Bum Fishing Trips. If You Haven’t…You Will.
I booked a DIY bonefishing trip to a far flung locale in the lovely Bahama chain. It is touted as an overlooked destination, not flogged to death like many of the Bahama’s more famous bonefish havens.
I received excellent information from the booking agent Vince Tobia with Cattaraugas Outfitters of New York representing a number of exotic outposts, and in this case: Great Inagua. Every communication from Vince was very professional, timely and detailed, helping me understand exactly what as in store.
We made the arrangements well in advance and I tied all the flies needed to handle bones, barracuda, and baby tarpon. And had a number of rods to handle any circumstance including a NuCast 8+ and 10 wt rods. I also used a Blue Crush Saltwater Fly Reel.
We finally arrived at Matthewtown, the only settlement on the island (an outpost for Morton Salt). We were met by our charming host Henry Hugh who did a great job of providing for our needs, cooked meals, and helped in other ways.
The lodging was comfortable given it’s very remote location. We were provided a small truck to drive around to all the fishing spots accessible by road, as part of the package deal.
Sounds good right? The best parts of the trip were seeing many exotic bird species, including the gaudy West Indian Flamingos now allowed to flourish on remote parts of the island.
Weather: No Problem
The weather was typical for a week long trip with a couple days of perfect light winds and bright sun. Other days were windy, typical for the Caribbean, but we had good viewing skies with few pesky clouds, most of time. This is critical for bonefishing and any type of site fishing, especially in saltwater.
We were given a detailed map showing all the “drive-to” locations for bones and baby tarpon. Included one day was a guided trip where we followed a local for several hours in search of tarpon.
The Main Problem? Fishing was Lousy!
One of the main issues: I am admittedly a beginning bonefisherman. I have caught bones in Grand Cayman, Roatan, Mexico & Belize, but never really been on a bonefishing trip, per se.
Tidal stages are key in understanding the movement of these fish. Most of the locations were touted as best fished at low tides. This makes since as the fish are shallower, making them easier to spot. However, with drive-time being at least an hour between spots, the tide does have a tendency to change constantly and we were not always there at optimum times.
We fished for five days. I hooked a total of six and landed two small bonefish. I expected to do this easily in one morning’s fishing. My wife and I drove everywhere, trying to find flats holding fish (while we were there) with little to no luck.
Although the accommodations were very nice for a “hard-to-get-to” location ( to put it nicely), I became increasingly frustrated by the apparent lack of fish.
I’ll put most of the blame on me, not understanding where the fish should be when, etc. But my expectations were SOOO high, it was really a big letdown. I assumed with all these unfettered fish, we’d have many opportunities whether there at the perfect time, or not. Other anglers at the Inagua Outback Lodge at the same time – were repeat customers and caught some fish, but I got the feeling not a lot.
Finally toward the end of the trip, we found a flat with some fish and hooked up a few. By that time I was pretty disenchanted with the whole thing.
We ran into some other anglers who had booked through a local (the only) guide on the island and done fairly well for the week. This told me the fish were there, but these anglers accessed the areas via boat and not car, as we did.
As a relative beginner bonefisherman – to do it again, I’d go to a location where one could rack up some numbers (even if the fish were smaller) to gain experience and employ a bonefish guide.
Once I understand the game better, I might try a DIY trip again. If you ARE an experienced bonefishing angler, I would recommend Vince Tobia with several destinations of which to choose.
I rarely fish for steelhead anymore. I’m not one to give up on things, but steelheading finally took me to my knees. Flogging dead water for hours was tolerable in my youth. See, I assumed you had to “pay your dues”. And man did we pay them – with the assumption it would eventually result with huge jumping steelhead going berserk in high sparkling spring flood waters.
At the end of March and early April, I always get spring fever and recollect to the 1980′s and early nineties when a group of us from Minnesota would load up the vans and head to western Michigan for the annual spring steelhead run. In the mid 80′s the steelhead runs were bountiful, far superior to the paltry trickle of fish we had on the North Shore of Minnesota’s Lake Superior.
The trips were not only tons of fun, but the fishing was generally quite good. We fished most of the small to medium sized rivers south of Traverse City such as the Betsie, Pere Marquette, and tributaries of the Big Manistee.
We knew going in that a good day steelheading is hooking perhaps two fish and landing one. This is interspersed with snagging up on wood and rocks probably 15 – 30 times per day, requiring re-rigging and new flies. For this reason we generally used multi-colored yarn flies on small #4 or #6 salmon hooks which we could quickly tie streamside and get back in the game. Further, with the need to get down quickly, we often clamped a 1/4 oz. splitshot up the line about 3 feet to get down and bounce along the bottom.
Yes, the water was cold but thick neoprene chest waders helped combat the elements which could be bring 25 degree weather or 70 degree weather depending on the season.
Two Indelible Steelhead Memories
Whenever I conjure up some of my favorite steelhead memories, I generally land on one of the following.
Beneath the Cedar
I have two distinct memories when spring steelheading in Michigan. Both stories are on the Betsie River with the first one occurring during one of the first years – probably in the mid-1980’s. My brother Bruce and I were newbies and stumbled about the Betsie looking for fishing spots and information, as we were clueless. We found a hospitable spot on the fabled Harry’s Run downstream from the parking lot at the dam, about 400 yards and six turns of this dynamite fisheries.
There, early one foggy morning I briefly hooked by first large steelhead beneath a sweeping White Cedar leaning out over the river. My line stopped (as it had hundreds of times before on snags) and this time it began to move up river. I reeled down and reared back as a silver torpedo porpoised upriver making two violent leaps before coming off. I’ll never forget that fish as long as I live – though we were connected for only five seconds.
The other scenario was a tiny indiscriminate opening along some dense river bank vegetation where a day previous I spied Harold, a long time river rat, nearly hidden in the coniferous foliage – with barely enough room to flip his line up stream for a quick drift.
We became acquainted this big kind gentleman known only as “Harold”, a local and excellent steelheader – and kept a close eye on his fishing spots. The next day as I wandered that side of the river, I could see where he’d been fishing. And alas, there was no one there!
There was little evidence anyone had fished there as Harold stealthily squeezed into the spot without the obligatory pruning done by fisher people. Most fisherman will continue to hang up and break off branches until they have these spots cleared out. They don’t realize the very reason fish are there is because of the vegetation and safe harbor in which they can take refuge.
Spawning steelhead will often choose spawning bed location with overhanging vegetation to obscure them from predators above. The water was murky with spring run off so I was fishing “dark water” meaning we could not see fish in the stream. This day I slipped into Harold’s slot. Upstream about 12 feet was an overhanging cedar I could flip under and bounce the fly along the sandy bottom down to another log about 15 feet down river, that lay just on top of the water, but was clean underneath. Beneath the log, a slight depression of 1 – 2 feet was scoured out making a perfect lie for spring run steelhead.
It also so happened there was a nice push or run of fish into the river over the previous couple of days for which every steelheader prays.
This was on a relatively straight run, but more on the outside bend, meaning the water was deeper and the fish were near the bank. So I’d plant my rear tight to the bank and flip my rig upstream and fish just below the rod tip. That day I believe I hooked at least 10 – 12 steelhead and strung up three or four. It was the first and last time I ever killed any steelhead, but we were looking for a fish dinner and we got one. It was one of the best days I ever had with three hapless fisherman across from me, looking on, as I cracked fish after fish – several of which were followed down river as I could not stop them.
The next day of course, the three fisherman spectators had the spot, complete with a lantern hanging on one of the trees – already being pruned to make room for a couple more fisherman. I watched them for about ten minutes and disgustedly moved on.
Other Steelhead Memories
I remember afternoons lazily basking in the radiant spring sun backed up to a tree and nodding off for an hour or so. I remember lined up with several good friends along a good run joking and laughing and netting fish. I remember quietly slipping down newly discovered waters and being rewarded with fish and mostly enjoying the adventure that new water brings. I remember sitting in the cabin at the end of the day reminiscing with our crew, comparing notes and stories of the day. These were some of the finest fishing trips ever.
All good things come to an end. The runs of steelhead diminished in the mid 90′s due to the salmon fisheries crash and charter captains setting there sites on steelhead to make up for the lost salmon. The spring runs, so plentiful in the eighties were no just a trickle of fish with all the stream fly fisherman shaking their collective heads. We finally got tired of flogging dead water and ended the pilgrimage in the early 90′s.
Perhaps the fisheries has returned today, I don’t know or care since it’s a past chapter of my fishing career that still brings many fond memories. But I still get a twinge to be on the river on these warm spring days with the snow melting and water running everywhere and I know steelhead are moving up river somewhere.
But steelheading requires an intestinal fortitude and patience that I no longer wish to force upon myself. Hours of drifting promising runs with no results, competition for hot spots, garbage along the banks, and fish snagging on visible beds have all turned me off to the sport.
Yes, I know there are those of you that still love it and I know why. But I’ll hold on to the bright memories of yesteryear and when spring fever starts to commence, I’ll instead spend time in the garage preparing for spring crappies and the opening of walleyes.
For those of you that still pursue steelhead, I do have some serious steelhead flies on FlyBass.com, including Rainy’s Steelhead Flies – Subsurface Collection (24 flies). I’m reducing the price on all the Rainy’s fly collections and assortments on FlyBass. Also, the #8 Smokin’ Hot Nucast Fly Rod is a perfect and affordable rod for steelhead, doubling as a great bass and light saltwater rod.
I’m staring out the window dumbfounded by the 1 1/2 feet of snow and high winds. This time last week, we were spanking tarpon in Campeche, Mexico. The baby and juvenile tarpon fishing of Campeche is not a complete secret in the fly fishing world, but it deserves more recognition.
I heard about Campeche six years ago at a fly fishing show and vowed to visit one day. That trip happened last week beginning 6 December, not exactly prime time for the flocks of northern snowbirds, but it turned out to be well timed. We experienced the coldest early December ever in the Midwest and there we were, basking in 80 plus degrees and hammering fish. Further, the weather was excellent with light winds during our fishing time.
We booked through Tarpon Town Anglers and Raul Castaneda. This was the best guiding/outfitting service I’ve ever used – anywhere! Raul did everything in his power to ensure we had a pleasant stay and great fishing. The prices were reasonable and fishing was awesome. We stayed at the Ocean View Hotel and were dropped off right infront of the hotel each afternoon when done fishing.
The mornings would find us close to shore and the endless coastal mangroves, creeks and rivers, to sight fish for tailing/rolling baby tarpon in the 5 – 10 pound range. It was very much like bonefishing, visibly seeing moving fish and trying to intercept them with the fly rod. We hooked a bunch and landed a few – pretty typical with tarpon of any size. These fish required an eight weight fly rod with floating line since they were in 2 – 3 feet of water.
At midday we would move off shore if the winds were light (which they were 3 out of 4 days) and search for schools of larger juvenile fish. Our guide Juan was excellent at spotting fish and we found lots of moving fish each day. There fish required a nine or ten weight. I used a 10 NuCast Smokin’ Hot Fly Rod coupled with a new Blue Crush Saltwater Fly Reel (from NuCast). I found the ten very handy when trying to land these juveniles in a prompt fashion.
These off-shore fish go about 10 – 30 pounds and were extremely powerful. Just like their big brothers off the Florida coast, juveniles hit, jump and run like the big boys, but you can land them in 10 – 15 minutes and go back for more! Did I say land? We probably landed one our of every five fish we hooked in four days of fishing.
We probably averaged (my wife and I) hooking 15 – 20 fish per day and lost most of them. Raul says the months of January through May are best for big numbers, but we thought the fishing action was superb in the beginning of December. Flies were somewhat standard, including Red/White Deceiver, Black/Purple Death, Cockroach, Weighted Toad Flies (weighted w/barbell eyes), and Gurglers in Tan and White.
I can’t wait to go back again and many of my friends are licking their chops after hearing stories and watching some of our videos.
Fly Fishing for Baby Tarpon
Fishing’s Juvenile Delinquents – Hell Raising Misguided Youth
As your thoughts drift to a warm weather get-away this season remember this: There’s a good chance you can find and battle baby tarpon during your tropical sojourn. If you look hard enough and ask the right questions you can be in for some heart-stopping action in and around the Gulf or Caribbean on a shoe string budget.
For the price of a rental car you can search and find hidden coverts teeming with the greatest fly fishing quarry there is – in a size you can handle with bass equipment!
I encountered my first baby tarpon nearly 25 years ago while visiting Grand Cayman Island. I found the only fly fishing guide – a refugee from Wales who was catering to a scant number of fly fisherman (masquerading as scuba divers) who happen to visit this popular diving location. Somehow we found each other.
Our guide Clive drove my wife and I back into the scrubby desert-like habitat very common in this part of the Caribbean. The beauty is in the water, not the land. The inland canals or dykes are bordered with mangroves. There is a maze of backroads with canals on either side, harboring these goggle-eyed demons – ready to blast a well placed fly.
We tried wading some shallow flats for bonefish without success and then headed inland to the myriad of man-made canals, built for mosquito control and swamp drainage on Grand Cayman and many other locales in the tropics.
We threw Lefty’s Popping Bugs against the mangroves, sometimes blindly and other times near a tarpon rise or roll. The strikes were always explosive, shocking and very exciting – especially in tight quarters.
Such is the case in tarpon fishing of any kind – you will lose at least five for every one you land. But, no matter – the hook up and subsequent aerial circus is the essence of tarpon fishing.
Both my wife and I hooked a bunch and landed a few baby tarpon and it was the highlight of our trip, which included scuba diving, snorkeling and lesser pursuits.
We subsequently returned many times for “do-it-yourself” baby tarpon, mixed in with other tropical fun and relaxation. Because let’s face it people: You can only lay on the beach for so long without wanting to go fishing somewhere.
Baby tarpon generally weigh between five and thirty pounds. The smaller fish, which live in creeks and canals, are five to ten pounds and pack the same manic attitude as their 100 pound behemoth relatives. The larger versions weigh 15 to 40 pounds are referred to as juveniles. These fish are typically found in adjacent shallow bays where schools of them can be spotted rolling on calm days.
Tarpon hate hooks. No fish abhors containment more than a tarpon! They will do anything to separate themselves from you. This includes jumping repeatedly, often into the trees, and generally just going berserk. Every hookup is breathtaking with the ensuing battles often short in duration.
The Cold Hard Truth:
If you have not fished tarpon, you need to; baby tarpon is a great way to get started!
Equipment for Baby Tarpon
The very same gear you use for bass works great for baby tarpon. An 8 weight fly rod and 7/8 reel with 20# backing will do the trick. Leaders are very simple: Butt section 40lb (flouro – 4 feet), Class tipped 10 -15lb (hard mono – 2 – 3 feet), Shock tippet 30 – 50 lb (2 feet).
Travel rods are great for this situation. Your wife may not even notice you packed a rod “just in case”.
If you’re going after larger juvenile “bay” fish, they can and will execute spirited runs, but you’ll rarely need more than 100 yards of backing, which you may already have on the reel. Some anglers will go to a 9 weight rod in this setting where longer casts and wind may require more backbone.
When fishing in shallow bays, you may need a guide. Your guide will typically fire up the outboard to catch up with running fish allowing you to take up line and fight them once you’re back on the flyline. This is much more common with giant tarpon than babies.
Mangrove fishing among creeks and canals is close quarters combat. Basically you’re trying to horse the fish away from the mangrove roots where trouble always awaits. Landing a fish here is even more difficult because of all the hazards. But who cares, right?
You are going to lose fish so:
- be prepared,
- learn from your mishaps, and
- look forward to the next hook-up.
Best Time and Places to Pursue Baby Tarpon
While the experts claim the best months are from April to October for hard hitting surface action, let’s be real. Most of us go to the tropics to escape the cold, if only for a week or two. I’ve had solid baby tarpon fishing in January through March, including surface action (which is supposed to peak in May to June, just like the big ones).
Don’t let a lack of in-depth fishing information stop you from searching for these fish in any tropical environment. Nearly every favored winter getaway from Florida to Honduras, including islands in the Caribbean, have tarpon nursery habitat that you can exploit. When in doubt, rent a car and take a few back roads. Ask questions at the fishing shops or marine dealers. Find out if there are canal systems anywhere in the area. If there are – they’ll be fish in them!
Care of Equipment
If you use freshwater equipment, remember to take time after each outing and thoroughly rinse off your rod, reel and line with freshwater. I like to set the rods/reels in the shower and just let it run for about 15 minutes. This typically does the trick. You can also consider reels made for saltwater with waterproof drag systems impervious to saltwater incursion. We sell a super cross-over (fresh/salt) called the Blue Crush.
Flies for Baby Tarpon
Here’s a short list. Check YouTube for tying instructions.
Seaducer ( three strands of flashabou on each side. Red/White, Red/Yellow, Red head/body
- Lefty’s Poppin’ Bug (Lg size in Yellow, White & Chartreuse)
Cockroach (Orange or Red Grizzly. same flash)
Gurgler ( Black, Tan, Red, Chartreuse – foam, white body and tail, raibowflash on the tail)
Black Death (either common feather ones or bunny)
Purple Death (either common feather ones or bunny)
Clouser Minnow (White/Red, White/Chartreuse)
*All hooks stainless steel – in 1/0 or 2/0… for clouser minnows i would tie a few extras on #2 for snook.
Click to Enlarge Photo
This box is ready to rumble for a baby tarpon excursion in early December. Stay tuned!