When I first thought about fishing Los Roques, I'll admit to having reservations. I couldn't help but wonder, as most Americans who contemplate visiting Venezuela wonder given recent events, will I be safe? Do Venezuelans really dislike Americans? What if I get lost somewhere between the airport and my hotel? What if I was to be kidnapped by an Al Qaeda terrorist masquerading as a Venezuelan cab driver? Were these rational fears? Were the reports we were getting from our media correct? Or was I like many American anglers who seemed to conjure up endless doom and gloom scenarios as to why they should not go fish Los Roques. As I was later to learn, this would be a mistake... for once you take the leap, you'll be kicking yourself over what you've been missing. I was also to learn that the real problem concerning a visit to Los Roques is more a function of the times we live in than any real or imagined danger. Consequently, I have come to believe that the situation in Los Roques is sensationalized by our news media. These reports feed a mass hysteria that overrides our common sense. Unfortunately, the loss is ours. We are not only missing a fantastic fishery, but a rich cultural experience as well!
Once you decide to make the trip, getting to Los Roques is easier than you might think. It's not much worse than getting to the Bahamas through Nassau. It is just an additional two hours of flight time on each leg. The airport is at the seaside city of La Guaira, which is 60 miles from Caracas! Worrying about what might happen to you in Caracas is akin to being in San Francisco and worrying about some crime that might be occurring in Oakland. It is important to note that visiting anglers never go anywhere near Caracas. La Guaira, while it may never earn the title of South America's most sparkling city, is usually only a short overnight layover on your trek to fantastic Los Roques and no more dangerous than any other South American city.
Getting to and from the airport to your hotel is very organized and safe. Our outfitter Sight Cast has a full time logistics man in La Guaira that greets you the minute you come through customs with your gear. Not to worry... Tony is well schooled in identifying his traveling anglers. I mean really, it's not too hard! Have you ever noticed we all sort of look alike with our ball caps, stubby rod tubes and loose fitting, pastel colored flats shirts? Once your gear is loaded into Tony's van, it's not ten minutes to the hotel. Upon arrival you will be escorted inside and registered under Tony's watchful eye. At this point, most folks are content to catch a quick beer in the hotel bar and slip off to bed. If venturing out to take a look around is on your mind, use good common sense. Tony takes a round about drive to the hotel that he calls his shortcut. These narrow side streets are accented with traditional South American razor wire, window bars and graffiti. Enough of the local urban flavor to convince you that staying put in your hotel at night is probably not a bad idea. Besides, the wake up call for the domestic flight to Los Roques comes very early the next day.
The next morning, as if flipping a switch, your trip takes on a completely different feel. You leave the mainland's coastal urban sprawl behind. Forty minutes later you land in a safe, friendly island archipelago that draws adventure/eco tourists from all over the globe. From the city streets of La Guaria to the sandy streets of El Gran Roc, the pace and your pulse slows as you quickly settle into the feel of this quaint fishing village. You'll notice that your luggage gets loaded onto hand dollies... and that's because there are no cars on Los Roques! At this point, our group stopped and stared at each other for a brief moment. Then at about the same time, we all figured it out... we're walking to the hotel! So, accompanied by our young Venezuelan Sherpas, off we went for the short stroll to the hotel.
This short walk gives you a few minutes to look around the landscape and get acquainted with the special feeling that is Los Roques. As you might expect, the narrow sandy streets are lined with tiny connected stucco homes and places of business. All are adorned in a multitude of contrasting pastel colors. Our early morning sunlight made the building's rich colors pop against the dark green fiddle-leaf fig trees that shade a good portion of these narrow neighborhood streets. This morning, since Los Roques is primarily a fishing village, most of the men were out to sea while neatly groomed and uniformed children made their way to school. Like children everywhere, they sported oversized book bags and their tiny legs raced in earnest against the school's beckoning tardy bell. On our stroll, every other tidy courtyard had a grand parent, some quietly sweeping the porch while others gave us a friendly wave from their rocking chairs. How could anyone be concerned about visiting a place like this? It's paradise. Heck... I'd like to live here!
As we settled into our daily routines, one of the first inclinations I had was... I want to come back here with my girlfriend, even my kids. Los Roques is so much more than just a fishing destination. It's a solid couples and family destination. Chris, the owner of Sight Cast, has been significantly upgrading his accommodation level. We were his experimental group and the first to experience the small boutique style hotel, Acuarela, which translates from Italian into English as "Watercolor". This new hotel is the finest on the island and Sight Cast's new base for its clients.
We were in for an unexpected treat! Picture a whitewashed breeze-cooled Mediterranean-style villa. At Posada Acuarela, large ceiling fans lazily rotate over polished concrete floors accented with rich tile. The interior of Acuarela is a virtual garden. Courtyards and verandas are filled with lush tropical foliage, as well as a wonderful collection of modern impressionist artwork. All this beautiful art was created by none other than Acuarela's own proprietor, Angelo Belvedere. Angelo is a very talented and busy man. In addition to being the hotel's owner, art connoisseur and interior designer, he's also the chef. With world-class culinary skills, Angelo's preparation and presentation of the food and wine we enjoyed was an experience unto itself! I can see a future Angling Destination's hosted couples trip to Los Roques that could combine bonefishing with wine tasting and cooking lessons. So gentlemen... yes, you can bring your wives to Los Roques!
OK, enough about the frou-frou elements of our trip. As you can see, I was impressed with all these amenities, but let's get to the real reason for this trip... the fishing! To begin with, it would be difficult for me to characterize Los Roques as a beginner's destination. It is not! Sure there are a few places where a rank beginner can go with his guide and whomp on some schoolie fish, but that's not what Los Roques is all about. Los Roques is best suited for intermediate to advanced anglers who want to test their angling skills against worthy, sizeable opponents. Bring your angling "A" game and Los Roques will not let you down. On Los Roques, experience usually equals success, but there is another road to success at L.R. and that is, listening to your guide! There are simply times when good old-fashioned, local knowledge wins convincingly, even over the best presentation or carefully selected fly pattern.
But make no mistake; fly selection in the archipelago is critical with dark olives and tans getting the most attention. With large savvy Los Roques fish in shallow water... size really does matter! By the end of our week, I had gone exclusively to lightly weighted (if at all) size eight flies for the delicate presentations these fish obviously require. On one occasion, my guide and I took a moment and sifted a turtle grass bed to capture a small, dark shaggy crab. "These are what they want," he reported with broken English. Incredible... it looked like a dark lint ball the size of a small pumpkin seed! At that point, he must of have felt sorry for me. Maybe because I was getting worked with all the Bahamian patterns I had lugged to Los Roques. Whatever the reason for his pity, he reached into his worn fly box and handed me a tattered rusty fly. "This is my ugly crab," he said. He had the name right! It looked like a size 12 pellet fly that had been torn apart by about 150 hungry hatchery trout. Although not pretty, it was a dead ringer (impressionistically speaking) for the size, shape and color of what was crawling across my hand. I was more than a little skeptical that such sophisticated bonefish would eat such a simple and "ugly" fly. But, I tied it on so as not to insult this gift from my guide. The next bonefish I cast at climbed all over the little lint ball the instant it hit the water. Unfortunately, the big bone broke me off as if trying to prove a point. Flabbergasted, I turned to my guide ready to take my medicine. With crumbs covering my face from my freshly eaten humble pie, the guide simply smiled and said, "Sorry senor... that was my last one."
So... the fish were doing their part, maybe I could find a few more excuses for my retarded fishing efforts. Here's one... during our visit to L.R. we had a considerable amount of wind. Sustained 20 to 25 knot winds to be more specific. It was the kind of demoralizing wind that crushes the spirit and normally ends trips for all but the most intrepid of anglers. Hey... conditions like these happen and they do provide great excuses! Had we been at any other bonefishing spot in the world, it would have been a very long and frustrating week! But, this is one of the beauties of Los Roques; the extremely diverse habitat of Los Roques kept us fishing despite the 24/7 wind. This diversity of habitat combined with clear sunny skies, gave us, despite the wind, great reasons to keep our heads up!
Again, one of the beauties of L. R. is that no matter how the wind and tide conspired against us... we always had options. There was always somewhere where the water level, light and wind direction made sense to fish. Early in the day to late in the afternoon, we were always directly on or at least seeing fish. This kept even the most seasoned fisherman feeling focused and optimistic. When the tide was right, we stalked the famous "pancake" flats. Even in gale force winds, it's hard to miss a six-pound bone tailing 20 feet away in four inches of water. Question: Is it really tailing if the top of the gill plates, the dorsal, the entire back and half of the tail are out of the water? Shouldn't it be called "backing" or "dorsal bodying" maybe even "indecent exposure?" Anyway... with the huge number of these "technical" little flats at our disposal, we were always able to pick a pancake that allowed us to walk with the wind and sun at our backs. For shots at fish like this... I say let the wind blow for when the tide was right, we had very good, very consistent fishing to big fish on these amazing pancake flats.
As the tide moved, so did we. There were beautiful white sand beaches in the lee of many of the small islands we visited. I would have spent the entire day on these beaches with or without the bonefish. Protected from the wind by these islands, we waited out the extreme ends of the day's tides. Don't let me give you the impression that this was any sort of down time. Quite the opposite! Here we fished the infamous gummy minnow. Personally, I think the "gummy" gets a bad rap! Is it a fly or is it not... who cares! These were not pushover fish greedily slurping up the aquatic versions of fruit snacks from the kindergarten lunchroom floor. These were sophisticated fish, requiring accurate and delicate presentations. It reminded me a little of spring creek fishing, by that I mean it was technical and challenging. With thirteen foot, twelve-pound leaders and size eight flies, this was as technical and rewarding as I could have asked for.
After the pancake flats and the beaches, the third type of habitat that we enjoyed was what I would call your typical Bahamian-type flats. Gigantic mangrove lined bays with parking lot easy wading over a mix of white sand and light turtle grass. This was classic bonefish habitat... and we fished miles of it. Here we found some forgiving, less sophisticated fish. These fish were smaller, but found in good numbers... much like we're used to in some areas of the Bahamas. These were the spots where we could really do some numbers. The kind of spots that rebuild battered egos after a few challenging days in high winds on the pancake flats.
However each day managed to unfold, our fishing experience was diverse, usually productive and a lot of fun. Our guides were some of the best I've fished with anywhere and extremely hard working. On Los Roques, a guide and boatman work together as a team using a large, comfortable 28-foot, canopied panga. Team member number one, who is an experienced guide and speaks decent English, walks side by side with his anglers all day. Their input on fly patterns and specialized stripping techniques is mission critical for a visiting angler's success on L. R. so make sure you LISTEN! To continue, team member number two is the designated boat captain who constantly repositions the boat to minimize lengthy walks back over unproductive water to the boat. It works like a charm! This program maximizes fishing time and conserves a weary angler's energy throughout the long days.
The fishing days on Los Roques are long. Breakfast is at seven and you are on your way usually before eight AM. Once in the boats, a typical run to the fishing areas can take from twenty minutes to over an hour. Los Roques is so spread out, it is necessary to utilize specially designed pangas. These boats easily cover the deep-water expanses that separate the many islands and flats. Traditional flats boats are not an option for this destination. It was through the use of these pangas that we were able to keep fishing in spite of the heavy winds and rough seas we experienced. If you've ever made a long run in a traditional flats boat in a two-foot wind swell, you know what I'm talking about! These fantastic, functional boats saved the day, as well as our backs, tailbones and whatever other weak links existed in our anatomies.
Our typical day ended around four thirty when we motored back to the main town beach on El Grand Roque. There, among diving pelicans and screeching terns, the island's children swim the afternoons away along the busy shoreline. Occasionally, you will hear a holler from one of the local fisherman who is telling his son to get out from under the boats. These children play as carefree as the bonefish in the harbor, who safe and happy, enjoy a swim in this island paradise. What a great place to be a kid... or a bonefish... or a visiting bonefish angler.
Written by: Todd Sabine
Photos by: Eric Berger