Tarpon in Belize

Part Two

Mike Croft

Even I Get Lucky (or)
Big Mike Does Belize (Part 2)

Text and art by Mike Croft

That was it. It was a magic moment. The fish wasn't hooked but I sure was. I like hard fishing just not impossible fishing. This was proving to be as hard as it gets, but it was far from impossible. I made up my mind to become a tarpon fisherman. Damn, am I ever a sucker for a challenge.

An hour later, after Tom had missed one I was back on deck when a school of six came by. cutting right across the bow at about ninety feet. They were moving from right to left. It was perfect, I dropped the fly in the water, loaded my back cast and let fly. It wasn't a perfect cast, two feet short but in front of the fish just the same. I let the fly settle as the first of the shadows came within the strike zone and started my retrieve. The first shadow went by unfazed, as did the second and third. I thought I might be out of the strike zone as the forth and fifth also passed by my offering. The six fish however, peeled off from the school and pulled in behind the fly. like the others he paced the fly. I closed my eyes, not wanting to let what I saw influence my hand. I concentrated of the long strip. Strip. Strip. And then I felt him. I gave him as hard a line set as I could not caring if I broke my class tippet, While I opened my eyes. I was looking at him face to face not twenty feet away. I only had time to make a ring with my left forefinger and thumb to allow my line to uncurl from the deck without tangling on me or the boat.

The tarpon hit the water at a dead run and I watched and prayed that the line would not foul. A split second later I was into the backing. I knew that one set was not enough and so when at last he changed course and the backing wasn't going to cut off a finger or two, I grabbed it and set again. He felt the hook for he came instantly out of the water and when he went back in my line was slack. I was in shock. I stripped my line back to the boat and double checked my leader and fly. There it was, the point was bent over, just like what happens when you hit a rock. Impossible since I sharpen each fly only after it is tied on. The fly hadn't hit a thing but the fish. I walked back and showed it to Abby and he said that it was my bad luck to have hooked him on the inside of the check. An area so hard, a hook will hardly penetrate. Great, I thought, a fish with a mouth like a cinder block.

Nothing I had read had prepared me for how hard the fishes mouth was or how exciting the fishing is. On the way back to El Pescador that night Tom looked over and said, " You know if they rated fishing like they do white water, this would be listed as class five fishing." Truly, I thought. But I'll be back.

The next two days the wind raged, and Savannah flats turned a milky green. The tarpon stayed wherever it is they stay when the wind blows. We kept a lonely vigil on the flats but were not deterred. Abby asked us if we wanted to go for bones, he thought we were nuts to stay on the flats. "No," we told him, "We are here for tarpon."

The last day went by and we only saw one tarpon jumping in the distance.

Olive Tarpon Fly

Fishing: It was truly one of the most exciting trips I have been on. When the weather turns bad there are permit and bones in the shallows. Most destination resorts have only one kind of environment to fish. El Pescador has four. On a calm day you can cross the reef and fish for Dorado, sailfish and Barracuda. If the wind makes up, you can fish the flats for bones and permit or for an extra $25 dollars for gas, you can make a 25 mile trip up to the Belize Mexican boarder and fish the channels through the mangrove swamps.

Tom and I did this on the windiest day. It was a superb outing and worth seeing while you are there. In these swamps the baby tarpon live, along with barracuda and resident snapper. It makes a great and beautiful back up trip. The big attraction is, of course the tarpon flats. We never had a perfect day weather wise, but on our best days we would see 40 to 50 fish, about a half dozen you could get cast to. The wind wasn't a detriment but an added challenge. None of the best things in life come easy, anyway.

Tarpon Flies

Tarpon: There is a year around fishery for tarpon as this area has a permanent tarpon population. May through September is when the larger migratory tarpon arrive. These are the ones over 100 pounds. The resident fish will range commonly up through 60 pounds. You should be armed with flies in the 3/0 range for flats fishing. And number 2 for the mangrove channels that the local guide like to call rivers. For the big flies you should have these colors; red and black, orange and yellow, red and white, and a natural color like you find in the Cockroach. These four colors are a must, but by all means take extras. The baby tarpon up the rivers like a red and white, red and black, and cockroach type flies as well. Remember that the smaller fish will want smaller flies, a size 2 is a good size. Also remember that these river tarpon live there, they know every root and hiding place so don't expect to land a lot of them. Expect to loose one fly per fish and tie your flies accordingly.

Bonefish Flies

Bonefish: There were thousands of bonefish. Most under three pounds although I saw one that might have gone ten. I didn't cast to it as I mistook it for a small nurse shark until it was too late. Another lesson learned the hard way. Sparsely tied crazy Charlies are the key here, in sizes 6 and 8 with white, tan, and pink the preferred colors.

Permit: We only hooked one, and he was on a small olive Merkin size 8. I would stay away from the bigger sizes here also.

Jack Crevalle: We could catch these everyday, and often limbered up our arms on them while the tide would get right for the flats. The jacks had a preference for flashy flies with a lot of white in them. It is not uncommon for the school to get tired of a fly so change colors and you can keep working a school. When they tire of poppers, go sub-surface.

Barracuda: Large, and I mean real LARGE, barracuda work both side of the reef and wire leaders are a must. Of more interest to us were the smaller barracuda that would come willingly to a popper fished in the deeper channels of both the mangroves and the flats. The poppers should be small about the size you would use for small largemouth bass. Color was not critical.

Ladyfish: The nickname for these is "poor man's tarpon" it is unfortunate that they are so overlooked as they are a favorite of mine. Found in the same channels and cuts that the small barracuda are, they are suckers for clousiers tied on long shank hooks in size 6-4. They are a schooling fish and when you find one you usually will find more.

Snook: There are some around and I expect that there are more than people know about. It is just that there is so much other fishing that these have probably been ignored by the local guides.

Guides: At one time Belize was British Honduras, as a result English is spoken virtually everywhere. The guides speak and communicate very well, with several having attended universities in America. On a scale of one to ten the guides at El Pescador are a 10. They will help you spot fish, suggest flies, instruct you on retrieves and pole the boat so that you feel like you are part of a Chet Renson painting. As I do on all trips, I insisted that the guide fish too. I watched on the third day as Abby picked up my fly rod and fired off a 100 foot cast effortlessly. Fear not these guys know their stuff.

Digs: El Pescador Lodge; a white two story lodge and dock surrounded by coconut palms with a nice view of the sunrise and the reef. This lodge has been around for 30 years and is currently owned by Ali and Logan Gentry, daily operations are done by the good humored and gracious Judy Williams. The rooms were good, clean and well ventilated. Showers were in every room. And yes, they have a switch for the rod eating ceiling fans if you are smart enough to use them. There was no evidence of hurricane Mitch that narrowly missed the area last year, this surprised me as I expected to see some evidence of wind damage.

Food: Breakfast is American style with Bacon, ham, eggs, omelets, French toast etc. all the coffee you can drink and fresh squeezed orange juice. I usually cringe when I am told that the food will be buffet style, but I have to hand it to the cooks at El Pescador, each and every meal was superb. The food was a real joy at the end of the day. The lodge also offers a lunch menu to be taken on the boat and these orders are done by Roberto the bar tender.

Beer: They only have one brand in Belize, a local beer that everyone enjoyed. A bottle of Belikan Beer was damn good after a day on the flats.

Sun Block: Coming from the state of Washington, where the lack of sun means you can burn if someone is using flashbulbs at a family dinner. I am going to go one step farther and recommend a brand. Bull Frog, holds up well, real well in the salt water. A number 35 will let you get a little color without burning and is the least rating I would take. For the most part sun block is an absolute necessity. I have seen what can happen if you miss a spot. Expect to burn within an hour. I also suggest you take you Bull Frog with you on the boat.

Hats: A broad brimmed hat will shade your forehead, as this is the one place you want to skip the sun block. As you sweat, the sun block will get into you eyes and it burns.

Sunglasses: Polarized sun glasses are a complete must for flats fishing. Without them you can expect to be fishing blind.

Rods: Tarpon rods in 10 and 12 are standard issue while rods for bonefish should be 6 or 8 weights.

Lines: At Ambergris Caye you will find that most of the water is only three feet deep. This makes your choice of lines easy. Ninety percent of your fishing will be with floating, weight forward lines. There are occasions that an intermediate sinker may prove useful. Learn how to tie on eighty and hundred pound shock tippets. Learn and practice you Bimini and Huffnagle's before you get there. Without them you will only be able to fish for Bonefish and permit. Make your tarpon leaders about the length of your rod. Your bonefish leaders should be about 10 to 11 feet long with about eight pound for your tippet.

Flies: Flies should be on 3/0 and 2/0 hooks. The four most popular patterns are shown in the photos. I was also testing a new fly developed for Mexico, (shown below) in an attempt to see if the resident tarpon would respond to more realism. It accounted for two of the three fish I turned so I have included it as well.

Experimental Fly

It was a great trip! If you have questions, feel free to email me. ~Mike Croft

Part 1

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