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Small-Water Tarpon in Guyana's Jungles

Three days of muddy misery then jackpot, fly fishing for juvenile tarpon.

Small-Water Tarpon in Guyana's Jungles

Guyana has some of South America’s largest unspoiled rainforests, and they are veined with rivers running to the tropical Atlantic Ocean. It’s prime territory to look for tarpon. (Tim Romano photo)

This article was originally titled "Tenkara Tarpon" in the Horizons column of the April-May 2016 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine. 

The market apothecary was full of remedies like “belly clean out,” “wind medicine,” and “men builder tonic.” The crab oil salesman looked of Indian descent, with a white beard and a kind face, and he presented his potions in old Coke bottles labeled with a permanent marker. He was certainly closer to a witch doctor than a pharmacist, and as good as he made it sound, I wasn’t risking my health at the start of a fishing trip. His stand was across from a dreadlocked woman selling baskets of chicken feet and bowls of unidentified organs. Cow tongues hung at eye level next to a sign reading “Halal Butchered Meat.”

Twenty paces away was a purveyor of mangoes and pineapples, with product stacked like cordwood and spilling into the streets. Another woman tried to sell me a bundle of bora—a thin green bean that looks much like spring onions. A young girl peddled the latest movies from her basket of pirated DVDs. Curry and cumin and other indistinguishable spices filled the air, a nod to the East Indian heritage prominent through the country. This was the market in Georgetown, Guyana.

Street markets are an excellent way to immerse yourself in the local culture—a glimpse at the authentic people most tourists miss in their travels. It takes you out of your comfort zone, as your personal space is often trampled by people bumping into you. The noises, smells, and crowds can be overwhelming, but for me it is the best way to taste the essence of a place.

Small-Water Tarpon in Guyana's Jungles
There’s much to be learned in street markets in Third World countries. A fishy wild goose chase is always a good idea, but don’t try the medicines. (Oliver White photo).

Beyond the cultural aspect, it is also great tool for any fisherman. A walk through the fish market can offer invaluable intelligence about any nearby fisheries.

More than once a fishmonger has shared some insight on a location or bait that helped my own fishing. I’ve found tables full of permit in Mexico, giant snook in Panama, bonefish in the Bahamas. It’s disheartening to see gamefish displayed this way, but fishing for entertainment is a luxury few places on the planet are afforded.

The Georgetown market offered tables full of standard fare like mullet and snapper, unrecognizable species of catfish, and one vendor had a table covered in tarpon. They had all been butchered into 12-inch slabs with no heads—but the scales were undeniably tarpon. My best guess is the fish were all 15 to 30 pounds, and there were lots of them.

A quick interrogation yielded a small amount of valuable information. The fish were caught in a net, and although Georgetown is a coastal city, the tarpon were harvested in a river north of the city—far enough upstream that tide had no effect, he said. Further, he caught them inconsistently, none for weeks on end and then one day, a net full and a trip to the market. In my mind, that meant he was finding them as they moved from the river to the salt. The fish were almost always the same size, but he had seen bigger fish rolling in the estuary of the same river.

My stop in Georgetown was just a short layover on the way into the interior to chase monster arapaima. But with this tarpon discovery the seed was planted, and I knew we’d be making another trip to Guyana specifically to see if we could find a viable tarpon fishery.

Meanwhile, we kept up the questioning. We met a tilapia farmer who had been catching tarpon on fly in his ponds, and he had heard of tarpon on the coast as well. He pointed us to Tony Mekdeci who offered the real breakthrough.

Mekdeci owned the charter company we already planned on using to get to the country’s interior. His family was responsible for building the majority of roads in Guyana. His knowledge of the area and geography is unmatched, and more important he’s a fly fisher. This was the guy we needed.

He was full of information and was willing to share it. He rattled off stories and places in the interior for arapaima, peacocks, giant catfish, and arowana. He had fished with Stu Apte in the 1970s and had been exploring the country ever since then. He was invaluable, he had been everywhere we were headed, and when I asked about tarpon he smiled and said, “Guyana has the best tarpon fishing no one has ever heard of.”


Tarpon on Tenkara?

Broome Airstrip in Mabaruma is a tiny town in the northwest corner of the country, and the nearest airstrip to our final destination—the Amakura River on the border between Venezuela and Guyana. We hit the town for critical supplies such as rum (Guyana has some of the world’s best) and beer.

Our ultimate goal was a small tributary called Luri Creek where we were told the tarpon live. The plan was to camp with river people who have small farms and live a simple existence. The kids paddle canoes to school as the river is the only road and the only means of transportation.

There were no guides or boats to rent. We hired some fuel smugglers—guys who earned a living running their boats into Venezuela, buying barrels of fuel for pennies a gallon, and then selling the product back in Guyana for a huge profit. The boats were crudely handmade and shaped with a pronounced upturned bow and an oversize engine for the smuggling trade. They met us in Mabaruma, and we started the three-hour journey to camp.

We were a great group of friends and mostly talented anglers—Al Perkinson from Costa, Rich Hohne from Simms, Kirk Deeter from Trout Unlimited, Tim Romano shooting images and sticking his fair share of fish, and Patrick Henry our in-country contact who helped with all the permissions and logistics.

Henry works under a contract from US AID, the arm of the U.S. government that provides foreign aid and he was largely responsible for getting everything off the ground in Guyana for both the tarpon exploration and the previous arapaima project. We also brought Rovin Alvin, the Amerindian we were training to be a fly-fishing guide for arapaima.

We had angling talent, but the river was a giant mess. It looked more like a processional mud slide than a freshwater stream. Visibility was nonexistent, less than a couple of inches. The main river offered little encouragement, no structure, nothing to target or focus on, just a muddy wave of water. As we cruised upstream, the only things of interest were numerous primitive fish traps. Stakes in the mud created natural funnels toward large nets. The nets were tied in the back, making it easy for fishermen to untie the net quickly and dump their harvest into the boats.

The biomass extraction was staggering, we saw thousands of pounds of fish taken from the river. We stopped a few times to watch the harvest, but we didn’t see any tarpon.

Our camp upriver was extremely primitive. There was no running water, plumbing, or electricity. The toilet required a long walk down a gang plank through the marsh, and consisted of just a hole in the ground. It proved to be a risky endeavor after drinking too much rum. The barn where we strung our hammocks was full of tarantulas, giant frogs, and wasps.

When our host Auntie Phil locked up the dogs at night in a chicken wire enclosure, I asked her if they had been running away at night. “No,” she said. “A jaguar ate one of them last night.” Welcome to the jungle.

The chorus of snoring at night kept the jaguars at bay, and our camp critters didn’t dull our enthusiasm for the tarpon exploration. We headed upriver in search of magic, and our expectations were high. The water was uninviting, but we ducked up every tributary we found looking for fish. It was fruitless. We hacked our way into many smaller tributaries and fished them hard, but found no fish or sign of fish in the feeder streams or along the shore of the main river.

For a couple of days there was nothing to be found anywhere.

We felt like we were chasing dragons. Had it all been a hoax? Then, halfway through our trip, we found the spot—mythical Luri Creek, home to the most ridiculous juvenile tarpon fishing I’ve ever seen or heard of.

A tiny body of water, 60 feet wide at its maximum, and probably only 3 or 4 miles long, Luri Creek is unique in that it starts almost at the ocean. In fact, on a super tide the saltwater spills into the creek’s headwaters. It then flows slowly downriver and finally into the ocean 20 miles later.

As soon as we saw Luri Creek we knew it was different. The water was tannic and tea colored but maintained great visibility—a stark contrast to the mud bath of the main river. Instantly we saw the telltale rolling of tarpon. Everywhere. The first cast wasn’t even a cast, while stripping out line to make a cast I dropped the fly in the water, and as soon as the feathers got wet a fish devoured it. Every cast after was the same, fish after fish, as my personal count of tarpon landed was growing exponentially by the hour.

We threw everything we had—tarpon flies, poppers, Chernobyl Ants, it didn’t matter. They ate them all with reckless abandon. I hooked a fish that jumped directly into the other boat. There were times all six of us were hooked up, with tarpon jumping every which way.

Most of the fish were in the 2- to 15-pound range, and while a few fish approached 20 pounds, nothing broke through that. I put on a sinking line with the idea maybe there were bigger fish feeding below the smaller ones. I also tried bigger flies to deter the small ones. It led to a few of the larger fish in the 20-pound range but no signs of anything truly large.

Fishing was absolutely ridiculous, in three days we landed more than 1,000 tarpon. My biggest mistake was not packing a lighter rod. I had 7- through 12-weights but would have killed for a 4-weight.

Small-Water Tarpon in Guyana's Jungles
Al Perkinson (left) and Rich Hohne show off one of many tarpon doubles. A few of the smallish tarpon were even taken on tenkara rods. (Tim Romano photo).

Kirk Deeter presciently had packed a tenkara rod, he broke it out and rigged it with a small tarpon fly. Most people equate tenkara rods with small streams and pan-size trout, but they are also perfect for juvenile tarpon. A 5-pound trout or bonefish would destroy the tippet on a tenkara rod, but a tarpon immediately goes airborne, burning up energy, and the up-and-down fight often remains close. When they jump, just bow to the fish, and you’ll find they are very landable. It’s really tenkara fishing at its finest.

Patrick Henry is what we fishing guides call a “never ever.” He had never even touched a fly rod. We stuck the tenkara in his hand, gave him a 30-second tutorial, and he quickly landed dozens of tarpon, a perfect introduction to fly fishing on what is most likely the world’s greatest creek for juvenile tarpon. That rod landed dozens of fish before one of the bigger tarpon got hold of the fly and skyrocketed out of the water into a shower of shattered graphite.

This was my first exposure to the tenkara craze. I had been a naysayer, but the simplicity of tenkara is appealing, and I was a quick convert. It’s a perfect rod for learning. Budding fly fishers can focus on just the casting stroke without the complications of line control. It is simple, fun, and effective. As soon as I got home I bought one. Starting with tarpon didn’t hurt.

Oliver White owns Abaco Lodge in the Bahamas and co-hosts with Jimmy Kimmel, Jim Belushi, Yvon Chouinard, and others the TV series Buccaneers & Bones on the Outdoor Channel.

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