by Jan Maizler
Ladyfish were in abundance off campeche
Jan S. Maizler
“Every effective angling travel trip begins months before departure”-
I’d been hearing about the discovery and unfolding of a prolific baby tarpon fishery on the west coast of the Yucatan peninsula for about 2 years. I was anxious to experience what all the buzz was about and so I made arrangements to visit the epicenter of the fishery in Campeche, Mexico. Since tarpon behave consistently- be it in Florida, the Caribbean, or central America, I booked my dates in June, a month that would assure me water temperatures over 75 degrees, relatively calm weather, as well as a time of year when the threat of hurricanes and tropical storms was not at its’ peak.
The pre-trip research I always did revealed that most of the fishery involved grassflats as well as mangrove canals. Therefore, I was sure to time my visit during the quarter moon neap tides- this would insure that the low tides would not be so extreme as to drive the fish completely out of the mangrove forests and into the expansive Gulf of Mexico. Conversely, it would also insure that the high tides would not be so extreme as to flood the mangroves and give the tarpon and rest of the game fish an overabundance of water to spread out in.
Amongst the guides and operators in Campeche, I chose Raul Castaneda of Tarpon Town Anglers. I got a distinct impression from his web site (in contrast to one or two other operations) that his fully licensed charter service had a multi-species and multi-tackle orientation. This would be important for at least two reasons. Firstly, it would give me the widest opportunities to search out and experience the broadest possible facets of a new fishery that I’d be covering. Secondly, it might also predict how open-minded the operating philosophy of his charter service would be as to welcoming light tackle anglers and flyfishers alike as well as the species they could pursue.
When I spoke to him on the phone, his friendly efficient demeanor and response to my questions indicated his obvious broadmindedness as to scope of anglers and fish species alike. I was convinced that I’d chosen the right man. He made it clear to me that while he and his five guides generally targeted tarpon, they were also open to catching snook, jacks, snapper, grouper, barracuda, and seatrout (locally called corvina). In fact, Raul’s willingness to experiment with photographer Art Blank and I would result not only in confirming the excellent light tackle tarpon fishing, but it aided in my discovery of the finest spotted seatrout fishing I had ever experienced! My thinking even went so far as to discuss with Raul the three species that could constitute a “Campeche Slam”, but the fishing was so good, I never got around to it.
Given that the primary target species were tarpon, it was no surprise that the fishery was a boat-based experience. With that feature in mind, I asked Raul about the vessels that comprised Tarpon Town’s charter fleet. His charter service offered four pangas with either center console or tiller layouts. Two of the engines were modern Honda four-stroke engines. The other two skiffs had dependable Yamaha two-stroke motors. All of the fishing to be done would be by motoring to the outskirts of our target area, and then by poling the pangas into and through the fished areas, which were either open grass flats, mangrove edges, or canals that ran through the “bush.”
All of his skiffs had VHF radios, cell phones, GPS units, loads of drinking water, ice chests full of sandwiches, cookies, and fruit, and notably, extra gas tanks, which gave the vessels additional running range needed for searching out baby silver kings in this huge habitat. In addition, for family group fishing and/or offshore operation, Raul had an excellent 28-foot center console vessel with a tee-top on hand.
The research I did about the city of Campeche itself indicated that it was a delightful destination for anglers and non-anglers alike. The city itself had about 250,000 residents, which gave it a “big enough, but not too big” quality.
Campeche city is the capital of the Mexican state of Campeche and it lies on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. The city was founded around 1540 by Spanish conquistadors right on top of the pre-existing Mayan city of Canpech. The city nowadays is graced with a beautiful historic district that is replete with excellent restaurants, arts and crafts galleries, and entertainment complexes. In addition, the countryside- which lays in the Yucatan interior- features some breathtaking and splendid Mayan ruins. For the manicured sportsman, the city offers golf, while anglers and their friends and family looking to go “green” have a number of kayak operations to choose from.
Platformed on top of all these exciting prospects was Raul’s plan to have us stay at the beautiful Ocean View Hotel. As the name implies, it sits right across the Gulf of Mexico shoreline. I was informed that we would take an early yet sumptuous breakfast at the hotel before leaving for the close by marina where his pangas were moored. When we returned to the Ocean View, a dip in the pool would be a welcome prospect, as would a massage at the hotel’s modern state of the art spa. With all these wonderful features, Art and I decided this was definitely a “with-spouses” trip.
The Campeche Fishing Begins-
The first day of fishing began with Art and I fishing with our guide Juan, whose facial features and eyes gave him the nickname, “Chino.” Fernando followed us around in another panga for use as a camera boat. Though we were pleased to see it was a fair weather sky, the obvious brisk northeasterly winds were sure to give us a challenge in terms of spotting the tarpon as the grassflats off Campeche were carpeted with countless wavelets just past the mangrove “wind shadow” all the way out to the endless Gulf horizon. Also, it had been our experience that tarpon in the shallows are generally less reluctant to roll compared to their frolicking in bathtub-calm seas.
Nevertheless, with two great guides, two pangas, and Juan’s ever-present hand-held GPS, we were able to find tarpon- and lots of them! Our guides carefully scanned the “down-wave” seas with fair success by splitting up by 100 yards and double-teaming their spotting by talking on their VHF radios. We were able to get off about 20 casts to these outside fish, but managed only a few light strikes on our ¼ ounce white Spro bucktails and 3/8 -ounce red and white Backbone lures. Art employed 8-pound spinning tackle and I used 10-pound plug tackle.
We decided to move into the mangrove canals for more windless conditions. I pared down my fluorocarbon leader from 40-pound test to 30-pound test. We spotted a few fish deep in the forest, but they, too, seemed reluctant to strike. After 6 hours of fishing, we decided to pack it in and head south to Campeche. I have to confess I insisted that Juan stop the skiff a few miles from port so we could cast to a school of big jacks and some huge houndfish that were savaging a massive school of sardines. The jacks were locally called “corel” and ran to 5 pounds- they were great fighters! The houndfish ran to an incredible 7 pounds and fought like baby sailfish. Juan found these fish amusing, but his expression went to careful caution when he had to unhook these writhing monsters. We then headed in with some of our hunger for action sated.
Day #2- Success Both Early and Late-
Raul joined us this day in the second skiff. We were pleased to see that the conditions were overcast and flat calm. We ran north for over an hour to one of Raul’s secret spots. As soon as the two skiffs came off plane in unison, both guides pointed to a huge area that seemed coated with rolling tarpon- the fish were so numerous I felt like I was in a dream!
My first cast was about 10 feet in front of and past a slow moving school of small tarpon. After the second sweep of my rod, I had a solid strike and drove my hook hard as I struck back. Seconds later, a 15-pound specimen went flying into the air. I made short work of this fish on my plug tackle. It felt good that my first tarpon release came on my first cast. We spent that magic morning jumping lots of fish and releasing a few more.
But midday meant a change of venue, as our plans called for us to experience as many species and methods as possible in Campeche. Juan and Raul discussed our next move and they decided to run south-southwest to a reefy area in 6 feet of water that they said was ideal for casting lures on light tackle. After a 1-hour run to the spot, we had a few hours left to fish. Juan told me to cast my white Spro bucktail to the light areas on the bottom. As long as we kept our casts accurate and started our jigging on the bottom, we were rewarded with grouper, small cubera snappers, and barracuda topping 15 pounds. As the sun began setting, we got underway to head back to the city after an excellent day of fishing.
Tarpon Town Anglers
Web site: http://www.tarpontown.com/
011 521 (981) 133 2135------ RAUL'S Cell/Mobile