My last trip to Los Roques archipelago was in March 2019. Following the re-election of Maduro in mid 2018, the European Union, North America and a host of other countries refused to recognise the government and rumours swirled over a possible insurgency. Russian military planes with troops had just landed at Caracas airport to support Maduro, the Bolivar, the Venezuelan currency, was in freefall and there was an undeniable degree of uncertainty as to what lay ahead. From afar Venezuela appeared strictly off-limits!
After two years of Covid isolation and with the geo-political landscape rapidly changing following the catastrophe unfolding in Ukraine, Venezuela is looking very different, politically and economically. Politically, although the Maduro regime is not officially recognised by many western governments, tentative but constructive talks are being held between the US and Venezuela, in part due to the need to reshape energy policies following Russia’s war with Ukraine. Economically, although huge wealth disparities remain, the dollarization of the economy has meant that shelves are no longer bare of essentials and a standard of living, for those with access to US dollars, now far surpasses what has been possible over the last 5+ years.
Equally, the claws of Covid are re-treating, and whilst facemasks remain prevalent, other than the almost standardised PCR tests prior to travel, previously cancelled international routes were re-opening. Los Roques archipelago was once again accessible and our group trip composing of five anglers and 2 non-anglers was to be the very first hosted group to return after an inordinately painful absence from international fishing tourism.
Los Roques archipelago covers an area of 400 square kms. A semi-circular reef runs around the Southern and eastern edges of the archipelago which shelters the area within. It has been a designated national park since 1972 and is considered the crown jewels amongst all the outlying dependant islands of Venezuela. Due to the lack of fresh-water, land mammals are essentially limited to Iguanas and lizards. A trip to Los Roques is not however an African safari…it is to enjoy all aspects of the utterly spectacular marine life and of all the species that you can catch on a fly rod, it is the Bonefish upon which Los Roques staked its initial marker as one of the finest locations available to fish for them.
Where Los Roques really separates itself from the rest of the pack, is that the bulk of fishing is done whilst wading, versus fishing from the front of a skiff, the reason being that the vast proportion of the flats are firm bottomed. This appeals on a great many levels but especially so if you like the feeling that you are, to a degree, in control of your own success. That said, I would not even suggest that I spotted 1/10th of the Bonefish that we cast at before our superb guide, Oswar.
The second attribute is that as a pair of anglers you can both fish simultaneously. Oswar would typically stand beside one of us whilst we stalked a flat, wading in parallel, and having achieved a hook up, he would then jump to the assistance of the other whilst the hooked Bonefish do what Bonefish do best, and that is, taking long, backing emptying runs, at tremendous speed.
The Bonefish presented themselves as singles, pairs, groups and shoals of 50+ fish, mainly in super skinny water, typically with tail fins flickering out of the water. My wife Hideko, who had never cast a saltwater fly before, and was still asking whether we should ‘hitch’ the flies, after our last fishing trip for Salmon in Iceland two years previously, by the end of the first flat had notched up two Bonefish under her own unguided steam. She proudly went on to catch countless more over the week. Will, the 3rd person in our ‘pair’, and a very proficient caster was like a machine, rarely spending more than 5 mins before his rod was bent and the gratifying fizz as his line chopped through the water.
The bulk of the fish we caught on the open flats were in the 3-5lb range. It is easy to exaggerate the size of a fish that strips 100m of line from your reel on its first run, but Bonefish are designed for speed, that and their mirror like flanks being their primary defence against predators. (The villain in this story being the Barracuda, and there are some leviathans around!) All I can say on the size of the fish, is that the Bones on Los Roques are some of the largest averaged sized fish that I have come across.
The variety of the flats that you fish is equally spectacular, from the pancake flats which are synonymous with Los Roques, to white sand beaches, lagoons and tantalising ocean front flats that run alongside the innumerable mangrove islands. The water colours are effervescent ranging from deep cobalt blues and emerald greens, to luminous pearlescent white. Although I hugely enjoy my fishing, when the light is right the colours are so vivid and appealing that I am as happy to drop my rod, or indeed, when on the Bonefish flats, happily pass it to Hideko and grab a camera instead, whether that be a SLR, Go Pro, Camcorder or Drone!
Los Roques is however a genuine multi-species destination. Over the week we cast at Tarpon, Snook, Permit, Parrotfish, Barracuda, Jacks, Blue Runners, Spanish Mackerel and Triggerfish. Along the waterfront of Gran Roque (literal translation Big Rock) large minnow shoals gather and these in turn attract Tarpon which come in from the deeper water. Tarpon from 40-100lbs and over are always present and are always worth targeting. With the super-abundance of baitfish around they are not always straightforward to catch, and it does require blind-casting although delivering your fly to a swirl from a feeding Tarpon will increase the chances of a hook-up immeasurably.
On one such morning, after I had missed a take and then snapped, what might have been a slightly older than recommended intermediate fly line, on another Tarpon, Will went on to hook a very good adult fish somewhere in the 60-80lb range. A fish of that sort of size translates to a fish or approx. 5-6ft in length and this one was as acrobatic as any Tarpon. When hooked along the Los Roques waterfront, the bigger Tarpon typically head out to the deep water off the N.Western tip of Gran Roque. Despite a fight of 10 mins, the last we saw of this fabulous fish was yet another giant leap and head shake, as it headed into the distance, before parting company. Winding in 100M or more of slack line gives a lot of time for painful reflection, especially when the 60lb tippet comes back heavily frayed and the fly gone. Next time we might go for 80lb tippet…and I will acquire a new fly line!!
One of the more unique areas to fish at Los Roques are the two almost cut-off lagoons filled with baby Snook and Tarpon. Both are able to survive in incredibly brackish water which act as both sanctuaries and nurseries for juvenile fish, safe from any predators.
Using 8 wts with 20lb tippet and Bonefish flies, Will and I followed Oswar into the mangrove forest, breaking out into one of the hidden lagoons. Despite being suitably boggy around the very immediate perimeter, for the most part it was reasonably firm underfoot. We ensured that we were suitably covered up as Mosquitoes also enjoy these areas however possibly on account of the bright blue skies, they were happily absent on our expedition. Creeping around the lagoon we looked for signs of activity, coming across one particular corner where, tucked into an inlet, the conspicuous signs of baby Tarpon rolling could be seen. What followed was 30 mins of huge entertainment. We received take after take from both baby Tarpon and Snook, typically not much more than 1lb in weight although one can catch fish up to about 5lbs. They took, jumped, came off, took again, took again and maybe 1 in 5 allowed themselves to be unhooked by hand.
There are three other HVT’s (High Value Target’s) to lure a dedicated fly angler to Los Roques. They are also, unquestionably the hardest to land. The first need’s little introduction and that is the Permit. A good number of years ago, on my very first trip to Cuba, I was advised by a veteran Cuban angler not to get obsessed with Permit. He quite correctly summarised that you could spend an entire week pursuing these fish and regardless of success or not, end up missing out on the huge variety of fun and excitement that all of the other varied species provide. I took that lesson to heart and whilst I will always take an opportunistic cast, whenever a Permit presents itself or purposely search a flat for one, I will not typically dedicate a disproportionate amount of my fishing week to their pursuit!
On Los Roques I would be tempted to break that rule. Although they may not be considered abundant, there are more than enough places where you might expect to be able to cast for them. But Los Roques Permit are not standard Permit. These Permit grow to be 20-40lb monsters. To catch a fish because it is difficult to get it to take is one thing…but to catch a fish that will also test every bit of your equipment and fighting ability is another matter altogether. As it happened, we were not successful, but we were both treated to multiple opportunities that has absolutely put Permit back on my primary radar!
Alongside the Permit are Triggerfish. Unlike their very colourful counterparts in the Seychelles, the Triggerfish that swim in the Caribbean waters of Los Roques are grey in colour. They are also no minnows, with fish of up to 20lbs common. They inhabit the same flats as the Permit and will eat the same flies, but have the advantage of being more common, easy to spot and less spooky. They do however share the same finickity eating habits!
My first encounter for the trips was on what I consider to be one of the most exciting flats on Los Roques. Located just inside the outer reef, the flat stretches some 1000 or so meters with a surging surf on one side, breaking on to the ragged coral reef, but with smooth water within and white sand flats. Here we also encountered in very good numbers the second, and in my view most prized target on Los Roques, the Parrotfish. Not especially spooky, incredibly beautiful in their multi-coloured but predominantly green and purple livery, but exceptionally difficult to catch on a fly. They are also large, easily up to 30lbs in weight. Casting for them the aim is to cast in front and let the current swing your fly over them. . As the fly swings, your line goes tight, your heart jumps, you firmly strike but miserably realise that your fly is attached to a piece of coral. I ache to catch one of these trophies but like most of the best things in life they are a challenge and I have yet to earn my stripes with a hook up.
The third HVT is the Triggerfish. They also frequent this area in good numbers and under Oswar’s close instruction, clearly telling me to focus on the Trigger as opposed to the Parrotfish which schooled alongside it. On my 2nd or 3rd attempt I delivered an accurate cast with my green Alphlexo crab, the Trigger turned and as I stripped, paused, stripped, paused it positively motored after it, taking the fly 3 or 4 times before the line went firm and the fish was on.
When fishing amongst schooling fish and especially when doing so close to open water and sharp coral it is almost imperative to hold on to the fish as tightly as you might a Tarpon hooked in a small Mangrove lined creek. The difference being I was fishing with my Loop 8wt, using a size 4 hook and 13.5lb tippet vs a 10wt or heavier, 60lb tippet and a 4/0 hook! As the shoal of parrot fish spooked and headed as one for a break in the coral and out to the safety of the surf, so did my Trigger. This is no time to enjoy the song of your reel as the fish takes line but rather hold the rim, give absolutely no quarter and pray that the leader was not bestowed with a wind knot! Amazingly I managed to turn the fish as it surged towards the tight channel to the ocean and with time could finally steer it away from the coral and into the smooth sandy bottomed and safe water. It was my first Los Roques Triggerfish and I was suitably elated, even if it had pursued my fly almost too willingly! It was however a relative baby compared to some of the Triggers you can find on Los Roques and I was due a lesson in humility.
My next encounter, later that day was on a more traditional flat, away from the perils of the coral reef. Three Triggers presented themselves to me within a few minutes of getting off the boat. All three appeared to be feeding intently, their spade like tails contentedly waving in the air as they rooted around for crustaceans. My cast landed amidst the three and I suspect the competitive foraging element kicked in as one abruptly turned and chased down the fly. Strip, pause, strip, pause, strip...bang…the line went tight. I could barely believe my luck but as I tightened up and the Trigger realised something was amiss it bolted from one side of the flat to the other with absolutely no chance of my stopping it. Luckily Oswar who had been with Will on the far side saw what was happening and as the fish steamed towards the deep water off the edge of the flat he grabbed the line, lifting it high and clear of two coral bommies that would have meant instant disaster.
With the Trigger now in deep water for a short period I felt relatively safe. I clambered onto one submerged coral mound, from where I could control the fight with a higher vantage point, however having just got my balance my support gave way and I crashed into the middle with a glancing thought as to the cuts that probably now laced my leg. No time to worry about personal well-being, I then attempted to get in front of the coral from where I could tire the fish whilst is stayed in deep water and then tow it to an area of relative safety. One tentative step forwards and I was underwater, out of my depth, the rod still held high! Back kicking and paddling with one hand I managed to swim back to firm ground even if I was still playing the fish in neck depth water.
This achieved I now found myself in-between the two coral outposts with no real way of getting around either and the unenviable job of trying to pull what was clearly a very good-sized Trigger back to the flat. Recovering the substantial amount of line that I had out, which scissored ominously at a 30 degree angle into the deep blue water, the Trigger now defiantly took the upper hand, not that I had remotely been in control so far. As I wound in the line the Trigger turned and headed directly towards the opposing coral mound. I knew the result before it happened, I had been comprehensively outplayed by the fish. The line scythed through the water towards the coral, I reeled as hard as I could, desperately hoping to shorten the leash in the hope that I could bring its trajectory short and then that was it…the line cut the second it touched.
I was treated to one final lesson in being out Triggered on the final afternoon of our 6 days fishing. Another good fish took and again it headed off the flat into the deeper surrounding water. With my rod bent over, my drag complaining, the fish took more and more line. Deep into the backing I came across that other horror that has released more than a few good fish over my time. With the backing line twisted over on itself I now had to yank line off the reel to allow the fish to continue its remorseless flight into the blue of the deep water until I suspect with the continual pressure and jerks, a dreaded wind knot gave me a ‘thanks for coming, try harder next time’ and we parted company. Normally I am happy to concede defeat to a better opponent. My usual quip, ‘to have fought and lost is better than not to have fought at all’ stands me in good stead for most failures, but I have to say I was disheartened enough following this 2nd loss to relinquish my fishing rod, strip off and spend the next 15 mins swimming around in the joyously clear aqua marine water, forlornly wondering as to how nice a picture it would have made for this report!!!!
I really love Los Roques. The guides are fantastic, the food is excellent, the island absolutely full of charm and character. It has a totally different feel from almost any fishing destination that I can think of, refined but yet elementary, excellent fishing and variety but not confined to the experience when staying in a more typical saltwater fishing lodge. On our very final afternoon, over the last hour from 5-6pm, we returned to the Tarpon at the waterfront of Gran Roque. With local fisherman in their boats, cutting backwards and forwards after a day on the water, the sun-setting and the absolute cacophony of gulls and pelicans hammering minnow balls, whilst Jacks turned the surface of the water into a momentary cauldron was as good a recuperative tonic as you could wish. Although we did not hook any Tarpon, with a beer in hand, simply to be able to enjoy such a serene environment is a priviledge in itself.
Susanne and Cecelia, the non-fishing element of our team, had an equally wonderful time, relaxing, touring, snorkelling and enjoying each other’s company whilst we fished. The wi-fi works 90% of the time, the island and surroundings feel as safe as you would ever wish for and despite a few cloudy and rainy days, the sun predominantly shone. It was a very far cry from the winter we left behind.
The introduction of the USD, previously illegal tender in any shop or bar in Venezuela, has brought about a transformation in what is available and consequently the smoother running of the infrastructure on Los Roques. This has bestowed huge benefits in living standards to Venezuelans however for our team, it meant that we could now enjoy tonic with gin, assorted wines that were pleasantly priced and if you had landed any of the specimens that we lost, a bottle or two of champagne! On this occasion the Dom Perignon will have to wait until our next trip, but the memories will stay vivid far longer than any bubbles!
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