By Byron Coburn
There I sat, on a cold concrete bench in the early morning dark, while I waited for Captain Omar to show up. After almost 20 minutes, it occurred to me something may have happened. I turned on my cell phone (it had been off since we had boarded our flight the previous night). I was dismayed to find that there were several messages from Omar and his wife, Elvia, informing me that the boat had motor problems and the trip would have to be rescheduled. To say I was disappointed was an understatement. I contacted Omar later that morning. He was very apologetic and promised that the boat should be ready to go the following day. I was really concerned that this trip was going to be a flop.
My wife and I had scheduled a two week Caribbean Cruise with another couple a few months before. The cruise originated out of San Juan, Puerto Rico. We always fly in a few days early. We had three extra days at the beginning of this trip. A few weeks before we left, I was on the Internet and found out that there was tarpon fishing available! To me, catching a tarpon is one of the biggest thrills there is in fishing. Captain Omar Orraca with Caribbean Outfitters came highly recommended on Trip Advisor.
The next day I was back on my bench at the Congrejos Yacht Club. Only this time, Omar showed up right on schedule. As Omar was loading the boat, I noticed he had a handful of fly rods. I asked him if that was how we were going to fish.
“I thought you had said you wanted to catch one on a fly rod”, he replied.
I asked him which was more likely to be successful at catching tarpon, a fly or bait. His response was, “You might catch one tarpon today using a fly rod, but you will catch a lot if we use bait.” My reply was, “Put those fly rods back and let’s use bait!”
It wasn’t long and we were underway. I expected to exit the little harbor and head out to the open sea. Instead, we crossed a small lake and headed up a canal to an inland lake named Laguna San Jose. At one point we crossed under a very low highway bridge (I had to remain seated or my head would have hit the bridge). There was a good current where the canal passed under the bridge and there were some local fishermen using throw nets to catch bait fish. Omar stopped and talked to one of them and the fisherman pulled a plastic laundry basket of fish from the water. He passed it up to Omar. Omar was at the back of the boat putting fish into his bait tank for quite some time. I finally looked back and noticed that he was evaluating every bait fish to make sure it was lively and the correct size. After seeing how careful he was being with the bait, I had a really good feeling about how Omar ran his operation.
The trip from the harbor to the fishing spot didn’t take more than 20 minutes even counting the stop for bait. The lake was surrounded by dense mangroves and tropical trees. The main highway from downtown San Juan to the airport bisected the lake. Occasionally, a jet liner would roar over our head since the airport was adjacent to the lake. I couldn’t believe we were going to fish for tarpon right in the city. Omar told me the lake had been a very shallow lake before they built the airport, but gravel and rock were dredged from it to use as fill for the airport runways. The lake now varies between six and 30 feet deep.
Omar used his GPS to find a spot in the middle of the lake. He then let the boat drift with no anchor set. Within minutes, he had four rods set out. The baits were lip hooked directly to the line with no swivels or weight so they could swim freely in the water. There were a few tarpon rolling on the surface, but they were pretty far away. I have fished for tarpon several times and been skunked at least twice, so I wasn’t overly confident.
Omar had just turned to say something to me, when a tarpon leaped out of the water ten feet from the port side of the boat. The rod closest to the fish bent over and the reel’s drag started to scream. Omar grabbed the rod, gave it a couple of pumps to make sure the hook was in deep and then handed the rod to me.
Wow! What a fight! The fish jumped a couple of more times and then made several more runs. Omar stood close by, giving me instructions on how to fight him. “Keep your rod tip lower. Pull to the right. Okay, now pull to the left. Bow to the king!” Bow to the king is a term they use when fighting a tarpon. When a big tarpon jumps, you always drop your rod tip down and bow to give them some slack line.
After 10 or 15 minutes (who was counting!), I had the fish up next to the boat. Omar grabbed it by the lower jaw and hoisted it into the boat. He had me hold the fish with one hand on the lower jaw and another back by the tail to support it. Wouldn’t you know it, I forgot my camera! Omar was kind enough to take pictures with his cell phone. He estimated its weight at 25 lb. Seemed a lot bigger to me!
After the fish was carefully released, we moved to a new spot a few hundred yards away. About 30 minutes later, the rod behind me banged against the rod holder as another tarpon went airborne. I grabbed the rod and the fight was on! This one took a little longer. Omar estimated its weight at 30 lbs. More pictures and then we were off again.
This time we moved closer to shore and fished around an oyster bed. The sun was getting hot by now, so the fishing had slowed down. At one point, Omar pulled out a kayak paddle and used it to move his boat through the water very slowly. I asked him why he didn’t use a trolling motor and he said the motor noise would put the fish off and they wouldn’t bite. This guy really knows his stuff!
Suddenly, a tarpon jumped and a rod, up front, bent over. Fish on! This fish only jumped once, but he was much stronger than the others. At least twice he swam close to the oyster bed that was only a few feet below the water’s surface. Omar yelled at me to put on as much pressure as I could to keep the fish away from the oyster bed or the line could get cut on a shell. After what seemed like an eternity, I finally had him next to the boat. Omar said he would bring him on board, but the fish had to remain laying on one of the bench seats so its body was supported. Omar said the fish weighed about 60 lbs and if we held it up for pictures, the weight of the fish would injure its internal organs. Omar took some pictures and then asked me to hand him a pair of needle nose pliers. He plucked out a large scale from the fish’s side before returning the fish to the water. He handed me the scale and told me to press it flat in a magazine until it dried. He said the scale would make a great souvenir. What a guy!
We did have one more hit, but the fish managed to throw the hook. Three tarpon boated in four hours – now that is a really successful trip. Usually, when tarpon fishing, you lose most of the fish because the hook pulls out. They have a very hard mouth, so it’s hard to get a good hook set. Omar uses a special fresh water hook to help prevent this.
I can’t say enough about Omar. He was without question the best guide I have ever hired. He was friendly, knowledgeable and a pleasure to be around. No wonder he has a solid ‘five stars’ on his reviews. Next time I am in Puerto Rico, I‘ll be fishing with Omar!