Tarpon Cay Lodge is in San Felipe, Mexico; a quaint fishing village nestled on the Northern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. The bays and mangroves are home to a prolific population of baby tarpon between five and thirty pounds. Marco Ruz and Jesciel Mena met us off the plane at Cancun with hearty welcomes. They are partners in Yucatan Fly Fishing Adventures which owns and operates several lodges with exclusive rights to the fly fishing in the region, one of which is Tarpon Cay.
The three hour drive north to San Felipe was sobering. We crept through extremely poor Mien villages, annoyingly slowed by the endless procession of apparently unnecessary speed bumps. As I gazed at the thatched huts and run down shacks, I found myself thinking about things we take for granted in America. We passed packs of stray dogs wandering the streets spoiling for scraps, men and women going about their daily chores and laughing children wrestling and playing in the dirt. They struck me as happy and gentle people with smiling faces.
Safely at the bay side lodge we rigged gear and prepared for an early morning. I strung a pair of Sage ONES in 9 foot 8 weight with a RIO tarpon taper and also an Outbound Short for fast loading and quick shots. Marco advised we rig 40lb shock tippets and opt for smaller flies in neutral colors. I went straight for the San Felipe Special, created by Marco it has a foam body and a tail that looks like a shrimp. The schedule set – breakfast at five thirty am and in the boats at six, lunch at the lodge for noon follow by siesta, back in the boat at four and fish till around seven thirty.
We woke at five to a knock at the door – Beto the friendly, avuncular host had bought us coffee in bed – what a kind fellow. My partner in crime on this trip was my dear friend Andy Nelson. Andy is an expert fly angler, ace caster and a great companion. We polished off our Huevos Rancheros and headed out front to the waiting boats. The morning was perfectly calm, the sun clawed slowly above the horizon, Frigate birds and Vultures wheeled and mewed above us. A short run from the lodge our guide Chris killed the outboard and silently poled us in closer towards the mangroves. Andy was first up on deck as he stripped handfuls of line off and readied for battle.
Chris motioned with his hand and whispered “tarpon ahead”. It took me a second to focus; the glass calm of the bay, a steady rhythm of sickle shaped backs cut through the glare, one after the other. It was a huge, seemingly endless school of rolling tarpon, gulping and crashing bait. Chris glided us closer and Andy prepared for the first shot of the trip. Chris was a man of few words but he spoke good English. “Ok Andy – see the fish?” “Twelve o’clock, Sixty feet”. Andy sent his fly singing its way to the target preceded by a steady strip back to the boat, his fly making a small v wake as it limped along in the film – no grab. More fish showed and again Andy hit the mark with clinical casting but still no grab. This continued for some time and then finally he boiled one on the fly but it didn’t eat it. A heart stopping swirl but no pull. We quickly realized, this was no duffer’s game.
Then it happened – Andy, working hard, covering fish in front, suddenly a pod broke at ten o’clock travelling left. He made a quick cast 6 feet in front of the roll and began the strip. This time he ate it. The line drew straight; Andy gave a good strip to set the hook and game on. In a nano second, eight pounds of pissed off tarpon came rocketing out of the water, twisting and turning in a silver blur. I may exaggerate, but from my angle, sitting in the boat I would have sworn it was 15 feet in the air. Andy handled the fish with skill, bowing his rod to the multiple jumps and trying to keep his rod down during the fight. After a dogged five minute battle, Chris gracefully swept the leader in his gloved hand, quick photo and released with no harm done. What a fish! They are beautiful; rows of silver mirror like scales, a shining suit of amour with a slightly menacing stare and boxers jaw line.
Then it was my turn. I had fish rolling in front traveling right at sixty feet. I sent the cast to where the fish had shown and began the strip. The pod broke again 15 feet past my fly. First lesson – lead them like shooting a crossing pheasant. It wasn’t too long and I had my first take – strip, strip, strip – sharply, the line drew tight in the boil like a bulldog tugging at your dressing gown, I gave a good pull on the line to set the hook and off to the races we went.
We jumped about 8 fish the first morning landing 1 each. This is a pretty typical session at Tarpon Cay. Over lunch with fellow guests Sy and Nancy, a delightful couple from Wyoming, we discussed the mornings sport; both boats had similar experiences. I must mention that Nancy landed her very first tarpon that morning – it was one of many more she would land in days to come. We relived it with her and enjoyed the photos. I’m not sure who was prouder, Nancy or hubby Sy. We dined on fabulous home cooked meals that were rustic and hearty. Lots of fish on the menu – if you don’t like fish, you may be out of luck. A highlight for me was day two; host Beto proudly produced an appetizer plate of locally caught crab claws cooked in garlic butter. Luckily, Sy and Nancy don’t eat crab, so Andy and I scoffed the lot.
It would be repetitive to recount each hook up but on day three something special happened as we woke to an overcast sky with slight breeze adding a light chop. This was helpful to our cause as it made the tarpon less spooky. We found a huge school of fish rolling, feeding on shrimp. We got stuck into them, jumping around 25 and landed 6 up to 25lbs. Some of the success was due to Andy and I getting the hang of it; our casting was improving and we were leading the fish and presenting the fly quickly, combined with great conditions and happy fish made for an incredible morning – a highlight of my angling life. I annoyingly found myself popping fish off by holding my rod too high – a hard habit to break for a lifelong stealheader and trout angler. Chris would gently tease me “rod too high, must keep lower”, he smiled. Chris had eyes like a falcon with his years of experience he could smell tarpon and possessed a sixth sense – he always knew where to find fish and set the boat up to give you the best shot and usually down wind – a great skill.
The fishing was challenging, rewarding, exciting, visual, explosive, violent, heart stopping, addictive and great fun. 3 days wasn’t enough and I wish I could have added a couple more. The friendly staff was helpful and kind, serving delicious meals, clean rooms with air conditioning and private baths. I can’t wait to go back and highly recommend a visit to chase silver in San Filipe – you will not be disappointed.