May 24, 2011
Wading the expansive flats of the Yucatan's Ascension Bay for Mayan permit
The Mayan civilization that ruled the Yucatan Peninsula from 250 AD until the arrival of the Spanish possessed a sophisticated knowledge of the solar system, and a highly advanced calendar that mysteriously ended in 2012. Some scholars and Hollywood executives interpret this as a prediction of the end of the world. I take it instead as a timeline for getting my first big permit — something, say, over 25 pounds?
If the world is going to end soon, it's past time to start completing the fly-fishing bucket list. At the top of that list for many fly fishers is "catch a permit" or if you've already done that, "catch a bigger permit."
Permit (Trachinotus falcatus) live the western Atlantic from Massachusetts to southeastern Brazil. Their prime habitat is from Florida through the Caribbean, with excellent fishing in the Florida Keys, Bahamas, Cuba, Belize, Honduras, and especially Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.
At the very epicenter of this geographic range is Ascension Bay, perhaps the world's largest permit nursery and feeding grounds for adult permit. The bay contains more than 250 square miles of sand and grass flats, broken by deeper cuts, channels, and blue holes created by the limestone geology of the Yucatan region. This contiguous, shallow permit habitat is completely enveloped by the 1.3-million-acre Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that comprises nearly a third of Mexico's entire Caribbean coast. It's the largest protected area in the entire Caribbean, a place where the mangrove forests, sandy beachfronts, and other important habitats are protected from developments such as private homes, massive hotels, and the accompanying sewage, freshwater extraction, loss of wetlands, and degradation of water quality.
This preserved habitat makes Bahia de la Ascension a bonefish and permit factory, and a place that will forever remain quiet and undisturbed — the polar opposite of Mexico's biggest tourist destination (Cancun) 120 miles to the north. Only about 2,000 people live in the biosphere, most in the small fishing towns of Punta Allen and Punta Herrero, where the local economies are based on lobster fishing, catch-and-release sport fishing, and water-based ecotours, where tourists snap photos of seabirds, turtles, and rare saltwater crocodiles. Many of the bonefish and permit guides here are also lobster fishermen during lobster season. They understand that their business depends on protecting all the natural resources, and they are excellent stewards.
Playing the Game
Permit are widely regarded as the most difficult flats fish to take on a fly. If you use live bait and conventional tackle, however, they aren't nearly so elusive. Charter captains in Florida and elsewhere can rack up impressive numbers by chumming over a wreck, and then throwing a live crab — impaled on a hook — into the fray.
On the flats, where the water is skinny and the permit are always registering a "red" threat level, fly fishers use visual cues only, and the keen eyes of a wary permit can be frustratingly discriminating.
In the close quarters of flats fishing, especially in places like the Florida Keys where the fishing pressure is high, shots at a half dozen permit can be counted as a good day. It's a game in which — back at the bar in Islamorada or Key West — you hear anglers bragging about numbers of shots at permit, or having a fish move to their fly. Actually landing a fish is rare enough that you are left to celebrate the smaller accomplishments.
Ascension Bay, however, can be a game changer — not because the permit are that much less wary, but because of the sheer number of opportunities. At Ascension Bay, the combination of an abundance of protected habitat and relative lack of harvest equates to a great many permit. It's one of those rare places where you can selectively target permit every day and, weather permitting, have a reasonable chance of success.
On a return trip to Pesca Maya Lodge in June 2009, I set out to count how many "shots" I had per day, but lost count due to the fact that I had not predetermined what counted as a shot (and what didn't) and the number became unrealistically large. What you don't want is a shot at a permit going away, a permit too close to the boat (less than 40 feet) and probably already spooked, too far out of effective casting range, and permit moving fast and not feeding. Most importantly, you don't want second, third, and fourth shots at a permit, or school of permit, that did not eat the first time and are probably aware of your presence. (You can get into the game of intercepting the same school of permit repeatedly, a practice that keeps you casting but rarely pays dividends in fish brought to the boat.)
Discarding all those instances — which happen many times during the course of a day, but don't really "count" as the best scenarios to catch permit — we had at least 12 to 15 opportunities daily to cast at permit or schools of permit feeding slowly toward us, where we spotted the fish at over 100 feet and were able to deliver the fly at ranges of 60 to 80 feet.
Permit abhor boats. I don't know if it's the slap of the ocean against the hull, or the high silhouette of a fly fisher casting from the bow (or both), but they frequently spook, or at least are reluctant to eat, inside of 60 or 70 feet from the boat. Our very best opportunities came when our guide spotted two or three large permit, or larger schools of permit feeding at a distance, and we quietly slipped into the water and waded to intercept the feeding fish.
One of the peculiarities of Ascension Bay fishing is that the guide normally has an apprentice working with him. It's the only place I've fished where two anglers in a boat have a 1:1 guide to client ratio. When the client is casting from the boat, the assistant guide mostly watches and learns.
However, when you slip into the water with the guide, the assistant takes the platform and the two become an effective fire team, with one holding the high ground to observe the feeding permit from 20 to 50 yards away, and the other coaching from your left shoulder. Often, the guide crouching in the water with you cannot see the fish when they are far off, and he takes directions from the platform until the permit move close enough to spot from knee-deep or waist-deep water.
Using this tactic, I've had feeding permit move past my fly and continue feeding to within two rod lengths. If you freeze, they move around you as if you were driftwood.
Because they can't see or hear you as easily as when you are in a boat, you can cast shorter distances — 40 to 60 feet instead of 60 to 80 — and as a result you'll have better accuracy, and be better able to deal with the ever-present wind. The fish also seem less nervous, and more inclined to eat.
Frequently — while I was wading with the guide — an additional permit or group of permit appeared on the same flat, moving in the same direction. The apprentice on the platform would call out the location of the new fish, and we'd also get shots at those fish without getting back in the boat. At one outlet to a lagoon — where we were evading 25 mph winds — we waded a 100-yard flat for over an hour with dozens of shots at permit feeding into the current while the tide was moving.
Wading for permit is rarely an option in places like Cuba, Florida, and the Bahamas because there is only one guide — he can't abandon his platform without losing his vantage point — and the flats are sometimes not suitable for wading. They are either too soft, or littered with sharp rocks, coral, or shells. By the time you strap on your flats boots, the fish are gone — and who wants to stand up in the casting platform wearing hot boots all day?
Ascension Bay's flats are almost exclusively hard, white sand. Even the grass and mud flats are more than hard enough to wade. I've spent entire trips jumping in and out of boats all day with bare feet, and have yet to run into a sharp shell or piece of coral. I always bring my flats boots; I've just rarely worn them. Just 100 yards offshore of Pesca Maya Lodge there is a reef that runs all the way to Belize, and the rocky bottom nearby is boot territory. But miles away on the flats you can wade barefoot all day and stay cool while doing it. Remember to reapply sunscreen to your feet every time you get back on the boat. The sand easily scrubs sunscreen away.
While wading for permit is a highlight of Ascension Bay permit fishing, it's not the only way to catch them. You also spend time in the boat poling the flats, looking for singles, doubles, and schools of permit.
On the deeper eastern flats, where the water is waist deep and awkward to wade, you'll focus mostly on boat fishing. Deeper flats sometimes mean fewer opportunities — bigger water can spread the fish — but also offer bigger permit, or larger schools of smaller permit. On the patchwork of white sand and grass flats near the open ocean, you can expect to see large schools of juvenile permit — 20 to 50 fish moving and feeding together for security from sharks and other predators. You also may see the true giants of the permit world.
Most of the largest permit in the IGFA record book are catches from Florida in the 1980s and 1990s — back in the day when killing a permit for the record book was more acceptable. The walls of the Ascension Bay lodges I've visited are adorned with dozens of photos of fish weighing more than 30 pounds, and some estimated at over 40 pounds. Some would have been fly-rod records had the fish been killed and weighed. But of course, neither guides nor guests in this ecological preserve are interested in culling giant specimens from the gene pool. Trophy fish are released, and the record book remains unchanged.
The point is, Ascension Bay has big permit, and with good weather, you're likely to see a few over 25 pounds (and larger) most days on the deeper flats. If you are an experienced permit angler looking for the biggest permit of your life, Ascension Bay is a good choice due to the high numbers of trophy fish. And the relative lack of fishing pressure means you have more of them to yourself, and they are less skittish.
In June 2009, over the course of four days, we fished multiple areas from the ocean flats inside the reef at Punta Allen, all the way to the south and west sides of Ascension Bay, and rarely saw another boat on the horizon. Only once did we pull up on a flat, pole around the corner, and come upon another boat. There are several lodges at both the north and south ends of Ascension Bay, but the territory is so vast that visiting anglers rarely cross paths. At least, that's been my experience in the off periods of late May and early June, when winds are typically light and the fishing season is winding down.
Ascension Bay is also a permit nursery, particularly in the shallower flats, mangrove-lined coastal areas, and sheltered lagoons. Small permit (under 10 to 15 pounds) almost always travel in schools, which makes them easy to spot from a distance. The local Mayan guides can spot the sun reflecting off the flanks of a group of permit from hundreds of yards or more and then move to intercept the fish by boat or on foot.
With clear skies, you'll see the dark shapes of the fish moving over the white bottom, and the tails and dorsals of the fish breaking the surface when they feed. With large schools of juveniles, particularly ones that are tailing, mudding, or otherwise feeding, Ascension Bay guides often coach you to drop the fly right in the center of the school. (Against everything I've learned elsewhere about permit fishing.) Yes, the permit will spook, but they quickly reassemble as a group — often right back over your fly — and competition for food quickly overcomes fear, provided the boat and/or line is not a perceived threat.
Under overcast skies, the guides watch for a "push" of water moving across the flats. It looks like ripple of water blown by the wind, but it's often moving at odd angles and against the tide. When the permit stop to feed, they produce "nervous water" — again, irregular ripples on the water but in this instance without direction. A group of permit (even small ones) can cause a significant disturbance when moving or feeding.
Again, cast at the limit of your ability while the fish are still showing themselves. Do not allow them to get too close to the boat. Remember that the lead fish is ahead of the push of water by several feet if the water is deep. Cast several feet in front of moving water, let the fly settle, and don't move it until the guide tells you.
The best situation to be in is to have your fly lying on the bottom well ahead of a fish, and have the fish move directly toward it. A couple of hops, and the fish is likely to pounce.
By leading the fish, you don't run the hazard of the line passing overhead or the "plink" of the fly spooking the fish. However, it also requires that you be somewhat like Nostradamus, as permit rarely move in a perfectly straight line, and the farther ahead you cast, the more likely the fish will detour from the anticipated path.
Another advantage of juvenile permit is that they prefer smaller flies, and they hang out on shallower flats that require lighter, easier-to-cast flies. On 3- and 4-foot-deep flats, your crab fly will be larger, heavily weighted to sink quickly to the bottom, and more difficult to cast. If you're still looking for your first permit, Ascension Bay provides plenty of "school situations" where the fish are in large groups, and you're the one in school, learning the ropes of permit fishing.
However, in permit fishing, remember that if anything can go wrong, it does. Mostly the permit just ignore your fly, and there's nothing "wrong" with that — expect it. After all, it isn't a real crab.
Sometime during the course of the day you run into a fish that is just turned on. You can see it in the way the fish moves, the way it pounces and blows out mud, and how frequently it tails. This is often when true heartbreak occurs, and you do something stupid like set the hook before the fish eats, or the fish takes the fly and crushes the hook point against the shank, or you hook the fish and any of a dozen circumstances causes you to break the fish off. I have done all these stupid tricks, and have still managed to actually catch a few permit here and there.
I also have an uncanny ability to hook lesser gamefish right at the moment when it looks as if a large, aggressive permit has tipped up on my fly. Smaller fish are often faster on the draw, and swimming under larger permit they are obscured from view. I've tightened on "sure thing" permit in Ascension Bay to realize seconds later that I've hooked a mutton snapper, jack crevalle, and in another instance, a 6-pound bonefish that stole my fly from the jaws of a tipping permit the size of a SUV hubcap. That particular bonefish was cranked in quickly with my 10-weight rod, and relished about as much as a Rocky Mountain whitefish or sucker.
Once you catch a permit, you have choices. Choice #1 is to go after a tarpon and work your way toward a grand slam or super grand slam. Choice #2 is to go after another permit.
I've always chosen the latter, but if "slamming" is your game, Ascension Bay is a great place to try it. (A grand slam is a permit, tarpon, and bonefish in one day. A super grand slam adds a snook to this list.)
Tarpon. Ascension Bay has good numbers of baby tarpon from 10 to 40 pounds finning in the mangrove shelters of Cayo Culebra (Snake Island), Isla Gaytanes, and Cayo Chobon. They also sit in shallow depressions in the middle of expansive grass flats, and along sheltered beaches. The guides know exactly where these fish live, and pole quietly to where you can see dark shapes over a white bottom, or see them rolling and gulping air from the surface way back in the shadows of the mangroves. Practice casting sidearm for mangrove tarpon, and focus on making tight loops, because you'll need to cast way back under overhanging limbs and drop your fly gently in flat water to avoid spooking the rolling fish. Bring small baitfish imitations such as Puglisi Mangrove Baitfish, Umpqua's Laid-Up Tarpon, or Supreme Hair Rattle Shrimp. In the summer months, larger migratory tarpon from 50 to 100 pounds pass over the white sand flats on the ocean side.
Bonefish. There are millions of bonefish in Ascension Bay, and you can wade for them on ankle-deep white sand flats with a 6-weight rod. If you are new to saltwater fly fishing and want to catch your first bonefish, Ascension Bay is a good place to get started, but my guess is that after a few days of bonefishing there, you will quickly want to graduate to permit fishing. The reason? Ascension Bay bonefish are small, and sometimes so plentiful that it gets boring catching them. If you do ask your guide to go bonefishing, set the following parameters: You want to wade on very shallow flats and sight-fish to traveling groups of bones. You don't want to anchor up over deeper water where the bottom is teeming with bonefish, or blind-cast into large "muds" where you can catch a fish on nearly every cast. For bones, bring small, lightly weighted flies such as #6-8 Gotchas, Bauer's Crafty Shrimp, or Mini Puffs.
Barracuda. At low tide, I'd rather look for laid-up or slow-moving barracuda that take stations near the aforementioned massive schools of bonefish, or at natural ambush points such as the entrances and exits to lagoons, at the edges of deeper channels, near reefs and other outcroppings, or near blue holes. Big barracuda are discriminating fish that often require long casts and fast, two-handed retrieves. Bring Tyger Wire for tippet material and saltwater poppers, Umpqua's Cuda Flies, and Dave Skok Mushmouths.
Bring a 6-weight rod with a floating bonefish line if you plan to do any bonefishing. With small flies, a light wind, and 6-pound-test tippet, you can drop a fly quietly on the skinniest flats, and have fun with even 14- and 16-inch bones. Bring an 8-weight for bonefishing when the wind is tough, and as a backup permit rod. Your primary weapon for Ascension Bay is a 10-weight rod, and you should bring at least two of them. I rig one for permit, and keep a wire tippet setup for barracuda on the other. If you're going to do any tarpon fishing, it's nice to have a third 10-weight rigged for tarpon with a 40- or 60-pound-test monofilament bite tippet and a good tarpon fly. Your permit rod should have a floating, tropical saltwater line. I prefer steep weight-forward designs such as Scientific Anglers Sharkskin Saltwater Magnum or the RIO Saltwater Tropical Clouser. The bonefish lines from both companies are also good choices, causing minimal "splashdown" in calm water.
Weather Down There
High winds and overcast skies are anathema to permit fishing, but with expansive sheltered lagoons at both the north and south entrances to Ascension Bay, and various islands, peninsulas, and lee shores throughout, the guides are almost always able to find sheltered water to spot permit. It may take a jarring, 45-minute boat ride to find fishable water, but if the boats can travel across the bay, you can usually fish productively.
Modern, shallow-draft 16-foot flats skiffs are comfy to fish out of, but if the seas are rough, you are limited to fishing close to your lodge. Larger V-hull pangas are still standard fare at some lodges, and I prefer them because they are more comfortable and safer in poor weather. On ultra-skinny flats, I'd prefer to wade than be in a boat anyway.
With clear skies and "normal" ocean breezes, Ascension Bay boat rides can be shorter, definitely smoother, and every one-hour shift at the casting platform is likely to produce opportunities.
May and June are the best months for both lack of wind and fishing pressure. Most vacationers prefer to travel during the winter and stay home in May and June, but the fishing is outstanding. "Isn't it hot?" is a question I frequently hear. The answer is "yes," but not too hot. It's rare you get a dead calm on inshore waters, and the ocean breeze keeps you cool most of the day.
July and August are good months if you want options to hunt for larger migratory tarpon, but the summer months also mark the beginning of the hurricane season. September through October is the height of hurricane season, and while you don't want to book a trip a long time in advance, it's possible to make last-minute travel arrangements and find perfect weather and unpressured flats. December through April are the most popular months at Ascension Bay lodges, with March and April generally considered "prime time."
The Sian Ka'an Biosphere is an ecological preserve with no nightlife, and zero fine dining or shopping. There are thankfully also no water parks, jet ski rentals, or parasailing. It's wilderness, Mexico-style. There are small ecotours from Punta Allen, but little else in terms of organized activities.
At Pesca Maya Lodge there is a significant reef system just 100 yards offshore, and it touches the beach about a quarter mile to the south. The lodge provides snorkel gear, and it's refreshing to end the day by exploring the labyrinth of fan, brain, and elkhorn corals just before dinner. The reef is home to hundreds of different small, colorful reef fish as well as barracuda, triggerfish, parrotfish, and spotted eagle rays.
The region between the coastal ruins at Tulum and the entrance to the Sian Ka'an Biosphere is known as the Mayan Riviera. If you are traveling with your spouse, this area is home to many all-inclusive resorts, boutique hotels, and restaurants. These resorts cater to those who want to swim with dolphins, jet ski, zip line, or take group snorkeling tours.
The ruins at Tulum are the highlight of the region. Touring the ancient fortified trading center and port can easily occupy an entire day. The ruins here are spectacular because they are set on a rocky cliff overlooking a beautiful beach, but they are relatively insignificant compared to the massive Mayan city of Chichen Itza and its impressive ruins northeast of Tulum. If you are interested in archaeology, save a few days after your fishing trip to visit the Yucatan's Mayan ruins.
On September 10, 2010, the U.S. Department of State issued a travel warning for U.S. citizens traveling to Mexico, urging extra vigilance when traveling in or near the northern Mexico border cities of Tijuana, Nogales, Ciudad Juarez, Nuevo Laredo, Monterrey, and Matamoros. Luckily for fly fishers, the violence surrounding Mexico's drug wars is centered in northern Mexico and is far removed from the Yucatan Peninsula and specifically Ascension Bay. Most American travelers fly into the modern, and secure, Cancun airport, and then travel three hours south by private shuttle or by air charter to the fishing lodges in the Ascension Bay area.
The drug wars in Monterrey are about as close to Ascension Bay as East L.A. is to a fishing camp in Yellowstone National Park. The two worlds just don't connect. Despite these facts, the bad news in the media has hurt Mexico's tourist economy. The good news is that prime weeks are easier to book, prices are competitive, and the flats are seeing less pressure now than ever.
Ross Purnell is the editor of Fly Fisherman. He enjoys Mexican permit, tequila, Corona, and sombreros.