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First steps to saltwater fly-fishing freedom

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by Justin Maxwell Stuart

  Los Roques Archipelago
Saltwater fly fishing whether it be for bass off the coast of Donegal or marlin in the Indian Ocean is as vastly different from freshwater fishing as cane rods are from the modern high-tech Carbon Graphite rods of today. 

The surge and power of salt-water species can give the unaccustomed a hedonistic taste for the sport in a way that the humble stocked rainbow trout can never do.  The biggest challenge of all, however, is usually making that first leap which takes one from familiar turf to exotic tropical waters.

Like any keen angler I have developed a sixth sense for likely fishing opportunities.  I had not however expected my radar to be activated whilst on a visit to a police station in Belfast. One spirited conversation later, an exchanged telephone number and I had unwittingly signed myself up for a trip to Los Roques in Venezuela.  Talk of tarpon rolling under my feet, bonefish removing all my line and all under the Caribbean sun, was all that was required to dispel my winter gloom, with the closure of the trout and salmon seasons.

  Air Assault
And so it was that a frantic month later I found myself drifting out of the clouds, in a plane that looked like it had seen service in WW2 - and probably had, in our descent over what can only be described as breathtakingly beautiful cobalt, turning aqua-marine coloured seas. 

This dramatic spectrum of colour is due to the fact that Los Roques is an archipelago, rising out of the deep blue Caribbean sea and consisting of approximately 100 sq miles of islands, keys and underwater mushroom-like profusions, which I later discovered went by the name of pancake flats.

One hour later I was standing on the beach in shorts and shirt, armed with a bottle of beer, looking out to sea where laid out before me was the most incredible profusion of marine and aquatic life.  Immediately in front of me there appeared to be an impenetrable wall of minnows, 10 metres deep and stretching the length of the waterfront.  In amongst these minnows tarpon crashed and bonefish cruised.

Above the air this mass of life was being attacked by phalanxes of pelicans who would dive as one into the water and re-emerge with gullets overflowing with fish.  In turn they were also being attacked by squadrons of Artic terns who would hover and dance around the pelicans, deftly stealing any protruding minnows from their beaks.

  Tarpon cruising amongst a minnow shoal
Just as I was trying to comprehend the scale of this maritime assault, my host and guide, Justin McCarthy, reappeared brandishing a 7 wt rod and reel and armed with a 'gummy minnow', a silicone based 'fly' which appeared to mimic almost exactly the baitfish on offer. 

He pointed excitedly at a pelican as it emerged from its underwater foray. "Did you see it?" he cried. "Put on your Polaroids - watch the next pelican". 

I did as instructed, opening up an underwater spectacle the like of which I had never seen before.  As each bird surfaced and tried to make good its meal up to half a dozen bonefish between 4 & 8lbs would jostle for position as they nimbly removed the minnows from the pelicans.

   Bonefish feeding under a pelican
As a casting reference point, the crash of a pelican from 30ft in the air is a little less subtle than the gentle ripple of a rising trout. However, this was my target and my mission was to place my 'gummy' at the feet of the surfacing bird. 

A few attempts later I achieved the cast as instructed and almost the moment the 'gummy' hit the water a 'bone' emerged from the bottle green water, my line tightened and the next thing I knew was the rod was bent over, the reel was in overdrive and my backing was hissing through the water.

The tussle that followed saw me holding on for dear life, taking to the water, ducking self and rod under numerous anchor ropes and winding furiously. All of this was set to a growing audience of chattering children who looked on nonchalantly as they critiqued my performance.

   Typical Los Roques bonefish
On emerging triumphantly after a tooth and nail battle with a striking 5lb fish I paused for a moment at which point it occurred to me that I still had not even unpacked my bags or clapped eyes on where I was staying. 

To those who have never embraced saltwater fishing prepare your gear, your tackle and yourself for the strains and the excitement that you both will endure.  Whilst my first few casts on the waterfront were an appetizer the main action takes place further afield.  Most of the fishing is done by wading in ankle deep water, your eyes peeled for signs of activity above and below the water.  Here, in the shallower water, the ever so subtle, protruding fin of a bonefish replaces the crash of a diving pelican.

To be successful you have to firstly detach yourself from your previous fly-fishing experiences and devote yourself whole heartedly to the attentions of your guide.  With tutoring what initially seemed like a blind cast will become a casual nod of agreement as you and your guide simultaneously locate and target the fish. 

The consistent cast of a salmon angler or the well-honed presentation of a trout fisherman will often be thrown into hectic disarray.  A cruising torpedo in the shape of a barracuda or the effervescent energy of a shoal of tuna, bursting into a feeding frenzy in front of you, will often send your guide ducking for cover as you try to impart instant energy into your fly.

A distant cry from the winter gloom
To the experienced angler this is a place where you will be challenged to the utmost, with your stealth and skill being paramount. To a novice fisherman, you will be rewarded with a visual spectacle that guarantees to satisfy all of your faculties, whilst at the same time providing enough rod-bending action and adventure to ensure you never again look at fishing in the same light.

Justin Maxwell Stuart has over 10 years of experience of planning, organising and hosting trips to some of the furthest and most inaccessible places on the planet and currently guides with Where Wise Men Fish. Brought up on a diet of Scottish Salmon rivers, a camp manager on the Kola Peninsular and extensive experience of salt and fresh water fishing in South America he has a wealth of knowledge and experience that far surpasses his years.

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