Isla Holbox: A 3-Day Tarpon Rodeo on Mexico’s Yucatan

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In early June, I hosted a small group of people for a quick three-day tarpon trip to Isla Holbox on the northeastern tip of Mexico’s Yucatan. It’s a trip I’ve done numerous times in the past, and a clear favorite of mine amongst a heap of truly great saltwater destinations. The goal was to introduce Holbox to Pat Ehlers, owner of The Fly Fishers shop in Milwaukee. Pat and I each brought along a couple of good friends to share the experience with, and as it turned out our group got along like a bunch of old buddies at a reunion.

The trip had been booked since November, giving us plenty of time to ramp up our anticipation; prepping gear, packing bags and discussing the “typical day” scenarios that lay ahead. I arrived at the Pittsburgh airport an hour and a half before my scheduled flight, excited by the prospects of launching a few tarpon out of the ocean and into the air. Upon entering the terminal, the reality of air travel punched me in the face – anxiety mixed with an unhealthy dose of rising blood pressure replaced my tarpon fantasies. Mouth agape I scanned over the 250 people waiting in line to check in at the United Airlines counter! I retreated downstairs to the Hyatt hotel kiosk, feeling a bit clever, to check in. Bingo, two minutes later I headed back upstairs, tickets in hand just needing to drop my duffle off at the bag drop area! Imagine my reaction when one of the ticketing representatives told me that they discontinued the bag drop a couple months back. Wow. Then 45 minutes later and showing a lot of self-control, those flying to Newark were called to the front of the line for ticketing and baggage check. It took all of 30 seconds and I was on my sprint to gate whatever. I could go on and on about this scenario and the inevitable fall of mankind that no doubt will be the airlines fault, but I won’t. It all got better from there.

My buddy Rich met me in Newark and we made our connection to Cancun uneventfully. The rest of the group was waiting for us at the Cancun cantina just outside the terminal. Our transfer van was waiting for us with the air-conditioning cranked and a cooler full of ice cold cervesas for the drive. Welcome to Mexico and thank you Luciano!

The Real Trip Begins:

The first day started early with a knock on the door at 5:30 a.m. with coffee served in the room. Awesome! Shouldn’t every day start like that really? Quick breakfast and out to the guides waiting for us on the beach. Perfect weather greeted us at sunrise that first morning as we headed offshore in search of the big tarpon that are famous in Holbox. However, after several hours of scouring what could have been termed the Dead Sea, the boats conceded defeat and we headed to the lagoon to search for some baby tarpon. Everyone kept busy throughout the rest of the day . . . casting to, hooking, and managing to land about a quarter of the fish stuck.

Day two began with a carbon copy of our first morning. No big fish showing outside. On a side note the great weather that we arrived to was preceded by about eight days of solid rain, which apparently kept the bigger tarpon off the surface and in a sulking mood. No worries though, everyone was happy to go chase their little cousins around, and there was plenty of action at both the mouth of the lagoon and inside as well. There were baby silver kings rolling and daisy chaining almost everywhere we went looking for them and some pretty good snook as well.

Day three crept up on us quickly, and you could sense that everyone in the group was watching time tick down on what now seemed to be a very brief visit. I considered changing things up a bit and chartering a boat to take us offshore for some grouper and cubera snapper, but I had the unsettled feeling that everyone in the group would not get a chance to see what I’ve experienced so many times before at Holbox. The needed to personally experience the sweaty palms and wracked nerves induced by big slurping-splashing-gulping silver behemoths coming at them two football fields away.

We opted to stick with the tarpon plan and it was a good decision. The fish started rolling 10 minutes into it and everyone got to experience that knee-knocking thrill they came to Holbox for. Pat jumped a nice fish of around 70 pounds that inhaled his fly just 20 feet from the boat and exploded across the bow. Despite slamming that hook into him repeatedly, three incredibly quick jumps later the fish were free to rejoin his school of friends and swim off into a blazing sunrise.

Every boat got to experience the thrill of chasing the big boys around and everyone was grateful for the decision we made to keep after the tarpon rather than go offshore for other species. Cliché as it is, excitement filled the air as people headed off to the lagoon to continue the assault on the little tarpon.

The three days passed by in a flash. Looking back it was simply a blur of laughter, fish jumped, great food and just a really fun time shared with a fantastic group of fun-loving people. Everybody caught fish, and three members of the group landed their first tarpon ever! Congrats to Frank, Mike, and Strawn on that accomplishment. Truly, these fish are not easy. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that everyone in the group showed up with the right attitude for a fishing trip; an attitude that says it’s fishing, be prepared, have a plan B, and make the best of what the fishing Gods give you.

We all want to thank Luciano for hosting us, feeding us, and putting up with us. I do not know how anyone has that much patience, but I’m glad that he does! Luciano you are one of the most gracious hosts in the saltwater world.

Tackle Notes:

We all used a variety of manufacturer’s tackle on this trip, but in short we fished 11 and 12 weight outfits offshore with fast sinking lines and some intermediates tipped off with large sardine patterns and tarpon snake flies in black. For baby tarpon 8 weights were standard fare and they ate pretty much any well-presented tarpon flies including the Black Death, LeMay’s Big-Eye and a variety of Toad flies. Color did not seem to be an issue. We fished 7-9 foot leader systems ending in 60 lb. fluorocarbon shock tippets. The key to getting baby tarpon to eat is stealth in your approach, and most importantly waiting until you had the right angle to make your cast. Hurry the shot and get it wrong and you’ll have to move on, because these fish are not typically the forgiving type, though we did find that they seemed to have short memories, and revisiting the same small schools a half hour later often resulted in hookups. Good fun.

By: Joe Codd, Saltwater Department Manager