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October 26, 2001

Trinidad + Tobago = Tarpon

Uncrowded Caribbean Waters Offer Fast-Paced Action for Silver Kings.

Peering intently into the water as he threaded the custom 38-foot Hard Play among open wooden fishing boats anchored in Tobago's Plymouth Cove, Capt. Gerard "Frothy" De Silva was too busy looking for signs of baitfish to notice the happy shouts of children frolicking in the gentle surf less than 200 yards away. Mate Kevin Charles stood at the bow, draped in a cast net and ready to fire upon command.

"There's one!" said De Silva, pointing to the left. But instead of the sparkling ball of bait I expected to see, the long, dark shape of a 50-pound tarpon cruised through the crystal-clear 15-foot depths. Scarcity of bait prolonged our hunt for another 30 minutes, and during that time we spotted three more tarpon plus a pair of 10-pound snook patrolling the area.

Plymouth Rocks
With a good supply of 5-inch "sprats" (the local version of pilchards) finally occupying the livewell, De Silva dropped anchor at the outside edge of the dormant fishing fleet in the cove. My watch showed 11:30 and, while free-lining a bait on a 20-pound spinning outfit, I cursed the airline mix-up responsible for our late-morning start and wondered if fishing at this hour would prove worthwhile.

Before anyone else could even bait a hook, the line twitched and began flowing from the Penn 8500SS. "Got a pickup," I stammered, taken by surprise and almost forgetting to close the bail. Then 70 pounds of shimmering silver climbed skyward in a headshaking surge 15 feet from the transom. Two more leaps and 20 seconds later, the fish made a determined, drag-yanking run of about 100 yards, then broke off our brief but stimulating relationship with a reef-rubbing dive.

While De Silva inspected the frayed mono and set about the task of tying on a new 80-pound Seaguar fluorocarbon leader for me, fellow angler Dan Jacobs dropped a bait in the water and looked over his shoulder to make a wisecrack: "Geez, Frothy, it's a shame the tarpon aren't hungry. I don't want to wait long for a ."

Jacobs never finished because Jack Sprat got crushed flat when an angry 90-pound beast clamped the bait, rolled at the surface and spit the hook. Steady action kept us hopping for several hours after that, but we failed to bring any tarpon to boatside because the larger-than-usual fish easily out-muscled our tackle. These silver kings knew how to defend themselves; rather than wasting energy on impressive yet futile acrobatic displays, they bolted for the sheltering reef and sheared our mono every time. De Silva, speaking in his West Indies accent, best describes the surly attitude of these tarpon: "Dem fellas doan make joke when you hook 'em."

During the 20-minute ride back to Pigeon Point, where De Silva moors his three-boat charter fleet, the skipper apologized for the "slow day" (after all, we had only hooked 10 tarpon in less than five hours) and told us that fishing here can get rather hectic. "When bait's stacked up in Plymouth, tarpon crash the sprats all around the boat. Baitfish and water get splashed into the cockpit. Let me tell you, that's no time to be standing there with your mouth open," he chuckled.

Tobago Tactics
Though bruisers like the ones we encountered occasionally turn up, Tobago tarpon normally range from 30 to 50 pounds - hence De Silva's preference for 20-pound gear. An Albright knot secures a 6-foot leader of 60- or 80-pound fluorocarbon to 20-pound mono main line doubled with a short Bimini twist. Tying a hook to the leader completes the rig, which then works equally well whether drift fishing, slow trolling or free lining from an anchored boat.

De Silva says that most any reef or point around the island will produce tarpon, but he usually finds all the fish his anglers can handle in two principal hot spots just minutes from Pigeon Point. A half-mile stretch of shoreline near the Tobago airport marks a route that tarpon frequently follow in pursuit of "fry" (baitfish resembling small anchovies). Slow trolling does the trick here. "Fry are too small to use as bait," explains De Silva, "but tarpon gorge on them. We look for schools of fry to locate tarpon, then present them with a bigger baitfish. Of course, they take it."

Protected from the open Atlantic, Plymouth Cove offers the perfect setting for drifting or anchoring while letting the current carry live baits to meet their chrome-plated doom. Conditions sometimes permit casting artificials. "When the fry get thick in the cove and tarpon crash them tight to shore, you can get the big boys to take plugs or flies," says De Silva.

Our second morning in Tobago found us back at Plymouth, where rolling tarpon and circling seabirds indicated that baitfish had returned in force. Wise to the size of the tarpon that had moved into the neighborhood and anxious to see a few fish wrestled to the boat for photos, Jacobs marched out of the cabin holding a Penn International 20 spooled with 30-pound mono.

The higher-caliber tackle helped Jacobs subdue and release two 40-pounders in short order. Meanwhile, De Silva, Charles and I each hooked several similar-size poons on 20-pound spin tackle but lost the fish to cutoffs. Our fish-fighting problems stemmed from the fact that De Silva's smaller and more maneuverable Hard Play Light was dry-docked for repairs. We simply couldn't pull anchor quickly enough on the Hard Play to chase down angry tarpon beelining for the reef.

Local anglers have been catching tarpon around Trinidad and Tobago for years, but only recently have charter captains begun focusing on this untapped bonanza. The polite poons avoid creating a conflict of interest for skippers by appearing in larger concentrations during the summer, which represents the blue-water off-season. Even so, I found it incredible that no other boats - private or charter - offered competition for De Silva as we tapped treasure from a swimming silver mine on a gorgeous mid-August Sunday.

We were anchored just off a popular beach, yet the only people who seemed to notice the excitement generated by all the hooked fish were several smartly dressed churchgoers who watched us curiously as they strolled across a grassy knoll overlooking the cove.

Experience Waitlessness
The 15-minute flight from Tobago to Trinidad resulted in a drastic change of scenery. Much larger than her sister island, Trinidad features a bustling capital in Port of Spain yet retains a laid-back lifestyle. The Chaguaramas Peninsula holds three large marinas and serves as the late-summer home of many Caribbean-based pleasure boats since hurricanes rarely dip so far south.

Motoring out of the Crews Inn Marina aboard the charter boat Hook, Jacobs, my wife Ligia and I marveled at the imposing rock walls and cliffs that plunge into the sea. A quick look at the sounder revealed depths exceeding 150 feet quite close to the shoreline. Capt. Peter De La Rosa announced our destination would be the Second Boca, a pass between nearshore islands just minutes from the dock.

De La Rosa showed no concern about the rainy weather. In fact, he predicted we'd find a silver lining in the clouds. "The tarpon usually bite better under dark skies," he said as we began our first drift and fed out line to let the 4-inch herring follow naturally in the current. Seconds later I connected on a 40-pounder. With no sharp and sheltering reef to save it, the jumpy poon came to the transom after a clean, open-water battle on 30-pound spin tackle.

Noticing that my Daiwa BG90 reel was loaded with high-vis green line, Jacobs briefly disappeared and emerged from belowdecks carrying a Penn International 30 packed with 50-pound high-vis mono. "Peter spooled his offshore reels with high-vis, but I didn't think tarpon would bite on it." Then he added with determination, "Now I'm going to catch a big one."

Leaden skies and cool rain deterred neither anglers nor tarpon on that busy afternoon. Two other charter boats, Barbie Doll and Radical, joined in the fun. The deepwater pass seemed polluted with quicksilver. We could see fish rolling every time we looked around - which wasn't all that often because we were usually engaged in combat with scaly opponents. Double and triple hookups kept us dancing around the deck while war whoops across the water indicated the other boats were enjoying similar action.

As the sun journeyed toward the horizon, it pierced the low-lying cloud cover, reflecting off the water and highlighting tarpon backs breaching the surface. Pausing to admire the sparkling waves and amazed by how many tarpon swam below, Jacobs murmured, "We're surrounded by a sea of silver."

Pulling out the big gun proved a wise decision for Jacobs, who nailed a 90-pounder then closed out our evening's activities by hauling in a 120-pound tarpon for a few quick photos and release.

Trinnie Tricks
Three straight evenings of consistent angling showed that our first foray to the Second Boca was no fluke. We'd leave the dock around 3 p.m., catch and release eight or 10 tarpon ranging from 35 to 100-plus pounds, and return by 7. Can you think of a better way to enjoy a sunset cruise?

Skippers in Trinidad favor heavier tackle than that used in Tobago, simply because Trinnie tarpon run larger. Conventional reels in the 20-, 30- and 50-pound class matched to appropriate rods provide the angler with an edge when fighting stubborn fish in deep water, contributing toward shorter battles and healthy releases.
I'm not the preacher type, but I felt like some kind of missionary on this trip. Sharing my supply of size 6/0 and 7/0 Eagle Claw L2004ELG circle hooks made believers of all the local captains when they witnessed a substantial increase in strike-to-hookup conversions. Most of our tarpon were solidly hooked in the button at the roof of the mouth, facilitating hook removal and minimizing chafed leaders from the fish's teeth.

Capt. Jonathan De La Rosa, Peter's son and partner in Island Yacht Charters, has noticed that light levels influence the tarpon bite more than tide stages. "Falling tides make the fish feed more aggressively, but no matter what the tide's doing, you can count on catching tarpon in the late afternoon and evening," he says. "And overcast days get the fish started a bit earlier."

A series of rocky islands dots the sea between Trinidad and Venezuela, providing plenty of current and structure to attract tarpon. You'd think that with so many tempting spots available, choosing where to fish on any given day would be no easy task. The younger De La Rosa candidly admits that convenience plays a role in the decision-making process: "We could try any number of passes around here, and I'm sure they all hold fish - but we rarely have to go farther than the Second Boca, just 10 minutes from the dock."

Summer Fun
The long season of fast-paced, reliable fishing to be had in Trinidad and Tobago represents more of a wide-open barn door than a narrow window of opportunity. De La Rosa says tarpon remain available on a year-round basis, but they become most numerous when Venezuela's Orinoco River swells during the summer rainy season. Freshwater runoff reaches the Trinidad coast where silver kings converge to chase baitfish in the nutrient-rich water.

June, July and August offer chances for half-day excursions delivering double-digit release totals. If you're in the mood to sit in on a heated debate, call a meeting with seven Trinidad charter captains and ask which month brings the best tarpon fishing. I witnessed such a scene as these men discussed the possibility of organizing a tarpon tournament in their home waters. Sid Johnson, secretary of the Trinidad and Tobago Game & Fishing Association, proposed holding the event in June because "tarpon get so thick then, you can walk on them."
"I say we hold it in August," countered Capt. Peter Charles of Executive Marine. "We could have walked on the fish out there today." (After having fought six bullish poons in three hours prior to the meeting, I felt more like the fish had walked over me.) The discussion continued as other captains recited numbers of fish they've seen in July.

Whether you visit in early, mid or late summer, the numbers will tell you these islands offer world-class tarpon fishing in an unhurried and uncrowded setting. Do the math for yourself and you'll see: Trinidad + Tobago = Tarpon.