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Los Roques: A World Class Fishery 02-04-2012

The Posada Acuarela is, to all appearances, a Mediterranean Inn. Tiled floors, sun dappled courtyards and the owner’s abstract and impressionistic paintings hang unframed on whitewashed walls. The feel of this place leads one to believe that a step outside the hotel will reveal the perhaps coast of Italy, but certainly not South America. The signage, languages heard and nationalities of the tourists do nothing to change your mind. European couples, especially Italians, have been visiting this archipelago for years, often to honeymoon.

Nor will the cuisine at the Acuarela do anything but suggest the Mediterranean. For dinner, the evening’s options are announced by head chef Cosimo Muscogiuri (an Italian of course, his name is only Cosimo at dinner, the rest of the time he is “Mimo") and usually consists of four courses. Cosimo affably takes your order while the sou chefs work quietly in the open kitchen next to the dining room. (I twice saw the sou chefs buying fresh caught yellowfin tuna and wahoo at the cleaning hut next to the dock. One afternoon both had a mock duel with two wahoos. They held the fish like rifles at present arms for the benefit of a few tourists and our hotel’s owner, Angelo Belvedere).

Mimo’s initial offering is usually a choice of seafood (like tuna carpaccio or thinly sliced marinated octopus) or a vegetarian option like butternut squash soup or gazpacho. The next course involves pasta. My favorite was penne pasta with a fresh snapper sauce... the pasta was of course al dente. The main course might be eggplant parmesan or wahoo, swordfish, or seared yellowfin tuna all expertly prepared. For dessert, maybe a chocolate flan, profiterole or lemon meringue pie. The food is truly excellent, truly gourmet and truly Italian. The Acuarela serves meals that would be appropriate at any fine restaurant in any major city in the States. (For lunch, salads and sandwiches with home baked bread. For breakfast, it’s pancakes, eggs and toast with plenty of real coffee.)

But we were not in Los Roques for the food or the lodging or the cultural experience. Our first hint of why we were in this pretty little village on the island of El Gran Roque off the coast of Venezuela came on our first afternoon before we ever had made even one cast. It came during the cocktail hour as the equatorial sun bathed the island in a rich and inviting light. As we relaxed with a beer in hand near the harbor, we began a ritual that we were to repeat most evenings. At this seaside bar, pretty girls took snapshots of each other while young native boys handlined for small snapper off the peer. All worth viewing, but our main amusement was watching pelicans dive on the bait that massed only a few feet from shore. The pelicans exploited every spot that held bait even suicidally wedging themselves between the dozens of skiffs bobbing at anchor. (Thankfully, no pelican were injured during the making of our cocktail hour.)

If a pelican’s dive proved successful, they would, upon surfacing, lower their heads, strain the water from their pouches, tilt their heads back and gulp down their catch. Apparently they lose a few minnows in the process because as soon as a pelican hit the water, big 7-10 lb. bonefish would race to the dive spot to slurp up any injured or disoriented escapees. We often saw big bonefish tails break the surface usually at a pelican’s stern. In the fading afternoon light the tails glistened provocatively... at least for us. The bonefish tails would be seen near the pelicans until they swallowed then they would disappear, presumably to race to the next diving pelican. (Danny Sheldon entertained us one evening by casting from the bow of one of the skiffs. He tried to quickly make a cast so that his fly arrived before the pelican swallowed. It was harder than it looked! He did manage to hook a couple big bonefish and an a even nicer pelican! Neither were landed.)

A diet which includes glass minnows is not unique to Los Roques bonefish, but they form a greater percentage of their diet here than perhaps anywhere else in the world. (We saw schools of bonefish porpoising to chase bait on the edges of many of the flats we visited.) This has ramifications for the visiting angler. Whether you consider it a fly or not, visiting anglers should bring at least a dozen gummy minnows! Other baitfish patterns may work, but not like a gummy! So now that I have finally made it to the topic of why we came to Los Roques in the first place (the fishing) let’s be clear that Los Roques is easily one of the top bonefish destinations in the world. It is as simple as that. Los Roques should be on any bonefisherman’s bucket list. A huge archipelago (600 square kilometers of fishable water), Los Roques offers an incredible variety of flats where bonefish are found including:

The traditional bonefish flats offer a melange of turtle grass, crunchy coral and white sand bottoms. They are sometimes found inside coral shelves or edges that dull the chop. These shore flats can be expansive or small, complex or straightforward, but all are usually adjacent to a mangrove shoreline. Some flats surround a single mangrove island. Small Charlie patterns and gummy minnows work best especially as the tide rises. Weed guards can be good idea. Fish can be tough to see here and a guide’s worth is tested. In my experience, Los Roques guides have fantastic fish eyes. Anglers often catch fish they cast to without ever seeing. In addition, we saw a respectable number of very big permit tailing in the deeper water off these flats. Permit of 30-40 lbs were not uncommon and most of us got great shots at these big permit. I also hooked a big 20-30 lb. humphead wrasse (or “bumpie” as we call them in the Seychelles), but was broken off on the edge. On an 8 wt. with 12 lb. tippet, I never would have had a chance! I also landed small bar jacks, big yellowtail snappers, a small permit from a mixed school, numerous blue runners and a fat jack crevalle caught in a channel just off a traditional shore flat.

Beach flats differ from traditional flats in that they are off white sand beaches, slope more steeply into deeper water and have little or no vegetation. They are often just narrow strips of white sand where bait collects. Here, pelicans dive, jacks raid, bonefish chase minnows, and anglers do their best stripping gummys sometimes as close as in the lapping surf where bonefish appear and then vanish in the churned up water. Bonefish will often be seen chasing minnows from 1 to 30 feet from shore. A quick-draw cast is a good idea, but big bones make the effort worthwhile. A stripping basket would be worthwhile if you want to fish beach flats.

My favorite flats are the pancake flats and they are why I come to Los Roques. These flats rise like a string of pearls from aquamarine, cobalt and turquoise channels. Pancake flats are impossibly beautiful places and there are hundreds of them in the archipelago. A typical pancake is usually from one or three acres and takes a little under an hour to fish. It’s not hard to see how they got their name. Most pancake flats are not perfectly round. They look more like homemade flapjacks formed from too thin a batter. The colors too are reminiscent of pancakes. Like freshly flipped ‘cakes they are predominantly golden brown with shades of amber and vanilla. To exhaust the analogy, blueberries would be the turtle grass patches and almonds would be the crunchy patches of brittle coral.

Anglers often seek a pancake’s sandy spots as bonefish are more easily seen here, but the darker turtle grass can be prolific. Bonefish often tail where mud can be excavated, but the water can be so shallow on a pancake flat that a bonefish tail simply is seen... they are not officially “tailing”. Small brown and green crabs and root beer or amber colored crustaceans form the template for the patterns of choice. Small flies in #6-8 with rubber legs (especially the new banded micro legs) and little flash hold meaning. Bring your Bahamas assortment and you’ll wish you checked a bit more deeply for appropriate patterns.

The bonefishing in Los Roques can be fantastic, but it often is not easy. The fish are big and smart and anglers from all over the world love Los Roques. (Some of the anglers we met at the Acuarela were convinced that Los Roques had the best bonefishing in the world. Although I could make a case for other destinations being the “best”, their passion for Los Roques is typical and anglers have a tendency to come back again and again.) There are times when the fish seem to eat every properly presented fly and other times when “bitchy” seems to be the appropriate word. Visiting anglers should expect to listen to their guides, but yet tell them what they want. This can sometimes best be done by communicating with the highly competent owner/outfitter Chris Yrazabal during dinner the night before when guide assignments are made. And speaking of guides, each guide works with a boatman. When you finish up with a flat, the boatman is signaled to fire up his motor. Soon, he is there to pick you up so no time is wasted walking back to the boat. The guides use comfortable 28 foot pangas that swiftly carry you from one flat to another. These chop cutting, very dry craft also have a bimini roof that allows one to escape from the midday sun.

A word about Venezuela, the danger to Americans and Hugo Chavez:
Our media has made it seem that we are in great risk in Venezuela. I don’t feel that a visitor is in any greater risk in Caracas than in any big South American city. All you have to do is be conservative. Most anglers only spend an evening or two on the mainland near the airport at a very comfortable hotel. Our outfitter’s personnel meets every visiting angler and helps them every step of the way. John and Jack meet you upon arrival from the states, drive with you to the hotel in an A/C van, pick you up at your hotel, check you in for flights from the mainland to Los Roques, pick you up upon your return from Los Roques, etc. etc.. Visitors are helped and chaperoned every step of the way. This makes Los Roques an easy “exotic” destination to visit. Once on Los Roques you have no worries at all. You can walk around the village at night, go to local bars and enjoy. Everyone is very friendly. YOU NEED NOT WORRY!

I have heard American anglers say they will not support Hugo Chavez by going to Los Roques. If this is the choice you make, you are then not supporting the entrepreneurs in VZ who own the hotels, the transfer companies and the guide services. Why punish the entrepreneurs for the sins of the president. He is a jerk, and I believe we should support those who act in opposition to him.

The outfitter we use on Los Roques is Chris Yrazabal’s Sightcast . We have know Chris (and his partner Ramon) for many years and they are 100% reliable and professional. Chris makes guide assignments after consulting with anglers as to their preferences and personality. He meets you in the morning and is there to meet the skiffs when you come in in the evening. Between Chris and the staff at the hotel, your every need is taken care of. The rooms all have air conditioning, WiFi , private safe, ceiling fans, hot water, and en suite bathroom with shower.

When all is considered together the service, the cuisine, the accommodations, the beauty of Los Roques and of course, the world class bonefishing opportunities, Los Roques should be on any angler’s short list of must visit destinations.

An addendum on about gummy minnows, flies et al:
First of all, with gummy minnows, we had our best luck using a long slow strip followed by a pause. If you strip a gummy like a streamer, it will spin and “flutter” when going thru the water. This pattern imitates a wounded baitfish so the pause is crucial.
Also, gummys are not very durable especially the commercially available ones. To increase their durability, super glue them to their thread base beginning at the eye of the hook. (Commercial gummys do not have a good thread base and the body tends to slide on its shaft making it worthless.) Run the super glue under the gummy body and it will last much longer.
In deeper water, we stripped our flies with longer slow strips followed by deep pauses. In shallow water, especially to spooky fish, short 3 inch strips executed slowly did best. We used small #6-8 inch flies in root beer, amber, tan. We had our best luck with chosen patterns tied in a variety of eye sizes to match the water depth. Rubber legs seemed to be crucial especially on olive green crab patterns.
We used long 10-12 foot 10 to 12 lb. leaders. I used from 2-5 feet of tippets of 10 lb. flouro depending on the spookiness of the fish encountered. Please note: anglers should bring what they need in the way of flies, leaders and tippet.
Written by Scott Heywood








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