Tarpon Fever

By Raul Navarrette
Edited by Naturalight Productions Ltd.

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My excitement feeds on the exhilaration of anglers battling with their trophy bonefish, permit, tarpon or snook. As a guide at one of Belize's best known fishing lodges, the Belize River Lodge, it is not often that I am on the actual fishing end of the experience. So when I can snatch the opportunity to go fly fishing, I make the best of the sport. Take, for example, that unforgettable morning my friend Dirk and I stood on the lodge's dock. The day was looking too good to pass up and so we decided to run out to the flats.

We chose our rods carefully, adding a 12 pound weight. After a quick run to the mouth of the Old Belize River, about three and a half miles away from the lodge, we slowed down and noticed how perfect the water appeared. It felt "tarponny"! I could sense this feeling from the past experiences of great tarpon fishing days I've had with my guests fishing at this same location.

"Looks like a tarpon day," I said and Dirk knew exactly what I meant.

We motored slowly until we came to a spot that looked just right to start a drift; then we turned off the motor and let the skiff drift with the wind which was actually so light the skiff hardly moved. We pulled out the tarpon flies and agreed to use the cockroach pattern, one tied with a black head and brown grizzly. Since the water was a little murky I knew this pattern would do the job.

Once the fly was tied on, I got up on the bow and the hunt began. The wind was so light that the water was almost like glass so Dirk had to use the push pole to move the skiff forward. The visibility was pretty good, and with just a few clouds in the sky the day was already beginning to heat up. We searched the water for over an hour without any success not seeing a rolling tarpon nor the splash of any baitfish being chased.

This went on for a few more minutes until we remembered that we had actually intended to fish for tarpon; so we decided to reel up and head further out to the flats. Just then Dirk who was still on the polling platform shouted, "Tarpon, 2 o'clock about 75 yards." I immediately turned around and started stripping line off the reel again. After pulling out at least 70 feet of fly line, I looked down to make sure that I wasn't standing on any part of my fly line. Of course, by the time I made sure my line was clear, Dirk had already started moving the skiff closer to the fish and positioning the boat so I could cast at around 10 o'clock.

When I looked up, I saw this huge brown shadow, floating just under the surface like a log and position just a few yards ahead of me. It just sat there with the tip of its tail barely out of the water. Because of its size I knew this "silver king" had to be a female, just what we were hunting for! As I got nearer I could feel my knees weaken and my hands started to sweat. The anxiety was so tremendous I could hardly wait to get within casting distance. Dirk had now positioned the skiff perfectly. I had this beautiful monster just about 60 feet in front and facing me. I was confident that I could not miss the shot.

As I got ready to cast, Dirk whispered, "Go ahead its all yours." His voice was encouraging me to stay calm and focused. I aimed to lay the fly at least 18 inches in front of the tarpon's nose. Finally after three false casts, I fired the shot. I missed. The cast that had seemed so easy turned out to be off target, probably the result of "tarpon fever". The fly ended up about three feet to the left of the target. The tarpon did not react. She just stayed there as if nothing had happened. I quickly stripped the fly in, away from the target, just far enough so the fish would not hear when I picked up the fly to recast.

The second cast was on the way when the tarpon suddenly lunged forward as though waking up from a nightmare. Fortunately she moved only a few inches. The fly now landed perfectly, I made a couple strips and caught her attention. She moved slowly towards the fly, so I kept it moving, twitching it to imitate a bait fish. I fished the fly 7 to 8 feet, she followed until finally she realized that the fly was not getting away. All of a sudden I saw how this huge bucket mouth come wide open and gulp down the tiny fly. I made another long slow strip to make sure. Although my first instinct was to set the hook, experience had taught me otherwise. I waited instead. When the long strip came to a stop I knew she had it; so I set the hook, real hard, with my stripping hand. I did this three times. Then suddenly all hell broke loose.

Now that I had her hooked the tarpon realized something was not right. She jumped out of the water about 5 feet high, shaking her head, rattling her gills and seeming to remain suspended in the air before crashing to the surface creating a huge spray of water and a very loud splash. She ran through the water like a misguided torpedo just under the surface, showing her wide silvery side very clearly.

At this point I realized that I was in for a great fight. This monster was definitely a hundred pounds or more. She jumped and ran seemingly not knowing where to go. Twice I could remember her running so fast, I thought my reel was going to burn up, but the Teton reel I was using again proved to be very capable of handling this type of abuse and strain. This sea monster got into my backing at least four times before she slowed down. She swam back and forth, and under the skiff so many times, I thought I would break the rod if I wasn't careful.

Forty-five minutes passed before I could start turning her back toward the boat. After one hour, I started praying to the fish Gods. I was afraid that the 100 pound shock leader was not going to hold up. My pulsed arms and muscles were starting to ache, my back was starting to cramp, and the day was so hot that sweat was running into my eyes. I was starting to groan when a question flashed in my mind: how must the fish be feeling?

Before I could pursue this thought, Dirk interrupted "I think its getting tired." At one point I pulled the rod back so hard that the big fish actually stopped and was pulled backwards. This was a sure sign that she was getting tired. I knew then that the fight would soon be over. Seeing what was going on, Dirk stuck the push pole in the mud bottom and tied the skiff to it. He picked up the lip gaff and came forward to where I was still hanging on to one of the fly fisherman's greatest trophies.

Finally the tarpon was brought to the surface. As Dirk quickly put the gaff through its bottom lip, I let out a loud sigh of relief. She was so tired, she turned on her side just once. Dirk lifted her head next to the side of the skiff where I quickly reached into her mouth and pulled the barbless fly off her "tongue" with my pliers. This creature from the sea was so beautiful I just had to have my picture taken with her. I grabbed a hold of the gaff and knowing that the water's depth was only about four feet, jumped overboard, stood on the bottom and held my trophy up to the surface. I held her from the mouth and under her belly and with a big fisherman's smile had my picture taken. I looked up to the sky, gratefully thanking the fish Gods and remembering once again why I love my job.

For More Information on fishing and traveling to Belize see:

Fishing in Belize
The Voice of the Guide

Images Courtesy of:

  • Tony Rath Photography
  • El Pescador
  • Belize River Lodge

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