We went at absolutely the worst time. Not only was it January, but also our tides would be extreme. These tides would force the tarpon to hold way out on the banks at low tide and then charge tight to the mangroves at flood. In January, northeasters often rake these flats throwing debris into the crystal clear rios and bays, making sight fishing virtually impossible. Besides, these high winds both cool and aerate the water making it unnecessary for tarpon to roll. It is a simple case of gas physics: the cooler the water the more oxygen can be dissolved in it. As a result, the tarpon get all the oxygen they need through their gills and with no need to roll, rarely show themselves to the fishermen. High tides, high winds, poor visibility, fewer rolling tarpon ñ what an awful time to visit the Yucatan!
But despite it all, this was our plan. We figured that if we could find fish in this worst season of mid-December to mid-February, then we could be certain the fishing would be great March through November. This was our plan and besides, it was ñ8 degrees in Wyoming the day we left. Really, how bad could the Yucatan be!
We met our friend and chief operating officer of Tarpon Cay Lodge, Marco Ruz, in Merida and drove one and a half hours to the Gulf Coast. That's the west coast of the Yucatan... about as far away from the glitz and glamour of Cancun as you can get. Over the next four days, we had some stupendous fishing, some pretty slow fishing, some wonderful Yucatan cuisine and all in all a fantastic time.
On day one, the winds were relatively calm, the sky clear and the day warm. Tarpon were predictably everywhere. In the morning, on the very, very low tide, tarpon were found feeding far out on the outside flats. These areas are a maze of undulating shallow bars blanketed with lush, thick turtle grass. Acres of sardines school in these shallows and the tarpon gorge themselves not only on this bounty, but also on the many shrimp and crabs that live hidden in the shag of this undulating turtle grass carpet.
Tarpon are hard to see on turtlegrass, especially if they don't roll or flash subsurface. In spite of this, we did manage to land quite a few 5-10lb. tarpon and jumped twice as many as we landed.
As the tide turned and the flood began to march inland, we too moved into the rivers and creeks. Here we were very unsuccessful. It was our guide's opinion that whenever there were very low tides, the tarpon do not come in numbers into the rios and creeks even at high tide. Don Velito thought we would find the tarpon on the outside, prowling the edges of the mangroves, just inside the turtle grass banks, but outside the creeks. Man was he right! On these mottled white sand flats, we found tarpon virtually everywhere. This was as good as it gets! We were sight fishing to 5-15lb. tarpon in one to one and one half foot of water. As we poled the shallow edge, we jumped tarpon after tarpon. We had our best luck on small size 1/0 and size 1 yellow and red seducers. These tarpon ate with gusto and fought like champs, many tail walking across the blond and beige hued flats. A few launched themselves into the mangroves and required, as soon as all our chuckles subsided, some delicate unraveling to extricate flies or partially suspended "sabalitos." This was all just great fun and quite simply, as good as sight fishing gets for baby tarpon.
Thrilled, we dined that night on succulent carne asada smothered in delicious Mayan salsas and pollo tamales slathered with fresh guacamole. We washed these delicacies down with a few Sol cervezas before adjourning for the night to our beautiful old hotel. As we climbed the staircase leading to our air-conditioned room, the winds began to notch up to another level. Too content to worry, we practiced an age-old angling skill... denial... and then climbed into bed eager for the morrow.
The next two days were tough. We caught some fish, but not nearly the numbers we caught on day one. The winds remained strong and the water seemed ever cooler. We saw no rolling fish and very few fish even showed themselves. It was tough! We caught quite a few pargo snapper in one creek, but it was otherwise slow. With the outside flats roiled by the northerly winds and the creeks empty due to the extreme tides, we wondered just how smart our plan to fish in January actually was. At the end of day three, as the wind blew steadily outside, that evening found us licking our wounds in a beautiful little outdoor restaurant enjoying grilled snapper fillets and camarones (shrimp). This was suffering Yucatan style!
Our last day dawned clear and calm. At 7:00 a.m., the tide was still falling. We were afraid the winds would return before there was enough water to bring the tarpon onto the turtle grass. After the last two days, our expectations were low. I decided just to enjoy this beautiful calm morning and if we saw tarpon, so much the better. As we motored north, long lines of cormorants were heading out to sea. I took this as a good sign. If they were going fishing, then we probably should too. Besides, all the bars and flats were peppered with dark bitterns and salted with white herons. They knew something! Perhaps it was showtime, so as we chugged north, I re-rigged leaders and tied on new flies. I wanted to be ready, for hope springs eternal in the successful fisherman. Fishing is always an act of faith, leave it behind and you might as well break down your rods and go home.
A few kliks north of the village, Don Velito chugged out to round a bank then headed in to a huge flat on the north side of a clear channel. After he shut off the motor and just before we coasted to a stop, we began to see tarpon bulging the surface of this calm slick flat. Some were rolling, subtly porpoising in formation, while others were tailing as they rooted for crabs and shrimp in the very shallow water. Still other tarpon had their backs almost out of the water as they slowly finned along grazing in the shallows. With some fish, we could see only their huge eyes fluorescing neon white. Their bodies were invisible against the dark green turtle grass. Those big white eyes, caught just right by the sun's bright rays, were stunningly beautiful. Sometimes we could see dozens of eyes drifting waft-like across the flats. On day two and three we had apparently paid our dues and now our reward came eerily in two by twos down the flats.
For my first cast, I selected a spunky little silver number of 6-8lbs. that was flashing like a piscine mirror in one foot of clear Yucatan water. This tarpon's body was lying flat against the bottom as he excavated a crab or shrimp from the thick turtle grass mat. A short cast brought him quickly back to a vertical, yet invisible position. Two eyes charged my fly. He ate, I struck, he jumped, I bowed. We danced the t-t-tarpon tango to the tune of Don Velito's robust chuckles.
The next few hours were the stuff of tarpon dreams. We were always into fish. We could almost always see tarpon breaking the surface 10, 20, 100, 200 yards away. And just like on day one, two and three, we saw no other boats and no other anglers. We had this Tarpon Coast all to ourselves! The fishing wasn't easy, mind you. In this shallow water, these tarpon were nervous and wary. We landed fish to 15lbs. and jumped more than we could keep track of. This was an excellent day anywhere, at any time of the year. We went home that night tired with our dance card thoroughly punched!
Upon my return, I struggled to describe to the folks at home the complexity and immensity of this area. After much stammering, I eventually settled on this summation of the fishery:
North from Campeche for 40 miles to Celestun is an idyllic tarpon habitat consisting of three very distinct yet adjacent areas.
On the outside, extensive lush turtle grass flats extend out for miles and can only be crossed using narrow channels. These are the spots where guides earn their pay. Depending on the stage of the tide, tarpon prowl the edges either way out or close to shore depending on water levels. Often the bigger tarpon, 20+lb. fish, are found on these outside flats. Sight fishing here means rolling, tailing or flashing tarpon ñ all classic and all good.
The second major tarpon habitat on this prolific coast is the many bays, creeks, rios and lagos that bring the ocean into the Yucatan's coastal interior. Here, tarpon are found either by sight fishing to rolling tarpon in the channels, or by search fishing to unseen fish in likely holding spots. Some of these lagos and rios are hidden, their entrances known only to our guide Don Velito and his family of guides. Although unproductive on this trip, on our last excursion in November these areas were downright stupendous.
The third habitat is the mangrove edge that lies between the turtle grass flats and the interior cuts, lagos and creeks. This mangrove edge extends north for 40 miles to Celestun. This edge provides perhaps the finest sight fishing for baby tarpon found anywhere in the world. It is classic and reminiscent of bonefishing in the Bahamas. Find a fish as it weaves in and out of the mangroves, make a good accurate cast and you'll most likely jump a tarpon.
To hook an 8-12lb. tarpon in this skinny water is what sight fishing is all about. If this doesn't get your motor running, you might consider going in for a major overhaul. Ample opportunities to sight fish is what makes this coast so unique. If your heart is set on jumping tarpon in skinny water, forget Ascension Bay... head to the west side of the Yucatan!
One of the unique areas we fished was a cormorant rookery located north of the village. Cormorants are a winged creature that blurs the line between a duck and a fish. Cormorants swim superbly enabling them to easily chase fish underwater, but perch them on a branch and their weaknesses will eventually be revealed. When spooked, their propensities for being aerially challenged soon become evident.
When a skiff enters a rookery, birds flush from the mangrove bushes and desperately try to achieve something like flight. Depending on the partially digested fish payload they carry, cormorants either drop sickeningly to the water surface where they flap wings in a vain effort to get airborne or, if they have a few less fish in the tank, drop only slightly less sickeningly to furiously beat wings and slap the water with webbed feet before they gain enough speed to reach liftoff. Launch a cast into the path of a panicked cormorant and you're looking for a bird's nest of a different color. Fly line intersecting cormorant always means trouble.
Cormorants that have eaten way too many sardines automatically abandon any attempt at flight and, upon impact, dive their distended bodies almost immediately. Reemerging briefly many yards away, cormorants can look surprising like a rolling tarpon especially to an angler all drugged up on adrenaline and tarpon dreams.
So why even fish where these silly, overloaded winged gluttons reside? It's all about the tarpon. When you eat like a cormorant, which is a lot... you poop like a cormorant, which again is a lot. This potent concoction falls from the cormorant's precarious perch and enters the food chain only a few feet below. Bacteria then grows in this enriched, let's call it fertilized, water. Soon the planktons count their lucky stars while feeding on this heaven sent bounty. Small invertebrates gorge on these plankton and protozoan feed on the plankton and on and on it goes up the line. Shrimp, crabs and sardines bless father cormorant before gorging on the millions of minute krill or the collected organic detritus they leave behind. At the top of this food chain are the tarpon. They come for the bounty the cormorant droppings provide and with the tarpon, come the anglers. It is simple math; more cormorants mean more food for the tarpon's prey. More guano creates more food and more food means more tarpon. An elegant, if not a bit disgusting, system.
Perhaps we shouldn't be so judgmental about cormorants. Perhaps we should be glad these ancient avians do their digesting where they do. Perhaps we should be glad they haven't better mastered the air. Perhaps we should be pleased they only use flight to get to the fishing grounds and then trundle home again straight for the mangroves. I have heard it said by some guides in the Keys and in Mexico that they kill cormorants because the eat baby tarpon. Gentlemen... haven't you learned by now that it is best not to mess with Mother Nature. Let her be. She has things pretty well worked out and her devices usually work to the benefit of the angler. Mess with her and you just may be killing the goose that laid the golden egg. Although in this case, it may not be a goose, but a cormorant and it may not be an egg, but a pile of... OK, OK, you get the picture. So let's all bless the cormorants. The tarpon undoubtedly do!
In the future, we plan to fish from 20-30 miles of this coast. As our explorations continue, we will probably add more areas. We may ultimately trailer to some areas to cut down on running time in the skiffs, but it should be noted, the great fishing starts just 10 minutes north of the village.
To fish this spectacular area involves a short flight from Houston. In about one and a half hours you will find yourself in Merida, Mexico. Merida has a brand new airport. Here the visitor is met with small immigration lines and friendly English speaking customs officials who cycle travelers thru the airport hassle free. Going from Merida to Campeche takes just under two hours and involves a pleasant drive through the humid forests of the Campeche District.
Upon arrival in Campeche, anglers are often surprised by the unexpected charm of this ancient city. With monuments, statues, forts and one of the largest flags in Mexico flying in the harbor, Campeche is a clean, safe city. Locals stroll along the malecone boulevard all hours of the day and night. The city sits perched overlooking the Bay of Campeche. Campeche consists of two major areas, old town and new town. As a base of operations, we house anglers in the Plaza Hotel which sits right in the center of old town, within walking distance of the museums, parks, forts and monuments. Again anglers are often surprised to find a beautiful old four-star hotel in the heart of Campeche. With excellent service, tasty food, a health club, pool, spa and state-of-the-art business center, this hotel has all the amenities one could conceivably need on a tarpon trip. Guests at the hotel are very rarely American! You will encounter a mix of European, Mexican national and South American tourists. This adds to the hotels charm. Anglers have a choice of a standard or master suite at the difference of about $50.00 dollars a night. Both are elegant and luxurious and include marble tilled bathrooms and floors! Master suites include a balcony that overlooks the plaza below.
At 7:00 a.m. sharp, anglers are met for breakfast in the hotel's dining room. A choice of fresh fruits, yogurt, cereal, eggs & omelets and of course, juices and coffee will keep you going until lunch. Then it's off to the pangas to chase the silver king.
Head guide, Don Velito, is a short, but powerfully built man who appears to have just strolled into town from an ancient Mayan city. A virtual poling machine, Don Velito maneuvers his panga with the best of them. Don Velito's fleet consists of two 22-foot pangas. With 75hp Mercs, these boats are well outfitted for the fly angler. All of the front compartments are closed to give fly fisherman as much deck space as possible. Pangas may not be as pretty as the new high-tech flats boats, but they are far more versatile in rough water conditions and can navigate some truly skinny water with ease.
Lunch will be taken when the anglers wish usually around 11:00 in the morning. Lunch consists of sandwiches, wraps, fruits (such as apples and oranges), cookies, chips and snacks (such as nuts and candy). The cooler will be well stocked with water and beverages.
Depending on anglers' wishes and of course, the tides, the fishing day will run to about 3:00 p.m. Generally, anglers are thoroughly exhausted by this time. It is not uncommon to jump 20 tarpon per boat per day in these waters. Anglers will very rarely see the same water twice. This coast provides an extensive habitat and new lakes (lagos), lagoons, creeks and flats will be fished every day. We have explored about twenty to thirty miles of coast in this fishery and have another thirty or more to go!
Dinners at this new Campeche Tarpon Club will be a cultural and culinary delight. The Yucatan is famous throughout Mexico for its spectacular foods. Anglers can take dinner at the hotel or they can choose the Tarpon Club's gourmet food tour. We have chosen the best restaurants in Campeche to offer a good sampling of regional dishes and traditional favorites. We will start with La Pigua which is a small, locally run restaurant that serves fresh seafood often in traditional Yucatan sauces. La Pigua also has the best ceveche on the Yucatan. Another night, you'll sample delectable offerings from La Parilla (the grill in English). Also locally owned and operated, La Parilla serves everything from grilled meats (chicken, pork, beef) to burritos, fajitas, enchiladas and much more. La Parilla is famous for its delicious spicy red and green chili sauces...and the best guacamole in the Americas. Anglers will also dine at a small cafe in the historic district of Campeche where you'll find the traditional Yucatan favorites like panuchos, empanadas and tamales, not to mention great soups, beans and rice and salsas. The adventuresome should try the delicious horchata (rice milk)!
So if you like remote destinations, comfortable, classic accommodations, great regional food and terrific tarpon fishing, you should consider this area for your next adventure. We are obviously very excited to be expanding our program on the West Side of the Yucatan. We think this coast offers some of the best opportunities for baby tarpon found anywhere in the world. We invite you to call us for more information and a spectacular DVD slideshow on this pristine area.
Written by Scott Heywood