No Bones at Mosquito Alley

Last leg of our US road trip. After 2 weeks of moving on and nearly 1800 road miles we had decided to have a chill on the beach at Cancun, where it all started for us 25 years ago. (well, the honeymoon part at least). However I couldn’t come here without seeing what fishing was on offer.

Lost before I left

The hotel we selected, was recommended by friends and isn’t actually in Cancun Hotel Zone, but about 30 Klicks south near the fishing port of Puerto Morelos. They do deep sea fishing here but there are no flats to speak of to fulfil my ambition of catching a bonefish. But after a lot of research, I discovered there was flats fishing south of us here about 90 mins away, and also just north of Cancun in a place called Isla Blanca.

Lots of Cormorants

Cormorants at Isla Blanca

It took a fair bit of organising to get a bonefish outing booked as information was a bit sketchy and if you find yourself in the fortunate position of visiting the area yourself, get in touch and I will be happy to recommend some contacts to get the trip and importantly your transfer arranged.

I had looked into it and May is prime. Bonefish time. What luck. I went fly-fishing through Cancun Fly Fishing and after a very early rise (just before 5 am when it was still pitch dark) I was on my way…. Or would be if I could find my way out the hotel!

Having only arrived here mid afternoon previously the layout of the hotel was still new to me and we had already been lost just going from the room to one of the 11 restaurants in daylight. So to close the door to my room and descend the stairs to the block we are staying in and find ALL the lights out was a wee bit disorienting. In short, I got lost. Having allowed enough time to get up get dressed and collect my belongings I had not accounted for getting utterly lost in the 200metre walk from room to reception to meet my transfer. Luckily I stumbled across some painters and though they didn’t speak English they understood what “reception” meant and they kindly guided me with a torch to where I finally recognised where I was, and I made it to my pickup bang on 5:20am as arranged.

On the way to Isla Blanca

A half hour run to Cancun and then a short wait and I was picked up by Enrique and we drove North to Isla Blanca an area of mangroves and jungle fringing the coast beyond the Hotel Zone.

Sargassum on the shore

Sargassum. There is literally tons of this stuff landing on the beaches every day to be scooped up by JCBs. It is strangling the life out the sea grass and affecting the Bonefish

As we drove north Enrique was asking me what I was hoping to catch and what method  They prefer fly but for those who can’t or don’t fly-fish they use light spinning and lure gear if you want. I was disappointed to learn that the Bonefish were a no-show this year. Enrique explained that usually they start to appear on the flats in February and are well in residence by May. However this last year there has been an issue with rafts of Sargassum weed coming in and this basically smothers the seagrass. As the seagrass is where the Bones find the shrimps and crabs they feed on it seems like they aren’t venturing in. Sargassum is a weed in my experience of keeping marine aquatics in the past, that spikes when nutrients are high and you have to wonder if it is a problem due to pollution and global warming? Whatever, things are more than a little out of balance that’s for sure. As a long distance tourist who has contributed to the problem by the mere actuality of coming and being here it’s not for me to lay blame. Arguably we are the problem.

No Bones

So basically bonefishing was out. Enrique said he had spotted only a couple in the last two weeks, and much the same for Permit.

Preparing to leave

Getting ready for the off

So for me anyway it would be plan B and that was Tarpon. Now I know it sounds churlish to suggest disappointment, who wouldn’t bite off the offerers arm if given the chance to go Tarpon fishing? But I have seen enough TV and films suggesting it can be a difficult and slow game, seeking out these powerful game fish in the margins of mangrove lagoons. But that was what was on offer so at the boat we tackled up and headed for the mangroves.

Tying on a fly

preparing the fly a big green fritz and hairwing lure.

The mangroves were thick and dense and form bays and pools along the shoreline. To someone like me, unfamiliar as I am it all looks very similar and confusing but to Enrique it was home turf and he was able to navigate between lagoons and pools knowing where each channel led, though it was often dense and overgrown and hoaching with mosquitos. And today with the fairly brisk winds the Mozzies weren’t even that bad! I later learned they call this area Mosquito Alley.

Mosquito Alley

Covered up for the elements

Total covering for the day is essential but it makes for a hot and uncomfortable environment at times

For this kind of fishing between the direct sun, the reflected sun, the Mozzies and the wind you absolutely have to be covered up head to toe to reduce the burning and bites. It’s quite uncomfortable at times and requires a lot of patience. We had been fishing (looking for fish) a good half hour by 8am and the sun was up above the Mangroves and it was getting hot already. I had decided to wear sandals and brought socks to protect my feet, it’s not a good look but it wasn’t a fashion show!

Stalking under a hit sun

On the lookout for Tarpon- it was very hot

However, the choice of this footwear proved to be a problem and I caught my fly line on the straps of the sandals more than a few times. You only get a cast or two at any fish so you really have not got the time for this. Early on the water was fairly murky the rising tide would change this as the day progressed to the point that it was gin clear later on. The fish also move much faster than you anticipate so getting your fly two feet in front of the fish first cast is crucial. I don’t consider myself too bad a caster these days but with an unfamiliar and much slower action rod than I was used to (an 8# Sage Approach) and a difficult wind that never seemed to relent at the moment you needed to cast, I cannot tell a lie in saying I found it difficult. A faster crisper rod would have been much preferable for my style of casting.

The mangrove area

Not that sharp as taken from some moving drone footage but it gives an idea of the terrain

It took me a few casts to get my range and timing with the relatively soft actioned rod and by then it was too late. You would see the back of a fish as it rolled a foot out from the mangrove roots. The wind would blow, you would cast eager not to land too close to the tangling plants…. short, you would cast again but now the fish could have moved but you know not where so need to guess. As you were side casting to keep the wind as onside as possible and the size 2 lure well away from you the line would land straight but the big-tailed lure would flop down 6 feet to the side of the line of the cast. In the Murky water, it might as well have been a mile.

Tarpon lure

A close shot of the lure, a green fritz in a size 2 with a hairwing tail, when twitched just right it wiggled like a fish and certainly could attract the fish.

If and when I did get it right you then have the retrieve. Initially, a short sharp pull to impart some movement in the lure. Then wait to let it sink again then two longish fast strips. The idea was to keep a straight rod to fly relationship. Unlike trout fishing where a small angle between line and rod helps prevent head-on break offs, here they use a strip strike to set the hook and a totally straight line, rod alignment was needed. The retrieve was easy enough with practice but you don’t get much as you only cast a few times an hour. You can hear the tarpon roll in the dense mangroves and occasionally a back will appear as it rolls in the open so Enrique would punt the boat into location and you wait for it to show again. Sometimes it did, sometimes you would hear a fish, turn and it was where you had just been.

The mangrove margins

Watching for signs off Tarpon along the edge of the mangroves

This is stalking on a grand scale. You wait for 15 to 20 minutes and hope that when they show its somewhere you can reach. And of course sometimes you get the range quickly you take a risk and the lure snags the thick waxy mangrove leaves. This is 20lb fluorocarbon, you don’t just snap it off with a pull. You can literally pull the boat into the snag using the line and not break off. Of course, you will have scared off the fish.

As the tide rose and we moved on we did encounter a visible school of small tarpon right deep in one of the channels between the lagoons. They were directly in front of the boat, about five of them and while I saw them I didn’t think they were tarpon at all as they didn’t conform to mental image of the fish. Enrique tells me they get quite dark and green or black on top living in the mangrove forest.

Gaps in the jungle

Yes we were going through that we gap, it was full of mozzies

This was like thick dense jungle and the boat had to be steered by pulling or pushing on thick branches and roots to get through the mosquito-infested undergrowth. You would hear them buzzing. Enrique sometimes sprayed all our clothes with mosquito repellent but while it clearly minimised the bites it wasn’t wholly successful in preventing them entirely. My hands have some big swollen lumps of weeping fluid on them today as evidence and are hellish itchy and sore. I also have three monster bites on each cheek where they got under my buff down the line of the legs of my polaroids. I tell my wife it’s the mark of a man! I honestly could not do this every day.

A crab fly

A crab pattern for the Bones or Permit

In the afternoon the water was gin clear with the tide full in. It only has a spring range of a couple of feet. So the change as it happens isn’t that perceptible except that you can see the current in places as the water flows in and the baitfish turn to face the current. The sun now being high in the sky the fish activity drops and sightings are few. We did encounter a school of small Tarpon in a small pool. The dense undergrowth behind meant there was no backcast room so a roll cast was all I could do. I did land the green lure in front of the lead fish but getting a straight retrieve was, for me as a beginner, very hard. The fish followed though it and its partners were aware of the boat being so close. Maybe someone with a few more outings under their belt would have been able to snag one. I run out of retrieve room and the fish turned away. I was talking to an American chap from Idaho later on who had been coming for 20 years to this place and he said he had on occasions had to point the rod tip right down deep into the water with the leader inside the rod rings to get the maximum successful retrieve on the following fish. That will come with time but for this trout angler, it was kind of back to front where we tend to lift the rod tip. I think Enrique was slightly annoyed at me.

As the day went on my technique improved and I genuinely felt if I was to go back a second day I would be much more successful but I was bitten to bits and it’s a long tiring day. Sometimes a long lie is needed and I haven’t had one in over two weeks. This is supposed to be a holiday and my wife thinks I am mental. I am also being supported by a steroid injection pre-leaving so need to make the most of the benefit before normal stiffness resumes. What is it they say? Life isn’t a rehearsal.

Me and Enrique

My guide for the day Enrique . These lads work hard for the money and suffer a lot of discomfort every day- I dunno how they do it.

Casting to nothing very much on the flats

Out on the flats was more like I envisaged

On the way back we went out on the flats. This was much more like I had envisaged. The boat drifting on the wind and the clear blue reef flat ahead but we never saw a single fish to cast to but it was fun getting small needle fish chasing the lure that was too big for them to take.

It was definitely a different experience in fly fishing for me and definitely memorable, while a fish would have made it more so. I still want to catch that bonefish though.