If you book a trip to a juvenile tarpon nursery on the Mexican coastline, you might get very lucky and arrive at the same time that a swarm of hoppers descends. It’s an event that occurs every few years and it happened during the making of tarpon film Atlanticus. Filmmaker Grant Wiswell and Dylan Rose of Fly Water Travel were there. Tudor Caradoc-Davies chats to them about what went down.

All photos by Dylan Rose.

Remember Atlanticus, the incredible 2017 film where Grant Wiswell, the man behind Castaway Films, took us on an epic journey to Gabon, Mexico, Costa Rica etc. in search of massive tarpon? I went to each of the South African Fly Fishing Film Tour events in Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg and distinctly remember that some of the biggest crowd reactions came not from the giant poons as you might expect (though those got predictably loud ‘yohs’ and ‘jislaaaaaiiiks’ too), but from scenes where juvenile poons smashed huge, green hopper flies.

I dwell on those scenes at least once a week. I think it’s because, whether you grew up going for trout, yellows, bass or bluegill, fish annihilating terrestrials is something that most fly anglers can relate to. Seeing juvenile tarpon (which to be clear are roughly the size of adult Atlantic salmon), smashing hoppers the size of your hand, it’s a louder, relatable echo of something you already know and a style of fishing you probably love.

The Location
For Atlanticus, Grant was trying to get away from the overly obvious tarpon locations like the Florida Keys. He says, “We had reached out to different people trying to find unique tarpon destinations. Dylan Rose and the guys at Fly Water Travel hooked us up with some folks in Panama, at a place called Tarpon Villa. That’s more of a big river mouth estuary, brown water fishery, which was a neat experience. Once we’d hooked up with them, they said, “You have got to go meet this guy named Marco Ruz.”

Grant and Dylan linked in with Marco who runs Yucatan Fly Fishing (yucatanflyfishing.com) and visited one of his four fly fishing operations, Tarpon Cay Lodge. The fishery sits in a protected bay with shallow tannic water, mangrove systems, beaches and some flats. While Grant and Dylan were there they ran the boat for about an hour and a half to a specific spot where Marco pinned a 150lb tarpon. So, you can also target larger migratory tarpon if that’s all that gets you out of bed in the morning. Snook and barracuda are also on the menu. However, Tarpon Cay is first and foremost a tarpon nursery. You go there to tackle juvenile poons on lighter tackle than you would use for migratory tarpon.

Accustomed to the troughs and peaks of migratory tarpon fishing, Grant was expecting more of the same – long slow days with the odd fish every now and then. Marco told him to expect something quite different.

Grant says, “He told us that we were going to catch 20 fish a day and that it would be a lot of fun, because they’re pretty much just the smaller version of these big adult beasts. On average the fish we were catching varied from 5-8lbs on the small end and on the big end, probably 25 pounds.”

What no one could have predicted was how good their timing was because, shortly after they arrived, a Biblical hopper hatch kicked off.

The Hatch
There’s so much that we are blissfully unaware of in the natural world that when something unpredictable and unusual happens, like a massive swarm of insects descending on an area seemingly out of nowhere, it’s hard to understand where they came from and why. Whether it was temperature, wind, soil, food availability or something else, one morning when everyone woke up at Tarpon Cay Lodge, things were … different.

Dylan says, “It was this weird thing where there were suddenly these four to six inch hoppers crawling on the walls of the lodge, in the marina and they were all over the water, trapped in the film. They’re huge, not at all agile and terrible fliers, like B52 bombers.”

Grant says, “I just remember waking up one morning and there were these huge grasshoppers all over the place. They weren’t there the first morning. I remember talking to the guides asking, “What is this?” and they said, “No, it’s ‘langosta’ which, in Spanish, means both ‘lobster’ and ‘hopper’.”

If you get aroused by Latin names and according to the homework Grant has done on these hoppers, he believes they are Arphia pseudonietana or red-wing grasshoppers in the common tongue. They hatch periodically (every four to seven years) in humongous swarms in southern Mexico’s Yucatan region.

Grant says, “You never really know where they’re going to hatch but, when these things come, it’s like millions of them. Farmers hate them because they destroy crops. I remember when I was younger, my dad would take me to the Henry’s Fork. We’d go fish salmon flies in the box canyon. You know when you’re fishing and all of a sudden you get hit on the back of the neck by one of these things? These hoppers did the same. When they fly into you they have a real mass to them. They were everywhere, flying in, landing in the mangroves or forming little colonies. Then they’d take off in a group, but end up in the water. I don’t know if the tarpon were keyed into them specifically or if they were just opportunistic but they reacted to these things kind of “panicking” on the water.”

Read the rest of this story and more in issue 35 of The Mission below. As always, it’s free.