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Mexico: Backcountry Tarpon Bonanza! 11-17-2003


For those of us that work at Angling Destinations, we love our job! Sure there are many details to manage and we do our share of tedious office work, but often enough, we get to travel around the world assessing virgin fisheries. If we were to design the perfect job, this would be it. OK, maybe we would add a bit more assessing and a little bit less office work, but all in all, this is a darn good way to make a living. Sometimes we visit a destination that is a disappointment, but this is rarely the case. We try to avoid spending our precious fishing time on wild goose chases. Usually we have terrific angling and we just visit a spot to corroborate what we have already researched.

Sometimes, we visit a spot that has great angling, but one that will not stand the test of time usually due to limited habitat. It is always frustrating to have a superb blow-your-hair-back experience and have to walk away from it knowing that after only a few months use, the fishing will have deteriorated significantly. This is our biggest fear when we visit a new destination. It is always an agonizing moment when we have to tell an owner of a fishing operation that we can't come on board due to his area's limited habitat. We have effectively just dashed their dreams. It is not a pleasant task. These operators often can't understand our assessment when they know we are literally surrounded by fish. We try to explain that there are just too few flats or fishable waters available. We know that with a consistent use, the fish will quickly get tough to catch or maybe even disappear altogether. This is the most frustrating situation we encounter and a painful one to relay to the principals involved.

But every now and then we visit a destination that has it all. The Seychelles was like this when we first visited these lovely atolls many years ago. The place was virtually unknown and unfished, the flats were jammed with fish and the habitat was extensive. Today the Seychelles is recognized as one of the best, if not THE best, bonefishing destination in the world. It is always a great joy to find such a location that has a pristine, untouched and extensive fishery. It is the best part of our job! In November, we were lucky enough to find just such a spot. A destination for baby tarpon and snook that just simply destroys the standards by which most destinations for these species are measured.

Located on the Yucatan Peninsula's northern coast, hundreds of miles away from the well known resorts at Ascension Bay, stretches an unfished and untapped coastline that very few anglers have seen. The habitat is perfect for tarpon and snook and they show up in amazing numbers... but don't let me get ahead of myself here.

We arrived on the coast late. The dark of the night had spread over the rich countryside and hidden the dense jungle with its incredible array of plants, birds and animals. Tired and weary we found our accommodations very comfortable and quickly fell asleep to the sound of the sea just outside our door. Five AM came way too soon. The smell of strong hot coffee and freshly baked bread greeted us as we stumbled downstairs to meet our host, Marco Ruz Ceballos. The weather looked good and with the custom-built 18' pangas fully fueled, we soon headed west, away from the rising sun.

We motored only ten minutes before we stopped. Within five minutes, we had spotted a pod of tarpon working bait in a small bay. First cast... nothing. Second cast... the same result. On the third cast, a fish nailed the red and yellow seaducer and took flight over the slick, tannin-stained water. Five minutes later, our first tarpon of the day, a feisty brute of about 7 pounds, was boat side. By ten o'clock we were worn out! We had long since lost count of the fish we had stuck, jumped or brought to the boat. We had some classic tarpon moments that morning and even managed to convince several good-sized snook to eat our flies. The beauty of smaller tarpon is that with vicious topwater takes and their signature aerial aerobatics, they pack all of the punch of their bigger brethren. Yet you can land them in relatively short order... just in time to do it all over again. And that is exactly what we did... all day long!

We were fishing in the Rio Lagartos National Preserve. This area is home to an amazing array of birds and is widely visited by in-the-know ornithologists. They come from all over the world to see birds such as roseate spoonbills, flamingos and ibis. But not all the wildlife is avian as we were to find out later that morning! After our umpteenth hookup, we were releasing a decent sized 'poon of about 8 - 10 pounds. Suddenly, a toothy set of jaws emerged from the dark waters hell bent on snatching a bit of lunch out of the same hands that our photographer had become quite attached to over the years. On that day, Jeff's reflexes were just slightly quicker than the caiman's. Powered by adrenaline, Jeff fell backwards into the boat with fish in hand or in this case (and more importantly), hands! He counted his lucky stars, then his digits. He had a few bruises, but it is always a good day when you can dodge death and still catch all the fish you would ever want! If the crocodilian had hit pay dirt, I was ready to jump in after him. I can't tell you how pleased I am that no such heroics were necessary on this fine day.

Back in the village, we nursed sore forearms and enjoyed our comfortable digs. The lodge sits within a few feet of the ocean and offers charming views of the surrounding village. Here local fishermen busily come and go, harvesting the sea as they have for generations. The town is colorful with the homes reflecting the traditional bright Mexican hues. Fishmongers offer up the daily catch of tuna, dorado, snapper or octopus. Using this daily bounty, the lodge features some of the best fresh seafood I have ever had the good fortune to take a stab at with a fork (in between sips on a cold Negra Modelo cerevesa). Each day we enjoyed homemade tortillas with perfectly blended guacamole and salsa. Needless to say we ate like kings, sampled every species of local beer and believed our Spanish was better than it really was. Minus the caiman our second day was as superb as our first day. Think tarpon after tarpon and you get the general idea. Then we seemingly hit a snag...

The measure of a great fishery is often found in the ability to find fish in less than optimal conditions. When at mid week, we awoke to a solid northeast cold front that was blowing at least 20 - 25 knots, I knew that now was the time to see how our host and guide, Marco, would react. Seasoned to this type of weather, I thought we might be told to explore the village or perhaps visit some nearby Mayan ruins. With the weather blowing in an ugly spume and some serious chop off the Gulf, maybe I secretly wanted Marco to say "no way, senor". But Marco greeted us early and said, "let's go fishing". I thought he was perhaps nuts, but decided to take him up on his "bluff". I strapped on some serious rain gear and met him at the dock. Marco cheerfully said, "Let's see if we can roll a fish". Before I could protest, we were off! The water looked like a bad caf» latte and as the rain poured down on us, I wondered if we would still have time to get to the Mayan ruins. Fifteen minutes later, we killed the engine. But that hardly slowed our pace. The boat was drifting so fast that neither the modest anchor nor the wooden push pole could slow our drift. As the boat marched on, Marco tried to wedge the push pole on the leeward side of the boat. Seconds later, we heard a wicked snap as the pole broke in two pieces! Now that's some wind! Marco seemed unconcerned. He just smiled and assumed an "oh well" expression. Perhaps he was comforted by the knowledge that the local jungle contained tens of thousands of perfect push poles! In any case, his eyes were on the water and not five minutes later, he spotted a school of rolling tarpon. Not on my very best day could I have seen fish in this maelstrom. For a few moments, I thought he was simply "creating" the sighting to bolster some hope in his sodden boat mates. I threw a perfunctory cast into the area where the rolling tarpon were said to be. No real effort was necessary as the gale did all the work relocating the small fly instantaneously downwind. I stripped dutifully, but with no real conviction. Unbelievably, my line came tight and a bright silver streak came shooting out of frothy mix of chocolate water and wind. As I giggled through the rain dripping off my coat's visor, the fish took me into the backing. With the boat wedged into a mangrove bush and with Marco hanging on to a branch, we landed the fish... a most improbable and incredible event. We weighed the fish at just under ten pounds. I was satisfied with the catch and had collected the information I needed concerning less than optimal fishing conditions. I was now ready to head east to the warmth and shelter of our lodge.

Marco would have none of it and we fished on! We used the engine to maneuver the boat and when we saw fish, Marco grabbed a fistful of mangrove branches to hold ourselves tight against the gale. Exactly like on our previous "good" days, we jumped tarpon after tarpon and boated quite a few. Finally, with hoods pulled tight, I looked at Marco and said, "Can we go home now? You've proved your point". Indeed he had! This little slice of the Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula holds fish... lots of fish... rain or shine! Either through stupidity or pride we had indeed proven a point. We were three drowned rats who had actually caught fish on what has to be one of the worst days I have ever seen. This probably says more about the guide and the fishery than the anglers.

On the flight home, I struggled to organize my thoughts regarding this "new" destination. I kept coming back to the Seychelles and how I felt when leaving there for the first time. Then, as now, I knew that I had just experienced something special... something quite remarkable. I knew that the standard by which I measure future tarpon trips would start here on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula... just as I subconsciously compare all bonefish destinations to the Seychelles. I could only mutter to myself that in thirty years of tarpon fishing, I have never seen so many fish or so many fish that were so na‘ve. For baby tarpon, this is simply the best... period! And we haven't even scratched the surface on the area's potential for snook. I hope this will happen on our next trip...which needs to be very soon!

That being said, we did not catch a 'poon over 20 pounds. To those who want to tangle with the big boys, this is not your destination. However, if you feel that you want a change of pace from pursuing the 100 plus pound brutes or if you just want to have some fun and lots of action, then this spot is for you. You may also notice that I have not mentioned many other details... hmmmm... perhaps some secrets are just too good to share on the Internet! Please give us a call for all the details.
Brad Wolfe


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