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Los Roques Archipelago, some 80 miles off the coast of Venezuela, has been the enfant terrible of Caribbean bonefishing in recent years, generating more critical comment than any other place in that part of the world. Just take a gander at our slim file of subscriber written reports on Los Roques. It consists of only three reports and two of those are critical. One of them, written in 1990, gives "poor" marks to just about every aspect of Los Roques. The other provides no details, but summarily concludes the place is not recommendable.
In our news columns, again back in 1990, we warned readers not to expect first class guiding at Los Roques. "Chances are you will get a young boy who beats you to death flying through the chop at breakneck speed and then snoozes while you wade the flats," we wrote in the February, 1990 issue. "Or, you may happen to get a knowledgeable local who knows something about fly fishing and how to ferry you about to avoid the worst of the wind. He may even occasionally point out a fish, but don’t count on it…."
All of this bad press is on top of reports and rumors about lodges changing hands, a mothership sinking under intriguing circumstances and coup de grace the arrest and temporary detention of a party of US anglers last summer. The anglers were not harmed or even threatened, but the agent for those anglers, Mike Michalak of The Fly Shop, later admitted in correspondence this "…wasn’t a humorous episode."
So, what has happened to bring an end to this turmoil? Or, indeed, has it really ended?
A bit of background will help bring both questions into focus. The Los Roques Archipelago is intensely important to the Venezuelan people, who apparently feel about the islands much the way we Americans feel about Yellowstone National Park. They genuinely want to preserve the beauty and natural resources of Los Roques, as witness the tight controls they have imposed on commercial fishing and lobstering in the area. The harvest of conch has currently been banned for a 10 year period. The construction of new buildings is completely forbidden.
Couple this protectionist urge with local skepticism about catch and release ("Sure, I understand you want to catch the fish and then put them back in the water. Ha…!")…. and then add to that a generous measure of agent and outfitter misbehavior in years past and you have all the ingredients necessary for a government to be suspicious of what’s happening at Los Roques.
It was this governmental suspicion that came to a head last summer with the "arrest" and detention of those American anglers and the complete closure of Los Roques for a while to commercial sportfishing.
The good news is, a clear plan of operation seems to have emerged from that closure. Specifically, the right to host sportfishermen at Los Roques has wound up in the hands of a single high quality outfitter by the name of Eduardo Pantoja of Chapi Tours & Fishing. A wealthy Mexican/Venezuelan architect, Pantoja got into the sportfishing business because he loves it and only secondarily to make money. Obviously, he’s good at it, though, as witness the fact that he is building a mini sportfishing empire in Venezuela embracing not just bonefishing at Los Roques but also bluewater trips out of La Guiara, tarpon fishing at Rio Chico and peacock bass fishing at El Pao. Next out of the chute is a brand new peacock bass camp on Lake Guri, about which I’ll have more to say in a future issue.
With so many irons in the fire, it is perhaps not surprising that Pantoja has backed away from the day to day operation of bonefishing at Los Roques. What he’s done is retain control of the nonresident fishing permits on the island but let an enterprising and competent Spanish immigrant, Alejandro Gonzalez, run the fishing at Los Roques as an independent business. Should something go wrong with Gonzalez’ operation and no one I have spoken to expects that to happen Pantoja could step back in. The upshot is administratively speaking, the turmoil at Los Roques appears to be over.
This means the place at last can be realistically appraised as a fishing destination. The first step in doing that is to point out that Los Roques is w i n d y! How windy is it? Well, 20 miles per hour is not unusual; and speeds higher than that are common. I’m talking about summer winds, mind you, not winter winds, which are even higher.
It’s important to lead with this observation about wind, because it ties in with one of the major mistakes agents made in the past in the marketing of Los Roques namely, they tried to sell it as a year round fishery. That didn’t work because the winds at Los Roques, which are far more important than tides in determining water level and current flow, apparently pile the water up around Los Roques in the winter, raising the water level on most flats so high fly fishing becomes almost impossible. The no go season at Los Roques extends all the way from September to January, which means the islands are not fishable through most of the all important snowbird season. To their credit, Pantoja and his local operator, Alejandro Gonzalez, have accepted this and decided to limit their season to the spring through fall period.
To be sure, the wind is not an entirely negative influence at Los Roques. During much of the year it knocks the edge off normal tidal fluctuations, which means there are seldom any "dead times" when the fish are back in the mangroves or mudding in the channels. And, high velocity notwithstanding, the wind does not pose an insuperable obstacle to casting, as Gonzalez and his guides have long since worked out daily fishing patterns that require downwind casting only.
Turning to good things about Los Roques, there are few places in the world that can hold a candle to the archipelago when it comes to the size of the average bonefish taken. During my recent visit, the average fish taken perhaps after you subtract an atypically small fish or so was around five pounds. Six pounders were common and I personally caught one that decisively cracked nine pounds. The island record pushes 13 pounds, I’m told.
The archipelago is a wader’s paradise. In point of fact, 100 percent of the fishing here is done on foot, as the boats used to transport anglers to the flats are tub like motherboats, big enough to take the constant swells and fast enough to keep the morning and evening run down to about 20 to 40 minutes. You and a fishing partner and a single guide wade a flat together while the motherboat operator hovers in the distance, waiting for a signal to move elsewhere. If there are four of you in the boat, the operator moves back and forth between the two parties, watching for a signal that either party is ready to move. The system sounds cumbersome, but it works. During my visit, little time was lost waiting to be moved from one place to another.
As for the flats themselves, some are a bit on the soft side. The older angler or the angler with a physical limitation may not be able to handle all of them comfortably, though on my trip the topic never came up. I doubt it would emerge as a problem on most trips, as there so many flats to choose from here (around 350 in all, apparently) that one could simply ask to be taken to "easy" flats.
My own favorite flats here are what the guides call patch flats. These vary in size from about the size of a basketball court to about three times that size. The typical patch flat is somewhat like an aquatic toadstool in that it rises almost straight up from the depths. Step off a knee deep patch flat and you can be over your head in a few feet. Not surprisingly, some of the biggest bonefish in Los Roques ease up onto these patch flats.
You fish a patch flat by grounding the motherboat on the upwind side of it and hopping out for a few casts. Fish hooked here invariably rocket off the edge of the flat into deeper water. After you’ve fished a flat thoroughly, the motherboat picks you up and drops you on the next one, which might be no more than 100 feet away, separated by a channel 10 to 20 feet deep. There are so many of these patch flats you can spend entire days hop scotching from one new flat to another. Tastes in bonefishing differ, but to me at least patch flat fishing at Los Roques is right up there with the finest things you can do standing up.
All of this leaves guiding, food and ambience to be discussed. As regards the former, both of the guides I was assigned spoke English well, knew what they were doing and could spot fish. They were as good, overall, as any bonefish guides I have used anywhere. Food, on the other hand, was middle of the road adequate, but unworthy of gold stars. Lunch, frankly, could have been made a bit more appealing. It’s a quibble, but hey a table cloth and more attractive serving dishes would be nice.
Ultimately, the ad hoc way lunch is served each day is part of the ambience of Los Roques. Things work. You get to the flats on time. You catch fish. But the place is not a well oiled bonefish factory the way some lodges are nowadays. On the contrary, it is one of those handful of fishing places, like Christmas Island, that has a wonderful but nonetheless somewhat ramschackle "feel" to it. The lodge being right on the water has something to do with that "feel." The swarms of birds that wheel and turn in the evening are part of it. Then there is the village of Gran Roque where the lodge is located. You feel like you are part of the village while you are there.
When you go fishing for a living the way I do, there are places that are "work" to visit and others that are enjoyable. Then there are a few spots that really get under your skin. Wind, ramshackleness and all, Los Roques is one of the latter. Don Causey.
(Postscript: Various agents book Los Roques, but Mike Michalak of the Fly Shop is one of the most active and informed on this destination. Los Roques trip packages include overnights on the night of arrival and departure at La Guaira, the high ticket resort area near Caracas; charters to and from the archipelago; and all meals, beverages and services. Prices range from $1,395, double occupancy, for five days, four nights, three days of fishing; to $2,295 for a similar trip embracing eight days, seven nights, six days of fishing. Lest the generally positive assessment of Los Roques given above be considered a lone opinion, it is worth noting that two Angling Report subscribers have weighed in recently with similar assessments. The first is from subscriber Carlo Orombelli of Italy, who fished here last July and gave all aspects of the operation except food "good" to "excellent" marks. He reports catching 10 bonefish per day up to eight pounds, thanks at least in part to his guide, Jose, whom he calls "…one of the best I ever met." The second report is from Stuart Crooks of the United Kingdom who has some reservations about "…the coordination of breakfast, guides and boatman" but goes on to call the trip "…excellent. I thoroughly enjoyed it." He reports catching seven to nine bonefish per day, with the largest weighing eight pounds. "The fish are larger here than in Belize and far less spooky," he writes. "The flats receive little pressure and are not fished every day." Both reports have been input into our Angling Database.