TarponTown Anglers-Campeche, Mexico Reprise
Jan S. Maizler
“Every effective angling travel trip begins months before departure”-
I’d been hearing about the discovery and unfolding of a prolific baby tarpon fishery on the west coast of the Yucatan peninsula for about 2 years. I was anxious to experience what all the buzz was about and so I made arrangements to visit the epicenter of the fishery in Campeche, Mexico. Since tarpon behave consistently- be it in Florida, the Caribbean, or central America, I booked my dates in June, a month that would assure me water temperatures over 75 degrees, relatively calm weather, as well as a time of year when the threat of hurricanes and tropical storms was not at its’ peak.
The pre-trip research I always did revealed that most of the fishery involved grassflats as well as mangrove canals. Therefore, I was sure to time my visit during the quarter moon neap tides- this would insure that the low tides would not be so extreme as to drive the fish completely out of the mangrove forests and into the expansive Gulf of Mexico. Conversely, it would also insure that the high tides would not be so extreme as to flood the mangroves and give the tarpon and rest of the game fish an overabundance of water to spread out in.
Amongst the guides and operators in Campeche, I chose Raul Castaneda of Tarpon Town Anglers. I got a distinct impression from his web site (in contrast to one or two other operations) that his fully licensed charter service had a multi-species and multi-tackle orientation. This would be important for at least two reasons. Firstly, it would give me the widest opportunities to search out and experience the broadest possible facets of a new fishery that I’d be covering. Secondly, it might also predict how open-minded the operating philosophy of his charter service would be as to welcoming light tackle anglers and flyfishers alike as well as the species they could pursue.
When I spoke to him on the phone, his friendly efficient demeanor and response to my questions indicated his obvious broadmindedness as to scope of anglers and fish species alike. I was convinced that I’d chosen the right man. He made it clear to me that while he and his five guides generally targeted tarpon, they were also open to catching snook, jacks, snapper, grouper, barracuda, and seatrout (locally called corvina). In fact, Raul’s willingness to experiment with my friend Art and I would result not only in confirming the excellent light tackle tarpon fishing, but it aided in my discovery of the finest spotted seatrout fishing I had ever experienced! My thinking even went so far as to discuss with Raul the three species that could constitute a “Campeche Slam”, but the fishing was so good, I never got around to it.
Given that the primary target species were tarpon, it was no surprise that the fishery was a boat-based experience. With that feature in mind, I asked Raul about the vessels that comprised TarponTown’s charter fleet. His charter service offered four pangas with either center console or tiller layouts. Two of the engines were modern Honda four-stroke engines. The other two skiffs had dependable Yamaha two-stroke motors. All of the fishing to be done would be by motoring to the outskirts of our target area, and then by poling the pangas into and through the fished areas, which were either open grass flats, mangrove edges, or canals that ran through the “bush.”
All of his skiffs had VHF radios, cell phones, GPS units, loads of drinking water, ice chests full of sandwiches, cookies, and fruit, and notably, extra gas tanks, which gave the vessels additional running range needed for searching out baby silver kings in this huge habitat. In addition, for family group fishing and/or offshore operation, Raul had an excellent 28-foot center console vessel with a tee-top on hand.
The research I did about the city of Campeche itself indicated that it was a delightful destination for anglers and non-anglers alike. The city itself had about 250,000 residents, which gave it a “big enough, but not too big” quality.
Campeche city is the capital of the Mexican state of Campeche and it lies on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. The city was founded around 1540 by Spanish conquistadors right on top of the pre-existing Mayan city of Canpech. The city nowadays is graced with a beautiful historic district that is replete with excellent restaurants, arts and crafts galleries, and entertainment complexes. In addition, the countryside- which lays in the Yucatan interior- features some breathtaking and splendid Mayan ruins. For the manicured sportsman, the city offers golf, while anglers and their friends and family looking to go “green” have a number of kayak operations to choose from.
Platformed on top of all these exciting prospects was Raul’s plan to have us stay at the beautiful Ocean View Hotel. As the name implies, it sits right across the Gulf of Mexico shoreline. I was informed that we would take an early yet sumptuous breakfast at the hotel before leaving for the close by marina where his pangas were moored. When we returned to the Ocean View, a dip in the pool would be a welcome prospect, as would a massage at the hotel’s modern state of the art spa. With all these wonderful features, Art and I decided this was definitely a “with-spouses” trip.
The Campeche Fishing Begins-
The first day of fishing began with Art and I fishing with our guide Juan, whose facial features and eyes gave him the nickname, “Chino.” Fernando followed us around in another panga for use as a camera boat. Though we were pleased to see it was a fair weather sky, the obvious brisk northeasterly winds were sure to give us a challenge in terms of spotting the tarpon as the grassflats off Campeche were carpeted with countless wavelets just past the mangrove “wind shadow” all the way out to the endless Gulf horizon. Also, it had been our experience that tarpon in the shallows are generally less reluctant to roll compared to their frolicking in bathtub-calm seas.
Nevertheless, with two great guides, two pangas, and Juan’s ever-present hand-held GPS, we were able to find tarpon- and lots of them! Our guides carefully scanned the “down-wave” seas with fair success by splitting up by 100 yards and double-teaming their spotting by talking on their VHF radios. We were able to get off about 20 casts to these outside fish, but managed only a few light strikes on our ¼ ounce white Spro bucktails and 3/8 -ounce red and white Backbone lures. Art employed 8-pound spinning tackle and I used 10-pound plug tackle.
We decided to move into the mangrove canals for more windless conditions. I pared down my fluorocarbon leader from 40-pound test to 30-pound test. We spotted a few fish deep in the forest, but they, too, seemed reluctant to strike. After 6 hours of fishing, we decided to pack it in and head south to Campeche. I have to confess I insisted that Juan stop the skiff a few miles from port so we could cast to a school of big jacks and some huge houndfish that were savaging a massive school of sardines. The jacks were locally called “corel” and ran to 5 pounds- they were great fighters! The houndfish ran to an incredible 7 pounds and fought like baby sailfish. Juan found these fish amusing, but his expression went to careful caution when he had to unhook these writhing monsters. We then headed in with some of our hunger for action sated.
Day #2- Success Both Early and Late-
Raul joined us this day in the second skiff. We were pleased to see that the conditions were overcast and flat calm. We ran north for over an hour to one of Raul’s secret spots. As soon as the two skiffs came off plane in unison, both guides pointed to a huge area that seemed coated with rolling tarpon- the fish were so numerous I felt like I was in a dream!
My first cast was about 10 feet in front of and past a slow moving school of small tarpon. After the second sweep of my rod, I had a solid strike and drove my hook hard as I struck back. Seconds later, a 15-pound specimen went flying into the air. I made short work of this fish on my plug tackle. It felt good that my first tarpon release came on my first cast. We spent that magic morning jumping lots of fish and releasing a few more.
But midday meant a change of venue, as our plans called for us to experience as many species and methods as possible in Campeche. Juan and Raul discussed our next move and they decided to run south-southwest to a reefy area in 6 feet of water that they said was ideal for casting lures on light tackle. After a 1-hour run to the spot, we had a few hours left to fish. Juan told me to cast my white Spro bucktail to the light areas on the bottom. As long as we kept our casts accurate and started our jigging on the bottom, we were rewarded with grouper, small cubera snappers, and barracuda topping 15 pounds. As the sun began setting, we got underway to head back to the city after an excellent day of fishing.
Day #3- A Seatrout Extravaganza
Since we had reached an agreement that we would devote one morning to seatrout, and this morning’s flat cloudy conditions replicated yesterday’s weather, today would be the day. Raul agreed to an even earlier start this day so we had the maximized low light hours seatrout often like.
Today, Raul, Juan and Fernando would be joining Art and I as fellow anglers: it was clear that they were looking forward to doing some fishing themselves. We all hopped into Raul’s big center console vessel and got underway. The total time from the marina to the grass beds was 5 minutes and right off downtown.
While the other anglers started out casting bucktails, Juan gave me a wink and rigged my plug rod with a ¼-ounce jighead rigged with a yellow and orange soft plastic grub. Almost immediately, everyone hooked up with seatrout, yet I observed that the biggest fish-, which almost ran to 5-pounds-, were caught on my colorful grub. In three hours we had released over 65 trout and had kept another half-dozen for the table.
After we’d caught our fill of trout with a frequency and size I’d never experienced in my home waters of Florida, we called it quits even though we were deep in the middle of an ongoing trout bite. My afternoon was to be taken up with Raul’s driver, Nacho, taking my wife and I inland to visit the spectacular Mayan ruins at Edzna.
Day #4- Fishing, Then Farewell-
The last morning was arranged for Art and I to sample the tarpon fishing south of Campeche along the rocky beaches. We were in 1 panga that day, as Juan ran south from downtown for about a half hour. Juan slowed down and cut the engine as we could see some gulls working a sardine school close to a shoreline. As he poled closer, we could see tarpon rolling in the midst of the bait school.
I hooked up a small tarpon on my second cast and released it. Art and I jumped a few more baby silver kings in the next hour. When we saw another melee down the beach, I asked Juan to take us there. All that action turned out to be a big jack attack and those wonderful fish hit practically anything we threw at them!
Since we had an afternoon plane to catch, we reluctantly headed back to port. During our farewell with Raul at the airport, I was quick to make it clear this was not “goodbye”- it was only “until next time.”
Web site: http://www.tarpontown.com/
The summer heat isn’t the only cause for anglers perspiring at the thought of our National Parks right now. The recent National Park closures have sparked some heat among us fisherman who really enjoy this great resource we have in South FL. Times like these leave me reflecting on the great memories raising Hell in the Everglades and Biscayne National Parks this past summer. Law Enforcement is now patrolling the boundary line entering the ENP from the Keys but I can’t help but feel tempted to cross over and pole some of my favorite flats until the blue lights chase us.
Fall is approaching now as we are adorned by NE winds following the last few storms of the year. As the season takes a shift, so does our fishery. The park closures have kept man out of the glades and there is no telling what we will find when the gates open up once more. I, for one am anxious to get back to my slices of heaven… Everglades and Biscayne National Park.
SaltyShores Close-Up: Anna Maria Island, Florida
Jan S. Maizler
Like so many things in life, meeting good folks is a combination of persistent effort and favorable opportunity. In recent years I heard more and more about the exploits and angling successes of Captain Jason Stock in the Sarasota/Bradenton/Tampa area. The reports and pictures of his kayak and wade-caught snook, sea trout, and redfish were truly impressive. I also liked the unpretentious enthusiasm his fishing pictures conveyed: clearly, this was a guide that loved to catch fish and even more, loved the thrill of battle on his angler’s faces. His non-migratory game fish were taken on lures- which is my favorite kind of fishing. And I’d discovered that Jason had added a flats boat to his charter operation, a bonus that would certainly add to fishable waters. I would also learn that after our fishing together, Jason obtained a Hanson center console boat, which not only furthered his offshore ability but also provided a mothership for kayaks to fish longer and more remote waters. But our day-or, perhaps, two- would be out of his skiff.
I couldn’t hide the fact that Jason plied some of my favorite fishing waters. I contacted Jason last summer to fish a day or two with him in the Sarasota area. Fortunately, he had an open date or two for me in a few weeks and I committed to it. While I’d be staying down in Siesta Key, we agreed to meet at the boat ramp at the northern end of (and across the bridge from) Longboat Key. I was more than happy to take that wonderful drive up 41 through downtown, and then to Bird, St. Armands, and then, Longboat Key. What makes Sarasota so special is that the superb angling is matched by beaches, stores, restaurants, art galleries, and the kinds of attractions that all travelers are compelled to love. I am proud to say I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been to Sarasota. Three places I planned on dining at- and in fact, did- were the Café L‘Europe and Columbia on St. Armands Key and Ophelias on the Bay in Siesta Key.
Flats Fishing with Jason-
As dawn peeked over the horizon to the east, I arrived at the boat ramp and could see that Jason was waiting for me. As I climbed aboard, he fired up his engine and told me we’d be heading over to the flats in this early morning stillness to try for seatrout on topwater plugs and soft plastic swimbaits. It did not take long to reach for us to reach our spot. Jason pulled out two spinning outfits from the racks. They both featured stiff graphite rods and reels with braided line finished with a light fluorocarbon leader and a “Zara-style” topwater plug. I knew from past experience that with the tackle we were using, mere finessed sweeps of the rod were sufficient to get the plugs dancing.
All it took were a couple long casts for both Jason and I to get solid strikes and hookups on seatrout. As we reeled them in to the boat, they appeared to be around two to three pounds-nice respectable sized fish. After we got some photos, we released the spotted gamesters and resumed fishing. And, again, the hookups were almost immediate! It’s a rare pleasure to cast plugs into a flat-calm bay in soft light and have your lure exploded on…kind of like a firecracker in a library or sanctuary. No doubt, Jason had us on the trout, one after another. After I had the necessary photos, I was careful to limit all the hookups, lest I grow spoiled with all the action- or worse, forget that these frenzied moments were the exception, not the rule.
Battle in the Channel-
Still, we wanted a catch as many species as possible, so Jason cranked it up and pointed his skiff towards the northern end of Anna Maria Island. While we were underway, Jason explained that he’d be fishing the edge of Passage Key Inlet for gag groupers which lately had been stacked up and striking live baits.
When we arrived Jason got out his Sabiki rods so we could catch some live pinfish. After we had about a dozen lively baits in his ample livewell, Jason idled into the deeper section of the channel. He pulled out two of his heaviest tarpon rods and tightened down the drags on the reels. Jason warned me that the strikes would be fierce and drive like freight trains back down to the bottom.
I got my pinfish to the right depth and waited but I had no idea how strong the strike would be. After losing two good fish to cutoffs, I succeeded in “fast stroking” my third away from the bottom and marveled how a seven pound fish pull so fiercely. We took some photos and caught three more grouper, while losing the rest to cutoffs.
It was mid-morning and Jason felt we should turn our attention to tarpon. With the sun this high, visibility would be excellent for spotting cruising fish as well as the customary rolling fish. Jason only had to pilot his vessel around the corner of the northern tip of AnnaMariaIsland for our search to begin.
Not surprisingly, we were not alone in our quest. As we began to idle southward off the beach, Jason readied two tarpon rods with live crab baits which would be fished under corks. As we searched, the crabs were carefully (and non-tanglingly) stowed in his livewell in a “pitch bait” mode.
Over the next four hours, we spotted about six schools of silver kings that were running fast and clearly not “happy.” We finally spotted a school of “southbounders” that had not been harassed by other vessels and moving at a non-anxious pace. Jason fired up his outboard and ran his vessel a hundred yards forward so we could be on an intercept path with them. We could clearly see their approach and “lead” the fish with perfect casts.
I had a fish rush my crab and suck it in, so I reeled up the slack so my circle hook could do its’ work. But evidently, the tarpon had blown out the bait before that could happen.
Ending with a Spot-
By this time, it was mid-afternoon and our adventure had only an hour or two left. I was hankering for a more reliable species and let Jason know that. It was not surprising that he would suggest a return to the inside waters to round out our day with some redfish. Jason ran his skiff to PalmaSolaBay and slowly idled over some potholes. He cut his engine and said he was confident that the afternoon breeze would take the skiff over the right areas that we could cast to. Jason gave me a rod with a weedless spoon and told me to cast to either sighted fish or to the potholes. I was really impressed with the numbers of redfish that flushed from our skiff. Finally, I had a solid strike and reeled in a nice redfish of about seven pounds. After that we released a few more redfish. Then it was time to end our day.
As we headed back to the boat ramp, I reflected back on the wonderful action Jason put us on, yet also looked forward to Ophelias crab cakes down south on Siesta Key. Clearly, I’d have to fish with Jason again…and the sooner, the better.
Captain Jason Stock
Web Site- www.jmsnookykayakcharters.com
The only regret I have about tarpon fishing with light tackle and fly is that I did not really get into this sport sooner. It was maybe only a few years ago that I started chasing tarpon on a flyrod, but after that first fish that tracked my fly, crossed his eyes, slurped the fly, and took off into an incredible aerial display as flyline zipped through my fingers; I was absolutely hooked. From that day forward, I lived, dreamed, and talked about tarpon fishing to no end. The many days dedicated to tarpon fishing, be it bageled or successful was well spent as learning about these incredible fish has been quite a journey on it’s own. Perhaps it is the humanlike characteristics or the way a serene bay can erupt with a hooked tarpon that draws so many anglers to chase the silver king.
This season’s journey has brought us through rain storms, cloudy days, sunny days, frustrating days, and a few epic days mixed in. I think all that there is to write has been written in previous write ups I have done, so until the inspiration to write a lenghty piece hits me again, I leave you all with the images from this year that will always stick in my mind.
The Mosquito Lagoon water level has been low the past couple of weeks and the clarity has been really bad possibly from a brown algae bloom due to high nutrients in the water. That doesn’t mean that the fishing is bad though, it means that you just have to look harder.
Every Summer the Mosquito Lagoon, Indian River and Banana River goes through the same pattern, some years worst than others. I actually prefer to fish in dirty water rather than crystal clear, you don’t see as many fish, but when you do you can get pretty close to make multiple casts until it eats or spooks. I like to use very flashy flies and lures, especially ones with gold flash which reflects more light and you pretty much have to present the fly/lure right in the fishes mouths.
In the cleaner waters which is in the Indian and Banana Rivers right now, there are an abundance of glass minnows and mullet on the flats. Topwater lures have been working great like the MirrOLure Top Dog, Top Dog Jr. and She Pup series. On really calm mornings, I like to use something less noisy so I’ll tie on a D.O.A. Shallow Runner Baitbuster and do a steady retrieve on the surface letting the tail vibrate to top. Redfish, Trout, Snook and Tarpon love that!
These past couple of weeks, I’ve been leaving the Mosquito Lagoon Redfish alone and focusing on Tarpon in the backcountry waters of the Space Coast. Summer time is when they typically show up and most of my clients prefer to target them on fly. I get a lot of clients that are really good fly anglers up North in the small stream but when they come down here, it’s difficult for them to adapt to the style of saltwater fly fishing. I encourage all anglers that want to fly fish in Florida to learn how to double haul your line. That will increase the speed of your cast, the distance, and be able to cast in windy conditions which will increase the chances of catching the targeted species big time.
Andres from Brazil was having a tough time sending the fly out far enough to where the Tarpon were at. Tarpon here keep just enough distance from the boat to barely reach them with a flyrod. After trying for a couple hours with no luck reaching the fish, I set him up with a spin rod and a D.O.A. Baitbuster which he was glad to try. A couple casts to rolling fish, and Tarpon were in the air after that.
Andres also caught a few snook with the fly rod while blind casting against the shorelines.
Matt from South Florida brought his brother Ryan along to introduce him to the world of inshore sight fishing. After he got used to seeing what to look for and casting in the right spot, he started catching them and now he is hooked. Here’s Matt showing his brother how it’s done.
..and here is brother Ryan with his first sight casted Redfish. All fish caught using D.O.A. Shadtails.
Reid and his dad Rudy come up to fish the Lagoon with me at least once a year, they don’t have much sight fishing down in the Palm Beach area so they come up to enjoy some father and son time. Always a pleasure having them aboard and listening to them bust each others balls!
Luke was on a family vacation to Ormond Beach and wanted to scratch a Redfish on fly off of his bucket list. He did just that and caught a few more on top of it on a half day. I’d say that’s pretty good for not having much experience sight fishing for Redfish!
Stuart from North Carolina was pretty excited to catch his first tailing Redfish this day in the Indian River lagoon using a D.O.A. Shadtail.
On June 13th, I was invited to fish a fly only Invitational Tarpon tournament in the Brevard County area. The 2nd annual “Chase for the Chalice” is all for charity and Tarpon research. All of the money went to a German Shepherd rescue of Central Florida and all the tarpon caught and released needed to be swabbed for DNA for research. It was all great times with a great group of anglers and guides for a good cause. My good buddy Honson Lau from Miami came up to fish with me in this event. We ended up getting 1st place with our names on the Chalice that will be showcased at Harry Goodes Outdoor Shop in Melbourne, FL.
Right now from what I’ve been witnessing on the water lately, anglers will have a very good chance at chasing a Grand Slam on fly this Summer. That’s catching a Redfish, Sea Trout, Snook and Tarpon all in the same day which is a great accomplishment!
-Capt. Willy Le