When it comes to fishing, it doesn't matter where, when or why, I'm up for it! Nothing gets my motor running like a new angling opportunity. A new place, new species or a new habitat to check out, it's all part of adding to that life long, mental database of angling memories that helps disguise my obsession for fishing as a productive vocation.
That having been said, I recently had the opportunity to visit my long time guiding buddy and ex-fellow fly shop co-worker, Cody Muchow down along the Tarpon Coast near Campeche, Mexico. We were on our way there to check out Cody's new program and to fish for baby tarpon. Joining us this week was another long time friend and former employer of both Cody and mine, Peter Dupont. Peter owns the Fly Fisher Limited in Denver, Colorado and for over four years he had to put up with the angling antics of both Cody and myself. When reflecting on employing two guys such as Cody and me, I can often remember Peter, head hung, eyes glazed, shaking his head and mumbling something about the Lord under his breath. Needless to say, Peter survived the experience; we are almost like family and still the best of friends!
After three days of fantastic flats fishing for baby tarpon under our belts, on day four it was time for us to venture off into some new and uncharted angling territory. Time for something a little out-of-the-box. For most anglers, myself included, the pull of the sure thing is always exceptionally hard to walk away from. Bright sunlight, millpond calm and crystal clear water is usually the recipe for epic tarpon fishing on the flats. Especially when the fish had been as agreeable as these toddler tarpon had been so far. Well... this day, we had all agreed to turn our backs on the sure thing and try something a little different. We were going to use kayaks and venture up the interior creeks and look for baby tarpon deep inside the canopy of the mangrove jungle.
With the outcome being unknown, there is always a bit of apprehension as you venture forward, away from the norm, for the unselfish betterment of the known angling world. This day we would be explorers of the truly spectacular mangrove habitat that surrounds the city of Campeche. Literally dozens of these little hidden creeks lie unmolested along these 60 miles of mangrove coastline. It is truly a hidden angling treasure that defies your senses as well as your imagination. This unique ecosystem offers sanctuary for a variety of wildlife. Residing safely within the canopy exists a multitude of exotic birds whose heckling chorus is truly relentless on the ears. Reptiles, including caiman, saltwater crocodiles and the venomous Fer De Lance snake thrive in this shadowy hide-and-seek world of predator and prey. And last but not least, hosts of juvenile game fish, including tarpon, snook, snappers and jacks spend the majority of their early days within the protective tangled root system of this mangrove forest.
Faced with another perfect weather day, we loaded our two roto-molded plastic casting platforms (or kayaks), into the panga and set out for the first creek. After a short 20-minute ride, we throttled back and cruised into a small, shallow bay. Upon first inspection, it would appear that the wall of vegetation before us was simply impassable. Neko, our Mayan guide, poled us to the far back corner of the bay and lifted a mangrove limb or two and gently slid our large fishing craft into another world. A world rarely seen, let alone fished. Other than the welcome absence of the unrelenting Mayan sun, the first overwhelming sensations were that of absolute stillness and oppressive humidity. The exterior edge of the mangroves is a virtual wall and not a breath of wind enters into this still world. My second thought, which could have been a real showstopper for the expedition, concerned bugs. I thought we might be eaten alive! Oddly enough, with the absence of any nearby fresh water we did not see a single mosquito the entire day. In fact, we did not even use bug spray. Another welcome relief!
Just inside the mangroves, we quickly made the switch from the sturdy panga to our tipsy kayaks and into the jungle we paddled. The kayak is a nimble craft, perfect for exploring these tight-quartered waterways. Some of these narrow creeks dead-end after 50 yards or so, while others seem to go on for miles. Depending on your sense of adventure... some for many miles! We quickly began referring to this new environment under the canopy as the "tarpon cathedral." Fully grown trees, not bushes, spired upwards for sixty feet or more. The pools where we concentrated our fishing efforts were literally no more than wide spots in the creek, most no larger than the average hot tub. A three to four foot wide creek channel connected pool after pool. Bizarre, tangled root systems, linking one tree to the next, closed in on us from all directions. These watery passages were strikingly deep, up to 8 feet in spots and with gin clear water, it was possible to see the bottom if you caught an errant sun beam at just the right angle. These were the perfect conditions to peer down and spot our labyrinth-bound quarry, our "babes in the woods."
We naturally assumed that the tarpon on the outside flats would be our big babies. We were all quite amazed to discover that way back up in these tiny creeks were fish every bit as large as their flats-dwelling brethren. Although most of the fish we managed to land were quite small (3 to 5 pounds), we jumped or broke off many in the 10 to 15 pound class and saw quite a few that were pushing the 20-pound mark. And trust me... back in these tiny creeks, a 20 pound fish looks like a whale. There seems to be little size class difference between these two distinctly different environments and it appears that most fish pass back and fourth between these two areas freely seeking optimal feeding conditions.
As we continued up the creek, sometimes paddling, sometimes climbing, pulling, pruning or even swimming, we encountered tarpon in every pool. Some of the larger pools were literally loaded with rolling fish. Presenting a fly to these fish was usually a fairly uncomplicated process and a 15 foot roll cast was normally all it took to get a grab. However, with the canopy at times nearly fifty feet overhead and with some solid casters manning the kayaks, it became an indoor, aerial casting exhibition somewhat along the lines of "Fear Factor" combined with a little "Truth or Dare" thrown in to keep things interesting. Peter and Cody are both incredible casters and with the usual boys-being-boys mentality, it was only a matter of minutes before a friendly competition ensued. Loops were flying everywhere. In and out of the mangrove trunks and tangled branches, laser-tight loops sped with amazing accuracy. It was a sight to behold! And heaven forbid you misplaced your cast, as the peanut gallery was unmerciful.
The first three or four casts into most pools produced an equal number of jumped fish. The aerial fiascos that followed sent hysterical rounds of laughter from us all echoing throughout the jungle. Taking turns and alternating shots, I'm not sure who was having the most fun: the guy on the rod or the two heckling backseat anglers. What we were doing here was the saltwater equivalent to spring creek fishing. Except we were using 8 weight rods and some of the fish were pushing 20 pounds. We had fish jumping over kayaks and swimming under kayaks only to clear the water by four feet once on the other side. A fly rodders version to hand lining soon evolved as a quick and easy method to recover some hopelessly root-bound fish. Under these conditions, utilizing ultra stout leaders and a heavy palm drag, you either stopped your fish right now or they came unbuttoned. Either way... the brief union of tarpon and angler was always electric and always good fun!
The standard 9' fly rods we used in these tight quarters were something of a handicap and fishing with your favorite rod under these conditions was extremely perilous. Back here, it is not a question of if you will break a rod, but a question of when. Transporting rods around inside our tarpon cathedral was something of a challenge. Picture several fly rods (held in place on the deck only by the weight of the angler's backside), hopelessly tangled together and hanging three feet out of the back end of a kayak. It is a horrible way to treat such beautifully crafted technical equipment, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. It's a miracle we came through this day without a single rod fatality.
After mid-day, we had all collaborated on designing the ultimate backwoods tarpon fly rod. It would be a custom little fiberglass number of about six and a half feet, rated for about 40 pound test as a class tippet and stolen from the tip section of grandpa's old surfcasting rod. Mount to that any sturdy, yet disposable, disc drag reel capable of being completely pegged and spun up with a custom made 10 wt fly line. Line modifications would include removing half of the front taper and the entire running line. This would be the ultimate short, stout, tight quarters, roll casting tool; something similar, in form and function, to the business end of a tow truck.
Amidst all these profound angling revelations, we still managed to catch quite a few fish and really cover some ground. At several points during the day, we abandoned the kayaks for a more arboreal angling approach. Often to gain position on a group of rolling fish or to improve a casting lane, we took to the trees. Tarzan would have been impressed as we root-hopped up and down the creek. A bizarre "force like" courage, which some may call stupidity, began to emerge as we became more adept at walking on top of the mangrove roots. Most of the time we were only a footstep away from disaster. Walking, casting and even fighting a fish while balancing on top of a mangrove root wad is a risky business. It is a wonder nobody broke a leg! Here's a bit of advice if you ever do this type of fishing... stay in the kayak! Don't be like us. Don't let your overwhelming desire to hook a tarpon override your normally good judgment. Remember this, while live mangrove roots (with diameters as small as 2") are as sturdy as wrought iron and will support the weight of a good size angler, dead mangrove roots are as brittle as match sticks. Stepping squarely on one is a recipe for disaster. Several times during our angling adventure, roots and branches gave way and anglers became reluctant, barnacle-scratched swimmers.
Speaking of swimming... as we pushed further back into the narrowing creeks, there came a point when we were actually spending as much time in the water as we were in the boats. African Queen-style, we drug, slashed and swam our way through the ever-thickening foliage. Our goal, in addition to not being eaten by some large reptile, was to find that next tarpon choked pool that was just beyond that next brush pile. Oh, what we will do for that one last fish!
All in all, this was one of the most extreme, physical, beautiful and hilarious fishing adventures of my life. As we made our way back out to meet the panga at day's end, a truly devilish thought popped into my mind. With me manning the paddle and our host, Cody, proudly standing in front of the kayak (did I mention you should NEVER stand in a kayak?), majestically tossing laser tight loops in and out of the trees with all the nonchalance of a Las Vegas card shark, I couldn't help but notice his slightly shifting balance point with each opposing paddle stroke. When we approached the panga and were within plain sight of his guides, I hit the right stroke a bit harder than normal. The instant Cody leaned to compensate, I hit a powerful counter stroke. You guessed it, gravity and inertia took over and in true PBR style (Pro Bull Riders), El Heffe overcompensated and hit the drink with fly rod and line flailing all the way down. Doubled over with laughter, both of Cody's guides nearly fell out of the panga as Cody swam for his brand new Simm's hat. Oh well... what are friends for?
It was just one of those amazingly different days afield. It was the type of day when spending time with close personal friends was more important than precious minutes on the casting deck. When sharing shots at magnificent fish produced unparalleled joy for another angler's success. It was a sensory overload of sights and sounds from a world seldom visited by humans. We were dirty, sticky, sweaty, bumped, bruised and bitten with sides and cheeks aching from a day of nonstop laughter. We had all gotten to experience a new facet of tarpon angling. We will forever call it chasin' "Babes in the Woods."
Written by: Todd Sabine