Isla del Sabalo - The Yucatan's Final Tarpon Frontier

Dylan Rose October 03, 2023

The pre-dawn light was dreary and gray. A humid fog stuck to our lungs and coated our skin. We sipped our coffee and eyeballed the interminable cloud layer that would certainly make seeing fish impossible. Our prospects were bleak.

When Isla del Sabalo owner and lodge host, Marco Ruz, joined us on the beach, he had a sly glint in his eye. Our fishing outlook, he informed us, was perfect for an amazing day of chasing his beloved tarpon. For tarpon fishing at Isla del Sabalo, it’s more important to have a glassy, calm surface, he said, than to be able to see through the water column.

The air was eerily still as we set out in the panga. It wasn’t yet dawn. The water was steely gray and created a perfectly mirrored surface that was so reflective we could have used it for a shave. We began scanning for fish in the deafening silence; the only thing I could hear was my own breath. After 30 minutes, our guide’s voice shattered the silence. As he pointed to the horizon he hollered, “Sabalo ahi! There amigos!”

About a quarter mile away, I caught the flash of water splashing in the air. Something had broken the surface; something large. We puttered over to the scene of the action and as Sam, our guide, killed the engine, the deathly silence and stillness set in once again. After an endless hour, we wondered if our eyes had betrayed us; perhaps we had made the whole thing up.

Finally, my fishing partner, Rob, broke the spell, “There they are!”

Rob scrambled for his rod, buried in the gunnel of the boat. The large school of silver kings frolicked towards us like puppies set loose in a fresh green meadow and time stopped. Rob’s fly line went sailing towards the fish and he barely had time to make the first strip before a hungry tarpon engulfed his fly. The fish jumped into the air as though an explosive had been dropped in the water.

For the next six hours, we witnessed awe-inspiring tarpon action. Waves of aggressive fish moved passed us every ten minutes and as soon as one fish was lost another was hooked. On one occasion six different fish ate the fly on a single retrieve. Like punch-drunk teens, we giggled and untangled our blending fly lines from multiple double hook-ups.

By the end of the melee, we had hooked around forty tarpon. Our equipment was damaged, our bodies were broken, and our hands were mush. Eventually, we had had enough and told Sam, “No mas señor. Take us home for a siesta! ”

The Island of Tarpon and Marco Ruz

Isla del Sabalo or, the “Island of Tarpon,” is located approximately 60 miles north of Campeche on the western coast of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. The lodge resides in the small and rustic commercial fishing village of Isla Arena which is home to approximately 750 residents. Life in Isla Arena is a throwback to old Mexico. With nearly zero tourism, the locals struggle to make a living, fishing for sea cucumber, octopus, sea urchin, and snapper. The lodge is the closest jumping off point for some of the world’s most prolific and remote stretches (Isla Arena to Campeche) of juvenile tarpon water found anywhere.

While suitable for tarpon-addicted fly anglers, Isla del Sabalo is not a place to bring the family or non-fishing guests. The lodge functions as a small, no-frills camp with a maximum of six guests. The atmosphere is laid back and casual. The pangas are launched from the beach and appetizers are enjoyed in plastic chairs. The important aspects to keep anglers comfortable are accounted for and rooms feature a/c, private bathrooms and warm water.

Marco Ruz owns Isla del Sabalo as well as Tarpon Cay Lodge. We are proud to have worked closely with Marco for over a decade. Few owner/operators in the industry show as much dedication, passion and enthusiasm for fisheries as Marco. A Cancun native, he knew that the areas well north of Campeche, near Isla Arena, were relatively untapped and rarely fished. His explorations over the years had proved that prolific populations of juvenile tarpon could be found in the area and that fisheries were just out of reach of the guides hailing out of Campeche. Marco eventually found a lodge to partner with and has been developing the operation and fishery for the last six years.

The Name of the Game

Certainly, the name of the game is tarpon, tarpon, and more tarpon. The resident fish live here year-round and the fishing season starts in May and extends through September. These months offer warm waters, lots of encounters with fish and low winds. Each morning anglers set out from the beach in front of camp in 18-foot panga-style skiffs where they explore twelve major (and numerous smaller) estuaries south of the lodge. The area is massive, which, at times, can make finding fish difficult. At other times, locating schools is inevitable.

Ideal tidal conditions exist during high tide in the very early morning. As the water begins to drain, 8lb – 25lb fish exit the mangroves through the river systems, allowing anglers to target them while they are hungry and moving out to the flats to feed. The prime fishing window usually occurs between 7 am – 10 am. After lunch, as the tides begin to flood, the fish move back up the rivers for the safety of the mangroves. This creates a second prime fishing window each day. For this reason, Marco only operates Isla del Sabalo during weeks that feature these tidal conditions. Essentially, if you are booked at the lodge on one of the five prime weeks you are guaranteed to be fishing the best tides.

The usual game involves ambushing fish moving up and down the river systems as they either set out from the mangroves to feed (outgoing tide) or head back to the mangroves to rest (incoming tide). At other times, the guides will pole quietly along the mangrove edges, waiting for fish to roll and show themselves. When conditions are very calm and the wind is dead, some shots at larger migratory fish can also be available from one-to-two miles offshore. These fish can range from 20lbs – 50lbs. In order to find the fish, you must be able to see them roll from extreme distances. For this reason, the outside game can be a boom or bust proposition. However, if you do find the fish, hold onto your hat.

All of the fishing is from the boat with a single guide and fishing partners will trade time on the bow. On average, depending on conditions, about seventy percent of the time is spent casting at rolling fish or sub-surface “pushes” while the other time may be spent blind casting. At times the guides will get a “fishy” feeling in a certain location and ask you to blind cast, but for the most part, they understand that many anglers are eager to target fish they can see so they work to accommodate sight fishing the best they can.

Eight weight and nine weight rods are the standard tools of the trade with high-quality saltwater reels and 50-pound shock tippets minimum. Whether you are fishing the rivers and mangrove edges or out on the exterior flats, guides prefer tropical, weight-forward floating lines (non-shooting head style). Flies tend towards the smaller size, ranging from size 2 – 2/0. Baitfish patterns, shrimp imitations, and poppers are all standard fare. The fish can move quickly and sometimes a cast of 70 or 80 feet is required to give yourself a shot. Good casters with a stout double-haul, good accuracy and skills to deal with the wind will be rewarded with more hookups. It’s been said that, the baby-tarpon fisheries of the Yucatan are a “caster’s game.” If you enjoy casting, consider yourself a proficient distance caster or are up for a casting challenge than this is your sport.

The guides are skilled boatman with keen eyes for finding tarpon and sensitive to the needs of fly anglers; however, their English skills are minimal. The better your Spanish, the better you’ll be able to communicate. Most guides are proficient with direction and distance; however, communicating this in the heat of the moment can be a challenge for them. Anglers that are more self-sufficient on the bow of the boat with some tarpon experience will excel.

The Cradle

The vast eco-system surrounding Isla Arena and extending south to Campeche remains among the most fertile and untouched tarpon habitat found in the world. The entire coastline is a blur of creeks, rivers, mangrove forests and islands that serve to create a massive estuary, ideally suited to grow baby tarpon. Every square inch of the mangrove forest is teeming with life, from crustaceans to shrimp to baitfish. A veritable cornucopia of life fills these waters and powers a biosphere perfect for rearing tarpon.

This remote, yet comfortable and isolated tarpon camp is where serious anglers enjoy casual surroundings, down-home Mexican meals, an off-the-beaten-path adventure and access to some of the best juvenile tarpon water found anywhere. Isla del Sabalo is a uniquely small operation that places only three boats on the water at one time with little fishing pressure from outside operations. Whether you have given baby tarpon a try and are simply looking for something new, or if you’re a relative newbie looking to improve your knowledge and skill, Isla del Sabalo offers a tarpon universe ripe for exploration and adventure.

After our incredible experience at Isla del Sabalo, Rob summed it up beautifully: “Hands down,” he said, “the best tarpon catching I’ve ever seen or ever heard of.”

Isla del Sabalo, Mexico

Fish one of the world's most remote and least pressured juvenile tarpon destinations