It was a sight-caster’s ultimate dream: Greasy slick water reflecting powder-blue skies and puffy marshmallow clouds like a giant mirror. There wasn’t another flats skiff within miles. Fifty yards away, tiny ripples formed a trailing V as several black fin-tips breached the surface on a collision course with our bow. My heartbeat raced as I watched the scene unfold.
“See the fish, Señor David?” whispered our guide, Pancho, from his perch atop the panga’s poling platform. “They are moving off that grass from left to right. Drop the fly in front of them and let it sink slowly.”
After false-casting to load the rod, I did as instructed, letting the fly plop softly on the surface. As it descended into the shallows, one of the cruising permit eyeballed the baby lobster imitation and raced to eat it. I felt a tap, strip-set the hook and watched the rod tip bend in response.
“Muy bueno, you’ve got him,” my host, Rogelio Velasco, said encouragingly. “Nice cast, Dave.” Yet something was noticeably wrong. I was tight to a fish all right, but it wasn’t acting very permit-like. The typical sound of backing leaving the reel at Mach 1 was instead replaced by short, uneven bursts. After a brief struggle, a three-pound mutton snapper was thrashing next to the boat. My intended target was long gone. Fortunately, I was in the middle of Mexico’s Ascension Bay and the chance at finding more was about as good as it gets.
**Flash back to last year’s IGFA banquet, where I bumped into Stefan Kneffel while checking out the silent-auction lineup. Kneffel, a real-estate and yacht broker in Cancun, is also one of the partners of Pesca Maya, a sportfishing lodge located near the tip of the Sian Ka’an peninsula and Ascension Bay. After enticing me with tales of a flats super slam-bonefish, permit, snook and tarpon-he offered an invitation to see for myself. It took all of five seconds to accept.
Sian Ka’an (Mayan for “Where the sky is born”) is a 1.5-million-acre United Nations-recognized reserve that encompasses pristine tropical forests, coral reefs and the tidal estuaries that feed Ascension Bay. Mel Gibson used it as the backdrop for his movie Apocalypto. But Mayan ruins, virgin sacrifices and ecotourism aside, the abundance of bonefish and permit, along with frequent shots at tarpon and snook, make Ascension Bay one of the top light-tackle and flyfishing destinations in the world. Velasco, who oversees operation of the lodge, explained why permit are especially plentiful.
“All the prime permit areas are also nursery grounds for spiny lobster,” he told me. “Lobster spawn and grow in the coral and turtle grass. Permit love to eat baby lobster and stone crabs, so that’s why I developed my lobster fly patterns. They have longer legs and antennae than the Merkin-style crabs and the fish really respond well to them.”
When the protected biosphere was established in 1986, commercial lobster diving was grandfathered in. Harvesters from nearby Punta Allen deploy shadow boxes made of concrete and chicken wire in the bay as lobster sanctuaries. Permit prowl nearby, looking for an easy meal.
Velasco takes advantage of local talent by employing men from the village as guides, who apprentice for more than two years before getting their captain’s ticket. Two-man teams accompany anglers aboard the lodge’s 23-foot pangas. Each boat has a Yamaha four-stroke and the necessary safety gear.
“We rotate flats so the fish don’t feel too much pressure,” Velasco says. “When it’s calm, we usually run to the southern parts of the bay like the Santa Rosa flats. If the wind does pick up though, our boats have enough freeboard and comfort to run safely across open water.”
Searching for Silver
After my initial encounter with permit and snapper (a day salvaged by bonefish on the fly), we ran to Isla de Culelra to try our luck with tarpon. Although fish topping the 100-pound mark are not uncommon during the spring migration, ‘poons ranging from 15 to 40 pounds roam the island moats and brackish lagoons throughout the year. Armed with the same ten-weight fly combo, I fed a green and white Deceiver to a 25-pounder before he launched over a tree limb and broke me off. Switching to spin tackle, I had another take a swipe at a DOA shrimp before swimming off unfettered-time for a strategy change.
After lunch at an island populated by iguanas, Nestor, one of our guides, disappeared into the brush. He returned grinning a few minutes later with a small bucket of scuffling hermit crabs. Armed with bait, we broke out the spinning gear and started poling around Tres Marias, three small islands interspersed by channels and mottled bottom. As if on cue, a big ray glided into range, stirring up silt with its wings as it moved over the sand. The silvery platter shape of a permit trailed behind.
On my third cast into the wind, the bare crab reached the target with the intended result. The permit slurped down the oily crustacean and took off, taking half of my line with him. After a 15-minute fight, I hoisted the tuckered-out ten-pounder for a quick photo, then we sent it on its way. That fish was about typical for Ascension Bay, Velasco told me, although the lodge record is a 40-inch monster.
To cheat the wind and propel the heavy flies favored for permit here, opt for a fast-action ten-weight rod. Match it to a large-arbor reel with a weight-forward floating fly line and at least 250 yards of backing. Fluorocarbon tippets and long leaders are key in the clear water. Weighted crab or shrimp patterns in tans, browns and olive in sizes 6 and 8 get the nod-or tie your own baby lobsters.
Bay bonefish normally run from one to three pounds, although larger fish up to eight pounds are not unusual. If the wind cooperates, a seven-weight outfit will do the job, but an eight-weight allows more flexibility without hampering the sport. Wading is the preferred method to stalk the schools that typically number up to 20 fish. Crazy Charlies, Gotchas, small Clouser minnows and Popovics Ultra Shrimp in sizes 4 and 6 in tan, pink, silver and olive will typically fool the ghosts of the flats.
Pretty and Productive
Ascension Bay has two features that offer opportunity regardless of the weather-mangrove lagoons and blue holes. The lagoons and coves formed by mangroves let anglers find fishy spots out of the wind.
Blue holes are upwellings of aqua-blue water in the middle of flats. Scattered throughout the bay, these holes are actually limestone tunnels that lead to the open ocean and concentrate gamefish. Kneffel and I plucked snapper from them and had shots at pop-up permit and baby tarpon. In the southern portion of the bay we also cast to snook cruising the shoreline, although the wary linesiders refused to eat. We took our frustrations out on reel-destroying cubera snapper. Barracuda up to 30 pounds are another light-tackle adversary.
Pesca Maya’s prime season runs from November through late spring, although temperatures were in the lower 80s with reasonable humidity during my trip in August. With the exception of some day-trippers, Kneffel, Velasco and I had the lodge to ourselves until Tom and Rick Wyatt from Charlottesville, Virginia, arrived midweek for their eighth visit. Tom told me his top Pesca catch was a 30-pound permit on a tan size-4 crab fly. His son Rick fondly remembered wading a Santa Rosa flat as school after school of bonefish swam into range. That tally ended at 40 fly-caught bonefish in 212 hours.
Kneffel, joined by his seven-year-old son Stefan, Jr., put together some impressive numbers during their brief visit. Senior landed 21 bone-fish up to 512 pounds, while young Stefan mastered seven more up to six pounds on bucktail jigs.
“I’ve done spreadsheets on both the moon and tidal phases for the bay, and I really haven’t noticed a major difference in the bite,” Velasco told me during our last outing together. “Thank goodness we haven’t figured that out yet or it would be boring.”
To underscore his point a short while later, I made a Hail Mary cast at a 30-pound permit. The fly landed just short of the strike zone and spooked the biggest trophy of the week into the next time zone. No problemo. It only gives me a goal for my next Pesca Maya adventure. Besides, I had the last laugh-that mutton snapper was delicious.