Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Puerto Rico Pit Stop: Days 3-8

And so the adventure continues. Day 3 and 4 were spent in El Yunque National Forest and Isla Culebra respectively, which was a ton of fun. El Yunque was beautiful, and I had hopes to catch some of Puerto Rico's native freshwater species, like bigmouth sleepers or mountain mullet. However, the park didn't allow fishing, and we ran out of time before I could check out some spots just outside of the park. 


Day 4 was spent on Culebra, an island famous for its beaches and snorkeling east of the main island. Despite waiting in lines for hours for the ferry, we arrived in good time. We went to a less crowded beach, without much white sand but arguably some of the best snorkeling in the world. Going straight out into the eelgrass beds, we saw a variety of porgies, mojarras, and jacks. The highlights, however, were the rays. My sister and I spotted many southern stingrays, and found one monstrous spotted eagle ray that zipped by us. To the right of the grass, not 20 feet from the shore, was an astonishingly well preserved coral reef. The sheer number of fish was intoxicating. Huge parrotfish, schools of 40+ grunts, colorful damselfish, bright wrasses, and lobsters were among those seen. I followed a massive 2 ft scrawled filefish for about 10 minutes before it got tired of me and swam off. Houndfish cruised along the surface. I had to resist my urges to fish since we were in a marine reserve. An amazing experience nonetheless.



After returning from Culebra, we immediately hit the road, driving across the mountains to La Parguera, a town on the southwestern coast. Driving across the mountains proved to be a daunting task, with our gps not realizing some roads were closed, etc. The whole thing took about twice as long as intended. Thanks to the incredibly kind people who lived there, we made it out. 

The next morning, I was up at sunrise despite not much sleep to see what I could catch off the hotel dock. I didn't have any bait, so I tied on a small jig with a Gulp! minnow, cast it parallel to the dock, and immediately hooked a small yellowtail snapper, species #78, for those following. 



Pretty little feller

There were school of some short of small herring around the dock, that, try as I might, simply could not get to hook. Then, I noticed a small fish that looked slightly different that was more than eager to bite the tanago hook with a flick of bait. The hardhead silverside, species #79 came rather easily, then was immediately put on a hook. 



I tossed it out on my ultralight (poor decision in hindsight) under a small float, and the struggling fish immediately caught the attention of several roaming houndfish. Unlike the needlefish, the houndfish pounced on the bait immediately savaging racing off at blinding speeds after grabbing the silverside. I waited, then closed the bail and set the hook. I can attest than houndfish can pull hard. It gave a short but spirited fight, often times leaping completely out of the water. I fun fish to catch by any means. I held my breath as I lifted it up onto the dock. There, flopping wildly, was species #80!



Sharp teeth on those little buggers. It's crazy how parallel evolution works; they look so similar to gar, with long, bony jaws, backset fins, and sharp teeth, but have completely different hunting behaviors.

Species were coming in at a nice pace now, and I sent out some needlefish pieces out on a bigger rod. I began to observe more, and noticed a large tarpon would pass the dock every once in a while. A grey angelfish passed as well, and I threw everything I had at it to no avail. I spent much of my time targeting some small barracuda, but they really didn't want to play around either. I had several screaming runs from what I assume were tarpon, but never hooked up. I was severely undergunned for most of the tarpon anyway.

Meanwhile, my mom was walking around town when she met an older gentleman named Ray. According to him, he was from Puerto Rico but lived most of his life in New York City. He was now retired. He offered to take me to a dock to show me how to catch tarpon. It seemed kind of sketchy at first, but I considered the circumstances and took him up on the offer. We went to a dock not 10 minutes down the road from the hotel. There, I bought some frozen squid and ballyhoo for bait. The tarpon were not cooperating, much to Ray's dismay, so I turned my attention to the shallows where there were plenty of new species to be found.

Dropping down a size 16 hook with squid, tiny little grunts swarmed the bait. The first fish that came up was a tomtate grunt, species #81!


Dropping down another piece of squid, a yellowfin mojarra picked it up, and nonchalantly became species #82. A beautiful specimen at that.


This particular mojarra became bait for one of the many tarpon swimming around the dock under the dock. A little while later, I looked over and my float had disappeared. I grabbed the rod resting under the dock and set the hook, praying it was a smaller tarpon. The fish gods were on my side, and I saw a roughly 20 lb tarpon flash at the end of my line. Unfortunately, that luck was short lived. I fought the fish for a solid 10 seconds before, in a dazzling display of water and aerobics, the tarpon shook the hook mid jump. I was fairly dismayed, knowing that was probably the last chance I could hook a smaller tarpon, as the majority of the fish were in the hundred pound range. I turned my attention back to the small fish.

One species that I was constantly pestered by was the checkered puffer. I had already caught this species, and they were everywhere. Nonetheless, it was fun to watch them puff up.



Fisherman brought their hauls in to the dock as well, full of grouper, snapper, and spiny lobster.

Down went the bait, up came a tiny french grunt, species #83.


The next species is most definitely new, but its identity is a little muddled. I only caught one of these, and my best bet as of now is a jenny mojarra. Either way, it is species #84.


There were a couple purple-backed, yellow-bellied damselfish swimming around. I finally got one to bite, and pulled up a beaugregory damselfish. Species #85's photo turned out fairly cruddy, but I'm not losing sleep over it...right?


In slightly deeper water, I dropped down some squid on a tiny hook and was met with plenty of aggressive horse-eye jacks. Now, I know this species gets a little big larger than this specimen(just a little), but I'll settle for this one. Species #86!


More grunts, mojarras, snappers, etc. followed. I tried to get some small snapper species to bite but they were not cooperating very well. The biggest heartbreak of the day came when a green moray somehow was swimming in the shallows. I stupidly tossed out my small hook with some cut bait on it in fear of it swimming away before I could tie on a wire leader and a stronger hook. It grabbed it, and I got it basically on shore at the boat launch when its sharp teeth sliced through the 8 lb mono. It's not very often that a moray swims out into the open like that, so I was pretty bummed, to say the least.

I spent the rest of the day feeding and occasionally hooking tarpon. They would wrap me around the dock, and then the sudden slack would cause the hook to pop. Nonetheless, it was fun seeing the fish violently vacuum in a ballyhoo chunk. One time, I hooked a tarpon, and an old fisherman, amused at the spectacle, guided me around the dock, half shouting, half laughing in rapidfire Spanish. I ended up playing that fish out for about 8 minutes, finally getting it close to the dock. With a final surge of energy however, it screamed off and my line popped. That was the closest I would get to a tarpon. Once, fishing for grunts with a #16 hook and a tiny piece of squid, a tarpon came out of nowhere and nonchalantly sucked my bait in. I had no choice but to clamp down on the spool and snap the line. With 4 lb test, the fish was bound to spool me.

On the bright side, Ray invited me and my family on his boat to go fishing that Sunday. We invited him to dinner to get to know him better and as appreciation for his help. He said he hadn't gone fishing in ages and was really looking forward to it.




The next day, we woke up early for a scuba diving trip. It was just me and my sister, since my parents weren't too comfortable with the idea of diving. Long story short, it might have been the highlight of the trip! It was incredibly fun. We dove down to 40+ feet, and saw endless marine life, including several angelfish, mantis shrimp, sea cucumbers, lobsters, very large snappers, and so much more. It was with an instructor around some deeper reefs. I'm actually thinking of getting certified! In the afternoon, we went to Gilligan's Island, which was a lot of fun but unfortunately allowed no fishing. We saw tons of barracudas (including a big one) and jacks in the open, and venturing into the mangrove channels, we saw plenty of grunts, goatfish, and snappers. I picked up a live conch in the midst of a pinfish school and placed it somewhere safe, as these are delicious.


After Gilligan's, I returned to the dock, but didn't catch anything new.


The next day we woke up bright and early, I being excited to see what I could catch in more open water.