Jun 15th, 2012
The brilliant brassy tinge of a mariachi’s trumpet blasted out of the speakers of my rented Jeep Wrangler and out into the fresh Yucatan morning through the open top. With the wind threatening to dismount my brand new Fly Water hat I bounded my way faster than recommended down the potholed road from Tulum to the small lobstering village of Punta Allen on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.
Having landed in Cancun the day before on Cinco de Mayo and then overnighting in Tulum, it was an incredible feeling to be separating myself from the bustle of the tourist-laden Mayan Riviera and be heading down a long dirt road far away from the trappings of civilization. Ahead of me lay two mind bending weeks of heart thumping juvenile tarpon action, bonefish to beat the band, popper blasting barracudas, feisty jacks, maddening permit shots, and a beautiful country inhabited by warm, friendly, and hard-working locals.
This trip would see me visit six destinations including two lodges in Ascension Bay called Pesca Maya and Grand Slam. On the north end of the peninsula I would check out a sleeper fishery at Isla Blanca just north of Cancun and then spend several days at Tarpon Cay in San Felipe. After Tarpon Cay I would head to Isla Del Sabalo north of Campeche for some incredible tarpon action and then finish the trip near Mahahual, where I would fish the inland tarpon lakes and flats of Chetumal Bay.
Sitting on a picturesque sandy beach just 5km outside of Punta Allen sits Pesca Maya Lodge. As I eased the Wrangler through the gate and pulled up next to the main lodge my anticipation for the adventure ahead was boiling over. A big plate of chorizo and scrambled eggs, fresh salsa, fresh squeezed orange juice and toast was being prepared as my guide Nestor began digging in to my rods and flies, expertly rigging my gear for the fishing day ahead. After breakfast Nestor, his assistant guide Rosendo and I set out for two brilliant days of fishing Ascension Bay within the Yucatan’s Sian Ka’an Biosphere Preserve.
My very first cast of the trip yielded a brilliant bonefish that slurped up my Ververka’s Mantis Shrimp like it had been waiting its whole life for my fly to magically appear in front of its face. I would come to find out that this first cast bone would define the rest of the bonefish I would encounter during my time in Ascension Bay.
Many bonefish came to hand on those first couple of days in the bay with the majority falling primarily for the Mantis Shrimp and a lightly weighted tan Clouser Minnow. We found bones in vast schools numbering somewhere around 500 – 600 fish, while others were located in slightly deeper channels. The bones in these angling scenarios were so easy to catch that I had a hard time not feeling a tinge of guilt as I shot at monkeys in a barrel. Beginning bonefish anglers will surely appreciate these opportunities. Plenty of bigger fish could be found while on foot on the more classic shallow water flats. Productive and wadable bonefish flats are not numerous in Ascension Bay and so they receive a bit more pressure and the fish can be slightly tougher to catch.
One of my more favorite ways to fish the bay was to rig three rods, one for permit, one for barracuda/jacks, and one for bonefish. I let my guide Nestor know that I wanted to cast at anything he saw. The craziness of switching rods and throwing at everything that moved became a fun past time and an absolute blast. This methodology yielded several large barracuda including one pushing nearly 5 feet long. The beast finally decided to eat after 10 casts and endless teasing only to chew through my 40lb coated wire leader to earn its escape. A beautiful Jack Crevalle also came to hand on those first few days at Pesca Maya that remarkably gave my 10wt everything it could handle. Fish in the Jack family never seem to disappoint and they are among the toughest, most aggressive, and fun fish to target on the planet.
In the evenings after fishing, the staff at Pesca Maya are experts at making you truly feel at home. A complimentary pitcher of Margaritas is set out and appetizers are served while the day’s fishing stories stir the imagination and spawn hope for the following mornings. Warm Mexican hospitality, hearty home-made cuisine and extremely comfortable accommodations recharge you after a long day on the water. Pesca’s in-house guides are highly skilled, personable and always professional through and through.
After my far too short of stay at Pesca Maya, I loaded up the Jeep and headed a few minutes down the road towards Punta Allen to spend a couple of days at Grand Slam Fly Fishing Lodge. Grand Slam is a new operation boasting first class accommodations and service for anglers visiting Ascension Bay. From the pictures I had seen before my arrival I was suspicious and indeed doubtful that the grounds, quality of the rooms and beauty of the restaurant/bar area could actually be as nice as they made it seem. Fortunately, I was wrong… Dead wrong!
The accommodations at Grand Slam are nothing short of stunningly beautiful! Everything about the simple yet elegant décor, the attention to detail and the addition of high-tech creature comforts screams first class. From the 42” flat screen TV complete with DVD and satellite reception, to the ensuite Jacuzzi tub and private seating areas, to the outdoor lounges and divine king size beds, it’s all about luxury.
Both Pesca Maya and Grand Slam fish the same waters so transitioning from one lodge to the other was simple. On my arrival, I met up with lodge manager Mike Ledezma and instantly appreciated his professionalism, long term lodge experience and genuine good natured personality. I let him know that I had spent several days chasing a range of different species with Pesca Maya and now had permit exclusively on my mind.
It would be easy for someone to arrive at Grand Slam and be intimidated by the extravagant surroundings, but Mike easily and instantly strips that away and brings it back down to earth. He set me up with Tony and Nestor (a different Nestor) as my guides and together we would set out on the bay and set our sights solidly on permit for the next two days.
The stories you may have heard about nit-picky, mind numbingly spooky, and extremely maddening permit are all true. They are at once the most difficult fish I have ever pursued and easily the most addicting. Over the course of two days, Tony put me in perfect position to make it happen. Sometimes on the flats, sometimes over 100 – 200 fish schools, other times at cruising and feeding singles, and time after time I just couldn’t get it done. One encounter left me with my knees knocking and my heart thudding its way up my esophagus as I watched a 25lber charge my fly at full speed from 15 feet away, tip up, spike its tail way into in the air and then inspect every last thread wrap of my crab pattern. Tony yelled, “You got him, you got him! SET! SET!” and feeling nothing on the strip strike I then got to watch him swim off without so much as a bump.
Permit are a magnificent fish, both in appearance and behavior. It is no wonder why some anglers become so enamored with them. For me, it’s the difficulty of the pursuit, the reward of the capture, and the skill required to make it all come together that encompasses everything I love about the sport. I’ll be back for my Ascension Bay permit and you can bet my knees will be knocking; I’ll be gritting my teeth and praying to the permit gods the whole time. That is, after all, exactly what it’s all about!
The bottom line is that if you have non-anglers in your midst and you’re desperate for an outstanding saltwater flats experience then look no further than Grand Slam. This destination works for hard core anglers but is also perfect for spouses or families that want to travel with them. Opportunities exist for turtle watching, snorkeling, scuba diving, birding, or Mayan ruin tours that depart right out of the dock in front of the lodge. Non-angling guests will appreciate the freshwater pool, sandy beach, and yummy cocktails and cuisine while anglers can experience some of the best saltwater flats fishing in the world. The caring good nature of the staff, the brilliant creature comforts and the easy access to Ascension Bay’s prime fishing grounds made it tough for me to drive away from Grand Slam. The adventure, however was just getting started and I had a date with a Sabalo!
Please check in with me for Part 2 of this report in the coming days as I head to the northern part of the Yucatan Peninsula to find some truly out-of-this-world baby tarpon action!
Please find part 2 of my Yucatan trip report HERE.