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Rio Piratos


Where the sabalo grande - the big tarpon - roam


By Martin Joergensen

Day 0
Who said anglers aren't crazy?

We had been almost 24 hours under way when we arrived at 3 o'clock in the morning - quite tired after the long journey. And the plan was to fish at 6!

So after having traveled from Copenhagen to Frankfurt, from there to Mexico City, on to Cancun and from there on to our final destination we unpacked the essentials, packed them to go on the boats, slept for 1½ hours and woke up to go search for tarpon - big tarpon!

 

Day 1
The first hookup
  
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First morning - On the way out to scout for large tarpon.
First morning
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Sun - The sun can be immensely sharp and hot - even in the morning.
Sun
 
We were going in three boats and headed for the open water where the big fish were caught the last couple of years. Experience from the other years said that the fish can be seen in the surface from about sunup at 6:30 and until somtime around 9, where they seem to disappear from the surface. After that the boats head for babies in the mangrove until about 1 and then "vamos a la casa" - head home.

The outcome of the first day was meager. One short hookup in our boat - albeit a large fish - and hookups of smaller fish in the other two boats. None of the fish were landed, though. We did see fish though, and large ones, so hopes were high. We also saw permit in the water outside the mangroves.

On the way back we went into the mangrove channels to look for bonefish, which Deigo had said he'd seen there, but we saw none. But there is an extreme abundance of life in these waters with mullets, catfish, skipjacks, ladyfish, needlefish, porcupine fish, rays and a host of other species to be seen all the time.

We talked and ate an early dinner in Diego's fathers place - Isla Contoya. A couple watched the bullfight on the way back, and could announce that it was a pitiful and sorry sight.
Outside the arena the city was celebrating its annual festival with a market, music, street entertainment and lots of people in the streets.

Lars got a massage from a local barefoot doctor for a sore back, which he had brought from home.

A musical bus was touring with happy people and loud music all night.

 

Day 2
Three magnificent leaps
  
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Porcupine fish - My first catch at all would suck in air with a funny sound and blow itself up to twice its normal size.
Porcupine fish
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Internet café - Even the smallest village seems to have one. This one was exceptionaly inexpensive: 5 pesos for 20 minutes.
Internet café
 
The wind was up. It's supposed to be calm in the summer, but the dancing floor, which we hoped for was more like a field of rocks.

We saw fish but not many. Kim jumped one really nice fish - about 100 lbs was his own estimate - but after three magnificent leaps it was off.

In the mangrove my mediocre casting skills combined with wind and fish that were either spooky or just not hungry lead to nothing. We saw fairly many fish in the 5-20 lbs range, but none wanted to play. I did hook a porcupine fish that sucked in air with a funny sound. Whatever it saw in my pink tarpon fly I will never know. It was soon unhooked and released again.

We returned after another skinny day and had to comfort ourselves with rhum and cokes on the veranda and some huge pina coladas in the restaurant before dinner.

I discovered a small Internet café just around the corner. And not only that, but the charge was a fantastic 5 pesos for 20 minutes online. I sent home a couple of mails and checked up on GFF, Tour de France and the situation in the rest of the world.

 

 

Day 3
(Could've been) The first
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The right fly - We had good luck with pink flies in the mangrove.
The right fly
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Well dressed me - Proper clothing - and enough of it - is essential in the intense heat. The sun can burn you through a cotton T-shirt!
Well dressed me
 
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Cool - It might seem cold and tempting, but the water is very hot.
Cool
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Chino and Kim\'s toolshop - Kim has unpacked and is ready to roll. Chino scouts for fish that are ready to roll.
Chino and Kim's toolshop
 
 
I lost my tarpon virginity today... twice... almost. That means that I hooked two tarpon, but lost them. When we are talking big fish it's called "jumped", meaning the fish feels the hook and jumps out of the water one ore more times before letting go. Smaller fish are just hooked, I guess.

We saw plenty fish over the deeper water early in the morning. Lars hooked one in the first cast. His and Claus' boat was the first on the spot. We saw fish in the surface all the time during the first 20-30 minutes, but after that they just disappeared.

The fish were swimming very fast, and every time we moved to them, they were gone, and would appear in the spot that we just left. After a while things died out and even though we stayed in the area for almost two hours, we only saw fish a few more times.

It seems that the first half hour is best, and tomorrow we will try to go out 5:30 in stead of 6:00 to see if that changes our luck.

After the deep water we headed for the Mayan island and fished the mangroves for babies. I hooked one of the first ones I cast to - a fish in the 4 lbs. range, but it spat out the hook after one leap.

Later on we fished into a school of hundreds of fish, maybe 10 lbs. or more, that were further out over deeper water, and I hooked one more. This time the 80 lbs. bite tippet broke and the fish ran with the fly after a fierce leap. I probably didn't let go of the line in time for the fish to run after having hooked it. It takes some time to get used to this game. It's a far cry from trout fishing, I can tell you!

We would run into this large school of tarpon several times during the week, but I don't think we managed to wrench a single fish from this particular flock.

 

Day 4
Primero Sabalo!

  
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Small tarpon - A typical small tarpon - often referred to as a baby. This one may weigh 2 kilos or 4 lbs.
Small tarpon
 
My first tarpon. The BogaGrip said 3-4 lbs. It jumped and did what a tarpon is supposed to do, but was no real fight on a 10 weight.

The town festival was at its peak with a market, tivoli, theatre, processions and the centre full of happy people.

And a bull fight of course, where the bull was almost let loose in the streets - albeit kept in tight (but long) strings by a bunch of caballeros. It wasn't Pamplona, but felt much like it, because I was right by the gate that suddenly sprang open and poured out cowboys a la Mexicana. The poor bulls were in agony over the terrible treatment they received.

 

Day 5
Sabalo grande!
  
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Sabalo grande! - The biggest catch: Kim has hooked himself in the belly with a 6/0 Owner tarpon hook - the strongest hook in the world as he said.
Sabalo grande!
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Ice - Putting ice from the ice box on a hook set in a person can be a very good idea. It keeps the wound from swelling and facilitates the later removal of that nasty iron.
Ice
 
It was Domingo - Sunday - and even the weather had taken a day off. It as hazy and dead calm.

Kim hooked himself in the belly and Lars hooked (and landed) a 45 lbs fish. We were about to put him ashore on a deserted island never to let him on a tarpon boat again! This was his third large fish.

Kim's belly was a more serious catch - a real sabalo grande, a huge tarpon. He had to press the barb through the skin to enable us to cut the hook. I broke a pair of pliers trying to clip the 5/0 Owner hook - "The strongest hook in the world" as Kim said. Sure is!
We went ashore to have the hook clipped, the wound cleaned and covered.

After that we had some fun in a small mangrove channel and each caught a 4 lbs. fish. We tried to get pictures of the fish when they jumped. We'll see how that worked out. (PS: after returning home I had about three rolls of film mostly with "holes in the water". Even my potent SLR, which shoots five 4-5 frames per second was not enough to enable me to get a tarpon in the air. I have a few, but they are blurred and too far away... so it goes...)

The weather came back later in the afternoon after we returned as a huge shower that flooded the streets. It was the last day of the town festival and the weekly day off so even the rain could not keep people - or the horses - off the streets.

We spent some time in the afternoon tying leaders and learning the Homer Simpson knot and the Bikini Twist - which are really called the Homer Rhodes knot and the Bimini Twist of course. We also fooled around with the formula for estimating the weight of tarpon and I promised to create the Tarponometer when we came home. The formula is girth*girth*length/800 in inches to get pounds or the same divided by 29000 in centimeters to get kilos.

 

Day 6
Bahía de Cochinos
  
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Snook - I managed to land three snook in this size range.
Snook
 
The deeper water was choppy and windy and devoid of tarpon, so we decided to go to the mangrove early. We started off in a small canal, and I had a couple of takes but didn't manage to set the hook. This happened four times before we decided to move. We poled along the mangrove watching out for fish, but saw only a few rolling or scooting off, spooked by the boat.

Not before we entered a small, muddy bay did things start to happen. It was the Bahía de Cochinos - Bay of Pigs - with lots of hogs rolling in the mud. We had fish all around us in the murky water, constantly rolling and easy to get to take the fly - provided that the fly was placed close enough. I missed a further ten (10!) hookups before I got a 1 lbs. snook to hang on. That was 14 bummed tarpon in a row!

We switched over and Kim hooked a fish after a few casts. Eager to show me how to set a hook properly in a tarpon, he gave it all he could - and snapped a class 10 Burkheimer rod in two places!

We shared the 10 weight 8'8" Scott S3S the rest of the day... An excellent rod by the way.

Armed with a pink fly I managed to get lots of takes but no hookups - except for two more snook. Kim landed several tarpon, and it was not until late after noon that I finally landed a 4 lbs. specimen. Kenneth and Soeren had joined us and landed a couple each.

We could see rain come closer, and decided to return home before the thunderstorm really broke loose. On the way back we had the rain front in our back and lightning striking on our outside over the ocean.

After our return to the hotel we sat on the front porch and watched the rain, lightning and thunder roll by. Man what a sight! If someone played that show every night in front of my house, I'd be out watching every day.
The streets filled with water again, and cars, bikes and pedestrians walked and drove through ankle deep water.

Day 7
Cinque kilos
  
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A 10 lbs./5 kilos tarpon - Happy me with a nice 10 lbs. or 5 kilo tarpon - probably the largest I caught on the trip.
A 10 lbs./5 kilos tarpon
 
This day started out with calm and smooth water over the deep parts, but we saw absolutely no fish. The turtles were few, and there were no skipping sardines either.

None of the other boats observed anything either, so we headed for the mangrove fairly early.

After the experience in the muddy water, we sought out the same place after having tried a few other spots.
There was scarcely any activity, but we did observe a few fish that were hunting. The water wasn't quite as muddy, but in the part close to the canal there was murky water and a few more fish. After a couple of casts in vain, I got a hookup, and as I set the hook the fish skipped out of the water. No doubt my largest fish to that moment, and seemingly well hooked. I set the hook again just to be sure, and the fish returned the favor with a leap.
It fought well and took a couple of runs. But after a few more jumps it was tiring and came close to the boat. It turned over and Kim lipped it with the BocaGrip. 10 lbs. on the mark! My largest, even though it was small by tarpon standards.

We fished on and Kim hooked and landed a 4-5 lbs. fish before we headed home.

In the afternoon I took a walk along the waterfront, where crabs were burrowing in the mud left after the rainfall. I went all to the end of town and back - not a scenic walk by any standards, but a walk in a plain and very ordinary looking Mexican village.

The others could tell about deeper water, a wreck in the depth and seeing both a tiger shark, large manta rays and mating turtles.

Day 8
Hot, hot, hot!
The morning was clear an the sun rose in an almost perfect circle on an undisturbed horizon. The water was smooth and undisturbed too. Not a single tarpon for the third day in a row! Quite disappointing considering the expectations we came with. This was the place where we were supposed to land a 100 lbs. fish.

Again we decided to leave early, and went along the mangrove probing different spots until we reached the same bay. This time not as muddy, but still with fish. I missed quite a few before I managed to set the hook in one, which escaped with my fly and the tip of the leader. I had seen the wind knot, but ignored it. That does not pass unpunished in tarpon country!

Kim took over and landed one. We poled along the mangrove, but saw no fish. My sweat was dripping in my eyes. This day seemed a lot warmer than the previous ones.
We ran into fish again in the open water outside the mangrove - the large school with hundreds of fish. I was unable to cast properly to them and quite distressed by the wind and heat.
Kim took over but we eventually gave up. We met up with Lars and Carlos. Claus was home - ill again. We hung around in the heat, but finally decided to return home.

Soren and Kenneth returned together with Diego and his son. They had been fishing over deeper water and Kenneth had managed to land one of the two bonitoes he hooked. Quite a fight he said.

Day 9
Mosca Pulpo
  
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Three men in a boat - and a boy - Diego, Diego Jr., Soeren and Kenneth.
Three men in a boat - and a boy
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Tortuga - We saw lots of tortugas - turtles - often mistaking the for fish in an instant, but their breathing reveals them as something else.
Tortuga
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Jack me in! - This is a school of jacks in the 10-15 lbs. range that turns just under the boat after Lars has tried to get one of them to take a fly, which they would follow closely until just under the rod tip. Quite a thrilling experience!
Jack me in!
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Jack and Lars - We estimated that our fish were in the 10 lbs. range, but the guide Carlos judged them to be weightier - upwards 8 kilos or 16 lbs. And sure, they were hefty and massive fish.
Jack and Lars
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Jack and Martin - My first jack ever - like hooking a freight train! I judged this fish to be 8-10 lbs. or 4-5 kilos, but our guide Carlos insisted that it was much heavier - maybe even 6-7 kilos or more. Well, he knows and sure these fish are massive and can cheat a first timer like myself.
Jack and Martin
 
This day we decided to explore a blue hole and the wreck that the others had been visiting one of the earlier days. We started out scouting for big tarpon over the usual grounds, but as it had been the case the previous four days, we saw nothing.

So we set off and sailed to the hole. GPS's helped us find the location, and when all three boats where over the hole and the outboards were turned off, we realized how hot and calm it was. The sea was smooth and even though it was well before noon, the temperature was already soaring.
We saw little activity apart from a few baitfish, and decided to head for the wreck, where Soeren and Kenneth and their guide Diego had seen lots of fish when they had first been there.
And true enough. When we were over the wreck half an hour later, we could not only clearly see the outline of the sunken boat itself, but also see the woodwork and the mast. And fish! Hundreds of fish! If not thousands.
We saw schools of jacks, permit or pompanos, groupers, cobias and many other species moving in all depths around the artificial reef created by the wreck. Amazing what a little difference in structure can do. A vast ocean, even bottom - and then a 20 meters or 60' wreck, and voila! Tonnes of fish.

We were all wound up by the number of fish, and offered them all kinds of flies fished in all manners. Nothing seemed to work. The best result was obtained on a large school of jacks swimming close to the surface. 20-30 fish would follow a fly that was two hand retrieved at maximum speed, but turn off as soon as the fly lost pace.

The other two boats gave up and headed for the mangrove, but Lars - with whom I fished this day - and I decided to stay. Carlos - our guide - suggested that we tried trolling, and sure enough: we didn't have to pass over the wreck more than a few times before we had the first take. I was holding the rod on this pass, and the 12 wt. TFO armed with a Billy Pate reel bent double and the reel whizzed off line at a frightening rate. Like hooking a steam train! I had no idea what was on that hook, but it was strong and heavy. It took off about 50-60 meters - up towards 180' - of backing or more before it decided to go deep. We had the wreck to worry about, so I tried to hold it hard. Reeling in as fast as I could, wanting to lift the fish off the bottom, it rushed off again, and was off...

Whoa! So much power!

Lars was next, and he had the same experience, except that the fish broke him off, running with fly, leader and everything. In one short moment he feared that it had taken his fly line too, but not so. We rigged a new leader and fly, and was on again. This time the fish stuck. I had set the brake extremely hard - maybe 5 kilos or 10 lbs. - but still the fish stripped backing like there had been no resistance. During the fight it went down straight under the boat and almost made the top eye touch the water. Carlos landed the fish, a jack in the 4-5 kilos or 8-10 lbs. range. Beautiful and very strong fish these jacks. And they never give up.

  
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Jack in tomato - One of the jacks we caught were served in tomato for dinner. Delicious!
Jack in tomato
 
Lars now had his chance again, and after a couple of misses he hooked one good. I managed to get the hookup and the whole fight on video and after a while I filmed Carlos grabbing the fish by the tail and hauling it into the boat.

"Muchas coumida" as he said. A lot food indeed! Both fish were kept, and we ate part of one for dinner that night.

Our day was made, and even though Carlos had a hard time leaving the place, we decided to head home. The boat ride was more than one hour, and we had had sufficient action and heat for one day.

PS: It may be the fact that we "stabilized" the large fly with a piece of octopus - pulpo - that made it work, but Lars and I agreed on that the trick had worked even without the Mosca Pulpo, the Octopus Fly, and the speed alone could have done it.
Was it fly fishing? Hardly - but close enough.
Was it fun? You bet!

Day 10
Slow for some
The heat from yesterday combined with an upset stomach made me decide to stay home. I spent most day in the hammock and just acting Mexican: doing basically nothing. The others left at 6 as usual to head directly for the mangroves and the baby tarpon. The fishing here was expected to be better in the morning due to higher tide and morning activity.
Some of the guys had some fine fishing in the mangroves while others had a day as slow as they come on a tarpon trip.
Need I say that the big ones didn't show up this day either?

I spent some time talking to Raphael and Gloria who had moved into the room next to ours. Raphael had seen our rods and we had seen his heavy spinning rod the evening before when he arrived.
He had been fishing for barracuda in the morning with his son and a local friend and had caught a single fish with bait and heavy wire tracers on his large hooks.

Day 11
Raining dogs and cats
  
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A rise! - Talk about challenging. Below this ring a tarpon up to 10 lbs. may be hunting. Hook it, and you are in for a job keeping it out of the trees! And that\'s the part of the trees in the air! Not in the water...
A rise!
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Close quarters - Yes, we saw many tarpon in here - and even caught some!
Close quarters
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Jump - Any tarpon will jump out of the water the moment it has been hooked - often shedding the hook in the first gill rattling head shake.
Jump
 
Fit for fight Kim and I decided to go directly to the mangroves again. A good decision it would show. We hooked several fish and landed two each in the morning. Not biggies but respectable fish compared to the average.

We fought the heat and the mangrove trees in several incidents, chasing fish that again were chasing smaller fish between the mangrove roots.
Taming a 3 kilos tarpon or 6 lbs. of leaping, shiny muscle amongst the trees is not for the faint of heart! I had to lay down the rod at one point, untangle line - and fish from the mangrove roots - pick up the rod again and finish the fight and land the fish. Quite a heart pounding experience with such strong fish.
We saw many rolling fish spread out over a large area, and had the opportunity to cast to many. But after a short tropical shower the wind calmed totally down and the water was smooth as a mirror. And sure enough there were plenty fish. But even the shadow of the fly line spooked them!

After an hour of calm a real thunderstorm took over. Lightning flashing and thunder cracking and dogs and cats - rain galore.
We located a small hole in the mangrove, and Chino pounded our boat as far into it as possible - which was about half way. We crept together in the stem under the leaves, but no matter how much we tried to cover ourselves with towels, seat cushions and what have you we were wet to the skin in minutes.

So there we were, slowly soaking, watching tarpon roll right outside the mangrove about 5 meters or 15' away from the boat!

The rain kept pounding, and finally we decided to return, and raced through the stinging drops back to town.

As we returned wet and obviously not looking too pique, our neighbors Raphael and Gloria came to our rescue with konk geviche and chips and as the others returned we had a ball on the terrace with their delicious servings.
Raphael was an angler too and was very fascinated by our flyrods - although somewhat baffled by the prices we mentioned. Raphael Jr. - his son - and I went to the small pier and Raphael Jr. cast a fly for the first time. "That's easy" he concluded. His casting was actually excellent, as was his English.

Day 12
Going home
We could sleep in! The morning was really slow and we just packed our stuff and prepared for the trip.
We were picked up at the hotel at 11:30 and had an almost 4 hours ride in front of us to Cancun.

In Cancun we treated ourselves to burgers and pizza - and espresso! Great!

The flight out was late - of course - and we were somewhat stressed when we arrived in Mexico City with less than 15 minutes to find our connecting flight to Frankfurt. We managed, and the rest of the trip was quite without excitement - apart from the luggage being late, of course. But having traveled in these parts of the world before, I was prepared for that. And the fact that it had been opened and stuff had been stolen.

So it goes...

Practicalities
Rio Lagartos has ample facilities to cater to a no too large number of tourists. Its prime attractions are the flamingos and the alligators, which are viewed many times a day by tourists who hit-and-run the city to take one of the eco trips up the river. Many of these tourists will return covered in mud after having mud bathed further upstream.

The trip was arranged by the Danish flyshop Salmon Fly, whose owner Kim Rasmussen has extensive experience with tarpon fishing and setting up such trips.

One of the only restaurants in town is Isla Contoya, which is an excellent place to have a meal. It's run by Ismael Navarro and his family. Here is Ismael's birdwatching homepage and his mail

Read more about tarpon fishing gear and methods here.




User comments
GFF staff comment
From: Martin Joergensen · martin·at·globalflyfisher.com  Link
Submitted March 5th 2010

Joseph,

I'm glad you like she story. I hope you get to have as much fun on you Cuba trip as I have had on my trips to Mexico and Belize.

Regarding tarpon leaders... I will not claim to be able to teach you to to tie one... they are different beasts!

I have a few lying around, and I might have tied some of them myself, but looking at them has me puzzled how I ever managed to do that! They consist of several sections held together by all sorts of intricate knots of which a couple of Bimini twists seem to be the simple part! And that basically says it. The idea is that you need very thick and strong mono attached to the fly, then you need a flexible and thin part as your so called class tippet (the breaking strength you are fishing with), which again attach to your leader attached to your fly line.

You want the fish to be unable to chew the lower part close to the fly, but able to break the next part, which is neither your leader nor your fly line.

I have sought on the web for a good instruction in tying one as well as run through my well stocked book shelves for a guide, but have found nada! The Bimini twist is easy to find and fairly easy to tie once you have tried it a couple of times, but tying the whole leader is a different issue.

I urge you to find a person who has done it and have him or her show you. Someone in a local club or shop must have the experience. In the meantime I'll try to dig out some instructions for the whole leader and make a properly illustrated article about the materials, process and proper usage. Hopefully before you leave...

Martin


From: Joseph Facey · joe108·at·shaw.ca  Link
Submitted March 5th 2010

Hello and thank you for sharing your fantastic trip. I will be leaving at the end of March 2010 with 2 friends to try to accomplish the same thing. We will be arriving Cancun and then flying to Cuba. Mostly chasing Tarpon in the mangroves. I appreciate your comments about Tarpon leaders and letting the hands of experience tie them but I am confused about their composition. eg, how long and what strength is the first section that attaches to the fly line, same for the next section and same for the tippet. I cannot find a pattern or sketch to follow on the net, and no fly shop I have talked to he in British Columbia seems able to help me. You are a great photographer and perhaps you could email me a photo or drawing of these leaders.
Again thanks for sharing,


Regards,

Joe


From: Everett Melvin · melvin.evertt·at·comcast.com  Link
Submitted August 8th 2009

Awesome report, you guys are hard core. I have never had the chance for such an adventure but I am sure it was a hoot. Now to the Jack Carvel, here in North Florida they are a fish that brings excitement to local fly fisherman and light tackle folks alike; from late April all the way through the summer. Both in shore along the ICW and the surf. Any insites into fishing in Europe would appreciated.



Tight lines and always, always, fish on.
Everett



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Part of the theme:
Tarpon fly fishing
The section on fishing for tarpon in the Caribbean, Florida and other tropical saltwater destinations