Eli had spent the last couple of days on the island. Based on some intel we received, we knew that there were tarpon at the Split at night. Eli had figured them out. Using the sabiki, we could jig up some herring/sardine, put it on a 3/0 hook, and tossed them at the tarpon hanging out in the shadow. Seems easy enough, right?
Eli must have hit them just at the right time since he jumped 6 of them in a hour of fishing. Unfortunately, the fish either threw the hook or snapped his leader, so even though he was getting some crazy action, none were landed.
Now that I'm here and he would have a wing man, we were getting serious.
We made it to the Split at 4am. As Eli said, we could see 3-4' long black shadows slowing moving upcurrent in the shadow of the flood lights. We quickly jigged up a dozen sardines and I put one on the hook. For the sake of keeping the bait fresh and lively I didn't take any pictures, but the sardines were Scaled Sardine (Harengula jaguana) - Species #343.
Strangely, something must be wrong since these tarpon were not willing to play. Morning was coming quickly and we could see a little colour in the sky. The fish seemed to know that the cover of darkness would soon be lost and they disappeared like clockwork. Darn! We started too late!
The reason we started so late was due to the Lobster Fest. At the Split was the Lazy Lizard, a bar that was still very busy until 12am. We figured that all the music, crowd and activity would probably scare the tarpon away so we wanted to give the fish a few hours of quiet before trying for them. We needed to start early tomorrow night!
As the day break, our attention switched to the species hunt.
I saw a Black Hamlet hanging right by the wall. I tried for that fish for a bit but the other damselfish were just too quick and the Black Hamlet was too busy defending its territory. Then I saw another Black Hamlet, and another, and if you just search for them, they were all over the place.
So I picked out one that seemed to be sitting in a spot without a lot of bait thieves. A few drops later, I finally got it to hit! They are cool little fish!
Black Hamlet (Hypoplectrus nigricans) - Species #344
A few Bermuda Chub showed up and I really wanted to catch one. These fish were not as shy as the ones I saw in Florida. Out of nowhere, a big Puddingwife Wrasse took my bait...and I GOT IT!!! They are stunning fish and it was such a cool catch!
Puddingwife Wrasse (Halichoeres radiatus) - Species #345
The Bermuda Chubs were very easy to catch. In fact, they get very annoying very fast.
Bermuda Sea Chub (Kyphosus sectatrix) - Species #346
Eli and I wanted to get a couple of small grunts for bait. Out on the Split, the Slippery Dick, Sergeant Major, Schoolmaster Snapper, Bermuda Chub and Doctorfish were too much to deal with. So I went into shallower water where I may be able to get away from them.
Checking one area, I saw a different looking fish darted out from under some logs to chase away the damselfish and grunts that were swarming my baits. Putting on some new bait, I dropped the chunk of shrimp as close to the log as fast as possible. Soon, that funny fish came out and took the bait. Got it! This was a completely unexpected catch and some of these surprises were the coolest!
Night Sergeant (Abudefduf taurus) - Species #347
With the species list steadily checked off, I turned my attention to the little Mojarra. It took some times before I could figure how to get them to hit. But at last, I got em too! They want the bait sitting still on bottom. If there was any sudden movement, they would dart away. It was difficult since a bait that sat too long would then attracted the Slippery Dick. You just had to place the bait in the right place and hope the Mojarra would find it before the Slippery Dick.
Slender Mojarra (Eucinostomus jonesii) - Species #348
The Mojarra was just the right size so Eli put it on his bigger rod. I found myself a small Yellowtail Snapper and tossed it out too.
I saw an initial phase Stoplight Parrotfish and got it hooked...but while trying to swing the fish into the bucket where we rested and revived fish between pictures, the fish wriggled off the hook and back into the ocean it went. Argh! It would have been an awesome catch!
While this report is very focused on me, Eli also caught his Black Hamlet. He was poking around a shallow sandy area that was just perfect for Peacock Flounder. By chance he found a tiny one and actually got it to hit...but just like my batfish, the fish came off the hook halfway up the water column. I feel for you, bro.
I know it's not much of a consolation for losing a cool fish like the Peacock Flounder...but Eli's big rod went off with a good run! We were both guessing what it could be...Stingray? A big snapper? A big grouper? The fish took off quite a bit of line and at one point rocked Eli. But being a patient rewarded with the fish coming out of the snag and we finally had colour. We debated how to land it, but then decided to bring it into the little sitting bench area at the Lazy Lizard and I would try to get it with the lip grip. With my heart pounding, I slipped the grip sideways, twisted, and snapped the jaw shut. Got em! It was a nice Mutton Snapper!!!
Eli had caught Mutton Snapper in the past but without any picture to show. This can't get any better!
Looks massive, huh? It was only 18" long LOL. Still, it was a very nice Mutton Snapper! We kept the fish for Susanne since she said she would appreciate any fresh fish we could bring back.
Back on my front, there were some Yellowhead Wrasse flirting about. It took some trying to get the bait away from the other unwanted species and finally had one to hit.
Yellowhead Wrasse (Halichoeres garnoti) - Species #349
Then, Eli got another good run on a free lined grunt. It was taking line steady like a big stingray...and indeed it was! It was a medium Southern Stingray...just big enough to have some fun but not too big to break your back. Eli and I had caught one before so we didn't bother to take any pictures.
All this time, there were Bar Jack cruising by. They would come to inspect any smaller fish we tossed out as bait but they would not bite. As the morning wore on, we saw some surface activity so Eli put on a topwater...and the fun began! Fish would crash the bait and missed most of the time, but it was just fun watching them crash bait! Most of these were Horse-eye Jack but occasionally there would also be a Bar Jack in the action. We tossed lures for a while since a lot of the interesting species disappeared as the sun got higher...so the jacks would fill a void in the action.
Someone came by to join us on the lure action. After hearing a blitz, he tossed a lure into the swirl and something blew up on his lure! He was lucky the lure was just hooked the right way with the rear hook on the tip of the mouth and another hook in the corner of the jaw...since this was a 2' barracuda full of sharp teeth! It was great to see someone landed a 'cuda since these fish had been a bit frustrating to get to bite. There were very hook and line shy...but I guess a reaction strike from a fast moving lure gave them little time to inspect your hook and line. Eli and I had caught them before so we didn't put too much thought to figure them out.
It was 10am and we decided to call it a morning. We've been up and fishing since 3am. We went back to the hostel, put away our gear and went for brunch. It was at that time that Eli reminded me it was my birthday! Had he not said anything, I would have forgotten LOL. Thanks bud! He treated me to lunch. The stew chicken at this little Cuban place was awesome!
After lunch, we decided to take a siesta. As much as we love fishing, having only 5 hours of sleep before taking on a 7-hour fishing marathon during the ungodly hour is just too much. I wanted to have a shot at the lobster-sucking bonefish so I wanted to get up at 3pm.
Again, I only got about 2 hours of shut eyes before the alarm went off again. In fact, it was 2 hours of broken sleep since I was so excited about the bonefish. Eli had already caught his bonefish so he decided to join me later.
It took a little time to find the dock again...but what a disappointment! The bonefish were gone! Instead there was a boat docked right on the spot where the bonefish were holding and the boat was being worked on so there was a lot of commotion. It also appeared that no one was cleaning lobster that day so the bonefish may have left to find other food.
Well, here are a bunch of lemons...let's make lemonade.
The day before, Eli noticed some Mangrove Molly in the shallows and caught a beautiful one. I took out some bread and pinched a tiny bit on the tanago hook. These mollies are very apt at taking the bread off the tiny hook, so it took a few tried to finally hook one.
Mangrove Molly (Poecilia orri) - Species #350
Then I saw 4 little fish that were definitely some kind of livebearer but they looked different from the Mangrove Molly. They also form separate groups. A few tries later, I found out they were Yucatan gambusia! (I agree, Eli, G. yucatan is the most likely species given the habitat and distribution).
Yucatan Gambusia (Gambusia yucatana) - Species #351
There were also some livebearer on the bottom. They didn't want bread, but a bit of shrimp got them excited. BTW, I credit the ID of this species to Eli. Darn, good call!
Ocellated killifish (Floridichthys polyommus) - Species #352!
Eli arrived and I showed him the Yucatan Gambusia. There was only a pair around and he tried for them but they were rather shy. After a while, we decided to move on.
There was a government pier that we found the day before that looked good. I was armed with a 9' surf rod and a 7' spinning rod while Eli had a heavy rod and a lighter rod. There wasn't much opportunity to for me to toss a live bait. We started fishing some shrimp on a dropper loop and quickly found a good number of grunts, Mangrove Snappers and Lane Snappers. The area has seagrass so we were hoping to find some Mutton Snapper. Among all the other snappers, I managed to find a little one! This was a great catch for me since I've been trying for one for a while in Florida!
Mutton Snapper (Lutjanus analis) - Species #353
I caught a Slender Mojarra and Eli called for it as bait. Not very long after he tossed it out, the rod went off and it was another good fish! It was a 1.5lb Mutton Snapper. We had thoughts about putting it on the grill for dinner. While Eli was putting some water into the bucket to keep the fish alive, the snapped managed to jumped out to its freedom. Oh well. Not like we didn't have enough seafood already LOL.
The sun soon set and we were packing up to grab dinner. Eli tossed two of the ballyhoo we had since they had been thawed for quite a few hours already. While packing, we heard a loud "FLOMP"! It sounded like someone tossed a tray of cinder block into the water. We look up to see a flash of silver rolled back into the water. Really?!?!
So Eli and I start paying attention to the remaining ballyhoo floating on the water. Then we saw it...a large dark shadow. No doubt it was a large tarpon. We figured it was probably about 40lbs. It kept coming to the ballyhoo, circled it and then turned away. After a few inspections, the tarpon got a bit more bold and nudged at the ballyhoo. Maybe it could see us and suspected some foul play. I said to Eli "Tarpon loves shrimp, too. Try tossing out a shrimp at it."
Armed with his heavier rod with braid but only a 25lb fluorocarbon leader, Eli put on a shrimp and tossed it toward the ballyhoo. The tarpon came around and just vacuumed the shrimp in. NO WAY!!!
Okay...not what? The tarpon ran with the bait on the clicker and Eli set the hook hard. Got EM! GOT EM!!! The fish tried to get deep and then changed its mind and jump clear out of the water...then SNAP! Crap!!!
The 25lb fluorocarbon was no match for the 40lb tarpon...
But seeing one tarpon at this pier, there has to be more around. We started paying attention and saw quite a few smaller tarpon now cruising the shadow line. This pier was so high it would be very difficult to land them though.
A couple of local kids came by to tell us that there are tarpon at the wooden dock right across from us. The dock was lit by a tall dock light and we could see the glint of tarpon cruising around. So we relocated to the wooden dock since it was lower than our concrete pier.
We saw about a half dozen of tarpon under the dock. Sometimes they would swim under the dock, sometimes they would swim into the shadows. We took some time to re-rig. I had 30lb braid on my 4000 size spinner matched with a 9' surf rod rated 10-25lbs. It wasn't ideal...but it would have to do. I tied on a 40lb mono leader while Eli tied on a 40lb fluorocarbon leader. Luckily, these tarpon were smaller...what we would call "fun size" since there is a better chance to land one of them.
We first tried shrimp. The tarpon would come looking at the shrimp but at the last second they would turn away. The kids said we should retrieve the shrimp slowly so we tried that for a while only to get follows. The kids asked if we have any "fake fish" and we did have some lures. We tried the lures for a bit and Eli got a topwater hit on a Sammy while I had a good gulp on a Zara Puppy...but the small treble hooks on these lures simply couldn't find anything to set into.
We were tossing anything and everything at them. If there was a kitchen sink, we would have tried it.
It seemed like the tide had changed and the tarpon moved out further. We could still hear tarpon busting bait out further but everything looked either too small or too big. There were some tiny silverside around and a handful of needlefish. We also saw some luminescent creatures and the kids said they were little fish. Eli wanted to see what these glow fish may be, so he tossed out a sakibi to try to catch them.
Well, what do you know...he caught a good size sardine. We were commenting earlier that if we only had some live sardines these tarpon would be all over them. So here we were with a sardine. Eli put the sardine on a 3/0 hook and waited for one straggling tarpon that was still hanging around. Finally, the tarpon came by and Eli tossed the sardine in its path just inches from the dock. The bait suddenly got excited and that triggered the tarpon to chew!
Eli let the fish run with the bait for a couple of seconds then set hard! We GOT EM!
Now the hard part began. We were fishing on a dock with lots of dock post in the water. The fish was fighting very close to the dock and we worried it would find a post to wrap us around. About 10 seconds into the fight, the tarpon jumped and smacked itself on the side of the dock! I thought it may land on the dock and honestly I was prepared to pounce on the fish with my whole body if it had happened LOL. I know tarpon had jumped into boats before.
Maybe the tarpon had knocked itself silly against the dock. It seemed to have tamed a bit. It jumped a couple more times before seemingly tired out. It really didn't take that long to fight the fish, but it felt like minutes. Eli felt he had control of the fish so now we debated how to land the fish. I tried to lean over the dock to see if I could at all even reach the fish, but my hand was about a foot short. So I grabbed my lip grip to see if I could get it with the grip, but it was just a couple inches short and we wouldn't gamble on trying to grip it.
The only decision left was to leader the fish and tried to flip it over the dock. This was actually Eli's decision. This was Eli's last night in Belize, possibly his last shot at an Atlantic Tarpon on this trip, and this fish had stayed on the line long enough, tamed enough, and seemingly well hooked enough to do it. I had the honour of leadering the fish and flipping it over. Trust me...my heart was about to explode when I touched the leader...
"Don't jump, please don't jump, just stay hooked, please, please, please don't let me not lose this fish for Eli. He would hate me forever and I would hate myself forever."
Taking a deep breath gathering some courage, I made one smooth and continuous move and flipped the fish over. I don't know how it could have been done. The fish did not flinch a muscle, and as heavy as it was, it came out of the water and onto the dock without so much as a hitch.
Oh my god! We got it on the dock!!! The fish was now flopping everything and I jumped on it to pin it down. I wasn't about to let the fish flop back into the water. All I would remember was getting slime all over my shirt and pants. It's probably not the best way to handle a tarpon, but we're definitely not letting Eli's first tarpon flop back!
The fish was hooked on the tip of the upper snout. The hook barely held and we were surprised that I was able to leadered the fish and swung it up the dock. It popped out as soon as we work the hook back. Let me tell ya, we were very lucky!
We probably screamed like a little girl. I can't remember much about our reaction. All I knew was that we were over-the-moon ecstatic!!! After Eli had jumped 10 tarpons on this trip, we finally landed a tarpon for him!!! It wasn't a huge tarpon. It was 26". But having jumped so many time and time again, Eli was stoked and I was just as stoked for him!
For those who were worried about the well being of this tarpon, the tarpon swam off as soon as it touched water. No problem at all!
I wanted to get my own now, but since the small school had moved on, we decided to have dinner, maybe get a few hours of sleep, and try the Split at 2am.
All I remember that night was landing the tarpon. I can't even remember what we ate. (I did remember meeting my friend Alice on this night). After dinner, we were debating when we should fish the Split. I just want to check the area out to see if the tarpon is there even with all the music and people, so we took a walk to check things out. The tarpon seemed not to care about the busy top side. They were cruising just the same. We talked to a bouncer to see what time the bar would close. "We'll close soon at 12am". I looked at my watch and it was 11:30pm. Well, let's go back, prepare some gear and get at it!
And the story continues...