Puerto Rico Inshore Fishing

San Juan Revisited: Conservation-minded anglers continue efforts toward restoring city-side lagoons with first-ever all-release inshore tournament.

For a Good Cause

When Israel Umpierre began organizing the first-ever Torneo de Pesca Inshore (Inshore Fishing Tournament) — held by Pesca, Playa y Ambiente — he wanted to build upon earlier efforts made to help cleanup and protect the lagoons of San Juan, Puerto Rico. San Juan’s city lagoons are home to big tarpon and snook, but the waters are affected by heavy amounts of trash, and also degraded via runoff and point-source pollution. Still, the waters are worth fighting for, and more than 60-plus anglers came out to catch tarpon (pictured), snook and other species in the name of education, conservation and enhancement. Not surprisingly, recreational fishermen are at the forefront in trying to revitalize San Juan’s local estuaries. Sam Hudson

The Digital Tounament

The captains’ meeting was held at the San Juan Marriott Resort, where 65 anglers representing 20-plus different fishing teams signed up for the unique inshore tournament. Umpierre crafted tourney rules that forced anglers to keep all tarpon catches in the water, even for measurements and a photo. Secondly, the tournament would be scored via the iAngler Tournament application. Pictured, Michael Christopher takes a photo of a tourney participant for his profile on the iAngler Tournament app. Sam Hudson

Live Scoring

Sign into the app on your Apple or Android device, take a picture of your fish, record the measurements and submit the catch. That’s all it takes — there is no weigh-in or dead, wasted fish. Live scoring is available for those who want to follow along with the tournament too. Christopher, who helped develop and explain the app to tournament anglers, suspects this format will catch on with plenty of other tournaments in the future. Sam Hudson

Catching Bait

Edgardo Fernandez starts off the day with a couple throws of the cast net to catch baitfish such as sardines, mojarra (sand perch) and ballyhoo. Though San Juan tarpon and snook can be caught with lures such as soft plastics and hard plugs, we had no luck the first day. Today, we would be prepared with natural baits. Sam Hudson

Full Profile

Fernandez wanted the baits to have a full profile, so he added up to three sardines to a single circle hook. Other boats used larger-size mojarra to produce the same results. Of course, all anglers fishing in Pesca, Playa y Ambiente’s tournament had to use circle hooks with their natural baits; Pesca, Playa y Ambiente is a non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of Puerto Rico’s resources via education and field activities. Sam Hudson

Why Wait?

Then, it was a waiting game, not unlike tarpon fishing in other parts of the world. We anchored in the channels of Laguna La Torrecilla, just a short distance from the The Tarpon’s Nest lodge where we stayed. The incoming tide flushed oxygen-fresh, ocean waters into the channels, exciting the tarpon bite. Sam Hudson

On-the-Water Measurement

Anglers nearby had more success catching tarpon than us, which is OK since they were actually signed up for the tournament and competing for prizes that included trophies, Costa sunglasses and new fishing tackle provided by tournament sponsors. Notice how the fishermen keep the tarpon in the water at boat side as they measure its length with a soft tape. Sam Hudson

Tight Quarters

To reach Laguna San Jose, boats must travel through a skinny canal that includes barely fitting underneath three bridges handling major roads in the heart of the city. Fernandez had to remove his Pathfinder’s windshield each time we went under the bridges. Underneath the tallest and largest bridges, cars park next to the water and residents cast net baitfish or even have barbecue cookouts. It’s a tight and crowded spot to get through with enough current to make boat-handling uncomfortable. Sam Hudson

Dirty Waters

Once on the west side of the bridges, Israel Umpierre points out a canal that’s loaded with polluted runoff. Umpierre is a prosecutor in Puerto Rico, and has worked for the country’s natural resources in the past, so he’s not surprised at how slow local government is to react the estuarine problems (the same can probably be said about many large U.S. cities near coastal waters). “Some of the sewer runoff is now treated, but it’s not enough,” says Umpierre. Runoff, along with trash that’s still dumped into the lagoons, (even as Pesca, Playa y Ambiente organize cleanups of the lagoons) prompted Sport Fishing Editor-in-Chief Doug Olander to sound the alarm in an editorial last year. Sam Hudson

You Wanna Iguana?

Iguanas of all sizes sunbathe among the mangrove overhangs along the banks. If you look hard enough, they seem to be everywhere. Oh, and they can swim too! See what looks like a snake swimming at the water’s surface? That’s very likely an iguana. The Puerto Ricans I spoke with joked that some of the “mystery meats” available at sketchy restaurants in San Juan might be iguana. Sam Hudson

Fly High

Three fly casters pinpoint holes in the mangrove walls of Laguna Los Corozos tempting juvenile tarpon to bite their flies. The Torneo de Pesca Inshore (inshore tournament) included select divisions for pros and fly anglers, along with prizes for other catches such as jacks, ladyfish, permit, bonefish and snapper. Because San Juan’s lagoons are so closely located to the international airport, planes taking off sometimes drown out conversations. Sam Hudson

Laguna San Jose

A panoramic view of Laguna San Jose makes Fernandez’ bay boat look like two as he trolls a lipped bait off the stern. For how beautifully clear the skies are over the lagoon, unfortunately, Laguna San Jose has major water quality problems. There’s no seagrass or other structure on the seafloor, just mucky bottom; waters are too contaminated to harvest blue crabs in the lagoon — to do so is actually illegal; and a land bridge closed off a creek that allowed lagoon waters to meander into the ocean, says Israel Umpierre. Sam Hudson

Snook Action

Dallas, Texan Michael Christopher caught his first Puerto Rican snook while we trolled the edge of the Teodoro Moscoso Bridge. The bridge splits the lagoon down the middle, but provides attractive structure for snook and tarpon. I trolled a D.O.A. TerrorEyz along the shallow bridge and hooked a small tarpon before it somersaulted free. Sam Hudson

Best Bait

When local angler Omar Flecha isn’t fly casting to tarpon along the mangroves, he’ll throw soft plastics rigged to a jighead (pictured). “The best time to catch tarpon is in the evening,” he says. “You can go to just about any mangrove shoreline and start casting, and end up with 8 or more fish before dark.” Sam Hudson

A Sample of Snook

Snook don’t get much bigger than 15 pounds in San Juan’s lagoons, but a number of different snook species are available, including fat, tarpon, and swordspine snook, as well as the common snook. Pictured, one of the many tournament snook caught during two days of fishing. Sam Hudson

Kayak Fishing Takes off

Kayak fishing for snook and tarpon in the lagoons has grown in popularity, partly due to its low costs and ease of use. Local captains such as Omar Orraca will tow your kayaks to specific hot spots in the lagoons and allow you to explore and fish on your own. Behind the kayaker in this photo is the Carretera Boca de Cangrejos bridge — the bridge crosses over the main exit from the lagoons to the Atlantic Ocean. Sam Hudson

Daytime Siesta

During the heat of the day, anglers came back to the tournament headquarters at The Tarpon’s Nest lodge for lunch, fishing seminars and some relaxation. Even though it was late October, afternoon temps reached the 90s. I hope this idea catches on at local tournaments in my home waters. That break during the middle of the day allowed inshore fishermen to rejuvenate for the afternoon session, plus they probably didn’t miss out on a slow, midday bite. Sam Hudson

Tourney Finale

The second day of tournament fishing was just a half-day, so by the time all anglers made their way back to The Tarpon’s Nest lodge for the awards, Israel had the prizes and trophies ready to go. Sam Hudson

Music Surprise

At the awards banquet, a band of young men played drums and brass instruments, coupled with a man dancing on stilts dressed as a clown. It was quite a scene! Sam Hudson

Historic San Juan

When not fishing in San Juan, take time to see some of the impressive historic landmarks in downtown. I got a quick tour that included the Castillo San Felipe del Morro and San Juan de la Cruz. Pictured are a group of paddle boarders near the towering walls of eastern San Juan Bay. Sam Hudson