Fly Fishing for “Baby” Tarpon in Holbox Mexico

I woke up earlier than I should have so I could watch the sunrise on the beach as I rigged up two fly rods—an 8-weight and a 12-weight. It’s one thing to have a whole stream of trout to yourself. Having dibs on a piece of ocean is something else, entirely. There was no one but me to watch the sun rise above my palms and turn the surface of the quiet flats into a mood stone, turning from black to blue to purple to fiery orange. This solitude lasted perhaps 20 minutes before the distant whir of a board attached to an approaching panga broke the silence. I might have been upset by the interruption if the guy in charge hadn’t been there to pick me up.

I waded 100 meters into the water to meet him. “Flipper!”

“Colin!” he replied. “Nice to see you again.”

Flipper and I first met in almost this spot a year ago when he guided me on my first ever fly tarpon outing. I landed three juvenile tarpon that day – but would have done a lot better if I hadn’t shown up with such rusty casting skills. However, for two weeks before this trip, I again woke up earlier than I should have and walked to a park in my neighborhood and ran through drills that would replicate the types of rapid-fire, moving-target throws I now knew how to make. I was waiting for them.

I handed my rods to Flipper, then climbed over the gun and onto the panga. He inspected the clubs and smiled at the 12-weight – the big player. “Let’s go look for some giants.” With that decision, he fired up the engine, jumped the boat on plane, and steered us toward the tarpon grounds.

Feeling of heat

My dream of hooking a 100 pound tarpon would have to wait. We idled in the open migratory waters, looking for rolling silver kings, but saw none. After about an hour, Flipper suggested we switch to Plan B. “We’re going to go catch some babies,” he said. I put on the 12-weight and got to 8 as the Flipper cruised toward the shallower, mangrove-lined lagoons where the juvenile tarpon hide.

I wish I could say that all the practice I’d put in paid off – that I made one perfect presentation after another, pulling juvie after juvie from the mangroves – but things didn’t work out that way. This time, at least, my casting wasn’t to blame. In fact, I could barely cast at all. Tarpon were nowhere to be found and the ones we spotted were not aggressive at all. I could land a fly well inside their attack zone and they wouldn’t move.

“The water is too hot,” said Flipper. “Fish don’t want to move.”

The funny thing was, no matter how slow the fishing was, the time flew by – and not because I was having fun (although, I wasn’t bored at all), but because I could feel my chances slipping away. In the last couple of years, I have become obsessed with tarpon fishing. I think about it constantly. The problem is, I live in New York City, which feels like a galaxy away from the nearest tarpon habitat. Targeting these fish is not as simple as a drive to the nearest source stream. So, as Flipper pushed the skiff from one fishless spot to another—as the precious hours, minutes, seconds I had with him as guide slipped away—the idea not only of returning home collapsed, but of not knowing when next time. I’d be here I’d be, it was almost heartbreaking.

“Come on, fish,” I said to myself on the bow.

Down to the Wire

I glanced at my watch: At best, I had 45 minutes left before we had to turn back. Naturally, I had given up hope of a giant tarpon. The same goes for a day of non-stop fighting against minors. i just wanted to A. I didn’t even need to land the fish. If only I could feel a strike and go home happy.

the fisherman releases a tarpon
The author releases his tarpon. Colin Kearns

Flipper backed into a corner. In front of me was this very narrow alley of water between patches of mangrove, and at the end of it was a pod of four tarpon. My first cast was too short. My second was good enough to turn heads. “Hold on,” said Flipper. “Strip, strip… stripstripstirp! Set!”

The stuck cork was thrown into the mangroves and the fight seemed to be over before it began. The flipper frantically reeled the boat into an open stretch, but it seemed impossible that I could pull the fish in without snapping my leader. But for the first time all day, luck was on our side: I eased the tarpon out of the mangroves and into the opening. Then, the real fight began.

The fish jumped, turned, charged and jumped some more. The lagoon plug may be a “baby” compared to the giants in the open ocean, but you should see the turn they can put on an 8 weight.

Flipper caught the fish near the boat, then handed it to me for a few quick photos. When I put the tarpon back in the water I was almost thankful for the warmer than usual temperature because it meant I got to hold the fish and revive it for longer. I had come a long way and fished hard for this tarpon and was in no rush to let it go.

The Best of 2022 is a series of stories from the editors about their favorite moments of the past year on the field or on the air.

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