We knew that the bar had been set high when the guys from Idaho hit three grand slams in three days. Oh sure, they were all guides, they had great weather, and they didn’t get any bragging rights trophies, but still—consecutive slams on consecutive days. That is a little over the top. Catching a permit, a bonefish, and a tarpon in a single day would be a lifetime achievement for most people. In fact, there are few places in the world where it is even possible. We had obviously come to one of the best.
Fishing-deprived by a long Alaskan winter, my buddy, Rich Chiappone, and I had been hoping to find some new fly rod friendly waters. I called Scott Heywood at Angling Destinations (the guru of undiscovered fishing spots) who suggested going to Xcalak and a lodge called Costa de Cocos. Xcalak (pronounced in the Mayan as “ish kalak”) lies just inside Mexico’s border with Belize and has always been one of those fabled places on the outer edges of the map.
A month later, Rich and I found ourselves stepping into the heat of the Yucatan. Crowds of beach worshipers filled the Cancun airport—sunburned skin and bloodshot eyes heading home; eager fresh faces getting off the plane with us. We stood out a bit with our flats shirts and fly rods and our driver had no trouble picking us from the crowd.
We headed south along what has become known as the Mayan Riviera. Its resort complexes and condos were a far cry from the mangroves and scrub jungle that lined this road the first time I saw it some thirty years ago. The once-somnolent fishing village of Playa del Carmen had become a traffic jam of tour buses and supply vans, filling the restaurants and hotels that have turned the town into a major European destination.
Once past Tulum, though, the country changed. The resorts ended and there was a lushness to the jungle that didn’t exist farther north. Tiny stick-built houses sat among scatterings of banana plants. Goats browsed in grassless yards. For several miles we drove through a cloud of migrating butterflies, their black and turquoise wings fluttering across the road like leaves in an autumn wind.
A few miles to the east of the highway lay the bonefishing flats of Ascension Bay and Espiritu Santo. Protected by the restrictions of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, they have been developed at a much more moderate pace than the tourist areas to the north. Their reputation as a fly fishing destination is well-earned, and, in fact, Ascension Bay was the site of the first bonefishing trip that Rich did together, many years ago. This time we wanted something a little further out.
We continued south, and an hour later, turned east onto a string-straight road that led through the upper edges of mangrove swamp. Pockets of water held herons and egrets and we could smell the ocean. Another right turn, and a half hour drive and we reached the end of the road. This is the Yucatan as it existed when I first laid eyes on it, still wild and unkempt. We were four hours and three decades from the horrors of Cancun.
A kilometer north of the decrepit village of Xcalak, and past a few tidy, bougainvillea-lined driveways marking the first influx of American snowbirds, we found the palms and palapas of Costa de Cocos. Our hosts, Dave and Ilanna, led us to thatch-roofed rooms with immaculate tile floors, ceiling fans turning slowly overhead. Outside, sunlight flickered through the shading palms and grackles provided a variety of background melodies. I loved it immediately. It had an easy tropical grace that blended seamlessly with the white sand and blue Caribbean water.
Although it is primarily a fishing lodge, Costa de Cocos has plenty of other activities. The world’s second largest barrier reef lies only a few hundred yards off shore and the snorkeling is world class. In fact, Rich and I had planned to spend the first couple of days just getting wet and brown before we started our five days of working the flats. That was before we walked down to the dock and asked a rod-burdened, salt-soaked angler, “So, how’s the fishing?”
Steve, a tall lanky guy, had a grin on his face when he answered. A permit, a bonefish and a tarpon in a single day is enough to make anyone grin. A guide on the South Fork of the Snake River in the summer, in the off season Steve tends bar in the same pizza/beer joint that sucked up all my spare change when I was in college several decades ago. He and his friends were all from the same part of southern Idaho that I grew up in. It was like old home week. Everyone was excited that one of their group had gotten a slam. Little did we know.
The lodge only fishes eight clients a day, and we knew before we came that all of their guides were booked for our first two days. The next morning, though, Dave said he had found a guide in town who had a half-day client, and was willing to go back out in the afternoon. We quickly bagged the snorkeling plan and, in the heat of the day, headed out to the flats with Alejandro and his ten year old son, Jonah, a kid well on his way to a guiding career.
Costa de Cocos is a fifteen minute boat ride from a deep water cut that marks the border between Mexico and Belize. The cut leads to Chetumal Bay, the largest bay in the Yucatan. Miles of shallow flats surround the mangrove islands and channels, providing great habitat for bonefish and permit. The land is so low that islands a mile away appear only as disembodied mangroves rising above the water.
What had started as a cloudless calm day in the morning had turned to black clouds and wind by two o’clock. Unable to see fish, we waded the lee shores of the mangroves, looking for tails and nervous water. There are only a few flats in Chetumal that are suitable for wading, and these were not among them. Jonah pulled the boat while Rich, Alejandro and I picked our way along the edges. The mud was soft and sticky, but there were fish to be found.
In one back bay, we got out of the boat just behind a small point of solid-appearing land. Rich, twenty yards ahead of me, excitedly waved me forward, and I decided to cut the corner. Big mistake. My leg sank thigh deep into some primeval-smelling ooze, leaving me convinced that I would never see my wading bootie again. I looked up to see the twin v’s of a pair of big bones moving toward me in shallow water. Surprisingly, given my predicament, I made a decent cast to them. Not surprisingly, they ignored it.
Fortunately there were plenty more opportunities, and we came back to the lodge happy with our success. That is when we heard that one of Steve’s buddies had gotten a permit and a bonefish, and was now back in the tarpon lagoon hoping to hit the trifecta. It was well after dark before he came stumbling into the bar with the telltale grin on his face.
The next morning we awoke to the raucous calls of chachalacas (how can a bird the size of a turkey and as noisy as a murder of crows be so hard to spot?). With no guide available in the morning, we took a couple of hours to appreciate both the bird life (orioles, Yucatan jays, yellow-lored parrots) and the marine life (angel fish, damsels, and some very large ‘cuda). There is prime scuba diving nearby, and, over a fish taco lunch, one of the divers regaled us with tales of huge schools of tarpon holding about sixty feet deep along the reef.
We squeezed in another bonus half day that afternoon. This time, though, we found two nice permit—eight to ten pounders—feeding on a hard flat. They were happy fish, tails and dorsals flapping as they tipped up to feed. We each got good shots at them, but got a typical permit response to our flies—a quick look and then the inaudible sound of fish laughter as they swam off.
When we returned to the lodge we found a third member of the Idaho crowd had gotten a permit and bonefish. He tried to beg off from making the early evening expedition to the tarpon lagoon, but neither Dave nor his buddies were willing to let him get away with that. Equipped with headlamp, a radio, and water, he headed out. It was well past dark, and dinner was underway, when the radio informed us that he too had collected a grand slam. Not a bad way for them to end their trip.
A grand slam is the Holy Grail (to mix my metaphors) of flats fishing. There are only a few places in the world that it is even a possibility, and the big bays of the Yucatan—Ascension, Espiritu Santo, and Chetumal—have always been the best bet. The first two are the best known and have well-deserved reputation for the number of slams taken. Of the three, the Bay of Chetumal is the least explored. It was clear, though, that it held a great deal of promise.
The following day was our turn to get serious about our own fishing. If we were to have a shot at a slam, it meant catching a permit—always the biggest challenge. Bonefish are plentiful in these bays, and the guides obviously knew of a few pockets that hold baby tarpon.
It didn’t start well. After a week of calm cloudless mornings, we had a front come through. Cool and cloudy, the fishing was difficult, but an evening of margaritas, conch chowder and grilled grouper restored our optimism.
The following day, matters improved. We started on the lee side of a long sand spit known a Punta Maya. There were bonefish there, cruising and feeding in shallow water. Periodically, schools of ten or twenty small permit—three or four pounds—would cruise through. I dropped a Gotcha in front of one school and the entire group of twenty fish swam over the top of my slowly twitching fly without even looking at it.
An hour later though, we moved to deeper water and things changed. I had switched to the ten weight and a merkin, and was standing in the bow when Fernando said “Permit!” I saw the school of a dozen big fish cruising across the turtle grass and dropped the fly on a white sand patch ten feet in front of them. Four or five of them rushed the fly and I made a couple of very slow pulls while they squabbled over it. It seemed an eternity before the line finally went tight and I set the hook. The entire school exploded and my fish peeled off, leaving a roostertail as my flyline cut the water.
“Big fish.” Fernando said. “Maybe thirty pounds.”
I watched the 180 yards of backing melt off my spool as the fish kept running. Finally the fish stopped. I didn’t want it to rest and make another run, nor did I want it to rub the fly out in the sand. I put a bit of pressure on him to see if I could regain a little line. It was a foolish thing to do. The permit took off at right angles to the line, and I misjudged the amount of drag provided by the line and backing. He popped the 16 lb tippet like it was 7x.
Much of the area’s reputation as a permit destination comes from the many schools of small fish that cruise the bay’s flats. But there are much bigger fish in Chetumal and I had just gotten my butt whupped by one of them. I knew that I would be seeing that fish in my dreams, but still, it was a great way to start the day.
That afternoon, Fernando suggested that we try the ocean flats. We wound through a sinuous mangrove channel--turquoise water edged with a deep green. Herons flew startled from the branches, squawking in protest at the intrusion. There were a couple of signs in English, a sure sign that we had ventured into Belizean territory. Ten minutes later, we popped out onto a stunning view of the ocean flats. The unmistakable Caribbean blues and greens were stacked in successive layers out to a line of white surf that marked the reef.
The reef protects these beaches from the full fury of the Caribbean winds, and the waters inside are fertile, relatively calm, and three or four feet deep—great habitat for big permit. Fernando poled us over an emerald bottom, our eyes searching for fish. And they were there. Doubles and singles cruising among coral heads, tipping up for the crabs and shrimp hiding among the grasses. We threw our heaviest merkins and swimming crabs at them, the flies diving to the bottom in front of their noses. One pair led us on a long chase, Fernando poling silently behind them as they fed. It was some of the most exciting permit fishing I have done, but no more productive than usual.
At the end of the day, we had seen well over a hundred permit. Most were small schoolies, but the fish I lost would have been a true trophy anywhere. All of the fish were moving; meaning we usually had only a single shot at getting the fly in the right place. Over dinner that evening (gazpacho, hearts of palm salad, and lobster), Rich said, “If the weather holds, we actually have a good chance at getting our own slam.”
It is always “if”, though. The next day the wind picked up and fishing became much more difficult. Still, I managed to blow my second chance at a big fish. Fernando ran us to a flat that he said often held permit. When he cut the motor and picked up the pole, I threw out forty feet of line and, as the boat slid forward over it, I pulled an additional twenty feet off the reel and began to straighten it.
Almost immediately, Fernando said “Permit! Ten o’clock!” I looked up to see a line of big fish--twenty, twenty-five pounders--sixty feet away and coming straight at us. I was standing there like a fool with a heavy fly sitting on the bottom and my fly line bunched up right in front of the boat. It took three roll casts to get the fly in the air, and by that time the only shot was a going away quartering cast to the middle of the school. The last two fish in line turned, but the lure of the group pulled them away. They were the only permit we saw all day.
Wind! It’s the bane of flats fishing and it blew again the next day. We decided that it was too rough to pole the deeper water for permit and it would be impossible to see them. We settled for a day of chasing bones. I say settled, but it turned into a day that any flats fishermen would love. Lots of fish, all day long.
The fish we got were not as big as those in the Bahamas or Florida, but they were much nicer fish than those found in Ascension Bay. Most ran about three to four pounds, but I hooked and lost a couple that were much bigger. And there are a few very big fish here. Several years ago, my friend, Will Bauer, released one that might have been a new world record. The same size mix is true of permit and tarpon. Most of the slams caught include, not surprisingly, small permit and baby tarpon. But big specimens of both occur in Chetumal. We saw a lot of very nice permit, and the lodge record for tarpon is 110 lbs. It is the best of both worlds—lots of fish and the chance at getting a trophy.
Conditions on our last day hadn’t improved much, but we decided to focus on permit anyway. Fernando paid a brutal price, poling into a twenty knot wind all morning as we searched for hard-to-see fish. After lunch he went to plan B. Just inside the bay is a channel where big rays spend the day feeding. There appeared to be dozens of southern stingrays and yellow rays here and they all looked to be a good two or three feet across. A steady stream of mud drifted down from them, feeding grounds for both bones and permit. Fernando anchored up a long cast from the head of the mud.
We could see the small flashes of feeding bonefish, and the larger flashes that gave a clue to the permit. Occasionally we would catch a glimpse of a sickle tail or black dorsal as the fish slid from the murk into clear water. Several schools of permit swam by, just out of casting range from the anchored boat. It was not the type of fishing that we hoped for, but it was the best available. Still, we managed only to take a few small bones before it was time to head in.
Our Monty Pythonesque search for the Holy Grail had once again come to naught. We had had our chances, though, and, if you are hunting for a slam, that is all you can expect. Permit frustrations aside, it had been great fishing, and we celebrated our failures and successes that night with a couple of margaritas. Ilanna topped off the week’s dining when she brought an entire hogfish to our table, perfectly fried. It’s sweet and succulent flesh is as good as fish can get, and we reduced it to a well picked pile of bones. It was a taste of the Yucatan that will have to get me through until I can get back down to Costa de Cocos again. There is a big permit swimming around down there that still has my fly.
Will Rice is a well-traveled writer who lives in Anchorage, Alaska.