Fly Fishing Destinations
It’s Not Just the Fishing
As a lifetime trout fisherman, I never had a desire to go saltwater fly-fishing. Although I knew trout fishing friends who repeatedly told me that it was the most amazing experience they had ever had, I simply did not feel that it was something I needed to do. I loved fly-fishing for trout, salmon and steelhead and I had fished the ocean previously but based on what I thought I knew about saltwater fly-fishing I really didn’t care if I ever fished the flats.
After many years of being prodded by a good friend, I finally agreed to take the trip that he had been recommending. Little did I know… I was about to have my eyes opened. Unbeknown to me, I was about to take the trip of a lifetime… the kind of lasting experience that would be difficult to put into words.
That first trip had a profound effect on my being. After the experience, as I was reflecting back on it, I simply had to find a way to return, but not just to the place… I needed to find a way to return to that emotional state of mind that I had never been to before.
Since that first trip, I have spent more than 200 days fly-fishing dozens of Caribbean flats from the northern most part of the Yucatan Peninsula at the island of Holbox, throughout Mexico and Belize. I have swum with giant whale sharks and had wild dolphins swim between my legs, I’ve shared water with tens of thousands of pink flamingos and explored remote Mayan ruins that tourists rarely see. I have woke up in the morning to find jaguar tracks in the sand outside my cabana, fished next to salt water crocodiles and I have had the pleasure of releasing baby sea turtles into the ocean. Yes it’s true that I’ve been lucky enough to catch a lot of wonderful fish throughout the journey but more importantly, I have shared the experience with great friends, I’ve made great friends doing it and I have learned so much along the way. My experiences have taught me a great deal about life, relationships and about myself.
The most interesting thing about my travels is that I’ve found that fly-fishing is like a tortilla chip. The chip is only a vehicle to get the salsa into your mouth and although we use fly-fishing as the premise, fly-fishing is only the excuse we use to experience the trip of a lifetime. I learn and grow with every trip and I look forward to many more lessons.
Tarpon, the Acrobats of the Flats
When fly fishermen think about saltwater fly-fishing, they often think about tarpon fishing. Tarpon have a reputation of being exciting and fun yet very difficult to catch. But are they really that hard to catch? Tarpon are not hard to hook, but if the angler does not understand the fish and what to do with them, they can be very challenging to land. In my opinion anyone can hook a tarpon and once they know why most people don’t land their tarpon, then landing them becomes much easier. Tarpon can grow up to eight feet in length and when fly fisherman think about catching tarpon, they are only imagining hooking into one of these full grown monsters. In my opinion, overlooking baby and juvenile tarpon as a game fish will only cause the angler to miss out on one of saltwater’s greatest offerings. Indeed, they are fun and exciting to catch but they are not as difficult as many would have you believe. One of the common draws to this species is that once hooked, tarpon love to jump… often leaping several feet into the air multiple times before the angler is able to boat this beautiful fish. I once had a juvenile tarpon leap several feet out of the water and land in the thick mangroves tangling my line up and stranding the tarpon out of the water. I quickly cut the leader and spent several minutes untangling my line from the mangroves. It sure wasn’t textbook but my guide and I got a great laugh out of the ordeal and we both remember it fondly.
Giant tarpon are a thrilling game fish to pursue but what many anglers don’t realize is that baby tarpon, up to 30 inches and even longer, live in the mangroves and can readily be caught by even the novice angler. Eventually, juvenile tarpon get too big to find the food they need to continue growing in the mangroves and begin patrolling the flats. These Juvenile tarpon range in size from 3 to 5 feet long and are a total blast to catch! Eventually tarpon reach adult size and venture into the deeper ocean migrating in schools. When these very large migratory tarpon return to the shallow flats to spawn, anglers come from all over the world for the chance to catch one of these giant acrobats of the flats.
If anyone can catch a tarpon, then why does this fish have the reputation of being so difficult to catch? With the exception of giant tarpon that have returned to the flats to procreate and aren’t necessarily thinking about feeding, baby tarpon, juveniles and even migrating adults in deeper water will all readily eat a fly. The fly fisherman does not need to be an accomplished caster; they only need to be able to deliver a fly reasonably close to the fish. I have seen tarpon swirl around and take a fly that was poorly cast behind it.
Tarpon are voracious predators and will readily eat a wide variety of flies. I have even caught large juveniles on very small crab patterns intended for permit. The reason tarpon have the reputation of being difficult is due to their very hard mouths. The fish will inevitably leap into the air after being hooked and if the fly is not firmly hooked into their boney mouths, they will surely throw the fly. Fly fisherman are very accustomed to raising their rod in order to ‘set the hook’. This is the kiss of death when trying to hook a tarpon. The rod will flex and absorb the bulk of the pressure, and consequently there is simply not enough force to drive the hook deep enough for the barb to take hold. Accomplished salt water fly fisherman are keenly aware of this and point the rod toward the fish while pulling hard and repeatedly on the line in order to drive the hook home. Once the angler believes the hook is firmly set, the rod angle can be changed as necessary to fight and land the fish.
Regardless of the size of tarpon you choose to go after, there is always enough challenge and a big enough reward to leave you wanting more.
Bonefish… the Phantom of the Flats
Why would anyone in their right mind want to travel to remote Caribbean islands with white sandy beaches and turquoise colored, warm, knee-deep water just to catch a bonefish? It just so happens that bonefish live in some of the most pristine, beautiful and remote locations on the planet but those who get hooked on fly-fishing for bonefish do it because they know something that others don’t know. The secret about bonefish is that they are fast! A trout size bonefish will put a fly fisherman into their backing within seconds. Solid muscle and built for speed, the bonefish is ‘Pound for pound’ one of the best fighting fish on the planet. In fact, bonefish are one of the top ten fastest fish in the ocean. Bonefish are capable of swimming up to 64 kilometers per hour (39.7 miles per hour). To put this into perspective, bonefish swim as fast as swordfish. Bonefish don’t live in deep blue water like the other fast swimmers of the ocean such as sailfish, tuna and blue sharks. They live in the shallow flats and out of necessity for survival they are the fastest fish on the flats.
Most trout fishermen have a hundred or so yards of backing spooled on their reel that they may never see. They spend good money on expensive reels and many of those reels have very smooth, high tech drag systems that are a pleasure to own. In truth, based on the species of fish that most fly fisherman pursue, most of those reels have drag systems that are overkill and the reel is little more than a nice piece of jewelry for the angler. When fishing for bonefish however, a well-designed reel with a high quality, ‘big game’ drag is an absolute necessity. Backing becomes more than just a formality and the angler becomes very accustomed to seeing it.
It does no good to just cast into the water and hope you catch a fish. In order to catch a bonefish the angler must first find the fish and place the fly in front of the fish without spooking it. Known as the gray ghost of the flats, the silvery scales of the bonefish act as a mirror that reflects the fish’s surroundings making the fish extremely difficult to see for the untrained eye. Expert bonefish anglers and experienced guides are very skilled at identifying shadows, tails, dorsal fins and other tail-tail signs that give away the bonefishes location. Fishing with an experienced guide who understands tides and fish movements is a must. A great guide can find the fish and point it out to the angler. The guide will then position the boat so that the angler is in perfect position to present the fly to the fish.
Once the guide has done their job, it is up to the angler to make the cast and catch the fish. After the fish eats the fly, the fisherman better hang on tight, clear the line and keep their fingers away from the handle of the reel. Fly-fishing for bonefish is an experience that goes far beyond simply catching the fish. People plan bonefishing trips many months and sometimes years in advance and once you have experienced all of this, you will understand why…
Permit… The Holy Grail of Fly Fishing
Catching a permit on a fly has long been regarded as the pinnacle fly-fishing experience. Permit are not the largest game fish, nor do they leap into the air like a trout or a tarpon. The fly fisherman cannot expect to catch a lot of them. Permit are elusive and finicky. But when an angler hooks into the beloved permit, all bets are off. They are absolutely built for speed. From the side, the permit looks very large but from the front, they are very thin. They have a massive forked tail and will run at high speeds for great distances. Fly fisherman are accustomed to having large amounts of backing spooled on their reels but rarely use it. But a permit will put the angler into their backing almost instantly and will normally make several large, long runs. Simply put, you better have plenty of backing because you will need it!
Permit are not found everywhere. It just so happens that they live in some of the most magnificent and picturesque areas in the world from the Florida Keys, to the beautiful shallow flats and coral reefs of the Caribbean in Mexico and Belize. Fly fishing for Permit is usually done in the shallow (less than 3 feet of water) calmer flats, far from the large choppy waves of the open ocean and In order to pursue this amazing animal, one must first arrive in one of these great locations.
It is best done with a guide and each person involved has their role. Once in paradise, anticipation builds until the hunt begins. Taking into account the weather conditions, clouds, tides and previous days fish movements; the guide moves the boat into an area where he believes a permit may be found. And with consideration of the bottom structure (grass, sand, coral etc.…), water depth, and fish behavior at the time, the fisherman makes calculated choices of types and colors of flies and the size and weight of flies.
Climbing onto a platform at the rear of the boat where he has an advantageous view of the shallow water, the guide begins moving the boat carefully across the shallow flat with his eyes glued to the water and scanning the horizon for a fish or a sign of a fish. The angler at the front of the boat begins preparing his rod, constructing his leader with the appropriate fly, setting and double checking his drag and preparing his line for a speed cast. He first pulls out all the line he will need, while considering both the distance necessary to catch a fish and his own casting ability. And after casting his line into the water, he carefully begins retrieving the line by hand from the back portion of the line first, and placing it on the bow of the boat, first in front of his feet and then in large lazy ‘S’ curves to his side, on the floor of the boat behind him and then back to his side. With the fly in the anglers hand and the line properly in place, the angler will be able to deliver a fly to a fish within 3-4 seconds should the elusive permit appear. He has practiced this many times in preparation for the trip and after everything is in place, he takes his position on the casting deck and joins the guide in an intense hunt for what could be the most exiting moment in the fisherman’s life.
When a fish is spotted, the guide strategically begins maneuvering the boat, stocking the fish and placing the angler into the best possible position to cast without spooking the fish. The Angler and the guide are in constant communication at this point while neither takes their eyes off of the target. The guide is adjusting the boat so that the angler can get a cast off, and the angler is considering wind and distance while deciding if he will deliver the fly at the fishes nose, tail, or if he will lead the fish by several feet. All this will be determined by what the fish is doing at the time. Then when the angler feels he is ready, he initiates a speed cast, which appears to be relaxed and effortless, but since his line was set up properly on the deck, the angler is able to send the fly toward the target within seconds and without the need for multiple false casts.
If all goes well and the fish eats the fly, total chaos will ensue. The guide is busy adjusting the position of the boat while the angler clears the line and holds on for dear life. With the reel spinning at high speed, the handle of the reel is only a blur. It is very important for the angler to keep fingers and hands away from the handle of the reel so that he does not end up with a broken finger and or a lost fish.
I have caught permit that have ran more than two hundred yards of backing off of the reel while I was chasing them either on foot or in the boat before slowing down. Then, when I finally got the fish within 3 or four feet of me, they have done it again. I have experienced permit that have done this 3 times before I was finally able to bring the fish to hand.
Many so-called ‘big game’ reels are large and have plenty of backing capacity but do not necessarily have a ‘big game’ drag. Is the drag suitable for most large fish? Yes. But many drags simply are not designed to accommodate the long, powerful, high speed runs that permit make. I remember a fishing trip in Belize in which a fellow from the east coast was fishing the same island that I was. He was razzing the people in my group about their unnecessary and overpriced equipment. He was proud of his perfectly adequate reel that he had paid less money for declaring that he had caught many bonefish and other species and never had a problem. At the end of day three of the trip, I passed him on the beach after my fishing day. I greeted him and cheerfully asked him how he was. “Terrible!!!!” he shouted. I later found out why from his guide. He had hooked into his first Permit; the fish was making its initial run at high speed and was several hundred feet into the backing when the bearings failed in the overheated drag. The reel seized up causing his rod to break and the backing to snap. As a result, he lost his fly line, and ended up with a broken rod and non-functional reel. Worst of all, he lost the fish of a lifetime. Unfortunately, I did not have extra gear for him to borrow.
Where permit are found, so too can be found bonefish, tarpon and many other wonderful game fish for the adventurous angler. Permit may not be the easiest fish to catch but the reward is well worth the effort.
Salt Water Destinations
Ascension Bay is one of the best bone fish and permit fly fishing destinations in the world, the bay also harbors tarpon, barracuda, snook, snapper and numerous other saltwater species. We fly to Cancun and ride a small plane 45 minutes south to a private airstrip on Punta Pajaros Island. We spend a full week in a small lodge (no tourists, no stores, no commerce). Guides with 16-foot skiffs pole across the flats, locating fish. Chefs serve four delectable meals daily. Expect to see sharks, stingrays, sea turtles, dolphins, iguanas and a wide variety of birds. Jaguars (they have never attacked anyone), crocodiles and a mixture of small animals live on the island.
The bay can also be accessed by driving south from Cancun, through a number of villages, into the Sian Ka’an Biosphere (an environmental area protected by the Mexican government). In the biosphere, several lodges serve the northern tip of Ascension Bay.
In both cases, beaches, sand, surf, fishing, and camaraderie yield the simple pleasures of being in the middle of nowhere - in paradise.
Espiritu de Santo Bay lies just south of Ascension Bay. Here, fishing targets bonefish, tarpon, permit, barracuda, and snook. From Cancun, a flight lands in the Punta Pajaros Islands, and a truck drives to a small, quaint lodge at the bottom of the island, only a few miles long and two or three hundred yards wide. This spot is a little more secluded than Ascension Bay with the same amenities plus sea kayaks and Mayan ruins.
Holbox Island, population 2000, lies on the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. Spectacular fishing involves tarpon. Chiquila takes two and a half hours to drive from Cancun, followed by a ferry ride to the island. Hotels and restaurants provide typical Mexican living. May through August, thirty-foot whale sharks spawn here (people swim with them along with Manta Rays) and pink flamingos migrate here in drove. The reef is so far away from the beaches, you can see the surf without hearing the noise. This is the quietest place on earth. At a nearby island, Jalajau, a fresh water spring is one of the few places in Mexico where it is safe to drink. Historically, pirates replentished their stocks here.
Chetumal Bay is the largest bay on the Caribbean side of Mexico. South of Ascension and Espiritu it is located half in Belize and half in Mexico. It provides excellent fishing for permit, large bonefish and tarpon. Travel is 5 hours by car from Cancun. With no lodges or hotels, accommodations are cozy and rustic, and food is simple. This is an outstanding four-day adventure.
Turneffe Island Flats are in Belize. Bonefish and permit furnish the venue. After a flight to Belize City, a 90-minute boat ride ends at Turneffe Atoll. The center of the atoll is very deep and chuck full of big schools of permit. The outer rim of the atoll has some of the best bone fishing flats available. Foot and lodging are wonderful. Exploring can include manatees and crocodiles, but beach access is limited. Some folks fish half the week and scuba dive the other half.