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Dateline: Campeche, Mexico
Fly-Fishing with Conway Bowman for Baby Tarpon
by Skip Cox
Editor note: Reader Skip Cox has a lot of good things to say about his trip to Campeche, fishing for juvenile tarpon. He and a group of fly rodders spent the last week of May chasing the “silver prince” in the mangroves and backwaters of the Ria Celestun Biosphere Reserve with Tarpon Town Anglers. Here’s what Skip had to say about his trip:
I had been hearing about how much fun it is to fly-fish for baby tarpon from my friend and fellow San Diegan Conway Bowman ever since he fished for them out of Campeche, México. Conway (conwaybowman.com) is widely recognized as one of the premier fly fishers in the United States. He is host of the Sportsman’s Channel’s TV series Fly Fishing the World and the author of The Orvis Guide to Beginning Saltwater Fly Fishing: 101 Tips for the Absolute Beginner. Bowman pioneered fly fishing for mako sharks off the San Diego coast. He also held the IGFA 20-poundTippet Fly Fishing World Record for a 41-pound, 10-ounce red drum and has many other fly fishing achievements to his name. So when Conway agreed to host a trip to Campeche to fly-fish for baby tarpon, I jumped at it!
We hired a van to take us from San Diego to the Tijuana, Mexico, airport. Crossing the US border into Mexico was easy. Our US passports were examined (no visa required) and we paid the Mexico Immigration Service Fee of $22. Carry-on rods and reels can be “iffy”; two of us had to check our rods and one did not. Our AeroMexico flight was three and a half hours to Mexico City, where we had a layover of two and a half hours, and finally a one-hour-and-45-minute flight to Campeche. Raul Castaneda, owner and operator of Tarpon Town Anglers, met us at the Campeche Airport along with one of his employees. They quickly loaded our gear into their van, and 20 minutes later, we arrived at the Ocean View Hotel, which overlooks the Gulf of Mexico. Reservations were prearranged, and check-in was a breeze. Our total travel time, from the van picking us up in San Diego until we arrived at the hotel, was approximately 10 and a half hours. If you fly from the East Coast, your flight may take you to Cancún (a five-hour drive from Campeche) or Mérida (two-hour drive). Raul will arrange all necessary ground transportation and procure all necessary licenses for you in advance.
Campeche is a delightful, colonial city of 200,000-plus inhabitants on the western coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, almost due south from New Orleans. Approximately 40 miles north along the coast is the Ria Celestun Biosphere Reserve. This area contains one of the largest concentrations of juvenile tarpon in the world, yet, in six days of fishing, we only saw one other fly fisher.
Each day started at 5:30 AM in the hotel restaurant with an absolutely wonderful breakfast. It included a selection of papaya, watermelon, cantaloupe, and pineapple; three types of yogurt; two types of eggs; ham; multiple cereals; breads; jelly and jam choices; and juices and coffee. We would walk across the boulevard and meet the guides at 6:00 AM. The boat rides were about 15 minutes to 45 minutes, depending on what area of the water the guides had selected to fish that day.
The early morning fishing was generally the best. This usually consisted of casting to rising tarpon seen rolling in the mangroves. The estimated numbers of tarpon in each group of rising fish ranged from one to more than 20. The guides talked of having seen hundreds of tarpon rising on occasion, and I don’t doubt it.
Around 10:00 AM, as the sun rose higher and the temperature increased, the fish would stop rising. We would then blind-cast to the edges of the mangroves, where the tarpon had retreated to the protection and shade. I made many “iguana casts” that landed up in the mangroves. Our guide, Belito, had to pole the boat over to retrieve the fly about a third of the time. But this didn’t upset him, as the guides want you to cast close to the trees. They know that a fly cast even a yard away from the mangroves doesn’t have a good chance of luring tarpon from their lair.
As the heat increased to 90°F and above and the baby tarpon retreated even deeper into the mangroves, the guide would select a small inlet and slowly pole the boat into the swamps. Sometimes you would have to duck down in the boat to avoid the tree limbs overhead. Here, the canopy of trees blocks the glare of the sun so you can see the fish in the clear water. Your cast may be only a couple of feet. A baby tarpon of five to 10 pounds jumping, darting, and ricocheting under, over, around, and in the boat is a blast! They aggressively take a fly and jump wildly—and repeatedly! Bring an additional short fly rod; it will come in handy. Also, these juvenile tarpon are not leader shy, and I fished with up to 50-pound tippet.
Our guide, Belito, was a delightful, hardworking, fish-savvy Mayan, but his English was somewhat limited. “Cast! Cast! More right . . . more right! Strip! Strip! Strip!” he’d say. His broken English coupled with my passable attempt at Español meant we got by just fine, but this could be an issue for some. As for the boats, they were “pangas” (boats common in Mexico). Theywere clean and well maintained, and the outboard motors performed well.
There are no local fly shops, or at least I didn’t learn of any. The Ocean View Hotel has only a limited assortment of tarpon flies in its lobby shop, so bring what you need with you. I brought 45 flies; I used seven and lost three. In all, I hooked more than 15 and caught and released six tarpon, ranging from five to 10 pounds. Flies suggested are: Enrico Puglisi Tarpon Streamer (black, purple, and chartreuse), Laid-Up Tarpon, TCL Special, Purple Death, Cockroaches, White Sea Bunnies, Deceivers, Moorish Tequila Popper, and Gurglers. Fly patterns should be 1/0 and 2/0 and no more than two and a half inches long. There is no wade fishing, so you can leave your flats boots and fanny packs at home.
Before you go, it is important that you check with your doctor for immunizations and medications you might need for the Yucatán and the mangrove swamps. Since Medicare and other US medical coverages are limited, I bought short-term International Major Medical Insurance through Steve Milam (firstname.lastname@example.org) and evacuation insurance through Global Rescue www.globalrescue.com.
Fly Water Travel (www.flywatertravel.com, 800-552-2729) handled the bookings and payments and provided us with the best traveler’s pre-trip information package I’ve ever seen. It included logistics; fishing equipment and knots; Mexico tourist documents (US passport required); a daily schedule; and information on currency, tipping, medical issues, climate, clothing, and even electrical currents in Campeche (same 110 as US) and the Yucatán Peninsula.
There were not many problems with this trip. but a few issues come to mind. Crossing the border into Mexico required us to unload our luggage for a cursory inspection, but we were on our way in less than five minutes. Coming back into the United States, however, took about an hour to get through US Customs, primarily because of the long line of travelers. Our fishing guide, as mentioned above, spoke limited English, but again, this was not a huge inconvenience for me. The magnetic keys to our hotel rooms failed multiple times and had to be re-magnetized repeatedly. The hotel has no elevator, and having to repeatedly climb the stairs to the second floor after a hard day’s fishing was unpleasant. Another thing the hotel didn’t have was a bar, but there was a Walmart about two blocks away where we were able to purchase supplies and make our own libations, which were inexpensive, good, and . . . plentiful! Uno más por favor!
There are numerous activities for the non-fishing companion, including tours to Mayan ruins, which were a delightful surprise, as I didn’t even know there were any close to Campeche. I also highly recommend sightseeing around Campeche itself. The food in Campeche is wonderful. and it’s lovely to enjoy it on a veranda on the Campeche town square.
As for the climate, it is tropical. We fished May 25–30 and had all-around good weather. It was only uncomfortable when the breezes died down in the middle of the day. Year-round, high temperatures range from the mid-80s to the mid-90s, with lows from mid-60s to mid-70s. Luckily, we also did not have too much rain during our trip. The rainy season usually lasts from June through October, so book your travel accordingly.
The cost of this trip for six full days of fishing was $3,340 for everything except airfare, evening meals, and gratuities, which are suggested at $30 to $50 per day and paid directly to your guide in US dollars. For more info on their operations go to www.tarpontown.com. They have an excellent video on their website that includes info on tarpon fishing, the Ocean View Hotel, the food, plus Campeche and the nearby Mayan ruins.
I would highly recommend this trip, especially for the beginning tarpon angler. Tarpon are a magnificent fly-rod fish. Aside from being very difficult to cast to, they are also tough to entice, hook, fight, and land. I made the mistake of beginning fishing for giant tarpon off the west coast of Florida, where many IGFA tarpon world records have been set. I made every mistake in the book and didn’t get a tarpon to the boat for years! Pay your beginner’s dues by fishing for, and catching, juvenile tarpon first.