Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A Time For Predators

As the sun sets in the Caribbean it is gradually replaced by the moon, which, depending on its phase, can be pretty darn bright. For a fly fishermen, the night is a time for predators. Usually, the darker it is, the better. Tarpon, cuda, jacks, snappers, and of course, sharks are all on the prowl. All one has to do is find a source of light shining into, on, or in the vicinity of water and you will find predators. The light draws in the prey, baitfish and other assorted goodies, which, in turn, makes them an easy meal for the big guys.

On my first few trips to these islands, most of my fishing took place at night. I was all about the tarpon. My brother and I zeroed in on a few spots and found a few others. The fish were untouched and obliged on cast after cast. On the last two trips, the fish had grown weary of our techniques and flies and were much harder to catch. Subsequently, I had grown more fond of stalking fish on the flats. The tarpon were more of an afterthought. On these islands, the fish are resident juveniles. Only around fishing docks, where the fish gorge on scraps, do they approach one hundred pounds. On average, they are around 30-40 pounds.

Tarpon and barracuda tend to position themselves in areas where they can ambush their prey. They congregate on the edge of the light or lay and wait in deeper areas around structure. Tarpon's eyes have evolved to be highly effective nighttime hunters and are angled upwards to see their prey. Fishing towards them is all about having a silhouette against the light and purple tarpon toads are usually the fly of choice. For the cuda, one will have a much better chance with a spinning rod. It is hard to trick these monsters into taking a fly because you can't generate enough velocity to get them to take.

My brother and his friends have made it a habit to routinely get together for an evening session of fishing. In these gatherings, fly rods, spinning rods, and hand lines join forces to catch a wide variety of fish. All three disciplines usually receive action, which can make for a great night out. 

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Better Together

Good Morning Baja

After landing the Dorado on fly, we had achieved one of the two things we wanted to do on our guided trip with Baja Anglers. The other awaited us farther up the Sea of Cortez and is one of the sexiest fish alive. 

Exiting the Marina

The Sun is Rising

Ocean Spray

A Common Site In Front of Our Hotel Every Morning

Our guide pulled up on a string of beaches about half an hour away from Land's End. From there, we slowly motored our way up the coast coaxing roosters to the boat using the "bait and switch" method.

Matt and I wanted our father to catch some fish and we let him go first. Armed with a spinning rod, a circle hook, and a live mullet, it didn't take long for my Dad to get into the first fish. For some reason, fishing is hilarious whenever it involves our Dad. It could be the Big Poppa Pump moniker or maybe it is just funny to watch my Dad be out of his element with a rod in hand. I think combining his clumsiness, old age, lack of skill, and then throwing him on a rocking boat did my brother and I in. But, it was funny. Really funny. After that, it was all fly fishing.

My brother was up next, the first to try on a fly. This was also the trial and error period where presentation, stripping mechanics, and all the kinks in the communication between guide and angler were worked out. After missing a few hook sets and popping a fish off after a good struggle, Matt tied into a decent fish. Surprising to all of us, is how hard rooster's fight. Even the small ones could bend the 10 wt. in half, and tear drag off the spin and fly reels.

I bought an Allen Alpha II 9/10 as a backup and it has performed well for me this summer catching tarpon, cuda, roosters, and the dorado. Retail: $140. 

The coast is littered with high end hotels and mansions.
Some of which, are hard to fathom. 

Balancing Act in Blue...

Always Looking for an Easy Meal

After Matt hooked up and released the first Rooster on fly, it was my turn at the back of the boat. Two small roosters whipped back and forth with their combs flaming behind the mullet. The guide lured them back to the boat and I was able to time everything well enough to catch one on my first cast. It was probably the smallest rooster caught, but it was mine. All mine.

Other parts of the coast have your typical Baja desert feel
 with towering peaks reaching to the clouds.

After my fish was gone, Big Poppa Pump caught his, forcing our guide to proclaim him, the luckiest man alive. My brother and I just looked at each other and shook our heads laughing. We couldn't believe it happened.

Matt made the cast of the outing for his next fish. Only 30-40 feet, but on a rocking boat. It landed on a dinner plate in front of a charging rooster the exact second our guide pulled the mullet out of the water. The fly might as well have landed in the fish's mouth as it attempted to swallow the bait. He hooked up instantaneously.

The next two hours produced little action as the seas picked up. In the last hour, Matt and I put down the fly rods for the first time, grabbed two spinning rods with fresh mullet and had them behind the boat. The mullet swam side to side a foot below the water. Suddenly, a large comb broke the surface as a rooster slashed at my bait before inhaling my brothers. He waited 5-10 seconds before setting the circle hook in the corner of the fish's mouth. He was in for a fight having hooked the largest and sexiest fish of our trip.

I know we cheated on this trip. Roosters from a boat aren't exactly as difficult as catching them from the beach, where anglers can go days without a chance. However, roosterfish aren't dumb. They are intelligent and the memories of them tracking our flies, swerving side to side, and inspecting it from all angles will be seared into my memory. Beyond these images, the stories and experiences with my brother and father will be told for years to come. It always seems to be better when we are together laughing and sharing the moment.

We will go back to Baja sometime in the future. I feel like I have unfinished business with the challenge of one on foot, DIY style. I have visions of a tent, an atv, and maybe a rented house. Hopefully, the trip involves friends, family, and a whole lot of good fishing.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Friday, August 17, 2012

My Last Day

I remember the first morning of the trip vividly. The wind was lacking overnight and awaiting my brother and I outside of our bug nets, was a swarm. Visible on the mesh netting, were seemingly hundreds of no see ums intermixed with dozens of mosquitos. Overnight, they were drawn in by our carbon dioxide emissions and awaited us like a pair of Pavlov's dogs anticipating a bone. I checked out my knee caps that had drifted onto the mesh netting as I slept. They were covered in red bumps. That was just an appetizer before the main course. My brother and I contemplated strategy, before exiting our hammocks and having to untie several knots in shorts, t-shirts, and bare feet as the bugs came in for the kill. I learned the hard way that morning and by the time my last morning arrived, I had trimmed my set up and take down time to under a minute.

I could have left the island on any of the previous days. I decided to stay for the entire week because I never had a day that left me satisfied. I never had really good fishing and I had yet to catch a monster bone. I  just wanted one of those things to happen before leaving and not coming back for some time.

On the morning of the last day, I settled on the same strategy from the previous session. A super low morning tide had me off the coast, wading a thigh deep flat. It was there, that I found what I was looking for: steady shots at bonefish for two solid hours.

I started the morning by breaking off a bonefish. A jack took my fly in a small pod of bonefish so I let my line go limp, hoping for the jack to drop the fly. Unbeknownst to me, the jack did drop it and a bonefish picked it up. I tried pulling the jack out of the pod but it was a bonefish. Clamping down on a line as a bonefish runs is dumb, but I didn't know, and my tippet broke. That left me thumbing through what was left of my fly box, or the  E,F, and G choices.

With the pod still circling in the area, I re-tied and was super focused on the task at hand. In the distance, a dark shape was heading my direction as I casted to the bones. It was a big shark. Sharks are always on the flats swimming around you and coming right up to your legs before peeling away. But those are 2-3 feet, not close to 7. I noticed him at about 30 feet away and turned to face him. The sharks zero in on your electromagnetic field, similar to the insects tracing your carbon dioxide emission, so the big guy was heading right towards me. I remained super calm, stuck my rod in the water and placed the tip along his side and gave him a little push. He didn't budge. As my rod started to bend awkwardly, the  lemon shark slowly turned, realized I wasn't food, and bolted leaving a swirl of sand and mud at my feet. Forty feet away, my pod of bonefish erupted as they finally sensed the shark.

I was a little peeved that the shark scared away all my bonefish so I returned to staring at the void in the my fly box. A cloud covered up the sun for a few minutes, so I reluctantly tied on a darker version of my "go to". The entire week, the darker version of this fly was refused, but since I was over a darker bottom, I decided to give it one last chance.

After about twenty minutes, and no bonefish, I was beginning to feel like it was going to be a repeat of my previous day, where the action was fast and furious before ceasing to exist. Suddenly, I heard a noise that I had grown familiar with. A large slapping sound had me turning completely around and staring off into the distance. A minute later, I saw what I was looking for. A large silver tail protruding straight up out of the water as a bonefish went to town feeding. The slapping sound reoccurred as its tail flapped back and forth desperately trying to suck his breakfast out of its lair. I saw this all week long but it was usually at too far of a distance for me to give chase. That would give you an idea of how loud the slapping sound is and how visible a silver tail is sticking a foot out of the water on a calm flat.

I moved perpendicular to my quarry and got into position. It was a small school of large bones strolling across the bottom. I made a long cast and instantaneously hooked up on a really nice fish.

Just before things got really interesting, my Go Pro battery ran out. The conditions were perfect and I had an incoming tide. I was able to spot singles and pairs of bones coming at long distances and try fooling them in less than a foot of water. I landed another nice one after a long stalk with multiple shots. He had a large scar on his side and was missing half his tail. I lost another fish when my running line whipped up and caught the handle of my reel. I also lost several one on one battles, no doubt because of lack of fly choices. I finally began performing hair cuts on several larger shrimp patterns I brought along. One particular trimmed down fly, scored a large solitary bone close to shore. I was able to get a self-portrait on that guy before leaving the flats for good and finally content. 

Leaving the flat, I stumbled upon a good friend of ours named Alex. Out of touch with civilization, there was no way for me to know that he was taking the morning ferry to go fishing for the day. I found him walking a few miles back on the road to the bars for a drink. I gave him a ride and we discussed our polar opposite morning sessions. A few weeks after I left, he went back and absolutely killed it. Hopefully some of our talking points on the ferry ride home paid dividends.

Before the ferry arrived to take me back to the daily grind, I went to a cool little spot I found that is home to a lot of sharks. In the deep channel patrolling his daytime lair, was the BEAST. All 70-80lbs of him. The local legend, if you are unfamiliar with our stories, is said to be uncatchable. My brother and his friends have hooked him over 10 times on spin and fly gear. My brother fought him for an extended time period before it shattered his Loop Evotec Salt 10wt. in half. I did battle with him as well before he pulled a factory rated 60 lb. wire leader through its factory knot. Up to this point in time we only saw him patrolling the dock at night where he ambushes anything that can fit in his mouth, including hooked tarpon up to thirty pounds. In no way, shape or form, does this picture do him justice. He is this BIG

I went back to the car and rigged up the spinning rod for one last shot at the Beast (named accordingly after Sandlot). I tried everything I had left with only one measly follow. 10 inch plugs, 12 inch hogies, a few mushy mouth flies, and musky patterns. Too damn smart and too damn big. It was fitting that the last fish I saw and fished to was the Beast. I bid him farewell and headed to the dock. 

As the island quickly disappeared, I was able to reflect on three summer's of memories. Almost all of my flats experiences occurred here, sleeping in the sand and getting tortured by bones and bugs. This was where I caught my first bonefish and landed my first permit on my birthday. Knowing it so well, I know I'll be back in the future. Until then, the memories, experiences, and fish will keep me going.