Fly Fishing Destinations
- Fly Fishing the Flats: The Indoctrination
- Fly Fishing the Flats: The Progression
- Fly Fishing the Flats: Coming Full Circle
- It’s Not Just the Fishing
- Salt Water Destinations
Fly Fishing the Flats: The Indoctrination
Fly-fishing the flats brings up different dreams and visions for everyone so desirous to go. Some want to go chase bonefish, others tarpon and snook, and some want to only chase permit. No matter what you dream, or envision, the saltwater flats can have something to offer every fly fishing adventurer out there.
I have fished the flats of Ascension Bay, in the Sian Kaan Biosphere, Mexico three times since 2007. Ascension Bay is set aside as a fishing preserve. It is approximately 20 miles wide by 20 miles long and hosts some of the best catch and release flats fishing in the world. Each of my trips ended up being so different whereas Heraclitus's statement “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man” comes to full meaning for me.
The first time I went to the flats, upon the high recommendation of my fly fishing mentor Eddie Robinson, was in November 2007. I paid for the trip, read as much as I could, took a couple of pre-trip classes on casting and how to prepare, spent a lot of money getting outfitted and felt as if I were as ready as I ever was going to be to go.
Getting there was pretty easy. We flew into Cancun a day early, had a great dinner and entertainment, with a local flair, at Senor Frogs, had a great night sleep in the local Marriott and got up early to take a plane south. We flew from the Cancun airport to a little landing strip 21 kilometers South of Punta Allen. The landing strip was short, but we managed to stop before the end of the runway. The plane off to the side of the runway had not had quite the same luck, and had caught a nasty tailwind and kept going off the runway, into the water of the small opening in the mangroves at the end.
We then took a short boat ride, on a panga, to a private island that houses the Casa Blanca Fly Fishing Lodge. The setting of this white beach, palm tree laden bit of paradise sits on the very Southeast point of Ascension Bay.
Our group, of about a dozen, was paired up in groups of 2, and Sean Fleming and I were to be fishing the next week together. I am not sure if everyone is the same, but when I get to the end of a vacation I am usually very ready to go home. This was not the case at the end of my vacation at Casa Blanca. I wanted to extend another week at the end (or possibly the rest of my life). This week was definitely life changing and I was not even very good at the fishing end of things.
Fishing started Monday morning bright and early. The sun comes up early and sets early in that part of the world. We were teamed up, on the little Dolphin Skiff with our guide Gaspar. Gaspar took us on a boat ride weaving in and out through channels in the mangroves. Everything was so new to me and I had a grin on my face the whole time. I love adventure and this was high up on my list of repeatable adventures. I found it pretty amazing that a place could exist where miles and miles of wade-able ocean water existed. These flats are the hosts of numerous game fish from tarpon to bonefish to permit to snapper to sharks and barracuda. We had an arsenal of rods on our boat with two of each six, eight and ten weights to have a chance at any game fish that might cross our paths.
Gaspar motored us out into the shallow flats, got up onto the poling platform and the hunt was on for bonefish! Bonefish, (also known as the grey ghost) are tied for the seventh fastest fish on the planet (up to 40 MPH or 4 times that of trout), so when you pair a fish the size of a trout up to a six weight rod, a fight ensues that can take you well into your backing. I began learning to spot bonefish, cast to them and strip the fly in, following the cadence of the guide as he said strip, strip, strip (pronounced streeep, streeep, streeep).
The first casts that I made, were placed incorrectly. Gaspar was yelling, “cast in front of them!” and since they were in front of us, I thought he wanted me to cast over the top of the fish and place the fly on the other side of them. My line landed on the fish scattering them like little boys running to hide, in a game of hide and seek. I finally stopped casting, and got a little clarification as to where he wanted me to make the cast. It turned out, that he meant just this side of the fish and between the fish and the boat. My guide had spent his entire life fishing in the flats and had remarkable vision. He could see the fish perfectly… miscommunication ensued as he assumed that I could too. I could see a shadow that I believed was a fish but for him, he could see the fish clearly, could see which direction it was facing and exactly what it was doing. My respect for his abilities was humbling as I recognized my inability to see what was right in front of me.
As the fish voraciously looked for shrimp and crabs on the bottom of the shallow ocean flats, turning the water a milky grey color, we waited for them to move in our direction. After a while we caught some bonefish and each time they would go on a run, like a water skier yelling hit it and the boat going full throttle, they often took us into our backing. We hunted bones for a couple of days, landing a bunch of them, and then it was time for a change.
One day a special trip was arranged that brought new meaning to fun in my life. We hopped into the back of a truck and drove down to the South end of the Island, past some ancient Mayan ruins, deep into the mangrove lagoon system of Santa Rosa. When we parked the truck to get out, all we could see was a wall of mangroves with a small tunnel that had been carved out to access the lagoons. Once in the lagoon system, we set about hunting for tarpon and snook. Tarpon are tied for the ninth fastest fish in the world. They hang out under the mangroves and voraciously attack, with stealth and speed, like a cheetah chasing a gazelle on the open plains of Africa. I don't remember giggling so much, even though I did not land a fish that day. At one point I had a 3-foot tarpon on the end of my line, dancing on top of the water with moves that would make Michael Jackson jealous. The tarpon got off… he may not have been hooked well, but I was. I knew at that point, that I wanted more time deep in that lagoon system.
On the last day of fishing we went out looking for permit. There is a mystique about permit fish that had been giving me doubts from the beginning as to whether or not I would have any success with them. I have found over the years that confidence, based on prior successes, needs to exist in order for performance to move to higher levels. With that being said I was not there yet. We had the blessing of seeing the fish, and being in the same water with them, and even casting to some, but no takes and no pictures of permit for us.
Leaving the island was hard, but the fishing, friends and memories linger even to this day, and the desire to be back there is ever present.
Fly Fishing the Flats: The Progression
After leaving the island I could not wait to get back. The dreams of hunting, casting and catching fish on the flats can be addictive. So the decision was made to go back down in 2008. Sean and I were teamed up with a different guide named David (pronounced da-veed) that November. Expectations can cause strange actions or reactions in men, and because we were not hunting fish in the same way that we had before, it felt a little uncomfortable. We asked David what the plan was and he let us know that we would be ignoring the big groups of little bonefish… he wanted us to experience the much bigger bonefish that the bay had to offer. The bigger bonefish are loners. They are often found either as singles or in very small groups.
The weather was different this time. The wind was blowing in from the North and was bringing cold water into the bay. The weather was not ideal but David knew exactly what to do. He took us back into the protected lagoon system of Santa Rosa. The first day we spent looking for big bonefish, and big bonefish we found. After motoring through channels and lagoons, David parked the boat next to a small opening in the mangroves, which led to a connecting lagoon. The tide was going out… David said that the fish would be traveling towards us and we waited for the fish to come. Sure enough, like clockwork, the fish started showing up. We got some casts in and hooked up with some great fish. When the tide was done moving the fish quit coming so we left our spot to hunt more bonefish.
I was discovering that teamwork on the boat and line management, were of the utmost importance. Although I had several big fish on my line that first day, I found myself stepping on the line, getting it caught around myself or otherwise doing something wrong resulting in my fish breaking off. It was a little humbling and frustrating, but after the third or fourth mess up I finally got it down.
The next day we went even deeper into the lagoon system in search of tarpon and snook. Since I had not landed a tarpon or a snook the previous year, I was excited to have another go at it. Tarpon have very hard mouths and the hook needs to be set differently than with any other fish that I had experienced up to that point. When the fish takes the fly, it turns and takes off running, jumping, tail dancing and head shaking so the hook must be set and set well. Once the fish is on the hook (a very, very, sharp hook), you must pull the line hard and fast 2-3 times. Once we figured this out, we were able to hook up and land some tarpon. Snook hang out in the same area as tarpon and open their gaping mouths to inhale the massive flies presented to them. Either fish can be a ton of fun to get on the end of the line.
We had so much fun fishing deep into the lagoon system, that after motoring away from the island the following morning, we asked David if we would be going deep into the lagoon system again. David put a smile on his face and produced a machete he had brought from the island. We pushed deeper into the lagoon system that day and used the machete to open up a pathway into previously unreachable lagoons. David said these lagoons had not been fished in the 12 years he had been guiding in Ascension Bay. The extra work paid off and we had some great fish on the line and even better smiles on our faces.
The trip ended with a day of chasing permit again. With the northern winds just beginning to subside, the permit were still not very active and we were again, left with the thoughts of hooking up to a permit, some day…
Fly Fishing the Flats: Coming Full Circle
Several years passed by and the thoughts of going back to the salt did not subside, the timing just had not worked out. I wanted to return, but much to by dismay, I just wasn't able to make it happen. In 2013 the timing was looking right again and I was able to book another November trip.
The November trip this year was set up a little differently. We decided to do it over a long weekend; we headed down on Wednesday, the week before Thanksgiving. This can be a good time of year since it is just after the hurricane season in the Yucatan. The weather is typically getting better after a lot of rain and wind during September and October. There are arguments made regarding the best time of year to go fishing in the Yucatan. So far, November has worked out for me, but other than during hurricane season, the fishing is said to be great any time of the year. High season is in the spring when the bay is slightly more crowded and the guides are usually filled to capacity.
We went to Fisherman Lodge in Punta Allen, it is managed and staffed with many of the same people from the island where had fished before. The lodge is set up nicely with rooms being clean and comfortable and the food, as before, amazing… fresh caught lobster and fish served the day they were harvested, breakfasts made to order, great lunches and drinks on the boat, an appetizer as soon as you come in from fishing, and the most wonderful dinner each and every night. The ambiance at the lodge is another great part of the trip. Mike Ledezma, the lodge manager, is doing it right.
I am not sure what changed inside of me, but for this trip I decided I was mentally ready to hunt permit. Permit, to most fly fisherman, are considered to be the holy grail of fly-fishing. This fish is at the top when it comes to a hunt-able fish that does not need bait to entice it to the fly. Permit are tough to find as they blend in so well with their environment. They seem to change color as their flat body reflects their surroundings like a mirror. The guides and fisherman learn to look for nervous water. Nervous water comes from the dorsal fin cutting through the water or just under the surface of the water, and making a slight line of distorted water among the vast amount of other water that also looks nervous (or maybe that is just me). This is not easy to see for the amateur, but with time, it can be trained or enhanced with careful attention to the surroundings. Once the nervous water is spotted, the fish, if it is heading your way, can close the gap, of up to hundreds of yards, in a matter of seconds. It is imperative to find the fish through spotting nervous water, seeing a fin or tail or spotting a reflection that looks like a shiny plate in the water. The fly gets presented in front of the fish and usually retrieved with a long, erratic stripping motion that gives the fly a fleeing type appearance to the fish.
Since deciding I was ready to hunt permit on this third trip, I did my best to remove all other distractions as tempting as they may be. We passed up barracuda, bonefish, snapper (ok I did cast at a shark), and all other fish in our path in the off chance that a permit was just around the corner. Day one brought Rob Pope and I together with Eliezer or Eli (pronounced El-eee) for short. He is a young guide with a lot of experience on the flats and has a very amiable disposition. Eli likes to hunt permit and tarpon, in that order, so we were starting off the day right with a trip out onto the flats looking for permit. Once we motored out to the starting point, Eli got up onto the poling platform and Rob and I took turns on the bow. Standing up front on the panga with a rod in hand looking for fish can put the mind through a lot. We were not finding a lot of fish. I would intently look for fish and then find my mind wandering, to how my left foot kept falling asleep as I stood there. It was hard to concentrate on the task at hand, so I stepped down to line management for Rob for much of the day. Later in the trip I learned how to settle my mind when I was on the front of the boat. Rob got a couple of good casts in at permit that morning. I got a couple of bad casts in at permit that morning and we finished up the day with Rob chasing bonefish.
On day two Eddie and I got to fish together. Our guide was Thomas (pronounced toe- moss) who is arguably one of the best permit guides in the world. Thomas was in his 28th year of guiding clients for this elusive fish. We went out to the flats with high expectations to have a great day on the water. We started seeing permit at the second flat we fished. There was a lot of permit activity and Eddie was up on the front of the boat and I was back managing the line and filming with the GoPro. Since permit were all around us; it started to get real exciting. Eddie was casting and I was managing line as best I could. At one point Thomas called out to a group of permit coming our way, I stepped up onto the bow and pointed them out to Eddie, Eddie made the cast, stripped a couple of times and one of the permit took the fly. Then the fight was on. The fish was running Eddie multiple times into his backing on his 9 weight Sage One rod. At one point Thomas asked if he had enough backing left on the reel since the fish was running fast and furiously towards open water. Eddie fought the fish like a true pro and after 40 minutes we had our first permit of the day to the boat. This fish was the biggest permit Eddie had ever landed. I was glad to be a part of it and happy to capture the whole thing on video.
I am sure this writing will not do justice to the excitement that I felt, and am currently experiencing, as I write this and relive the day. Next I was up on the bow and we were off hunting again. Just before lunch we went to the southwest side of an area called Cocolitos. When we stopped for lunch, and as I was breaking out my sandwich Thomas said there was a permit just south of us. I threw down my sandwich, jumped out of the boat and we waded on foot toward the fish. As we closed in on the permit it had its head down and was tailing (the tail was sticking out of the water while he was eating something from the bottom). I made a couple of casts and set the fly down in front of the fish. The fish turned and went the other way. We went back to the boat for a short lunch and then resumed fishing. Thomas called out nervous water at 300 plus yards and we worked our way toward the fish. Thomas and I at one point bailed out of the boat and again tried to stalk a permit on foot. The area was shallow and the approach was better on foot so we wouldn't scare the fish with the boat. I had a couple of chances at a couple of milling fish, and then all of a sudden a group of fish was heading towards us. Thomas told me to make the cast, wait for what felt like an eternity, and then streep streep streep came from Thomas. One of the permit took the fly and I got overly excited setting the hook like I would on a trout. The hook set solid and the fight was on. After 25 minutes of fight I had my first permit and boy was I excited.
To be successful catching permit, time must be dedicated to looking for them with the off chance of getting the opportunity to present a fly and hopefully getting the permit to take it. The permit can see better than most fish in the ocean and they evolved with two sets of nostrils for an amazing sense of smell. If the permit takes the fly, hang on tight for the ride of your life, something like the feeling when my daughter talked me into going on the big roller coaster at California Adventure. When the permit decides to run, just a little pressure needs to be put on the line to hook the fish up, and then get your hands out of the way. The reel turns at an amazing rate and the fish runs at break neck speeds.
We finished the day with a couple of chances, but no more in the boat. The next day I fished with Russ Osguthorpe and we saw many permit, but a front of weather was coming through and the fish were not eating, at least what and/or how we were offering it to them.
Leaving the bay is always bitter sweet. The fond memories will linger, but who knows when I will be blessed enough to tread in those waters again. It is my hope to go back soon, but what that means is still up to the imagination. So until the day I get to return I will relish the memory stamped in my soul.
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.