Belize tar­pon

Dave Lewis casts at div­ing pel­i­cans to hook pow­er­ful tar­pon in Belize...

Trout Fisherman (UK) - - Contents -

Dave Lewis shows you how to catch fe­ro­cious tar­pon on fly in Belize

GE­ORGE Gar­butt cuts the en­gine and our boat ‘Mys­tic’ slows and even­tu­ally comes to rest. Reach­ing for his pole, he climbs up on to the high plat­form at the stern of his boat, while I grab my 10wt rod and step forward to the bow. Then, ever so slowly, Ge­orge poles us through the nar­row chan­nel that leads into the en­closed la­goon at aptly-named Sil­ver King Caye. The la­goon is the size of a ten­nis court, fringed with man­groves, and at cer­tain times of the year the ca­coph­ony of sound that greets you within is deaf­en­ing. Each sum­mer tril­lions of diminu­tive bait­fish swarm in the shal­low wa­ters that sur­round Sil­ver King Caye, and in­vari­ably the la­goon forms the epi­cen­tre of this rich abun­dance of life. Dozens of gulls, terns and egrets screech and squab­ble as they gorge them­selves upon na­ture’s bounty. Ev­ery few min­utes the sur­face of the la­goon erupts with a loud ‘spladoosh’ as a cum­ber­some brown pel­i­can falls out of the sky to crash dives into the melee, sur­fac­ing mo­ments later with gal­lons of wa­ter and tiny sil­ver fish pour­ing from its flabby gu­lar pouch. Watch, and ev­ery cou­ple of min­utes you’ll see a tar­pon roll se­duc­tively as it in­hales a bait­fish. These fish, that range from 10lb to well over 100lb, know that – fol­low­ing each pel­i­can dive – dozens of stunned bait­fish make easy pick­ings. Of­ten you can ac­tu­ally watch a fish sud­denly change direction and head di­rectly to­wards a pel­i­can. This morn­ing our ar­rival at the Sil­ver King Caye la­goon is per­fect, with birds and tar­pon feed­ing wher­ever we look. I make a cou­ple of quick false casts to work suf­fi­cient line out through the rod rings, cast, and watch with height­ened an­tic­i­pa­tion as the fly drops di­rectly in the path of a trio of tar­pon. The fish don’t spook and con­tinue on a di­rect course to my fly – and swim past it with­out a sec­ond glance! Again I cast, and again watch in frus­trated awe as an­other fish re­fuses to show the slight­est in­ter­est in my fly. The prob­lem was, of course, that with such an abun­dance of bait­fish around, most fish had fully sa­ti­ated their ap­petite and were now sim­ply sip­ping an oc­ca­sional min­now to top up. “Keep cast­ing, one will take your fly, we just need to find the right fish,” Ge­orge as­sured me from the plat­form, be­fore con­tin­u­ing: “Next time one of those pel­i­cans drops into the wa­ter, try and land the fly as close to its head as you can.” Mo­ments later a pel­i­can launched it­self off the dead branch that serves as a com­mu­nal roost and glided across the la­goon, sud­denly twist­ing through 90 de­grees in mid-flight and drop­ping into the wa­ter. I cast, and the fly landed about two feet in front of the bird now seated in the wa­ter, bait­fish spilling from its maw. “Let the fly sink a lit­tle, leave it, leave it... okay, long, slow strip now,” ad­vised Ge­orge. I’ve had the im­mense plea­sure of fish­ing with Ge­orge Gar­butt on many oc­ca­sions and I al­ways fol­low his sage ad­vice to the let­ter, so keep­ing the rod point­ing di­rectly at the fly

I be­gan to strip back the fly. It’s hard to de­scribe to any­one who has not ex­pe­ri­enced a tar­pon eat­ing their fly ex­actly what this is like, but for some the ex­pe­ri­ence can prove to be life-chang­ing. A tar­pon does not just ‘take’ a fly, it de­mol­ishes a fly, in a dis­play of un­leashed ag­gres­sion that borders on sheer vi­o­lence. A fish hit my fly just as I started a sec­ond strip, a sav­age jolt that all but ripped the line out of my hand. In an in­stant, the line drew bar tight. All I had to do to firmly set the hook was make a cou­ple of short tugs with my strip­ping hand. In an in­stant the fish was air­borne, and some­how I re­mem­bered to bow the rod and give a lit­tle slack to min­imise the chances of a breakage. Fol­low­ing that first gill-rat­tling jump the fish ran across the la­goon then again ex­ploded into the air in a shower of spray, nar­rowly avoid­ing wrap­ping the trail­ing fly line around an over­hang­ing man­grove.

Open wa­ter

The fight con­tin­ued with me try­ing to re­tain self-com­po­sure and some­thing bor­der­ing on a sem­blance of con­trol, while the fish did its ut­most to up­stage me at ev­ery pos­si­ble op­por­tu­nity. In true tar­pon style, it al­ter­nated be­tween short runs and a se­ries of jumps, be­fore fi­nally set­tling down and do­ing what most tar­pon hooked here­abouts do, which was to head out through a nar­row gap in the man­groves into the broad bay that ex­tends for al­most the en­tire length of Sil­ver King Caye’s lee­ward shore­line. Un­like the in­ner la­goon, this is a good place to fight your fish as there are few ar­eas to cause con­cern from snagged lines. If at this stage you are still con­nected to your fish (and of­ten by now you will not be), then pro­vided you main­tain a tight line and max­i­mum pres­sure on the fish, soon enough Ge­orge will have Mys­tic beached on the edge of a flat and will be wad­ing out to se­cure your prize.

The bril­liance of Belize

Al­most all an­glers are aware that Belize is one of the world’s great flats fish­ing lo­ca­tions. Few places are more pro­duc­tive for catch­ing bone­fish and per­mit. Dur­ing my first few trips to this idyl­lic Cen­tral Amer­i­can coun­try I fo­cused al­most ex­clu­sively on tar­get­ing bones and per­mit, not real­is­ing just how good the tar­pon fish­ing could be. The av­er­age size of tar­pon in Belize runs from around 10lb up to maybe 40lb or 50lb – user-friendly size – but at cer­tain times of the year you’ll get daily shots at fish that weigh the heavy side of 60lb and oc­ca­sion­ally much big­ger. The main fish­ing sea­son in Belize gets un­der­way in late October, at the end of the hur­ri­cane sea­son, and runs through un­til the early sum­mer months. There are tar­pon to be caught year-round but the very best tar­pon

“A tar­pon does not just ‘take’ a fly, it de­mol­ishes a fly, in a dis­play of un­leashed ag­gres­sion that borders on sheer vi­o­lence.”

fish­ing starts in the late spring, when tem­per­a­tures start to rise and those al­limpor­tant shoals of bait­fish ar­rive. The fish­ing from May through to July can be ex­cel­lent. Tar­pon are found all along Belize’s short coast­line, in­clud­ing within the many rivers, creeks and la­goons that punc­tu­ate the main­land. Gen­er­ally, we re­frain from fish­ing in­land un­less an oc­ca­sional windy day restricts op­tions off­shore, or if we fancy a day tar­get­ing snook. Be­tween the main­land and Belize’s fa­mous bar­rier reef, the sec­ond­largest in the world, the sea is lit­tered with count­less small is­lands – cayes as they are known – but only a few of these reg­u­larly at­tract tar­pon. Guides like Ge­orge Gar­butt know ex­actly where and when to look.

Gummy Min­now

Most of the traditional tar­pon flies, in­clud­ing the Cock­roach, Clouser Min­nows and Toads, will take fish, and you should be sure to carry a se­lec­tion in a range of colours. But there is one fly you ab­so­lutely must pack and that’s the Gummy Min­now. Whether or not you re­gard these in­cred­i­bly life­like rub­ber bait­fish im­i­ta­tions as be­ing a ‘proper fly’ or sim­ply a lure is up to you. The undis­puted fact of the mat­ter is that tar­pon, and many other species, ab­so­lutely love them. The Gummy Min­now was orig­i­nally de­signed for catch­ing bone­fish at the Los Ro­ques ar­chi­pel­ago in Venezuela, where bone­fish have also learnt to as­so­ciate div­ing pel­i­cans with a free feed of min­nows. The orig­i­nal Min­nows were tied on reg­u­lar salt­wa­ter hooks, which are fine for bone­fish but to­tally un­suit­able for tar­pon, as I have found to my cost. Thank­fully, com­pa­nies such as Fulling Mill of­fer a range of Min­nows that are tied on strong hooks, and these are what you should use.

Fish­ing meth­ods

You can fish these flies with long, slow strips, as is usual when tar­pon fish­ing, but there is an­other hugely ef­fec­tive tech­nique that at times works ex­cep­tion­ally well. One day, again prompted by Ge­orge, I cast at a pel­i­can and rather than strip the fly I sim­ply let it sink, giv­ing it an oc­ca­sional twitch. This per­fectly repli­cates a stunned min­now fall­ing help­lessly down through the wa­ter col­umn,

“...even ed­u­cated tar­pon, al­ready stuffed to the gills, find such a pre­sen­ta­tion dif­fi­cult to re­sist.”

and even ed­u­cated tar­pon that are al­ready stuffed to the gills find such a pre­sen­ta­tion dif­fi­cult to re­sist. More than 30lb of air­borne gill-rat­tling sil­ver was the re­sult. Dif­fer­ent colour Min­nows are avail­able, but from ex­pe­ri­ence I think it is the size of Min­now you use rather than its pre­cise colour that is the most im­por­tant con­sid­er­a­tion, and gen­er­ally it is the smaller sizes that get the most hits. On one trip, I ran out of these and was forced to use larger flies, and im­me­di­ately our strike rate dropped off. So I trimmed the tail off a larger fly, which ac­tu­ally im­proved its ac­tion when free-fall­ing through the wa­ter, and within a few casts found my­self locked in yet an­other bat­tle with the undis­puted king of the in­shore game­fish. Each year I host trips to Belize for An­glers World Hol­i­days. For more in­for­ma­tion con­tact 01246 221717.

A hefty bar of solid sil­ver mus­cle – no dainty fights from tar­pon.

A guide pre­pares to se­cure a played-out tar­pon by wad­ing out.

TheGum­myMin­now­is­apop­u­larfly­pat­tern for­t­ar­pon.


The power and ag­gres­sion of tar­pon is some­thing ev­ery an­gler should see.

Theac­com­mo­da­tionis­su­per­ban­dan­glers well­lookedafter. Lean­in­toit!Tar­pon­willputase­ri­ous­bendiny­our­rod.

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