Catching Bonefish and Big Tarpon – Los Roques
Our Los Roques trip was a long time in the planning, getting close to a year. One way and another, around 12 people were invited – pretty much all committing at some stage or another but then dropping out for various reasons. We can probably blame Brexit – everyone else does. Anyway, finally, an intrepid group of four of us paid our money and got set to go. Two of us with a fair bit of saltwater fly-fishing experience, and two with minimal fly fishing experience including none at all in saltwater!
Aardvark McLeod were excellent. The pre-departure information was very good, the ‘on the ground’ service was great, and we were well looked after throughout. Having travelled through them before, I expected this, but it was still comforting to know that we weren’t simply being bundled off somewhere and forgotten about.
We flew with BA to Madrid and onwards to Caracas with Iberia. A surprisingly comfortable journey, suitably anaesthetised with bubbles and plonk. Arrival at Simón Bolívar International Airport about 20 miles outside Caracas was relatively painless apart from a long wait for our baggage while Peter’s bag was checked out behind the scenes (he had nothing they seemed to want, so only a couple of padlocks nicked), and then out to the unbelievably chaotic arrivals hall and pick up area (a three or four lane road totally blocked by literally 100s of cars, vans, and buses all parked or trying to force their way through). Onwards by minibus, about a mile, and into the welcome air-conditioned and very comfortable hotel. A few beers, some wine, a good feed, then an early night. Oh, and we picked up some Bolivars – the local currency. The biggest note they have (100 bollies) is worth about 10p. Between us, we got about £150 worth – or a rucksack full.
Our flight to the island was due to leave at 7am the following morning, so we were all up and ready to roll by 6am. And of course, it didn’t leave on time at all, so a long dry hot wait at the airport until about 9am. Small aircraft, comfortable enough, and half an hour later we were landing on the very short Los Roques airstrip. We got our various permits and walked to the ‘posada’ where we were made to feel very welcome. It took us the rest of the morning to have breakfast, get ourselves organised, have a beer, have lunch, and then go fishing.
Peter and I were together the first day, and actually, we found it quite difficult. The water was high. Apparently, it isn’t the best time of year, and Peter who had been there before said that he remembered ankle deep water teeming with bonefish. We were in around waist deep for the most part which made spotting fish very difficult.
Nonetheless, we managed a few fish. When we got back, Tony and Jason had had a stonking day, with a good number of fish between them. Beginner’s luck?
Not a chance! We swapped around partners throughout the week and caught quite a lot of fish, but Tony and Jason always seemed to come back with the biggest numbers! Not that Peter and I didn’t catch fish – we did, and plenty, but somehow those two…! Well, nothing more to say really.
Except that one of the first bonefish Tony ever caught was a 10 pounder. And he didn’t have a camera with him! It took me and Peter nearly 30 years of trying before we got that lucky! But we had good days nonetheless, and for me, there was one special day when I had 7 bonefish in an hour, 6 of which were between 4 and 6 pounds, and one of around 7-8 pounds. The guides were excellent and tolerant of inadequate casting at times, and every evening we all came back ready to share stories over a drink or two. (Great lunches out on the boat, by the way.).
On Thursday it was pretty overcast, and there had been quite a bit of rain overnight, so Tony and I decided that we’d play around in the harbour area from the boat catching blue runners, with the possibility of a decent bonefish and the off chance of a shot at a tarpon. I was using an 11 weight, we’d caught a few blue runners on softy (gummy) minnows, and I noticed that Tony was using his 8 weight so suggested he gear up to his 11 weight. Which he did, and flicked the gummy into the water about 4 yards away (not a bad cast for him, really!) I didn’t see what happened next, neither did the guide, and I’m pretty sure Tony didn’t either. But happen it did. Something big ate the fly and took off, around the buoys and under the boats, like a very large bonefish. And it went on and on, with us following in the boat trying to catch up. Until it broke the surface revealing that it was actually – even at 100 yards away – a very respectable tarpon! How it avoided the buoys, boats, and ropes in the harbour I will never know, but it did!
After a few hundred yards and about 20 minutes, it was tiring. Tony that is; the fish was fine! It towed us out to deep water, jumping once or twice and revealing that it was actually a very good tarpon! At 40 minutes I suggested to a completely knackered Tony that I suspected he was approaching halfway through the battle – if the fish stayed on. Bear in mind too that Tony had had a bad night with a very bad stomach the previous night, and I was worried that an accident could occur! It was very hot by now, so we poured cold water over him. Right out of the ice box, and I thought he was going to have a heart attack. An hour came and went, his rod was bent double, and the plastic Greys reel he was using was creaking.
Now, anyone who knows anything about tarpon knows that you have to set the hook firmly, drop the rod tip if the fish jumps, trust the rod won’t break and the reel won’t seize up, and hope to high heavens that the fish you are fighting will not be one of the 9 out of 10 that come off. Luckily, Tony didn’t know any of this and I’m not sure he took much notice of me or the guide throughout. Instead, he played it magnificently, as if he’d done it 100 times before!
By now, the fish was lying on the bottom in about 100 feet of water and it wasn’t budging. So we tried to knock it off balance by moving the boat around, and eventually (with Tony almost ready to give in) the fish came up in the water performing some spectacular aerobatics. At 90 minutes, it was close enough to the boat to see that it was massive. And then…
Tony maneuvered the fish to the side of the boat, and the guide went to grab it by the lip when… his rod broke! The bottom section just up from the handle and the fish took off again. I could see that an exhausted Tony was about to throw the rod handle and reel on the bottom of the boat. “Play it on the reel” I shouted, and he did. The fish was, by now, almost as exhausted as Tony, and after 1 hour and 40 minutes, the guide was able to get a good grip of the fish and haul it into the boat. I quickly measured it, 60 inches pretty much exactly, estimated at about 90 pounds. Various photographs were taken of course and then we went to release the fish.
It flopped over in the water and we started drifting away from it. I shouted to the guide (and Tony) to get in the water, right the fish, and let it recover properly. The guide (a big guy) leapt in feet and hands first, sort of doubled over dive, made a huge splash, and he grabbed the fish and righted it. Tony followed, but I hadn’t realised that he’s not a great swimmer and the water was about 8 foot deep. Fortunately for him, the fish kept him afloat and let him recover for the 10-15 minutes or so it took before it was ready to swim off. And we dragged an exhausted (but very happy) Tony back into the boat, took him back to the harbour and dropped him off. I’m not sure whether he needed a beer or the loo most, but I went out in the boat again for an afternoon of bonefishing. Meanwhile, I suspect that the plastic reel needs to be returned to Greys for a service!
Later in the evening, of course, Tony had recovered his strength. Peter and I told him that with almost 60 years of saltwater fly fishing between us and many (tens of) thousands of pounds spent, neither of us had ever caught a tarpon of that sort of size. This was Tony’s first ever tarpon, probably the first one he’d ever even seen! “Right,” he said, “what’s next? 90lb tarpon, 10lb bonefish… not difficult this is it?” Life really isn’t fair! Oh, and I forgot to mention that he’d had a very close encounter with a decent permit earlier in the week but (fortunately?) he didn’t hook it.
Talking of which, I had a few shots at a very good permit which had a good look at the fly and my heart started pumping! But as is often the way with a permit, it turned away at the last minute. Twenty minutes later I had something very similar happen with two large triggerfish which I followed for a couple of hundred yards. I put the fly right between them several times, they looked but decided against my offering. But that was a very exciting morning!
We didn’t keep a tally of the bonefish we caught, probably average of 20-25 each for the week, and they were generally good sized fish. Also several blue runners, snappers and various other fish which kept the excitement going throughout. It wasn’t the best saltwater fishing I’ve ever had, but then again how can I possibly say that when we had a 90lb tarpon, a 10lb bonefish, and several between 5 and 10lbs? I certainly want to go back there again, they were nice people, the food was good, and from what I understand when the tides are right and the water is low, the fishing is even more fantastic. I’d love to wade those flats in 8-10 inches of water rather than 4-5 feet.
Generally, we were back at the Posada around 4pm. Showered and changed by 5pm and then a few beers on the rooftop. Somehow between the four of us we got through 3-4 bottles of wine over dinner, followed by a whiskey or two which Peter had brought along, and mostly we passed out around 9.30-10pm. One of the girls, Vicky, at the Posada seemed to do most of the work bringing our beer, wine, and food. We wondered how the place would operate if she wasn’t there. The young “manageress” had stubbed her toe before we arrived, so was bandaged up and limped around doing nothing when she wasn’t sitting doing nothing. I’m sure she put on a couple of kilos just in the week we were there.
The guides were excellent. One, Carlos, was a bit more serious than the other, Jose (apparently a top Venezuelan rapper known throughout the land) who had a great sense of humor, but I’d be very happy fishing with either again. Chris, who runs the fishing, was always at the jetty to greet us when we got back from fishing with a cheery “hi guys!” He seemed like a nice guy with a short attention span.
There was one downer on the trip. The Posada that we stayed in was clean and comfortable, the food was good, and so on. But their neighbours were pretty inconsiderate. The Posada is in a small village, dirt tracks between buildings with children playing and so on. No problem there. Next door, though, there seemed to be some sort of meeting place, and on Thursday night they started playing music. Right outside Jason’s room, and at full (distorted) volume. So the next neighbour along decided to compete – with different music but also at full (distorted) volume. That went on until about 2am. Then started again in the morning, apparently all through the day when we were out, but late into Friday night. It finally stopped only to start again at about 2.30am on Saturday and pretty much non-stop through to Sunday when we left. It started out quite funny, but it wears you out after a while!
Our flight back to Caracas was due at 8am on Sunday. That was changed during the week to 10am. On Saturday it was changed back to 8am, so we were at the airstrip soon after 7am Sunday. And we waited, and waited, and waited. There is nowhere to get a coffee or anything, and eventually, the plane arrived at about 9.30am and we took off around 10am. One gets the feeling that time is a bit of a distraction out there, but in the end, we were back at the hotel near the international airport in plenty of time to get a decent steak and begin the anesthetic process for the flight home. Departure was a doddle, and we were through all customs and checks half an hour after we left the hotel.
Before we went we were all subjected to various scare stories about Venezuela. In the event, though, we felt perfectly safe. We were collected at the airport on arrival by Jon and his brother, the hotel was secure, and they took us back to the airport at the end of the trip. And I am perfectly happy that we didn’t venture out the 20 miles over the mountains into downtown Caracas for an evening adventure!
Fishing trips are as much about the group as about the fishing itself. We laughed a lot, had a thoroughly good time, caught some decent fish, and this trip rates pretty highly on the fishing trip meter.
The Fulling Mill Saltwater Range covers everything you will need for a trip to Los Roques, with an abundance of Bonefish and the chance of some very large Tarpon, the selection of saltwater flies below should suffice.
1 – Grand Slam Crab – Tan. Size 4/0. An excellent crab pattern which will work for a multitude of Saltwater species, fish this fly to fish that are feeding in shallow sandy areas.
2 – Los Roques Tarpon Minnow – Grey. Size 10. An effective general purpose Baitfish pattern that has been the downfall for many large Tarpon!
3 – Cuban Shrimp – Light Tan. Size 6. An essential pattern for targeting Bonefish on the flats.
4 – Keel (Avalon) Shrimp. Size 6. One of the most successful Bonefish and Permit patterns over the last few seasons, designed to sink quickly and stay hook pointing upwards due to the beaded keel. Has accounted for many Cuban Permit who readily feed on big shrimp.