In October of 2015, following in my traditional pattern of booking some sort of exploration fishing trip in the Fall every year, I was tossing around ideas with a buddy of mine about where to go this year. For those of you who have read my previous post about my experiences last year in October (see Surviving a Harrowing Night on the West Coast) I was feeling a little less inclined to explore more of Northern Vancouver Island this time. Not to say it’s off my list, but I figured I would give it a pass this season, for karma’s sake.
For a number of years now I have been trying to convince the regular trip goers I fish with to think further out than Vancouver Island, and starting investigating heading to some of the more spectacular rivers on the mainland like the Skeena and Bulkley river systems. Not being very successful at trying to pry the boys off the island, I turned to my buddy Steve Ford, who about a year ago did a week long drift down the Dean River in Northern BC, so I figured he’d be up for it. Sure enough, we were both on board with the idea and decided that our destination would be the Bulkley River Valley, with Smithers BC as our base.
We made our plans, set dates, and Steve went ahead and booked transportation and accommodations. Steve happens to work in Alberta’s oil sands, so with slightly overlapping time off we staggered our arrival times with Steve rolling in first and having two days alone to start exploring and nailing down places to go. Steve had visited the area once before, having fished the Maurice River nearby some time ago, but hadn’t had much time on the Bulkley itself. So with all plans in motion, the count down was on and we were both stoked to get on the river!
Luckily for us, time passed quickly and it was soon time for Steve to make his way from Northern Alberta to Smithers ahead of me. Those two days of him being their fishing without me were painful!! As I sat at my desk at work, all I could think of was the huge fish he was undoubtedly catching and all the fun he was having while I stared out my window in between meetings and emails. With patchy reports coming in via text from him, I didn’t receive any photos or texts that would make me go crazy with envy, but I wasn’t sure if maybe Steve was just sparing me the heartache. Either way, the time came for me to pack and go, and I was a happy boy heading to the airport in Victoria BC, gear loaded, and rod tubes in hand.
On board the small Dash 8 aircraft, I realized that I was truly heading into a sportsmans paradise. As I watched the passengers coming on board, more than fifty percent of them were fly fishermen, who like me were toting their prized fly rod tubes in hand while getting on board. I could hear stories being told as we were waiting for the engines to fire up of fish reports from the fly in camps, and of record numbers being reported from prior years trips. I was in good company. Flying into Smithers was uneventful and unfortunately in the pitch dark, so I wouldn’t be able to get a birds eye view of the rivers as we came into town.
Steve had arranged to pick me up at the Smithers airport, and as I was waiting for my bags to come off the plane for pickup I was getting more and more excited, regardless of the darkness and drizzle. As the luggage carousel spun around, fishing gear bags from Patagonia and Simms were more common than suitcases. In the lobby there was an enormous taxidermy Grizzly bear display, and a showcase with a massive 30+ pound Steelhead. Holy shit. This was going to be fun! When my bag arrived, Steve had just rolled up to the door in our rental and we were off to our hotel.
That night we headed to a local restaurant called the Alpenhorn, where we talked, we laughed, we ate, and we drank beer. The thing about Steve and I is that we always laugh hard when we are out together, mostly because we are big kids in adult bodies I think. I’ve known Steve for about 15 years or so, having met him when he and his soon to be wife moved in next door to me. When I saw him roll into his new driveway with his drift boat in tow, I just knew we would be friends. And so it was. Since then we’ve fished a lot together, I’ve seen them get married and become parents, and grow personally and professionally. He’s seen me through a divorce, losing my house, making some mistakes and finally ending up with someone who fits me just right. So I suppose we’ve grown up as adults together. Through it all, we’ve laughed, in fact I think there’s nobody who makes me laugh harder. And I am grateful for that, and his friendship.
As we ended our night, Steve told me that he had not yet caught a fish in the Bulkley, which really surprised me. Steve is an excellent fisherman, and hits the river with purpose. No repeated flogging of the same spot over and over. He works the river and covers lots of terrain, knows the waters and how to read them, and is a very determined fisherman. So if he hadn’t caught one yet, that was troubling. But we went to sleep with lots of high hopes for the next week, and were stoked for morning.
At 5 AM we were both awake and gearing up. The weather report was very favorable for us during our trip, with no rains in the forecast. With a clear sky above us, the temperatures when we set out in the dark to the car were below zero, but we had prepared for it and weren’t concerned about being cold. We headed out to the Bulkley River to fish a spot that Steve had heard about from another friend Kyle, who had been in the area a few weeks prior. With the frost thick on the grass as we made our way across a pasture to the rivers edge, my heart was pounding with excitement!
For the next three hours, Steve and I worked our way up and down the river, making cast after cast into the perfectly paced water. Fishing this river was much different than what I am used to on the island, as there really isn’t any visible structure or river bends that I am normally targeting for those nice slicks that Steelhead like to sit in. Steve explained to me that with these types of wide and mostly shallow rives, the trick is to find “buckets” in the gravel and rocks where the fish will rest. Find these areas hidden under the emerald waters, and you’ll find fish. But with no fish being hooked after three hours of prospecting, we decided to move locations.
Next up on the roster for us was the Maurice River, which feeds into the Bulkley. This was a river that Steve had fished before, so he had some knowledge of where to go and give it a go. By the time we got to the Maurice the weather was nice and we were bathed in sunshine. I hadn’t expected this and ended up getting pretty hot walking up and down the river, resulting in me ditching some of my layers on the river bank and picking them up later on my way back down.
The Maurice was….beautiful. The water was a nice color, not too green but with just the right amount. Water flow was perfect, with that nice walking pace that Steelhead prefer, and the river banks were lined with beautiful fall colors of red, yellow and orange. It was a picture perfect day, which would have been made even better if we caught a fish! But after working the river for the afternoon it was not releasing any prizes to us. But what a stellar day! Truly a beautiful setting and I could feel my love affair beginning to grow for this part of BC.
That night we drowned our sorrows with some beers and pizza, and made friends with the local fishermen at the pub. The one thing I will say about Smithers is that the people are extremely gracious and friendly. Having not been to a small northern BC town before I wasn’t sure what to expect, but to be honest the people we met were fantastic. Everyone in Smithers fishes. And they are more than happy to share stories and suggest spots to try. The town itself is built with a Swiss mountain village theme, and is actually quite a nice little place. It doesn’t hurt of course that the town has Mount Hudson Bay as it’s backdrop, and the rivers winding past vast farmlands of cattle and hay. I wasn’t expecting it to be so nice, but it was a very pleasant surprise indeed.
The next day we woke with renewed enthusiasm, and made our plan for the day. In the morning we would head back to the Maurice, to fish it early rather than later in the day. After that, and depending on how the fishing was, we would probably pick up and move again, to another section of the Bulkley. With our gear on and lunches packed, we hit the road early in the frosty cool morning.
When we got to the Maurice, the sun was just starting to peek between the trees, showering us with rays of bright sunlight that reflected off the morning mist coming off the river. These mornings are my favorite, with the rolling mists making their way across the rivers surface as the warmer waters of the river meet the cold air of the Fall mornings. It was just cold enough this morning to have ice building up in the rod guides after each cast and retrieve, but not so cold that it wasn’t manageable.
We fished pretty hard throughout the morning, each of us casting and quartering our way down the banks for the Maurice, heading in the opposite direction as we had gone the previous day. Despite our best efforts though, we still weren’t able to convince a fish to bite, despite Steve seeing a number of fish rolling. Steve was working skaters all morning, whereas I was using streamers, but nothing was taking what we were offering.
After an unproductive morning, we had a bite to eat and headed out to what is locally known as the “Bridge” hole near Telkwa, (so named after the wooden bridge that spans the river) on the Bulkley. We geared up and proceeded to walk down the railroad tracks that ran along the side of the river until we reached a spot that had rip-wrap along the one side where the bank had been built up to support the railroad. Some intel Steve had gathered before the trip pointed us in this direction, and so we started casting in earnest. When I was about three quarters of the way down the rip-wrap section of the shoreline, I heard Steve give a shout.
“Got one”! he yelled, now watching the line peel out a bit and the rod bend under the strain of a fish. After a brief struggle, the fish was close enough to see and tail, but before Steve had a chance to grab it, it was gone. It was a nice fish, about eight pounds or so, and could be best described as a “typical” sized Bulkley fish. We were both pretty excited that our efforts had paid off, and that at least one of us had gotten into a fish. Now the pressure was on me to make the play for number two.
After fishing through the run a few times each, we packed it in and decided to head towards town. It had been a great day, and both of us were tired from making cast after cast, and keeping ourselves upright on the slippery rocks. As we headed into town, we crossed the highway bridge that spans the Bulkley right before the city limits, and noticed there were a few guys fishing just below it. We parked the rental car, and decided to give it a shot, so we walked up river from the highway bridge about 300 meters, and started casting. To me, the water looked no different that the countless other stretches I had cast to during the day, but after just a few casts, I felt the unmistakable tug of a decent sized fish on the line.
“Wahoooo”! I yelled, trying to wind up my slack line onto the reel, that was now singing it’s happy song. The fish was pulling hard, and it made a few runs back and forth before I was able to get it under control and closer in. Suddenly, the fish made a hard charge up river, then right towards me, making my task of keeping any pressure on next to impossible. And then of course the inevitable happened. The fish…was gone.
It had been an incredible day on the river, with both of us hooking fish but not landing them. Steve only had one more day left before he had to leave, and then I would be flying solo for the next few days before I too had to head home. That night we laid low in the hotel, watching the tube, and strategy for the next day.
For our final day of fishing together, we headed back to the Bridge hole, fishing the same section of rip-wrap again. As it would happen, this time it was me who hooked up, and successfully landed our first fish of the trip. Again it was about an six to eight pound wild fish, very feisty, and in beautiful shape. Part of me felt bad that it hadn’t been my buddy landing it as he was leaving that day, but the other part of me, the steelhead nut, was super pumped that I had gotten it close enough to tail, and grab a quick in the water photo.
We moved around a few more times, hitting the Maurice one more time, and also visiting the worlds largest fly rod in Houston which I have to admit was pretty impressive as giant over the top monuments go. By the time the day was over and it was time to drop Steve off at the airport, we hadn’t hooked another fish and had to admit defeat. That’s just how it is sometimes, and from what we had been hearing from other fishermen in the area, it was to be expected. Fishing had been very slow for everyone, with many not even seeing a fish after a weeks worth of effort. So the fact that we had managed to hook three and land one in just three days fishing together, was a pretty decent result. The gear fishermen had being doing ok, but we were dedicated to fly fishing and hadn’t brought any other gear.
I saw Steve off to the airport, bidding my good friend farewell and a safe trip back. Over the next few days I did some more exploring around the area, visiting both the Skeena and the Kispiox rivers before I left. But that’s…another story.
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.
Ask any fisherman how they did the last time they went fishing. I dare you. The answer you get will depend on a number of factors, for example are you a friend? Or a friend of a friend instead? Perhaps you are just asking someone new that you have run into on the riverbank. Or you’re asking the guy behind the counter at the local fishing store, to see how things have been stacking up in the local rivers. So depending on where you fit into the criteria listed above, the answer you will receive, assuming that it’s more than a grunt or an expletive cast in your direction, you can expect one of the following scenarios.
Highest on the totem pole of honesty will be the response given by a friend, preferably a close friend or even better a fishing buddy. If he or she is truly your friend, you’ll get an honest debriefing about the number of fish caught, species, size and location. You may even get more specific details like size and type of fly pattern, flow rates, and river color. You have therefore reached a certain level of credibility and trustworthiness that permits you exclusive access to this useful information. You sir, are at the top of the trust totem pole looking down.
Now if the person you ask is just an acquaintance, who may or may not trust you entirely or is perhaps in doubt or unimpressed by your fishing resume to date, the answer you get will be different. You might get a fish tally, and a round about general geographical location, but that will probably be the end of the story. You aren’t quite worthy yet of the Full Monty (so to speak) but you’ve at least got your foot wedged firmly in the door to the temple of knowledge. On the totem pole of honesty, you’re somewhere stuck between almost trustworthy to not safe enough to babysit their dog for the weekend.
And finally, if you are in the very last category, where you really don’t have any sort of relationship with the person or people you are asking, you’re likely to receive one of two types of answers. First, is the polite response that the conditions weren’t right for catching fish that day and best of luck with your efforts (also called mind you own business and we slayed them today). The second response will be either nothing at all, or something possibly quite unflattering about your mother.
So where am I going with this line of thought you might wonder? Is this heading towards some sort of rant? Nope, not at all. But the truth is that fishermen are by nature, secret keepers, afraid to reveal where the best fishing spots are for fear that someone will exploit it. Or even worse, tell everyone they know about it and before you know it your secret hole is a repository of empty beer cans, torn open lure packages, and broken camp chairs. The fear of being “found” is so universal that I don’t think that any of the fishermen I know are immune from it. Myself included!
In my prior postings I’ve been open with revealing some of the places that I’ve been fishing, where historically the pressure from outsiders is low. Of course I am not revealing all of my secrets in these stories, but that is mostly because it would take the wonder and excitement out of those like minded adventurers that want to discover them for themselves. But do not doubt for a minute that I didn’t go back and forth about naming the places where I have been, and replacing them with names like Zipper Mouth Creek, or Betchacantfindit Valley.
When it comes to secret keepers, fishermen who have been bitten by the Steelhead bug are by far the most seriously afflicted, and rightly so. With the numbers of wild Steelhead in British Columbia decreasing each year, with little support being given by Provincial and Federal governments alike to protect these magnificent fish, it’s no doubt why Steelheaders are tight lipped. There’s a phrase I’ve heard from more than a few successful Steelheaders in response to my laments of low numbers and the difficulty in hooking a fish:
“It’s not hard to catch a Steelhead you know. The hard part is not in the catching, but in the finding”.
Sometimes there are secrets, and other times you just get lucky.
And they are absolutely right. So it’s no surprise then why a Steelheader who has found a productive section of river keeps it to themselves, sharing secrets only with those select people resting at the very peak of the trust totem. They see the protection of these sacred spaces not as a selfish act, but as their duty as the unspoken guardians of these fish. When you have put enough time in and been through the grind of looking for these ghosts of the river, you grow to appreciate their complexity, strength, beauty, and most of all their vulnerability to outside pressures.
But is this really helping the fish?
As a Steelheader I find myself caught between the desire to share my love for the sport of fly fishing and Steelhead with my desire to not tell anyone where to find them. The paradox here is that by not engaging more people in the sport and allowing them the chance to experience what it’s like to see, catch, and hold one for a brief minute, the public’s level of awareness for their plight is not allowed to grow. Sport fishing is a huge business around the world, and British Columbia is obviously no exception. If fewer people make the effort to fish for Steelhead due to increasingly low numbers of fish and frustration in not catching one, then the interest by the powers that be to protect them will ultimately decline. It’s a tough thing to balance. Talk too much and you risk over exposure. Say nothing and the problems go unnoticed and support for conservation and remediation efforts dwindles.
So how does one climb from ground level bottom dweller to top of the trust totem? The only advice I can give is that it takes time and effort. You have to develop your fishing network, gain trust, prove your worth and your credibility. My experience has shown that you can generally tell the “yahoos and googans” from the serious fisherman and advocate pretty easily. So as a guardian of the river I don’t open the door to everyone. And even those in the circle of the greatest levels of trust and respect don’t always get immediate access to the best spots. I’ve had very good friends of mine not tell me their hot spots before either, and that’s perfectly OK with me. I respect that. Sometimes they let me peek in the crack or through the keyhole to the places that hold their favorite spots, but full disclosure normally only comes in time.
So in summary I guess old Zipper Mouth Creek will continue to flow unimpeded by development for all time, stopping only occasionally at Lost Lake and Fantasy Forest before melting into the depths of the ocean where it’s secrets will be locked away forever. And rightly so.