The tarpon that never came
While the bonefish have seemed fairly accessible and cooperative the tarpon has not! We have fished for many days and seen an increasing number of fish during our day long trips. Even though tarpon guru Billy Pate says that the tarpon is such a good fish to flyfish for "Because it takes a fly readily", we have not had a single take in spite of countless well placed casts - not least from my friend, shop owner Kim Rasmussen of Salmon Fly in Copenhagen, who is a seasoned tarpon fisher. Even I managed to put a fly close to these evasive fish, but to no avail. They just turned away, totally ignoring the fly every time.
It is a far cry from the frenzy that I enjoyed on the Billy Pate videos that I devoured before leaving. Three or four of them showing fast paced action, stunning runs, spectacular jumps and an ever gum chewing Billy explaining in broad Texan how these fish are the perfect quarry for a fly fisher. "Because it takes a fly readily"… Yeah, right!
Tarpon fishing is not for the impatient. You get about an hour of activity during six to eight hours of fishing. Most of the time is spent standing in the stern of the boat, rod and fly ready, scouting for shadows or rolling fish.
Once spotted it is first up to the guide to maneuver the boat to a proper casting position and then your turn to place a fly within that critical square foot in front of a fish. Neither is easy and neither happens by the minute. Sometimes an hour can pass between casts, sometimes minutes.
We saw between dozens and hundreds of fish during our day long outings. We sometimes had more than one school to cast to, but only experienced a few takes, a couple of fish missing and none properly hooked.
Severo, Ramon & Manuel
More than excellent guides with their own boats. Not luxurious, but spacey and efficient outboard, wooden flats boats. They all do very good guiding, but specialize in each their field: Severo spots tarpon like no other guide on the island, Manuel is a very good bonefish guide and Ramon does reef fishing with anchovy chumming like no one else. They all follow your every wink, and - as you are paying - you should not hesitate to ask them to show you alternative locations or other targets for your flies if your luck is less than expected. The trips will usually last for eight hours, and you will be picked up and set off where it is convenient for you. I recommend starting early to get the better morning fishing and avoid the heat, which will try seriously to kill you after noon.
The price is US$ 200.- per day, which includes lunch, water and soft drinks.
Contact Severo Guerrero
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There are six steps to catching a tarpon:
1) Finding it
2) Maneuvering and casting to it
3) Getting it to take
4) Hooking it
5) Fighting it
6) Landing it
Each step has its narrow chances of succeeding, and we never really got beyond step 3. It seems to me that the closer you get to the final step, the less your chances of finishing that step gets.
Finding tarpon is not easy, but possible.
Getting the boat in position and casting can be difficult, but is doable depending on your skills and the guide.
Hooking it is highly unlikely and depends on casting precision, fly selection and quality, fish' mood and a lot of luck.
As you get towards the moment where you can get a picture taken of you with a tarpon in your hands, chances that luck will fail you, and the fish will swim off to freedom will increase drastically.
Ignore that fly!
The Ambergris tarpon seemed to have made a general agreement on ignoring flies! These fish were not spooked in the manner that the bonefish were. Sometimes they escaped, but always meticulously slow. Most times they just ignored the fly and turned off, disappearing back into a dark spot or swimming slowly on. The only thing really spooking them seemed to be the outboard motors of the boats, when they raced by or turned back to drift over the flat again.
Watching and chasing these fish is a fascinating game.
You learn to spot them on long distances, learn how they suddenly disappear, how clear you see them when they swim towards you or away, and how ghostly and almost invisible they become when they turn their side to you and reflect the bottom in their silvery scales.
The best time for spotting them is in the morning, where both sun and wind is in your back. In the low sun you can see the light reflected in fins and tails of rolling fish, and later on you can see the shadows as they cruise in small schools up to ten individuals.
A light wind and no clouds is the ideal weather. Just a small cloud blocking the sun will severely ruin your chances of following fish that you spotted while the sun was there.
We headed out at 5 AM in order to be ready at sunup. As soon as the sun approaches and passes zenith, the game tips even more to the advantage of the tarpon.
During our ten days of fishing we saw hundreds of fish, but only had a couple of takes.
Our guide, Severro's, theory was that the fish had been fished too much and were too used to boats, lines and flies. This seems probable. Not because there were many boats, but because of the deliberate way the fish turned down every fly we offered them.
Fish in more remote spots were more willing to take, and we heard stories of fish that were 'jumped' - that is hooked, but not landed - in other areas further south.
As Severro said every day after the tarpon quest: "Nada, Nada! The tarpon win again".
Severo, Ramon and Manuel
Fishing guides are readily available, and most dive and tour shops will arrange fishing too. We opted for three well reputed guides: Severo, Ramon and Manuel. Guides have large wood and fiber boats with powerful outboard motors. Do not expect luxury here either, but competent sailing and guiding.
I fished with Severo, a man of few words, but a very skilful guide with a very keen eye for tarpon. He would stand all day on a small stool in the boat, poling it steadily and scouting for fish. Lunch and drinks is included in the hefty 200 US$ that a day will cost you. Again: do not expect luxury. DIY sandwiches with chicken, sausage or ham and sodas or water from the icebox.
The guides will do what you ask them to do, so take the liberty of bullying them around. If nothing happens in one location, ask for alternatives. Change between locations, go for tarpon, bonefish, permit, barracuda or one of the many other species available. Try fishing on the reef side as opposed to the mangrove or tarpon flats behind the island.