Guide Juan Chay cut the engine of our panga some 40 minutes’ ride north of the city of Campeche, in the Gulf of Mexico. A chorus of birds greeting the dawn could be heard from the mangroves a mile east. Not another boat was in sight. As Chay grabbed his push pole to propel the boat forward, a silvery back broke the surface about 90 feet ahead. Then another to the right and a few more to the left. Tarpon!
Sunlight glinted off the fish’s trademark scales, which reflected like a disco ball mirror in the morning sun. My angling partner, Ken Matsumoto, stepped to the bow of the panga and peeled fly line from his reel. “Eleven o’clock!” Chay called, and Ken made several false casts before landing his fly 50 feet out, just to the left of the bow (which is 12 o’clock). “Slow strips,” Chay instructed. On the third strip, Matsumoto’s line went tight. A second later, three feet of tarpon launched clear of the water … and the line went limp. Ecstasy turned to agony in a heartbeat.
Tarpon fishing can be an exquisite form of torture.
Yet in Campeche, it’s almost certain that you’ll get a second and third chance to make things right.
Campeche rests at the southwestern edge of the Yucatán Peninsula. Though it’s a World Heritage city boasting rich Mayan and Spanish colonial history, it sees only a fraction of the American visitors that descend upon Cancún, 300 miles to the east. Campeche native Raul Castaneda learned there were other riches here — large populations of juvenile tarpon.
“I studied computer science in college, but my mother always told me I’d one day make a living around the outdoors,” Castaneda said. “ ‘Why do you say that?’ I asked her. ‘Because your school materials are a mess, but your hunting and fishing gear is always very organized!’ ” Castaneda launched Tarpon Town in 2004 to lead light-tackle anglers — mostly fly-fishers — to the fish that use the region’s vast swaths of mangroves as a nursery ground.
“The Campeche area has such a prolific juvenile tarpon population because the habitat is intact,” said Aaron Adams, director of science and conservation for Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, a conservation nonprofit based in Miami. “The mangroves are healthy, and the fresh water that flows from creeks that feed the Bay of Campeche is unaltered. This makes for good water quality for tarpon, and plentiful prey.”
Tarpon have held a fascination for anglers since the first specimens were caught by rod and reel in southwest Florida in the late 1800s, thanks to their size, power and proclivity for acrobatic jumps. In the warmer regions of the Atlantic and throughout the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, “silver kings” are readily recognizable by their aforementioned silver scales and basketball-size mouths. Though tarpon can grow to more than 300 pounds, adult fish in the 60- to 150-pound class are more common. (The world record on a fly rod is 202.5 pounds.)
Catching a fish the size of a small person with a willowy fly rod and a fly the size of your thumb is no easy matter. The accepted wisdom is that fly anglers will land 1 in 10 adult fish hooked. One’s odds are better with juvenile tarpon. “The baby tarpon are a great introduction to the species,” said Shaun Lawson, a program director with Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures, a travel agency based in Bozeman, Mont. “You experience the take, the explosive, acrobatic nature of the fight. And the smaller tarpon really like to eat flies. Though they can be difficult to keep on, you’ll get more chances than when you’re trying for adult fish.”
If you’re used to hooking 15-inch trout, even a “baby” tarpon of 15 or 20 pounds seems pretty darn big.
Although Matsumoto’s first encounter of the morning ended quickly, pods of fish remained in view, some porpoising, some clearing the water as they gorged on bait fish. Chay moved us in casting range; when a tarpon broke the surface, Matsumoto cast his fly, a white EP Baitfish, a few feet in front, hoping to intercept the fish. A few casts fell slightly off target; a few good presentations were ignored. But soon he had a taker, and this time, his execution was flawless.
He stood sideways to the fish, which gave his left arm a wider range of motion to get a strong hook set; he kept his rod tip high, maintaining pressure as he fought the fish, but when the fish jumped out of the water, he tilted the rod down to reduce tension in the line and decrease odds of the fly coming free — bowing the rod, in fly-fishing parlance. Soon he was clutching a fine specimen for photos, before returning it to the Gulf.
When I stepped to the casting platform, I hooked (and lost) several fish in rapid succession. By the third grab, I was able to set the hook firmly and remember to bow when the fish leaped. Soon I was also on the board. (The other four members of our party — two of whom had never fished for tarpon — all landed fish, testimony to the fecundity of Campeche’s waters.)
On our second day, we left the malecón (the esplanade bordering the waterfront) at 5:45, well before the sun had risen above the low hills to the east. Our guide, Roberto Pastrana, opted to fish closer to the mangroves, hoping to intercept the tarpon as they sought cover during the coming high tide. It proved a successful strategy. An almost constant stream of fish presented themselves — sometimes in small groups, sometimes swimming alone, all visible in the clear water. While the sun was low in the sky, we hooked fish with surface flies, transforming the already exciting take to a splashing, heart-stopping adrenaline rush. As the sun and tide rose, we shifted to a purple Cockroach fly — a standby for tarponistas.
During one of my rotations on the casting deck, Pastrana asked me to cast between two stands of mangroves. Naturally, I landed my fly in the right stand’s upper branches. As we poled over to retrieve it, Pastrana pointed out a good-size fish by the mangroves to the left. I thought the fish would be frightened by our presence. But as I retrieved my fly, I saw that the fish had remained in place. I flipped my Cockroach over, and a few jumps later, the fish was at the boat.
Sometimes being lucky is better than being good.
Castaneda and his team at Tarpon Town managed all of the logistics of our adventure, including conveyance from the airport in Mérida, lodging and coordination of non-angling activities, including dinner. Our accommodations were on the malecón at Ocean View, which was clean, air-conditioned and featured hot complimentary breakfasts and a pleasing pool area. It’s also in walking distance — at least during the slightly cooler late afternoons — from Campeche’s walled city.
Campeche was colonized by Spain in the 16th century; over the next 100 years, as trade in logwood dye created wealth, it was under constant attack by pirates, many hailing from Spain’s arch enemy, England. A hexagonal wall was built between 1686 and 1704 to repel the pirates; much of the wall remains today. With its checkerboard streets and well-preserved central square (including the Campeche Cathedral, built between 1540 and 1760), Campeche is a fine example of a Spanish colonial town.
A stroll up Calle 59 highlights Campeche’s cheerful, pastel-painted architecture. Adorned with bright lights, it’s also home to a number of cantinas and restaurants. The Yucatán is emerging as one of Mexico’s newest culinary hot spots. The menus lean toward seafood, which is no surprise, given the proximity of the Gulf; a specialty in Campeche is pan de cazon, a combination of corn tortillas, habanero sauce and bonnethead shark. My group enjoyed several wonderful meals at the more upscale Recova Cincuenta & Nueve. One night we ventured to the San Francisco neighborhood and enjoyed more casual (but equally delicious) fare at Cenaduría Portales de San Francisco. (English is not widely spoken in Campeche, but with our high school Spanish and the patience of locals, we could always communicate.)
“Unlike many saltwater fly-fishing destinations, Campeche has a lot to offer non-anglers,” Lawson from Yellow Dog said. “You can tour the historic districts, participate in cooking classes and visit Mayan ruins that don’t see many visitors.”
On our final day of scheduled fishing, a front blew in from the west, bringing gale winds. With fishing canceled, Castaneda suggested we visit the Mayan ruins at Edzná, a 40-minute drive. I was expecting smaller edifices like those I’d visited south of Tulum, but this settlement was more on par with a smaller version of Tikal in Guatemala or Chichén Itzá. At the entrance, we retained a guide, Elvis Herrera, who illuminated the traditions and meanings behind the stone structures before us, some of which dated from A.D. 400.
At one circular rock monument, Herrera explained that this was the site where community nobles would perform bloodletting rituals to appease the gods and communicate with ancestors. Obsidian blades or stingray spines would be used to cut women’s tongues or men’s penises to collect blood.
This put the pain of losing a leaping tarpon somewhat in perspective.
Santella is a writer based in Portland, Ore. His website is steelhead-communications.com.
An earlier version of this article stated that tarpon are members of the herring family, which is not the case. The article has been updated.
If You Go
What to eat
La Recova Cincuenta & Nueve
Av. Resurgimiento s/n, Bosques de Campeche
A mix of steaks and seafood. Open daily, 1 p.m. to 1 a.m. Entrees from about $12.
Cenaduría Portales de San Francisco Campeche
Calle 10 86
A casual outdoor eatery featuring traditional Yucatán cuisine. Open Tuesday to Sunday, 6:30 to 11:30 p.m.; closed Monday. Entrees from about $5.
What to do
Tarpon Town Anglers
This Campeche-based outfitter provides comprehensive fishing packages, including lodging, guides, breakfast and lunch, and transfers to and from Mérida. Fishing is consistent throughout the year. Package costs vary by occupancy and duration; four-night/three-day fishing packages about $2,150 per person. Book through Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures (888-777-5060; yellowdogflyfishing.com).
This outfitter offers cultural tours, such as a walking tour of Campeche and an excursion to see the ruins at Edzná. Tour prices include tickets, guides, private transport, beverages and seasonal fruits. Tours from about $40 per person.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.