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Destination X: Tarpon Tent Camp 02-13-2007

Group One report by Scott Heywood:

The bane of any tarpon fishermen is either too much wind or a cold front. Too much wind not only makes it hard to spot feeding fish, but it also makes it harder for the tarpon to see baitfish against the surface. Tarpon love it calm. When the ocean is nothing but a vast oily slick, tarpon can pin their prey against the surface mirror and employ their megalops eye to its best advantage. When it is calm, tarpon will often feed at will sometimes "raining" bait as the small fish go airborne in their efforts to escape.

A cold front is also bad. When one has settled in, tarpon often sulk on the bottom reticent to come to the surface even in calm conditions. A cold front can make tarpon tough to find. A cold front with high winds can make an angler feel like the tarpon have disappeared entirely. With this double dose, you have to remind yourself that the tarpon are there, probably literally underfoot... unfortunately, you just can't find them.

So you can imagine my relief when Cody Muchow told me the last two weeks had been rainy and cold, but current forecasts predicted some good weather for tomorrow. I was on the west coast of the Yucatan for the first of three sessions at our Destination X Tarpon Camp. Each four-day session was to have six tarpon anglers in camp. We had set up a tent camp on a pretty little beach and had arranged for the best guides in Campeche to be at our beck and call including our old friend Neko who we call the "tarpon warrior". After all the bad weather around the country, we finally collected most of the Group One participants including Ron Gager, Will Myers, Chuck Ash, Chuck Williams and Jim Dean. Dr. Stephen Peskoe couldn't get out of an ice storm in Indianapolis, so we switched him to Group Three. Chuck Ash, Jim Dean and I we're disappointed as we have done dozens of trips with Steve and we were looking forward to seeing him. But on with the show...

Day One turned out to be a beautiful day, and after getting to camp in the afternoon, we explored the rios that cut into the Yucatan's interior. That afternoon, we saw some fish, but with a new moon low tide, there obviously weren't going to be many tarpon in the rivers. I based this prediction on years of fishing experience. A few years ago, I came to the conclusion that fish do indeed require water. Ergo, since the rios were practically empty, there would be few fish in the rios and my hypothesis would be substantiated. I am indeed an angling genius! Since tarpon fishing is often a morning gig, we decided to forego the rios in exchange for a fresh tequila and lime, a good meal and a good night's sleep.

We awoke on Day Two to a beautiful sunrise and flat calm seas. We wolfed down some fresh papaya and pineapple, gulped a cup of "cowboy" coffee and threw our gear and bodies into the idling pangas to explore the "outside" turtlegrass flats. It was 7:30 A.M., slightly hazy and dead calm. We rode a barely undulating sea two or three miles from camp all the time squinting our eyes hoping to catch a roll, jump or surface disturbance that would betray a tarpon's position. We saw a few boils, lots of baitfish, some snapper in white holes and a couple turtles, but not the "mother lode" our revved up brains had been expecting on a morning like this.

But this was an experienced crew both of guides and fishermen, and we held onto our focus as we motored further and further from shore. Just after the sunscreen had started to works its way into our eyes and just before our attention began to wane, we saw fish jumping completely out of the water off in the distance. As we got closer we could see silver shapes broad jumping from slick to slick... bonito maybe... we didn't know. But it was an encouraging sign and it wasn't long before we reached the area. We idled down, killed the engines and then the guides reached for push poles. At precisely that moment, it seemed that all at once we were literally surrounded by tarpon from say 3-30 lbs. Some were jumping; some were slicing into small bait balls while others just were barely creasing the ocean's oily surface on foraging drives.

It was the stuff of dreams. My boat probably jumped 20 fish in the next three hours. The average fish was 8-10 lbs. and the biggest was 40-45 lbs. These sabalo were strong happy fish eager to eat - if you could get a fly in front of them. The other boats were doing well too. Often, two boats were hooked up at once and at times, we had lots of tarpon in the air. On this calm morning, the requisite whoops, hollers and occasional swear words carried easily from boat to boat.

This magical morning stretched on into the afternoon, when the long overdue thermal finally made its party-pooping appearance. We retreated to the rios knowing the best of our day was now behind us. But at least we knew that if our remaining weather deteriorated, we had been blessed with at least one spectacular day. After a delicious dinner of hamburgers, fresh spinach salad and beans and rice, we wandered off to the tents planning to get up and again be in the boats early for hopefully a repeat of today.

Dawn on Day Three brought drizzling skies and a steady, if not a strong, breeze. Denial runs strong in any experienced angler and we pressed optimistically forward. But eventually reality shoved our optimism aside and we acknowledged to each other that it probably wouldn't happen today on the outside flats. In addition, in it a fit of uncharacteristic truth mongering, we also acknowledged that the dreaded cold front with high winds had visited our little slice of tarpon heaven.

With the cold and windy front now bearing down on us, Ron Gager and I retreated, along with our guides Daniel and Hoyle, to the rios. We did manage to find enough rolling fish to keep us interested for a few hours, but with the gale whistling over the tops of the mangrove, we finally abandoned our efforts and returned to camp. Pork chops marinated in fresh garlic and lime made the spanking we had just taken a bit easier to accept, but there was no doubt that the weather would have to improve for there to be a repeat of the tarpon blitz we had had yesterday.

Day Four was a bit better and we jumped some nice fish early even though it was breezy and cool. Our good fortune didn't last and by noon we abandoned all efforts on the outside, retreated to an unproductive low tide attempt in the rios and were suddenly left with one spectacular day, two bad days and one so-so day. Not great. In fact, somewhat disappointing. Now before you lecture me I know the weather is what it is. I know you shouldn't ratchet up your expectations I know you need to be a stoic. I know its tarpon fishing, etc. etc. But if we could have had just ONE more morning like that one morning... I guess there is always next year.

Despite the bad weather, there was not one complaint heard from this group. Not one "I don't mean to complain but..." was ever muttered. These were all fishermen AND outdoorsmen willing to throw the dice and take the consequences. I applaud their attitude. There was no whining, no sulking and no levity-killing somber 'tudes. As a result, we had a great time with each other both while fishing and in camp. So to Will, the two Chucks, Jim and Ron, I say thank you! You made the wind and the cold fronts if not a pleasure, at least more than tolerable.

Ed Exum's report from Group Two:

Last week, the most amazing, "camp-out trip" evolved near Campeche. Over the next 3 days, the weather was very unsettled with winds blowing 10 to 30 mph, making fishing a joke. But, since the 'poons had been unable to feed during this period, Thursday AM dawned with new hope. From 7:30 11:30 AM, 6 happy anglers hooked approximately 80 tarpon, "jumped" about 50 , and boated about 10.(These numbers are not exact because the action was so "hot and heavy", we couldn't keep track.)

Cody and Jason left for the pick up early, trying to move it to another spot, which for safety, and a time savings of up to 2 hours, was a very smart move. We were poised for another angling fiasco that you just chalk up to "the dues that must be paid in this crazy game". Due to Cody's thoughtful planning, a fiasco was turned into a bonanza!

At dinner Thursday evening, I proposed a toast to our fine group, adding this ---"Gentlemen, in 50 years of fly fishing, I have never experienced fishing like we experienced today. In the 4 hours, this morning, we had "pure magic". Mark this day down on your angling diary, because probably you will never experience anything better again."

We all plan to return for the same week, next season.

What did we learn from our trip; Cody Muchow has matured into a very impressive young man. 10 weight rods are essential for the bigger flats fish. Purple and black, as well as, dyed red grizzly with a black collar, were the "hot flies". Tiemco 1/0 600SP hooks are superior. A GPS device is critical. Rubber palmed, gardening gloves really help keeping your hands from becoming torn up when boating the 'poons. The personalities and angling expertise of our group was extraordinary. New friendships are thriving from this great experience.

Doug Jeffries report from Group Three:

We had just landed in Merida, Mexico all primed and stoked for 4 days (well, 4 nights and 3.5 days) fishing and camping on the west side of Yucatan. There were six of us and rarely was there a more diverse and interesting group of guys gathered for a camp-out. We had one who had summited Mount Everest and another who had played rugby for the New Zealand national side and made first kayak descents of several rivers in Mongolia and Africa. There were two experienced Texans from Laredo who had hunted and fished all over the world and told wonderful stories about it. There was a cardiologist who has fished the Seychelles for trevally, Argentine deltas for dorado and dark Brazilian rivers for peacock bass. Oh, and me. We politely introduced ourselves while waiting for luggage and then sort of eyed-up the competition without trying to let on that there was any competition. It was a short but compacted ride to the Hotel Residenciales in Merida for a good night's rest before wielding our long rods for the silver king. Spirits and expectations ran high and sleep would only come after fiddling with gear for another hour.

After a quick breakfast, we loaded up and made the long ride to our launch site on the coast. This isn't your Sunday drive in the park. Even our taxi driver cum guide had to ask directions twice because the road isn't well marked and everything begins to look the same in rural Yucatan. But an hour and a half later, we were transferring what seemed like tons of gear and supplies to the waiting pangas. Meanwhile Cody rounded up some gas and made arrangements with a local for a place to park the van and hopefully keep the wheels on it for our return. Commander Cody Muchow and his faithful companion Jason 'Solo hits in ingles' Owens rounded out our group along with the four guides driving the pangas. Finally after a lengthy but refreshing boat ride, we beached the pangas in front of eight tents and a cook shelter and started unloading those tons of gear and supplies. This was home for the next 4 nights. We couldn't be bothered with lunch and quickly strung up rods and followed our guides back into the pangas. The wind that plagued the previous groups was still lingering around but wasn't too bad. Our group managed to jump and boat a few fish that afternoon, led by one of our elder statesman with two or three fish boated.

Cody, Jason and Roberto performed magic on an open grill for some fajitas complete with guacamole and chips and tequila and lime juice. If this was how it would be for the next 3 days, I felt sorry for the rest of the world. Neko proceeded to start the bonfire with a whoosh of gasoline vapors and the stories began to flow. But the sun and travel had worn us out and everyone went to sleep early. For the next two days we fished exclusively for small tarpon in the 10 - 40 lb range on the outside flats and in the rios. We did see a few fish slightly larger, but no real big boys like in Florida. But on an 8 or 9 wt. these tarpon will more than test your mettle. The days stayed fairly windy so only a few fish were landed each day. Most of the fish were on the 6 to 10 ft deep flat that runs for nearly 20 miles off shore. With all that water to roam in, finding the tarpon was always the first order of the day. The guides know some spots to start looking, but tarpon aren't always predictable and some days we had quite a bit of searching to do. If tarpon aren't actively feeding, it takes really sharp eyes and luck to find them rolling in choppy seas. We also fished up in several rios that flow out of the mangroves and while there weren't many fish up there, I think two people landed smallish fish. The third day was again windy and I was fortunate enough to land the only fish that morning.

The fourth day we knew we only had about 2/3 of a day before heading back to the waiting van and taxi. Several of us had not quenched our tarpon Jones and many eyes scanned the water for sign. Our boat found a few fish in the morning, but they weren't actively feeding and ignored our flies. We mustered with the other boats and decided to head to camp around 11:30 am feeling a little dejected. About 30 minutes later, I spotted the telltale bluish flash of rolling fish and then one jumper. Neko also spotted them and signaled all the boats to slow. Eerily the wind suddenly died (it was kind of like the scene in Moby Dick when the wind dies and both the crew of the Pequod and the birds sense something extraordinary was about to happen). Suddenly there were tarpon rolling and jumping everywhere. There had to be well over a thousand tarpon spread out in a glass calm sea streaked with patches of floating grass. The tarpon were taking baitfish out from under the weed beds. Everyone hooked up several times over the next hour in that calm spell. There was too much action to keep track of everyone else, but I boated 3 and jumped 3 more and the guy I was fishing with also jumped a couple and boated his first-ever tarpon. That's what we came for, Yucatan tarpon fishing at its best - truly awesome fishing. It didn't matter which direction you cast, there were fish on your fly. They weren't shy. I nearly touched one with my rod tip as it swam under the boat. Just as suddenly, the wind came back, the tarpon packed up and motored for some other secret spot, and we had to head to camp and the entertaining road trip back to Merida. And after 4 days camping in the Yucatan sun, some ice-cold beer for the road trip home can't be beat.

It was a game winning shot past the league leading goaltender in the last 30 seconds of the game. It was an hour that will stick in even the most jaded fisherman's memory for a long time. Strangely, the thought running through my mind was that the sunsets alone were worth the trip.








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