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Articles: Snowbirds: Exploring the Yucatan

by: Duncan Hardie

I wasn´t sure if I would make it through the first morning of fishing. The ocean swells were 4 to 5 feet high and we were being tossed around like a cork. My stomach was cooperating but only barely. It took a lot of concentration to stay upright on the casting deck, scanning the surface for the tell tale signs of cruising tarpon.
Then I saw them and my misery vanished.
There were over 100 fish heading straight for the boat, many of them clearly over 100lbs., porpoising on the surface and moving fast, their enormous blue-gray backs glimmering in the sunlight as they cut through the waves.
They are coming. They are coming! shouted Humberto Marfil our guide and Daniel Beilinson my host and partner for the week. Get ready!
I needed no urging and unleashed a 40yd cast in front of the rapidly approaching school. The fly hit the right spot, but the fish ignored it. The heaving of the boat almost threw me overboard as I made my second cast resulting in a tangled line and frustrated invective. I was speechless and terribly embarrassed. But Daniel fared no better, making several quick casts which were also ignored. Then they vanished as quickly as they arrived. It was a sobering experience and one I will not soon forget. So many giant fish, so little time, and no second chance.

We were fishing the Gulf of Mexico off Holbox Island at the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. Daniel, who was in the process of setting up fly fishing tours to target the relatively unexploited giant tarpon which migrate to feed on schools of herring around Holbox every year, had invited me to join him for a bit of exploration. As I discovered that more 100 tarpon over 100lbs are taken there each season I jumped at the chance. The additional promise of excellent fishing for snook, permit and bonefish merely merely sweetened the deal.
The next day Daniel and I were up at 5:30 a.m. and heading out with the hope that conditions would improve and we would more chances than the day before. Over the years, the guides, with the help of GPS, have located the hot spots off the coast where the tarpon feed on large schools of herring. So we headed directly to where our chance of intercepting tarpon was pretty much assured. We were on station by 7:30 am along with several other boats positioned off in the distance to cover as much water as possible. I knew this was going to be another tough day. The swells were still rolling in and the wind had picked up from the east.

It proved to be as frustrating day as I suspected it would be. We had several interceptions early in the morning, but after 10 am the fish had all but vanished. Worse, a tropical storm in the Caribbean had made the ocean and fishing conditions extremely difficult, as the herring seemed to have moved off the shelf, scattering the tarpon schools over a much wider area. Finding them over such an expanse of ocean became quite the challenge. We encountered several large schools in the early afternoon, but not as many as are usual in a days fishing. Nine to ten chances per day are the norm rather than the exception. Our companions in the other boats managed to tangle with several large fish, but lost them in the ensuing battle. From our boat, we watched the spectacular leaps and silver cartwheels of one hooked fish. We found out later that evening that particular fish had stripped the anglers line, ripping off his watch in the process. Not only was the fishing frustrating, but it was also dangerous.
Given the deteriorating ocean conditions, we didn´t hesitate to change our plans for the following day, deciding to cruise the deep channels and flats around Cabo Catoche at the eastern end of the peninsula for baby tarpon and snook. Unfortunately, bonefish once plentiful on the flats have all but disappeared due to commercial fishing some years ago. It was tragic to see the vast expanse of flats devoid of this exciting native species.
We jumped many small tarpon in an around the mangroves. It is a thrilling way to fish for tarpon, with violent strikes, pandemonium, tangled lines and broken leaders with a few explicatives thrown in for good measure. But we were lucky to land four nice specimens ranging from 20lb to 30lbs.
After trying our luck on the baby tarpon, we set off to find the more elusive snook. The edge of mangroves is home to these easily spooked fish. Ranging from 3 to 15 pounds, the Holbox snook will test any anglers skill. Hooking them proved challenging, but landing them even more so. Daniel hooked into a very large one, which took us on a merry chase through the mangroves, but he would not be denied. As Daniel noted a trophy snook usually translates into a mud drenched angler! Once we had corralled the snook Daniel jumped over board and wrestled it into submission. Our Laural and Hardy escapade proved the rule rather than the exception. But who can argue with a 15lb snook! Sight fishing among the mangroves was a tremendous experience to sight fish, but it required great stealth on the part of Humberto and pinpoint casting on our part. All it took was one bad cast to send the fish tearing off into the mangroves.

A couple of days later, we decided to try for bonefish and permit. It took five hours to run the boat around the Yucatan from Holbox to Isla Blanca. We stopped along the way to stalk several large baby tarpon deep in the mangroves, but failed to hook up. By mid-afternoon, we were on the flats of Isla Blanca, where we both lucked into several nice bonefish. But towards the end of the day, the falling tide forced us off the flats. However, I felt a sense of accomplishment at the end of that long, 12hr day. We had circumnavigated the northern Yucatan, explored areas few anglers visit, and had good fishing along the way. So it was off to Cancun for a well-deserved shower and a night out on the town.

For the next few days, we explored the flats around Isla Blanca and early in the morning Daniel hooked into a very large baby tarpon. After a spectacular fight and nine jumps Daniel landed the 50 lb. specimen. It was still early so hopes for a grand slam still seemed possible, as we both hooked and landed several nice bonefish later that morning leaving Daniel one permit short. We broke for lunch and, later that afternoon, encountered a small school of large permit in the 15 to 20 lb. class. They were moving fast across a pure white sand flat, which made them almost invisible. We had several superb chances, but our offerings were ignored. Daniel´s previous experience with these very shy fish led him to suggest switching to a pattern he had designed which was a smaller version of the Velcro Crab, with pronounced brown dots and brown legs to match the predominant crab species of the area.

We quickly switched flies and Humberto positioned us to intercept the circling fish. A perfect cast by Daniel a quick turn by the lead fish and he was on, but for only a few seconds! The level of frustration only grew as it always does when your are permit fishing. Perfect conditions on top of a perfect presentation with a killer pattern produced only sore arms and bruised egos! At that point, we gave up and moved to another location where Humberto had seen several large permit cruising several days previously. To our surprise, several smaller permit appeared just ahead of the boat, cruising just along the edge of the flat. . Daniel was up first, but just could not entice a strike. We let things settle down, and a few minutes later it was my turn. After several not so perfect casts one of the beautiful black-tailed fish surged for the fly, hit and took off across the flat. I was able to get him to the boat, tail him and, after a quick photo op, released him a nice 4 lb fish. However, Daniel could not buy a permit for the rest of the day, even though we encountered several other schools. The slam had eluded us, but the week ended on a positive note, for on the last day, Daniel hooked and landed a nice 5 lb. Permit. It was a great way to end our first fishing expedition together.

The Yucatan Peninsula, with its turquoise waters and excellent fly-fishing has attracted generations of saltwater fly fishers and has established the Yucatan in saltwater fly-fishing lore. It certainly captured my imagination. As a salt-water enthusiast, Holbox Island, Cabo Catoche and Isla Blanca are certainly places I want to revisit. They are definitely next in line to the already famous Ascension Bay. Holbox is still in the development stages as a destination for giant tarpon, but enthusiasts such as Daniel see the potential. The wildness and the many unexplored mangroves and flats offer exciting opportunities for the angler looking for adventure and a grand slam.

Planning a Trip
The relative isolation of Holbox, the limited guiding and tour services and hotel accommodations translates into planning your trip well in advance. Regular schedule and charter flights leave Toronto and Montreal on Saturdays and return from Cancun on Sundays which fits with most 5 day fishing packages. Booking day trips from Cancun will depend on boat availability, but be prepared to overnight on Holbox. Budget for a hefty taxi fare ($120-$140 U.S. one way) from Cancun. The local ferry from Chiquila to Holbox runs on the half hour with the last ferry departing at 7:00 p.m. It you miss the ferry ($3.50 U.S. one way) you will need to hire a local panga ($25 U.S. one way). If you have unlimited time and budget, no problem but booking a package tour is the best and safest way to go. Remember, this is the outback and local bandits are not uncommon in this part of Mexico!

Fly fishing Caribe is one of the few tour companies offering excursions to Holbox and Isla Blanca at reasonable prices (under $1500 U.S.) not including airfare. Check their website at www.flyfishingcaribe.com for trip times and cost details. If your time is limited and it´s a grand slam you are after, they can arrange day trips to Isla Blanca from Cancun, which is easily done in one day. Five day fishing adventures on the flats at Isla Blanca are also available. Fishing occurs year round with May-September being the best months for the giant tarpon at Holbox.
Mexican and some very famous American anglers have fished the giant tarpon of Holbox since the early 60´s. Things were pretty basic then and still are today. Several small hotels cater to tourists (mostly Mexican) and anglers, while a few, and I emphasize a few, local restaurants provide traditional Mexican dishes. Today, there is only one outfitter catering to tarpon fly fishers. Alejandro Vega, our host for the week, has five boats staffed with local guides. He has been in operation since 1996. Over the last few years, an average of 100 giant tarpon over 100 lbs. are landed per season. This is an amazing statistic, especially for an area that has received little attention in the popular saltwater fly fishing literature.

What to Take
Be prepared to be totally self-sufficient. There are few services or ATM machines on Holbox, so you will need enough cash (Mexican pesos and U.S dollars) to cover your stay. Personal medications and a medical kit are a must as a back up. Include a rod and reel kit. Giant tarpon have a way of destroying equipment in short order, making backup equipment essential. This is the Caribbean, so take the gear you would normally take with you when you head south, including polarized sunglasses, insect repellent, sun block, light shirts and pants, sun hat, wading shoes.

Tackle and Equipment
A variety of gear is recommended, but it should be designed specifically for saltwater, especially your lines. If you plan to fish Holbox and Isla Blanca on the same trip you need a 12-wt rod for giant tarpon. You will be sight fishing in deep wate,r so you will need both floating, intermediate and fast sinking lines to match your rod weight. A good saltwater reel with 350 yards of backing is a must. Leaders should include a bimini twist with 20 lb. class tippet or greater, and an 80 lb. or 100 lb. shock tippet. You should have at least 30 leaders pre-tied to get you through the week, as the nearest fly shop is over a hundred miles away! Flies include Black Death, Purple Death, Stu Apte and Cockroach tied in 4/0, 5/0 or 6/0.
For baby tarpon a 9-wt or 10- wt rod with floating line, a reel with at least 250 yards of backing and six to eight foot leaders with 50 to 60 lbs. shock tippet will do the trick. Smaller flies(1/0 and 2/0) in the same patterns used for giant tarpon are preferred, as larger flies have a tendency to spook the baby tarpon.
Snook are challenging at the best of times, given their propensity to head for cover when hooked. A 9-wt to 10-wt rod with floating line, a good disc brake reel with 250 yards of backing and six to eight foot leaders with 40 lb shock tippets provide the best combination for powering big snook out of the mangroves. Flies include Seducers and Deceivers in orange, yellow, red and white, and black tied on 2/0 or 3/0 hooks.

Permit require a 9-wt rod, floating line and minimum 250 yards of backing. A nine to 10-foot leades with a 12lb to 20 lb. shock tippet is the perfect combo. Del´s Merkin Crab, Rag Head and Brown Special tied on #2 and #4 hooks are the favorite patterns. Don´t overweight or overdress the flies. Sand and brown colored patterns are preferable.

An 8-wt rod will do for bonefish. These fish tend to be small (2-3lbs) and shy, so a 10-12 foot leader is preferred. Standard patterns include Crazy Charlie, Gotcha and Bonefish Special in brown, sand, pink, and white tied on #6 and #8 weighted hooks. Add pearl and pink Krystalflash as an attractor, but don´t overdress them.

Daniel is so keen on the Yucatan that he has just published a beautiful coffee table book FlyFishing Mexico: The Yucatan Peninsula (ISBN 987-20546-1-4). The book is published in Argentina and has dual text in English and Spanish Copies should be available in Canada early in 2005. Check The Canadian Fly Fisher website at www.canflyfish.com for details.

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