It’s a funny thing about fly fishermen. Most start off being very secretive and protective of their favorite fishing spots, the flies they use and the techniques that they utilize, and then as they get older they become more willing to share information with like-minded individuals. And that’s a good thing because that is how I first learned about this wonderful saltwater fishing and touring destination on the Gulf of Mexico – a chance meeting with another senior angler like myself fishing the same stretch of remote water in Idaho led to an exchange of information and two years later here I was. My host for this trip was Raul Castaneda of Tarpon Town Anglers. www.tarpontown.com. Raul is a friendly and gregarious fellow who once was a semi-pro baseball player and later an IT specialist based in this area for an American company out of Atlanta. During the company’s management visit to Campeche a senior executive asked about going out fishing and Raul volunteered to do the honors. That’s all it took for Raul to launch a new career and eventually led to the establishment of Tarpon Town Anglers, a guide service specializing in the local tarpon fishery.
Campeche is an old Spanish colonial town located on the Gulf side (western side) of the Yucatan Peninsula. If you envision Cancun, which is located on the north eastern shore of the Peninsula, Campeche is about 350 miles to the southwest on the Gulf of Mexico. Transportation is relatively easy – fly into Merida about 90 miles to the east, or through Mexico City directly into Campeche. Either way you are picked up at the airport and taken to your hotel. I chose a hotel near the waterfront for convenience and ease of access to the marina, but local transportation is also readily available if needed. The hotels are modern, comfortable, quiet, air conditioned with helpful staff. Campeche has a wonderful historic district and many excellent locally owned restaurants specializing in local seafood (octopus, shrimp, fish, squid, etc.). Tourists come here for bird watching, “antique-ing,” to visit the old historical district and to tour the Mayan ruins in the local archaeological sites.
The primary fishery here, at least for fly fishing, is juvenile tarpon, with a good number of snook also occupying much of the same water. The fish range in size from 5 to 10 lbs. but many “teeners” with some 20 and 30 lb. fish are also taken regularly. The fishing is in shallow water from pangas with no walk-and-wade fishing, and will include a combination of open water casting, sight fishing the mangrove lined shoreline, and also tight casting in mangrove canopied rivers and creeks. The quarry are big powerful fish. Expect to encounter several schools of roving tarpon in a day’s outing, from which you are likely to get 3 to 8 hookups each day depending on casting ability, some days more and some days less. But landing a hooked fish is an even bigger challenge; a 50% landing rate is considered very good. As may be obvious, you need to leave your trout and freshwater mentality at home, and adapt to an entirely different environment and skill set. For example, you must “strip set” the hook with no bend in the rod and almost never raise your rod tip when fighting a hooked tarpon. In fact, there is a variant of Michelle Obama’s campaign speech for the unsuccessful candidate in 2016 that we like to use when fighting a large tarpon – when they go left we go right, and when they go right we go left! Equipment. 8, 9 and 10 weight rods with floating lines are the go-to rigs. We carried two rigged rods on the boat with different patterns and colors – I used an 8- weight with a floating line which you will use most of the time, and a 9 weight with an intermediate sinking head for deeper water (6 or 7 feet deep). Leaders of 7 to 10 feet tapering to 20 pound test are about right, with 40 pound shock tippet essential due to the abrasiveness of the tarpon’s mouth. I had good success using standard tarpon flies such as Tarpon Toads, Tarpon Bunnies, Seaducers, Gurglers, Whistlers, Cockroaches, etc.
About the Guides
Tarpon Town Anglers runs as many as 5 boats (pangas) per day. Each boat is captained by an experienced local fly fishing guide, some who speak only limited English but all of whom communicate well. These men are all adults who take great pride in their work and they will work tirelessly to locate and stealthily stalk roving schools of tarpon by quietly poling the boat along the flats or through the mangrove forest. There is a tendency to think that we have read everything on the subject and that we have all the skills and experience necessary to catch tarpon without any help from the guides. In my opinion that would be a mistake. These men are on the water 3, 4, 5 and even 6 days a week and have spent more time fishing tarpon than the rest of us will in a lifetime. Rather than have my guides think I had no confidence in them, I allowed them to select our flies, tie on replacement shock tippet, tie on the flies and I never had a problem. Rather, we had excellent success. That may be just a bit of personal philosophy but it has served me well over the years when fishing distant locations and this trip was no exception.
Some Closing Thoughts
First and foremost, this is a destination that I want to visit again, hopefully on a regular basis. Easy access, great fishing, friendly people, historic old Mexico – what’s not to like? Second, I can’t say enough about how comfortable it was fishing with Tarpon Town Anglers during my trip in mid-April this year. Raul took care of all the details from my arrival into Merida until my departure a week later, including hotel reservations, ground transportation, local information and even restaurant recommendations. Raul would join us for breakfast each morning and then drive us to the marina only about 10 minutes distant. We encountered very few other anglers on the water and a few minutes out of the dock you felt like you were in a remote wilderness area. Finally, accurate distance casting is at a premium here.
The most important thing you can do to prepare for this trip is to practice your casting before you get on the plane (e.g., at the Long Beach or Pasadena casting ponds). If you do decide to take this trip, be sure to ask Raul about the time he guided Lefty Kreh – I promise you won’t stop laughing!