Flats Fishing In Puerto Rico's Luquillo National Park
By Peter Cammann
The park at Luquillo is home to one of the most beautiful white sand beaches in all of the Caribbean. The towering mountains of the Sierra de Luquillo dominate the landscape to the south, creating an illusion when one stands on the beach that these peaks actually rise directly out of the ocean The beach is popular with local residents and on weekends hundreds will turn out to swim, sunbathe, and share barbeque. As such, it is Puerto Rico's prize jewel, a 2 1/4 mile strip of sand, protected by a large corral reef that keeps the heavy surf out and protects a gorgeous stretch of underwater flats. Several deep-water channels that run down to depths of greater than ten feet crisscross the shallows. A small stream empties into the flats at its westernmost point, providing safe haven during high tide for the many species of baitfish that inhabit the flats. This in turn attracts predators from all around this secluded enclave: barracuda, pompano, blue runners, spotted goatfish, snapper, and grouper.
I've fished the flats at Luquillo since 1988, when I was on my second visit to Puerto Rico. The walk out to the flats from the main beach is one of my favorites. The sun gently warms your face as you head to the point at the eastern side of the park, where two large channels meet at the big hole that runs from the western edge of the flats and extend out into the huge main bay. When the wind is low and the sun strikes the water, you can often spot big, five-foot long barracuda as they lazily cruise through this deep trough. Tempting as it may be to cast to these beasts, they are slow to strike when they do this. On one remarkable afternoon, my wife, daughter and I stood at the point and watched as four enormous barracudas circled around and around the trough and the drop-off right at the flats. They were quite aware of us, however they showed no inclination to alter their courses for us. We made several casts to them, but they swam right past our lines, showing no interest. We contented ourselves with watching the fish as they continued their rounds. But the big fish can be met out on the flats themselves and they will take a variety of flies.
Using The Tides
When the tide is low, the barracuda and other predators will corral baitfish along the edges of a variety of natural structures. The most obvious are the drop-offs where the flats meet the channels. The water pitches quickly from mid-calf up to waist or chest high before grading off to 8 to 10 feet at the center of the deeper channels. The big fish cruise these natural formations, trapping the tiny sardinas, a flat, silver fish that somewhat resembles the butterfish.
As the tide starts to come back in, the baitfish will move into the relative safety of the shallow water on the flats. The surface of the flats offers fairly good footing and I heartily suggest you fish Luquillo while wading, as opposed to using a boat. This is somewhat of a moot point because there really isn't any kind of local guide service at Luquillo, nor a marina where you could rent a boat either. Setting off on the flats on foot allows you to work the channels and openings slowly and will get you very close to the big fish given how little disturbance your approach will make. The flats themselves are covered with a heavy weed growth. Even during high tide, it's quite easy to snag your fly in the vegetation. The smart money is on throwing lighter streamers like Deceivers or even salmon fly patterns like Black Ghosts or even large Marabou Muddlers. These flies are less apt to get caught in the tangle of weeds while enticing feeding fish into striking.
But perhaps the most successful strategy to employ involves stalking the flats, seeking out the many shallow depressions in the terrain where weed growth is either sparse or nonexistent. Although they are rarely more than a couple of feet deeper that the weedy flats around them, these smooth depressions are sandy bottom structures, perfect open spaces to spot large fish when they're lurking about. The predator species, particularly the barracuda and the snappers will hang at the edges of these depressions, waiting for schools of sardinas to swim through. You can do very well throwing any silver colored or light colored streamer through these depressions. Among the best is the Coho Fly, which while it's normally associated with salmon fishing will attract virtually any species on the flats. The same can be said of the Black Ghost. In fact, I often fish with Mickey Finns and Royal Coachman streamers as well, allowing me to fish with my favorite Fenwick Ironfeather 8 1/2 foot 6 weight, a weight forward floating line and a 10 pound tippet. I often switch between my Fenwick though to a 9 foot 9 weight Loomis I own. Again, I prefer a weight forward, floating line when throwing these big flies and I tend to stick with that same 10-pound tippet. I like to toss my heavier flies like the 1/8-ounce Clausers or big Deceivers with the Loomis, given that the gusting winds that whip along the flats towards the middle of the day require a bit more backbone to punch through. The barracuda's rows of sharp teeth are imbedded in a very tough, bony jaw and the longer rod can also afford me stronger hook setting power.
Strangely, I have found no great advantage to fishing with a steel leader. In the first place, the water at Luquillo is so clear that the fish can easily see the metal extending from your fly and I believe that they become overly suspicious of it. I spent several completely fruitless days about ten years ago throwing flies that I'd fitted with 6 inch, 20 pound test steel leaders. I watched as one after another, the big fish followed my fly through the deep water of the channel with only casual interest before inevitable turning away near the edge of the flat where I knelt while stripping in my line. But one day, I clipped off the steel leader, cast my fly across one of the deep channels at low tide and got hammered almost immediately by a big healthy barracuda, right as the fly scooted away from the flat across the way from me. The fish snapped the fly clean off with its sharp teeth, but I had to admit that having that brief swipe and losing the fly was far more rewarding to me than all of the days I'd cleverly protected my gear with those steel leaders. Besides, once you get a good look at the size of the teeth on a mature barracuda, you will realize that a narrow strand of 16-20 pound test steel is apt to part almost as quickly as monofilament.
While casting across the expanses of the channels will allow you to effectively work the far edge of the flats, I've discovered that you should also spend some time making long, casts tight in against the line of flat where you stand. On a particularly windy day, I was very frustrated while making long, double-haul cross-channel casts at the flats that lay about forty or forty-five feet away from me. I had been fishing with #2 blue Deceivers, with very little success. The barracuda had been following my fly through the deep-water channel that separated the edges of the flat I stood on and the one I was casting to, but they always seemed to shy away just as they approached me. Their rapid pursuit of my fly would slow and stall as they suspended at a distance of maybe 15 feet from my position. They would stare implacably at my fly and then suddenly turn broadsides to me before vanishing. I had switched patterns to a yellow Clauser that featured a very long flashaboo streamer, again with no change in the result.
The strike and the initial run jerked the rod sharply in my hand as the line flew off the reel. When the fish's run slowed, I realized it was making ready to turn out into the deeper water of the channel. However, as it did so, it continued to also angle off away from me, out towards where the channel narrowed to a point. If it could work itself far enough in that direction, it would reach a place where the channel came to a shallow tip and ended, right at sharp wedge that had been cut out off the flats by the incoming and outgoing tides. Although the fish would then be in extremely shallow water, it would also have the advantage, being able to scoot in amongst the heavy growth of weeds that covered the flats. I was now looking at chasing my fish from where I stood, maybe 200 yards from shore to a spot a good 100 yards further out. That far out onto the flats, the normally soft sandy bottom was littered with sharp bits of corral. Between snarling in the weeds and rubbing against the corral, the fish had ample means to make its escape.
I bowed my rod tip as the fish jumped. It was a barracuda, a large one of maybe 3 1/2 feet in length. It thrashed in the air as hurtled from right to left and landed in an explosion of water droplets. It immediately leaped again, this time towards me. I had turned the fish! But now my line slackened as I hurried to reel in ahead of its rush until the line went taught again. Now the fish was moving to my right and just as it came within a yard or so of the flat in front of me, maybe 40 feet from where I stood, it jumped again, landing in the shallows, frothing the water and churning up the fine sand and weeds. It was floundering about, trying to right itself and so I moved carefully towards where it struggled, mindful that it would soon be reoriented and ready to take off again. After a few seconds, the fish was pulling out line as it headed back into the channel.
By now, I had noticed that the fish was not moving with the frantic, slashing runs it had exhibited only a few minutes before. While it clearly hadn't tired completely, it was also obvious that the fight had been taken out of it somewhat and I was able to bring in quite a lot of line in a short period of time. Soon, I could see it lazily allowing itself to be pulled to my position. When it lay maybe 20 feet from me, it panicked one last time as it saw me standing there and tried to run for the shallows again. I stepped off the flat and into the waist high water, forcing the big fish to circle around and around me until it finally gave up. My seemingly inappropriate Montana was embedded in the front of its jaw, an impossibly frail figure in and among those dozens of sharp teeth. I clipped the leader and watched as the barracuda lay quietly in the shallow water, collecting itself before it shot off back into the channel.
The drive from San Juan to Luquillo can be taken two ways. The multi-lane highway, Route 26 East hooks to the south near the Munoz Marin Airport, to Carolina and to Route 3. Heading east for about 20 miles on Route 3, you will arrive at Luquillo in about 40 minutes. That's because Route 3 is blocked by numerous traffic lights, slowing car flow on this largely mall-infested ride. However, instead of heading inland to Route 3, you can jump off Route 26 before the airport, in Isla Verde and take the winding, two-lane shore road of Route 187 instead.
As the road works its way through an area to the east of Isla Verde know as Pinones, you will find yourself with dense forest vegetation to the south while the north side of the road hugs the many beautiful beaches. The Boca de Cangrejos hosts dozens of small shacks where barbeque, chilled coconut water, and seafood are sold to tourists and local residents looking for cheap eats and cold beer. The road slowly turns inland and crosses the Rio Grande de Loiza, which is the largest river on the island. The town of Loiza boasts one of the best places on the north coast to purchase fresh pineapple and mangos. On the south side of Route 187, just east of the bridge that spans the river, you will find a small farm stand. Literally hundreds of bright yellow pineapples are stacked out in front and the smell of the fruit is so strong that you can actually detect it from the road. Pineapples generally run about $1.50 each, which is a real bargain.
Route 188 intersects with 187 in Loiza and you head south on 188 through farmland and the village of San Isidro. Only a few miles later, 188 intersects with Route 3 and you head east along 3 for another 12 miles. Route 191 enters from the south, offering a view of El Yunque, the Caribbean National Forrest. To the north, you will glimpse the Westin Rio Mar Beach Resort and its lush 18-hole golf course. As you wind around the eastern edge of the golf course, the coconut tree lined western point of Luquillo beach looms off in the distance, just a mile or so away. Your next exit will take you to a stop sign, where you take a left towards the front gates of the park.
The law guarantees free access to all of the beaches in Puerto Rico. That being the case, many residents choose to park their vehicles just outside of the gates, near the long line of food kiosks that stretch out on the side road that parallels Route 3 West. However, there's a lot to be said for the security of the parking lot in the park itself and at $2 per car for the day, it's a small price to pay for peace of mind. The gates open at 9AM, Tuesday through Sunday.
There are a few simple items you should bring along on your trip to Luquillo.
(1)Sunscreen: I can't emphasize enough how important it is to protect yourself from the sun on the flats. Because you will be standing in the water, your body will feel cool and comfortable. This will mask the intense heat that can build up when the sun's rays are reflected on your face. Apply a good waterproof SPF 30 sunscreen every 2-3 hours, especially on your face and arms.
(2)River shoes or sandals: The further out onto the flats you go, the more apt you are to encounter corral formations and sea urchins. These can really tear your feet up. He last thing you want to do while wading in barracuda infested waters is to open up a bloody wound.
(3)Polarized glasses: This is an essential piece of gear for any fishing trip to aid in spotting cruising game fish. But on the flats, polarized lenses will also allow you to spot holes in the sand that can catch your foot, or corral and sharp rocks.
(4)About $20: There are over 50 food kiosks located just outside the park gates, offering everything from barbecued chicken and beef to smoked shark. After a good morning of fishing, a hearty lunch and a can of Medalla beer can go a long way to re-energizing you for the afternoon.
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