Monday, April 27, 2015

Tarpon Cay Lodge Trip Report: Part Two... The Fishing Details

If you've ever wanted to fish Tarpon Cay Lodge on the western shores of the Yucatan for baby tarpon, here are the fishing details you need to know!

Tarpon Cay Lodge offers some of the best fly fishing for juvenile tarpon (called sabalitos in Spanish... meaning little tarpon) to be found anywhere in the Americas. Anglers find tarpon cruising the outside turtle grass flats, roaming mangrove-lined rivers, probing creek mouths and staging in the bays beyond.

A competent angler can jump a dozen or more sabalitos a day and if lucky, put a few in the boat too. Tarpon Cay Lodge is a world class angling destination and a must-do for serious saltwater anglers. Here are the details on how to equip yourself and what you can expect regarding the technical requirements of fishing the area.


The TCL guides can often find fish on all stages of the tide. They work hard to do so, see fish incredibly well, pole quietly (with their hand-hewn white mangrove poles), work a staked-out panga as well as anybody I've ever seen, position the boat quickly to conform to an angler's casting window and yet somehow manage to be relaxed, enthusiastic and supportive.

Carlos poles at dusk

The guides are always on time for both the morning and evening sessions. They try hard to accommodate anglers needs as much as possible. Tarpon Cay Lodge is managed by Captain Marco Ruz. He is an experienced fly fisherman and knows well the needs of visiting clients. Marco's guides, Carlos, Chris and Martin use stable 18' pangas. These boats have well proportioned casting decks, seat cushions and plenty of room for gear. They are powered by 40 hp. Yamaha 2 or 4 stroke engines. All fishing is conducted out of these pangas. (There is no wading in any of the fishing areas so don't bother to bring wading shoes.) The fishing begins five minutes from the lodge and takes no more than 25 minutes to arrive at the most distant areas. Each guide communicates with the others so there is no stepping on each others toes. 


Anglers usually fish fast 8 or 9 weight rods with quality reels with disk drags. You will be fishing a floating fly line most of the time as the tarpon are usually found in very shallow areas sometimes as little as one foot deep! Lightweight, slow sinking, or top-water flies are mandatory. Floating lines are perfect for the variety of environs found near TCL which includes shallow turtlegrass flats, mangrove-lined coasts, rios and the mouths (bocas) of these rivers. It's good to bring at least two rods so you can rig one with a floating fly for the rios and shallow bays and the other with a subsurface or neutral density fly for the outside flats.

Suggested fly lines are: Rio Tarpon Taper, Tropical Clouser, Tropical Outbound SHORT. Most line companies makes equivalent lines.

In June through August, larger 30-90 lb. migratory tarpon travel into the area demanding a 10 wt. rod and floating, intermediate with clear slow sink tips and sink tip lines. 

Suggested fly lines for pursuing migratory tarpon in moderate water depth or to keep fly beneath the chop on the surface are: SA 400 grain Tropical Streamer Express Clear Tip, Rio Deep Sea 350 – 450 grain,  Rio Tropical Outbound SHORT WF/F-I and Rio Tarpon Taper WF/F-I. 


The truth is you don't need any specific fly patterns. Spin a natural deer hair head cropped close (or use a bit of foam wrapped with thread) for buoyancy, add a few strands of bucktail to avoid fouling hackle tips splayed-out tarpon style and a bit of Kraft Fur to cover the hook. Then add a few strands of Krystal Flash. In ten minutes you're done. These flies float or ride just below the surface. For juvenile tarpon in shallow water this simple tie works like a charm. Red, yellow, orange, black Kraft Fur with natural grizzly, yellow grizzly, or tan grizzly hackle is best.

As expert fly tier Doug Jeffries said: 

"If you didn't want to be fancy this fly in different colors and sizes would probably work 80% of the time. Easy peazy. The bigger fish on the outside flats jumped on the tan version. I think it looks like a mullet or sardine. I'd tie up a yellow or orange version with more flash to use in the rios."

So, what this means is (as with all fly fishing) the key is presentation. If you can cast a 9' leader, GREAT!… if you can cast a 10-12' leader, so much the better! If the tarpon are happy and unaware of your presence, they will eat! I'd definitely make sure I had smaller flies in size 1 or even 2. Total fly length would be 2 to 2.5 inches. maximum 3 inches. Flies with mono snag guards are highly recommended especially when fishing deep in the sticks or in very shallow water.

Simple baitfish flies in size 1 work well for baby tarpon

Flies for Baby Tarpon:

In no way do you need all these flies, These are just some patterns that work well. I think flies should be tied on Tiemco 600SP hooks, Gamagatsu SS 15, or Owner Aki black hooks size 2, 1, to 1/0.

Merriman’s Tarpon Toad II (chartreuse, purple/black)
Flashtail Whistlers in yellow/orange; white/red and red/black, natural grizzly
Grizzly Flashtail Whistler bruised and a bit beaten from catching fish!

Tarpon Neutralizer
Shrimp Neutralizer
Slide Ball Slider
Deep Cover Shrimp.
TCL special – size 1 and 1/0 WORKS GREAT, but hard to purchase in size 1!

TCL Special with deer hair collar

TCL Special with foam collar
SeaDucers (red/white, red/yellow, or “cockroach”)
Puglisi Tarpon Streamer (Everglades Special, brown/tan, yellow/orange)
Haskin’s Foxxy Minnow (flesh, olive)

Haskin’s Foxxy Minnow

Megalopsicle 1 and 1/0
Mayan Warrior 1 and 1/0

Top Water Flies for Baby Tarpon: 

Puglisi Floating (Everglades Special, red/yellow) – size 1 and 1/0
Haskin’s Deep Cover Shrimp (weedless - tan/prawn) – size 1 and 1/0
Charlie’s AirHead - mullet or sardine

                          Airhead Mullet
Mini Gurglers (white, red/white, black ) – size 1 and 1/0


                                                                  S.S. Flies Gurgler
Haskin’s Floating Minnow (gray-griz/white, red/white, orange/yellow) - size 1 and 1/0 
Floris Van Den Berg's Cigar

Floris tying his "Cigar" (in foreground)

My 5 minute quick-tie "cigar" done after  siesta… and it worked!

Migratory Tarpon: 

SeaHabit (sardina color) – size 2/0
Whistler (red/white) – size 2/0, 3/0

Thalken’s Cruiser (anchovy / sardina) – size 2/0
Haskin’s Foxxy Griz (minnow-white) - size 2/0 or 1/0

Topwater Flies for Migratory Tarpon: 

Crease flies (black/silver, olive/silver, brown/gold) – size 1/0 and 3/0
Charlie’s AirHead (chartreuse/white, grey/white) – size 1/0 and 3/0



Leaders needn't be too complicated, but remember the leader is the final connection between you and the fish so it needs to be well-tied. Leader systems with efficient tapers and strong knots deliver accurate presentation of the fly and solid hooking power. Here are a variety of leader systems that work well: 

Rio Striped Bass Leader – 7 foot, 22 lb + Jinkai Shock (or equivalent for baby Tarpon): This is the simplest and highly effective baby tarpon leader setup. Utilize this leader with an Albright knot to connect shock tippet (40-50# Jinkai hard mono). Total leader length is about 10 feet. 

Simple Hard Mason Three Piece Leader + Jinkai Shock (recommended for baby Tarpon): Here is the formula for building this simple, but effective leader system. The tapered butt section consists of 3 - 4 feet of Mason 30# blood knotted to 2 - 3 feet of Mason 25 lb.. Blood knotted to this is an 18” section of Mason 20 lb. as your class/breaking tippet. Lastly, you use an Albright knot to connect a 2 - 3 foot section of shock/bite tippet (40- 50# hard mono.) NOTE: if you do not wish to tie your own leader systems, make sure to bring all of the leader materials and your guide will tie your leaders for you.

My No stress leader system for baby tarpon is 3.5 feet 50 lb. to 3.5 feet 40 lb to 3 feet 30 lb. all knots tied with double surgeons. VERY SIMPLE!

Quigley’s Twisted Leader System: This leader system utilizes a series of twisted mono sections to form the tapered portion of the leader. This leader has exceptional turnover power and shock absorption with its twisted line configuration. Added to this is a 2 – 3 foot section of shock/bite tippet (80 lb. Jinkai hard mono) attached with a No-Name or Albright knot. 


Baby Tarpon

Tarpon Cay Lodge: 30-50 lb. monofilament 

Migratory Tarpon

Tarpon Cay Lodge: 80 lb. monofilament 



Friday, April 24, 2015

Crooked Island with Jeff Rodenberg and his Daughter Marley

If you'll remember, Jeff Rodenberg was going with his daughter, Marley to Crooked Island in the Bahamas. Jeff's intentions were to test some bonefish flies and report back on their success… well, family trips have a way of morphing away from an angler's original intentions. Here is Jeff's trip report… Thanks Jeff…  very cute story, cute daughter… looks like you had a GREAT trip!
(other lodging options on Crooked Island here)

Hey Scott,

A note to let you know that Crooked was simply awesome...because it was pretty much 180 degrees different than expected and planned for, and I love that!!! To me the best times are actually when things require one to throw every preconceived notion out the window, and just have a blast making it up as you go along. Maybe it's because I work in an honest to God Dilbert cartoon where people who think planning, processes, and predictability is somehow the key to business success more so than simply being flexible enough to respond to the needs of customers for quick solutions, but I digress…

Nice Mutton Snapper

Kenny Scavella throws the cast net

We arrived on the full moon/spring tide and bones were just not right. Not moving onto the flats, just humpin' around with each other out in the bays in big muds. So Kenny (who is honestly as much a friend as a guide given the amount of time we've spent together) and I decided to spend some time on the permit. And of course, I totally lost composure and blew it on: 

A.) two that were easy pickin's on the back of a ray
B.) one 30-40 pounder that was as cluelessly happy as I've ever cast at
C.) a pack of a dozen that were fighting over everything…

At one point I could hear Kenny from the platform say "Jeff, remember to haul man!"...I honestly can't remember a time in fishing over the last 40 years when I've been so totally mindless - try as I might to remind myself "it's just a damn fish",  I was standing there on the deck with line drooping everywhere, a quarter sized welt on my ass from the whack of a crab fly, and laughing along with Kenny and my daughter about my almost incoherent blathering excuses...I honestly think that will go down as one of my most favorite fishing memories of all time…

Kenny Scavella and Marley
And here is the best part...after all this mayhem was over, I hear daughter Marley in the boat...."Buddy?"....

Jeff; "yeah"

Marley; "if you hook a permit, can I reel him in?"..............................

Crisis point as a parent! For the last 5 years I've slobbered over getting a permit...but at the same time, you live for doing everything in your power to enrich you children's lives, give them opportunities you never had, live for their smile....

But I had to be honest...and said... "Hell no! Marley, I'll contribute significantly to your college education, will buy you your first car, but are you nuts? Reel in my first permit? Are you crazed? ...."

She was cracking up. Kenny about pissed himself and added.."Maaaalllllley...I tink you crossed da line..."....A moment that she loves telling a story about…

We did whack a few bones in the muds to let Marley have some fun cranking them in, spent a day pilchard fishing the reef for mutton snapper which Willie cooked up and made a big deal about Marley catching dinner for all of the patrons, and it was homecoming week on Crooked which made it perfect for showing a beautiful little lady that which makes the real Bahamas (aka anywhere but Nassau) such an incredible place. I found out last weekend that Marley told one of her gymnastics friends that it was the best vacation she'd ever been on….

So bonefish fly experimentation will have to wait (and I wouldn't have it any other way) until next time, and in favor of spending some time on ideas Kenny and I passed around on permit flies. But most of all, I'll cherish the time I've had with all 3 of the 4 ladies who have made several trips so damn memorable, and whether or not they become avid bonefish anglers, be so very thankful for the bond that flyfishing in the Bahamas has given us...

I've a few more pictures I'll send along....


Thursday, April 23, 2015

Tarpon Cay Lodge Trip Report: Part One of Two

Tarpon Cay Lodge
Trip Report
April 11-18, 2015

A few hours drive northwest from Cancun gets you into  the Mexican state of Yucatan. This is the heart of Mayan country and far from the insanity found on the Caribbean coast. In Yucatan, the lovely countryside is dotted with farms and small villages. The Gulf of Mexico lies off its north coast. On this coast, the Mexican government has set aside the Rio Lagartos Marine Preserve. Reminiscent of the Florida Everglades, this area hums with life. Inshore commercial netting and fishing is prohibited making it a Mecca for saltwater fly fishermen.

Rio Lagartos is an area of very shallow water, turtlegrass flats and mangrove-lined backcountry rios, lagoons, creeks, and bays. Here, bird life abounds, crocodiles sun themselves on the mud banks and small barracuda and an ever-increasing number of snook search for their next meal. But there is one more actor in this cast of characters that draws anglers from all of the world. These shallow waters boast huge numbers of juvenile tarpon in the 5 to 25+ lb. range. Schools of tarpon range from just a few to well over a hundred on the outside flats. In the rios and bays, the 5-10 lbs. sabalitos weave in and out these sheltered areas depending on the stage of the tides. But what truly makes this area special to the angler is the sheer number of fish and that almost all of the fishing is done with floating lines to tarpon in one to three feet of water!

If this flips your switch, here is the report from our recently concluded April 11-18 trip:
At times, we searched hoping for some signal to pierce the ocean’s polished surface. We scanned for a swirl or a small shudder a hint to help us find the tarpon in all this endlessly rippling water. At other times it was simple and the sabalitos seemed to be everywhere... a tail, a dorsal fin, the expanding rings from a single or the roll of a phalanx of 10-20 lb. sabalitos made the job of spotting them seem almost easy. Then it was game on. If you made a good cast, guessed right and placed your fly at the eating end...

subtle signs at 100 feet... full blown rolling tarpon at 20

...5-20 lbs. of quicksilver launched itself five feet in the air. Then it was tip down, rod to the side, steady pressure, but not so much that when the fish jumped, you couldn’t bow to take the pressure off the hook. If you did it just right and didn’t screw it up especially on the tarpon’s last unpredictable jump at the boat, you got to see upclose the magnificent beauty of a tarpon.

Our April adventure was an absolutely sensational trip. We had amazing food, comfortable lodging, a very attentive staff and best of all, many moments to remember. Here are just a few examples:
Steve Peskoe and I spent two hours on the edge of a small cenote trying to track and get casts to a school of large sabalitos. These fish cruised around the spring dropping downwind only to charge back to circle the cenote. We jumped a bunch, but landed only a few. We found increasingly creative ways to lose fish all the way from the first jump to the sixth or seventh.

On Day 3, Anna Riggs and I sightfished to schools of double-digit sabalitos that snuck in over lush turtlegrass in 24 inches of water. We cast to wave after wave of fish with thousands of birds flying over Isla Cerrito in the background ...until suddenly it stopped. A tremendous morning indeed.

At the end of a sensational day with my old friend Jim Woollett, I made an absurdly long cast directly into a fireball that was the setting sun. The cast garnered a huge leap by a tarpon that I never came tight to given all the line I had out. A beautiful, if unproductive encounter.

John Riggs on the deck

John Riggs and I felt a bump against the panga’s hull. Crocodile? snook?... as I was mulling the potential culprit a six lb. tarpon whizzed past my head almost hitting me in the mouth before it landed in the bottom of the boat. The unhooked fish then went beserk. Scales, tarpon goo and pooh flew until our guide Martin was able to corral the fish and get him back in the water. I guess one could say the fishing was so good tarpon were literally jumping in the boat.

On yet another perfect evening, Doug Jeffries launched a big baby right at dusk. This big sabalito jumped a half dozen times before spitting the hook. Each magnificent leap encircled the fish in a halo of molten red water. When the fish logged out after his air time, the ocean splashed orange reflecting the light of the setting sun. Wow!

Anna Riggs with a nice tarpon

And I certainly will never forget our last morning as Anna Riggs and I were surrounded by diving pelicans, terns, cormorants and hundreds of feeding tarpon. You could hear the tarpon pop as they sucked in the baitfish they had pushed to the surface in 2-3 feet of clear water. As the sun came up, we jumped quite a few fish and landed some big ones. I had one memorable take from a 20 lb. fish. I could barely make out the strike and assumed it was a smaller single-digit fish. We were in about 18 inches of water so when the 20 lb. fish jumped, we were all shocked. Chris Adolfo, our superb guide, immediately said, “Good fish, don’t lose him.” I was lucky enough not to. A great moment for me!

As with all tarpon fishing, we each had many great moments and of course, some slow times. We had frustrating long line releases and tremendous pulled-it-off-somehow victories. A fishless morning often became an awesome afternoon and vice versa. This is tarpon fishing! Tarpon are ephemeral, beautiful brutes that teach us to be better anglers. 

More on the fishing in Part II... so perhaps now is a good time to talk about the schedule at Tarpon Cay Lodge…

It may be the most productive and relaxing schedule of any saltwater fishing lodge anywhere. It’s oddly rigorous and relaxing at the same time. Basically a typical day goes like this:

Beto, the superb manager awakens you at 5:00 AM with a hot cup of coffee. Breakfast is at 5:30 and includes traditional American favorites like eggs, bacon, sausage, French toast, pancakes, plus Mexican favorites including huevos rancheros, great salsas and lots of fresh fruit including papaya, pineapple, melons, bananas and apples. Anglers order their breakfast the night before so no precious fishing time is wasted waiting for food preparation. Breakfast is always ready on time and excellently prepared.

...another predawn start!

Then you grab your gear to make the exhausting 21 pace hike from the dining room to the pangas for a predawn departure usually by 6:30 AM. The hotel is built overlooking the harbor literally at water’s edge. On most mornings, we saw the sun rise from the flats.

Fishing boats headed offshore

You fish the best of the morning hours, then return to the lodge for an incredible lunch. (Don’t expect to lose weight on this trip!) Lunches are full meals. No sandwiches and a piece of fruit at Tarpon Cay Lodge. We enjoyed over the course of our week: octopus empanadas, ray empanadas, grilled snapper, fried paprika chicken, fajitas, ceviche etc etc.. every lunch was excellent!


Then, it’s siesta time... you get a few hours to relax, skip the hottest part of the day and miss the least productive fishing hours. At 3:00 PM, we met downstairs, re-rigged leaders, prepared gear and then it was back out on the water a bit before 4:00 PM. We fished until well past sunset. Not many fishing lodges have you on the water for dawn and dusk. This is a truly great schedule and one anglers returning to Tarpon Cay Lodge love.

John Riggs and Steve Peskoe sorting flies

After returning from the afternoon session, we enjoyed delightful evenings at the lodge. We had time after our return to wash up and change out of our fishing clothes even if we got back from fishing well after sun set. Then, it was cocktails outside in the cool breeze sitting on the harbor.

Bohemia, Modelo and Sol beers (and if you were brave, Margaritos... HUGE masculine margaritas in beer steins. Dr. Peskoe called them megaritos) were soon followed by another incredible authentic Yucatan meal with an emphasis on local seafood. We ate dinners around 8:00 PM. We enjoyed grilled yellow tail snapper, grouper and pargo, barracuda ceviche, snook, steamed snapper with coriander, cilantro and garlic... chicken fajitas and beef fajitas... wonderful pork ribs marinated in beer, garlic and pineapple and cooked over real charcoal, traditional sopas, steamed and fried tamales. And to round it out, great desserts like tres leche cake, ice cream and flan.

the hotel

Beto with a barracuda... ceviche tonight!

frigate birds

No one stayed up very late. Maybe long enough to tie a few flies or build a leader, but more often it was off to our rooms after dinner for a quick shower then to bed. After all, 5:00 AM comes all too soon!!

Next, in Part II, fly selection, hints and more fishing details.