Taming the King – Tarpon in Cozumel

In the build up to Ironman Cozumel I took the opportunity to squeeze in a day’s bonefishing. Despite not being the best time of year, I couldn’t turn down the opportunity having had a taste of Bonefish on the fly in Belize a few years ago.

Unfortunately, the weather didn’t play ball and a cold front arrived on the days I could fish. The same thing happened in Daytona when fishing for Redfish before Challenge Daytona. Maybe it’s the universe hinting fishing and triathlon don’t mix.

However, Carlos, owner of Aquarius Fishing, was awesome. He moved the trip forward a day and was in constant contact about both the likelihood of us getting on the water and the chances of success. After a delayed start the port finally gave us a green light and despite a forecast of wind and rain all day I set off. I should also highlight that Carlos gave me the option of cancelling for a full refund if we turned around or were unable to get to the flats.

I was introduced to my guide Enrique and his boat assistant Miguel. Enrique spoke a little English, Miguel none and my Spanish is very limited. So, there wasn’t a great deal of conversation during the day. Probably good for my fishing! As we idled out the harbour Enrique asked me if I had caught Tarpon? No. bone fish? Yes. And with that he put the throttle down and we were speeding North along the coast trying to dodge the serious storms.

I had read Cozumel had small Tarpon but only in certain seasons, so hadn’t given it much thought as I really wanted a Bonefish. However, now the idea had been put in my head and I was excited at the prospect of catching another bucket list fish. Tarpon grow up to 280lbs and are spectacular fighters with a signature vertical full body shake as they jump. They are hard to catch and known for throwing hooks. When they jump you “bow to the king” (aka – drop the rod).

As we flew towards the northern point of Cozumel, I just kept my fingers crossed that today would be a good day.

Shortly after passing a shipwreck, we turned in to a lagoon and slowed. My initial thought was it didn’t look very like bone fish territory. The bottom was dark, and the visibility wasn’t great. The one positive was the lack of wind! Enrique took us to the mangrove lined shore of the lagoon. We anchored and as he set up the rods all I was told was ‘Tarpon’.

With the rod assembled, I was directed to cast as close to the mangroves as I could while Miguel punted us along the shoreline. In Daytona I lost my only shot at a Redfish due to striking up (as you do for trout) rather than towards you as you do with saltwater fish. I made a mental note not to repeat that mistake. As an additional reminder Enrique told me to strike hard and straight 2-3 times, then rod up, rod down when they jump. What could possibly go wrong.

I didn’t know the strategy but kept being told ‘closer closer’ so tried to land the fly on the edge of the mangroves. Miguel punted us along the shore and we covered the water rather than targeting individual fish. We focused on any slight inlets into the mangroves with extra casts but no joy.

Shortly after rounding a tree Miguel indicated to Enrique, he saw something. I heard ‘Blanco’ and while I didn’t understand I was now alert.

A few casts later as my fly hit the water it was taken. I struck up and to the side and it was gone. Enrique gave me a telling off, but it was not needed as I was furious with myself. I knew not to do that; I had told myself not to do that, but it was instinct. I was livid as in Daytona I only got one shot and blew it, and I didn’t know how many more I would get.

As it turned out I didn’t have to wait long. 3 casts later hit again, I struck again, it came off again. This could get rather annoying!!

We continued to fish the same section of mangroves as there was movement and it wasn’t long before I had another hit. I struck straight and what do you know it stayed on!!

Finally rod up and I had a Tarpon on! It was a strange fight. It mixed lying on its side with short sharp efforts and the iconic jumps on the end of its tail. Quick rod down, then back up.

Enrique mentioned it was a decent fish as it came alongside. The last few meters were hard as every time it got close to the net it went under the boat or stayed just out of reach.

As I was finally drifting it to the net it gave one last jump. Thinking it was landed I had switched off and didn’t bow to the king. He was gone and I was left standing there feeling a bit silly.

Once again, I was annoyed with myself although at least this time I had the consolation of experiencing the fight, the jump and seeing the fish up close.

Enrique estimated it was about 7-8 pounds. They grow to 280lbs!! That would be something else! Although here they are baby so 15lbs is very big.

Staying in the same spot it wasn’t long till I had a smaller fish on and this time I stayed focused until the end. A small Tarpon but a Tarpon and as Enrique said, ‘a Tarpon is a Tarpon’. Photos taken he was released to start a long life of growing. 3-4lbs, so at the smallest end of the scale, but I didn’t care.

That’s 3-4lbs, imagine 280lbs!!!

Straight after I caught another which I think was a tad bigger. The smaller fish seemed easieir to land as had less fight which meant fewer opportunities for things to go wrong!

Over the next 20 minutes I had more takes but struggled to hook them. Frustratingly this included a much bigger one who flashed his orange side as he took the fly.

The excitement was ended when I hooked a mangrove (surprising it hadn’t happened earlier) and we had to take the boat in to release it. This appeared to disturb the fish as that was the last, we saw of the Tarpon. There was one final surprise when I caught a baby snook before moving on. Snook are delicious but it’s catch and release in Cozumel and he wouldn’t have made much of a meal!

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Having caught a tarpon, I was more relaxed and took the opportunity for a break as my arm was tired. Casting long and accurate is hard work and I hadn’t used a single-handed rod in a while. Enrique and Miguel were a great team punting the boat. They had to fight the building wind to match the distance from the shore to the length of line I had out. If they failed, I caught the mangroves.

We persevered for another 30 minutes with no further action before calling it a day on the Tarpon setting off in search of Bonefish.

The flats were further North, and we gained access through a small gap in the beach. If you didn’t know you definitely wouldn’t find it and they had to drag the boat across the sand bar. I couldn’t believe the whole of the flats appeared to empty out of the small channel. It seems unlikely but I couldn’t see any other exits and the language barrier prevented me from asking further questions.

Once inside it seemed familiar but at the same time very different to Belize. The water was clear and the same depth throughout, but it wasn’t the same beautiful Caribbean beach experience, more a clear watered coral/sandy bottom swamp. But a nice swamp, quite hard to explain.

Anyway, I was put up front and the gear changed as we moved through the flats. Instantly there was a serious problem. The wind had picked up and with the overcast conditions it was impossible to see into the water more than a few meters from the boat.

As we punted through, I saw lots of blue crabs, perch and wildlife, including a rather lonely lost looking flamingo. But no Bonefish.

After 30 minutes of nothing we did finally see a gew bonefish spook out in front of the boat. But they had seen us well before I saw them. It wasn’t looking good.

Enrique and I tried wading while Miguel took the boat down the channel. If anything, this made it harder as the angle to the water was worse. We did finally see one, but it was to windward and I couldn’t cast into the now strong wind.

I could see the footprints of where fisherman had been before, and Enrique mentioned in this area you would normally see fish everywhere but with the cold front they go out to see. After seeing no fish and no sign of anything changing I told him to call it a day. In theory I had hours left as booked a full day, but it was obviously a lost cause and I have caught Bonefish before. I also really didn’t mind as was still beaming from catching a Tarpon.

We made our way back up to the same beach channel to escape and headed home. By now the wind had really picked up and it was a very soggy bouncy ride back as the boat is made for the shallows not open water.

On reflection, I was a little frustrated to have missed out on the couple of larger Tarpon, but I had caught a fish I have always wanted to catch and hadn’t been expecting to at the start of the day so went home very happy. For morale I called it a draw with the Bonefish as I didn’t even get a chance to catch one so will return to that battle another day.

I have always known Ironman’s happen during venues off seasons. I am now learning that generally means off season for fishing as well. Not that it’s going to stop me fishing around races, but I might need to occasionally throw in specific fishing trip as well if I want to catch certain, or larger, fish!

For reference the fish left on the bucket list – Steelhead, atlantic salmon, permit, marlin and sailfish. Plenty of time to get round to all of them….

1 thought on “Taming the King – Tarpon in Cozumel

  1. Back on writing form with your account of the Tarpon. Well done and thank you!
    I may miss seeing you in the IOW after Christmas. We’ve got Covid. We could always talk over the phone from Oxford.

    Like

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