Sunday, March 6, 2011

Trip Report: Los Roques, Venezuela

by Andrew Harris
In January 2005 my dad and I decided to take a vacation somewhere warm.  He wanted to do some scuba diving and I wanted to catch some bonefish.  We talked over the options with Brian Gies at Flywater Travel in Ashland, Oregon.  We ultimately decided to go to Los Roques, Venezuela.  It turned out to be a great decision.

We left Sacramento at on March 12, 2004.  After flying to Dallas, then Fort Lauderdale, we arrived in Caracas, Venezuela at .  Our transfer agent, Tony, met us at the airport and took us to our hotel.  The Caracas airport isn’t actually in Caracas.  It’s about 30 minutes away.  Given the recent political unrest in Caracas, we were glad not to be in the middle of it.  Tony picked us up the next morning and took us back to the airport, where we caught a flight to Los Roques.  As far as I could tell, my dad and I were the only norteamericanos on the flight.  There were some people from the Netherlands and Italy, but most people headed to Los Roques were Venezuelans on holiday.  After a quick 40 minute flight we landed at the airport at El Gran Roque, our island home for the next six days.  We were promptly greeted by Ramon, an employee of Sight Cast Outfitters.  Ramon showed us to our hotel (a five minute walk down the road).  Except for a few golf carts, there are no vehicles on El Gran Roque.  You can walk everywhere.

Ramon introduced me to my guide, who helped me rig up my rods and hustled me aboard the boat.  We drove almost 30 minutes to our first destination.  This would be one of our longest boat rides – most destinations are 15 to 25 minutes from the lodge.  We hopped out on a nice flat that surrounded a small island.  Many of the places we fished were similar: narrow flats sandwiched between the beach and the reef.  This particular flat was anywhere from 50 to 200 yards wide.  We stalked the flat, moving counter-clockwise around the island.  Within 20 minutes I spotted my first bonefish.  Throughout the rest of the trip, it would be rare to go more than 20-30 minutes without seeing a bonefish. 



Saturday, March 13, 2004
            Arrived in El Gran Roque around .  We were greeted by Ramon Paz, one of Cris Yrazabal’s employees.  He showed us to our room at Vistalmar Lodge.  Tari, my guide for the day, quickly found me to help me organize my gear, and to hurry.  We strung up my 8wt and 9wt and jumped in the boat with Ramon and William, the boat driver.  It was strange to be in a boat with three guys wearing identical Sight Cast Outfitter logo t-shirts.
            We drove about 30 minutes to our first spot.  Tari jumped out with me and we started stalking.  We were fishing the relatively narrow flats on the margins of a mangrove island.  Most of the spots we fished today were similar.  Intermittent (nearly constant) cloud cover made fish spotting muy dificile.  I spotted the first two bones, but they were close-in and spooked before I could cast.  Tari felt that this flat had already been fished, and his suspicions were confirmed when we saw another boat pull out.  We left and went to an island with a fishing village.  Apparently they weren’t fishing for bones, because bonefish were in abundance.  I saw something I had never seen before – bonefish trying to steal minnows from the beaks of pelicans.  My first hook-up came on a cast that landed one foot from the head of a pelican.  The 5 lb macabi, which looked like it was kissing the pelican, attacked my grey and white clouser minnow (meenow).  The fish ran over 100 yeards, tangling itself in 3 different anchor ropes.  Tari dove in to release the line from an anchor.  I landed the stocky fish, which turned out to be hooked in the side.
            We saw some tailing bones, but I cast to them, spooking unseen fish closer in.  We moved to another island, where I ate lunch and enjoyed a ½ hour siesta in a hammock.
            Tare woke me, saying he had spotted some fish.  We futilely chased more pelican-kissers, then found some tailing bones.  Unfortunately, some clueless Italiano turistas were blocking my backcast.  When they moved out of the way, they moved into the water, spooking the fish.
            Prior to that I landed a fish in a small bay, again on the clouser.  We changed flies 3 times.  This fish was hooked in the left eye.  Pobrecito macabi!
            I had all the “First Day” maladies.  Line tangling – over & over again.  Bad casting.  Trouble determining when the fish had eaten the fly.  These fish don’t simply charge the fly and turn as soon as they’ve sucked it down, like in Ascension Bay.  I also had the jitters, feeling under pressure to fool these 5 lb plus bones.  There were some hogs!
            After being foiled by the Italianos, we rounded the corner of the island and came out into a big, shallow bay.  I immediately spotted a tailing bone and spooked it with a bad cast.  I would have dozens of opportunities to cast to tailing and cruising bones in the next two hours.  We changed flies many times, and I finally landed a 7 lb bone on an olive bitter.
            I learned 3 more new things from Tari.  Tired of casting with the wind blowing into my right shoulder, I suggested we walk to the other side of the flat and come back, so I could cast more easily.  He said it wouldn’t work because we’d kick up mud, which would be carried by the current towards the fish.
            He also said sometimes, when the bones are eating minnows, you can see the bones more easily because the minnows move away from the bones, creating a clear spot around the fish.  30 minutes later I saw a case-in-point.  In the Bahamas, Florida, and Mexico, I had never seen bones so accustomed to eating minnows.
            Also, when a bonefish is chasing your fly and it stops, don’t move.  They’re more sensitive to sounds and vibrations when they’ve stopped.  Wait until the fish starts moving again to re-cast.

Sunday, March 14, 2004
            My alarm went off at .  A little too soon, but I had slept well.  I rigged my 10wt with wire & a barracuda fly, and added 10 lb tippet to the 8wt and 9wt.  After breakfast, Ramon introduced me to Ericario and Jesus, my guide and boat driver, respectively.  I would hear only 2 English words the rest of the day.  “Fish” and “strip.”
            The tide was high.  Our first spot was the narrow shallow edge of an island.  More pelican-kissers.  I tangled my line on my first cast, then draped the next one over the pelican’s back.  Luckily, the fly went over without snagging the bird.  And then a bonefish ate it.  He shook the fly on his 2nd run.  15 minutes later I landed a 4 lb bone on a long cast.  My guide was pleased.
            The Los Roques bones are well-fed.  They are short, stocky fish, and very strong.  Even the barracudas are fat.  Plenty to eat – the bonefish could definitely be picky.  Our next flat was loaded with cruising bones that would not eat my fly.  I must have had 2 dozen casts with 6 refusals.
            There are so many fish here that it’s easy to become complacent.  If you botch one cast, no worries.  There will be another fish.  Probably soon.  I had a couple fishless trudges of 45-60 minutes, but I always knew I would see another fish.  This feeling of faith and confidence is in stark contrast to my past bone-fishing experiences.  On my other trips, whenever I saw a fish, there was an intense pressure to hook it, for fear that I would not see another bonefish the entire trip.
            I quickly realized why Cris refers to Ericario as his best guide.  He knows how to position the angler so that the wind does not make casting difficult.  Yesterday, I fought the wind constantly.  There was only one spot today where the wind was on my right.  It was the spot where I hooked and immediately broke off a 20 lb plus tarpon.  Ericario rigged my 10wt rod with a black tarpon fly and carried it as we fished bones on a large inside flat.  Battling near-constant cloud cover, we hooked several more bones, including one around 8 lb that I broke off on the hookset.  Then we came to a dirty brown cove that was thigh deep.  Ericario handed me the canya diaz.  Pelicans were diving, and E. said his clients caught 3 tarpon here yesterday.  I started blind casting, but had no luck.  I thought I saw a tarpon against the mangroves, but it was 3 casts away.  We moved in closer and E. spotted one.  After a few casts (blind as far as I was concerned), a large wake appeared behind my fly and I felt a large tug.  I gave it the mean tarpon strip-strike, but the 20 lb test mono failed.  I was so excited about wade-fishing for tarpon that I wasn’t even bummed that I botched.  I’d fished tarpon before, but always from boats.  This was rad.  We spotted another one the same size.  After a few targeted casts, the big fish chased and swirled on the fly, but didn’t eat it.  My heart stopped.  We waited 20 minutes, but the fish never came back.  We polished off the day with 2 more bones.
            One noteworthy observance is the make-up of the fish population on the flats.  There are the usual boxfish, needles, snappers, and barracudas.  But I have yet tot see a shark or a ray, and I have only seen a handful of crabs.  But everywhere there are minnows.  I asked my friend Glenn before the trip, “What’s the worst thing to forget?”  Polarized sunglasses, maybe even an extra pair, he said.  Wrong answer.  The worst thing to forget is clouser minnows in grey & white.  My guide looked at my box full of beautiful crabs and shrimp in despair after I lost the last one.
            So now I tie flies…

Monday, March 15, 2004
            We started at this morning.  I hopped in the boat and we drove all of 100 yards and Jesus dropped anchor.  Ericario handed me the 10wt, newly rigged with 40 lb test and one of the 3 tarpon flies I made last night.  Since I forgot to bring tarpon hooks, I had to destroy some of my other tarpon flies to get hooks.  I probed the depths near the pelicans for 15 minutes.  I was about to ask if it was ever possible to see the tarpon when I saw 2 tarpon roll, both about 30 lbs.  Over the next hour we would see dozens of tarpon from 10 lbs to 100 lbs, but none that would eat my fly.  I practiced weaving my casts between flying and swimming pelicans.  I saw two of the biggest bones ever chasing one pelican.
            The sky was clear most of the morning, but I was beginning to wonder if the wind always blows here.  Since my arrival the wind had been in the 10-20mph range.  Today it was 15-20.  Not a big deal for a good caster.  If you approach from the right direction, the wind can help lengthen the cast and disguise the impact of the fly.  It doesn’t do much for accuracy, though.
            Accuracy would be the name of the game today.  Ericario and Jesus took me to the pancakes, very small islands that only rise above the surface at low tide.  Some had small mangroves, most did not.  Another new kind of water for me.
            The bones on the pancakes are very spooky, selective, and frequently move quickly.  We switched to 8 lb test tippet and to a mini-puff.  We fished about 10 pancakes.  They ranged in size from 100 to 500 yards in length.  Some had stupid fish, most had tough fish.  One had no fish.  Most provided at least a few good opportunities.  We fished 2 pancakes that were so loaded with bones I couldn’t believe my eyes.  One of them was fruitless, but the other, the last of the day, was very productive.  I hooked the 2nd 10# bonefish of my life.  It was in a school of maybe 50, happily tailing in 10” of water.  I didn’t see it, I was merely trying to pick one fish off the near edge of the school.  I sent my cast 10’ too far, landing it in the middle of the now-spooked school.  Their panic subsided quickly, and I hooked a strong fish.  It ran 100 yards, turned, and the line went totally slack.  I reeled in the backing then stripped in the fly line.  A very large barracuda had taken notice of the school, and many of the fish were coming toward us, out of the deep water to escape the predator.  One was a very large bone with a white scar on his back, probably from a past encounter with a barracuda.  As I continued to strip in my line, I realized that this was the fish I thought I had lost.  It ran off again, about 200 yards this time.  After several minutes my leader succumbed to the coral.  Not unlike my previous experience with a 10 lb bone in Florida.  Lesson learned.  Never stop reeling!
            I finished the day with about 10 hookups, not bad for the pancakes with a 20 mph wind.  I’m down to 2 fingers on my right hand that don’t have serious line cuts.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004
            Line cuts are worse – can barely write.
            Another epic day of fishing.  After 45 fruitless minutes of tarpon flailing, we drove across the pond.  We found a beach where a huge school of jacks were in a feeding frenzy.  I caught 2, one of which E. kept for food.  When the tide receded to E.’s satisfaction, we headed to the pancakes.
            I saw 2 rays.  Still no sharks and few crabs.  I ended up with 9 bones hooked.  I only landed 3-4.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004
            Line cuts on 3 fingers.  Down to the pinky.  Writing is painful.
            Today I confirmed my suspicions that Los Roques is a “windy place.”  I can’t imagine the wind is any worse in Tierra del Fuego.  Thanks to good guiding by Ericario, I was always in position to cast with the wind, and I had perhaps my best day of saltwater fly fishing ever!  I also realized the value of the nine weight rod.  I brought 3 rods on this trip.  An 8 wt for bonefish, a 10wt for tarpon, and my new 9wt for permit.  Except for my first day, I’ve used the 9wt for the bones.
            After a jarring, wet boat ride, we arrived in a small lagoon, sheltered from the wind.  The water was a murky brown, and baby tarpon were rolling against the mangroves.  After 45 minutes and many fly changes, I hooked and landed a 5 lb tarpon.  I never realized how big the eyes of a small tarpon can be.  They don’t really grow into their eyes until they reach about 20 lbs.
            The tarpon became less active and we left after another half hour.  For the first time I fished bones from the front of the boat.  Jesus set us up on a long drift along the shoreline, and I hustled to cast to spotted fish as the boat overtook them.  I landed one nice bone, but the wind was pushing us very fast, so we left.
            Jesus took us to the area where I hooked the tarpon 3 days ago.  E. & I hopped out and walked to the entrance of the lagoon.  The water was deep, up to our waists in some areas.  I missed a good opportunity in one corner of the bay.  We trudged over to the other side, near the tarpon cove.  We spotted some more bones, and I hooked one after making several casts.  It felt very strong, and turned out to be about 8 lb, the biggest bonefish of the trip.  We then headed into the tarpon cover, and E. handed me the 10wt, rigged with 40 lb test tippet.  I had to cast backwards due to the direction of the wind, and E. wanted it close to the mangroves.  I had not made many casts when a wake appeared behind my fly.  E. had stressed the importance of strip-striking to drive the hook home, and not lifting the rod.  Since my index and middle fingers had deep line cuts, I switched the line to my ring finger, just in time for the grab.  The fish was overtaking the fly as he ate it, and it was hard to keep tension.  I stripped hard until I caught up with the fish.  E. yelled “Mas, mas!” so I gave the fish a couple more big strips.  Finally the 10 kg tarpon jumped, and we were both relieved when the hook held.  After a few minutes and a few more jumps, we got the beautiful fish to hand.  I took a couple great photos of E. with the fish.  He was very happy to land one – his clients before me had broken theirs off, 3 in one day.
            We made a few more casts into the tarpon cove, then switched to bones.  E. found a school in deeper water.  I couldn’t see them, but I caught 6 more bones before lunchtime.
            We met some of the other guides and guests for a magnificent fresh seafood lunch.  Raw oysters, lobster, and potatoes.  Afterwards we returned to the same spot.  The school was still there.  E. and I traded guide stories while I reeled in 7 more bonefish.

Thursday, March 18, 2004
            We headed out to the outer reef, a new spot for me.  Cris & my dad went along today.  We found the flats to be very deep.  Cris explained that the high winds had blown a lot of water into the archipelago.  I hooked 2 fish in the first spot.  Cris saw a permit and made a couple casts, but without luck.
            We moved on to another island with wadeable flats.  E. and I walked a couple minutes before we spotted a school of 5 large permit.  I’ve never seen a guide change flies so fast!  E. tied on a crab fly and cut the leader back to about 20 lb test.  Unlike my last permit opportunity in Mexico, I didn’t panic.  My first cast was good, and my 2nd cast was perfect.  The lead fish in the school looked at the fly and chased it, but wouldn’t eat.  The school swam off into the deep.  We waited 15 minutes, but they never returned.
            We saw no bones on that flat.  We moved on to another small island.  I hooked one more, then we moved on to the airport flats on El Gran Roque.  There were many large bones around.  They were very picky, and with the wind and waves we didn’t always see them soon enough.  I broke off several, including one at least 8 lbs.  We had no more grabs after I broke off my last clouser minnow.
            We called it a day after lunch; I was exhausted!

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