Thursday, September 16, 2021
Thursday, September 16, 2021
Mexico is a varied country with great culture, astonishing monuments of Mayan and Aztec antiquity, gorgeous sandy beaches, national parks, and even snow-capped mountain ranges. Besides breathtaking scenery, fascinating history, charming people, ubiquitous tequila and spicy Mexican cuisine, this easily accessed country offers some of the best permit fishing in the world. If you are a keen on permit, Mexico should be at or near the top of your hit-list as I learned on a recent trip to Ascension Bay.
Bay is known for its extraordinary permit fishing, and great populations of bonefish and tarpon. This is Grand Slam water at its finest This area’s shallow flats are endless and your only restriction will be how far you can sensibly travel in a day. The town of Punta Allen is located on the northern tip of the bay and offers easy access to the flats. I stayed at Ascension Bay Lodge, owned and run by Daniel Marquez, a passionate fly-fisher from the US who fell for a local girl and stayed. I enjoyed the company of a group of charming young Texans who are regular visitors to the lodge, as much for the apres-fishing as the fishing itself. The lodge is situated on the beach and built by anglers for anglers. Rooms are cool and comfy and the home-cooked meals are delicious. Huge cocktails welcome guests as they return from fishing each day—head-spinning margaritas and pina coladas, as good as I’ve ever had.
An experienced guide sees the fish long before you and lets you know exactly how a permit (or tarpon or bonefish) is behaving. Guiding for permit takes serious physical and mental effort and it is important to follow your guide’s instruction. They know, instinctively, how the fish will most likely behave. When you’re trying to catch the first permit of your life, as I was, a guide’s eyes can make all the difference. I had trouble spotting fish in these new waters, but my guide directed me to fish and helped line up my casts.
Each boat, effectively, has two spotters—one on the deck and another standing on a higher platform pushing the boat with a pole. This person has the advantages of a comprehensive view, and a better angle for looking into the shallow waters. At Ascension Bay Lodge there was a rotation after each day, so that every angler had the opportunity to fish with different guides. In general, we all know that some guides are better than others, but all of these guides put clients on fish.
Fly fishing for permit can become a lifelong endeavor. For most of fly-fishers it usually takes many hours, days or even years of hunting, stalking and casting until they catch their first. These are not easy fish to catch, as I surely learned. On the flats of Punta Allen, anglers see“tailing” permit (where the tails or dorsal fins of one or a few fish protrude from the water), along with schools, which usually number between 10 and 40 individuals. The key word to describe permit fishing is hunting. If you are a hunter, this is the fish for you. Spotting these creatures is difficult—very difficult—and getting near without spooking them is a nerve-racking experience. Everything, including your cast, has to be perfect. Daniel—a master permit angler—told me that he only hooks about 10 percent of the permit he gets decent shots at. If you are not a good caster, your percentage will be far worse. It’s not uncommon for an angler to have 10 shots at permit in a single day, and every cast counts.
On the first day I had more than 15 casts at permit, some tailing in skinny water or just feeding in schools. But guess what? Not a single fish hit the fly. I did everything near perfectly, but it was one long frustrating blank. Later my fishing buddy took his first shot at a permit and hooked up on the first cast. Permit fishing is often described as mentally exhausting and sometimes demoralizing. I can do nothing but totally agree. Skills matter a lot, but luck needs to be on your side, too. A permit has its own brain and nothing can change that, not even a perfectly presented crab fly.
Amongst the best flies for Ascension Bay are Raghead Crabs—the Ascension Bay version has a light tan body, with white legs and yellow painted eyes. Avalon Shrimp usually work well on deeper flats. I caught my first permit on a Raghead Crab. In general, Mexican guides use many more shrimp patterns for permit fishing than anywhere else in the world. The main difference in technique between using a crab and a shrimp pattern is in the retrieve. The key to stripping a permit crab fly is using very long, slow strips, which imitates actual crab behavior. When using shrimp imitations anglers often perform shorter, faster strips.
You will quickly learn that permit are really spooky and cautious fish, and everything from your casting mindset to your gear needs to be in order. You can fish a 9-weight, but 10-weights give you a bit more muscle, which you’ll appreciate if you are lucky enough to hook a doormat-sized monster. There are lots of good permit reels, the requirements being a strong drag and sufficient backing (250 yards minimum). Floating line in olive or any other light color does the trick. Clear, floating lines can up your odds of success. We used 16-pound tippet to give us a solid shot at landing any fish we hooked. Once again, have your gear in order and ready to cast so when your guide says, “Tailing fish, two o’clock,” you’re ready to throw.
While traveling to Ascension Bay, you should definitely be prepared for the grand slam. Do not forget a 7 or 8-weight bonefish rod and a floating line to match it. Ten-to 12-pound tippet suffices and a variety of bonefish flies work well—Veverka, Mantis Shrimp, Gotcha and Crazy Charlies. You’ll also want to rig up a 10-weight rod in case you encounter a really big migratory tarpon. Especially in late April, May and June there is a good chance this will happen.
After three days of near mental breakdown I managed to land my first permit. I can’t say what I did differently on that fish, versus the dozens of previous casts I’d made to permit. I guess I just hit the right spot and the permit immediately grabbed the fly. What a thrill after days of missed shots. This fish fought hard and took out 150 meters of line—a couple times—before coming to my guide’s hand. It was a beautiful 15-pounder and a perfect 30th birthday present. Luckily for me, it wasn’t my last permit of the trip. Each one is a treasure to land, no matter the size.