Chasing Giant Tarpon, Mexican Style.
I’ve always wanted to go somewhere hot and cast a fly for something exotic, like Bonefish, Grand Trevally, Rooster Fish, or Giant Tarpon. I’ve seen so many videos of fish bums sight fishing for these awesome fish, followed by shots of reels screaming with line tearing out so fast that I totally expect smoke to start belching out of the carbon brake discs. Wiser people than I say that a person always wants what they don’t have, so I imagine that for most of us living in North America who have the fly fishing gene that means ditching the heavy rain gear, waders and fleece and trading them for bare feet, light cotton breathable shirts, shorts and shades, and one heck of a tan line.
Just flip open any fly fishing mag, and you’ll see these images of fly fishermen stalking their fish from flat topped bay boats, with their buff’s pulled up from their necks to the bottom of their hipster shades, looking more like old time western bank robbers than fishermen. Combine those images with photos of crystal clear waters, turquoise lagoons, and mangrove flats and you pretty much sum up what most of us colder climate folks dream of after a day of winter steel heading in the pouring rain and snow.
A few summers ago I had the opportunity to finally tick something off my bucket list, when the opportunity came up to do some blue water fly fishing for Giant Tarpon off the tiny island of Isla Holbox, located on the Caribbean side of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. When my girlfriend DeAndra and I were trying to find a place to spend a few weeks of much needed vacation time, she found this little gem of a destination and begged me to take a look. Now, not being a big fan of Mexico, mostly because I can’t stand the overcrowded beach scenes that you find in places like Cancun or Playa Del Carmen, I was skeptical at first even looking into Isla Holbox. But after some internet research on Google, and of course the pre-requisite Google Earth touring, I was sold on visiting this remote little island that was basically a lump of sand in the ocean. No cars (the only method of transport is golf cart), no buses or trains, no airport, and no crowds. It sounded perfect for someone like me who values remoteness.
Now I would be remiss to go somewhere and not research the possibility of getting in a day of fishing. Opportunities to dip the line in a new country and try something completely different from what one is used to is highly recommended in my books. So after we finished confirming our destination and booking the tickets and hotels, I started poking around the internet to check on the possibility of doing some fishing while there. What I was expecting to find was the normal touristy stuff such as deep sea fishing with big offshore level wind reels, traveling aboard 40 foot off shore boats at high speed. Not that I wouldn’t have done that, but it’s not really my thing. What I found instead was something completely unexpected. What I found, was Sandflea.
Sandflea, aka Mr. Sandflea, aka Alejandro Vega is somewhat of a legendary figure when it comes to fly fishing in this part of Mexico, and in fact in the fly fishing community at large. I discovered him quite by accident, a result of a Google search for fishing charters in Isla Holbox. Turns out that when it comes to finding and catching Tarpon in the 100+ pound range on the open ocean, he is the man to go with. Sandflea operates the Tarpon Club on Isla Holbox, and offers guided trips in the area for Tarpon, Permit, and Snook. After some quick browsing of his website, I fired off an email to him indicating my interest and asking about rates and availability during our upcoming visit. To my delight I received a response within an hour with information on rates, gear rentals (I had no idea what I would need so this was good!), and confirmation that he had a spot available. Unfortunately he was not able to take me himself, as I would later found out he is a VERY popular fellow, but since he employs a number of local guides he would be sure to set me up for the day. With the trip a few weeks away, I anxiously counted the days down while dreaming of sunny shores, hot weather, and big fish.
When the time finally came for our trip, we packed our gear and started out on our grand adventure to Isla Hobox. Getting to this remote spot was pretty easy, as we flew into Cancun directly from Victoria, BC and were able to arrange a car and driver in Mexico through the hotel we were going to be staying in on the island. The driver met us at the airport, and while he spoke basically no English we were able to connect and he took us on the two hour drive from Cancun to the small fishing village of Chiquila, where we would be taking the passenger ferry over to Isla Holbox.
After passing through lots of farm land and small villages along the way, we arrived at the ferry dock just before departure, and were treated to a spectacular sunset as we made the short thirty minute ride across. It was certainly a great way to start our adventure to the island!
For the first few days on Isla Holbox we did what most Canadians do. We ate, we drank, we swam, and we explored. For a small island, there were a number of things to explore and being as it was such a small place the level of safety was very good. If you are foolish enough to travel to Mexico in August, as these two gringo’s did, you’ll be engulfed in stifling heat that can easily reach 40 degrees Celsius during the mid-day. Fortunately the water is warm, the winds blow almost every day, and the people are chill. With so much heat during the day, the locals kept a pretty low profile but at night the entire village came alive with food stands, games for all ages, impromptu soccer matches, and music.
It was pretty cool to be able to walk among all the locals un-harassed by street vendors of any kind, taking in the buzz of activity and watching the kids play Foosball on tables that were obviously much loved and well used.
The day before my planned day of fishing, I walked down the sandy street a few blocks to the compound where I had spotted the sign for the Tarpon Club, and wandered into the yard of the small concrete cinder block house that occupied the property. It was the end of the day, so the guides were busy moving gear from the boats on the beach (which was literally across the sandy road) back to the main compound, carrying long push poles, coolers, and rods.
As I walked into the yard, I was given a friendly greeting by one of the guides, and after telling him I was booked for a trip tomorrow but needed gear, he pointed me over to a gentlemen sitting in the shade under the porch roof of the house.
It was then I was introduced to the man himself, the one and only Alejandro “Mr. Sandflea” Vega. After a quick handshake and big grins from both of us, Sandflea welcomed me to Isla Holbox and gave me a quick rundown of what I was in store for tomorrow. He would supply me with two rods (10 and 12wt Sage rods with Orvis Helios reels), the necessary fly’s, and a packed lunch. He told me to be ready at 6 AM on the beach in front of his house, and I would be set up with my guide for the day. I left the compound pumped for my trip, and was pleased that not only was this going to be my first time salt water fishing for big fish, but also that I had every confidence in Sandflea and his crews ability to find me some action. That night DeAndra and I enjoyed one of many great meals at our hotel and packed it in early in anticipation of our coming ocean experience.
The next day, at 5:30 AM, DeAndra and I were up and walking down the beach to the group of panga boats pulled up to the edge of the beach, as the guides loaded up for the day. Sandflea was there, commander in chief that he is, making sure that all of the guides, guests and supplies were organized, introduced and accounted for. We were hooked up with our guide for the day, Valentino, and were soon aboard and ready to make our way out to the blue water. The plan as described to us was that we would head offshore first, to try and find schools of feeding Giant Tarpon. They are most active early, like most game fish, as they are chasing the schools of bait fish that are near the surface during the cooler parts of the day. Once the action slowed down offshore, we would then be taken to fish for “Baby Tarpon” in the mangroves where they spend the first years of their lives growing and feeding on the rich abundance of food there.
As the boats headed out from the beach, a low hazy fog hung over the water, providing a surreal sunrise for the fishermen. As soon as we were about a mile from the beach, Valentino stopped the boat and suggested that I stand up on the casting platform and take a few casts, to become accustomed to the gear.
Now, never having cast a single handed rod heavier than an 8 wt before, trying to suddenly double haul and cast a 12 wt rod was a big adjustment. I’m not a bad single handed caster, but to be fair I’ve spent the past few years focusing on the two handed gear. Getting back into the single hander, while having to use unfamiliar and heavy gear, was damn challenging. Not to mention that for this type of fishing, you have to be quick, and you have to be accurate. Valentino explained that he would spot the fish rolling on the surface, and then strategically position the panga to intercept them. My job would be to wait for his signal and cast in the clock direction he called out. Easy..right?
After a pretty poor demonstration by me on how to cast, Valentino took us out offshore into serious blue water territory. By the time we reached the outer regions, the sun was shining and we were treated to yet another gorgeous sunny day. For the next two hours we motored around, Valentino scanning the ocean for feeding Tarpon with me standing at the ready on the bow platform. It seemed like a crazy thing to be doing, circling and
motoring around an area with no visible landmarks, no land in site, with a guide who had no GPS or even a depth sounder to find the location. But then, suddenly, they appeared.
“Tarpon!” Valentino shouted suddenly “Do you see them! A whole school at 3 o’clock, rolling on the surface!”
Sure enough, there they were! Like a pod of dolphins, these big predators were ripping through the surface of the ocean, chasing bait fish and moving rapidly in our direction. It was awesome to see.
“Get ready!” Valentino said, “They will be on us in a minute!”
As I stood at the bow of the boat, with a big fly in my hand and what felt like a broomstick for a fishing rod in the other, I was ready to go. I wasn’t confident that I could place the fly where Valentino was going to tell me,
but I had to give it a shot. I should mention at this point that my poor girlfriend had taken two gravol before we headed out, hoping to avoid being sea sick. The result was that she fell asleep and was doing a great job of imitating a bobble head while propped up in one of the seats. But I digress.
“NOW!” Valentino yelled “Cast at 1 o’clock!”
Three back casts later and I did my best to land the fly where he wanted. Not a great effort, but it was done. After letting the line sink down for a few seconds, the order came from Valentino.
“Now strip, strip, strip, strip, fast, fast!” called out my guide.
Well I tried. And I tried a second time. And then, as quickly as it had started it was over. The school of fish had moved past us and suddenly disappeared. I wasn’t sure if it was a result of my terrible casting that I didn’t get much of a chance, or just that they saw me and spooked. But for that few moments I was doing it…fishing for Giant Tarpon on the fly!
Valentino shook his head, obviously disappointed with the lack of skill on my part. He never said anything of course, but I am pretty sure he thought it. Having hunted for these fish for two hours only to have some silly gringo waste the opportunity was probably something he’s seen before, but it still hurt my pride to know that I blew my first chance.
“Next time, you have to be faster” he said. “You have to be faster, and you need to strip the line quickly when I tell you. This is not trout fishing, you have to be quick.”
Humbled, I sat back in my chair for a break, trying hard not to trip on the line strewn about the platform where I had been casting from. DeAndra had woken up during all of the ruckus, and had seen my efforts but was so tired that she didn’t take long to fall back asleep.
With Valentino scouring the horizon again for more fish, we spent another hour looking for another school of fish but none were seen. We did see three other boats doing the same, and did observe one fisherman who was hooked up, but that was about it. While searching for the Tarpon, I saw a school of a few thousand sardines pass directly under the boat, which was pretty neat when you consider how clear the visibility is compared to British Columbia. I also got to see two big rays and a shark, all of which poor DeAndra missed out on.
With the sun climbing higher in the sky, Valentino suggested that it was a good time to head back to land and hit the mangroves. He fired up the 25HP Yamaha outboard and we started in for land, watching flying fish skim along the surface beside us as we picked up speed. So damn cool.
Within an hour we were back in sight of land, approaching the entrance to the massive mangrove swamp where the Baby Tarpon nursery was. Valentino expertly guided the panga through the maze of channels in the mangroves, zipping along a full throttle through tight gaps between trees and giving us a thrill ride while cruising past flocks of brown pelicans hanging out looking for an easy meal. The ride into the swamp reminded me of when Martin Sheen was on the American Navy gunboat blasting up the river in Apocalypse Now, minus of course the shooting and destruction.
Valentino guided the panga into a wide open spot, and shut down the motor. He hopped up onto the back of the stern platform and began using the long push pole to silently move the boat around, searching for Tarpon.
Within a few minutes he spotted a group of about three or four, and quickly pointed them out to me. They were neat looking fish, gliding along just under the surface and occasionally breaking the barrier of the water with their angular dorsal and tail fins, their huge scales casting glints of sun as the milled about. As soon as he felt we were within casting distance, Valentino gave me the direction to cast.
I threw out my first cast, not doing too bad this time as I had switched from the 12 wt to the 10 wt rod now and was enjoying the slightly more responsive feel of the lighter gear.
“Strip, strip, strip, strip….fast…fast” Valentino ordered. I stripped as fast as I could and didn’t get a hit.
“Again, now at 9 o’clock” my guide instructed, after spotting a few new fish off the port side of the bow. I made the cast, heard the orders to strip (fast) and made my best efforts. And then, it happened!
Suddenly the line went tight and it felt like I had just hooked the rear bumper of a fast moving car heading in the opposite direction. My immediate reaction of course, being the trout and salmon fisherman, was to try and set the hook my lifting the rod.
“No, don’t lift the rod, point the tip down and strip line in!” Valentino yelled. But it was too late. Years of setting the hook in the traditional trout style has been so ingrained in me that I had already committed the carnal mistake before he gave the warning. The fish, and my hopes of landing my first one, were gone.
“Holy shit!” I said. “I’ve never felt anything hit that hard in my life!” And I wasn’t kidding. I know how it feels to fight our beloved prized Steelhead here in Canada, but the way they take a fly is much different for sure. These guys just hammer it, and hard. Valentino then explained that the trout set won’t work for Tarpon, as their mouths face upwards. If you try a traditional hook set you will simply rip the hook out of the mouth. By pointing the rod tip down low and stripping, your chances of properly hooking the fish are much higher.
Over the next few hours I managed to hook up another four times, and each time I couldn’t switch off my brain and set the hook the proper way. It was both incredibly frustrating, and incredibility exhilarating at the same time. These Baby Tarpon, which by my estimation were between 12 to 20 pounds, were a lot of fun to try for. If a Tarpon of this size hits this hard, I can’t image what it’s like to catch one over 100 pounds.
With the heat now reaching unbearably hot levels, and it being too hot for my bare feet to even stand on the white fore deck of the boat, we called it a day and took a nice leisurely trip back to the hotel. I may not have been able to land one of these fish, and from what I am told they are ten times easier to catch than Bones or Permit, I can certainly see how this type of fishing could very easily become a lifelong addiction. I’m hooked and I can’t wait for another chance to give it a try.
As for Sandflea, when we returned back to the beach he was also just heading in, and when I spoke to him he told me that his group had landed a 120 pound Giant Tarpon on the blue water. I asked him if it would be possible to go again with him later on in the week, but he told me that he is booked many months in advance. I followed him back to his house as we unloaded the gear, helping out and chatting with him about his experiences. For those of you who have met Sandflea, you’ll probably all agree that he is the nicest, most generous salt of the earth guy that you’ve ever met. I truly enjoyed meeting him, and the company of our guide Valentino. Sandflea invited me into his house for a quick hello to his family, who were all working in assembly line fashion (from Grandmother to wife to kids) preparing the meals for the next day’s fishing trip. As I spent a few dollars buying the pre-requisite T-Shirt and long sleeve shirt to commemorate the trip, I was in awe at the photos that completely covered the entire main wall of his living room. There was photo after photo of Sandlflea posing with monster Tarpon, Permit, and various other fish. This man lives and breathes for this type of fishing, and it’s evident in the passion and dedication he shows for his craft. His house was modest, and his belongings meager, but the wealth that surrounded him in terms of family and passion for his beloved Isla Holbox and the fishing within was overwhelming.
For anyone that is interested in going fishing for Tarpon off the Yucatan, I highly recommend hooking up with Alejandro “Sandflea” Vargas. The experience is money well spent.
You can reach him at www.holboxtarponclub.com.