In need of some winter sun? Mexico's Ascension Bay delivers.
Pete Tyjas of the Devon School of Fly Fishing recently teamed up with destination outfitters Fly Odyssey for a trip down to the fabled Ascension Bay at the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. Read his story inside and share in some voyeuristic warmth and saltwater fun while we endure the cold European winter.
by Pete Tyjas - The Devon School of Fly Fishing
"strip, strip, strip...wait, strip, he's on it!" Hold your breath and wait for the line to go tight. I'm not sure anything prepares you for the sheer speed of a hooked bone fish as it tries to take off to the safety of deeper water at speeds of close to 30mph.
I headed off to Ascension Bay, Mexico in December on a trip organised by Mat McHugh from Fly Odyssey with the promise of bones on the menu. I had some unfinished business with permit from a previous trip and had heard that this might just be the place to put things right. Mat also happened to mention that there were snook and tarpon down there too. Catching all four of these species in a day is known as a Super Slam and there is a small group of anglers belong to this very exclusive club. A good friend of mine was on the same trip a week previous to me going and had managed this amazing feat. This is testament to his skills as an angler but also to a destination that has such a wide range of angling opportunities.
We flew in to Cancun and soon left the tourist area arriving at our destination, Punta Allen late evening. It is located on the tip of a small peninsula which forms the entrance of Ascension Bay. It was late evening when we got there and so we opted for the straight to bed and early start option.
Accommodation was clean and comfortable and you always get a good feeling when you see rod racks in the living room ready to be filled with guests' rods. I dreamt of bones that night which I was told not to do the next night by my room mate as apparently it makes me snore.
"I didn't need subtitles for that one!"
Next morning we met Nikki, owner of our beach front accommodation. She is one of the people you read about who have just dropped out of the system and live a simple but very happy life. Originally from the U.S. her husband suddenly announced he had bought a place in Punta Allen and they were moving out there. Sadly he is no longer alive but she could have gone home and given up, but stayed on and keeps his dream alive.
I liked Nikki - she understands fly fishermen and their sense of humour. "I didn't need subtitles for that one!" was a phrase she often used when we'd crack a joke. She also has a couple of American guides, Bill and Greg lodging with her at the moment, in what I would describe as an attic area above where we ate breakfast. These guys guide in Alaska and Colorado in the trout and salmon season and head down to Mexico in Winter and do some guiding, but mostly fishing. I had a drink with them one night and went up to their "room" which had clothes strewn all over the floor and bottles of Jack D or Jim Bean in varying states of emptiness. The only tidy area was the fly tying desk where the next killer pattern was conceived. These guys had it sussed.
Food was excellent and varied. I have often found on previous bone fishing trips that the sandwich you have for packed lunch on day one is the same as on the last day and all the days in between, which is by no means a hardship (especially if the fishing is hot) but it is nice to have a change every now and then. On this trip we even had steak sandwiches one day.
The guides would meet us every day right in front of where we were staying and were smartly decked out in Simms wear. The guides are fishermen who formed a co-operative and are available for single or group hire for an individual or lodge. I really liked this entrepreneurial spirit and it meant that there was a high standard of guiding across the board, as no one wanted to let the rest of the team down. When we got into the boat each day they would ask us what we would like to do and what we would like to fish for. As a guide myself I noticed little things like this and it is good that when you set off you know exactly what you are going to be doing. The big plus though, is that you have two guides per boat. This has a couple of advantages in that one of you can easily hop out with one guide and wade whilst the other fishes from the boat with the other guide. They are helpful and polite and have a good understanding of English and as with all bonefish guides, phenomenal eye sight.
The boat journey to the flats would be between 15 and 30 minutes and you are spoilt by the sheer number available. It is unusual to see any one else whilst you drifted over areas the size of several football pitches. We would work along the edges of the flats looking for signs of tailing bonefish or nervous water as a shoal moved through. If we saw tailing fish we would quietly get out of the boat and approach the fish on foot. This sort of moment reminds me of my trout fishing back home in Devon. Here, you see a fish rise, sneak up on him, make your cast and hope everything you have done pays off and you hook him. That is where the similarity ends as the bone fish takes off at a speed the newcomer will find alarming. This is why I think stalking tailing bones is a sort of turbo-charged trout fishing!
I spent my first day with Paul who is a first-time bone fisher. I have taught him since he was a beginner and have been there when he has passed many fly fishing milestones. I wanted to be there when he marked this one. On the way out I remember saying to him, tell yourself "don't strike, don't strike" when he was stripping the fly back, as many trout anglers will lift into any resistance instead of strip striking. I didn't need to worry as he did everything like a seasoned professional. After high fives and handshakes I think I noticed the first signs of an addiction starting to take hold with Paul!
We carried on catching bones throughout the morning and had decided to look for permit in the afternoon. After lunch we headed to a permit flat. It was the biggest flat I think I have ever been on and Paul graciously offered me first shot up front, I felt like Captain Ahab with a 9 weight and crab pattern in my hand as we scanned the horizon for a sign of the black sickle fin poking out of the water as a permit fed. I'd had a go at a few permit on previous trips and felt I had put the hours in, so would this be my shot?
Sadly this wasn't to be the case as we didn't encounter a permit then or for the rest of the week. The temperature had dropped from 80 to 65 with a northerly wind coming in and had pushed them out into deeper water. It is easy to always try and paint a rosy picture and gloss over the cracks to try and make things sound better but do you know what? It didn't matter, the bone fishing was excellent along with plenty of other species. Our party also caught tarpon, barracuda, snapper, snook and rainbow runners. I probably spent too much time looking for permit than was healthy and remember one of the days we were looking for them and we saw a pod of whales moving through just off of the flat. All four of us in the boat just stopped everything and watched in silence as they went about their business and then moved off again. I'm sure a joke about tailing fish or something about the right pattern for whales might have caused a few smiles but it seemed right to say nothing and just watch.
I got to fish with Mat and Mark a bit too. We would all hop out of the boat and fish unguided scanning the water for signs of "the ghost of the flats" One afternoon Mark had a hunch about an area he had been to previously and the guides ran him over there to take a look. It left just Mat and I to walk a flat on our own making a few casts, putting the world to rights and catching a few fish too. We decided it wouldn't be such a bad thing if the boat forgot us for just one night.
I read, unfairly in my opinion, that Ascension Bay has a reputation for slightly smaller fish from 2 to 3lb in size. When we were there I caught a few of 4lb and whilst we were there 6, 7 and 8lb fish were landed and bigger seen by others in our party.
I must admit that I really liked the end of the day when everyone meets up to swap stories of the days fishing and about heroic success or tragic failures, although there weren't many of the latter. When on a fishing holiday I work on the basis that I want to fish hard and come back home tired and so I'd listen to the days stories and make the short walk down to the beach and have a cast or two. I found a nice area with turtle grass and even cast to a few bones. Apparently even permit have been caught from the beach which I heard from a bar owner. This spurred me on even more and I could sneak an hour or so extra fishing in; by then one of the showers would be free!
Even on the windier days I used my 6wt rod and it did everything perfectly. On the skinniest water I think it gave me a presentation advantage coupled with a 15ft leader and unweighted crazy charlie. There is still nothing more exciting than seeing a shoal of bones move through and having to fire out a shot and see a fish peel off and take. Then it is hold on for dear life. You will see plenty of these shoals and a good pair of polaroid's will make life even easier. The guides will point you in the right direction but it is easier to cast to a fish that you can clearly see.
I travelled with a group of friends and used Fly Odyssey who offer the best locations at the fairest of prices. In the current environment we are all watching the pennies but Mat organises fly fishing holidays to be available to everyone. It allows a group of anglers wanting to try something new to travel to places they might only read about in a book or on a computer.
The fishing in Ascension Bay suits all, from the first timer to the very experienced, with plenty of challenges and species to test the most seasoned salt water fly fisher. The area is known as the permit capital and although I didn't get a shot at this elusive fish a few of the guys in our party did, although sadly without success. I reckon I'll be back to have another go and see if I can find my Moby Dick.
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