General Information The beautiful island of Puerto Rico is located just a short 3 to 4 hour flight from any major city on the East coast of the United States. Unknown to many, Puerto Rico offers some of the most sensational light tackle and fly fishing opportunities in the Caribbean. The bountiful waters of the San Juan Estuary are located a few miles East from world famous Isla Verde Beach, a short drive from the San Juan International Airport. Inshore Treasures Abound To those of us lucky enough to be able to fish these waters on an almost daily basis, it is our own little bit of fishing heaven just a few steps from our backdoor.
Tarpon (Megalops atlanticus), called Sabalo in Puerto Rico are found in great numbers around the island, specially around the mouths of rivers, estuaries and mangrove islands. Tarpon, along with snook and an assortment of jacks and snappers of various species provide sporting action all year round. I concentrate my personal and professional guiding efforts in the San Juan Estuary, a massive system of mangrove rimmed canals and lagoons that stretch from San Juan bay to Isla Verde. The San Juan Estuary is located just South of the San Juan International Airport and just a few minutes away for the hotels in the Condado, Old San Juan and Isla Verde beach areas. In fact as your plane lands you will go over one of the most productive bodies of eater for tarpon in Puerto Rico, Laguna San Jose.
Bait Fishing for tarpon Bait fishing for tarpon in Puerto Rico is best described in one of two methods, drifting or anchored. The best times to fish for tarpon in Puerto Rico is during the incoming tide and a few days before the full moon. The movement of the water combined with the rising level of the tide, which increases in volume with the developing full moon, causes the tarpon action to really heat up. The tackle that is used most for this type of fishing is spinning tackle, which is very simple to use. When set-up correctly, stiff rods in the 6 ½ to 7 ½ feet long with fast action tips are necessary to keep the tough tarpon under control. A good quality, abrasion resistant fishing lines is necessary; lately I have enjoyed great success using the smaller sizes of Berkley Fireline a braided line, although most of the time monofilament line is used.
Any quality reel in good working order, with a smooth drag system, and capable of holding 250 yards of line will be suitable for fishing the San Juan Estuary properly. A lot has been written about leader systems for tarpon and I am sure that everyone has a favorite set-up. I tend to rig my tarpon fishing rods as big game rods, coming from my big game experience for Billfish and other pelagic species. The leader system is very simple and allows the person that has to leader the tarpon some control, as these fish can be downright crazy and even dangerous on some occasions. I like to start with a 3 to 5 feet conventional bimini twist knot to which I attach 6 feet of a test line doubling the main lines line test, example, if I am using 20 pound on the reel, that section will be on 40 pound test. After that section I like to use a blood knot to attach 3 to 4 feet of 60 pond test fluorocarbon followed by another blood knot and 2 feet of 80 pound fluorocarbon leader.
The rough mouth of the tarpon along with the environment where I fish, with mangrove roots, and waterlogged trees with barnacles everywhere, trying to provide for protection from cut-offs is a number one priority. The main thing for the guides fishing in many parts of the world should be conservation; it is an unwritten rule here in Puerto Rico for all guides to preserve the fisheries for our future generations, so we encourage the use of circle hooks exclusively for bait fishing for tarpon. Gone are the days where the tarpon that were released after a fight would show up dead a couple of days later after being gut hooked and fought with a standard “J” hook, after adopting the use of circle hooks exclusively almost 10 years ago, very rarely do we see such a sight. With many types and brands of circle hooks available these days, I like to choose my hooks according to the size of the bait, and most importantly it’s physical characteristics. A delicate Bay Anchovy can not carry a heavy wire circle hook for long, and it kills the bait quickly. Many of the major hook manufacturers are making extremely sharp hooks suitable for tarpon and they come in sizes from 1/0 to 14/0. I happen to like light wire hooks on most occasion, specially fishing in daylight hours, although you have to be careful and try not to “horse” the tarpon in on the leader, as this can straighten or break the hook.
During night fishing, we tend use heavier tackle (20 to 30 pound test!) to control the tarpons initial runs, heavy wire hooks are preferred. In my course of work, I find that hooks from 3/0 to 8/0 will be enough for the majority of the tarpon encountered in Puerto Rico, which usually run from 20 to 150 pounds, with larger fish always a possibility during peak times of the year. We have encountered tarpon over 200 pounds in the estuary, but all have broken off after being fought for a while, there are a lot of obstacles in the area, as I stated before, and like fishermen say, he got big by not being dumb! Fighting the Tarpon Tarpon fights are all different, as these are truly individual fish. The fish can be a very wild one with strong runs and repeated jumps and on very rare occasions a very lazy animal. Indeed, it is this unpredictable behavior that has endeared it to the countless anglers that have fallen into the tarpon addiction.
There are a few pointers that are important to remember when fighting these fish, number one rule among all tarpon anglers is “Bow to the King”, this simply means that when the tarpon’s head breaks the surface to jump, you lower the rod to perpendicular with the water’s surface, an action that looks very much as a knight’s chivalry act with a sword. Number two, “never give the tarpon any slack, simply said, never let the line go limp, on many occasions the hook will pop out of the hard mouth of the tarpon upon the line being slack. Number three, fight the fish from the bow of the boat, many anglers make the mistake of staying in the back of the boat, this hinders the anglers ability to react quickly to a surging fish tarpon have an amazing ability to seek places to break you off, and that includes the boat’s engine, trim tabs and hull, the angler in the front of the boat can compensate for the fishes behavior and can protect the fishing line from contact with the boat, on some occasions even having to put the tip of the rod in the water and swing the rod around the bow, after the fish dives quickly under the boat. One of the most important things to remember while fighting a tarpon is that if you want to end the fight quickly, the angler must modify his actions with the rod.
Tarpon must be forced to work hard by pulling with the rod in the opposite direction of where the fish wants to swim; this hinders the tarpons ability to properly oxygenate and zaps his strength. You can put the rod in the water while applying pressure in this manner, a technique popularized by the legendary Florida guide Stu Apte, and is called the “Down and Dirty” way of fighting a tarpon. The tarpon will tire more quickly this way and eventually rolls over and gets confused, giving the Captain or mate the opportunity to hold him either the lower jaw for smaller fish and the jaws and gill plate for the larger individuals. This applies to spinning, casting and fly rod fishing and when one properly, this fish fighting technique works wonders on many other species as well. Tarpon fights swing in the fishes favor with every passing minute, so the angler must strive to apply the maximum amount of pressure in the shortest amount of time to be successful. If you want to fight the fish for a long time (Not recommended) keep the rod in the normal position, pumping up and down during the fight.
Fly Fishing for Puerto Rico’s Silver King Fly fishing for tarpon of all sizes continues to be a sport in growing demand for the traveling angler, as more and more people realize it is easier to schedule a fishing trip to Puerto Rico than to a foreign country. Being a commonwealth of the United States, there is no passport and tourist visa required by US citizens to enter and leave Puerto Rico, also the local currency is the US Dollar further simplifying your travels. It is like going to Florida for the winter but with a Caribbean flair! There are a limited number of fishing guides available in San Juan and most are booked months in advance during the winter tourism season, which coincides with the best tarpon fishing, with many opportunities for fly fishermen to experience tarpon on a fly.
An experienced angler should hire a guide to see where the fishing action is taking place, what is the technique employed and the choice of flies and equipment, once that is information has been passed on by the guide, the more adventuresome angler can then fish with confidence for the same species the guide fished with the customer. Unfortunately, the truly great fishing is available only from these knowledgeable guides, who monitor the moving schools of tarpon, and in reality these fish are accessible in the huge backcountry system of the San Juan Estuary only by boat. Tarpon are indeed the favorite target for fly fishermen, with fish of every size available at all times of the year, from juveniles in the mangrove lined channels that run from 5 to 15 pounds to 150 pound or more giants that can be found anywhere the water is deep enough to cover their backs.
Fly fishermen can expect some chances to hook one of these fish, with success measured in the fish you “jump” rather than catch, mainly due to the hard mouth of the tarpon, which makes hooking and landing one of these fish very frustrating at times. As a guide, I have noticed that the main reason for tarpon to throw the fly is because most anglers will lift the rod on a strike, like in the act of hooking a trout, tarpon have a very hard mouth and must be struck very hard, I like to recommend the fishermen to practice fishing with the rod slightly lower than perpendicular to water’s surface, and practicing strip striking with the stripping hand, then lifting the rod and fighting the fish. The same techniques that were mentioned in the bait fishing section of this article work wonders for the fly angler as well. Releasing a tarpon of any size on a fly rod is an awesome feeling, knowing that you have conquered one of the truly game fish species in the world. Fly fishing in saltwater is really a lot of work, casting heavy rods for hours waiting for the magic moment, it is worth the wait! The visiting fly fisherman that travels to San Juan in search of tarpon and snook will have to be equipped with at least 3 rods, an 8 wt, a10 wt and a 12 wt; these will enable the angler to address most of the fishing conditions that arise.
Reels need to be preferably of the large arbor type capable of holding the fly line plus 300 yards of backing and equipped with a smooth drag system that will handle the fast, strong runs of a tarpon. Lines can be of the floating, or intermediate sinking type, with a shooting head line a nice addition to the arsenal, just in case the wind decides to get a little nasty. Most charters will provide all fly fishing equipment, as well as Us and locally tied flies. Shore fishing can be done from most the hotel’s beaches targeting several of the reef species found in the area usual catches are snappers of various species, barracudas, small groupers and a variety of jacks. A spinning reel and matching rod capable of holding 250 yards of 12 pound monofilament is the best choice of tackle as most of the beaches will be wind swept during the day, making fly casting difficult in the open. Jigs, plugs and shiny spoons seem to gather the most attention among the reef predators as they resemble the small baitfish that congregate on the reefs.
As in other Caribbean islands you have to be careful as you wade and fish the beaches, always gently shuffle your feet as you walk, that way you disturb the stingrays making them swim away without a tail swipe and possible injury with their poisonous spine. The fly fisherman needs to be able to cast in different scenarios, short 20 foot roll casts in the mangrove channels and 60 to 70 feet long casts for open water fishing. It is important to practice the double haul at a park, football or soccer field. I am going to emphasize, Please practice your double haul ahead of time, I can not tell you how hard it is to learn this on the water, with tarpon rolling everywhere. And in the event of a spectacular tarpon feeding frenzy, you will hear your heart pounding through your chest. The waters in the San Juan Estuary are rarely clear, and let me tell you folks, tarpon have the keenest eyes, make no mistake about it, when they want your bait or fly they will eat it!
Because of the water clarity issue, distance is more desirable than accuracy; the longer the fly is in the water (Strike Zone!), the better the chance for a strike. Many different types of flies work in Puerto Rico, most of the tarpon and snook are taken on the following: sculpin patterns (Brown/Black), mullet patterns (Grey/Silver/Black), a deer hair/rabbit strip leech (Back/Brown), Clouser Minnow(Olive/White/Black) and the innovative Gummi Minnow. These flies should be tied in 1/0, 2/0 Stainless Steel hooks for the small flies and 3/0 for the large flies. Lately, we have developed some flies for tarpon using light wire circle hooks in 4/0 and 5/0 sizes, these Seaducer patterns in red/white and red/yellow are proving very effective on occasions for both tarpon and snook. Always have some Poppers in 2/0 on hand just in case a Tarpon and Snook feeding frenzy forms while you are in the water, an unforgettable sight for those fortunate to see the hundreds of fish working under the screaming seagulls and pelicans.
For those that want to wade the reefs and beaches, some deceivers in white, olive, yellow and silver are always a good choice. Leaders need to be 6 to 9 feet long, with a butt section of 50 pound fluorocarbon tapering to 30 pound, then followed by your tippet section in 16 to 20 pound and finished with 2 feet of 40 pound fluorocarbon and a bite tippet of 50 to 100 pound test fluorocarbon, depending on the size of fish targeted. Although expensive, fluorocarbon leaders are invariably the best, for their invisibility in the water and their resistance to abrasion. As with all types of fishing it pays off to keep your knot selection and leader construction easy to tie and foolproof. From years of experience I have found that bimini twists, perfection loops, blood knots and uni-knots are reliable and perform flawlessly in most conditions. Armed with this basic information you are now able to schedule a trip to beautiful, friendly Puerto Rico and give yourself a real fight, the one that only a leaping tarpon will give you.