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Subscriber Robert Dahlberg has provided us with this detailed account of his experience fishing on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico for juvenile tarpon. Readers who enjoy specifically targeting smaller tarpon, like Robert and myself, will find his report extremely helpful and informative.
For the last three years, baby tarpon has become my favorite species to pursue on a fly. In 2017 I fished in Cuba, and in 2018 I fished Campeche and Isa Arena (the later location is promoted as the Isla del Sabalo Lodge.) So it was a natural next step to explore San Felipe, on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. This area is adjacent to the Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve. As a reserve, and three hours from Cancun, the area is promoted as having much less fishing pressure than, for example, Holbox. I’ll come back to fishing pressure later.
Tarpon Cay Lodge (TCL) is physically located inside the Hotel San Felipe de Jesus, in the small fishing village of San Felipe on the Yucatan peninsula. The fishing program here is operated by Marco Ruiz of Yucatan Fly Fishing Adventures https://www.yucatanflyfishing.com/, and distributed in the United States via Fly Water Travel (https://www.flywatertravel.com/) of Ashland, Oregon.
The trip started on a good foot at the Cancun pick-up point, the Marriott Courtyard, Cancun. There my partner and I met two others in our group, both competitive tournament fly casters, and one a part-time fly-fishing guide. Both had been to TCL the year before, and one was on his ninth return trip. Nine return trips is a powerful endorsement!
The style of fishing here is as advertised. You fish with 8-weight rods with floating lines over weeded flats, or along mangrove-lined shorelines, bays, and creeks. You fish water one to three feet deep depending on the tide. The water here is clear, and though turtle grass is rare, there is weed growth. Closer to town the weeds are encased with algae. There were just a few places I wish that I had a weedless pattern.
The lodge uses pangas that have a level casting deck. The morning boat rides were around 15 minutes, though we would sometimes go as far as 25 minutes from the lodge during the afternoons. Most options are relatively close.
The daily routine starts as fresh-brewed coffee is delivered to your room with a 5 a.m. wake-up knock. Breakfast is served at 5:30 a.m. Boats depart for the morning fishing at 6. We would return to the lodge at 11 a.m. for lunch and a siesta, and then head back out from 4 to 7 p.m. for afternoon fishing.
There are plenty of baby tarpon here; the challenge is to lure the tarpon to bite. For example, on the second day at daybreak we went out to a flat, and there were literally thousands of tarpon feeding around our boat! Unfortunately, the tarpon that morning were selective, and we only caught three tarpon. By 10 a.m. the sun was up, and the tarpon moved back into the mangroves.
We didn’t fish much in the biosphere area that is east of San Felipe. Most mornings we headed to the biosphere border and fished flats. After 9:30 a.m., when the tarpon wanted to get out of the sun, we would follow them into the mangroves.
We were warned that the afternoons can get very windy (20 knots), and, in true fashion, most afternoons were very windy. Fortunately, the mangroves make for an excellent windbreak, and the guides are proficient in getting you to shelter in them. Our guide Martin did a good job positioning the boat so we could cast into favorable conditions.
One frustration I have with baby tarpon fishing is that outfitters often suggest a long list of fly recommendations, But in most cases I find I use only one or two patterns. In 2018, the two experienced tarpon anglers in our group had success with the Zima and used it almost exclusively. This year they used Tarpon Toads in chartreuse, and their guide’s (Chris) choice, #4 Tequila Sunrise.
This year we had success with:
Tarpon Toad Brown
Puglisi Peanut Butter—Chartreuse/White, Purple/Black
Puglisi Tarpon Streamer—Red/black
Deep Cover Shrimp
Foxxy Griz Minnow, sunrise
Our guide preferred lightly dressed, red/white, chartreuse and purple/black patterns. The gurglers I purchased stayed in the box.
So, coming back to the notion of fishing pressure in this area. For me, the attraction to this location is that it sits adjacent to a protected biosphere and that Yucatan Fly Fishing Adventures limits its clients to six to eight rods a week. However, we observed that Yucatan Fly Fishing Adventures does not have exclusive fishing rights here. During the week we saw a comparable number of fly fishers, presumably with guides based in San Felipe or Rio Lagartos.
My partner and I are fly casters that can reach 50‒60 feet. On the four of six days that the fish were on the bite, we boated five fish a day. At the end of the trip, one of the experienced fishers told me that he and his partner were disappointed in their results. Last year they had boated 25 fish a day, and this year they boated 15 tarpon per day. Both are competitive tournament casters that can hit 100 feet as required. So casting skill does make a difference here, in our case a 3X difference in boating tarpon. He also told me that his guide, Chris, told them that 2019 has been a difficult year. These two fishers think that the commercial fishing boat traffic (out of San Felipe and Rio Lagartos) is having an effect in spooking the fish. I found a Duke University research report that poaching in the biosphere is on the rise.
Overall, we were happy with our guide, Martin. He definitely got us to fish. On the two days where tarpon were not visible or biting, he worked hard to find fish. Martin had proficient fishing English (“cast again,” “cast 11 o’clock, 50 feet,” etc.) However, he could not hold a conversation in English or explain to us why our 40 HP Yamaha outboard motor ran poorly (water in the gasoline was the culprit.) The nine-time fisher favors Chris as his guide, and makes fishing with Chris a condition of his booking.
The lodge/hotel is clean and simple, and everyone who works there is friendly and helpful. The AC works great. Be aware that the mattresses are made of foam, and the supporting plywood board hangs over the underlying supports so be careful rolling out of bed or you may find yourself on the floor!
There are six suites that fly fishers are usually placed in. These suites look out over the water, and you can see the sunrise and sunset (in June) from these rooms. The second-floor rooms (6, 7, and 8) feature a deck that is above the rooms. Access is via a steep staircase. There is also access to a rooftop bar area (no longer used), that enables you a 360-degree view overlooking the water and town.
The food is as good as can be expected for a location like this. Breakfast (ordered the evening before) usually comes in the following:
Eggs and sausage, refried beans, fried plantain
Plain (“natural”) scrambled eggs, refried beans, fried plantain
Fresh fruit—cantaloupe, papaya, mango, pineapple, apple, bananas
Fresh orange juice
Lunch options varied, but mostly consisted of:
Fried grouper, cabbage onion slaw, and tortillas
Red snapper fajitas with guacamole
Shrimp cocktail, corn chips, and saltines
Shrimp and sea snails in a tomato-based soup
Shrimp and white fish ceviche; Conch cakes
Breaded barracuda (the cook advised us this was caught locally and is not toxic), Rice, carrot salad, potatoes, chips.
Sautéed grouper in garlic and red pepper flakes, jicama with chili powder, guacamole and chips
Lobster (broiled tails), spaghetti/linguine, tomato sauce, peas, garlic toast, corn chips, fresh salsa
Shrimp and breaded fish soft tacos
Chicken tostadas and chicken tamale
Sautéed sea trout, rice, iceberg lettuce salad
Beer and margaritas are available at an extra charge, all the water you could drink was included.
Laundry is available, although we didn’t make use of it.
Here is an interesting opportunity that I discovered for budget fly fishers. There was a second group of fly fishers (one on his third trip here) staying at the hotel that had arranged fishing guides directly with the hotel. He told me that he saved 50 percent of the cost over booking with a US agent. He cautioned me that making such arrangements requires communicating in Spanish, somewhat a challenge for him over the phone. The hotel email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. These budget fishers had a minor inconvenience of having to walk eight minutes to and from the public pier. We as Yucatan Fly Fishing Adventures clients simply stepped outside the hotel restaurant to climb into our boat.
The Bad: One disappointment on the service side, is that the new lodge manager, Feli, or Yucatan Fly Fishing Adventures owner Marco Ruiz himself, did not meet with us upon arrival to share with us the fishing program details. We were told that daily briefings the night before were done by the previous lodge host. Fortunately, the nine-time experienced angler gave us the rundown on how the lodge operates.
Cost: I booked my trip via Kiene’s Fly Shop (https://kienesflyshop.com/), which had secured a block of rooms over the new moon period in early June. Seven nights/six days fishing package: $3,965 per angler (double occupancy). While the service prefers a Saturday-to-Saturday routine, they will accommodate shorter stays. Two other fishers joined us for Monday fishing.