Belize River Lodge, Belize, 2010

In southwest Florida, one of my cues for knowing when to start looking for the first tarpon of spring is when I am awakened before dawn by a bird calling outside my bedroom window. The source of the call is the southern version of the whippoorwill – called a ‘chuck will’s widow’ - members of the night jar family who are active at night, and actively call in the hours before dawn. Any other time of year, a bird calling outside my bedroom window during pre-dawn hours is not a pleasant experience – it’s usually met by some yelling from me, and if that doesn’t work some rock throwing. It’s only a matter of time before one of my neighbors sees me standing outside in my underwear at 5am, yelling and throwing rocks at a tree. But whippoorwills and their kin are different – their pre-dawn calls are a sure sign of the beginning of another tarpon season.

So imagine my surprise when, on the recent BTT Traveling Angler trip to Belize River Lodge to tag tarpon, I was awakened by the pre-dawn call of a Yucatan Nightjar – the Belizean cousin of the whippoorwill and chuck-will’s-widow. I was probably sleeping rather lightly, anticipation being what it is to any angler who has a big day on the water in store, but whatever my state of sleep, it woke me up. The call was slightly different, but I immediately recognized it as a nightjar – a whippoorwill with a Belizean accent. I’m not into omens or signs or anything like that, but it was pretty wild to hear that bird on the first morning (and every morning thereafter) of the trip.

On a couple mornings, the nightjars were nearly drowned out by the howler monkeys starting the day in the nearby jungle.  Howler monkeys roar loud enough to wake the dead. With all that noise they produce, you’d think they were huge beasts, but a 15 pound male is a big howler monkey. I don’t think they know anything about tarpon.

We were at Belize River Lodge with the goal of placing three PAT satellite tags in adult tarpon. We’d been invited to the lodge by Mike, Marguerite, Misha, and Dirk, who are strong advocates for tarpon conservation. In fact, Mike helped lead the charge (along with Ali at El Pescador, and Craig at Turneffe Flats) to give catch and release status to tarpon, bonefish, and permit in Belize.

We had four days to catch three tarpon over 80 pounds and attach PAT satellite tag to each.

The nightjars did not fail me, the tarpon were arriving. It’s all relative, of course, but Belize has had a stretch of bad weather this winter, just as we experienced in the States. And although they didn’t have any fish kills like we did in Florida, the poor weather certainly put off the fish at times. Fortunately, we were there as the weather began to switch from terrible toward normal, and the fish started to come into the river, and to feed.

As is often the case with tarpon, they played hard to get for much of the four day trip, and continued to be affected by changing weather. But there were enough good-weather periods that many tarpon were hooked, and we were able tag our goal of three adult tarpon.

All of the tarpon were caught in or just outside the mouth of the Belize River. The first fish, an 85 pounder, was caught outside the mouth of the river on an early morning. We had sacrificed the pleasure of breakfast to get to the river mouth early, and found some fish holding in the outgoing tide, sitting low in the water and coming up occasionally to gulp air. Dirk slowly worked the boat toward a spot where a fish was rolling every five minutes or so, and a few casts into the hole brought a strike and the signature acrobatics of a hooked tarpon.

The rest of the crew had opted for breakfast, so once we knew the fish was well hooked, Dirk called the lodge to let them know. The report we later received was that when Misha announced the hookup to the guys gathered at the breakfast table, all conversation stopped, food was quickly consumed, and they headed for the boats.

The second fish was caught a day later under similar conditions – fish holding in the outgoing tide outside the river mouth. This time, Scott Paciello, of ESPN Outdoors and a BTT board member, came tight on a fish. Scott did a great job getting down and dirty, and had it boatside in short order. We pulled the science boat alongside, transferred Scott to our boat, and a few minutes later were placing the PAT tag in his 95 pound tarpon.

We saved the third fish for the late afternoon of the last day, and just for good measure we made sure it was the largest of the trip. Fishing near the river mouth, we lucked into a 45 minute span when the tarpon were riding high in the water, and charged and engulfed anything that was thrown at them. Tarpon were flying everywhere – there were many hooked and lost before Mike Larkin, of the University of Miami, latched onto his fish. The tarpon must have been in a feisty mood, because Mike’s fish ran longer and pulled harder than any others we had tangled with on this trip. But Mike kept the pressure on the tarpon, and we tagged and released it as we drifted past the river mouth. Mission complete. The first tarpon satellite tagged in Belize.

All of the fish swam off energetically, so now we wait for the tags to pop off the fish later this summer. The details:

Tag 133, tarpon 85 lb, tag will pop-off on August 1st.

Tag 138, tarpon 101 pounds, tag will pop-off on August 15th

Tag 141, tarpon 95 lb, tag will pop-off on September 1st

We were also able to tag some bonefish, and have fun with some snook.

Special thanks to Belize River Lodge for hosting the trip and to all who made the trip with us.