Mother Nature needed a fish that jumped high, was adorned in stainless steel plates of armor and attacked with reckless abandon. She needed a durable fish that induced shock and awe from all that encountered it, was capable of migrating thousands of miles and was comfortable in murky oxygen-depleted water. She needed an ambush predator with a bucket-sized mouth that could chase, strike and devour prey with a simple flick of its tail. She needed to create the fly angler's dream quarry and a fish that had the potential to thrill, infuriate and addict anglers from near or far, and so she created the tarpon; specifically locos sabalitos - crazy baby tarpon! Mother Nature created perfection when she created the tarpon, and luckily for us, there is a place to experience them unlike any else on Earth.
the silver king
Tarpon are fascinating and prehistoric creatures that are capable of breathing air in low-oxygenated water. While scientists continue to research and study all that they can to understand these incredible fish, there is still a vast amount we don't know about them. In general, these fish grow and mature in the estuarine ecosystems of the Gulf of Mexico, where many juveniles take refuge in the vast mangrove-lined coastlines of the Yucatan. Some anglers believe that most of these babies develop along the abundant mangrove shorelines for the first seven or eight years of their life and grow to an average size of about 30-35 lbs during this time. As they continue to mature and build confidence, they begin seeking larger prey offshore where some believe that fish above 30lbs become migratory in nature and less apt to inhabit the near-shore mangrove edges and instead move offshore to join the migration.
The main portion of the migration is thought to begin somewhere near Panama (or even further south) and extends north through Guatemala, Belize, Mexico and the Gulf of Mexico to the Florida Keys. Females are thought to spawn in deeper open water environments where they may produce millions of minute larvae that eventually are washed back towards the mangroves where the cycle repeats.
The Yucatan Peninsula’s northern coastline extending from Campeche City to Cancun is the world’s premier destination for targeting juvenile tarpon on the fly. There, expansive open-water turtle grass flats and mangrove estuaries create some of the most productive habitat found anywhere on Earth for rearing tarpon.
The coastline is a blur of creeks, rivers, mangrove forests and islands which serves to create a massive estuary, ideally suited to grow baby tarpon. Every square inch of the mangrove forest is teeming with life, from crustaceans to shrimp to baitfish. A veritable cornucopia of life fills these waters and powers a biosphere perfect for juvenile tarpon.
The wide diversity of terrain provides anglers with a challenging array of presentation scenarios. Most commonly anglers cast to small schools of fish cruising and feeding in very shallow open-water flats, sometimes at distances of 80 feet or more. At other times blind casts are made in likely channels, holes or creek mouths tucked in to the mangroves. Occasionally at high tide, you may find yourself skip-casting weedless flies under branches or bow and arrow casting to small pools, simply trying to get the fly in the water.
The black golden hue of a tarpon’s back blends perfectly with the color of the bottom in this area, making it nearly impossible to see them through the water. Therefore, guides are instrumental for reading the surface of the water for telltale signs of fish moving underneath. At times, schools of moving fish from a half dozen to more than 200 can be spotted. At other times you may cast to a single rolling fish, only to find that you spooked a school of 40 fish ten feet from the boat.
Anglers fish in pairs, spending their days in 18-foot pangas, designed specifically for fly fishing. Smaller, size 2 to 2/0 tarpon flies in natural colors that are designed to imitate baitfish or shrimp work best. Fishing surface and waking patterns can be incredibly exciting and addicting while other times a subsurface baitfish imitation might do the trick. Neutrally buoyant fly patterns tied with spun deer hair or bits of foam smoothly glide over the vegetation without hanging up, and whether you’re fishing on top or below the surface, a well-positioned cast to feeding fish almost always draws attention.
It’s easy to assume that because you're targeting “babies,” the catching will be easy. Sometimes, this is absolutely the truth, but often juvenile tarpon can be very challenging. Even though they may be smaller then their adult migrating counterparts, they are still tarpon, and at times can become very sensitive to their changing environment. Whether it’s due to increased rain, the moon, wind, a changing barometer, or other unknown factors, the fish can at times become quite finicky. At other times, a well-presented fly falling anywhere within a 30-foot radius will be greedily inhaled and instantly attacked. Every day and every trip are different with tarpon, further adding to the joy of targeting these fish.
the caster's game
Skilled fly casters of 8- and 9-weight saltwater rods will excel in this fishery. The fish can move quickly and sometimes a cast of 70 or 80 feet is required to give yourself a shot. Good casters with a stout double-haul, good accuracy and skills to deal with the wind will be rewarded with more hookups. It’s been said that the baby tarpon fisheries of the Yucatan are a “caster’s game.” If you enjoy casting, consider yourself a proficient distance caster or are up for a casting challenge, then this is your sport.
The better your accuracy, speed and distance, the better your chances are of hooking multitudes of fish. It’s more a factor of how fast one can deliver the fly than it is extreme distance. An angler that can reach 70 feet in three or less false casts with a powerful double-haul will have the best access to traveling fish cruising the flats. Tarpon are highly sensitive, so at times the guides will attempt to keep the boat quiet by keeping their distance from the fish. This means that the angler may be asked to reach great lengths quickly and thus good casters will be rewarded with higher catch rates.
For these reasons, Sage's SALT HD rods are tools of choice. The saltwater-specific fast action loads quickly, ensuring your next shot fires as soon as possible, and the KonneticHD Technology blank recovers and unloads just as quick, giving adequate line speed to cut through wind and reach desired distances.
Baby Tarpon perfect setups
An ideal quiver of rods includes three specific setups - an 8-, 9- and 11-weight – but the must-have is the 9-weight. The 9-weight SALT HD, matched with RIO’s Tarpon line will carry large, surbsurface flies like baitfish imitations and ‘toads’ long distances with accuracy. Adding an 8-weight allows for multiple rigs and the 890-4 SALT HD, paired with RIO’s Flats Pro line, is great for smaller surface flies like gurglers and poppers. Finally, an 11-weight setup with a RIO General Purpose Intermediate fly line will be the setup for large, migratory adult tarpon. Sage’s SPECTRUM MAX is the reel of choice for each setup. The high-strength, sealed and repeatable drag make this an ideal reel for tarpon, both juvenile and adult.
As for the respective leaders, each will need at least a section of large diameter, high abrasion resistant tippet to attach to the fly. This ‘bite tippet’ will ensure that the sandpaper-like mouths of the tarpon don’t chew through the leader. For the 8- and 9-weight setups, a hand-tied leader tapering from 30- to 25- to 20-pound Saltwater Mono, followed by a section of 50-pound Saltwater Fluoroflex will do the trick. For the 11-weight setup, a taper of 60- to 40- to 20-pound Mono with a bite guard of 80# Fluoroflex is good; in a pinch, a straight section of 80# Fluoroflex works too.
The Final Bow & More Information
On the Yucatan Peninsula, two specific baby tarpon locales are favorites. The first, Tarpon Cay Lodge, is in San Felipe, squarely between the expansive Parque Natural San Felipe marine preserve stretching some 20 miles to the west and the Rio Lagartos preserve, stretching 30 miles to the east. These conservation corridors ensure that miles upon miles of prime tarpon rearing grounds are protected in their entirety. While considered a year-round destination, our preferred time to be there falls between April and September.
The second, southwest of Tarpon Cay Lodge, in an area surrounding Isla Arena and extending south to Campeche, is Isla Del Sabalo. Here, a vast ecosystem remains among the most fertile and untouched tarpon habitat found in the world. Opportunities also exist at both locations to encounter migratory fish as well during the appropriate times of year.
The northern Yucatan’s beauty will steal your breath away and the bountiful opportunities to chase loco sabalitos are second to none. The ease of travel, abundant populations of tarpon, and consistent heart-stopping action on the fly lead us to believe that a trip to the Yucatan Peninsula should be the very high on your saltwater hit list.