Jon Cave is one of the true gentlemen in the fly fishing world. In an era of big egos and relentless self-promotion, Jon continues the more gracious tradition established by Lefty Kreh and Charlie Waterman. Jon truly loves to fish. His passionate approach to the sport makes the been-there, done-that crowd... you know the group that seems eager to let you know that nothing impresses them any more because they've caught so darn many fish... seem like spoiled little dilettantes. If anyone could be blasČ about fly fishing based on his experience and skill level, it is Jon. But no complacency or lack of intensity courses thru Jon's veins. He approaches each fishing day with genuine excitement coupled with a kid-like optimism. A few of the so-called experts could take a few lessons from Jon. Jon is generous, funny, easygoing and always considerate. A magnificent caster, Jon is a lot of fun to fish with and his enthusiasm is contagious.
Jon and I had done a story for "Fly Fishing in Salt Waters" magazine on Great Inagua Island in the Bahamas and had had a great time together. At the conclusion of that trip, we had agreed to fish together again and when our tarpon fishery on the Gulf Coast of Mexico came on line last winter, it seemed like the perfect time to give Jon a call. Jon, a tarpon fanatic, saw the logic in my proposition so a plan was quickly hatched to work on another story for "Fly Fishing in Salt Waters " magazine.
If you've read the report on my trip to the Tarpon Coast last January (see January 2005, The Tarpon Coast trip report above), you know there are essentially three habitats on this coast. To refresh your memory, these three areas are: the lush turtle grass flats on the outside bars, the mangrove edge along the shore and finally, the numerous creeks and lagos that snake back into the Yucatan's interior. Each of these three areas is distinct and quite unique. They each hold a particular class of fish, require a unique style of angling and each area provides a different experience for the angler.
The outside turtle grass flats usually require calm water to generate rolling fish. But when it is right, the big fish are on the surface and excitement hangs deliciously in the warming morning air. Jon and I had only one morning out of our four that fit the bill here. But our one morning was thrilling with 15-20 lb fish porpoising black backs in the oily, steel-grey light. We did a lot of fish photography that morning and when Jon wanted a photo of me and Tarpon Coast manager, Cody Muchow, holding a fish on the panga deck, Jon decided to jump overboard like I had done a few moments earlier. The only problem is... Jon is a much larger man than me!
Jon almost disappeared in the soft, turtle grass carpet. As Jon sank, the guides initially laughed, then quickly disassembled a wooden plank from the panga's casting deck and slid it overboard for Jon to stand on. Jon got the shot, but I think a shot of Jon nervously perched on the white wooden plank would have made a better picture. Eventually, we hauled Jon back on board. I think he was thrilled to be back on solid footing!
On our first two days, Jon, Cody and I had great fishing up in the creeks. Huge mangrove trees arched over sun-dappled waters as we poled and pulled our way from pocket to pocket, usually in the pursuit of rolling tarpon. We ducked under branches and pushed mangrove limbs away from our faces to get the chance to catch 5-8 lb. sabalitos in almost impossibly difficult lies. Each bend or pool revealed rolling tarpon and inevitably, a new casting puzzle to decipher. Some of our casts were 10 feet, some were 30 feet, but all were complex and technical. We watched backcasts closely as loops unfurled and straightened in the only narrow corridors that the mangrove limbs provided. If no opening was available, we tried roll casts. Often, an overzealous backcast ended in a hail of small limbs or mangrove leaves while at other times, a backcast stuck firm as flies were planted in limbs when the proper corridor was not attained. It was then that our great guides, Neko and his son Roberto, retrieved flies with the help of push poles carved from the same mangrove wood that our flies were stuck in.
But often enough, we got it right and the fly landed in the water ahead. And often enough, this successful cast produced a frenzied, jumping baby tarpon. To hook a 5 lb. fish in these close quarters, perhaps only 10 feet from the boat, was thrilling and somehow hysterically funny. We had a great time in these creeks and only scratched the surface of this magnificent coast's potential.
It is hard to explain the beauty of these creeks, but with the arched ceilings and the Eden-like quality of these serene mangrove forests, the word cathedral comes to mind. Serenaded by the owl-like cooing of doves, the guttural gibberish of cormorants, the offended comments of herons and the nervous chatter of kingfishers, we slunk deeper and deeper into the interior seeing countless pileated woodpeckers, ibis, egrets and eagles. If you are lucky enough to appreciate the beauty of nature, these creeks are simply awesome!
On this coast you can go outside to the turtle grass bars or inside to the creeks. These are two great choices... but the cr'me de la cr'me, the piece de la resistance, is the area that offers perhaps the best sight fishing for baby tarpon found anywhere in the world... the mangrove edge. The edge consists of gin-clear, shallow water flats and ensanadas (quiet lake-like bays) that line this tarpon coast for forty some miles. Jon and I had great fishing here each day and on the last two days, it was simply magnificent!
We caught baby tarpon averaging 8 lbs. in extremely shallow water. If you are a bonefisherman, you would immediately feel at home here. The drill is this: pole the mangrove edge, sight a tarpon either in the shadow of a mangrove or finning deliberately across the white sand potholes and flats, make a good cast and tailor your retrieve to make the tarpon eat... then strip, strike and hold on! You'll launch a tarpon 4... or 5... or even 6 feet in the air. Some will tailwalk, some will jump in or over the mangroves and some will do it over and over.
Jon and I were amazed at the height these babies could attain given their shallow water launching pad. To go 6 feet in the air from 18 inches of water only underscores a tarpon's phenomenal strength and aerial ability. Some of the fish we caught here were magnificent and created truly lasting memories for Jon, Cody and me. Sure we had refusals, and yes, we spooked some fish and cheesed some casts, but often enough, we had fish charge our flies and open their big crab-inhaling, bottom-excavating, bait bucket of a mouth in that thrilling nanosecond before the line comes tight. Then all hell breaks loose! I just don't think angling gets any better than this! Sight fishing for baby tarpon in very shallow water... there IS no substitute!!
Jon and I had a great time on this mangrove edge. We traded off and cast to at least a hundred, perhaps two hundred, 6-20 lb. fish. On our last day, Jon decided to quit after jumping a particularly energetic 9 lb. poonzilla (see appendix). This fish put on such a show that Jon wanted to conserve his good luck and quit on the right note. Apparently, Jon is superstitious about such things and as a result, he graciously donated the casting deck to me. Unburdened by such complex thoughts, I eagerly stepped up to the front deck to continue my onslaught on the area's piscatorial residents with no thought given to the possible results of my gluttony.
I think I had jumped three and landed two before Jon couldn't stand it any longer. Fearing the earth would spin off its axis, Jon nervously replaced me on the casting deck while muttering something about not seeing another fish in his life and repeating over and over the incantation,
"Man, I shouldn't be doing this!"
It took about ten minutes for him to jump a fish. Before his turn was over, Jon had launched three nice tarpon, one being hooked in impossibly shallow water of about 12 inches! This was perhaps the shallowest water I have ever seen, let alone hooked, a tarpon in. We all watched in awe as 8 or 9 lbs. of quicksilver tailwalked out of the pothole to hover over turtle grass that was only 6 inches below the surface of the water. If Jon had jinxed his fishing by coming out of retirement, we should all be so lucky!
Shortly after this fish, we clipped off mangled flies, put rods in tubes and motored quickly back to Campeche. We said goodbye to Roberto and Neko's other son, Daniel, walked across the busy Malacon Boulevard, slid our sweaty, sunscreen-slickened bodies into a waiting taxi and said goodbye to Cody. In another five minutes, were at the city limits on our way to Merida for dinner before our flight in the morning. Now that's the way to end a trip!
Thanks Cody for doing such a magnificent job of organizing our trip! Thanks also for taking us on such a grand tour of the city's restaurants. And most importantly, thanks for teaching us your new tarpon language. Here are a few examples:
Poonzilla... any big tarpon that really gets your blood going and/or is exceptionally strong or acrobatic.
Poonplex... two mangrove bushes that tarpon merry-go-round and perhaps through where their limbs meet in the middle.
Poondaminium... a bigger mangrove bush that has an extensive root system that holds numerous big fish.
Poondamonium... not to be confused with the bush above. This is the chaos that occurs right after hookup with a poonzilla.
Poondog... a diehard tarpon fisherman.
Poonamatic... a take with no hesitation.
Poonatronic... a tarpon acting like a tarpon when it does any tarpon-like activity. I'm not sure what it means, but it is fun to say.
You get the drift here. But in any case thanks Cody for such a poonderful adventure!
Written and photographed by Scott Heywood