This past summer I was fortunate enough to be a part of a team that I never imagined possible with my experience. Because of a last-minute vacancy, I found myself on my way to San Pedro, Belize to be a part of the first ever tarpon and bonefish tagging expedition in the country.
Like most great things that happen, it all began over happy hour after a few drinks. “Ford, you gotta come on this trip with me man,” my uncle Preston said. After about a half-minute explanation I was all in. Even a rookie saltwater angler like myself knew that this was one of those once in a lifetime opportunities. And I wasn’t about to turn it down to sit in an office for the rest of my summer.
I had just recently been in Islamorada with a friend trying to catch a tarpon on fly for the first time. My friend Mason poled me around the Florida flats for days coaching me up from his platform on the stern. After countless refusals and even more missed shots, I finally felt that tug. “He ate! Strip it!” I hit the thing so hard I broke him off and watched the splash settle with the waves, heart thumping.
I didn’t know how long it would be before I felt that rush of adrenaline run through me again. A few days later I had my ticket to San Pedro. I would be joining the rest of the team at El Pescador, a fly-fishing lodge in San Pedro, Belize only three weeks later.
Once everyone arrived at El Pescador we had a little tagging expedition orientation over cocktails. It was an eclectic crowd. Five from Chicago including a married couple, a father and son, and the crazy guy who organized the whole deal. There was another group of three from Boulder. Mark from Fairhope, Alabama to add a little Southern flare, and then there was Bruce. One of the funniest dudes I have ever met in my life. He brought some of that psycho die-hard fishing mentality from the Florida Keys.
We headed out to the dock at 4 a.m. where we met our guides for the week. Our guide, Ketchu, introduced himself to me and took some of my gear. The first thing that came to my mind was how many jackass customers have said, “Catch you? I wanna catch some fish!” I chose not to add to that number and hopped on the boat to ride off in the rain.
The rain began to subside once we reached long key where we were told the big boys hang out. In the first thirty minutes two of the other boats had already hooked up. I kept blind casting into nothing when I felt a tug. Like I had been told to do, I waited about three seconds and stripped the shit out of my line. Fish on.
I knew what I needed to do to hook the fish, but since I had never done that, had no clue what to do next. Ketchu gave me a speed course by yelling commands as Preston laughed in the back of the boat. After about a twenty-minute fight I landed the fish.
We had only been on the water for an hour and three of our four boats had landed fish. None were big enough to tag, but the trip was looking promising from the start.
When we got back to lodge, we celebrated with some beers by the pool and watched an afternoon storm roll in over the water. That storm was the end of the tarpon. The water temperature dropped ten degrees pushing the fish into deeper waters. Nobody hooked up for the rest of the week.
Some members of our team were pretty down about it, but I didn’t care. I finally caught a fish I had been chasing for years. Tag or no tag, I would do it all over again just to feel the rush when you’re hooked up and the line is screaming out of the spool.