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The Streamside Guide - Working the kinks out at Luquillo

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The scene - Luquillo Beach - Puerto Rico, the cast - Peter Cammann, the story...... well you'll just have to check inside for this latest installment from the Streamside Guide but it could be classed as drama, adventure and even comedy all rolled into one! Exit, stage left..........................

by Peter Cammann

I've been going to a chiropractor this winter. Owing to a car accident 25 years ago that essentially turned my left knee into a substance vaguely reminiscent of tapioca pudding for a number of years, it turns out I screwed up my back trying to compensate for the way my damaged leg affected the way I walked. I've been clumsy enough to re-injure my back a half dozen times since then, most recently at the end of this past November. As I lay, face down on the table the other morning, waiting for the doctor to "manipulate" my spine, he asked, quite out of the blue, where my favorite fishing spot was. I did a quick mental inventory of all of the spots I love to fish and replied: "Luquillo Beach, Puerto Rico".

Luquillo is a small town on the northeastern end of the island, about a 45-minute drive from San Juan. >From the public beach area, you can look to the south and see the peak of El Yunque Mountain, but the most exciting sight for me are the massive flats that extend from the shore, all the way out to the reef and onward to the east as far as you can see. In over 20 years of fishing these flats, I've caught barracuda, amber jack, Spanish mackerel, pompano, grouper, and a few species that openly defy description. Of course, I'm going to spend at least part of this week describing the indescribable.

First though, let's discuss things that bear some semblance to reality.

Luquillo BeachThe flats at Luquillo, which are maybe one to three feet under the water, depending on the tide, are crisscrossed by two long channels that can run perhaps as much as 10-15 feet in depth. When the tide is low, the best fishing there can be had by walking along the edge of the flats, right at the drop off, and casting across to the flat on the opposite side of the channel. One day, I hooked into a good barracuda while fishing with, at the time, what seemed to be a terribly overmatched 6-weight fly rod. I'd been throwing a Lefty's Deceiver, which is a big streamer that swims high in the water. If you don't feel the far-from-subtle take as the barracuda takes the fly, the enormous splash should act as a decent indicator that something is going on. The fish initially dragged me right off of my safe little perch on the edge of the flat and into the trough, leaving me about waist high in the water, struggling not to get dragged any further along the slope of the drop off. After a long run out into the open water of the channel, I watched my line fly behind me as the fish unexpectedly doubled back on me. I moved off to my right, gradually coming to a place near where the reef rose out of the water. The trough was quite a bit shallower here as the channel narrowed to a point. The fish passed behind me and I turned quickly as it then launched itself back towards the flat on the opposite side, completing a circling movement around where I stood.

The barracuda and I had a merry time. It kept running rings around me and I continued my somewhat clumsy impression of man with one foot nailed to the floor, trying to keep up with it. All of this would have been chaotic enough had the two sea kayaks not arrived. There's nothing more challenging than trying to bring in a big fish, unless you have to do it in front of an audience, particularly when your fan-base has no clue as to what you're actually doing. It was as if both kayakers had decided that in all of the miles of open sea, the one spot they just had to explore was the place on the flats where this demented guy was doing pirouettes while clutching a big stick.

As my new friends approached, my fish ran straight at them, as if it had determined that the paddlers might be able to rescue him from his plight. It almost worked too, as the barracuda slammed into the side of the lead canoe and then dove under it. Proving that he was at least alert enough to realize something had hit his craft, the kayaker looked at where the impact had occurred, now aware that something was afoot. Unfortunately, he also used his paddle to brake his glide, forcing my line directly under the kayak as my fish continued to run.

I'm sure that my fish would surely have escaped had it not made the grievous error of jumping at that moment. In a flash, the kayaker realized that he stood between a fly angler and his quarry. This actually isn't a terribly dangerous spot to be, as most of us fly rod toting fishermen are rarely armed with more than a small jackknife and a somewhat over-inflated sense of pride. Still, he obliged me by paddling as quickly as he could out of the way and then feathered his paddle to maintain his position to watch the rest of the fight.

And what a fight it was! By the end of it, I'd twirled around so many times as my fish circled me that I actually ended up sitting down at the drop off. I'd like to say that I planned this, but then I'd be lying to you. As the fish ran around my left side one last time, my knee banged up against the rise of the drop off and I landed unceremoniously on my ass in about two of water, right on the edge of the flat. In spite of my inability to stay on my feet, I was finally able to bring the leader to my hand and clip it. There was no sense in trying to bring this toothy fish any closer "within the grasp". I was several hundred yards from shore, watched by two kayakers who were now howling with laughter, and thus, I was completely unprepared for any further excitement.

That was the "believable" story.

On those particularly sunny, unusually windless days out on the Luquillo flats, you have to approach the channels with great care. While the clear water makes it very easy for you to spot fish as they move in and out of the depths, it also makes it quite simple for them to see you as well. After all, they are built for speed, camouflaged against the white sand bottom, and they possess a near perfect, 270-degree field of vision. The angler on the other hand is a bulky traveler in an alien element, armed with highly technical tools that he only barely understands, let alone feels comfortable enough to operate properly. Well, that's my situation anyway.

The point is that sometimes, when the conditions are that way, an angler will have to sneak up on the edge of the flats to make a cast into the trough, without spooking all of the fish that might be feeding near the drop off. When the tide was low one day, I hunched down and let my fly (a large popper) land perhaps 10 or 12 feet beyond the edge of the flat. I was standing back in the shallow water on the flat, although I was close to 70 yards from shore at the time. I began to strip the line in, making the popper splash noisily on the surface.

I saw a brown colored, oblong shape following my fly and so, as it floated just above the flats' edge, I let it stall, which allowed the fish behind it to catch up. I saw an enormous mouth open and close, delicately sipping the popper before disappearing.

I'd love to report that I enjoyed an epic battle with this fish, but that simply wasn't so. The greatest resistance my fish offered was at the moment I set the hook. For one, almost thrilling moment, it ran...about 10 feet and then allowed itself to be unceremoniously hauled in. As it got closer, I noticed that it large enough that I wanted to bring it close while standing on land. This proved to be one of the wiser things I have ever done while fishing.

When I pulled it on shore, to the delight and confusion of the half-dozen people that had watched the fight, much of which consisted merely of me walking backwards on the flats towards the beach, holding the rod tip in the air, my fish had begun to mysteriously grow in size. I say this because it actually began to inflate. By the time I beached my fish, I found myself confronted by what appeared to be a quivering basketball with fins and a tail, covered with sharp inch to inch and a half long spines.

Lucky me. I'd caught a porcupinefish. This member of the puffer family is fairly common in tropical waters, but I can promise that this was the first time I'd ever encountered one. I walked into the forest, just a few dozen yards from the shore and found a 4-foot long piece of bamboo, which I used to roll my catch back into the water. But my porcupinefish was filled with the air it had gulped during the fight and so it bobbed along on the water's surface. I continued to poke it along, with the aim of getting out to the trough, where it might deflate itself and escape. Behind me, the on-lookers began a laughing chant:

"Go back! Be free! Go back! Be free!"

Eventually, I was far enough out on the flats that I could no longer hear them. I watched my fish sail off along in the gentle lapping of the chop, as the wind had come up just a bit and wondered whether it would survive. It gradually shrunk in size at it floated away and I began to worry, until I noticed that it was actually deflating. With a shudder, it finally submerged, freeing me from any further obligation or embarrassment.

Copyright 2009 by Peter Cammann

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