La Poza, Big Tarpon and Diving
Written by Rob Mukai on Jun. 08, 2019
This is one of those things. Living here in Xcalak over 4 years I hadn't been to the most famous dive spot here in the Xcalak National Reef Park. La Poza (the Well) dive site, under the right conditions, holds a large number of resident tarpon. The residents are considered babies. They don't get sexually mature and leave to go spawning until they are 10-12 years old and up to 60 lbs. These babies are here all year round. But sometime in April/May, the big tarpon start their migration and leave the area in September/October. Although we know through Bonefish and Tarpon Trust research, that tarpon migrate and connect large areas of the US Gulf of Mexico, Mexico, and other areas of the Caribbean, I don't think science really understands exactly where they go or why they move, but all through the Caribbean the big tarpon are on the move. From the Florida Keys all the way down to Xcalak and beyond for the spawn. This is when the Florida guides are going after the big ones. Same thing at Isla Holbox.
We are really just starting to figure out the migratory tarpon fishery here. It's really been only the last few years that guides here have even known to chase them. This is where being a diver comes in handy. The tarpon hang out at 60-70 feet deep at the La Poza dive site, when the wind is up and the current strong. The dive I went on had 20 MPH+ winds, pretty strong surf (that we dove through), and a ripping current. We had to hold on to rocks so we wouldn't just blow by the spot and turn it into a 5 minute dive. The water was turbid as the water motion kicked a lot of sand into the water. But the reward was seeing hundreds of large tarpon. Even though we had to hang on for dear life to not get swept up by the current, the tarpon seemed pretty relaxed holding in place. And not only were there hundreds of tarpon, there were loads of them over 6-7 feet long. Some I don't know if I could get my arms all the way around. These fish are probably pushing close to 200 lbs.
So the good news is that we know the big tarpon are here in numbers, and they will continue to arrive through the summer, until around September they start to wander off again to where ever it is that big tarpon go for the rest of the year. But for now, we know we can fish for them here. Now the trick is to educate everyone, guides included, on how to handle these guys.
A few things to keep in mind.
Make sure you have a class tippet in your leader. 20-25 lbs is sufficient unless you are trying for a record. This is so you have the ability to break the fish off. The guides tend to like straight through 100 lbs leaders because they think they will land more fish that way. The problem is the breaking strength of your fly line is only 35 lbs most likely, your backing is 20-30 lbs. So if your leader is 100 lbs, and the line breaks, it's either going to break at the fly line or the backing. Fly line is not cheap. But the bigger issue is if you lose 100+ ft of fly line, it is likely going to tangle on coral, rocks etc. and will kill the fish. A 150 lbs fish can be upwards of 50-60 years old. We really don't want to be killing them because we are afraid of them breaking a leader.
If you land a fish over 1 M or 40 inches. Don't take it out of the water. Holding it out of the water will put a lot of pressure on it's internal organs as well as cause unnecessary stress on the fish reducing the probability it will survive. If you want a picture with a big fish, jump in the water with it. The water here is warm so no worries about hypothermia like you could up north. Remember these fish take 50 years to make. We don't want to be killing them for a photo.
If you want the weight of the fish. Just measure the tip of the mouth to the fork of the tail and the girth in front of the dorsal fin. Then you can use the BTT Tarpon Calculator to get an estimated weight. I usually carry an 7-8 ft. long piece of twine just for that purpose. You can just tie a knot in it at the measured length, and measure it out when you are back on land. One knot for the fork length and one knot for the girth.
Don't fight a fish for more than 30-40 minutes. An experienced big tarpon fisherman can land a 150 lbs tarpon in 15 minutes. Learn how much pressure you can put on a fish. Even with a 20-25 lbs class tippet, you will be surprised how much pressure you can put on a fish. Use the butt section of the rod, not the top section to "put the wood" into them. A really good intro is this video by Andy Mill. If you can't get the fish to hand within 45 minutes, break it off. Fighting a fish for 2, 3 and even in some cases 5 hours, will weaken the fish and reduce it's ability to survive, even if it swims away from your boat, it doesn't mean it made it. It is not worth killing an 50 year old fish for a picture.
When reviving a tarpon after a long fight, pass water over it's gills in a front to back direction. Not back and forth. Sometimes you can get the guide to motor slowly to allow the fish to breath. Make sure the tarpon can stay upright and doesn't roll over. If it does, you have been fighting the fish too long.
Those are the 5 big things to keep in mind. Read this article by the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust on tarpon handling for more details.
Just remember these fish have survived nearly unchanged for 100 Million years and take 50 years to get to the giant sizes we want to catch. Let's be respectful of them and take care that they can go unharmed after we have caught them. It's just not worth it to inadvertently kill them for a picture.
Thanks to Kelly Bossons for the dive shots.