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Category Archives: ESPN2

Bowman: Belize’s Mangrove Magic for the Silver King

Editor’s Note: Looking through some old files again this evening and I found this ESPNOutdoors.com story that I had written a few years back.

It was written to preview an ESPN Outdoors television episode when Conway Bowman – the current host of “Fly Fishing the World” on the Outdoor Channel and the former host of ESPN2’s “In Search of Flywater” – traveled to Belize for some epic tarpon action

Conway Bowman, host of Fly Fishing the World on the Outdoor Channel, offers some insight to tarpon fishing in Belize.

Ironically enough, Bowman – the undisputed king of San Diego mako shark fly fishing – is back in Belize as we speak fly fishing for the silver king as he films a new episode of “FFTW.”

But my primary reason for posting this tale is that it’s tarpon season in many parts of the saltwater fly fishing world. And for many who fish the fly, there is simply nothing better than spending a late spring day on a Hells Bay skiff looking for a laid-up tarpon willing to eat a fly.

Because of that, I thought I would dredge this old story back to the surface, let it gulp some air, and allow it to live once again.

It’s hardly the stuff of Thomas McGuane and his timeless tarpon fishing tales in “The Longest Silence” but maybe you’ll find a little something to enjoy here nonetheless.

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In his role as co-host of the popular ESPN Outdoors show, “In Search of Fly Water presented by Chevrolet,” fly guide Conway Bowman has seen some of the world’s best locations to cast a fly line.

But as viewers will see on this “Saltwater Sunday” at7 a.m. ET on ESPN2, there may be no better place to fly fish the brine than the Caribbean paradise of Belize.

While there might be places that offer bigger bonefish or more tarpon, few places in the saltwater angling world can top the sheer variety of fly fishing opportunity that this member of the British Commonwealth offers.

“There are other places to go for better bonefish,” Bowman said. “But with better bonefish, you will not get as many shots at other things like permit, tarpon, and snook.

“For multiple species, Belize is about as good as it gets.”

Conway Bowman has fly fished all over the world for everything from tiny trout to triple-digit sharks. But from the looks of the smile on Bowman’s face above, tarpon fishing must rank high on his list!

Take Bowman’s quest for a Belize tarpon for instance.

While the saltwater fly fishing guide has caught plenty of big mako sharks on the blue-water fly near his San Diego home, he had never done battle with Megalops atlanticus.

Until, that is, he visited the beautiful Belize River Lodge, just a few miles down the road from Belize City.

“On the first day I got one that went about 90 pounds,” Bowman said. “That was the first time I’d ever caught a tarpon.”

On that first morning out, it didn’t take long before Bowman and his guide spotted the Megalops cruising along the edge of an eel grass bed on the sandy flat.

“We tracked him and I got a 60 foot cast out there,” Bowman said. “I started stripping the fly, he turned, and I saw the whole thing happen.”

With a mouth as big as a “five gallon bucket,” the angler described the take of the fly as akin to watching “somebody flushing the toilet.”

“He jumped four or five times – it was awesome,” Bowman said. “The fight took about 30 minutes. He was much stronger than the (world record) redfish I caught.”

Such brute strength requires, in addition to stout fly tackle, a couple of key elements in fighting the fish to the boat: applying plenty of constant side pressure and “bowing to the king” when they leap from the water.

“The thing about a tarpon is that once you hook them, they make an incredible first run and will jump several times and tail walk,” Bowman said. “Then it gets down and dirty.”

“They can gulp air and regain energy and the fight can be on again, so (once I hooked him) I didn’t let up and put as much heat on that fish as I could get away with all the time.”

“They’re the toughest fish I think I’ve ever caught.”

Lest you think that Bowman’s catch was simply a case of beginners luck, think again. So good is the fly fishing found around the Belize River Lodge area that before his stay was complete, Bowman was a tarpon catching veteran.

“Most clients go 2 for 10 (on tarpon hook-ups versus opportunities), but I hooked a bunch of fish after that,” Bowman said. “I think I got 15 tarpon on that trip and we really didn’t fish for them that hard.”

“We had lots of shots at tarpon in the 80 plus pound range. We also went back into the mangroves and took plenty of shots at baby tarpon, which was pretty cool.”

In fact, while Bowman was mighty proud of his 90-pound tarpon – caught on a 12-weight fly rod, a floating fly line, a nine-foot leader with a 20-pound tippet, and a 2/0 grizzly fly pattern, by the way – he admits that he may have enjoyed catching baby tarpon up to 25-pounds most of all.

“I’d prefer catching them on a day-to-day basis,” Bowman said. “They’re fun, they jump really high some three to four feet out of the water, and you can get them in quickly.”

“That allows you to get multiple shots at them,” he added. “Plus, you get to use lighter equipment like a nine weight or a ten weight and you’re fishing in the mangroves, so you can get out of wind.”

Not to be forgotten in this saltwater paradise – perhaps best known for its incredible permit fishing action – is the opportunity to hook up with a drag-melting bonefish.

Using eight-weight rods, a floating fly line, a 12-foot leader with an eight-pound tippet, and either a Crazy Charlie or Gotcha bonefish fly, Bowman got into a dozen or so bonefish up to five pounds.

But it isn’t any of the bonefish that he actually landed that he’ll remember most.

“I saw a couple of them about 80 feet in front of me (one day),” Bowman said. “They blend in so well and once I saw the fish, I thought there were four or five of them (in total).”

Actually, the southern California fly guide soon found himself casting at the lead fish in a school of some 300 bonefish.

When that bonefish felt the sting of the hook, it made a sizzling run through the school causing a virtual piscatorial explosion on the shallow flat!

Perhaps the greatest measure of how good any fly fishing trip really was is how strong the pull is to go back once an angler returns home again.

In Bowman’s case, that pull is as strong as a 90 pound tarpon.

“I’d like to go (back) there in April when they have giant 200 pound tarpon at the mouth of the Belize River,” Bowman said.

“They’re sitting in three or four feet of water and you’re sight casting to them,” he laughed. “Man, wouldn’t that be insane to cast to a 200 pound tarpon in three-feet of water?”

Not if you’re fly fishing in the Caribbean angling paradise of Belize.

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Wejebe: Making Piscatorial Lemonade

While looking through some old files today from my days spent working for the popular outdoors Website www.ESPNOutdoors.com, I stumbled across a story that I had written several years back about the late great Jose Wejebe.

As most of you know, the popular saltwater angler and longtime television outdoor show host tragically lost his life last month when the kit-plane that he was piloting crashed in his home state of Florida.

The late Jose Wejebe shows off a 41-pound striped bass caught off the New England coast as he tested the new G. Loomis NRX fly rod. (Photo courtesy of http://www.SpanishFlyTV.com )

As I read the contents of that long-ago story aimed at driving viewers to ESPN2 that particular weekend to watch Wejebe’s latest adventure on the H2O, the thought came to me that some of that story was worth pulling out of the mothballs.

Not because of my writing ability or the lack thereof but because of the timeless truth that Wejebe passed along to me during the course of our interview.

Truth that includes: when it comes to fishing, don’t take yourself too seriously. Don’t ever give up hope while you are out on the water. Learn to take what creation is giving you on any given day. Let the story tell itself. And of course, learn how to make lemonade.

So without further adieu, here is a reprisal of sorts for “ESPN2 TV: Making Saltwater Lemonade”:

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“Forrest Gump once said that life is like a box of chocolates: You never know what you’re going to get.

While that may have been true for the character Tom Hanks portrayed in the movie by the same name, life has been a bit more like a lemonade stand for captain Jose Wejebe, the weekly host of the “Spanish Fly” and “Vida Del Mar” television programs on ESPN2’s Saltwater Sunday programming block.

During the course of his angling career, Wejebe has learned a lot about taking the lemons of life — and the ocean — and turning them into something sweet. 

Born in Havana, Cuba, in 1958, Jose’s family fled Fidel Castro’s communist revolution, settling in the Miami area.

That’s where Wejebe’s love for the sea sprang into life through the rich angling, snorkeling and diving environments found all along the south Florida coastline.

Today, Wejebe is a light-tackle angling pioneer who delights in exploring relatively untouched saltwater flats and blue-water venues for hard-fighting fish that can challenge the outer limits of gear design.

But while Wejebe is perhaps one of the most recognizable saltwater anglers in the world — his “Spanish Fly” began airing on ESPN2 in 1995 and he now is the host of Saltwater Sunday who is seen between show and introduces each segment — he has always stayed true to his roots.

If life, or the sea, gives you lemons on any given day, turn around and make some lemonade.

Take for instance a recent airing of “Spanish Fly.”

Originally slated as an episode where Wejebe would target tough-warring baby tarpon in the upper Florida Key’s Florida Bay, the final product turned out somewhat different than originally intended.

“It panned out that we caught one or two that morning, but that was it,” Wejebe said. “So, we went with the flow, let nature have her way and caught some black drum and some redfish to finish the show.”

And that, according to Wejebe, is the whole concept of the show.

“When you’re fishing, go along with what nature throws your way,” Wejebe said. “We were looking for baby tarpon, but we also found some black drum muddling around in the water.”

When Wejebe and his crew shifted gears from tarpon to drum, what they found was some epic sightcasting action with light spinning gear and shrimp.

“The cool thing about (those black drum) was that they were literally in water so shallow that the weeds were laying over on surface,” Wejebe said.

“They were in these little tiny potholes, so the shrimp had to cross a spot in front of their nose that was maybe four or five inches in diameter.

“We probably caught half a dozen of them,” he continued. “It was fun — they would turn one way and the five-inch spot would change, then they would turn that way, and that five-inch spot would change again.”

Later that day, the tactic of turning sour lemons sweet proved useful, yet again, when the tide changed.

“We changed zip codes that afternoon because the water wasn’t there (in the location where they started),” Wejebe said.

“When we got to the other place, we could see stingrays, mullet and porpoises, so you could just tell that there was some life there.”

Life to the tune of four or five good red drum, or redfish, including one solid fish.

But that particular episode of “Spanish Fly” isn’t the only place where Wejebe’s “lemonade” approach to life and fishing can be seen.

It can also be seen on another airing of the show when Wejebe and Steve Yerrid (the famed Florida lawyer who won a landmark case against the tobacco industry) travel to the Bahamas for some sizzling angling action before the ESPN Outdoors cameras.

Thing is, once again, it didn’t turn out exactly as planned — where’s that lemonade recipe when you need it?

“We went looking for the grouper spawn that happens over there on Crooked Island, but it didn’t happen,” Wejebe said.

“You can’t script any of these actors, you can’t script the fish. And that’s the main focus for me, you go out there, and have a good time catching whatever fish comes your way,” he added.

“You let the story tell itself, you do not force a story.”

Case in point is this particular Crooked Island episode of “Spanish Fly” airing this weekend.

“We caught a fair number of grouper and snappers, but it was kind of sporadic and spread out,” Wejebe said.

“So what was cool is that we did a time montage on the show and told about the evolution of the Crooked Island (fishery),” he added.

“I’ve been going fishing there for eight or nine years, but before, it was just a bonefish fishery. Now, when you go, there is fishing for things like mutton snappers, yellow fin tuna, and Wahoo.”

What can the weekend warrior — both freshwater and salt — learn from Wejebe’s approach?

Simple.

If a largemouth bass outing turns sour, there are always bluegills. If the walleye aren’t cooperating, don’t forget the crappie. If the redfish are leaving you red-faced, don’t founder; try for flounder. If … well, you get the picture.

“I’ve always fished this way,” Wejebe said. “I may be targeting tarpon on a flat, but I will have various other rigs ready nearby.”

“If you tool on down the flats and see a shark or a barracuda, then, boom, throw it out to him. If you see a permit or a bonefish, then throw it out to them.”

“Learn to take advantage of what comes your way,” he added. “I just think it’s more fun to catch fish and have a bent rod.”

“I’m all for fishing for a target species if they’re there and they’re biting; but if not, why not have some fun while you’re fishing for your target species?”

And while you’re doing just that, why not kick back and take a big swig on a glass of sweet lemonade, Saltwater Sunday-style, of course.”

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Rest in peace Jose Wejebe. You’ll be missed greatly.

And thanks for the great memories, televisions shows, and lessons on how to live life and catch fish.

And not necessarily in that order.