Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Two Versions of the Story

The Old Testament doesn't have much in the way of fine print.  But if one were to read between the lines in search of the story of the tarpon, I'd imagine it goes something like this: "On the fifth day God created all the fishes of the sea, and birds of the air.  As night was falling, and the day was almost done God realized that he had created many species of minnows - the prey for many, but the predator or master of none.  Taking pity upon this group of fish, he decided to create one last specie that would make up for the other's shortcomings.  God created the tarpon - a minnow that grew to unfathomable sizes, possessed unbelievable strength, and a coat of armor that could only be defeated by the sharpest of teeth and the strongest of jaws.   And lastly, to protect the fish from anglers who wish to catch it, he gave the tarpon a mouth consisting of bone - making them difficult to hook, and even harder to land.

For the evolution theorists out there Megalops Atlanticus represents the pinnacle of piscatorial development.  Millions of years of natural selection has culminated in a fish that has the ability to grow to incredible sizes, is largely composed of red muscle - perfect for power and endurance, and who's complex swim bladder serves as a rudimentary lung.  The fish's range extends from Cape Hatteras to Argentina, and it is able to withstand a wide range of DO levels, pH levels, and temperatures.  Over millions of years they have developed in to one of the most sought after species for anglers - as their strength and leaping ability often culminate in some of the best sport fishing opportunities in the world.

Heading to Holbox started out as an accident - an earthquake in Chile last March canceled my fishing plans, and a friend and I were left scrambling to find an alternate destination.  With the help of a generous angler, we found ourselves flying across the Gulf of Mexico to Cancun.  A couple hours drive, and a short trip across the bay we found ourselves at Sandflea's house.  Sandflea owns the Holbox Tarpon Club and is one of the most accomplished fly fisherman probably in the entire world - he's landed 135 permit, and probably boated more big tarpon than anyone in the entire world (although he's long lost count of that number).  He consistently has opened up his house and his table to me, and has become a good friend.  As special as the fishing is on Holbox, it wouldn't be the same without Sandflea and his lovely wife Ellia.

It's hard for me to decide where to start when telling this story of my trip down there.  Admittedly, I'm currently suffering from a bout of post trip depression.  After spending nine days bouncing around in a panga, waking up in my own bed just doesn't feel as nice.  The first thing I remember was after catching up with Sandflea, he asked to see my tarpon box.  I'd spent a lot of time tying for this trip, and had tied up traditional tarpon patterns up to 4/0's.  He looked at me and said that my hooks were too small.

By this point all the days have blended together a bit, and I don't quite remember what happened when - but I do remember what happened, and how it did.  So I'll start by describing the fisheries.

Holbox offers two distinctly different fisheries.  The first is for the big tarpon - and takes place in slightly deeper water.  These fish range in size from 60 lbs. up to 200+ lb. monsters.  In most places with big tarpon they are only present during certain times of the year, however, this fishery boasts both resident and migratory fish and creates an opportunity for anglers to catch a trophy fish anytime weather conditions allow.  The second fishery is in the creeks, mangroves, and flats in the bay created by a peninsula where the town of Holbox lies.  This shallow water habitat is home to baby tarpon, snook, barracuda, and many other species.  No matter what the wind direction or speed there is always somewhere to fish.  It's this second part for baby tarpon that I'll take on today.

Whenever you're headed saltwater fishing, you have to change your attitude and expectations to be dependent on the weather.  Sun, wind, clouds, rain, temperatures, etc. all come in to play on the flats, and anglers are truly at mercy of the weather.  Luckily during my stay the weather was generally good.  A small cold front came through and brought quite a bit of wind, but the opportunity for good fishing was still present.

I think Jimmy painted a pretty accurate picture of what fishing for big tarpon is like in Holbox.  A long cast headed outbound to intercept a school of rolling fish.  A momentary pause to let the line settle down to the depth where they are.  A series of steady strips ending in a dead stop.  A millisecond of dead weight ends in chaos as an enormous fish surges away with all of it's might breaking lines, tackle, and egos as it explodes out of the water and shakes it's massive head.  Anyways, I'll speak more about this on another day.

Baby tarpon present a fun, and a bit more manageable challenge for anglers.  Instead of a 12 weight, you can fish something less.  Although they challenge angler's skill with their hard mouthes, electrifying jumps, and spooky nature they are still on their way to obtaining the size and power of their older kin.  The places where the live are often pretty, and sometimes hard to get to.  However, like any other fishing experience, the more difficulty encountered getting there the greater the reward and half of the experience is simply getting there.

Some days you find the babies everywhere you look, and others you might only see two or three.  As Sandflea would say, "That fishing baby."

Saltwater shallow water sight fishing is one of the most exhilarating experiences in fly fishing.  It requires accurate casts, calculated strips, and a precise and powerful strip-set at the exact moment your fly is eaten.  Any mistake is immediately apparent as the target spooks, and disappears with a series of powerful tail strokes in a cloud of mud or sand.  However, the culmination of a good cast, solid take, strong set, and a properly played fish is a great reward, and is worth taking on the challenge.  

These "bambinos" are the future of the fishery.  Give them another 60 (yes, sixty) years and they'll look more like this...

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