On Ambergris Caye, the sun rises at 5:50 AM and sets at 6:15 PM; the same time, every day. Each dark morning, Ricky peers at the docks from behind his living room curtains to judge the wind and the weather. From the weather he learns if he should carry a rain jacket? If the sun’s glare will obscure his vision? If there will be eight hours of fishing? From the wind he learns where he will fish. Wind from the south means he will fish on the flats. Wind from the west means he will fish in the lee among the mangroves.
Today the wind blows hard from the northeast. Eloy and Ricky will fish for tarpon among the mangrove-laden lagoons in the back of Ambergris Caye.
As the temperature is warm, Ricky’s kit is minimal. Since permit are rare this time of year, he brings a 7-weight rod for bonefish and a 9-weight rod for tarpon. Both rods are rigged using Nautilus® reels. The leader and tippet and flies are well-matched for bonefish and tarpon. The green apples, Johnny cakes, and NutriBars are for Eloy and Ricky.
Eloy Gonzalez’s lanchon is sparsely outfitted for the hunt. A center console flats boat with two forward seats; two large storage compartments; a cooler filled with Crystal water and NeHi; a live well.
Eloy and Ricky stow their gear and travel north to the Boca del Rio that divides the town of San Pedro, south from north.
Eloy and Ricky traverse the river with no wake. They travel past the Boca del Rio Park with its sandy beach and swings and jumping tower and swimmable currents; underneath the golf cart bridge that leads out of town to North Ambergris Caye; past the Sagebrush Church and the Chinese high rise and the Garifuna Legegu Bar and Grill; past the houses and boats and beaten mangroves.
In the back of the island, among the mangroves, Eloy keeps an eye out for sardines. Sardines (or pilchard) are numerous. Feeding on zooplankton, these small, oily fish from the herring-family are forage food for tarpon.
Capturing sardines for bait requires a purse seine net. This 6-foot, monofilament nylon, netting wall (seine) requires a quick-sink cast from the side of the lanchon around a school of fish. The netting floats on top of the water. It is rimmed with rust-proof sinkers that ring the bottom. The weighted polyline is gathered up, pursing the net closed on the bottom, trapping sardines, and preventing them from escaping downward. Pinpointing a school of sardines; casting the seine; depositing sardines into the live-well; all require Eloy’s talents and skills.
Once the live-well is topped out, Eloy and Ricky pass through the waterways into the mangrove-laden lagoons. In Belize, the plethora of mangroves are protected. Mangroves act as feeding and nursery habitat for fish, birds, amphibians, reptiles and mammals. In addition, mangroves stabilize the coasts, reduce erosion, and mitigate the effects of waves, winds, floods, hurricanes and tsunamis. Finally, mangroves maintain water quality and clarity, filtering pollutants, and trapping sediments that originate from the land.
On their journey, Eloy and Ricky encounter the red and black mangroves of Ambergris Caye. Growing along the waterway’s edge, the red mangrove is identified by the long roots that support the plant. The black mangrove is found in the back, away from the water’s edge, and can be recognized by the small protrusions called pneumatophores that encircle the base of the tree.
Mangroves are tolerant of a variety of water conditions, from the freshwater rivers of the mainland to the saline conditions that are found around the cayes. Mangroves have the ability to either filter out salt before they take up water into their tissues or extrude salt out of their system via special pores on their leaves. These adaptations allow them to flourish in environments that other species of plants cannot tolerate.
Eloy guides the lanchon on their journey. Moving up country into locations that are more and more secluded; locations where the tarpon hang out; that only Eloy knows.
Ricky fishes for tarpon from the raised bow of the lanchon. There is no wading as the topography is too muddy. The 9-weight rod is outfitted with 0X leader and two to three feet of 40 lb. shock tippet. The fly is an EP black and red 2/0 Black Death tied to the tippet using a Davy knot with the tag end pointing rearward and no longer than twice the size of the hook eye. Eloy peppers the surrounding water with chunks of sardines. The attractant lures the fish out from under the safety of the mangroves. As Eloy poles the lanchon, Ricky stands ready to cast.
While patiently waiting, tarpon facts and memories roll by. The facts are simple. Tarpon feed looking upward; flies that move close to the surface do well. Tarpon like movement. Long, fast, continuous strips of the fly catch their attention and keep the tarpon from recognizing that the fly is not food. Tarpon flies should mimic their food source. If you dot the water with sardines, the fly should mimic a sardine. The memories are tantalizing. A while back, Ricky casted a Cockroach fly. It sailed close to the water; in front of the mangroves. A juvenile tarpon leapt out to catch the fly in mid-air as it flew by. The facts and the vision merge. A fast-moving fly that imitates the food, just above the tarpon, works wonders.
Eloy continues to pole and spy from his stand, while Ricky practices patience, perseverance, and constancy of purpose. Eloy breaks the silence. Ricky hears, sixty feet. As the lagoons are narrow and the waterways straight, the lanchon is always best positioned. One false cast and Ricky’s line shoots towards the tarpon. He strips quickly and continuously. No wrenching of the line. No jumping. No splashing. Ricky adjusts for the distance and casts again. Again, he strips quickly and continuously. Again, no wrenching of the line. Again, no jumping. Again, no splashing. After three attempts, Eloy’s commentary is brief. The fish are hungry, but not for what you offer. Eloy and Ricky move on.
Moving deeper into the lagoon, the paths become narrower. The mangroves are tight over the lanchon. Finally, stopping in an open tract of water, Eloy and Ricky begin fishing. With each at their positions, the drill is the same. The tarpon is sighted; the distance is called; the cast is made; the fly is stripped. On the third cast, there is a whirring of the reel. The hook is strip set. The tarpon hurtles into the air. Both the tarpon and the fly become free. Again, Eloy speaks succinctly. You need to better set the hook. You need to pull harder.
Eloy and Ricky move on again; farther into the lagoon; as upriver as Kurtz. The mangroves do not relent. Ease of casting is rare. Finally, Eloy and Ricky enter onto a large field of water. Calm. Surrounded by mangroves on all sides. The end of the line. The final drill. And in the pool, a school of five tarpon. The fish seem not to notice. Or maybe they do, but do not care. Eloy and Ricky take their positions. On the first cast, while stripping, within twenty feet of the lanchon, the tarpon grabs the Black Death, turns, and beelines for the mangroves. With the rod kept low, the strip set succeeds. Forty feet out, the tarpon leaps for the sky. Ricky bows to the fish and the reel keeps whirring. Fifty feet out, the tarpon jumps again and shakes its head. As the line has stopped exiting the reel, Ricky raises the rod and begins the retrieve. After forty-five minutes, Ricky reels the tarpon beside the boat. Eloy looks at the tarpon in the water. We should leave it be. It is not ready. The tarpon makes two more runs towards the mangroves. Ricky reels the tarpon back alongside the boat. Now it is ready. Eloy reaches over the side of the lanchon. His wet hands lift the tarpon by its mouth. Eloy removes the Black Death and hands Ricky the tarpon for photos.
Ricky places the tired tarpon back into the water and waits. There is little current, so reviving the tarpon takes a bit of time. Finally, the tarpon shakes its head and, at full strength, swims off.
It is six hours later. Eloy and Ricky decide to leave; to retrace their steps; to meander back. Before heading home, they ply the waters outside the Boca del Rio for bonefish. Not the sight fishing of the flats, the bonefishing here is in deep water, accomplished only by feel. Although productive, the competition from above and below is fierce.
Eloy and Ricky arrive back at the dock at 3:30 PM. Ricky gathers his gear, says goodbye to Eloy, and heads back to his lodging, thinking of his and Eloy’s success and that tomorrow they will fish again.