The Yucatan Peninsula extends like a thumb into the ocean. The Cancun(east) side of the peninsula is on the Caribbean Ocean with its extensive network of large bays and sandy beaches. Its flats are home to bonefish, permit, snook and tarpon. The Campeche (west) side of the peninsula is on the Gulf of Mexico with extensive mangrove forests, creeks and small lakes. The predominant gamefish here is the baby tarpon. A species of small snook is present.
The term “baby” tarpon, although not especially accurate, differentiates these tarpon from the big brutes with which we normally associate the name tarpon. It is convenient to think of any tarpon under about 40 pounds as being a “baby tarpon” while those larger than 40 pounds as being a tarpon. The baby tarpon in the Campeche area range from about 5 to 20 pounds.
Except immediately following major storms, the Gulf of Mexico in the Campeche area is shallow and crystal clear. With few exceptions, that means most of the baby tarpon fishing is sight-fishing. The exceptions are fishing in the dark, casting into heavily shaded areas of the mangroves or fishing deep rivers during low tide. In most instances you will see the fish before you cast, and it isn’t uncommon to watch the tarpon inhale your fly. Controlling your reactions while observing a fish swim to your fly was a real challenge for me.
Tides and Mangroves
The tides significantly impact the movement of the tarpon during the day. As a general rule, each 24-hour time frame has two periods of high tide and two periods of low tide. Although there isn’t a great vertical difference between the two tides, usually 3 feet or less, the fluctuation greatly influences the feeding behavior of the tarpon.
During periods of low tide, the baby tarpon are found in deeper water away from the shoreline or in brackish rivers that drain the mangrove forest. But as the tide rises, the tarpon move toward the shoreline along the edges of the mangroves. This is when the fishing is at its absolute best. In fact, the ideal situation to hook baby tarpon is on an incoming tide just prior to daylight.
At high tide, the tarpon are generally in the mangroves feeding on shrimp, crab and small baitfish. At this time the guides will The mangroves are an essential forage area for baby tarpon. Most of the tarpon the author hooked – not necessarily landed – have been in close proximity to the edge of the mangroves. pole the boat up small creeks and into large openings they call lakes in the middle of the mangrove forests. Here it is possible to get some good casts to small schools of baby tarpon.
Once the tide begins to fall, the tarpon will vacate the mangroves and move back into deeper water. This is probably when success at hooking baby tarpon is at its lowest point. Several factors work against the angler: First, the tarpon seem to be moving much more quickly, as though they are on a mission to reach deeper water, and they generally show little or no interest in your presentations; second, the falling tide carries with it much of the debris from the roots system of the mangroves. A pristine cove will suddenly be covered with dead mangrove leaves, making it difficult to fish a fly without fouling it. At this point, the guide may opt to move to one of the rivers draining the mangroves where you may fish in deeper water with a sink tip and a weighted fly. Nevertheless, it can be an incredible experience. One sunny afternoon I stood on the bow of the boat in total awe as a train of several
Writer: Steve Jensen
Steve lives in Springfield, Missouri, and is a retired biology professor and department head from Missouri State University. He is a life member of the IFFF, a demonstration tier and coauthor of the No. 1 book on mayfly taxonomy,“The Mayflies of North and Central America.” In his spare time he frames
the fly plates for the Federation’s Legends of Fly Tying Fly Plate Project.
Special Thanks: International Federation of Fly Fisher http://www.fedflyfishers.org/