OF FAR AND AWAY
The big 3/0 Cockroach makes an ominous sound as it buzzes past my ear, but I am oblivious to all else but the big tarpon weighing what seems to be at least a hundred pounds, surfacing fifty feet from the boat, and the necessity of getting the fly to it before it either sees us or turns away. The presentation is good, and without hesitation the tarpon inhales the fly and it instantly disappears in the large cavernous opening that it has for a mouth, and blissfully ignorant of impending danger, it turns almost lazily away. Adrenaline levels peaking, I react instinctively and strike down hard with my stripping hand, simultaneously pulling the rod in the opposite direction in an effort to set the hook in the fish's bone hard jaw - but to no avail. My hand, still slimy from the fish landed minutes before, fails to get a good grip on the fly line, and even before the mighty fish rears up into the air like an exploding missile in response to my puny efforts, I know the battle is lost even before it begins. Almost disdainfully, akin to the swatting off of a bothersome insect, the tarpon shakes it's head and reclaims what was never mine - not even fleetingly - its freedom.
Shaking with excitement, I frantically put the rod down and embark on what I was about to do - re-tie my header - before Erlindo had urgently, but softly, pointed out the arrival of a big one. This had resulted in the above malaise and, in that, lies another lesson. It all started out more or less like this:
The day was bright and clear and the water fairly calm, the flats having recovered significantly from the strong winds that had buffeted them relentlessly for the two preceding days. We were on our way to Cangrerio, a section of flats which lies opposite the southern tip of Ambergris Caye in Belize, Central America, where our guide hoped to find the big tarpon that had so far skillfully eluded us.
This was our 10th day as guests of El Pescador lodge, a Belizean destination well known, amongst other things, for good tarpon fishing. Although I had visited these shores and this lodge a couple of times previously, it was now under new management and Frontiers, our travel agent, assured us that the new owners were as supportive of fly fishers as their predecessors. The previous owners, Kathleen and Jurgen, I recall with fond memories. They ran a tight ship and consequently I was happy to find that Ali and her brother Logan Gentry (who is a keen fly fisherman himself) had the same approach. Although Logan was in the States on business during our stay, our pretty hostess more than made up for his absence. After two years of running the lodge and having survived the rigours and aftermath of the hurricane "Mitch" which narrowly missed their island, Ali has become a seasoned hand at seeing that everything, from fishing to accommodation and meals, runs smoothly. But more about this later.
Time was fast running out and I was somewhat desperate to spot and hook a big fish. Being winter, I was not over confident, despite several sightings and the hook-up and landing of 'smaller tarpon in the preceding few days. However, Erlindo our guide, felt sure that we would find our quarry and I was keen to believe him - he had an uncanny knack for finding fish in the 200 square miles of flats surrounding our little island. Still, previous experiences kindled in me a doubt which the vast expanse of flats that surrounded us seemed to underscore - on some days you can be besieged by fish, and on others the flats may seem as empty as a grave diggers soul - but that, I knew, was tarpon fishing.
Cangrerio did not live up to its reputation, so we turned the boat back to Savannah, an area where we had previously spotted, hooked, lost and landed a few fish, but nothing approaching the hundred pound mark and the trophy I so desperately sought. With cold fronts periodically pushing over the flats, one could never be sure if the tarpon would show, and if so, whether they would be on the feed. But in all fishermen hope springs eternal, and this was what had made me rig up two brand new leaders the night before, albeit with some difficulty after a sumptuous meal and a body weary from battling the sun all day long. So, en route to Savannah rechecked all knots and the sharpness of hooks - I though I was ready and hoped to see at least one good fish, but boy was I ever wrong!
As we neared the spot, we saw a bait fisherman into a fish (this was a good sign) and soon thereafter the first tarpon was sighted - moving fast and away from us. The guy with bait lost his fish on a jump, and Erlindo moved closer poling the boat into position. I scanned the area around us for a likely target. The sun was climbing higher and affording us better visibility in the slightly discoloured water - a result of the excessive wind the previous few days. The spot that we were fishing was one of the deepest areas in Savannah and with the cold wind having cooled off the shallower areas, a likely place to find fish.
If in all the years that I have fished, I have learned only one thing, this would be that you can bargain, as far as fish are concerned, only on the fact that they are fish. For every other rule there is an exception. Just as you think you have figured out their pattern, they will invariably do something quite to the contrary. Frustrating as that may be, it does however remain one of the reasons why I will never tire of this delightful pursuit.
So on this day, when the fish came, they came in droves. In the space of five hours we must have seen at least sixty fish, the smallest being the ones I eventually hooked. Of the fish that we saw I estimated at least twenty percent as being upwards of 80 lb, with a goodly proportion' safely past the 100 lb mark. This was what we came for and the excitement was palpable. But the fish were deep - too deep. This and the slightly discoloured water allowed them to sneak right up to the boat and then spook at the sight of a rod arm being lifted, let alone try and place a fly in their direction. there were, as explained, the exceptions. Fish that came higher in the water allowed me to place casts up to 70 feet away, but again frustration ruled as fish after fish followed the fly with little interest, and sometimes not at all. In desperation I turned to Erlindo for some advice and after numerous fly changes he simply shook his head and muttered that the fish were just not aggressive enough. They were not feeding. Period.
Midday and countless casts later, I sat down to evaluate the situation. The couple of boats in our area had also experienced the same, with no fish being taken. Yet, there were so many fish around that it seemed like they were packed into one big school moving around in our immediate vicinity trying to find shelter from the colder, shallower water. Schooling fish. Yes! In that lay the answer. Place the fly in .such a way that if a fish moves toward it, even with but little .interest, that movement would possibly stimulate the feeding instinct of the fish behind and another quick, accurate cast to that fish may well solicit interest. Well, that was the theory at least. Whether it was the reason for my subsequently hooking three fish in quick succession or, maybe the midday heat that brought them on the bite, I guess I'll never know, but something worked and soon I was hard into a tarpon jumping wildly into the air, and apart from attracting the attention of everybody else on the flats, doing what tarpon usually do.
It therefore came as no surprise when, close to the boat, the fish made one last desperate jump, summoning energy from who knows where - and threw the hook. Somewhat dejected and tired after the battle, I sat down and tied on a fresh leader but with new hope in my heart. The same tactic worked again and this time the fish did not escape - the King was mine, for a moment. The smell and touch of him lingering on even as he swam away confused after being released. I sat down again, this time hardly managing to wipe the smile off my face. My leader was looking much the worse for wear, but I first reached for a rag to Wipe my hands of the slime from handling the fish I had just released before tying a new leader, when Erlindo spoke softly but urgently. "Big fish - 8 o'clock - sixty feet - coming closer..." I jumped up, discarding whatever I held in my hands and reached for my rod. Frantically I stripped off line, the fish was turning away, but no, he turned back to the boat! He was a big one, the one I had come to get, the trophy. I flicked the line backwards to load the rod and with my eyes fast on the fish, I made the cast. The rest as they say, is history...
10 to 12 weight rod, good quality salt water reel, floating or intermediate line and at least 250 yards of 20 or 30 lb Dacron are the minimum requirements. Standard tarpon leader with 80 to 100 lb hard mono shock tippet. Although I.G.F.A. regulations stipulate 12 inches for the shock tippet, you will be well advised to make this at least 24 inches long, as you won't be there to try and claim a record, and it will afford you a better opportunity to land your fish. A good tip on how to prevent or at least minimise the chances of a broken rod, is to keep your class tippet within the confines dictated by the rod you are using. Oil 10 weight rods this will be anything from 15 to 20 lb (depending on the rod) as opposed to a 12 weight which will usually go from 20 to 25 lb. A 40 to 50 lb butt section is my preference, but some anglers go down to 30 lb. Flies are the classic tarpon patterns, with lighter colours being more successful. Especially those with grizzle in orange, red and natural colour combinations, in sizes 210 to 4/0. Other patterns like Deceivers and streamer patterns will also have their day, as will a surface fly like a popper if you feel brave enough (and your heart strong enough).
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