Dave Lewis casts at diving pelicans to hook powerful tarpon in Belize...
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.
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.
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.
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.
The power and aggression of tarpon is something every angler should see.
Theaccommodationissuperbandanglers welllookedafter. Leanintoit!Tarponwillputaseriousbendinyourrod.