“Pancake Paradise” by Mark B. Hatter from the 2003 April/May issue of Fly Fishing in Salt Water Magazine
Now Serving Pez Raton for Your Summer Angling Appetite
By Mark B. Hatter
There is an atoll on the southern rim of the Caribbean that serves up a hearty dish of angling for fly fishers with a hunger for what the Spanish call pez raton. The Spanish name for this “high order” delicacy might elude you, but the English name certainly won’t. I’m talking of course, about bonefish and the bistro that serves this specialty delivers it on the largest platter of “pancakes” you’ll find in the Western Hemisphere, perhaps on the planet.
The name of this bistro is Los Roques, Venezuela and the angling fare is served on the famous Pancake Flats that are sprinkled throughout the center of this atoll like blueberries on the real breakfast dish. Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about this cafe is that it serves a healthy helping of pez raton all day long, every day, 365 days a year …even during the summer doldrums.
Last summer I was certainly in the mood for a hearty serving of bonefish somewhere. I was, however, not expecting to find much in the way of opportunities knowing the affects of summer heat on most Caribbean locations, that is until I conversed with Doug Schlink, of Angler Adventures, who virtually guaranteed superlative bonefishing on the Pancake Flats of Los Roques.
Naturally, I was skeptical. “Bonefish in July, when the midday flats at many Caribbean locations can be hot enough to poach an egg?” I challenged. But Schlink appealed to my marine biology background using science to win his argument.
As Schlink explained, there is solid science behind Los Roques’ ability to deliver bonefishing as consistent during the summer heat as it is from February through September and it has everything to do with location.
First, Los Roques is situated only 12 degrees north of the equator 80 miles off the northern coast of Venezuela. Recalling your high school biology on climate as it’s influenced by geography, you’ll remember that environments are the most stable near the equator where the sun arcs overhead in perfect 12-hour intervals, regardless of the seasons. Consequently, Los Roques’ proximity to the equator insures that summer days are not appreciably longer than those around the winter solstice. This translates to a stable marine environment where water temperatures change little on a seasonal scale.
Second, Los Roques is suffused by nearly constant trade winds.
These air currents “turn over” or replace warmer surface water heated by the sun with cooler subsurface water while oxygenating it at the same time. Since warmer water holds less oxygen than cold water, this turnover and oxygenation affect holds surface water quality high in areas directly exposed to the wind.
But there’s a third part to the equation that really separates Los Roques’ with its midsummer productivity from other Caribbean locations bathed by trade winds, and it has to do with the relative surface areas of the Pancakes themselves. Picture small, evenly spaced flat-topped hills from one-half to three acres rising up from a deeper plane. Surround these hills with just enough tropical water to cover the tops and you have the Pancake Flats. The small nature of these “lagoonal plateaus” allows the highest level of turnover from trade winds and, therefore, the optimum conditions for bonefish regardless of the time of day or year.
In short, it’s the perfect ecology of Los Roques that provides fly fishers exceptional opportunities at significant numbers of bonefish daily. I couldn’t disregard the statistics Schlink defined as expectations for anglers over the course of a four-day trip where it’s not uncommon for anglers to hook upward of sixty or more bonefish! And, while most fish average around four pounds, there are plenty of bones in the eight to ten pound range to keep the adrenaline rushing.
I’ve always wanted to fish Los Roques and Schlink provided about as solid an argument as one might expect for a midsummer booking.
So, long time angling buddy Cliff Parsons and I decided to make our reservations for Café Los Roques to order up a tall stack of pez raton, a la Pancakes.
Schlink booked us with SightCast, one of only two outfitters operating in Los Roques. SightCast’s owner-operator, Chris Yrazabal, operates three 28-foot panga-style boats that serve as efficient water taxis to and from the Pancake Flats. All of the fishing is via wading and the flats are firm and easy to navigate. While I’ve gone barefoot on sand-bottomed flats in other places in the Caribbean, wading boots are required in Los Roques to protect your feet from the crushed coral, which constitutes much of the flat.
The typical day begins at 7:30 AM where, after a hearty breakfast, you walk the few feet from your beach front room to load your gear in the boat. Yrazabal’s protocol is a pair of anglers to a guide and boat; an arrangement that insures only two of you will be on a given Pancake Flat at a time. Generally, you will trade off fishing one on one with the guide as you alternate flats. And while this arrangement allows you to match your skills against some of the best eyes in the Caribbean when you wade alone, I can assure you that Yrazabal and his guides will spot fish you’d never see.
The SightCast team has extensive knowledge of each of the over 300 Pancake Flats in the lagoon. Each flat is unique and slightly different in depth and composition from the next. The variability is subtle, but having been revealed to Yrazabal during his formative years as a guide working Los Roques, he has passed this experience on to his crew placing them well down the learning curve.
The result is a prescribed fishing pattern of a specific set of Pancakes that are targeted depending on the tide.
The optimum fishing depth is between ankle and shin deep with rising tides providing your best opportunity to find Pancake bonefish. Actually, you don’t find bonefish, because they are on every flat; you hunt them with the help of your guide.
Water depth is critical and Yrazabal’s “routes” encompass flats in selected regions of the lagoon that are fished over the course of several days as the tide becomes later on each cycle. In four days of fishing, you will likely never hit the same Pancake twice. His pinpoint timing is evident when your helmsman cuts the outboard well above a flat and coasts downwind to the drop off point where dozens of dorsal fins and tails flash like cutlery in the sun.
Bonefish feed into the current and the trade winds provide constant directional “current” moving surface water as they blow from east to west. While the words “trade wind” can sometimes rattle the most experienced fly fisher, you’ll find that dealing with the wind is not difficult. In fact, the wind can actually aid the angler suffering “distance deficit syndrome.” And, with the fish moving into the general direction of the current, the wind will always be at your back; upwind casting is never required.
If you allow the wind to “help” your cast by opening up your loop a little on the forward stroke, extra distance can be gained as the wind carries your fly line. Don’t forget that the wind also helps mask you from the your high strung quarry.
Los Roques bonefish feed madly, almost recklessly, on a flooding tide and often move over the flat in waves allowing you to stand and fish the same spot for an hour or more. Parsons and I had several occasions where the fish poured through a particular flat and we released as many as six fish apiece without moving more than a meter in any direction.
The casual observer couldn’t tell the difference between rising and falling water, it all seems to look the same. However, Yrazabal and his guides know, and so do the fish. As long as the tide is rising, even if it’s 12 noon, there will be a phenomenal push of aggressive fish eager to take your fly as they move onto the flats to feed.
For whatever reason, the fishing becomes more difficult when the tide begins to fall. Although still found in substantial numbers on the flats, Los Roques bonefish get coy and begin to play games with you on outgoing water. They can be tailing, just as they did when the tide was rushing in, however, they are definitely more difficult to fool. But I think you’ll enjoy the respite from easy fishing and will take great pleasure, as did Parsons and I, earning bones on the reciprocal tide.
While SightCast employs several excellent guides, during our trip we fished exclusively with Yrazabal and Cayito. Both Yrazabal’s and Cayito possess superb guiding skills but Cayito displays a rare sixth sense for locating skulking bonefish. He can feel the presence of invisible bonefish like some can sense an approaching storm in a rheumatic limb. In short, he sees the unseen. And, although he speaks little English, his subtle sign language is universal.
One afternoon, camera in hand, I followed Parsons and Cayito as they stalked insolent bones on a falling tide. We slowly moved in parallel until Cayito stopped and raised his left hand, extending an open palm forward signaling; bonefish are near. I watched as Parsons craned his head like a wading bird, triangulating on its dinner, but finding nothing. Like Parsons, I too, of course, saw nothing.
Never mind that there were more than a dozen bones visible to even Parsons and me over a sandy depression another 200 feet in front of us. Cayito’s supernatural ability had been activated and he would not let closer singles get away undetected. But consider his approach for a moment and you will find merit; blowing out unseen fish tends to make visible bonefish in the vicinity edgy.
We can’t see the fish so we watch Cayito, awaiting his next signal. Then, with his arm still extended he flicks his first two digits in a manner one would use to brush lint from a shirtsleeve. We read and comprehend: the lurking bonefish has moved off, time to move on.
But within a few steps, Cayito suddenly stops again, this time raising his left arm not quite so high and rolls the first three digits on his hand as if playing an invisible keyboard. “Booonfish!” He whispers to Parsons while trilling his fingers. Parsons, once again the wading bird bobs his head back and forth as I’m thinking to myself that I can’t see the damn fish either!
Cayito crouches, using his entire arm to point in the direction of the sighting. “Booonfish!” he utters again. “Cast, short!” He is now raising and lowering his arm in the direction of the invisible like a railroad-crossing gate. “Cast!” he says again, this time with added urgency. “Cast at what! Cast Where?” I can hear Cliff’s frustration grow.
Then, the phantom bonefish turned broadside revealing its position 50 feet in front of Parsons and me, finally belaying its existence. Cliff and I throw each other a quick look, we know what the other is thinking: Damn! We’re marveling, this guy is good!
Punching a quick back cast, Parsons slows his forward stroke letting the breeze unfurl his fly line and crab imitation just short of the target. The fly lands with a gentle “spliff” in front of the bonefish now cruising slowly up current. “Streeep, streeep, stop…streeep, stop…streeep, streeep!” Cayito coaches Parsons as the bonefish follows the fly with apparent ambivalence. Then, somewhere in the recesses of the bone’s primitive brain, Pavlovian instinct supplants the falling tide psyche and it rushes the fly, eating it on the seventh “streeep.”
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