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.

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