Returning to Trek’s “Secret” Lagoon

  Field Journal   |     Jul. 06, 2023

In the early 1980s, Trek International Safaris Founder Bob Cloaninger identified a pristine saltwater lagoon located just 20 miles north of Cancun and stacked with gamefish. The term “hidden gem” is perhaps too often used in our industry these days, but the place was such an unknown entity at the time that Cloaninger rightfully touted it as “Trek’s Secret Lagoon.” 

Overcoming numerous logistical challenges, Cloaninger leased a stretch of land on the lagoon and acquired a fleet of flats boats to accommodate guided fishing adventures for Trek clients. Enlisting both Trek team members and local fishermen as guides, Cloaninger introduced the exciting new program to clients in 1985.  

“During our time scouting this place, none of our guides had a bad day,” wrote Cloaninger in a Trek newsletter that year. “If you wish to play the bonefish flats, you can usually land and release between 15 to 20 bones per half day, and these will generally average about five pounds and run up to 10 pounds. 

“The best morning we’ve had on permit was 11 for a boat, but this was in addition to releasing 10 or 12 bonefish. At times the lagoon is loaded with tarpon running up to 25 pounds.”

Trek hosted anglers at our “secret” lagoon for many years, until commercial netting began to take its toll on the fishery. While the area’s bonefish population has been substantially impacted by netting over the past four decades, recent protective interventions have allowed the tarpon, permit and snook to once again thrive. 

At the invitation of renowned local outfitter Capt. Miguel Encalada, a leading advocate for sustainable fishing practices in the region, members of our team recently returned to Isla Blanca to chase tarpon on the fly and discuss re-establishing a program in the area. What we found was a fishery that is still surprisingly unspoiled, considering its close proximity to Cancun, and one which yields some of the most thrilling light-tackle tarpon fishing you’ll experience anywhere. 

“I grew up fishing this place, so it is very special to me,” said Capt. Miguel. “It’s an absolute thrill for me to show our visiting anglers you can still experience amazing flats fishing so close to a major city like Cancun.” 

Today, Isla Blanca remains relatively untouched by development and mass tourism, owing in large part to its fortuitous location within the protected Mar Caribe Biosphere. Spanning some 50 nautical miles from Rio Manatee (north of Cancun) all the way to Cabo Catoche (the border dividing the Caribbean from the Gulf of Mexico), the lagoon comprises a breathtaking network of extensive flats, mangrove forests and hidden tidal pools.

Over three days in late June fishing Isla Blanca, we jumped more tarpon than we could count, landing and releasing more than our fair share. And we rarely encountered another boat. 

Each morning, we started out by blind casting to acres of rolling tarpon pouring out of mangrove creeks to feed in deeper water just off the flats. Once hooked, these open water beauties put on a magnificent display of acrobatics, each leap revealing stunning flashes of bright silver reflecting off the morning sun. 

Once the morning bite subsided, our expert guide Danny navigated his 24-foot panga into an expansive back country to sight cast bigger tarpon lurking in the mangrove forest. These fish tested, and sometimes bested, the limits of our light-tackle setup, breaking more than a few leaders and one hook as we pulled drum-tight to stave off escapes into the mangroves. 

One afternoon, Danny and his guide partner Rafa (Miguel’s son), masterfully navigated the boat through a massive mangrove thicket to reach a swatch of water no bigger than a backyard swimming pool but stacked with 20-40-pound tarpon. Branches as far as the eye could see behind us made casting difficult, but we managed to land a fly in the drink and were rewarded with a hookup and one magnificent jump before the fish broke off in the roots of a mangrove. 

In addition to tarpon, we encountered scores of snook during our adventure, which were often happy to take a fly. Mangrove snapper, barracudas and a variety of sharks and rays are abundant in the lagoon as well, providing further evidence of the renewed health of this fishery. 

On our final day, we spent some time stalking permit, which granted us numerous shots and a few close calls. But they ultimately did what permit do best, which is to relentlessly elude capture. 

“Sometimes the permit go vegan,” quipped Capt. Miguel. “But with patience and commitment, eventually you’ll get ‘em.”

Miguel and his team have been exceptional stewards of the Isla Blanca fishery, and their care for this special place shows in everything they do. Bob Cloaninger would be proud of the guardians of Trek’s “Secret Lagoon” and the restoration of this truly special fishery. 

“The work we’ve done to protect the lagoon has really paid dividends,” said Capt. Miguel. “However, we must be diligent in our ongoing protective efforts. If the developers had their way, Isla Blanca would be lined with resorts. If we look the other way, commercial netters will quickly roll back the progress. 

“If they ever pave the road to this place, it’s over. So, we will continue the work to protect this special lagoon for generations of anglers.”

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