STRIP STRIP PAUSE…STRIP STOP…SET THE HOOK! There is not much in fishing that is more exciting than sight-fishing for bonefish and on my recent trip to Los Roques, Venezuela, I was able to experience one of the most diverse bonefish fisheries around.
My journey started in the cold early hours of the morning heading to Heathrow, the sky threatening to dump snow at any moment. Some strong will power and a nice quick check-in through terminal 5 meant that before the weather got the better of my flight I was in the air and en route to Caracas via Madrid. By 5pm my feet were on the ground in the pleasantly hot Venezuelan climate and the chills of the British winter were left over 4,500 miles behind me.
I passed through a slow immigration line and then onto the baggage carousel. Whilst stood there waiting for my big blue bag with the easily identifiable Aardvark McLeod orange luggage tags I felt the growing fear that my bag had not made the journey. When there was just one lone case circling unwanted it was evident that for the start of the trip I was going to have to make do with just my hand luggage! My hand luggage and I crossed over then onto Venezuelan soil to meet the rest of the group and our helpful driver and we headed off to the comforts of the Marriot Playa Grande outside of Caracas.
The next morning we were out of the hotel early with a plan to cover my lack of bag, and therefore all my fishing equipment, and with a thirst to catch some bonefish. We boarded the small LTA flight for the island hop out to the Los Roques archipelago. A short flight with stunning views as it flies over the entire archipelago allowing you to spot various flats and cays.
On arrival you are immediately surrounded by the island’s buzz. The roped walkway up to the windowless shed acting as immigration is your last obstacle before you enter the colourful and sandy streets of El Gran Roque. Chris Yrazabel, the fishing manager, is there waiting for you full of enthusiasm to direct you through to the hotel. The Posada Acuarela was to be our base for the week but our fixation was firmly set on getting out fishing, we dumped our bags grabbed our kit (Chris was excellent in providing everything that I still needed) and headed to the pangas.
Each panga is manned by a superhuman-bonefish-spotting guide and boatman. The boats are ideal for the crossing from the main island and off to the flats, first stop the pancakes! As if scripted we stopped on a beautiful raised pancake flat and just 30 feet from our drop several glimmering tails flittered above the water. Pulling line off the reel we worked into a good position. Fly in hand we were ready to make the cast. Two false casts and the fly, a Stealth Gotcha, drops just four feet away. The heart rate is now increasing; the guide has his hand up commanding you to not move the fly. The tails have sunk away but the subtle grey shadow is drifting towards the fly. The guide whispers with great excitement “pull…stop!”. The bonefish, alert now, is searching for its fleeing prey. The guide indicates to move the fly slowly now. Halfway through the strip the fly stalls, as if caught on a piece of Turtle Grass. The guide is now jumping up and down “SET THE HOOK!”. In your head you are repeatedly telling yourself “don’t trout strike, don’t trout strike!”. With luck, a strip strike. The line locks-up, there is a fraction of a second when bonefish and fisherman pause and then the fish turns and like a freight train runs towards the horizon. All you can do is stand and watch fly line emptying and then backing. After several burning runs the silver, almost translucent fish is now the angler’s prize.
The pancake flats were good to us that morning and we saw lots of bonefish, some tailing, some moving shadows and, for me the most exciting, nervous water. Landing four fish a piece by lunch we decided it was time for a rest not only for us but also our reels! Our lunch location was the Crab Shack, now somewhat of a ‘must see’ for all travelling anglers. Originally built as a shelter for the local crab fishermen, it is now a buzz of excitable anglers boasting of fish caught that morning. The walls are decorated with colourful artwork; the gaps in the wooden panels give way to a colourful world of reef fish below. If this isn’t enough then the huge shoal of bonefish sat on the flat behind the shack can offer endless hours of frustration as they ignore nearly everyone that casts a fly at them.
That afternoon we returned to the pancake flats, this time the tide was dropping fast and the flats were ankle deep. The skinny water and sun now facing us made for tricky yet incredibly thrilling conditions. The bonefish were moving across the flats like mini sharks with their dorsal fins and tails clean out of the water. Although easier to see, if your presentation was a fraction too close the bonefish would vanish off the flat at high speed. Another couple of bonefish saw us through to the end of the day on the water. What a start, all the bonefish had been 3 – 4 lbs, yards of backing had been stripped off the reels and it was now time to have a beer and watch the Caribbean Sea sunset. The lack of luggage was a distant worry now.
The next three days continued in much the same form with great fishing on the pancakes and still no luggage, but I was in a fishing paradise and catching fish, I could worry about luggage later. These three days we decided to mix up the fishing, we therefore hit the pancakes in the morning and then went and hunted different flats and also for different species. After all Los Roques is famous for its bonefish but it is by no means short of other fish to catch.
The different flat types paid off immediately with James Anderson tempting a big bonefish of 8 lbs to be fooled by a Christmas Island Special. The fight saw spectacular, explosive runs as the fish tore along mangrove lined shores. Buoyed by this superb catch we decided to hunt around a waist deep lagoon for baby tarpon. Inside the lagoon the temperature was notably higher and we were on edge as we rounded each Mangrove bush in search of our prey. We then spotted a shoal of four tarpon between 8 – 10 lbs just 20 ft away, barely far enough for a cast. They took little interest in our black tarpon bunny, but to see their large metallic scales so close made the wade worthwhile, still it would have been nice to catch one!
Due to windier than usual conditions we were unable to target the beach flats that see aggressive bonefish smashing into shoals of minnows, but because of the diversity of flats on offer at Los Roques there is always great fishing somewhere on the archipelago. The third morning we waded a huge sand flat, the sort that you think it will be easy to see the fish a mile off…well it wasn’t! Not for me anyway, the fish were most certainly there but they were near on invisible until you knew what to look for. By the end of the wade we had had 10 bonefish, a jack and a giant barracuda (ok maybe not a giant but certainly eventful).
It was going to be a hard task for our guide to top that flat, but he took us to a beautiful long flat with mangroves dotted all the way down it, a bonefish’s paradise. Just as we started the wade the clouds rolled in and water visibility was severely reduced but nonetheless we fished on. Harry Thorburn struck first, finding a small shoal moving over white sand. Feeling the pressure I fished on, panning my eyes over the olive turtle grass. Then I noticed movement, unsure I allowed my eyes to adjust and sure enough the surface was twitching, a patch about 20 ft across, nervous water! Caused by the beating tails of a shoal of bonefish and it was coming straight towards me. Wrestling with wayward loops of lose line I readied myself to make the cast, 50…40…35 ft! I threw the cast waiting for the approaching stroll. I started a fast retrieve, unable to complete two strips. Fish on! The screaming whir of disk drag and clicker like music to my ears. It’s times and fish like this that call for loud reels and colourful backing, you want everyone near you to know you’re into a fish!
As well as being an incredible fishery for bonefish, Los Roques is an expansive nature reserve with varying levels of protection. This provides another aspect to wading the flats and one I value highly when fishing, this is the constant sightings of interesting wildlife. Giant turtles can be observed swimming effortless along drop-offs; small rays glide across shallow flats and not to forget the big rays that swoop through the deeper water. Bright orange star fish are dotted over the pancake flats and numerous crabs scuttle across rock outcrops. This aquatic world is a constant buzz of activity.
Fish are not the only predators here, pterodactyl like brown pelicans hunt the shorelines for shoals of baitfish. This is of great interest to us the angler because where the pelicans are so are the big fish. When the birds swoop and dive into the water, they re-emerge with a bill full of minnows; so many that they inevitably drop some. These dropped minnows are stunned for several seconds and are an easy meal for any passing fish. If you find a shore with bird activity it is likely that you will see large 60 – 100 lbs tarpon roll, bonefish and jacks dart and underneath submarine like giant barracuda lie in wait for something to get too close.
On the fifth day of fishing my bag finally arrived, I was delighted! I now had a chance to christen some new fishing equipment of my own. Typically, after fishing all week successfully with other kit the first day with my own was a disaster! The fish, the guide and the other anglers were all doing what they should do, I on the other decided to be different and do everything wrong. I consistently landed my fly too close to the bonefish resulting in big splashes and spooked bonefish. To make it worse when I did finally hook a fish disaster struck as the line got caught and I got cleaned up, not a small fish at an estimated 7 lbs… The best thing I could do was forget this day and prepare for the final fishing day.
The last day on the flats had come all too soon for the group, we all could have easily stayed much much longer but we put our serious fishing hats on, pulled up our buffs and set out in search fish. Will Proger and I set out in search of the elusive and notably giant permit of Los Roques, inspired by the news of a grand slam the day before! Our guide, Javier, known to be the permit man on the island and also a singer in his spare time took us to the permit flats. From his vantage he search hundreds of yards of flat looking for that quivering black tail. Suddenly he stopped, waved at us to get out of the boat and wade. We slowly moved, still unable to see what Javier had seen and then, sure enough two days emerged and waggled. Nerves now building, we shimmied closer in the waist deep water to make the cast. With shaking hands the cast was made, good cast now wait, wait…wait. The big fish cruised effortless towards where our fly sat in wait. Tension building, sun beaming down on us, praying that this was our time. Now strip, a flinch from the permit, rod tip quivering with anticipation. Out of nowhere, a take…a small snapper had seen the fly and darted for it and the permit was gone!
The rest of the morning carried on in much the same way, a few permit spotted, all of them were huge but shots at them were few and far between. We decided to chase bonefish once again. A good decision as we wove between mangroves in search of the grey ghost. Success, both of us hit fish at the same time, mine notably smaller was in and released first. I look up to see a 5 ft barracuda stalking Will’s fish across the flat, a fish eat fish world playing out just 10 ft away. Fortunately we got the fish in quickly and the ‘cuda sulked off still hungry.
As we rounded the last mangrove bushes it was nearly the end, we had to get at least one more to satisfy our fishing needs. A big tail could be seen feverishly flicking as it dug around for food. Out of the wind and conditions were perfect. Will’s fly drop nearby, the wait was then eternal as the fish moved slowly towards our trap. A subtle tweak of the fly made the bonefish tilt and hoover up our offering, a powerful strip strike was met by a very unhappy bonefish. One run saw the fish sail off 150 yards into the deeper water. An intense battle resulted in a superb bonefish of around 7 lbs featuring in Will’s hero photo!
I had to finish on a high point so I fished on, in search of just one more bonefish. The boat was waved over and it was time to make one last cast. That was all it took. A fished latched on after just one pull. Before I knew it my yellow backing was flying out of the rod tip. Another beautiful 4 lbs bonefish rounded off a wonderful trip.
When we got back to the island it was time for a beer on the beach as the sun sunk away behind endless ocean and the thought of heading back to a cold reality set in!
For more information on the fishing at Los Roques please contact Alex Jardine or call +44 1980 847 389