The morning breeze was warm and full of promise as our guide pulled a fly out of my fly box. He smiled at me and said in his jubilant Yucatan drawl “This is good fly” he laughed. “Good for nothing.” That is how a friendship begins. I should have guessed right then that I was in for a day of one-liners. But little did I know they would last for many years to come…and the years still keep coming.
We were on Isla Holbox, an island just off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula at the point where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Caribbean. We had come to escape another Ozark February and the weather that comes with it. My friend Randy and I had come to Yucatan to fly fish for young tarpon.
While Holbox was not that well known in the U.S. at the time, when it came to tarpon, the name Sandflea kept popping up as we prepared for the trip. A first walk on the sand was all it took to find him. He grew up on Holbox and is known by everybody on the island. His home, the Holbox Tarpon Club. Sandflea is the nickname of Alejandro Vega Cruz. He is one of those fellows who seems to have the energy of three or four. His broad smile held the promise of a good time and hopefully a tarpon or two. “How about tomorrow morning,” he asked and said he would pick us up on the beach the following morning.
The air was crisp in a Caribbean sort of way as we loaded our gear into Sandflea’s panga. A few brief words as he settled us down in the boat and we were off, his panga cutting through the waves as we ran to the mangrove flats in the lagoon on the backside of the island. Suddenly we were in an environment that nearly defies description. Extremely shallow water dotted with small keys and islands of mangroves. From time to time Sandflea would ask us to sit in the front of the boat so we could clear an extra shallow hump in the sand.
We arrived at a very shallow spot in the lagoon and Sandflea traded one of my “good for nothing” flies for one of his own. He watched as we scared away school after school of young tarpon, all the while kindly giving us lessons in our new pursuit. And I could see on his face the exuberance he felt every time one of us did something right. His lessons came as gentle suggestions and eventually they paid off as we each had our first Holbox tarpon. Not the one of the100lb monsters that cruise offshore in the summer but it was the hunt, not the size that I will always remember.
I believe that is how I came to know I would be spending more time with this soulful son of the sea. While a big fish would have him fist-pumping and dancing around on the deck of his panga, it truly is the joy of the hunt that seems to have his heart. He knows every bird that flies above the flats. From herons and pelicans to the flamingos that dot the backwaters. And he would smile every time he pointed one out to us. It became obvious that the environment of Holbox is as important to Sandflea as his tarpon are.
And then we were off. There were still a few more spots to try. I could tell by the smile on Sandflea’s face that he felt he had successfully done his job. Teach us to catch our first Holbox tarpon. The rest of the day was just fun. I believe that is why I and so many fly fishermen love spending a day with Sandflea. It is his passions for the sport and the environment in which it takes place. And of course his one-liners. Sandflea is a teacher by nature. Successfully teaching a couple of midwestern trout fishermen the ways of the Holbox waters, I believe, is part of the joy he finds there.
So February has become my Holbox month. If Sandflea is out fishing some far off place, or doing promotions for him and his sponsors, I am always confident going out with one of his many guides. He has taught them well and several are members of his extended family. Holbox Tarpon Club is a guaranteed good time no matter which guide takes you out.
Over the years I have had the opportunity to fish with Sandflea almost every time I am on Holbox and now call him my friend. When Brewer and Shipley are on another “One Toke Over The Line” tour I sometimes like to wear one of his shirts on stage. It not only reminds me of the many wonderful times in the Holbox backcountry with my friend but humbles me as I wish I was as good a singer/songwriter as Sandflea is a guide. I’m long past the point of calling him Sandflea and refer to him now by his given name Alejandro. The guide to the silver kings of Isla Holbox.