|John Parsons Report 2011|
Last year in May – Yury and I visited Pesca Maya: A very special fishing lodge near Punta Allen in southern Mexico. Then it was, for both of us, the first time trying to catch bonefish on fly. And what a trip it was! That first day we shared in a haul of over 70 juvenile “bones” and caught plenty of fish every day of our trip. In February of this year we went back for more.
Pesca Maya is a great place for beginners to salt water fly fishing. But it is also a wonderful location for the more experienced. It is, for example, possibly the ultimate “Grand Slam” destination in the Caribbean. A Grand Slam is the capture of a bonefish, tarpon and permit, on fly, in a single day. A “Super Grand Slam” adds a fourth species– snook- also caught on fly the same day. And Pesca Maya boasts good populations of all four species - all year round. This is doubtless something to do with the unique range of aquatic habitats found in Ascension bay. In other Caribbean locations there are all 4 species but they tend to have particular seasons of migration and grand slams are possible only at certain times of year and are much harder to achieve. So Pesca Maya has something for the beginner (almost guaranteed sport in exquisite surroundings) and some real challenges for the experienced fly fisher - with Grand Slams always a possibility.
Last year we were beginners (although Yuri fluked a super slam on his last day). This year was to be savoured by a more “experienced” team. Last year was “cast and catch”, this was to be “identify and hunt”: Last year quantity, this year quality.
We arrived in Cancun in mid February and drove straight down to the lodge (although Pesca Maya do pick-ups from the airport). This involved 2 hours on perfect high ways and almost 2 hours on a rough jungle track. We arrived late in the evening weary but still bursting with enthusiasm. The plan was to start our 5 days with a few bonefish and then concentrate on permit, tarpon and snook.
We opened next morning with 7 weight rods, 10lbs test fluorocarbon and a selection of “clouser” and “gotcha” fly patterns..... and waded off to destiny.
I suppose “destiny” is what we got – it just that what “destiny” delivered wasn’t exactly what we expected. The wind was gusting, heavy clouds scudded overhead and fish spotting was hard. Then the rain started. Because we couldn’t see fish – “blind casting” was the only option. The day ended with a few bonefish caught (plus snapper, jack, perch, needlefish, ladyfish and tiny barracudas) and a sense of anticlimax. There had been sport all day but the weather had denied us the chance of sight fishing.
In my opinion, to cast at and hook individual bonefish is one of the greatest fishing thrills on the planet. Our first day denied us that chance but such is the risk of going in February. But luckily the weather improved and over the next couple of days we enjoyed good mixed bags of bones, snapper etc and some really enjoyable sight fishing. Permit, Snook and Tarpon however were conspicuous by their absence and a grand slam did not look like happening anytime soon.
The third day was dedicated to the snook or “linesider” – a tough silver predator that looks a bit like a Sudak with a black stripe painted along its lateral line. These guys are tough and highly prized by bait and fly fishers the length and breadth of the Caribbean. For us, snook hunting involved departing the open, sandy flats and entering the sheltered, steaming mangrove lagoons. On the flats the water is crystal clear. In the mangroves it is closer to coffee with a splash of milk.
An upgrade to a 10 weight saw us pitching gaudy green and yellow lures as close as possible to the tangled leaves and branches of the salt loving trees. Nestor, our guide, wanted us to cast inside the mangrove – to somehow make the fly fall through a tiny hole or pass under a ragged canopy. What can I say? Did I really say we were that experienced? I saw plenty of snook but failed to attract any serious interest from one. On several occasions I snagged the undergrowth and trying to free the fly resulted in mini underwater detonations as several snook bolted. We tried spinning as well, but after giving it our best shot for a few hours, we left the mangroves snookless.
That afternoon, back on the flats, shortly before heading back to the lodge - I spotted a permit. It looked like a good one of over 15lbs. It followed the fly as I stripped back but it wouldn’t take. However, making a few last casts of the day I hooked and played what I thought was a small bonefish but it turned out to be my first permit – a cracking fish of about 15...ounces. Nestor smiled and told me that size is not important! Every permit counts. Who was he trying to kid?
The next day in “Grand Slam World” was devoted to Tarpon. I was fishing on my own that day but still with Nestor as guide and Luis as assistant. The tarpon is also one of the most prized species in the Caribbean – especially if taken on fly. If you have not been lucky enough so far to see a tarpon, then imagine a herring that grows up to two metres in length, think of bucket mouths as hard as cinderblocks and more acrobatics and stamina than you could shake a stick at.
It was a long journey to the tarpon grounds and it was almost 2 hours after setting out that I made the first cast. Still using a 10 weight, coupled with 30lb test and a 2 inch yellow lure, the fishing was similar in style to chasing snook. But this time luck was on my side and during the next 4 hours I had some 10 takes, 6 solid hook ups and 4 fish landed. I was pleased with the ratios as I had been told that landing 1 fish in 10 takes was not at all unusual. OK – I should now admit that these were “baby” tarpon around the 6 to 7lb mark, but they provided dramatic and exciting sport: Explosive takes, swirls, jumps – flashes of silver in the coffee stained water. Heart stopping stuff! If you want to contact a larger tarpon, say between 50 and 80 lbs, then it is better to delay your visit to between May and October when the bigger fellows turn up in Ascension Bay.
With 30 minutes left to fish I decided to end that day with bonefish. But the sighting of a big barracuda (well over a metre in length) resulted in a scramble to make ready the spinning rod. One cast was enough. The Barracuda actually took to the air and crashed on the lure from above. The 20 pound class fish run and jumped manically but 5 minutes later was in the boat. Time was left for a few casts only, sight fishing for bones. I had 2 chances and caught two bonefish described by Nestor as “seriously good fish”. It was the first time in the week that I had been way out on to the backing. What a day!
By now it was looking like I’d leave dreams of a grand slam to more experienced fishermen. But I wanted a permit. The permit is considered the “Holy Grail” of fly fisherman. A deep set silver fish from the mackerel family, they are often caught on bait but catching one on fly is the dream. Thus the last day was devoted to permit – possibly the most challenging of any species in the world that can be viably taken on fly.
Permit or bust! This meant that most of the day was spent simply waiting and looking. If I cast I knew that I would catch other species. If this happened and a school of permit suddenly showed up while I was hooked into something else, then the chance would be gone. So I waited and watched. And waited. It was a beautiful, warm sunny day. I was (almost) perfectly happy to catch or not to catch. Nestor poled the boat along slowly – searching all the time. We saw sting rays and sharks, bonefish and barracuda and myriads of other flats species. The air was filled with wheeling exotic birds. It felt great just to sit and watch – almost hypnotised by the tranquillity of it all. Then panic.
Nestor spotted a large school of permit. “Quick John. Cast to 9 o’clock, no 8, no 6, no cast to 4 o’clock...” What an adrenaline rush! After an hour waiting and watching – the permit were here! But the school (20 or 30 fish) appeared, flashed past and disappeared in 2 seconds. I doubt they even saw my manically cast fly. 10 minutes later there was a repeat show. The Permit flashed in front of us then were gone. Probably it was the same school. The third chance was better. I got a cast in the right place at the right time – just ahead of another fast moving shoal. A couple of large Permit peeled away to follow my fly as I drew it back in long, slow strips. The line snapped tight - but it was only a small snapper that must have been swimming with them!
The fourth and last chance was the best. We saw some permit “tailing” i.e. moving slowly, feeding and with their tails in the air. Nestor and I got out of the boat into chest deep water and crept within range. All that was needed was one good cast. No mistakes. And the cast was better than good. It was perfect.... and two permit swung away and zeroed in on my slowly stripped crab pattern. Again the line locked tight and a brisk strip strike set the hook. Nestor cheered “Permit on” and urged me not to play him too hard. “Let the fish take line whenever it wants to” he added helpfully. And so for two or three minutes I played my “permit” carefully until Nestor said something polite and I said something unprintable. My “permit” was yet another snapper, a larger one that had been swimming close to the permit. This one was retained for Nestor’s supper. I think this is what we might call revenge!
I didn’t get another chance at permit. I caught another big barracuda, some jacks and snappers, but the chosen quarry eluded us that day.
Next time, I’ll get a big permit and maybe one of those snook. Maybe I’ll get a slam. But definitely there is plenty of sport for every fly fisher, regardless of how experienced, who takes the trouble to get over to Cancun and down to Pesca Maya.