San Juan, Puerto Rico, has many attractions like surf, sand and sun, but for one man, it was the dark side that drew him there.

By John Guldin

puerto rico saltwater flyfishing

Fort El Moro and the quaint streets and shops of Old San Juan, "Blue Marlin Alley" off the northern coast, the site of many exciting battles with this magnificent billfish, white sand beaches, tropical breezes, friendly people, pristine golf courses, El Yunque rain forest, delicious Caribbean foods, exquisite casinos: These are some of the most popular attractions that draw thousands of people to Puerto Rico, the "Land of Enchantment," every year.

However, this trip, none held any interest for me.

I was heading to the Luis Martin Mu'oz Airport, in San Juan, 30,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean at over 600 miles per hour because I wanted to experience the "Night Life." I wanted to be part of the "Dark Side" of San Juan -- the side that not many tourists know about and even less ever get to, or want to, experience.

The jet soon landed and headed for the assigned gate. Within minutes I was on my way to collect my bags. I headed to the taxi stand just outside the airport. San Juan is a metroplex comprised of five municipalities: San Juan, Bayam'n, Rio Piedras, Santurce and Carolina. I directed the taxi driver to a section or barrio within Carolina known as Isla Verde, the "Green Island." Although I was heading to a hotel, I felt like I was heading back to a friend's home. I was heading to the Empress Oceanfront Hotel located right on the shoreline and partly built over the ocean, in Isla Verde, not more than 10 minutes from the airport.

I had stayed there many times in the past and I was looking forward to seeing my old friends.

After checking in with Hector at the front desk, I headed to my room with a balcony overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. After unpacking, I went down to the open-air Blue Dolphin Bar where Eduardo Rivera carefully "built" me one of his delicious Sangrias. Sangria is a wine-based drink over ice that is very relaxing and refreshing. After sampling Eddie's handiwork, I asked for the phone and made a call to Juan, who is also known as "Flaco," in order to set up the night's activities. We arranged a meeting time for just about sunset and discussed how we were going to score that very night! I ordered another Sangria and an order of habichuelas and arroz [beans and rice] in order to fortify myself for the coming events.

As the Caribbean sky turned to a dusky pink, I hailed a cab and drove to the docks to meet Juan. It was almost completely dark when I arrived, but I spotted Juan by the water standing in his boat and motioning me towards him. We greeted each other quietly as I stepped aboard. Soon we were underway. We headed across the inlet and within minutes, we were moving slowly along the narrow channels through the mangroves. Unidentifiable sounds emanated from the shorelines and occasionally a bird raised an alarm at an unseen intruder. A splash came from the water ahead, probably an unlucky baitfish that would not see tomorrow's sunrise. Twenty minutes later, we entered what is known locally as the "Playground" or, more properly referred to on maps, as El Laguna Torrecilla. In the distance, the lights from the mammoth Teodoro Moscoso Bridge, which spans the San Jose Lagoon, illuminated the decorative flags fluttering in the slight breeze as jets, with their landing lights blazing, headed for their appointed runways at the nearby airport.

Flaco cut the engine and we silently drifted as the moon rose above the mountains and reflected off the outgoing tide. No one else was there. All was silent. We were waiting. We were waiting for the night's action.

Flaco heard it first. I didn't hear anything. He started the engine and we moved towards the sound. Again, he cut the engine. I heard it now. It was not exactly a splash, more like a brief, hard rain on the water. It only lasted a moment, but it was enough to establish a direction. I stepped to the bow and peered into the darkness. Juan said, "Now," and the action began. In almost total darkness, I stripped out about 40 feet of fly line and soon sent a 2/0 Brown and White Clouser Minnow towards the sound. Three strips of the line later I felt the unmistakable power of a tarpon and struck hard. The "Silver King" jumped into the night, although I did not see it. But, the sound left no doubt in our minds. Fifteen minutes later, Flaco, also known as Capt. Juan Torruella, brought the feisty tarpon aboard the "Tight Loop" for a quick picture and release back into the darkness. [Unfortunately, this was my last trip with Capt. Juan who soon after left the guiding business for other pursuits.]

This was the "Night Life" that I was seeking. This was part of the dark side of Puerto Rico that held such mystery and excitement for me. Now, I had found it. The tarpon fishing in the backcountry of the lagoons can be fantastic, and at night, it becomes even more exciting and mysterious.

Fishing for the "Silver King" is an exciting sport -- daytime or nighttime. However, before entering the world of darkness I would recommend learning and practicing the basics during the daylight hours when you can see exactly what you are doing. At night, while standing on the casting platform of an 18' skiff, much of the fishing is "by feel and memory."

Saltwater fishing, while similar to freshwater fishing, requires a few modifications from what you are used to.

Rods: Normally, you will be using a heavier weight rod than you use for most freshwater species. An 8-weight will do if there are small tarpon around, say, up to 35 pounds. However, a 9- to 10- weight will handle all but the largest tarpon for which you should use at least an 11-weight. In the lagoons of San Juan, a 10-weight is a good choice. Keep in mind when choosing your weight rod that it is not just the species you are after that will govern the choice but also the size and weight of your fly. Most tarpon flies are tied on 1/0 to 4/0 hooks and can be up to nine inches long. These patterns, especially when wet and casting with an ever present wind, mandate a rod with sufficient backbone.

Casting: For many of us, our freshwater fishing is for trout in small to medium waters. Much success can be had with casts no longer than 35 to 40 feet; oft times, even less. However, in saltwater fishing the casts to the skittish prey must be longer. As Lefty Kreh once said, "There are no disadvantages to a long cast." In my opinion, an angler moving from freshwater to saltwater fishing should be able to cast 60 feet regularly, comfortably and with accuracy. Keep in mind that this distance is the goal for actually being "on the water." A sixty-foot cast in the backyard without a fly tied on the leader, ends up to be a forty-foot cast when you add a heavy fly and some sea breeze. If you are in a channel between two stands of mangroves and want to cast against the shore where the large snook hide amongst the submerged roots, a distance cast is in order. As with any predatory fish, wariness is the key to its survival. If your guide must pole the boat close to the shoreline, the chances are that your quarry will spot it and blast past you on its way to a safer retreat.

Speed is another factor that must be considered. When freshwater fishing for trout, as an example, a good fly fisher can read the water and know the best places to begin casting. A slow and silent stalk can be patiently made until everything just feels right. In the salt, however, things happen quickly. You might stand on a casting platform for hours without having an opportunity to sight cast to a cruising tarpon. But, when the time arrives, the tarpon is not going to slow down for you. A cast of 70 feet in three seconds with accuracy is needed. In the lagoons of Puerto Rico, the water is stained dark by the mangrove roots so "blind casting" is the usual method. Even so, there are passing tarpon that feed on small bait fish near the surface and the pod may arrive and be gone in less than 30 seconds. That is the time for long and quick casts in order to maximize the time your fly is in the water.

san juan saltwater fly fishing tarpon

Line Control: Long, quick casts require you to have line lying at your feet on the deck ready to "feed" into your two or three false casts before presenting the fly. You should have at least 35 to 40 feet of line lying in loose coils ready to cast at all times. The Rule of Thumb, of course, is not to have more line on the deck than you can cast or more than you anticipate needing for an anticipated fishing situation. [See, the author's "Barefoot on the Bow" for some additional tips on dealing with fly line in your boat.]

After your cast is made, point the tip of your rod directly toward the spot the fly entered the water and dip it down to the surface of the water. This helps to keep slack out of the line and allows you to feel what the fly is doing. Start the retrieve by stripping in the line with long, fairly quick strokes. Keep in mind that one of the main factors for triggering an attack by a saltwater predator is speed. In fact, if you get a hit but no hook-up, increase the speed of your retrieve. Many times this additional speed will reward you with a second attack. Of course, if one speed is not producing, you should experiment with a slower or faster retrieve. Your guide will be able to help you.<

Tarpon On!: In most cases, the strike from a tarpon will be vicious and quick. You must strike fast and hard. Unfortunately, most freshwater fly fishers strike by swiftly moving the rod "up" in the normal manner for setting the hook. DON'T DO IT! That being said, I can tell you that 99.9% of us forget that advice when that first tarpon eats the fly. The problem is that an upward strike will not set the hook into the bony mouth of a tarpon. There will be too much slack in your line to transfer energy to the hook and an uplifted rod will absorb even more power. Sinking a hook point into a tarpon's mouth has been compared with setting a hook inside a cinder block. The correct method of striking is to keep your rod pointed toward the fish and with your stripping hand pull the fly line straight back towards and past your leg. You are actually trying to drive the hook point deep into the tarpon's mouth with the force of your arm movement.

The Fight - The Opening Game: A good description of what happens next is that, "All hell breaks loose!" There are many things that will occur in the next few seconds and you have to be ready for each one. A mistake at this point will cost you the fish. With a good hook set, your first job is to "clear the line." Large fish are fought from the reel. At the moment of the strike, you probably have many feet of fly line inside the boat. It must be cleared before concentrating on the actual fight. When the struck tarpon begins to streak away, and believe me, the speed will amaze you, do not keep a tight grip on the line or you will burn or cut your fingers.

Instead, make an "O" with your index finger and thumb and let the line run through it. Move your "O" hand away from your rod hand and, at the same time, look down to make sure that nothing, like your feet, are going to stop the racing line from leaving the deck of the boat. Also, make sure that the line does not wrap around the fighting butt of the rod. The goal of clearing the line is to get all loose line from the deck into the water without hitting any obstructions. Now, to assure a solid hook-up and with both hands on the rod, strike two or three times in the opposite direction the tarpon is moving. These hits should be quick and hard. The rod should be moved horizontally to the water for each strike. With all the slack out of the line and the fish "on the reel," you are ready to move to the next set of problems!

The Fight - The Middle Game: If the tarpon has not jumped by this point of the fight, it will soon. Perhaps you have already heard of the technique to counter such aerial antics: "Bow to the King." The instant you see the tarpon leave the water, extend your arms and rod toward the fish and bend at the waist. Your objective is to put as much slack into the line as possible. If the line is tight, the tarpon has the opportunity to snap it with a powerful twist or by falling on it when it returns to the water. A tarpon falling on a slack line means you have a good chance to move further into the fight. No one can predict the number of times a specific tarpon will jump, but be ready for at least several -- bow every time. In shallow water, the jumps may continue for awhile. However, in deeper water the spectacular jumps will soon end, the tarpon will "sound," or dive deeper, and the physical phase of the fight begins.

During the initial part of the fight, your job is to avoid mistakes. If the fish wants to run, let it. If the fish turns and comes toward the boat, wind the reel handle as quickly as necessary to take up the slack. Eventually, the fight will settle down to a contest of wills. There is one important rule for this part of the battle: Either you or the fish should be taking line at all times! Don't let the tarpon rest. A tarpon can recover from physical exertion faster than you. If the tarpon is not taking line from your reel, you should be winding it back on. The technique to use is a familiar one: Pump Up and Wind Down. Raise your rod slowly and then wind up the slack as you lower it. This brings the tarpon closer to you with each repetition and helps tire this magnificent foe. If you are fighting a large tarpon, over 100 pounds, you will have not only a physical battle but a psychological one as well.

As you bring the tarpon closer and closer to the boat you will already be anticipating photographs and congratulating handshakes. You will be looking forward to the end of the fight so you can put down the rod, stop your leg muscles from quivering, and relax cramped muscles in your arms and hands. Don't celebrate yet. Tarpon have a nasty and debilitating psychological tactic of making another run. You have to start all over again.
tarpon flyfishing

The Fight - The End Game: Eventually, hopefully, you will bring the tarpon close to the boat. When it is approximately 30 feet away, you are ready for the "Down and Dirty." This technique is designed to sap the final bit of will and strength from the tarpon. The rod is held with both hands and horizontal to the water or a little lower than horizontal. As the tarpon moves, for example, left to right, you "muscle" the rod in the opposite direction. Use enough force to turn the tarpon's head and, therefore, its direction. When the tarpon is forced to swim in a new direction, you must "down and dirty" him in the opposite direction. This method is the fastest way to end the fight as it is extremely tiring to the tarpon.

However, there are two final pitfalls you must avoid. The first is the tendency of a tarpon to go under the boat. This can lead to all sorts of problems including broken rods and snapped leaders. To avoid this, when the tarpon tries to hide under the boat, step up onto the gunwale, stick the top third of your rod into the water and walk him around the bow or the stern as the case may be. This will eliminate the possibility of snagging your line on the motor or breaking your rod against the side of the boat.

The second pitfall comes when the guide attempts to land the tarpon. Teamwork is very important at this point. You must follow the guide's instructions relative to the amount of force to exert on the line and which way to move the fish. Normally, once the guide can control the tarpon the line should have slack. However, be alert in case the tarpon slips from the guides' grip and makes another run. You must quickly release the line so it can run freely from the reel to the fish. As long as all of your knots hold and the leader does not break, the tarpon should soon be yours. After a photo or two, the guide will gently revive the tarpon until it is able to swim away to fight another day.

The Night Life: These basic techniques and tips give you an idea of what you need to be able to do in order to successfully fish for tarpon. To fish for tarpon at night, you should first feel comfortable fishing during the day. When you decide to move to the "Dark Side," your developed skills will allow you to cast, hook, fight and land one of the most sought-after saltwater fish: The Silver King!

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