves, the Parque Natural San Felipe stretching 20 miles to the west and Rio Lagartos stretching some 30 miles to the east. This incredibly rich eco-system offers the most well-rounded, interesting and productive baby tarpon fishery found anywhere in the world.

As the winter winds subside and the building ridges of high pressure begin to flood the northern Yucatan with sunshine in May, the baby tarpon activate and venture out of the mangroves and onto the fertile flats surrounding Tarpon Cay. Roving packs of 5-15 lb. tarpon ply the shallow waters gorging on sardines and shrimp throughout the spring and summer. Anglers outfitted with fast action 8 and 9 weight rods keep a sharp eye out for nervous water and rolling fish. From the casting decks of cus-tomized 18ft pangas, anglers armed with floating lines and 2/0 baitfish or

shrimp patterns stand ready to speedily pres-ent a fly to rolling fish. Baby tarpon from as few as two or three individuals to as many as

one-hundred seem to blanket the flats at times. As small bands of brilliant pink flamingos glide

low across the flats against a perfect Mexican sky, the scene could best be described as Tarpon Nirvana. At times the game can become more about the

challenge of jumping as many tarpon as possible as opposed to actually landing them. Their brutally hard mouths repel even the sharpest hooks with amazing proficiency. Surface flies stripped quickly will gurgle and pop their way across open water and at times it seems these baby brawlers will crawl over each other to eat your top water offering. Neutral-ly buoyant fly patterns tied with spun deer hair or bits of foam smoothly glide over short bunches of dark colored turtle grass and a well positioned cast to feeding fish almost always draws attention. The black golden hue of their backs perfectly matches the color of the bottom making it nearly impossible to see them through the water. Luckily for us, happy tarpon swim along gulping breaths of air and slashing at bait. Throughout the summer the scene replays itself under ideal condi-tions when the mercury rises and calm winds settle in. As fall approaches, opportunities for larger migratory fish arise. Long runs from the lodge with fingers crossed for calm weather may yield fish to 100 lbs or even

“This incredibly rich eco-system offers the most well-rounded, interesting and productive baby tarpon fishery found anywhere in the world.”

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Tequila Popper

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larger. During this time of year Tarpon Cay Lodge may be the only des-tination in the world where one can experience the joy of tarpon fishing with encounters at every stage of their life cycle. With tarpon available from 8 inch babies to 150 lb behemoths, their whole life cycle is on dis-play during the late summer and fall. Few things make traveling anglers happier than the split shift fish-ing program at Tarpon Cay Lodge. Each morning the fishing day begins around 6am and extends to about 11am. After the morning session, an-glers have an opportunity to crack open a cold cerveza during the heat of the day while relaxing back at the lodge. For lunch, guests enjoy a fabu-lous home-cooked Mexican meal and afterwards most will doze off for an afternoon siesta in the cool bliss of their air conditioned rooms. There is time to mend tackle or tie flies ahead of the evening fishing session which kicks in to high gear by 3pm. Anglers will fish through the evening sunset and typically arrive back at the lodge around 7pm for cocktails and dinner. The casual atmosphere, skilled guides and insanely productive fish-ing are all hallmarks of this small but polished operation. When I close my eyes and think of Tarpon Cay Lodge I see a 20 lb tarpon piercing the calm of dusk by erupting on a popper and launching itself five feet in the air — all while silhouetted against a perfectly golden Yucatan sunset. At Tarpon Cay Lodge this is the reality and the experience is one you’ll never forget.

isla Del SabaloIt had been nearly 6 months since paying clients had fished the waters sur-rounding Isla Del Sabalo and an unusually gray and gloomy May morn-ing hung thick in the air. As our small two boat regatta set out from the lodge, we squinted through the dribbling rain on our way out to the flats. It seemed that the weather gods were not on our side this day and that fate

would deem that the tarpon would be tough to find. It was hard to deny the sinking feeling in my gut that the outlook was not good. Luckily for us, however, it would only be a couple of hours before I’d find out just how wrong my intuition was. The guides peered down at their hand-held GPS units and instructed us to sit tight as our morning fishing location was dialed in. We were posi-tioned about 2 miles off shore and the distant green jungle of the shoreline was barely visible through the sodden mist. Broken bits of eel grass dotted the surface and peering down through the black water I could see the bot-tom about 10 feet below. My instincts continued to tell me that this was

indeed going to be just-one-of-those-days and that we would be licking our wounds at dinner, fishless with a cold cerveza in hand and dreaming of what could have been. As the morning drizzle began to subside, the water flattened into a silky smooth surface. Our

guide Sam slipped the small panga along the deep flat. I was certain my eyes were deceiving me as far off on the

horizon we began seeing large tarpon launching themselves clear out of the water. It was almost easier to see the massive white splash against the grey sky as they hit the surface than the fish themselves. Nervous laughter spread across the deck of the boat as we poled ever closer to what looked like the happiest tarpon in the world. As we quietly continued to head towards the busting fish Sam destroyed the rather peaceful anticipation by hollering out, “Fish coming! 9’ o’clock! They coming! Now! NOW!” I looked over to see a school of 50 tarpon rolling and splashing their way directly towards the boat like a pack of Friday night teenagers, high fiving their way down Main Street. My fishing partner Rob brilliantly uncorked a 70 foot cast towards the frolicking beasts and in an instant a 40 lb tarpon was on and air-borne. After the initial bursts of thrilling leaps and runs Rob’s screaming Abel reel began to quiet down and the fish settled in for a long dogfight.

“nervous laughter spread across the deck of the boat as we poled ever closer to what looked like the happiest tarpon in the world.”

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Tarpon Cay Lodge Special

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Left: The bulletproof face of a Tarpon Cay Lodge juvenile tarpon. Right column top: Rob reachesTarpon Nirvana at Isla Del Sabalo. Right column middle left: A simple beach front cottage at Isla Del Sabalo. Right column middle right: The evening fishing session at Tarpon Cay Lodge can provide for some spectacular scenery. Right column bottom: A 30 lber tail walks just moments after inhaling a sardina pattern at Isla Del Sabalo. Photos: Dylan Rose

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Looking up from the viewfinder of my camera I noticed that both an-glers in our partner boat were hooked up and I flashed them an excited fist-pump. They appropriately responded with exuberant double thumbs-up and their laughter and exclamations were barely audible over Rob’s schoolboy giggles. It wasn’t long before tarpon were visible in all di-rections and as soon as we released one fish, another was quickly hooked up. It was truly one fish on after another for the better part of 6 straight hours. The action was, at times, so furious that on three separate occasions I lost big fish during the fight, only to have another one grab the fly as I continued my retrieve. On another cast I watched as four separate fish engulfed my Tequila Popper at different times during the same retrieve before I was finally able to drive the hook home on the fifth. The lodge owner Marco sensed that we were all experiencing a very special morning of fishing and hollered over to us, “My friends, this is NOT normal! Enjoy it while you can!” We certainly took his advice. After more than forty 20-50 lb tarpon were hooked by our boat alone; we sat our drained bodies down on the seats of the panga and cried, “No Mas!” In a note sent to me after we returned home Rob perfectly summed up the experience by saying, “Hands down, the best tarpon catching I’ve ever seen or heard of. You need to lie about how good this was because nobody will believe us!” The beauty of Isa Del Sabalo lies in its simplicity. Anglers reside in basic, air conditioned beach cabanas, with two beds, a table and a private bathroom. Each morning the pangas are loaded and beach launched in front of the property, mere steps away from your room. Meals are served under a large central palapa and consist of down-home Mexican comfort food. The guides, while not adept at English, are very experienced and are brilliant at working with the needs of fly anglers in relation to their casting angles and the wind. Located about 50 km north of Campeche, Isla Del Sabalo

escapes the pressure and scene associated with life near a larger town. The operation is extremely remote, which becomes very apparent on the drive in from Merida. Small, winding single lane roads course through a maze

of ancient Mayan villages and towns. Once you arrive at the lodge, even the nearest gas station is over two hours away.

It’s hard to know if the amazing action we expe-rienced at Isla Del Sabalo was just random good luck or simply the outcome of fishing unpressured waters in a very remote setting. The lodge is only

entering its 5th year of operation and as a result there is still much to be explored — especially since relatively few anglers

have visited when compared to Tarpon Cay Lodge. Two things are certain however, the fact that I will never in my life forget

the spectacular fishing we experienced last May, and the fact that I will definitely be back for more.

ConclusionsThe northern Yucatan’s beauty will steal your breath away and the bounti-ful opportunities to target juvenile tarpon with a fly are an angler’s dream. There is simply no better way for one to get acquainted with tarpon than a trip to Tarpon Cay Lodge or Isla Del Sabalo (or both on the same trip). While the tackle, techniques, fly patterns and rigging strategies for these fish are not overly complex, there are some key aspects of the game that will become apparent on one of these trips. A single week will jump start your learning curve and give you the confidence to target tarpon anywhere you may find them. Their dazzling aerial displays, willingness to eat a well presented fly and brute strength will give anglers accustomed to a dedicated bonefish trip a refreshing change-of-pace. If you’ve not booked a Yucatan trip focused solely on baby tarpon then it’s about time, because to steal a line from the great Warren Miller, “you’ll only be one year older when you do.”

“Hands down, the best tarpon catching i’ve ever seen or heard of. You need to lie about how good this was because nobody will believe us!”


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Page 67Dylan and Rob are all grins with one of many “doubles” this morning at Isla Del Sabalo. Photo: Dylan Rose

How to Get There Flights to/from Cancun or Merida. Transportation to the lodges are by air conditioned van. The drive takes approxi-mately 2.5-4 hours.

When to GoResident baby tarpon are readily available in April and last throughout September. Bigger migratory fish are around starting in mid-August through mid-October.

Tackle & TechniqueMost of the fishing is accomplished with 8 and 9 weights. Tropical floating lines are the standard with a few instances where clear sinking intermediates or light sink-tips are use-ful. Fly patterns in 1/0 and 2/0 are considered the “norm” with special attention to gurglers, poppers and floating shrimp. TCL Specials, Enrico Puglisi baitfish patterns, Cockroach vari-ations, and various Tarpon Toads are also effective. Patterns that emulate Sardinas and smaller baitfish are must haves as well. For larger migratory fish, patterns tied on hooks up to 4/0 are standard.

Fly patternsTequila PopperTarpon Cay Lodge SpecialMegalopsicle