4th September – 17th September 2003

Arrived at our resort on the West coast of Antigua to find it was surrounded by water _. Our accommodation was right on the beach with about half a mile of sand and surf to the left and right of us. Behind us were 2 large saltwater lagoons separated by a path and small central bridge. The sea was crystal clear and bright blue – in contrast, the lagoons were shallow, dank and muddy_
Spent the first day settling in and walking about – I didn’t see a fish anywhere on the resort_.

Cycled to the Royal Antiguan Hotel (about 20 minutes) where I had been informed there was a salt-water lagoon that definitely contained tarpon and snook. Incidentally, this information was passed to me by a contact that I made through a “salt-water fly fishing forum” on the web – many thanks to Frank from Boston.
I didn’t take my tackle with me as when I left my accommodation I didn’t know exactly how far it was going to be and even at 05:00hrs the temperature was already pushing 30_c.
This was my first reccé session and, although I spent 2 or 3 hours walking around the lagoon, I didn’t see anything of significance – only shoal after shoal of small mullet_
Oh well, back in time for breakfast and in time not to upset the wife!!

After much questioning of staff at our accommodation and searches through the local telephone directories I couldn’t find anything to help me with my search for fish (as in ‘fishing fish’ – i.e. those that will put a bend in my rod).
Therefore I revisited the Royal Antiguan lagoon with my gear. My gear simply consisted of a 9 foot #8 rod, a large arbour reel spooled with a WF floating line and 200 yards of backing, a large box of flies (traditional bonefish, permit, tarpon and general saltwater patterns), forceps/tools and a camera – it couldn’t be simpler - still didn’t stop me sweating several gallons by the time I arrived at the lagoon though!!
I fished for about 3 hours all over the lagoon with various fly patterns but I never saw (besides the ever present mullet shoals) or felt a fish in that time. This particular day was quite windy with a ‘fresh’ easterly blowing that affected my casting a good deal and limited the areas that I could fish.
Oh well, back in time for breakfast and in time not to upset the wife!!

I was going to cycle to ‘Jolly Harbour’ as this was another location that had been mentioned in Frank’s forwarded e-mails. However, when I got to the reception to book my bike out I got talking with the security guard that was on duty (to early for hotel staff). He gave me 2 invaluable pieces of information:
don’t cycle to Jolly Harbour – it’s a long way and you have to go via St. Johns (the capital). I had thought I could cycle down the coast – wrong_
there are plenty of ‘inshore’ fisheries on the south coast and snook, tarpon, etc can be found in many places_
This would mean hiring a car or finding some other way to get to this area. I would guess it’s not far ‘as the crow flies’ (about 6 miles) but by car through St. Johns it would be twice the distance and about 20/25 minutes drive.
Fishing was therefore cancelled for today and - back in time for breakfast and in time not to upset the wife!!

Decided to visit St. Johns for the day to do some shopping and sight-seeing (at least that’s what you must tell my wife if you ever see her!!). I managed to find a fishing tackle store called ‘Aquasports’ in St. Johns (just by coincidence….. honestly!!) and, although they weren’t much help (“what’s fly fishing?”) they did give me a leaflet produced by a local guide who specialised in ‘light tackle, spinning and fly fishing’. Now I wasn’t going to hold my breath on this as I had tried to make contact with this guide via e-mail on several occasions prior to my arrival in Antigua with no response – however, when I phoned the number I got a nice surprise_ Read on: -

Phill of “Phill’s Eco Adventures” came to pick me up at our accommodation at 06:00hrs and filled my head with tales of fly caught fish. The evening before I had phoned Phill and he had told me that there were plenty of SWFF opportunities on Antigua – it was just that no one really did it or comprehended it (I guess most people only fish for food). He told me that there were snook and tarpon (as I already knew) and to compliment that there were large bonefish and permit to fish for_
Phill told me he was happy to take me out on his boat or to guide me from the shore. I decided to have just half a day from the shore as I didn’t really know what to expect and secondly I didn’t think I could fish all day in temperatures exceeding 35ºc!!
So to the fishing. Once Phill had quizzed me about my hopes and aspirations he decided that we would have a shot for “the big 3” (tarpon, permit and bonefish) or at least have a look to see if they were ‘at home’.
Our first stop was Dark Water lagoon (just south of Jolly Harbour). This was a large area of water that had all sorts of bays, arms, bars and plateaus – very much like an English gravel pit. As soon as I was out of the pick-up I could see fish_
Our first quarry was tarpon. I tackled up with a 17lb tapered leader and a size 1 red and black ‘streamer’ fly (deceiver type). As I approached the first ‘arm’ (a narrow peninsular of coarse grass and sand) I could see ‘baby’ tarpon right in the margins – 2 or 3 fish on each side. The biggest would be about 12 to 15lb and the smallest 4 or 5lb.
Phill soon had me casting to a moving fish a little further out – only about 10 yards but obviously feeding. First cast and the tarpon followed the fly right in – my heart was in my mouth and I totally cocked up the recast_. “Never mind” said Phill “there’s plenty more”_.
The next fish I cast too took the fly before I had started to strip and as I raised the rod the tarpon flew clear of the water – totally spectacular!! Mistake number 2 – this one cost me my fly_
By now I was a quivering wreck and couldn’t even tie a new fly on – besides which I had spooked all the tarpon for several miles I think!! We moved around the lagoon but I never had another chance before the wind and sun got up. The wind had been blowing easterly for the 6 days that I had fished so far and was proving to be a real nuisance.
Phill’s next suggestion had me calmed down and raring to go again – “lets see if we can get a bonefish”. Back in the pick-up we travelled to Carlisle Bay right on the South of the Island and about 20 minutes from Dark Water. A natural sand, grass and coral flat has formed here between the offshore reef and the sandy dunes of the bay.
I was soon tackled-up and ready to go. I had changed the 17lb tapered leader for one of 10lb and had attached a small (#6) silvery shrimp fly. We waded out on the east side of the flats with the wind at our back and we could see a number of ‘boners’ to the west and to the south (just in the 6 inch surf that broke over the reef). The fish to the south were generally small and in groups of 3 or 4 so we decided to tackle the larger fish to the west. The main reason for this was that the ‘surf’ area was very rocky and dense with grass therefore presentation of delicate bonefish flies would be relatively difficult (especially with the wind).
As we approached the west side of the flat I had my first opportunity to cast at a bonefish. There were a group (shoal?) of 3 and I dropped my cast just in front of them – a little too short_. I started to retrieve to have another cast when a small ‘boner’ appeared from nowhere and took my fly – it took me by total surprise and the fish was off the hook before I really knew what had happened. The hooked fish and my ‘involuntary’ (!) actions obviously spooked the other bones and I had to wait a while before my next chance.
My next effort almost ‘mirrored’ the first. I cast short of a good sized feeding fish and decided to immediately recast – at the same simultaneous moment as Phill said “leave it – there’s another one” I lifted the rod to recast and pulled the fly right out of the fishes mouth_. Result – no ‘bones’ landed, all ‘bones’ spooked and me left in an emotional mess __
Phill asked me if I wanted to have a look to see if any permit were home and I grudgingly agreed – if I can’t catch tarpon and bonefish, what chance have I got with permit!! We drove to an area of shallow surf which was breaking quite hard over ‘off-white’, brittle coral that was just in-shore of Cades Reef. Phill and I walked out into the surf to about 2 foot depth and scoured the surf from shore to about 30 yards out for signs of feeding tarpon. We had been there for about 20 minutes when we decided it was too late and the permit weren’t ‘home’. As we turned to go, Phill shouted “there, there” – for a moment I couldn’t see anything – I was looking to far ahead. Right in front of Phill, about 10 yards away was a feeding permit. Not only was it feeding but it must have been getting on for 40lb in weight!
We manoeuvred ourselves back to the pick-up and set-up Phill’s #10 rods with 25lb fluorocarbon leaders and crab pattern flies. Once back in the surf we didn’t have to wait long to see the fish again – I stripped off some line and started to false cast to get the required distance. As I went for the final forward cast, the line just stopped ‘shooting’ and fell to the sea. The stripped line was getting washed up and down in the surf and was getting caught in the coral – oh how I wish that I had remembered my stripping basket!! I tried to get closer to the fish to alleviate the problem but to no avail – the fish soon disappeared and I had to reflect on a day of lost and missed opportunities__
Oh well, back in time for lunch and in time not to upset the wife!!

Whilst fishing with Phill he had asked me why I hadn’t fished the lagoons behind the accommodation where I was staying. “Two reasons” I said – “one it’s a bird sanctuary and two I’ve yet to see anything in there”. “Come with me” he said on the way back from my disastrous half-day out (which was actually about 6 hours and included a trip to see “Bushy” – the local rum producer – say no more!!).
At the entrance to the resort in which I was staying Phill just kept on going up the hill. At the top he jumped out and said “come see”. We scrambled over some rocks and were soon looking down from about 60 feet onto the lagoons. In the one corner directly behind my accommodation I could clearly make out the shape and size of about a dozen tarpon. Difficult to estimate weight at that distance but I would guess at the biggest being about 25lb_. Point two was covered off! “What about it being a bird sanctuary?” I asked – “no ones ever stopped me fishing it said Phill”. Point one covered off_.
So, early in the morning on day 7 I set off in search of tarpon in “my” lagoons. The wind was stronger today and, even though I walked up to the hill from where we had spotted fish the previous day, I couldn’t find the fish. A few speculative casts and then home.
Oh well, back in time for breakfast and in time not to upset the wife!!

Once again I looked for the tarpon in “my” lagoons and, although I found them, they stayed permanently and stubbornly out of reach in the centre of the lagoon_. They obviously had realised that they had been discovered!!
I had arranged with Phill to go out on his boat for half a day so that he could show me some more permit and bonefish locations but, due to his boat engine having not been returned from service this was not possible. This was therefore rearranged for the 12th day (this only on the assumption that hurricane Isabel didn’t hit Antigua at some point during the weekend [days 10 and 11])!!!!!!!!

My wife and I had arranged for a tour of the island on this day so there was no fishing_.

I had planned to revisit Carlisle Bay to have a go for the ‘bones’ again but the weather put me off this idea. Although we had been very lucky to see Hurricane Isabel steer northwards at the last moment we still had some quite strong winds today along with intermittent showers. Sighs of relief all around but no fishing again today. We were now in the final chapter of our holiday and I hadn’t landed a fish yet__

Spent the morning on “my” Lagoons but once again couldn’t find the fish. Tried all fly patterns, all sizes, all retrieves. I must admit to not being totally enthusiastic. I knew I was running out of time and unfortunately, knowing that there were tarpon just 50 yards from my door was distracting me from getting out and looking for ‘other’ opportunities.
In the afternoon I took a taxi to Jolly Harbour – I expected to see a hotel, a harbour and a shoreline – how wrong I was!! Jolly Harbour is a HUGE complex of hotels, holiday villas, golf courses, marinas and boat yards. I don’t know what acreage it covers but it must be several square miles of development with an extensive amount of waterways (canals) between various areas and several marinas/harbours. I spent my time just wandering around the canals and the main seaward harbour and although I saw fish, non were close enough or in open enough water to fish for. This area certainly has huge potential and will be visited when I return to Antigua. The canals themselves seemed very snaggy and full of mullet but the main harbour is fairly open where it meets the sea and I would suggest that this is a good starting point.

Phill picked me up for a half day on the boat. Fortunately the weather had improved so we headed to some flats off the north coast of the main Island. Some of the flats were ‘traditional’ grass and sand flats making up the southern shoreline of small islands. Others were more like coral and rock reefs in the middle of the ocean between the mainland and these outlying islands.
At the first flat we came to we anchored up and jumped overboard into 12” of warm clear water. A flats boat would be of no use here as the distances travelled between fishing spots is quite large. Therefore Phill is more inclined to walk the flats than to pole a boat across. As we walked across the grass and sand there were clear signs of bonefish having fed there. We walked up onto the shore to have a better look from a raised position and we saw a group (pod, shoal, school?) of 5 fish moving quickly from left to right. We tried to give chase to them but we eventually lost them. Half an hour later the same thing happened. Although we were seeing bonefish they weren’t feeding and were moving to quickly to even get a cast off. We visited two more island flats with the same results so Phill suggested we go look for permit.
We found permit on two occasions on the coral/rocky reefs in the middle of the ocean. It was a strange sensation standing in 18” to 24” of water and being a long way from land – almost like walking on water!! Anyway, walking on water I was not. I got a really good cast off just in front of the second permit we saw and I’m sure he showed interest (he certainly had my heart pounding out of my chest!!) but to no avail. The fish didn’t spook but just meandered off the reef and into deeper water. We continued to look until midday but the sun seemed to have put the fish down – it was certainly getting to me!!
Oh well, back in time for lunch and in time not to upset the wife!!

Back to the Black Water lagoon – I had hooked and lost fish here so it had to be worth the re-visit. And so it was_. The fish were once again in the margins when we arrived and I was able to literally drop a fly onto the first fish that I saw. The baby tarpon took immediately and, as seems to be the norm’, it came flying out of the water and threw the hook_. The water was disturbed so I moved on and saw some fish well out in the lagoon off another sand spit. These fish were well off the spit but I thought that I would be able to wade quite a way towards them. I got to within 20 yards of the fish when they turned towards me. I hurriedly made a cast in the general direction and it landed perfectly (well, a little short actually!!) and the fish continued on their path. As they approached the area where the fly had landed I started to retrieve ………………………… a fraction of a second later a silver rocket took to the skies!! As I was out in open water I was able to play the fish quite comfortably and to let it run (and run, and run …). When I eventually brought the fish to hand I could see the fly just in the ‘scissors’ of the jaw. I just grabbed the hook, twisted, and the fish was free – brilliant – my first tarpon…… but wait – what had I forgot – a reminder, a souvenir, a photograph_. Oh well, never mind, I’ll have to catch another one – and besides which, I’ll always have the memory_.
At that moment in time I was elated and hadn’t realised it was raining. I walked back to shore, picked up my backpack and walked back to the first bay I had fished. It wasn’t long before a fish appeared and I soon was playing my second fish of the day. In the small bay the fight was spectacular and I’m sure the fish spent more time out of the water than in it!! I got into the water to land the fish and once again released it before getting photographs. It was raining so hard at this time I just didn’t want to risk my camera gear. I really was buzzing now and it was only about 08:00hrs_. However, the fish didn’t think it was as early as I did and decided to do a disappearing act_.
Oh well, back in time for breakfast and in time not to upset the wife!!
In the afternoon I contacted Phill and he was very happy for me and offered to take me to McKinnon’s Swamp on the North West of the Island to see if I could catch a larger tarpon.
McKinnon’s is a very large lagoon (although it’s called a swamp) which lies behind the ‘old’ casino and some of the large holiday hotels. On the seaward side it is very muddy (take care of the holes!!) but very open. The far side is overgrown and quite inaccessible.
Phill and I waded (carefully) for a while but never saw a fish to cast too. We did however see the very large ‘shoal’ of tarpon that Phill had told me about. I don’t know how many fish there were but it must have been in the region of one hundred – Phill concurred and stated that their weight range was 5 to 25lb. Another destination ‘marked’ for future visits_

My last day_. Phill had offered to take me fishing for a few hours in the morning before I had to get back and pack so I opted for Black Water again – no surprises there then!! The day went pretty much as the previous day except better_. I actually managed to hook five fish and land three which I thought was a remarkable achievement as it had taken thirteen days of a fourteen day holiday to land anything at all!! The only downside to all this exuberance was that I forgot my camera_ as the Wife had started packing the night before (why do they do that!!) and our apartment was in total disarray!!

Summary
Ok – so I didn’t catch a lot – so what? I had a fantastic experience and did manage to put a bend in the rod on a few occasions. At the end of the day I was in Antigua on holiday and could have lain on the beach for two weeks (except when it was raining of course!!) but I didn’t. I got out there and explored. I saw a lot of the Island that I otherwise would not have done and I still got a tan and managed to relax and forget about work for a while.
Antigua is a beautiful island with a lot to offer both in terms of a holiday destination and as an out and out fishing destination. When I think back to those permit I still get excited at the prospect of casting a fly at them – I never saw a fish under 20lb!! As for bonefish I didn’t expect to see any as I had not heard or read one article that confirmed (or even guessed at) their presence. I personally saw ‘bones’ in the 5lb category (which would do for me) but Phill states the Island record at a massive 14lb!!!!!
I never had the chance to fish for snook but I did see a few small fish in the lagoons up to about 10lb. Phill has an album full of photographs of fly caught snook up to 54lb – a fly caught world record at the time (apparently). His album also contains photographs of some large tarpon (well over 50lb) and lots of pictures of GT’s, Jack’s, Barracuda, etc. Incidentally - although I never fished for them, I did see lots of ‘cuda and lots of jack’s on my travels over the Island. So, there’s another opportunity for my next visit_.
As for ‘baby’ tarpon (in my book that’s fish up to about 20lb), they were everywhere. Nearly every lagoon or harbour that I visited had fish showing themselves. The only place I didn’t see one was in the lagoon in front of the Royal Antiguan. I find that bizarre as before I travelled I thought that this lagoon might be my prime location as Frank (from Boston) had hooked tarpon in there previously!!
I guess the only remaining question is “would I go back?” – the answer is a resounding “yes”. I have estimated that my total fishing time was in the region of 20 to 22 hours – not a lot really for fourteen days holiday. If you then consider the actual time I had a fly in the water which I would guess at being no more than 8 hours (possibly much less) then the number of hooked fish doesn’t look too bad at all. There, I’ve convinced myself_.
I will go back to Antigua and I will contact Phill again (Phill’s Eco Fishing - fish@actol.net). He was a great help to me not only in locating the fish but also in tackle and fly selection. Add to this his incredible knowledge of the island and the fact that he was pleasant company both to fish with and to travel with and you can understand why.

So, who’s up for a trip then??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????


Phil