Tarpon Fishing At Tampico
( Originally Published 1912 )
ALTHOUGH the streams and rivers of Mexico have little to tempt the angler, the Gulf coast has become famous the world over as the place of places for tarpon fishing. This wonderful fish, which sometimes attains a weight of over two hundred pounds, and is as gamy as a brook trout, is found in its perfection in the waters round Tampico, and the delights of the sport have brought fishermen there from all parts of the world.
Tampico, which has become almost synonymous with tarpon, is about three hundred miles north of Vera Cruz; and it was to Tampico in quest of tarpon that I journeyed after my visit to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.
From the Isthmus I returned direct to Vera Cruz, which, on this occasion, fully merited its reputation as a city of the tropics. Instead of the gloomy weather and depressing "norther" which I had encountered on my arrival some four months before, there was a cloudless sky, the sun was blazing with tropical intensity and people who walked the streets all kept to the shady sides. The principal streets had already been asphalted, and the work on others was proceeding rapidly. When I first landed, there were no carriages to be seen, owing to the bad paving, but now I noticed several as I strolled through the town; and before .1 had been in the place half an hour I saw two automobiles whizzing along the main street. The old mule-cars were still running, but electric wires were being installed for the new American electric cars. Wonderful indeed is the march, or I should say the rush, of progress in modern Mexico.
There is no railway between Vera Cruz and Tampico, and as the country along the coast is very swampy and there are no important towns there, it would be very expensive to build a line. But some day a railway is certain to be built between the two places. At the present time the only way to get from Vera Cruz to Tampico by railway is to return to Mexico City and make a detour of several hundred miles. For this reason travellers have to go by steamer. There are two lines running between the two ports — the Hamburg American and the Mexican Steamship lines. The German liners are splendid vessels, several of the large Atlantic steamers being used for the Mexican service during the winter months. These steamers run from Bremen, Havre and Plymouth to Havana and thence to Vera Cruz and Tampico, returning to Europe by the same route.
I had to wait three days at Vera Cruz for the Kronprinzessin Cecilie, on which I booked my passage to Tampico, but managed to pass the time very pleasantly. The Hotel Diligencia, where I found comfortable quarters, was a typical, Mexican hotel, facing the plaza, with a large, open, tiled dining-room through which the breezes circulated refreshingly in the hot daytime. In the shade it was quite comfortable, no matter how baking hot it might be in the sun. Under the clear blue sky Vera Cruz was completely changed; the soft-tinted houses, the palm trees and the flowers in the plaza were all transformed into things of beauty, proving how essential is the bright sun to life in the tropics.
Having three days to spare before the steamer left for Tampico, I took a trip to the famous city of Jalapa (pronounced Hahlappa), eighty-two miles from Vera Cruz, on the Inter-oceanic branch of the Mexican National Railway. It is situated at about the same altitude as Orizaba, but in point of picturesqueness far excels that city. Like Orizaba, however, it lies at the foot of lofty mountains which encircle it, the great snow-covered peak of Orizaba being visible on clear days. The women of Jalapa, many of whom are quite fair, are famed for their beauty, and judging by the many attractive faces I saw in a short walk, it would seem this reputation is well deserved. The Mexicans, in fact, have a saying that Jalapa is a part of heaven let down to earth, and the proverb "Las Jalapenas son lalguenas" (Bewitching, alluring are the women of Jalapa).
A less pleasing characteristic of the town are its frequent days of mist and rain, a very serious drawback to the enjoyment of its great loveliness, which has given rise to an-other saying in Jalapa. During these melancholy days, the Jalapeno, muffled in his sarape, dismally mutters, "Ave Maria purisima, que venga el sol" (Holy Virgin, let the sun shine).
Jalapa means "a place of water and sand." It was an Indian town at the time of the Spanish Conquest, and, be-cause of its position on what for a long time was the main road between Vera Cruz and Mexico City, early became a place of importance. After the establishment of the Re-public, it was made the capital of the State of Vera Cruz. The medicinal plant from which that nauseous old family medicine, jalap, is extracted is grown all around Jalapa.
The city is curious and old-fashioned, with houses of crumbling stucco; their red-tiled roofs project over the eaves so far that they seem to cover the sidewalks like a shade, and extending from these are the spouts to carry the rainfall from the roofs to the centre of the street. Jalapa has an abundant supply of water and a perfect drainage system. Its streets slope gently to the middle of the roadway, thus forming deep troughs or gutters, and all refuse is soon washed beyond the city limits by the frequent rains. This probably accounts for the scrupulously clean appearance of the place. So steep are the streets that carts or carriages cannot be used for the transportation of goods or persons, all the carrying being done by cargadores or pack-mules. A car runs from the railway station through part of the main thoroughfare, and is the only wheeled vehicle found in Jalapa, but even this requires six mules to haul it up the steep grades.
There is a very pretty plaza in the centre of the town, and some fine old churches, notably the cathedral, which was founded in the sixteenth century, and the Church of San Francisco, built in 1555. These and other sights may be enjoyed by the visitor to Jalapa, and when the weather is clear, a day may be delightfully spent in and about the little city. But perhaps the most interesting sight of all is to be witnessed in the cool of the evening, when the fair Jalapenas stroll in the plaza to listen to the band, their dark, flashing eyes reminding the susceptible Jalapenos of the truth of their local proverb.
Upon my return to Vera Cruz from Jalapa, the weather was still clear and warm, and I looked forward with pleasure to my trip up the coast. The Kronprinzessin Cecilie was advertised to sail for Tampico at six in the evening, the journey taking about sixteen hours. When I went down to the steamer, about four o'clock, I was greatly impressed with German enterprise. A large crowd had assembled on the wharf, listening to a brass band stationed on the promenade deck, which was playing " Die Wachtam Rhein," the German ensign was flying from the steamer's foremast; and it was all like a little piece of Germany dropped down in Mexico. From the remarks of the Mexicans which I over- heard, they evidently seemed to think that Germany, next to Mexico, must be the greatest country in the world.
I had not been aboard the ship many minutes before I noticed a sudden change in the weather; some dark clouds on the horizon increased and spread with wonderful rapidity; before long, the sky began to take on an ominous leaden tinge, and the sun's rays shone only at intervals through the drifting clouds. The breeze, which had been quite light, began to increase in force, and the sea, which had been as smooth as glass, was very soon covered with whitecaps. I heard cries of " Norte " everywhere. Some fishing boats came dashing into the harbor for safety, with the spray flying over them; a steam launch followed them, cutting through the rolling waves. Before two hours had passed, the surf was breaking over the jetties and another norther was full upon us. The captain of the steamer did not consider it safe to venture outside that night, and sailing was delayed until seven the next morning. All the way up the coast we had this head-wind, and despite the luxury of the steamer, those passengers who were not good sailors did not find it exactly a voyage of pleasure.
For all dangers and discomforts I found ample recompense on my arrival at Tampico. This important port lies at the mouth of the Panuco River, a magnificent water-way, in which the greatest fleet could find ample harbor room. Tampico, with a population of one hundred and sixty-three thousand, is, in fact, becoming the chief port of Mexico, even surpassing Vera Cruz; and with its safe harbor and deep water, the largest vessels can lie alongside the wharves to receive and discharge cargo, Over four hundred ocean steamers call at Tampico monthly. regular liners plying between New York, Mobile, New Orleans, Galveston, Havana and European ports, and the southern seaport cities of the Mexican Gulf coast. At a cost of over $3,000,000 a fine new custom-house has been built, and also a great wharf at which five large steamers can lie at the same time. The harbor is always full of shipping, presenting quite a lively and busy scene. The docks are situated some little distance up the river, and back of these is the city, a large part of which stands on a high bluff, rising to a height of nearly fifty feet.
While its appearance is very different from that of other Mexican cities, Tampico is an attractive-looking place. The houses usually have sloping roofs, are tinted in many colors and have wooden verandas along the fronts of each story. On the river front is a picturesque market-place, with tents and numerous white umbrellas beneath which the vendors gather; near this is the main plaza, from which tram-cars run to all parts of the city.
The rivers which join the sea at Tampico are navigable by small boats for a long distance into the interior, and pass through some fine tropical scenery. Over five thou-sand boats, varying in length from twenty to sixty feet, are kept on the Tameso and Panuco rivers to bring to Tampico the wild and cultivated products of the country. Almost every conceivable form of tropical plant and fruit may be found in their cargoes, as well as native-made earthen-ware and other manufactured articles. The Panuco River is about eighteen hundred feet wide at Tampico, and has an average breadth of eight hundred feet for several miles from its mouth. Some distance below the city are the jetties which form the harbor where the river flows into the sea; and here is La Barra, a village with a fine sandy beach on which the surf rolls invitingly. During the day-time the place is usually thronged with bathers.
Tarpon, however, was the sole object of my visit to Tampico. Many angling enthusiasts travel thither each season to fight the monstrous fish, all of whom make their headquarters at the Southern Hotel, the proprietor of which is a jovial American, Colonel Poindexter. Among the fishermen who come to Tampico are various American millionaires and many of the English and French nobility, the register of the Southern Hotel containing names that are well known in social circles the world over. Mine host, the Colonel, is himself a keen angler, and looks after his fellow-devotees of the rod and reel. For the sum of four dollars a day he provides them with all the necessary fishing-tackle, and a boat with an experienced native to row and assist in the sport.
Conducted in this way, tarpon fishing is not an expensive sport, and what is more, if the angler has ordinary good luck, he rarely leaves Tampico without landing one of these big fishes. Very different was the experience of a friend of mine, a wealthy English angler, who once spent several weeks on the gulf coast of Florida in quest of tarpon, which is popularly known there as the "silver king." He chartered two small yachts to provide quarters for himself and the members of his fishing party, while a small steam tug was also engaged for work on the fishing grounds. In addition to the crews, a staff of skilled fishermen were employed to aid in tracking the wily "silver king" to his watery lair. After cruising up and down the coast for nearly six weeks without seeing a tarpon, the chase was abandoned in disgust. This could never have happened at Tampico, in whose waters there are tarpon in plenty.
For a day after my arrival the " norther " blew on, and then the weather became fine and calm again. Under these auspicious circumstances I made a start one morning in search of tarpon, making my cruise in a boat made from the trunk of a ceiba tree. It was about twenty feet long and twenty inches wide, painted blue outside and green within, and was manned by an Indian paddler who sat in front, while I took my seat amidships. I had a strong rod with a stout reel, while my line was braided linen, about six hundred feet long, of which four hundred and fifty feet was kept coiled inside the canoe as slack in case something took the hook, for not only tarpon but great jewfish, shark and curel (a large species of pike, weighing as much as sixty pounds) are plentiful in the river.
The tarpon has a thick, bony jaw, and when it takes the bait, the angler must give his line a strong, quick jerk, otherwise the fish is liable to get away. As soon as the bait is taken, the tarpon, rushing to the surface of the water with lightning rapidity, makes a high leap in the air. Unless the hook is driven well into the jaw, he will shake it out of his mouth, and again, if the line is held too tight, he is certain to snap it. To catch a tarpon, therefore, needs some skill as well as strength. As a well-known angling writer has very correctly said: "Tarpon fishing is the pitting of a man-sized fish against an angler whose rod and line seem utterly inadequate for the fight. It is the taking of a seven-foot giant with a slender thread, and this in a fight that may wear away an afternoon, the whole combat being accompanied by a series of thrilling leaps."
We went up the river with the tide to the south bank, and at first the fish did not bite. Along the bank I noticed extensive pastures where large herds of cattle were fattening for shipment to Cuba and Yucatan. These cattle come from the Para grass pastures of southeastern Mexico in the State of Tamaulipas (in which Tampico is situated) and the states of Vera Cruz and San Luis Potosi. Between sixty and eighty thousand head pass through Tampico every year.
Chatting with my Indian boatman, I almost forgot that I was fishing, when suddenly my float disappeared. I instantly gave a sharp jerk and threw out some slack. The next moment my line was pulled almost tight, and about a hundred feet away a large silvery fish Ieaped in the air. He appeared to be about seven feet long, and seemed to jump twice his length out of the water. It was a tarpon, king of game fishes. Amidst a cloud of spray up in the air he went again, his silver scales glistening with rainbow hues in the rays of the sun. Then followed a succession of leaps, none of them alike, while the head of the great fish shook angrily from side to side in his ineffectual efforts to cast out the hook. He disappeared and sulked for a time beneath the water, and then came another series of rushes and leaps, the combat taking over an hour. A half hour passed before he was tired out and I pulled him to the side of the boat for the Indian to gaff. On landing him, I found that he was only of medium size, weighing about one hundred pounds. He did not look nearly so big as when he was leaping and plunging.
Tarpon have been caught at Tampico weighing over two hundred pounds, and measuring over seven feet in length, and it has taken hours to land them. The average catches, however, range from four and a half to six and a half feet long and from seventy to one hundred and seventy pounds. One fish for a day is generally considered good sport, and has usually to be paid for by several days of tired muscles. The sport is not unattended with danger; for when a big fish has not been properly gaffed, he is sometimes stirred into fresh activity, lashing out with his tail with a force strong enough to stave in a canoe. His cutting jaws can also inflict ugly wounds. A well-known American angler, while fishing for tarpon off the Florida coast, hooked a monster weighing considerably over a hundred pounds. During the combat the great fish made a leap which landed him with a crash on the angler's back, inflicting injuries which nearly killed the unfortunate fisherman, laying him up for nearly two years. The only disappointing feature of tarpon fishing is that the dead fish is of no value whatever, the flesh being flavorless and rarely eaten. Occasionally some angling enthusiast has his big fish stuffed and mounted; the silvery scales, which measure about four inches in width, are also sometimes kept as souvenirs.
Going down to the jetties the next day, I fished with one line in the river and another in the sea, catching about twenty pounds of fish of all kinds and sizes, some of them quite gamy, especially the pargito, a fish weighing from one to five pounds, of dark color above and white below, somewhat resembling a bass and making a good fight when hooked.
The fisheries at Tampico are the finest in the Gulf of Mexico, presenting admirable opportunities for the establishment of canning factories to supply the Mexican market, which now depends on Europe and the United States. As the fish are very abundant, and the harbor improvements make the banks easy of access in all weathers, this industry could be carried on during the entire year, and at the present time almost without a competitor in Mexico.