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Caribbean Trifecta

I didnt fully appreciate the gravity of very different until we arrived in Trinidad. Here, tarpon concentrate along the rugged northwestern coastline where there are no flats and the water is deep. It would be a challenge to take them on fly and would call for a major shift in fly-fishing strategy from the conventional tarpon methodology I was used to.

October 3, 2001
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Juxtaposed between the rugged Venezuelan coast and the southern rim of the Caribbean Sea is a geological paradox named Trinidad and Tobago. Unlike other islands in the British West Indies archipelago, Trinidad and Tobago reflect a diversity in flora and fauna more representative of the South American continent, but the two islands are as different as night and day. Trinidad is the result of a breach in the crust of a sub-sea mountain range off the Venezuelan subcontinent and is an oddity compared to Tobago (only 40 miles to the northeast) and most other Caribbean islands whose origins belay a volcanic birth.
It’s Trinidad and Tobago’s geology and spatial orientation to South America and the rest of the Caribbean that make the islands a fishing paradox as well. An alternate wet and dry season sharply defines the availability of pelagic and coastal game-fish species. During the dry season that corresponds with winter in the Northern Hemisphere, both islands boast an impressive list of blue-water game fish, including marlin, wahoo, tuna and dolphin. However, when the rains come to South America beginning in the spring, freshwater influx from the mighty Orinoco River that drains the northern third of Venezuela changes everything, especially in Trinidad. Pelagics are chased away, but new coastal species move in to dominate the rugged northern Trinidad coastline and the Caribbean-like shallow flats of Tobago. Among these species is the silver king.

I had heard stories of Trinidad’s tarpon, stories that included accounts of fish up to 150 pounds, and jumped at the opportunity to explore this region when my friend Dan Jacobs called with an invitation. It was Jacobs’ stellar live-bait tarpon trip in August 1999 that had him ponder if these fish could be taken on the fly, a method apparently unknown in Trinidad and practiced little in Tobago.

“In Trinidad, there were tarpon rolling everywhere, and we hooked multiple fish in the 60- to 90-pound class on every drift … four rods down at once! Pure bedlam!” Jacobs explained with enthusiasm. “And, although the Trinidad fishing conditions are very different from the other islands in the Caribbean or Florida, I think we can take ’em on fly.”

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I didn’t fully appreciate the gravity of “very different” until we arrived in Trinidad. Here, tarpon concentrate along the rugged northwestern coastline where there are no flats and the water is deep. It would be a challenge to take them on fly and would call for a major shift in fly-fishing strategy from the conventional tarpon methodology I was used to.

What impressed me immediately about Trinidad’s tarpon fishing grounds were two things: towering, rocky cliffs and clear water stained the color of onyx by minerals from the Orinoco River watershed. The ancient geological upheaval that ultimately defined Trinidad produced steeply sloped mountain islands running east to west toward the Venezuelan coastline. These islands thrust vertically from the black water act as ramparts that breach a strong south-to-north current drift.
The channels between the islands are called bocas, the Spanish word for “mouth,” and while all have individual Spanish names, locals simply referred to them as “the First Boca or the Second Boca.” The topography below the water is equally rugged and abrupt; depths change by hundreds of feet in only a few feet of lateral distance. It is this “structure” that creates the eddies, braids and rips where Trinidad tarpon come to feed on shoals of bait pushed by the strong currents.

By virtue of a coin flip, I began my first morning aboard the Radical, a custom 36-foot sport-fisher with substantial cockpit space for fly fishing, berthed at Crews Inn Marina in sheltered Chaguaramas Bay. Capt. Tony Lee Loy and mate Peter Charles greeted me with a cup of coffee and warm smiles as I handed down fly gear and camera equipment. Three slips down, Jacobs was having a reunion with old friend Capt. Sid Johnson on the 35-foot Bertram Barbie Doll, his boat for the day’s session.

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Trinidad tarpon are most active early in the morning and late in the afternoon, so trips to the Bocas are planned accordingly. Typically, the bite is over by 10 a.m. with the boats returning to harbor for a midday siesta before departing again to the bocas at 3 p.m. to fish until dark. The First Boca is only a 10-minute ride from the harbor, maximizing the time on target for anglers.

Locating fish is simple: Look for “rollers” when you arrive at the bocas. As with tarpon fishing elsewhere, tides and moon phase play an important role in feeding activity. “Trini” captains agree that a strong falling tide around the new and full moons results in the best bite.

We started looking for tarpon on the west side of the Second Boca where a series of rips are produced by deep water pushing over a plateau 50 feet under the surface. Immediately, we found pods of fish; however, their fast roll gave me an early indication that the tarpon were not in a mood to eat. My experience has been that “poons” rolling fast with a pronounced tail flip at the end of the roll seldom eat. We charted a thick pod of fish at 40 feet on each drift, and I was confident the 500-grain shooting head I was lobbing up current was properly reaching the echoes on the sounder. Jacobs also plumbed the depths with his 12-weight with similar lackluster results. On two drifts I cast squarely into the pods of fast rollers as they surfaced without getting a bite.

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Needing to find “happy” fish, Barbie Doll and Radical steamed west passed the Third Boca to Chacachacare Island, the final rampart separating Venezuela from Trinidad by only seven miles. Barbie Doll arrived first and found slow rollers near the Salt Pond, a stretch of protected coastline with minimal current and relative shallow depths in the lee of Chacachacare. As Radical motored up, Jacobs was waving wildly and shouting. “We found a pod of slow rollers, and I’ve had two eaters in three casts. One fish ate the fly at the transom! They sounded a few minutes ago, and we’re waiting for them to surface again.”

Encouraged, Capt. Lee Loy shut down Radical about 100 yards away. I was switching rods from the heavy head combo to an intermediate 12-weight tarpon taper when a pod of happy fish slow-rolled 60 feet off starboard. With two quick backcasts I laid a “sprat” (a pilchard-like baitfish) imitator dead center into the ring of poons. On the first strip, a 60-pound tarpon generously accepted my offering but found the prick of steel rather than a tasty sprat. In hyper-drive hysteria, my first Trinidad tarpon launched skyward, rattling gill plates like castanets. I lost the fish on the fourth jump, but was very pleased with the results: In only minutes, Barbie Doll and Radical had proved that Trinidad tarpon can be taken on the fly.

There were many places yet to visit so Lee Loy and Johnson pressed on after the pod failed to show again within 30 minutes. It took us the better part of an hour and several tarpon spots to again locate happy rollers off the southwest point of Chaguaramas Bay near the First Boca. Loose pods of slow rollers stretched over an area of about two acres in slow, smooth water. But it was already 9:30 a.m., and the tide was pushing in. Consequently, we failed to jump a fish in spite of a number of good shots.

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That afternoon we attempted something different at my request: Capt. Lee Loy anchored off the point where we ended the morning session and set up a chum line. Radical had loaded up on both live and dead baits with the idea of drawing tarpon into the chum line where we could then throw the fly. The great numbers of fish we saw during the morning session had apparently moved out, and even though Radical maintained a strong chum line, we never had fish move in until dark when I jumped and quickly lost a tarpon. It was a very slow bite as even the live-bait fishermen, save one, failed to jump fish.

The following day I teamed with Capt. Jonathan de la Rosa on his sport-fisher Hook while Dan elected to fish from the pirogue of Capt. Peter de la Rosa (Jonathan’s dad). Pirogues – long, narrow outboard-powered boats similar to a Mexican panga – are seaworthy, fast and can hold thousands of live baits in built-in-the-deck livewells. They are the staple vessel in Trinidad’s small fish-for-sustenance fleet.

The fish proved hard to find, but Capt. de la Rosa Sr. eventually located a pod at Scotland Bay in the First Boca. As a change in strategy again, we elected to make use of the ample livewells in both Hook and the pirogue and chum the rollers up with live sprats, a deadly technique employed by live-baiters. Live chum is dispersed by ladling a net-full from the well and slapping them hard with the free hand from the bottom side of the net. Stunned sprats launch from the net, smack the water and swim every which way but normal. In no time we had tarpon between 50 and 110 pounds popping disoriented sprats from the surface. The technique was fool proof; it took only a single cast into the melee with a sprat imitator to connect with a hungry tarpon.

The employment of live chum resulted in several more jumped fish up to 90 pounds during that day’s morning and afternoon sessions. At day’s end, Jacobs and I were torn between the desire to stay over in Trinidad and repeat a sure thing or to fly on to Tobago as originally planned for a different type of tarpon adventure. In the end, it was the added bonus of possible shots at bonefish and permit that swayed our decision to keep our reservations in Tobago.

A mere 15 minutes by air, the island of Tobago is strikingly different from Trinidad. Tobago was born from a volcano and is far enough removed from the rainy South American mainland to engender the cobalt canyon drop-offs and azure coral reefs that typify the Caribbean fly-fishing adventure. However, like Trinidad, Tobago also boasts impressive numbers of tarpon during the summer months. Generally, Tobago tarpon run about a third smaller on average than Trinidad fish but can be sight-fished Florida-style on flats ranging from 5 to 15 feet deep.

Capt. Gerard “Frothy” de Silva met us at the airport at 11 a.m. and was quick to report on the fishing. “It’s too early for the late-afternoon tarpon bite, but the tide is right to fish for bones and permit if you guys are interested,” de Silva offered. We didn’t waiver for a moment. “Where’s the car, and what flies work best here?” I asked.

Forty-five minutes later we were standing in calf-deep water behind de Silva’s house on a falling tide, looking for bones over hard bottom. The light rods were a nice diversion from the 12-weight tools welded the day before. It wasn’t long before a pair of bones performed a “crazy Ivan” maneuver, catching me off-guard from behind. I had little time to lament as de Silva, 30 yards to my left, suddenly displayed the “I’ve got you in my sights” body language of a Bengalese tiger on the stalk. In progressively shorter casts, stooping lower each time, de Silva finally linked to a healthy bonefish.

We had to leave de Silva’s backyard all too soon to make the 35-minute trek to Plymouth Bay where de Silva expected a good tarpon bite around dusk. Having tracked the patterns of Tobago tarpon over the years, Capt. de Silva has determined that a morning and late-afternoon bite occurs, just like in Trinidad. De Silva notes that the feeding period is extended during overcast or rainy skies and shortens under bright, cloudless conditions. Fishing is often best on the strong outgoing moon tides, provided they correspond with dawn or dusk. Two spots top de Silva’s list of tarpon locations: Plymouth Bay and Pigeon Point.

Both areas hold extensive pods of “fry,” the term applied to what continental fly casters know as glass minnows or “rain bait” and, of course, the ubiquitous sprat. At dawn and dusk, pods of hungry poons literally roll in from deeper water to gorge on fry and sprats. At low light levels, anglers throw to the dozens of rolling fish busy corralling bait into tight balls. When the sun is higher and before the bite ends, anglers can sight fish tarpon cruising the periphery of the bait pods.

At Plymouth Bay, we boarded the Hardplay Lite, a wide-open, 31-foot sport-fisher with substantial room for fly casters in the aft cockpit as well as in the bow. The distance to the tarpon grounds was ridiculously short at less than two minutes. Tarpon appeared in the bay slowly at first, but the numbers built as the afternoon gave way to evening. De Silva quickly completed leg two of the grand slam by landing a 25-pound-class fish that fell for a sprat imitator. Clearly, home turf has its advantages.

Just before dark, the rocky point at Plymouth Bay went off like a military fire-fight for a brief 15 minutes with tarpon in the 20- to 50-pound class ravaging fry in a natural ambush zone against the rocks. By then, the fish were too selective on the much smaller fry, and the sprat pattern failed to produce. Then, just like that, it was over. The bay regained a sense of composure, and calm returned.

At 6 a.m. the following morning, de Silva picked us up at our hotel and drove us the five minutes to Pigeon Point where we again boarded Hardplay Lite. This time we had to cruise about 10 minutes to a point near the airport runway that held substantial pods of bait and, of course, tarpon. Conditions were perfect for sight fishing, and Jacobs was the first to score with a 40-pounder on the only remaining sprat imitator we had left from the dozen we brought on the trip. With the last sprat imitations chewed up, we changed to standard tarpon patterns. These elicited many follows but, unfortunately, resulted in no commitments.

As the morning bite ended, Jacobs and I took inventory on flies and our desires for the afternoon. Our diverging interests meshed well for our last afternoon in Tobago: Jacobs would visit old friends in town, and I would stalk bones or maybe permit one more time from behind de Silva’s house. After all, we had successfully accomplished our goal of taking the storied tarpon of Trinidad and Tobago on fly!

A regular contributor to FFSW, Mark Hatter is an avid angler with more than 30 years of fishing experience. For the past 15 years, he has fly fished in virtually every environment that Florida has to offer, from blue water to inshore to flats.

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