Six Days of Saltwater Fishing Karma

Los Roques Archipelago

by Justin Maxwell Stuart - Nov 2012

Destination: Venezuela

Holiday: Los Roques

We touched down into Caracas on October 29th, the same day Hurricane Sandy made landfall on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States causing havoc, devastation and misery. The tail still had a sting as driving rain rocked the plane on its landing gear as we came to a halt opposite the terminal buildings. Mark Wengler, renowned windsurfing photographer who had accompanied us wondered whether the Danish winter was such a bad alternative whilst Tania, my wife, questioned her decision to join us on a very much fishing focussed holiday. Although relatively oblivious to the intensity of the storms thrashing New York I was quietly confident that our fortunes would not be similarly affected; Los Roques is 100 miles offshore from the Venezuelan mainland with its own very consistent weather patterns which are for the better part unaffected by both Venezuelan seasonal variations as well as hurricanes and cyclones which pass to the North.

As with most travel to Los Roques a stopover night is required. A good deal of recent media attention has been focussed on the deteriorating security situation in mainland Venezuela and specifically in Caracas. Mark, a saltwater and Venezuelan first-timer was not shy in displaying significant consternation despite my casual reassurances. Awful tales of hijacking and kidnapping are rife but these are centred around the city of Caracas, a 40 minute drive inland from the airport where the mass poverty of slum housing adorns every inch of the surrounding mountains. Luckily our ‘transit’ stopover was never likely to give rise to the possibility of any such excitements! Having received a warm welcome by the meet and greet team we were escorted to the respectable Marriott Playa Grande hotel on the waterfront, 10 minutes drive from the airport. After a comfortable night and the welcome departure of the storm clouds we were given more red carpet treatment with an escort to the domestic terminal, a guiding hand through the check-in process and assistance with all our luggage.

Day 1

Touchdown on Los Roques after an up and down 35 min flight is when all concerns, thoughts of work or worries from home disappear. The recently resurfaced runway is almost the only indication that you are anywhere other than a remote archipelago in the Caribbean ocean. Customs consists of an open ‘fruit stall’ style kiosk, roads are made entirely of sand, buildings are a multitude of vibrant colours and other than about three utility trucks there is not a vehicle to be seen. Head fishing guide Carlos was on standby to meet us and after an agonisingly long 45 minute book in, see room, eat breakfast, grab fishing kit we were ready to hit the water.

To get into the swing of things we headed to the outer rim of the archipelago where blue water hits the submerged coral ring that shields the greater part of the archipelago from the ocean swell. We were greeted with the welcoming sight of a significant shoal of Bonefish, their tails dancing in the sunlight. Casting to a massed shoal may not represent the challenge of a solitary Bonefish cruising warily but it allowed rusty casting to be fine-tuned and the electrifying run as successive fish took and stripped line from the reel.

Heading out on Day 1 – Gran Roque (Big Rock) in the background - Blowing away the cobwebs

With half a dozen Bonefish in the bag it was off to look at some Tarpon spots. Before we had even rigged rods we came to a sandy-bottomed bay where a school of about eight juvenile Tarpon up to approx. 15lbs were aggressively cruising. First cast and an immediate hook up as the Tarpon crashed the fly followed by the signature aerial display. Anxious to get Mark into his first Tarpon the rod was handed over where he proceeded to hook and jump just about every other Tarpon in the school…literally! Instinctive Trout fishing striking techniques as opposed to the requisite strip-strike, a requisite to drive the hook home into a Tarpon’s bony mouth, resulted in an adrenaline-packed 15 minutes accompanied by a good deal of commentary on the LDRT (long distance release technique). Regardless of the final tally of just one landed Tarpon it was a stage-setting introduction to saltwater fly-fishing.

Getting to grips with some very feisty Tarpon – One of about 5 fish hooked in the space of 20 minutes

Day 2

After a relatively quick attempt to entice one of dozens of large Tarpon which harassed a bait ball of minnows no more than 50 metres from the mooring we headed by boat to a small bay adjacent to the airstrip, just minutes away. This secluded spot, a mere stone’s throw from the hustle and bustle of the waterfront contained an incredibly dense shoal of minnows and amongst these cruised any number of Bonefish of around 3-7lbs. As the Bones scythed through the minnow cloud the grey mass would magically open up a few inches in front of the fish and then reclose moments after it had passed. Small ultra lifelike Gummy Minnows dropped in front of a Bonefish and then tweaked erratically, as if imitating the last spasms of life would be enough to make most fish turn and follow without hesitation. Maintaining the illusion of a juicy but fatally injured meal to the point of a solid hook hold was less easy. Time and time again one or more Bonefish would follow, tantalisingly nudging the fly and on occasion taking hold of the fly. It was enough to keep us on tenterhooks for a good number of hours, occasionally interspersed by some frenetic action as a pack of Jacks hurtled past in a frenzy of feeding mayhem.

Los Roques is characterised by the extraordinary numbers of minnows – Opportunistic cast to a shoal of Jacks

Midday and it was off to one of the lagoons for Tarpon. On entering it was all too apparent why the Tarpon congregate here as they contain vast depositaries of minnows, sheltered away from the open water predators. In the centre of the first lagoon some BIG Tarpon crunched in and out of the main minnow ball alongside some lethargic dive-bombing pelicans, also enjoying their share of the minnow bonanza. Around the lagoon edges we had better shots at juvenile Tarpon that lurked on the edge of the surrounding mangroves. Our casting steadily improved but it was not until we reached the second Lagoon where we met success, hooking, playing but finally losing the fish at the boat. Keeping any Tarpon from disappearing into the maze of mangrove roots requires nothing short of a vice-like grip on the line but with the consequence that escape attempts are consequently almost entirely vertical in nature.

The final highlight of the day was a heavenly swim at Madrisqui, one of the amazing Los Roques beaches, commonly voted as amongst the best in the Caribbean. Reddened legs and faces welcomed the respite from the sun. Being only 5 minutes from home it really should be a mandatory cooling break after a day on the water. Never one to completely surrender fishing rod to mere relaxation, a final patrol along the beach yielded the best Bonefish of the day, a fish of 7 or 8lbs.

Madrisqui - Just one of one of the glorious beaches around the archipelago – Taking a dip should be mandatory! A fantastic Bonefish to round off the day – Graceful, powerful, challenging and wonderful sport on a fly rod

Day 3

After the fun and enjoyment of our ‘close to home’ Bonefish haul on Day 2 the decision was taken to repeat the process, with similar results. There was a secondary benefit to the ‘going local’ approach, being that the non-fisher, Tania, could enjoy a late morning relaxing at the lodge to be picked up a few hours later before we headed further afield – this was after all a joint holiday! Midmorning was spent chasing some large Tarpon in one of the lagoons; visually exciting but no hook-ups. Shielded from any wind, fishing the lagoons can be hot work and a welcome lunchtime break was spent just outside the lagoon mouth, surrounded by the exquisite palette of aquatic colours whilst casually catching any number of Yellowfin reef fish, one of which contributed to a delicious sashimi feast.

Los Roques delivers up one visual spectacle after another – Tania with a Yellowtail-soon to be sashimi!

Ever since my first trip to Los Roques in 2007 I have been mesmerised by the variety of fishing to be had, both in terms of species and the environment. One such distraction during the heat of the afternoon is to target a large ever-present school of Horse Eye Jacks that reside directly west of Gran Roque - the largest and inhabited part of Los Roques. Armed with robust spinning rods and large poppers Mark and I hurled our weaponry into the sky assisted by a strong tailwind. Before I had retrieved five turns of line there was a heart-palpitating explosion as the lure was engulfed in a flurry of spray and teeth. Diving deep these meaty opponents put up a ferociously strong fight. My fish was around 10lbs, however a subsequent Jack that Mark hooked just minutes later was double that size, fought like a demon, and snapped his rod mid-fight!

Carlos with a Horse-eye Jack – Very aggressive and an incredibly hard fighting fish

The final afternoon session took place in a picturesque turtle grass cove. Having drifted its length with slim picking to be seen, as we reached the far outlet Bonefish seemed to appear from nowhere. Having tried and successfully caught using a small Gummy I switched to a personal favourite ‘Los Roques Special’. Guide Carlos ridiculed my fly choice due to its lack of weight but gave way to my insistence/refusal to change. By the time Tania, Mark and he had landed 5 fish in relatively quick succession his temper towards my fly choice softened somewhat!

Tania finishing off the day with a series of Bonefish from a picturesque cove

Day 4

Variety of species was one of our goals for this trip and so for Day 4 we headed out in search of Barracuda. Throughout the archipelago there are some simply enormous Barracuda – on previous encounters colossal fish of 60lbs and more have been hooked and lost. Although it is possible to catch Barracuda on a fly to be in with a chance of a real monster we needed to up the ante somewhat…and that meant using their favourite prey…Bonefish! For this we went in search of a few smaller fish from one of the many 'Muds', areas where large schools of typically younger Bonefish have stirred up the bottom creating a ghostly white shroud and perfect camouflage from predators.

A mouthful of Bait! - Mark Wengler in front of the lens with the business end of a Barracuda

Barracuda frequently circle the ‘muds’ looking to pick off any fish that strays beyond the safety of the silt cloud. Our first opportunity quickly presented itself, the menacing shadow of a large Barracuda easily identifiable against the clear sandy bottom. A Bonefish was swiftly attached to hooks and a wire trace and cast to the waiting wolf! Almost immediately the Barracuda turned and grabbed the Bonefish. Striking hard hooks purchased and immediately the Barracuda started stripping line against a tight drag. Barracuda are ambush predators, able to accelerate at tremendous speed with wicked teeth. Unless the hook gets a firm hold your bait is usually swiftly returned, either neatly chopped in two or with a substantial chunk removed! Our first three hook-ups proved to be no exception. Luckily Barracuda are as fearless as any alpha predator and will return for a second or third round. By the time we had used up our supply of Bones Mark and I had landed two good sized Barracuda…no 80lb mega fish but some fantastic, exhilarating and very visual action along the way.

Lunches consist of a more than adequate coolbox with fresh fruit, pasta and or sandwiches. It is however possible to arrange a lobster lunch at one of the assorted and very local beach restaurants scattered amongst the more popular cays. Despite the obvious simplicity of our surroundings we were treated to an exceptional four-course feast with mussels, lobster, and a variety of assorted fish. We were not the only ones that benefited from the food on offer: immediately in front of the restaurant a pod of ten or so ‘tame’ Bonefish patrolled the beachfront. Fattened on a diet of fisherman’s scraps these Bones, although almost impervious to a fly, must have weighed close to 10lbs each!

Day 5

With a few morning Bones secured it was back to the lagoon from Day 2. Immediately on entering we could see Tarpon rolling in all directions. What then followed was a period of utterly frenetic action with what seemed to be school after school feeding like crazy, interspersed by roaming shoals of Jacks and Snappers. By the end of the frenzy we had only landed one Tarpon and Snapper but had burnt fingers as fish after fish hit, jumped, somersaulted, and sought freedom amongst the mangrove roots. To rate the experience on fish landed would be to do the moment a grave injustice. We were all exhausted with the manic energy that a feeding spree can impart on nerves with errant whiplash-like casting keeping guides and spectators ducking for cover on any number of occasions!

Bonefish, Tarpon & Permit tend to be the gamefish that get significant flats fly-fishing press in and around the Caribbean. There are of course good numbers of other very worthy targets and for 30 minutes we had breathtaking fun chasing a school of Jacks. Although relatively easy to catch in the heat of a feeding spree, pursuing a fast moving school of fish is another thing altogether. Having spotted a cruising shoal of about 50 fish, engines were gunned and we raced into a position to intercept them with a cast. Despite the density of fish, their behaviour whilst shoaling means that simply casting a fly in the proximity of the fish will not necessarily gain a hook up unless they are actively feeding. A fly dropped into the centre is as unnatural as an antelope being dropped onto a pride of lions. To create the conditions to incite a take the fly needs to be presented in front of them and then stripped as fast as possible to imitate a fish fleeing for its life. For the better part of 500 m we pursued the school at high speed, frantically trying to cast a line in front of the school into a strong headwind. Finally, as we reached the point where the shoal would disappear into deeper water I received a firm strike followed by a fast, furious and determined fight to the boat.

Day 6

With Barracuda, Tarpon, Jacks various, Needle Fish, Snapper, Yellowtails and assorted reef fish under the belt our final day was focused on Bonefish. Having moored up in a small bay we disembarked, clambering over a thin central ridge that consisted almost entirely of Conch shells. Prior to 1972 when Los Roques was made a National Park Conch were harvested indiscriminately and mountains upon mountains of shells stand as relics of past profligacy. On the far side was an enticingly sheltered bay with a sandy bottom broken by scattered patches of turtle grass, opening out to an emerald green expanse of water crowned by the cobalt blue of the deeper water in the distance.

Mark and I fished this spot for almost 3 hours with Bonefish after Bonefish keeping us transfixed. Spot, cast, strip, strike, strip, wind, release…repeat. Our guide referred to this flat as the “all dayer’, so named because you could stay here all day and never get bored. We finally shifted off having been urged on by the temptation of lunch and a slight change in wind direction that deposited a few mangrove-inhabiting mosquitoes into our sheltered corner.

Our final hours were spent, at my request chasing some really very large Tarpon of up to 120lbs. Two of the locations represented unfinished business where we had seen them before but our final few casts were back at our spot beside the the runway. Two fish of 60-70lbs cruised backwards and forwards in little over a foot of water and only departed after the second fly offering had been dragged unceremoniously across their noses with no reaction.

During the week we stayed at Acuarela lodge, set back no more than 100m from the waterfront where we would meet our guide and boat each morning. Italian owned, Posada Acuarela has maintained its position as one of the nicest posadas on Los Roques, in part due to the simply excellent cuisine guests enjoy. Do not expect to meet your quota of red meat on Los Roques – fish is the available resource and alongside the tastes of Italy with homemade pasta specialities you can expect fruits de la mar in glorious abundance. To venture away from freshly caught and prepared delicacies on this remote archipelago island would, in my opinion, be insane. Where Los Roques stands apart from other remote fishing lodges is that it has a spirit and feel that is totally unique. For entertainment in the evening you have the benefits of not just the multitude of small beach and cocktail bars scattered along the waterfront but as importantly the vibrant local atmosphere that permeates every element of the island. School children, unconstrained by the shackles of television, play outside until the wee hours. The waterfront is a hive of activity each morning and afternoon as fishermen come and go, returning with catches ranging from snappers and lobster to Barracuda, Kingfish and the occasional Sailfish.

The experience does not end until you are well clear of the archipelago. Early morning prior to departure there was a free hour to walk along the waterfront casting and catching any number of very large Bonefish. Even as we waited to board our plane, standing in the Los Roques ‘departure lounge’ the ever-present vibrancy displaces any leaving blues.

Boats come and go, countless pelicans crash into the water as they hammer the minnows whilst Bonefish circle, stealing morsels from their overflowing beaks. Even as the plane climbs into the air you are treated to a final and spectacular vista as the strings of islands, cays and lagoons finally give way to the deep blue sea.

Los Roques by Day – Los Roques by Night – Colourful, energetic and charismatic 365 days a year - A fond farewell - Until Next time!

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