May 16, 2011
In Honduras, tarpon and snook lurk in a huge series of lagoons.
Splash! My rubber sandal kicks up red water, first step off the plane in Puerto Lempira, Honduras. Gentle rain is falling: Welcome to Waterworld. This is a place where the local Miskito people still depend almost entirely on traveling or fishing by paddling boats carved from solid trees. Try that when the wind is blowing, bubba. They are a tough people.
The snook, tarpon and jacks here are essentially the same fish found in Florida, but it's the remoteness of this Caribbean coast, the jungle surroundings, exotic wildlife, culture and people that make this trip so fascinating. One ponders such things late at night, as small wavelets lap 30 inches beneath the floor in the dark, while a guest at a small resort built entirely on a dock.
For four days we fished around Warunta Lagoon, part of the largest lagoon system in Central America. More than 60 miles long, it has countless rivers, islands, lakes and twisting creeks threading through jungle, and that makes it easy to get lost here. Saltwater fish roam the entire system, even though the water is a clear black with freshwater, aquatic plants growing in abundance.
Ralston is our fishing guide. Born and raised on this lagoon, after 50 years he knows the way. While we plugged picturesque shorelines for snook, he told us many stories about the region and its people, including the local medicine men, often referred to as witch doctors. We even met two of them, one of whom was paddling two days upriver in a dugout canoe. Ralston conversed with him as the canoe worked against the current, the other crew never missing a dip of their paddles. The medicine man had just seen a “tiger” (jaguar) around the bend. He had followed it briefly into the woods with his rifle, but the cat (fortunately) escaped. Ralston explained that the Miskito still eat jaguar, though they're not allowed to trade in furs. Ian and I gazed at the tall, dripping rainforest, listened to the screech of birds we couldn't begin to identify. Our words were unspoken. “Never get off the boat.”
We landed 22 snook at that very fork, where muddy water from far inland collided with a blackwater creek draining local jungle. We worked out a system there: Let the crankbait sink for a count of 10, and wind slowly. Wham! Another snook. On the muddy side in swifter current, a few tarpon quietly rolled, but refused to eat. We tossed them a live machaca as bait, suspended under a balloon, but no dice.
Warunta Lagoon is on the edge of a huge, protected biosphere in Gracias A Dios, which means “Thanks to God.” We figured either the locals really liked the place, or sailors off the coast were happy to pass it by. Peter Matthiessen writes about it in Far Tortuga, the finest book ever written about the Caribbean. The region remains isolated from the rest of the world, since a road has never been built. Hundreds of miles of marsh, jungle and rivers separate it from the rest of Honduras; even building a road along the edge of the sea is impossible, thanks to blocking mountains. So the Miskito survive, most of them hoping that the rest of Honduras, run by people of Spanish descent, never push a road through. If that happens, they say it will be the end for them. Or their way of life, anyway.
Action was slow at times, as each squall line rolled in. On our best morning we boated exactly 30 snook before lunch. This was still below average, with everyone blaming unsettled weather from a tropical storm front that lingered over neighboring Nicaragua.
Our lucky lure was a 3⁄4-ounce, chrome and purple Rat-L-Trap. It trolled well, but could also be cast. Sometimes it flew long and landed just inside the jungle, which Ralston refers to as “monkey fishing.” Somehow we never left one of these precious plugs behind, even if the line broke and we searched for it later on. In Honduras, you don't leave good fishing plugs hanging from trees. The nearest tackle store might be several countries away.
Of our four identical plugs in that color pattern, all were battle-scarred from catching 90 percent of the fish, including some colorful, 15-pound crevalle jacks. At the end of our trip we left all four purples, along with a dozen other patterns, for the lodge staff. Under some circumstances, the purples might have been retired to a mantle piece, but it's safe to assume they were back on the water soon after we left. The staff at Warunta has a list of proven artificial baits, which they'd been kind enough to mail before our arrival.
In Waterworld there are countless miles of blackwater shorelines, fallen trees, deeper rivers, creek forks and mouths that attract the fish. Schools tend to move around a lot in this limitless expanse, so it's common to troll until fish are located. That's when you pelt them with jigs, spoons, shallow-diving plugs, and perhaps topwaters. For those who can accurately cast topwater plugs back into shady realms and around fallen trees, this place offers the ultimate workout for plug gear.
My son Ian, a junior at the University of Florida, had grown tired of Gulf bottom fishing years ago in high school, and had taken up non-angling pursuits. Before then, as he was starting junior high, I had snagged him in the head with a tarpon plug as he tiptoed around behind me, so as not to spook rolling fish. Our trip to the emergency room made for a grim evening that he never quite forgot. Understandably his enthusiasm for fishing had waned to a low ebb in recent years. But now the kid was back. For four days he had a hot hand, trolling or pelting the edge of the forest with plugs, dragging three kinds of snook from cover while using only 10-pound spin gear. He landed two jacks and the biggest snook, as well. Looks like a fisherman has rejoined our ranks.
One day when the weather seemed calm, we made a determined, one-hour dash with two boats, for the inlet. Stories of huge schools of tarpon just off the beach in the Caribbean made this run very tempting. Our sense of adventure escalated with tales of “killer” tarpon: Last year, a lady passenger being ferried in a panga out to a coastal freighter was struck by a large, free-jumping tarpon. The huge tail smacked her in the head, snapping her neck like a chicken. Everyone else dove overboard. When they climbed back in the boat, the tarpon was gone but the woman lay lifeless, a victim of truly bad luck. So we readied our heaviest tackle (40-pound) with big diving plugs, loaded up two boats, and prepared for battle at the inlet.
The inlet itself is about standard size, with a rather run-down Coast Guard dock and vessel stationed there with a dozen personnel. It's wise to converse with these guys (none of whom were smiling) before running offshore. They like to know the nature of your business around the inlet, since people in fast, outboard-equipped boats sometimes carry cargo frowned upon by laws both local and international. These fellows appreciate fish, even jacks, since they
don't appear to be fishermen. (They couldn't even tell us when the tide was changing.)
Offshore out to about six miles, we trolled around hoping for a glimpse of clear water between rain squalls. The water grudgingly turned greener, and we hooked and lost a big tarpon. A jack tried to steal a bigger plug but we landed it, a gift for the sailors. Overall it was a long run with expensive gasoline, to find out what the inlet looked like on that particular day. Unfortunately, there is no way to predict such things. No weather forecasts, tide charts, first-hand reports. It's old fashioned fishing: just glance at the sky and perhaps an old fashioned barometer, and take your best guess. It was rather refreshing, really. But time and again that day, we were thrown back by fresh squalls from disturbed weather. Seas were about three feet, with a few breakers on the sandbars. Back in the peaceful inlet, the only sign of movement was a native dugout, whose crew rigged a tarp on a pole, and slowly sailed back to the bay. The coast appears to have a sluggish tidal swing, apparent from the Coast Guard station, which sits only two feet abovesea level.
By evening we were worn out. Dry clothes felt good, but the evening issue of snook ceviche with salsa on huge crackers, washed down with Nicaraguan rum and limes, was heavenly. And that was before our steak dinner.
Warunta lodge is built entirely on a dock connected to a semi-dry island. There are four, two-room thatched huts built from native wood, with two small shower huts. In the middle is a comfortable dining room with books and music, couches, a big table for excellent meals and a bar. The food rivaled most restaurants, and our cook Porfirio made his finely chopped snook ceviche better than anything found in Florida, in my estimation. Our host Eric is a Swede who went native back in 1981, living around Central America. He knows much about the lay of the land, the native fish, animals, people and politics.
Amazingly, there were few mosquitoes. The resident cat, a small fellow rumored to carry oscelot genes, stalked and pounced on any bug or gecko that dared appear. Our rooms and beds were so comfortable, I slept through several rain squalls at night, unusual for me. Temps were in the mid-70s at night, much cooler than Florida. With a polite wakeup knock at 5:30 each morning for breakfast, it was best to get a good night's sleep. And we did.
The daily average for snook is 20 to 40 fish per angler, and often more. They range up to 20 pounds, though only one lunker was caught during our stay. Rain and occasional lightning had the fish uneasy, the locals said. At any rate, it was impressive how snook hit the trolled plugs, sort of a lost art back in Florida. Some of these fish hit only 10 feet behind the propeller while I was watching. Because of aquatic weeds in some spots, you couldn't troll far behind the boat, thus the short lines. Ralston said the motor's noise makes the fish glance up as the boat passes by.
The tarpon range from babies to brutes. All of them were sulking because of the weather, and few even rolled. One guest from Lakeland named Sam jumped a few tarpon while doing his best to avoid them. (He claimed a total of 200 snook during the trip.) January through May is best for tarpon, and we were there in early July. Most of their tarpon are hooked and lost on small plugs meant for snook, rigged with treble hooks. Next time, I'll rig a mid-sized trolling plug with a single circle hook, attached to the plug's eye with copper wire. The detachable plug will float and can then be retrieved. That's how world-record tarpon are fought and landed in Africa, in jungle rivers and ocean inlets. The lure flies high, but circle hooks stick like glue.
Of course, Africa doesn't have the same snook. And Honduras is a whole lot closer, only two hours from Miami. I'll stick with Honduras.
The Miskito people say a strange thing happened in Puerto Lempira about 20 years ago. A gringo named “Ollie North” showed up one day with a lot of friends in noisy helicopters. Within days, they had bulldozed a primitive airstrip on the edge of town. Soon there were many more just like him, all wearing camouflage, many carrying guns. Eventually 20,000 refugees arrived from neighboring Nicaragua, where many Miskito also live. Many shelters went up in Lempira. As it turned out, the history of the Miskito people made them a perfect foe against the Sandinista government; they have always acted independently or ignored Spanish governments. For the past three centuries, they have admired the English. In times of war, very often they were allies with the King of England. (Their fascinating history is summarized at www.miskitoindians.org/indians.htm).
Sleepy Lempira hasn't been the same since the early 1980's, with its population growing. One item that came from all this activity is the gravel airstrip. It remains the only means of reaching Lempira today, aside from slow, shallow-draft boats. That airstrip is how we came to plunk down in a sturdy, Russian-built 14-seat aircraft (Sosa Airlines, daily flights from La Ceiba). The plane kicked up huge splashes of red mud puddles from the tropical showers. From every house porch, people watched us land. It's the morning's entertainment, watching three planes splash down on the strip and then take off again, departing before afternoon thunderstorms can intensify. People, bicycles and sometimes cattle wander the runway, but clear out as each plane appears low on the horizon.
Upon arrival, our bags were loaded into a pickup truck. We drove slowly around potholes through the small town, down to the community dock, where our gear was stowed in center console pangas for a 45-mile boat ride to the fishing lodge. Fortunately, the weather was calm. When whitecaps dominated the bay on our return, our two boat guides returned through the back way, a protected bay with what looked like an idyllic Miskito village on the shore. There we saw no less than 15 dugout canoes dotting the water, a scene that could have been 500 years old. In each one, old women and children were handlining for machaca, the local freshwater panfish. Young and old are fully utilized in this society; whoever can paddle and fish, does so. It's true they have no electricity. But that means they have no satellite television either, a huge blessing. That's one more reason to call this place Gracias a Dios.