I am now at the mid-point of the trip. I'm sitting back in the comfort of an air-conditioned hotel room in Campeche awaiting our second group of anglers. Degreased and squeaky clean, I have just stepped out of a much needed shower and now have a few hours to reflect on our first group's experience of "roughing it" in the western Yucatan. Our goal was to find a beach far away from Campeche, set up a comfortable camp and pursue baby tarpon from this rustic headquarters. The results from week one are in and I'm happy to report it's a thumbs-up all the way! For his first attempt at this type of camping adventure, our American manager at Campeche, Cody Muchow, hit it out of the park. All the facets of the trip that could be controlled: logistics, campsite, food and a concerted effort by Cody and his staff were met or exceeded.
This was an out-of-the-box experience to be sure with the tides, weather and fishing contributing even more unknowns to the mix. From a fishing standpoint, it was confusing at times. Some anglers reported memorable periods of pure angling nirvana, while for others, the evenings brought mixed reports sometimes laced with exasperation and frustration. I do know this... tarpon fishing is sometimes difficult and usually unpredictable. With the exception of the angler's experience and skill-set, the odds were equal for everyone. But...the fine line between success and failure has to do with converting opportunities, receiving a little luck and getting a positive nod from the forces that control the nature and attitude of wild things. Translation... since adventure angling is never a lock, much of it often comes down to... are the fish (in this case tarpon) happy? But tarpon fishing is definitely a skill sport, so it is not all serendipitous. To be brutally honest, some left having had the angling experience of a lifetime (and they were generally the better anglers)! And, while all admitted to having a great time, I suspect some were disappointed with the numbers of fish they caught (and they were the least experienced tarpon anglers). But hey...that's fishing and this accumulation of skills is what makes fishing such an all encompassing passion.
On the beaches of western Yucatan, there are no campsite reservations to be made. Beach campsites along this vast coastline amount to only a handful of small sandy areas interspersed among the mangroves. Most of these spots are commercial fishing camps that have been used by generations of local snook and octopus fisherman. The beach we chose was a 50-yard long, hard-packed sand spit hemmed in by an impenetrable mangrove jungle. Cody had arranged for his camp staff and the AD hosts to arrive early in order to have the camp set up and dinner ready when the anglers arrived. And we made it! When the anglers arrived, all eight tents were set up and it made for a rather striking sight from the sea to see our multi colored, tightly packed tent city. The finishing touches to our beachfront real estate included folding chairs and tables, a fire pit and a very functional cooking area. Oh, and lest we forget, hidden back in the trees and downwind was our primitive, but very functional porta-potty.
And so the trip began. Our fishing was slow the first two days. We suspected the recent cold weather was the culprit. Day One saw very few fish in the creeks with most anglers jumping only a fish or two. Day Two started to warm up, but still the numbers of fish hooked were low-two or three was about average, but sightings and shots were on the rise. We were all reminded that finding tarpon does not always equate to hooking tarpon. There were more fish around on Day Two, but they were clearly not happy fish. Day Three brought noticeably warmer water and several anglers jumped quite a few fish and we actually got into the landing of tarpon department. Happier fish and rising water temps meant happier anglers and it was great to see everyone's spirits pick up. For these first few days, the wind had kept us off the outer flats, and we fished mostly the river mouths early and then deep into the jungle's rivers for the balance of the day. We called it "spring creek" tarpon fishing and it was exciting to see 10 to 20 pound fish go aerial in these tight, "well-vegetated" spaces. In the confined spaces of the jungle, we had a lot of hooking, losing and laughing going on. One fish, apparently furious with having been hooked, literally jumped into the boat. This event serendipitously accounted for Mark Patton's first boated tarpon... ever!
For this first group, we were blessed with reasonably good weather. It was hot during the days, about 95 degrees, but very comfortable with good "sleeping weather" in the evenings. We knew February was a transitional weather month and we had arrived just as a long cold spell had lifted. This previous cold weather had left us with water temps that were a bit chilly, but on the rise. As a result, we optimistically pressed on. While the afternoon winds were typically somewhat strong, by the time night fell, a gentle warm breeze and clear skies made for comfortable sleeping under one of the most brilliant celestial displays imaginable. This type of camping would be nearly impossible in other parts of the tropics for one simple reason...bugs! On this trip, I never applied any bug spray... not once! Usually dusk and dawn are the major buggy periods, but on this trip we found ourselves lounging outside our tents or around a campfire attired in shorts and sandals wondering where all the bugs were? I did sustain a mosquito bite, maybe two, oh the horror!
Although we knew there would be some creepy-crawlers, we only had a few experiences. Late one evening on his way to the porta-potty, Mark Patton saw, by the dim light of his headlamp, a five-foot boa constrictor lying across the trail. As for me, I did swat a rather nasty looking spider off my shirt collar one evening. I didn't think much of it, until upon closer inspection by flashlight revealed a slightly injured creature with some major league fangs. Ugh! As a way to avoid encounters with such critters, camp rules called for: tents and bags to be zipped tightly at all times, no bare feet on the beach day or night and we suggested anglers give any article of clothing hung outside a good shake and a quick inspection before wearing. Also, if you ask Mark, headlamps after dark are a must! Relatively speaking, I was pleasantly surprised at the lack of creature encounters we had.
As Week One came to an end, our fishing was improving each day. Our final day's plan to head south and fish near town was, for the most part, completely aborted. With an early start, we had intended to fish new water all the way back to Campeche. After we were underway for only ten minutes, two of our three boats sat motionless, side-by-side, a mile offshore, on a glassy-calm, windless sea. With a bright sun rising and not a cloud in the sky, the tide was perfect as we hovered in six feet of crystal clear water that covered a dark and seemingly endless, turtle grass flat. These were the conditions we had prayed for all week. But why had we stopped? It didn't take long to realize that for as far as my eyes could see, there were tarpon in every direction. They were rolling, laid up, chasing bait or just randomly jumping perhaps for joy, like every happy tarpon should! I personally had never seen so many tarpon in one place in my life!
On this day, like every day before, I had come prepared to fish for baby tarpon. So I was a bit stumped when the first two fish I hooked went straight through my 40 pound bite guard like a fork through an over-cooked piece of spaghetti. What the heck was going on here? Just then a tarpon rolled off the panga's stern and came straight at me not thirty feet away. The fish's back appeared as broad as my thigh. These were no babies... more like teenagers, so I quickly retooled my gear. I grabbed a 9 wt., tied on a sixty-pound fluorocarbon bite guard and was back at it. Meanwhile, my friend, Kay Dushane, was up on the deck, having the time of her life casting to fish after fish. Since I was coming back in a few days, the podium was all hers and she made the most of it. The first fish she landed was nearly thirty pounds; that's a lot of tarpon for an 8 wt! From the rear of the boat and surrounded by nets, gas tanks, anchors, folding chairs and enough empty water bottles to start a recycling program, I snuck in some shots in-between Kay's casts (with her approval, of course). I used a large cooler for a casting platform and stripped my fly line into the water. This was the best line management plan I could come up with. Kay kept hollering back to me, "this is the most insane thing I have ever seen in my life!" She was right! In the next three hours, we had so much fun we lost track of the usual noteworthy statistics. Hoots and hollers punctuated the many follows, grabs, jumped fish and general angling pandemonium we experienced. We did manage to land some really nice fish including one tipping the scales at 35 pounds. We saw and hooked several fish that were considerably larger. This day would truly be one to download to my hard drive of my angling memories!
We had finished our first tour and fishing conditions were steadily on the rise. Our second group had better fishing. Plus, they had the advantage of a week's worth of experience from us not to mention the considerable elbow grease that had polished our camp. The number of question marks reduced each day and our daily procedure became routine and more efficient. During the second week, tide, wind and fishing conditions dictated a split schedule. The most significant change for the group on Day Two was we had breakfast in the boats rather than lunch. We were on the water at first light and beat it straight to what we called the "High School Flat". For lunch, we returned to camp to rest, take a cool swim and generally relax during the mid-day heat. The evenings generally saw us poling far up the many creeks and rivers to escape the remnants of the predictable afternoon wind. Unfortunately, our creek fishing was slower than any of us had predicted. It was very puzzling! After much discussion, we surmised that the cooler water temps had forced our babies up into the shallower, warmer water at the heads of the creeks, well beyond the reach of our pangas. A solo kayak adventure, deep into the bush, confirmed our suspicions. Our babies had not vanished, they had just re-located. Behaving precisely as they were genetically programmed to do, they sought conditions that optimized their chances of survival.
It was unfortunate that the tarpon's behavior did not always meet with either our trip time or the expectations of some of our group members. But that is the nature of wild creatures in wild places. They write the script and we do our best to adapt to it and then hope for success. On this trip, we were forced to come up with a solid Plan B. Which we did! With absence of babies in the rivers, we found cooperative and much larger tarpon on the outside flats of this new virgin habitat. That's what exploratory trips are all about and why I will be making this exact same trip with another group of intrepid anglers again next year! And next year we'll be a year wiser and a year more experienced!
Written by Todd Sabine