By Till Brauer (Photos by Jose Fussa)
The island of Puerto Rico is just a three- to four-hour flight from any major city on the East Coast. Yet it offers some of the most sensational blue marlin, inshore and offshore light tackle and fly fishing opportunities in the Caribbean. While some other destinations get a lot of exposure through their tourism bureaus, Puerto Rico’s fisheries have evolved mostly through word-of-mouth advertising, which has created a somewhat secret following among knowledgeable fishermen around the world.
Scenery and Sightseeing
Puerto Rico is also a territory of the United States and shares currency, commerce and military ties to the U.S; therefore, a passport is not necessary to enter Puerto Rico, making it a truly “no hassle” destination.
Rest assured that anglers coming into San Juan enjoy the comforts of fine hotels, casinos, restaurants and a vibrant nightlife. There are accommodations of every price range available, from quaint bed-and-breakfast hostels to luxurious suites.
Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan, holds five centuries of colonial architecture, including the El Morro Fortress and San Juan Cathedral. Old San Juan is a jewel in the Caribbean, and visitors are well-advised to spend a few hours or a day walking through the cobblestone paved narrow streets, wondering what history happened there centuries ago.
As expected, Puerto Rico also boasts fine sand beaches and warm, clear water for snorkeling and scuba diving enthusiasts. Also, challenging golf courses, tennis, rappelling, zip lining and various other watersports and others are available throughout the island.
Puerto Rico is a spectacular island with diverse climate conditions, enabling for extreme changes in scenery and opportunities for sightseeing. The variety of beaches, mountains, deserts and rainforests make Puerto Rico a unique experience, with many activities for non-anglers too.
Fishing in Puerto Rico
Surrounded by water, the island of Puerto Rico and its main neighboring islands of Vieques and Culebra have fishing of all types, from largemouth and peacock bass in freshwater lakes and man-made reservoirs; to spectacular estuary fishing for tarpon, snook and jacks; to flats fishing for bonefish and permit; and to the largest gamefish in the world, blue marlin.
One of the advantages for anglers is the ability for them to fish offshore within sight of land. You will be fishing within two miles of the coast thanks to the deep waters of the Puerto Rico Trench.
Remarkably, the tarpon fishery, ranked among the best in the world, is also close to the hotels of the city. The world famous San Juan Estuary is actually located behind the San Juan International Airport and Isla Verde Beach. This enables you to catch a tarpon at sunrise and a marlin before lunch.
Boundless Blue Marlin
Puerto Rico is most famous for its impressive run of blue marlin of all sizes. In fact, the northern coast of Puerto Rico is also known as “Marlin Alley.” Marlin season runs from the month of June to the end of October. Puerto Rico’s sport fishermen release most blue marlin they catch and were pioneers in catch-and-release fishing in the early 1980s.
The possibility of a grander blue marlin is always there when you are fishing the North Coast. In fact, the longest-running blue marlin tournament in the world, The San Juan International Billfish Tournament, has been hosted by the classy Club Nautico de San Juan for over 60 years without interruption. This tournament continues to attract anglers from Europe and South Africa, and many have fished the tournament for decades.
On the west coast, a very special light tackle blue marlin tournament is held in October. The Club Deportivo del Oeste International Light Tackle Blue Marlin Tournament challenges anglers, crews and Captains to fight and release blue marlin on light tackle. The use of circle hooks is mandatory, as the healthy release of a marlin ensures its recovery from battle.
While blue marlin are available in fluctuating numbers to anglers all year round, the main season runs from the month of June to the end of October in San Juan and slightly longer on the west coast. As the water continues to warm, these marlin will reach North Carolina and Virginia during their yearly migrations.
The local charter fleet and private boats enjoy marlin fishing, and many marinas and yacht clubs hold tournaments most weekends. The practice of catch-and-release has taken over kill tournaments gradually, and Puerto Rico tournament anglers now release over 90 percent of their marlin.
If you are planning on chartering a boat for a tournament or a day of offshore fishing, make sure to do so before you arrive, as others will book the best boats and crews months in advance. As they do elsewhere, most marlin fishing boats use heavy tackle while trolling with artificial lures, teasers and dredges, etc. Some crews also specialize in pitch baiting with lighter tackle, and the visitor can arrange for a personalized charter using equipment that is suitable for his experience and desire for a challenge.
As the water temperatures start to drop and fish start to migrate south, the mahi-mahi, yellowfin tuna and wahoo start to arrive with the first cold fronts from the west. These pelagic species will roam around the island, much to the delight of visiting and local fishermen.
Tarpon and Fly Fishing
Back on the main island, the bountiful waters of the San Juan Estuary are located a few miles east from the world famous Condado hotels and Isla Verde Beach area, a very short drive from the San Juan International Airport. These waters, teeming with tarpon of all sizes, are among the top places to fish for tarpon year round.
To those lucky enough to fish these waters every day, Puerto Rico is a fishing heaven right on our backdoor. Tarpon, called sabalo in Puerto Rico, inhabit waters all over the island, especially in the mouths of rivers and mangrove islands, providing great sport along with snook, jack crevalle and a variety of other species. Most of the tarpon are caught with light to medium spinning tackle, fluorocarbon leaders and circle hooks.
Fly fishing is becoming increasingly popular on the island, and there are few fish as difficult to catch on a fly rod as estuary or backcountry tarpon. Fly fishermen should talk to captains about their knowledge of this type of fishing before booking their charter. Some have vast travel and international experience as well, so ask the right questions if you want your perfect match.
Many other species of fish roam around the island, including bonefish, permit and tarpon. On the islands of Culebra and Vieques, numerous tropical species are ready to attack a well-placed fly, bait or lure.
It so happens that the best tarpon season in Puerto Rico coincides with the worst winter and early spring weather conditions in the U.S., providing the angler and his family with an excuse to escape the brutal weather and enjoy a few days of tropical warmth and relaxation. If you plan on chartering a boat, do so before you arrive, as the best get booked well in advance.
Culebra and Vieques Islands
The neighboring island municipalities of Culebra and Vieques offer a completely different experience to traveling anglers. Located just miles off the main island and accessible via ferry or plane, they contain Puerto Rico’s finest beaches. In fact, Flamenco Beach in Culebra is continuously rated in the top 10 beaches in the world. On both islands, shuttles are readily available, and there are many places to eat and drink.
One can fish for bonefish, tarpon and permit as well as reef species, and light tackle fishing can be excellent. However, the number of guides working the area is very limited. Again, careful planning and prompt reservations will ensure that you have a good experience in these small islands. With the great water clarity, snorkeling and scuba diving are also popular activities.
What to Pack Along
There are fish near shore that can be a part of the adventure for the do-it-yourself angler, so bring the appropriate travel rod, reels, flies and lures such as bucktail and curly-tail jigs and shiny spoons. This will keep you busy, especially in the sunrise and sunset hours. Don’t forget a spare spool of line, just in case!
Although tarpon, barracudas and other species cruise the hotel beaches, the best waters are only available by boat, so book a charter ahead of time. Long-sleeve shirts, sunblock, sunglasses, a camera and your favorite fishing hat complete the contents of your fishing pack.
Puerto Rico has a great deal to offer, from its affable people to its warm waters and fine sand. Throw in tropical drinks, salsa, meringue and reggae music, restaurants and nightlife and you’ll be enchanted by the island’s charms. Top it off with superb fishing for blue marlin and tarpon, and you’ll be hooked on the isle of dreams.
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