Myself and fellow Montana Angler guide Tony Nahorny traveled south to our partners at Costa de Cocos Lodge in Xcalak, Mexico in late February for a week-long escape from the Montana winter. It would be my second trip chasing saltwater fish on the flats, while Tony is a fairly experienced saltwater angler and licensed Captain. Both of us had traveled to Xcalak before, and we really enjoy the remote, off the grid feel as well as the excellent fishing for various species including Bonefish, Tarpon, and Permit. Returning to Costa was a no brainer for me, as I quickly became addicted to saltwater fishing after my first trip. The sheer power of the fish is incredible. I will never forget my first day of Bonefishing, watching a 3lb fish rip off hundreds of feet of line in seconds while bending my 7wt rod in half. As a lifelong trout angler and guide, flats fishing is a totally different experience and challenge, and I am hooked.
The town of Xcalak, Mexico sits at the end of the road. Located just a few miles north of the border with Belize on the southern end of the Yucatan Peninsula, Xcalak is a tiny fishing village that shows little influence from the outside world. The town sits next to the Caribbean on a small spit of land that separates the Ocean from Chetumal Bay. Xcalak is located within a National Park, designed to protect the world’s second largest barrier reef. The reef runs from Cozumel all the way to Honduras, and is quite close to the shore in Xcalak. Needless to say, the diving and snorkeling here is world class.
Our journey started with a connection in Minneapolis and a subsequent flight to Cancun. After a night in town, we were up at first light for the drive down. In previous years we had utilized a shuttle service for the 5-6 hour trip, but this year we decided to rent a car and make the drive ourselves. This was my first time driving in a foreign country and I was a bit apprehensive, but Tony and I both agreed the freedom of having our own car was worth it. The first hour or two of the drive takes you through the popular tourist areas of the Riviera Maya, but gradually becomes more rural as you press southward into the jungle. The highway skirts the Sian Ka’an biosphere and passes many Mayan ruins in places like Tulum and Muyil. Over the last 60 km, the road is often not much wider than one lane, as the jungle is constantly creeping into the road, resisting man’s efforts to beat it back. We arrived in Xcalak in early afternoon after a surprisingly uneventful drive.
Costa de Cocos lodge is located just a few miles north of Xcalak along the beach road and we quickly arrived and pulled in, eager to see some familiar faces at the lodge and start the trip. It was the middle of the day and the lodge was very quiet. We strolled out behind the bar down to the shoreline. I looked into the water and immediately something caught my eye. “Bonefish”, I shouted over to Tony. Just as the words left my mouth the fish turned and I recognized the unmistakable black, sickle tail of a Permit. This would prove to be a very good omen.
After a great dinner the first night and catching up with the lodge staff, we were up early ready to fish. Our guide for the first 3 days would be Alberto, who has been guiding the flats of Mexico since the mid 1980’s and is one of the most respected guides in the region. Day 1 started out with rain and a ferocious east wind so we lingered at breakfast a little longer than usual, but things quickly started to clear and we headed out.
The weather was still a bit unsettled, so we headed back into the mangroves looking for Snook. I was on the bow first and within a few minutes we spotted some Snook layed up in a small pocket tight to the shore. The first two casts produced a follow and a half-hearted swipe at my streamer, but on the third cast a fish rushed out of the mangroves and inhaled the fly. Typical of a trout fisherman inexperienced with saltwater fishing, my hookset was poor, and the Snook threw the fly after a few violent head-shakes. Still, it was my first ever interaction with a Snook and good start to the trip. We couldn’t find any more Snook, so we headed out to the flats. The sun had come out but the wind was still ripping. We weren’t seeing many fish from the boat so we decided to spend the afternoon wade fishing. Alberto and I set off together and Tony went in the opposite direction.
Alberto and I quickly found some Bonefish pushing water on a very shallow flat and I landed two. With the skunk now off, we began wading out towards some deeper water. Almost immediately we spotted 3 permit cruising towards us, but by the time we had the Permit rod ready it was too late. Having never caught a permit before, this really got the juices flowing. We were in a great spot, along a thigh deep passage that connected several very shallow flats. Over the next hour at least a dozen Permit cruised through within casting range. Unfortunately, the wind was howling, making it very difficult for me to both see and cast to the fish. We rendezvoused with Tony, who reported catching a few smaller Bonefish as well. At this point it was getting along in the day and the wind was brutal, so we headed for the dock.
Our second day of fishing dawned sunny, but the east wind persisted. Tony, also never having caught a Permit on the fly, was eager to get into the action that I had experienced the day before. We headed back into the bay to the flats where we had been the day before. Alberto went with Tony and I set out on my own. Almost immediately I started spotting some very good sized Bonefish. In Mexico, most Bonefish average 2-3lbs, but these fish were in the 5-7lb class, maybe even larger. The fish were in very shallow water, backs and fins protruding, and were extremely spooky. Despite repeated fly changes and good casts (in my mind atleast), I wasn’t having any luck. I was getting frustrated, and this frustration was increased by the fact that every time I looked up Tony and Alberto were hooked into another Bonefish.
This continued for awhile until I heard some commotion from afar. Looking up, Tony’s rod was bent and they both appeared excited. “Permit!!!!”, came the cry from across the flat. I began slogging over to see what was going on and arrived just in time to see Tony releasing his first ever Permit on the fly. High fives were exchanged, as a long time goal had just been accomplished. For anglers, Permit are one of the most sought after and challenging gamefish in the world. For guides, a client caught Permit brings bragging rights at the dock, plus a special breakfast at the lodge the next morning. We intended to spend the rest of the day looking for more Permit and trying to figure out those big Bones, but the wind intensified and we got blown off the flats.
For the last few hours we headed to a lagoon near town to look for some Tarpon. Tony was looking for a Grand Slam while I was just looking to get on the scoreboard. I managed to hook a couple Tarpon, but the combination of bad luck and poor hooksets didn’t put any in the boat. A couple of small Barracuda were the only thing that kept me from being skunked on the day.
We started out day 3 in the same lagoon, hoping the Tarpon feed would continue into the early morning hours. We saw some very nice fish, but they were not interested in our streamers. After a good effort we fired up the motor and headed for the flats. The plan was again to return to the area where we had seen Permit the previous two days. We reached the flat, only to find another boat already fishing the area. While Chetumal Bay doesn’t see very heavy fishing pressure, you do see a few boats most days, and this particular flat had been holding lots of fish.
The area we were in was very shallow, so Alberto began poling us in search of Plan B. We quickly spotted a school of Bonefish and Tony caught one, so it was my turn to fish. After about 10 minutes of nothing, I looked to my right and a big school of Permit were heading our way. My first two casts were off, but fortunately the fish were still in range. This was a now or never, make or break moment. I hadn’t caught anything the day before and now I was blowing a great Permit shot. “Get it together” I told myself. The third cast was spot on and the entire school was over my fly. The line went tight instantly and the drag began screaming. Everyone was excited; my first permit, and it seemed like a good one. After 5 minutes or so the fish was getting closer to the boat. Looking into the water, something didn’t seem right. I looked back at Alberto, and the look on his face said it all. “Jack” he muttered. Talk about hero to zero. Jacks are close relatives of Permit, and they sometimes swim in schools together. They do not, however, command nearly the same respect in the angling world as a Permit. I landed the fish, a bit disappointed, but happy nevertheless at putting a good fish in the boat.
We decided to wade the area in hopes that the Permit would return. Over the next 90 minutes I had some of the best fishing of my life. The school of Permit came back almost immediately, and this time I hooked and landed one. I had dreamed of catching a Permit for a long time, so my trip was made. We were, however, in the perfect spot and schools of Bonefish and Permit were constantly moving back and forth in front of us. I hooked another Permit and lost it, but I didn’t care at all at that point. I lost caught of how many Bonefish I hooked, but it was at least a dozen. Tony was having great action for Bones as well, and we had several doubles. Eventually the tides changed and the action died off, but that was a morning of fishing that I will never forget.
Day 4 was an off day for Tony and I. Wading around in the heat, sun, and wind all day takes it out of you, and we were ready to relax. With the rental car, we were able to drive around and check out the town of Xcalak. We had a great lunch of Barracuda ceviche at a local restaurant and spent the afternoon sitting in the shade drinking Sol beers. We really enjoyed having the day off from fishing and being on “beach time”.
Day 5 would be our last day of guided fishing. We hired a local, independent guide, Alejandro, for this day. Tony had fished with Alejandro quite a bit in the past, and Montana Angler guide Billy Buchbauer caught a large Permit with Alejandro last year. We told Alejandro at the outset that our trip had been outstanding already and we wanted to swing for the fences. We spent the morning on a deeper flat looking for big Permit. We saw a few and Tony even had a follow, but we didn’t hook up. That’s Permit fishing. In the afternoon, we elected to wade some lagoons that hold large Bonefish. These lagoons are not connected to the ocean, but during hurricanes and tropical storms the water gets very high and fish are stranded in them. Much like a mountain lake in Montana, some of these lagoons hold a few very large fish. We saw some real bruisers in the 10lb range and had some good chances, but Murphy’s Law kicked in and everything from missed hooksets to Needlefish stealing flies thwarted our efforts.
We retreated to the boat to end the day, catching a few smaller Bonefish and Tony breaking off a very large Jack. We didn’t land the trophy we were after, but just seeing and casting to fish of that caliber is exhilarating. Flats fishing is not easy, and the quality of the day is judged in number of chances, not fish landed.
Our last day in Xcalak would be another rest day. In the past we have fished all six days, but this year decided to take it easy a bit. We enjoyed another day eating lunch in town and drinking beers sitting by the sea.
We decided that we would travel all the way from Xcalak to Montana the next day. This was a mostly uneventful trip, until I got a speeding ticket about 2 miles from the Cancun airport. While annoying, it did not put a damper on such a great week. I will certainly be back to Xcalak and Costa de Cocos in the future. The lodge staff, especially Chay, Reuben, and Jose, are fantastic and make you feel right at home. All of the guides I have fished with are first class and really fun guys to spend a day on the water with. It is the perfect winter escape for us here in Montana, and I can’t wait to get back down there in 2017.