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TARPON TIME!

THE SUN OUTDOORS,
Spring 1999
By Graham Dalziel,
Outdoors Writer

"Hit him with the rod! Again! Again!" The guide, Nesto, who had hardly said a word all day, was now yelling and leaping about the boat.

The angler, Dennis Hall of Calgary, was following orders and doing everything right.

And the fish, Megalops Atlanticus, was doing what tarpon do and proving there really are only two kinds of fish -tarpon, and everything else!

Moments earlier, Dennis had made a perfect cast to a big tarpon - maybe 80 pounds - cruising the salt flats off Ambergris Caye in Belize, Central America.

SILVER KINGS, AND GREY LIGHTNING

The monster fish saw the fly being stripped through the water, turned and power-surged toward it, then spread its cavernous jaws and slammed the lure with an explosive splash.

As the fish hit Dennis yanked sharply back on the fly line to drive the super-sharp stainless steel hook into the tarpon's notoriously hard mouth, and Nesto sprang into action to direct the fight.

And what a battle it was! Experienced anglers will tell you the first 30 seconds after you hook a tarpon are the most exciting 30 seconds of your life.

That's no exaggeration.

Dennis fought the fish for 20 minutes of reel-screaming runs and spectacular, heartstopping leaps out of the water into the scorching daylight that hammered down from above.
Dennis Hall displays a bonefish. These feisty critters put up a great fight when taken on a fly.

The tarpon won this fight.

After many writhing, head-shaking jumps, its jaws cut through the 80-pound shock tippet of Dennis's leader.

Twenty minutes later, Dennis sat on the casting deck, the trembling almost gone and his legs not quite jelly any more.

He shook his head and said, "I think I've just acquired a lifelong addiction."

Tarpon will do that to you, and that's why anglers chasing the ultimate in extreme fly-fishing keep coming back for more.

Our trip in pursuit of the greatest of game fish took us to El Pescador, a stunning lodge close to the town of San Pedro on Ambergris Caye.
Picture - perfect paradise! El Pescador is a charming and comfortable base for the angler.

Simply put, El Pescador is a fly-fisherman's dream.

The lodge is delightful and the staff are genuinely friendly and helpful. The food is delicious and the guides are superb.

But the star attraction is the world-class sight-fishing for tarpon, bonefish and permit on more than 200 square miles of classic tarpon flats.

A typical fishing day sees you up at 6:30 a.m. for breakfast.

The guides arrive and take you on the 3 to-40 minute trip to the flats and mangrove islands, which are a wildlife watcher's delight, teeming with a stunning variety of bird and marine species.

The fishing is generally over by about 3:30 p.m., when the glare on the water makes it too difficult to spot fish.
These killer tarpon flies were beautifully tied by Dennis Hall of Calgary.

The boat is ideally suited for flats fishing.

There's a casting deck up front where the angler whose turn it is to fish stands, rod at the ready.

The angler waiting for his turn has a comfortable sea to relax in and get his gear ready.

Midway through the day everyone takes a break for sandwich lunch, with juice or cold fresh water providing refreshing relief from the heat.

Nesto was all eyes, his head slowly rotating to sea the water as he poled the boat through the shallows. Big chunks of time would pass without a word, then he'd shatter the calm with something like: "Three big tarpon. Eighty feet, 10 o'clock. Moving left".

Then it's up to you.

The thing that can make or break a shot at a tarpon the cast.

The angler must master the double-haul.

It's essential that you are comfortable with this cast not so much for getting distance, but to punch the heavy fly line through the wind, which is almost always blowing.

Rods and reels for tarpon should be big and powerful handling 10-to-12-weight lines.
Fly-fishing's finest moment! A tarpon powers out of the water in a spectacular, writhing leap.

The lodge has an excellent selection for rent if you don't want the expense of rigging up specifically for a trip.

A number of fly patterns work on tarpon, but it's wise to tie or buy them on stainless steel hooks, as the salt water is extremely corrosive.

The lodge has a wide selection of flies for sale.

Bonefish are grey streaks of muscled lightning that offer fast and furious fly fishing in the shallow water around the mangrove islands. Nesto, as usual, is the first to see them.

"Big school, 9 o'clock, moving left. Thirty feet."

Actually, you don't see the fish.

You see their shadows on the sandy bottom, creeping or speeding this way and at. The plan is to cast the fly - a Crazy Charlie, Blind Charlie, Merkin or shrimp pattern - ahead of the feeding fish, strip and strike when they hit. A bonefish is all fight. Just about every one takes you into the backing on your reel.

Catching and releasing these fish on eightweight outfits is tremendous fun.

El Pescador is a clean and comfortable colonial-style lodge that can accommodate up to 27 guests. The rooms face out on to the spotless beach dotted with palm trees and flowering tropical plants.

Many anglers return from fishing and jump straight into the shower while still wearing the lightweight clothing recommended for flats fishing.

That way, the guest is freshened up for a trip to the well-stocked bar - and the gear is clean for the next day's outing.

The lodge is efficiently run by the brother and sister team of Logan and Ali Gentry.

They and their staff provide top-notch service and helpful advice on just about anything you need to know.

They can also arrange many other activities, like diving on the world's largest living coral reef, which is just offshore, and trips to Mayan ruins and the lush rainforest on the mainland of this peaceful and exotic country.

For those who prefer "regular" fishing, there's wonderful sport on the reef and blue water beyond.

During our trip, the guests in the next room returned from the reef one day and excitedly told us of the staggering array of fish they had hooked - barracuda, kingfish, grouper and snapper, to name just a few.

As you'd expect, fish figures strongly on the menu, and it's served up in a delicious variety of hearty dishes.

Night falls quickly at El Pescador, and most guests turn in relatively early. Those seeking a bit of nightlife, however, can make the 20-minute walk or take a water taxi to the little town of San Pedro.

Getting to El Pescador is relatively painless. Leave on a Continental Airlines flight from Calgary early in the morning, change planes in Houston and you are in Belize City by mid-afternoon.

From there, it's a short hop by small plan to San Pedro where you'll be met by a boat and whisked to the lodge to enjoy a fresh fruit rum punch before 5:30 p.m.

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