As you approach Los Roques there is a palpable feeling of excitement by all those on the plane. A small proportion of that might be attributable to the fact that ‘we had made it’! Los Roques, an archipelago, a distant 100 miles from Venezuela has all but been forgotten by the angling community due to the perceived security concerns and general deterioration of relations between the current government and the USA. To reach Los Roques we had had to ignore a foreign office advisory warning against all but essential travel. That said given current Brexit meltdown, with no relief in sight, I would be tempted to qualify a fishing trip to Los Roques as essential! Then, of course, is the media, awash with pictures of burning aid lorries on the border with Columbia, ex-pat Venezuelans questioned with horror why anyone would want to travel to their country of birth and vague rumours circulating about US military intervention. Ohh, and the country had suffered a 48hr power blackout prior to our arrival.
But for myself and those of us on the 45 min flight to Gran Roque (Big Rock), the heart of Los Roques and the centre of the habitation, the excitement was seeing the thick haze which skirted mainland Venezuela evaporate into sunshine, revealing the visually effervescent effect it has on the water colours surrounding Los Roques. The deep dark blue of the open ocean changes as one flies over the initial perimeter strip of shoreline on the approach to the archipelago, a mesmerizing avalanche of colours that crosses almost the entire range of the blue/green colour spectrum.
Having been in constant touch with the team from Sightcast, who handle all the ground arrangements for the trip from the meet and greet on arrival into Simon Bolivar International airport, the accommodation on Los Roques and of course are fishing guides, I was well briefed as to what to expect. Never-the-less, against this, was the natural concerns that anyone might have from a country which has rampant inflation, governance that has been internationally rejected, a reputation for crime and the potential for social upheaval. Given the background, there is always room for caution and with that some lingering doubts regardless of what one is told.
As the plane dropped onto the runway, and after the engines have dutifully reached their air-breaking crescendo, all concerns evaporate. The concrete hulk of the Los Roques airport building, after a good decade of construction is still unfinished, thankfully so. The friendly faces of the guides met us along with the staff from Posada Caracol where we were staying, National Park arrival fees are paid at a rudimentary kiosk and then we are straight into the bare feet paradise of the sandy streets that enchants all who come here. For all the mainland austerity of services and functionality, the Los Roques I remember from old has retained every bit of charm that I remember…but unquestionably the buzz of activity is at a minimum. Chris who manages Sightcast, and all the guides are not just pleased to see us but genuinely grateful that we have braved the negative press and perceived security threats.
The posada’s (guesthouses/hotels) retain their colourful charm. Bougainvillea and Hibiscus, amongst many other colourful tropical plants are unsurprisingly in flower, the lagoon to the rear of the runway still has the smell of a lagoon (swept away by the offshore breeze) and Los Roques locals go about their day in the same unhurried fashion, typical of island life. But more shutters are closed, the beat of music from the posadas subdued and the chatter of activity, that goes with an island predominantly reliant on tourism for its income, absent. Our party of five, all but one of whom had visited Los Roques on a number of occasions before were now less tourists but more intrepid adventurers!
If adventurers were what we were, then we were adventure’s treated to refined luxury! Posada Caracol where we were staying did not have one of the hallmarks of neglect. Tastefully decorated and functional rooms, air-conditioning, hot water for showers, personal blue-tooth speakers and above anything else, exceptional food. Our breakfast menu was extensive. Freshly squeezed juices were complimented by an assortment of options with poached eggs and avocado being the team favourite. Evening meals typically consisted of 4 courses: Ceviche or Sashimi, anti-pasta, fish main and a desert. Having been a Los Roques regular over the past 12 years I have at times been treated to some of the above, but never all and with total consistency!
But we came to fish and having washed ourselves of all the pre-trip obfuscation, uncertainty and worries that of course was what we got stuck into at the first opportunity after a quick unpack. Los Roques is first and foremost a Bonefish destination. The opportunities are endless. Of all the geological features that fishermen should be aware of it is the ‘Pancake Flats’. Firm bottomed, covered in a mixture of sand, coral and sea grass, on a normal tide they offer tailing bonefish in huge quantities. Tiny semi-submerged islands in their own rite they are surrounded by water which has an almost glacial milky blue tinge to it.
Anglers, tour agents and tour operators in no particular order are almost always pre-disposed to oversize the average size of Bonefish. I will not do so other than to say that to my mind the Bones on Los Roques are of an above average size. The recent lack of angling pressure does not mean they will all take like a recently stocked Trout. Their feeding patterns follow the same variables of weather, pressure, moon-state and generally inconclusive angler reasoning that is the subject of many an evening discussion. Some days they will be spooky without reason, whilst on others, they will take with gusto and alacrity. What is guaranteed is that exhilarating, unstoppable, size-defying run that Bonefish will always reward an angler with, especially when hooked in shallow water. You may tire of it, but you can never fail to be impressed by it!
Bonefish flats across the width and breadth of Los Roques come in almost every size, shape and manner; from vast stretches, so long that you can find yourself thankful when the guide whistles to the boat Captain to come and pick you up, to lagoons where Bonefish cruise, carving an eraser like path through the deep shoals of congregated minnows. A significant amount of the fishing on Los Roques is done by wading. Firm flats make this possible in almost all locations other than the lagoons. When fishing as a pair, the guide positions himself centrally so both anglers get to fish at once, a bonus compared to the alternate fishing destinations where the fishing is restricted to the front of a skiff.
Personally, if I was to name a favourite location to fish for Bonefish, almost anywhere I can think of it, on Los Roques and beyond, it would be Cras Key, an Idyllic, scenic, white-sand beach leading to a rocky point. Sheltered from the wind, with gulls and pelicans conducting ceaseless fishing raids, the water a mesmeric aqua-marine colour it is an electric place to fish. The shoreline is typified by a cloudy green shade of minnows that runs along much of its length where Bonefish, Pompano, Yellow Tail Snapper and Jacks cruise. The Jacks with bursts of frenetic activity, the Bonefish with a measured calm. Whilst anyone can spot the ‘Jack attacks’, to spot the Bones you look not so much for the fish themselves, but for the white ‘eraser’ gaps in the minnows that open up in front of them. I am not certain if the Gummy Minnow was invented specifically for Los Roques, but it is very very effective, closely followed by the simple but robust Los Roques Rabbit.
Los Roques is not all Bonefish by any means. Joining the ranks of frustratingly difficult fish to catch alongside Permit are Trigger and Parrotfish. My first cast of the trip was to a good-sized Triggerfish which may have weighed 15-20lbs. It was one of five which was cruising alongside the ocean flats, their black dorsal fins flip-flopping from side to side. A surprisingly accurate first cast…the wait…wait…wait, from the guide, followed by strip, strip, strip…wait…strip. The fish turned and powered towards the fly, a fleeting touch and then it was off. For the rest of the week I ached to hold one, a rare Los Roques trophy, but I never succeeded despite finding numerous opportunities.
On another occasion I cast at a large shoal of Parrotfish, penned in by the ocean-front coral rim. To escape they had to pass me or rather my fly! First cast and the fly landed right beside them. Parrotfish eat coral and are tricky to catch at the very best of times. Although not as big as their counterparts in the Seychelles, the Humphead Parrotfish, they are still an enviable target, of a good size and definitely worthy of attention! One strip and I immediately snagged on a piece of coral! Mental note…use weed guards on flies whenever fishing for Triggers and Parrotfish. The shoal of 20 odd fish then proceeded to ignore my fly, swam towards me and then for the next couple of minutes circled inquisitively, immediately in front of me, no more than a rods length from where I stood. I switched on my Go Pro to record this rather unique experience only to later discover later that it had already been on, and I had in fact switched it off. Disaster as it was an incredible sight, but the sort of thing that makes saltwater fly-fishing so spectacular. You get presented with rewarding visual spectacles of this nature on a daily basis, even if they do not always result in success! It also is one of the trials and tribulations of attempting to be the participant, as well as a cinematographer at the same time.
Tarpon are typically one of the go to species when you want some variety from Bonefish. When you find them, and can place a fly in front of them, they are thankfully, more often than not, aggressive takers. Large migratory Tarpon were a regular over October & November in Los Roques when huge minnow shoals formed up along the entire length of the waterfront at Los Roques. Over recent years the arrival of the minnows has been more sporadic with no reason known as to why this regular occurrence is now less frequent. Having a rod rigged for Tarpon at all times is definitely prudent as you may come across both juvenile and larger fish at any stage. There are plenty of juvenile Tarpon hot spots scattered around Los Roques, typically around the lagoons and mangrove shorelines. If you go searching you should be presented with some opportunities but as always, the larger the fish, the more patience is required. A low-tide works best for juvenile fish. They are more accessible, resting at the edge of the mangroves as opposed to finding safety deep within their roots. Although you can see them, trying to get a fly suitably close can be frustrating, the roots acting like a security fence between you and them! By contrast when you come across Tarpon patrolling along the front of the mangroves or in the open ocean the situation is very different. With a reasonable cast you stand a good chance of success.
Venezuela and Los Roques, in the current political climate, will always be tainted with the suspicion that any travel there is a dangerous liability. Having visited Los Roques on numerous occasions over the past 12 years I was well aware that this exotic, tranquil Bohemian outpost is as far removed from mainland Venezuela as any Caribbean island is. But equally I have no intention of putting myself at adverse risk for the sake of a fish…although if it was a 40lb Atlantic Salmon….! My concerns did not involve armed gangs or mobile kidnapping units, ready to pounce the moment we stepped off the aeroplane. The arrival procedures are extremely well rehearsed. We were met and looked after the moment we stepped out of customs. Travelling from Europe anglers will typically spend one night at the local international hotel overlooking the runway, a five minute journey from the airport, the Euro-Building Express, Clean, comfortable and safe with a good restaurant it feels as far removed from central Caracas as it does watching Ross Kemp chasing drug cartels on TV from the comfort of your living room.
My concerns were simply whether the infrastructure on Los Roques had survived the ravages of an economy in collapse, whether the posada we were staying in would have supplies of fresh food, fruits and vegetables (and as importantly something to drink), the island and its community retained fuel for its generators and petrol was available for the outboard engines of our boats. It is worth a quick reflection back to my first trip to Los Roques, when Venezuela was close to its prime! Back then Los Roques was very elementary! Power shortages were common, fuel for outboards was indeed subject to rationing, air conditioning was a luxury and hot water for showers unheard of! We were not afflicted by any of these 1stworld deprivations.
To understand why, when mainland Venezuelan’s cannot even expect a reliable supply of electricity at present, you have to understand something of Los Roques. As stated before, Los Roques is an island community, reliant on tourism. But, at the same time it also offers a refuge for the Venezuelan elite, both its military and political masters. If there was a location in Venezuela, suitably remote but at the same time outstandingly beautiful from where people can escape, it is to Los Roques, and as a result, if there was one corner of Venezuela that was least likely to fall…it would be Los Roques! Time may prove me wrong, but for now, those adventurous souls who go to Los Roques will find the same paradise as before…but for now almost devoid of others. For a fisherman…that is paradise in itself!
I have fished several times in the Bahamas,Seychelles, Cuba and Mexico but none of them have the laid back charm of Los Roques. The Marine Reserve is beautiful, the sea colours extraordinary, the guides first class and the posada very comfortable. I have been there three times now and will return without a doubt.
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