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.