Island in the Stream
Saltwater fly fishing for Bonefish in Cozumel, Mexico – August 2018
There is always a sense of trepidation and adventure when I set out on days like this in far flung places. As always on a fishing day, getting up in the dark before anyone else has stirred and then heading off into the darkness, awaiting the dawn and the rising sun. This time I was on a family holiday in Mexico and I was fishing with my eldest son Ben. These were the rare days when he managed to get himself out of bed before lunchtime. Nineteen year old undergraduates are normally more accustomed to a vampire’s lifestyle, but not on this day. No dragging required; ahead was the prospect of his first Bonefish.
As ever I’d packed everything the night before with all the discipline and preparation of a military operation. Two backpacks with the gear, two piles of clothes and two pairs of sandals at the end of the beds. No more, no less. Get up, get dressed, get going. Those years in the army give you life skills that stick. My family probably find me hugely annoying, but we’re all adventurous types and on those days when we’re out on the hills or in the middle of nowhere on vacation, I’m sure that deep down they appreciate my old habits. I guess fishing is one of those activities that’s well suited to the application of these skills and experiences. At least, the way I fish it does. I’ve always been more attracted to fishing wild, so naturally this involves spending time as far away from civilisation as possible, often carrying a load of gear on my back, camping out under canvas and getting cold and wet. It comes with the territory and perhaps with some subconscious formula, balances the needs I crave since leaving the military.
As we closed the hotel room door quietly behind us, we were met by nature’s dawn soundtrack. There are probably no more extraordinary sounds in nature than the jungle at the break of day. We were staying in a hotel that had been built into the vast expanse of rain forest on the Yucatan Peninsula, so within a few steps of our room we were in the thick of it, winding our way along the narrow lit path to the main entrance. These are the sorts of experiences that stay long in the memory. Every detail becomes etched in the mind for later recollection. I’ve come to realise that money spent on experiences is money well spent. Sure, I like to buy nice stuff and especially fly fishing gear but it’s the memories that hold long term value. These are the investments I choose to make now. The places I’ve been, the friends and family I’ve fished with, the fish I’ve caught and often most memorably, the fish I’ve lost. Funny thing, that. It’s the epic fails that seem to stick in the mind with the most intransigent of details.
Given that I was on a vacation and not on a dedicated fishing trip, the logistics were more than a little complicated compared to staying in a fishing lodge. From the hotel we took a short cab ride to the ferry port in the nearby town of Playa del Carmen. Thankfully a ubiquitous Starbucks offered the chance to grab some pastries and one of those ridiculously large cups of strong black coffee that I always scoff at back home. Then we joined the queue of locals making the trip over to the island of Cozumel for work, along with a few tourists clutching scuba and snorkelling gear.
The ferry crossing to Cozumel feels pretty sophisticated, with rows of fancy leather seats and low level LED lighting. The funny thing is, it’s all a bit of a contrast to many of its passengers, who board and make the trip lugging all variety of work tools and bizarre objects, on this occasion ranging from a garden strimmer to a guy carrying half a rusty old engine block! After about 40 minutes we docked in Cozumel and followed everyone down the pier, past the armed Marines and Federal Police showing a pretty strong presence – a reality in Mexico, presumably to warn off the Cartels from the major tourist areas – to the main street, where we were due to meet our guide, Alex Euan.
Arriving on the island of Cozumel, you really get the sense of a place that, thankfully, time has left behind somewhat. Despite the busy tourist traffic and regular passing of US cruise ships, there’s something authentic and quirky about the place. On the same street you can see a luxury goods boutique only a hundred yards from a flea market or a boarded up shop front. But it’s the single storey, pastel and whitewashed buildings that give it that old Caribbean feel, almost Cuban. We’d fished with Alex the previous year, so it was great to find him waiting for us at the end of the pier. Catching up on the move, we crossed the Main Street and walked a couple of blocks to where he’d parked up. We chucked our bags in the back of an old 4×4 utility vehicle, along with his own gear and the cooler, and climbed into the back seats for the drive out to the north of the island where the boats are moored.
Back to the Fifties
The drive out is an experience in itself. Cozumel being so small, you’re quickly out of town and heading along a palm lined, seafront road. There are some pretty smart looking hotels and villas along that coastal road, but my attention was drawn to the large airbase on the opposite side. There is an airforce memorial to those servicemen who have lost their lives and then at the main entrance to the base, there is a display of old post-war planes, adding to the timeless feel of the place, with their propellers, matt grey paint and shark’s mouth livery. For a fleeting moment, you feel like you’ve been cast back into the 1950s. Soon after we passed the perimeter of the airbase, Alex swung the vehicle across the road – which seemed to have run out anyway – and onto a dirt track.
I’ve done this journey a few times now and I can tell you, it doesn’t get any quicker. Maybe it’s just me, but I get very impatient on my way to a day on the water. I just want to fish, so trudging along a dirt track for a few miles at about 10 mph, circumnavigating the potholes and deep muddy puddles, can be pretty frustrating. The challenge of fishing on Cozumel is that the flats are up to the north of the island in a nature reserve, so it’s a fair journey in a vehicle through the mangroves just to get out to the moorings. I suspect the authorities that control the reserve don’t want too many people out that way impacting the environment, so there is no proper road to improve access. The few guides who operate out that way are a dedicated bunch, spending a large proportion of their time just driving cross country to get to the start line.
Whitewash and scavengers
We arrived at the coast about half an hour after leaving Cozumel town, pulling up on the side of a dirt track and a cleared area of sand that separates the shore from the jungle and the mangroves. Be under no illusion, this is no marina! There’s a contrarian nature to this place. On the one hand there is evidence of order, with a long central reservation of lined palms and whitewashed stones, but really that’s about it. There are a few carcasses of old fibreglass boats and a couple of lean-to shelters; otherwise nothing but scavenging raccoons and birds. At this time of year, the light is different too. It’s late Summer now and heading into storm season, so the skies are often overcast, with pockets of sunlight breaking through the pervading greyness that looms with the storm clouds. With the volume of rain there has been recently, the sand and dirt are wet with large puddles all around. The rotting seaweed and stagnant saltwater on the shoreline lets off a pretty pungent stench at times, but it’s the vultures that really grab your attention and add to the eeriness of this place. Like overgrown crows, these jet black scavengers are loitering all around the moorings. As soon as you move away from the vehicle, they hop up onto the roof bars to check out any new arrivals. I just pray these shadowy ghouls are no sign of bad weather. There’s one thing I’ve learned from experience – you don’t want to be out in a tropical storm in a small open fly fishing boat.
The fishing boats are tied up at the shoreline to large rocks and you just have to clamber over some stones and shallow wade to board your skiff. This part of Mexico is genuinely authentic, unlike the glossy experience you’ll receive if you charter a guide out of the Florida Keys or if you’re fishing from a dedicated lodge, but the company and commitment of a local guide adds to the trip and the memories you’ll cherish from such an experience. In Alex and his son, Alex Junior, we had chosen our fly fishing guides well. Communication and organising our booking over email had been excellent and it was great to be able to return the following year, having established a relationship and learned so much from fishing with them twelve months earlier. Their knowledge of the water, the best fishing spots, techniques and their commitment to get us onto fish throughout the day was exceptional.
We loaded our gear over the side of the boat and clambered in. Since our last trip, Alex had bought a brand new boat and outboard motor. This one was pristine with its white and pale blue deck and casting platform. I’ve always been fascinated by boat etiquette. Wherever you are in the world and whatever the vessel, you never step into a boat with your shoes on. You respect the fact that boats need maintenance and it’s the hard graft of an owner that does that work. We stepped in barefoot and tucked our footwear away under the seat with the gear. Of course before long we’d all be pulling on flats boots and depositing mud and gravel on the deck, but the principle still applies. In fact, more so. This boat was their livelihood. It’s a huge investment on their part and represents the basis of their entire business as fishing guides. It was clear to see that this was a vessel to be treated with the utmost respect. Like the guys, we made a point of washing the soles of our boots throughout the day before we swung our legs over the side and made a conscious effort to clear away any mud and mess we made on the deck.
We sat ourselves down on the seat just in front of the steering console and just smiled. From waking up to getting into the boat had taken over 3 hours of travel by taxi, ferry, foot and jeep. We were more than ready to get going. I slapped Ben on the back of the shoulders and wished him luck, anticipating we’d have a cracking day’s fishing. That’s the thing about this sport. You never know what’s going to happen on any given day and yet there are so many factors outside of your control: the weather, the light, the mood of the fish and last but not least…chance. Yet every time you start the day with hope, excitement, anticipation and an overdose of optimism. What will you catch? Will you hook a certain species or a big fish? I’ve never known a fly fisher go into a day on the water thinking or fearing they’d get skunked. You just don’t think that way. Of course it happens, but you just deal with those days when they come along and then move on. The following day, it’s back to business as usual.
Brits, blanks and skunks
I have to be honest. Up to this point, I’d had my fair share of getting skunked on the Flats. I’m not one of these guys brought up in the Keys with saltwater fly fishing, chasing Bones and Tarpon since they were in shorts and bare feet. Like many Brits, ten years ago I’d never heard of them. Twenty years ago I thought my brother and I were eccentric revolutionaries because we tried fly fishing for Mackerel in a Scottish sea loch. Little did we know! I guess it was really the advent of digital media that opened my eyes, initially with niche fly fishing DVDs of acrobatic Tarpon and most recently with the endless flow of adrenaline fuelled clips and images on Instagram. I knew I had to try it, so over recent years I’ve travelled with my gear on every family holiday and have managed to surreptitiously persuade my wife that we should holiday in places like Florida and Mexico. Nowadays I take my fly rod to the beach in Cornwall, I’ve fished in Islamorada and for the last couple of years in Cozumel, but be under no illusion – it’s tough going. I’ve learned that picking your time of year by species makes a huge difference, that all the action-packed (edited) videos belie the challenge of actually catching a Tarpon and that stalking Bonefish is even harder than the sunniest day’s sight fishing on the River Test. I caught my first Bonefish on my third day’s guided fishing after losing my first hook-up because I struck like a trout fisherman. I got skunked on my fourth, thanks to a Tropical Storm. Still, this time we were confident. Weather seemed decent and we’d learned a lot from the previous year.
In Hemingway’s footsteps
As we pulled away from the moorings, everything seemed to brighten. The clouds had cleared, the sun was high in the sky and we sped over crystal clear shallow water on our way towards the entrance to the Flats. This is a time to just sit back, let the wind pass through your hair and to get excited about the day’s fishing ahead. We got the rods set up on the short journey, zipped into our Flats boots and tied on a couple of my home tied flies. Over here, good old Crazy Charlies and Gotchas do the business well enough. I believe part of the build up to a fishing trip overseas is the fly tying and anticipation beforehand. If you’re going to tie flies, you need to research your destination and understand what works. It encourages you to learn more about the place you’re visiting, often discovering new patterns or learning how to tie something you’ve not tied before. That’s the thing about any great trip; looking forward to it is actually a large part of the experience itself. It’s no different with fishing.
The journey out to the Flats on Cozumel takes about 20 minutes as you track the coastline across relatively shallow water until you reach the entrance to the nature reserve. Although a large expanse of mangroves and interlocking areas of water, you enter and exit via a single small channel where the tide flows into the Flats in a river-like feature. Rows of hand-constructed wooden fencing mark the entry point, the wood silvered and aged by a battering from sun and salt. Every time I see this place it just feels timeless, transporting me to what I imagine Hemingway was experiencing in Bimini in 1951. You generally don’t see other people or boats out here. Just Flats and mangroves as far as the eye can see. This is my island in the stream.
The first time I came, everything was new to me, learning what to look for and how the most subtle of indicators pointed to an opportunity to target fish. I’m no expert and still consider myself a relative novice, but this time I felt far more savvy and aware of my surroundings. No longer intimidated by my own naivety, I felt sufficiently confident to spot tailing fish, flashes of silver or nervous water and point them out to my guide. I still have plenty to learn and my ability to sight Bonefish and their direction of travel in the shallows leaves a lot to be desired, but I felt my saltwater skills were improving. As soon as we passed through the old fence and into the Flats I stepped up onto the casting platform and scanned the water ahead. Within minutes the adrenaline was flowing as we moved towards a tailing fish. Slipping gently over the side, I waded carefully over to get into range of the spot where the fish was feeding beside a line of mangroves. I was soon to learn another lesson – that Bonefish are not the only ones that tail in shallow water – as I had fallen to the Fool’s Gold of the Flats, but to be honest, I was delighted to catch a very respectable Perch and add another species to my list. We’d also got the ‘skunk off the boat’, as they say in the Keys.
A goal achieved
I don’t think I could ever get enough of fly fishing on the Flats. The anticipation and the heightening of your senses when stalking such exciting species is hard to compare. I certainly don’t take this type of experience for granted and try to savour every small detail: the sulphurous smell from the mud as you trudge through it like a drunk, trying so hard to be stealthy when in fact not falling over would be a good start; stopping to stare in awe of a swooping Osprey or just taking a break in the scorching heat to accept a cold beer from the cooler.
Over the course of that day, the fishing proved both successful and exhilarating. Most importantly, Ben caught his first Bonefish and proved just how far he has come since our last trip. The prior year, he had struggled casting into the wind and with his presentation. This time, he was fully confident in his ability to present the fly at distance and to take advantage of the opportunities our guides were giving us. Once you can master these skills, you get to enjoy the experience of catching these amazing fish, with all the heart-pumping excitement that comes with it. We each caught a few Bonefish, interspersed by regular catches of Perch, Snapper and Barracuda, all of which are good fun on a fly rod. This is not a place where you can catch dozens of Bonefish in a day, like some of the premium destinations around the world. On Cozumel, you have to work hard for every fish. You have to locate them, stalk them and if you’re skilful or just lucky, you’ll catch some. What it does mean though, is that every fish is a thrill and an experience in its own right. It’s important not to get spoilt – everything in moderation, right?
Daiquiris and tortilla chips
When the time to turn back finally came, I chanced my arm and asked Alex if we could try something different – something I’d picked up from my years of boat fishing in Scotland. Rather than heading back full throttle, I asked if we could drop the speed and troll a fly out back. It works for Ferox on the lochs, so why not have a crack at Barracuda? I think he was intrigued, so I tied a wire trace and large fly onto my 12 weight and we chugged back towards the mooring with Ben holding the rod in anticipation of a big hit. It proved worthwhile and we managed to lure a decent Needlefish into taking the fly and notched up another species to our checklist. By the time we’d arrived back in Cozumel town and took our seats on the terrace of the bar overlooking the port, we were able to reflect on what had been a long, but pretty awesome day’s fly fishing. To continue our journey in Hemingway’s footsteps, we ordered Daiquiris, calamari and chips. Toasting your son’s first Bonefish is a memory to cherish.
We fished for 3 days in all, each with similar levels of success. The weather was kind to us, most of the time, and we came away with some incredible memories. Over the years, I’ve found that some individual catches just stick in your memory bank, so I’ll be adding to that list a Bonefish that stripped me of 100 yards of backing, more than once, only to scream off in the opposite direction once I’d brought it close. I ended up playing the fish from east to west and back again. Ben, in the meantime, managed to land a Snook, Ladyfish and that decent Needlefish to add to his catch of Bonefish and smaller species – all on the fly. He’s now ticked quite a few boxes I am yet to, but I can take enormous pride that he has already inherited a burgeoning love of this sport I hold so dear. We will be packing away some pretty serious memories along with our saltwater fly fishing gear in the cupboard this winter.