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Xcalak
At the end of the Peninsula, where the road runs out, anglers take their shots at a plethora of tarpon, bones and permit.
By Jerry Gibbs

Twenty-three—foot long super pangas are eminently seaworthy, featuring rod holders, clutter-free decks and welcomed leaning bars.

The dogs came out to greet us. Joey first, a slightly lowered, mellowed down look-alike of General George Patton’s beloved English bull terrier, Willie; then came Bombi, another hometown blend with strong visual leanings toward a treeing walker coon hound. Both had been sleeping in the palapa but now needed to bring us in where there was food, despite the kitchen having been closed for hours. Lodge manager Toby was there, as was guide and part-time staff man Alex, as were plates of hot food and cold cervezas. I was loving this flexible attitude. The dogs were loving the hope of handouts.

Lodge dogs Joey and Bombi were inseparable clowns with practiced routines that kept anglers in stitches and incapable of refusing to offer handouts.

We had arrived in the dark of night, the last leg of the road bowered by trees forming a kind of tunnel. Diego, the van driver, dodged giant frogs while a cauldron of bats flew through our headlight beams and into the grill. And now we were at road’s end, the southernmost tip of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, at Tierra Maya Lodge’s Xflats fishing operation. The lodge sits on the edge of Xcalak village (say Ish-ka-lak), the last population point on a map of the peninsula. It had been a long travel day, but as my son Jon and I filled our bellies Alex snapped us from road burn-out telling of an angler he’d taken to the far side of the great reef, a fellow who’d never fished a fly in the salt, who had one of the very large migrating tarpon eat, a fish maybe pushing 100 pounds. It was a life-changing event for the fellow.

“Oh yes it jumped,” Alex said, “ He had it on a little, then ping. He was still making risitas (giggling) even when he left today . . . and waving his arms, telling everybody. He was kinda crazy.”

So we went to our room and I breathed a sigh. Inside it was cool, large, high-ceilinged, with wall rod racks, tables, a desk, a great jug of purified water, good lighting, a tiled floor, two large beds, and nice Mayan decor. If there is fishing to be had I’ve been known to set up “camp” in everything from the drippingly luxurious to the ridiculous. But this—well, it was my kind of place. I could see Jon approving. We needed sleep, though, and none too soon. There were fish to be had.

The lodge has six suites that can accommodate up to two anglers each. All feature tasteful Mayan dećor, rod racks and are large and airy. Along with excellent guides, the hard-working, on-site staff are a joy.

My son is a terrific fly-fisher with eyes and reflexes I can only envy. Though he annually chases striped bass with me in Maine, he’d not yet enjoyed a classic, southern sight-fishing flats adventure. We’d wanted to target a place with good or better opportunities for multiple species, with maybe a bit of exotic flare tossed in. We were also dealing with the roulette-like mix of ever-changing Covid travel issues. I began thinking of the good fishing I’d had in Ascensión Bay, Mexico, waters from Boca Paila down the little peninsula to Punta Allen. I thought of the fine fishing operations on Belize’s Ambergris Cay, but kept pondering on something even a bit less popular. Just south of San Pedro on Ambergris was Cay Caulker where I’d had a fine recent trip but—at least when I was there—wade opportunities were limited, as were bonefish locations. Permit and tarpon at Caulker were another story, and a good one. And then, glancing north of the Belize/Mexico border there was another place I’d vaguely heard of, the lesser known Xcalak, home of Xflats.

What makes this area so remarkable is the sheer variety of species, found in numbers that give honest opportunities for each. Add to that an edgy sense of being someplace, literally, at the end of the road—remote, exciting, without needing to trade out creature comforts.

Guides wait a short distance from the lodge each morning gearing up for a 7-8-hour fishing day with lunch aboard.

To the west, behind Xcalak village, Xflats accesses fertile Chetumal Bay, which is also shared by Belize. The bay is less than 30 minutes away via the lodge’s 23-foot super pangas. To the east, outside the bay on the Caribbean side there is what the guides call “coast fishing” along the peninsula’s shore heading north. Each area is different but all offer permit, tarpon, and bonefish, and at the right times, snook. Do not short the availability of jacks—yellows and of course crevalles—that can be sight-fished for a firecracker blast when permit have been playing too long with your head.

Chetumal Bay is a vast area of turtle grass, white sand flats, channels and lagoon networks. It has become one of the top permit destinations in all the Caribbean with wade fishing possible when the perms are happy, noses down, tails up. There is wonderful skinny water fishing for bonefish, too. Oh, yes, and tarpon. From December into February snook typically leave their mangrove hideouts and can be eyeballed patrolling the flats.

The back lagoons offer shelter if the wind comes up, and along with smaller tarpon there are some resident year-‘round snook to be had, as we would soon learn. For a change of pace our guide, Orlando, aimed us into the cut leading into Xcalak’s town lagoon, the only one close by that offered a direct connection from the Caribbean side. Mangroves closed on all sides, the sky a narrow bright slash above. The water shallowed so that in places, assistant guide Charley hip rolled over the gunwale to pull the boat. Like most Yucatan fishing operations Xflats runs with a lead captain and assistant who provides an extra set of eyes along with line management aid when things go screwy.

A nearly impassable channel opened into a lagoon with small tarpon and snook. These fish are best in cooler months though some year-rounders will get your heart pounding.

We broke into the open of a small lake and began hunting the shoreline, keying on showering baitfish fleeing small tarpon that soon blew up on my surface fly. And then came the darker, larger shadow from just beyond a point, the shape sharpening into focus, a snook at least as long as my arm, following, coming but not closing so that I was out of fly line, then bumping into the leader connection. No place to go, nothing to do but pivot in a foolish body pirouette and keep the fly going while the fish faded in disgust, not even spooked by the boat.

The Caribbean side “coast fishing” is along key shore configurations that, along with changes in water clarity and varying currents, tend to gather fish. Think edges of clear and turbid water, or current that swirls around natural or manmade structures, or upwellings off bottom formations. There is something else that can’t be ignored. When frigate birds (man-o-war) rode the air currents in high circles, especially if other bait-concentrating factors were present, we’d find fish. The frigates weren’t utilizing their incredible ability to put half their brain to sleep while soaring. The birds’ circling had purpose. You’d need to watch awhile. There was none of the mad screaming of gulls or terns diving on bait driven up by schools of predatory fish. Instead, at widely spaced intervals, a frigate would spiral lower, then, never stopping, surgically cleave the surface and rise again, in one smooth arcing movement, while swallowing a snatched baitfish.

Pato Crab in cream or tan was the hot pattern for permit. Young tarpon would also eat it, and jacks would eat virtually anything.

When things came together, within 200 yards of shore, sometimes less, both along the coast and in the bay, there could be permit, tarpon, and yes, even bonefish working. Fishing with Captain Julio, with Jose assisting, Jon had already “slammed” on our second day. His permit and tarpon came within a short distance along the coast; his bonefish completion was in the bay where he plucked a number of those fish from several circling schools. Another day, with Captain Felipe and assistant Eduardo, the intent seemed to get us a medley of permit, tarpon and bones along the Caribbean coast. The order in which everything happened is now a justified confusion in memory, but be assured that the events are true. We were focused on the edge of clear and stained water with floating pieces of sargassum weed sometimes snagging our flies. Here there were permit and tarpon both far and close, moving in a sort of non-stop parade, cruising and, yes, wanting to be fed. Mostly.

We had set up, stripping line to cast for tarpon, when from the poling platform Felipe called, “permit rod!” Eduardo grabbed the 9-weight permit rod and stripped line from its reel. Then he passed back the tarpon rod where Jon slid aside its coiled line. Then Eduardo slapped the permit rod into my hand and I cast.

Typical Yucatan bonefish are found in good numbers both in Chetumal Bay and in quirky spots on the Caribbean side. Larger fish are very possible.

“Wait, wait, wait,” Felipe said. The lead fish in a group of four looked at my crab while from his perch Felipe crooned, “Long strip, slow . . . long strip . . . .” The fish refused to eat and they all turned off. Just about then Felipe pleaded “Tarpon rod!” And so began our mad dance of rod switching and passing, and adjusting coiled line on the deck. I remember taking a tarpon, actually two, I believe, and of course, impossible to forget, finally a permit that mercifully decided to eat close to the boat, nearly roll-cast distance away, as had one of the tarpon. And then I traded off with Jon in the three-man tango, following Felipe’s calls from above. It was Jon’s turn now to jump, boat, and release several tarpon, each having responded to Felipe’s ordered retrieve of “Strip fast! Faster, streeeep!” These were nice fish, young ‘uns in the 15-to 30-pound range. Then the tarpon action slowed; the permit had already disappeared. This was not a spot for bonefish, but we would find them not a 10-minute boat run away.

The author’s son, Jon, took this estimated 25-pound juvie tarpon on an EP baitfish pattern, though these fish will also nosh a foam Gartside Gurgler.

It was an odd stop off the end of a long dock where an open boat was loading up customers for an off-shore dive session. There were small flats either side of the deeper water where the dive boat was moored. And there was at least one bonefish school circling in the shallows. Jon hooked up immediately. Once, twice, we kept no count. These were typical little fish found in these waters, but each one seemed an inch or so larger than the previous. But we couldn’t stay. The dive boat had politely hung at the dock, not running over and spooking the fish, but the customers were getting a little impatient. We’d had our fun.

Guide assistants help carry gear from your room to waiting pangas where you’ll brainstorm with your captain on the day’s tactics.

At Xflats the fishing days are a solid seven to eight hours with lunch taken aboard. When you return there is plenty of time to shower and unwind before supper. Your rigged rods will have been washed by staff who will have also presented a beer and a snack, likely at a table outside your room. There’ll be no lolling about in the room-side hammocks, though, for the serious cornhole competition will have begun and there’s no way to escape. There is an ongoing energy here, a youthful vibe springing in no small measure from 30-year-old lodge owner Jesse Colten, who’d left a river guiding career in Colorado’s Vail Valley after discovering the fishing around Xcalak.

With the cornhole game in full swing the dogs will have arrived from their business of unearthing crabs from deep sand holes. Little Joey—in fact a female who’d received her name as a famished stray pup needing to be carried in a pouch by her adopters—will perch on a bench offering good viewing of both gameboards along with unguarded snack plates. Bomby, the big hound, will be stretched flat between the ongoing game and the palapa restaurant assuring no one will access the main food source without its knowledge.

Meals at the lodge are built around local or regional dishes, never dull, always plentiful. The staff is, literally, a family; it seems that everyone on premises is related by blood or marriage. The staff’s good humored energy level tends to spill over to guests. Owner Jesse, along with the other anglers, including another father/son team from northern California—Jack, and Michael Cahill—created a merry fraternity each evening with the inevitable chronicling of stories that ranged from bizarre to hysterical.

The lodge bar serves up a killer margarita, but ample stock assures you’ll find at least several beverages sure to please.

When fishing Chetumal Bay chances are good for happy permit, the best being fish that are moving slowly, feeding, heads down, tails often slicing the surface. When you see them your guide will want you in—over the panga gunwale, that is. The bottom here is pretty easy wading. If it all works you’ll slip forward into casting range, the fish seemingly not worried, continuing to feed, and you’ll throw your crab fly, let it sink, strip it long and slow, and a fish will eat—or not. Or the fish may start moving at your approach and you will try to keep up, pushing water, trying for a full-on run like Mike Cahill and his guide did one day, Michael six-plus feet tall, the guide working on five-plus, the two of them bouncing along, Mutt-and-Jeff cartoon clones in the sun with the permit having none of it.

Once while wading for permit, Jon spotted a group of jacks coming fast as they always do. Without hesitation the closest fish snatched the fly and veered away tearing the line through the surface with a little spray. Turned out to be a hefty crevalle. The jacks we met would eat anything. Not so the permit or tarpon. The Pato Crab, with yellow barbell eyes, was head and shoulders tops for permit. I even had a tarpon eat one, though a variety of Puglisi’s baitfish patterns are standard when targeting tarpon. At one point, however, the tarpon snubbed those patterns. Captain Felipe combed through my fly box, slowing to look at some poppers, then plucking out a white foam Gartside Gurgler version I’d tied and on a whim. A mixed burbling/swimming/popping retrieve switched those indifferent tarpon into eaters. Once again the creative insight of that Boston cabby-cum king-of-the-road angler and fly designer, Jack Gartside, lead to a score a long ways from home.

During our stay there was always the siren call of the reef. From the lodge— or anywhere we fished along the coast—we could see the surf breaking on the reef. This is the Mesoamerican barrier, 625 miles long from Cancun, Mexico down to Honduras, the second largest coral system in the world. During the week prior to our trip a few days of windless weather allowed boats to pass through cuts in the barrier. It was here that the novice angler hooked one of the huge migratory tarpon that changed his life. We were in the summer months, peak of the big tarpon migration, and we hoped for a break from the wind so we could hunt the easterly side where those big silver beasts and some larger permit prowled. Only once did guide Felipe brave a move to one of the passes. I wondered at his choice to anchor stern-to the swells and current, but he had done this before. Almost immediately, while the anchor was catching, two tarpon in the six-foot class appeared, directly behind but too far off the stern to offer a cast from the bow . . . into the wind. The fish quickly faded from sight. We waited, watching the high surf with no hope of getting through. Once, an impressively long shark slowly swam past, left to right. And then we left.

Crevalle jacks are the flats bulldogs, outperforming yellow jacks that are also on the menu here. All of them will eat virtually any fly, a welcome change when permit go into refusal mode.

We hadn’t known that Xflats was hosting a kick-off party for the fourth annual Silver Scales tournament, an event that brings guides, conservationists and fishing industry leaders from the US, as well as top guides and outfitters from Mexico and Belize. It’s a pretty interesting affair, centering around grand-slams among other things. Al Perkinson’s Bajío Sunglasses team was there to participate, but more importantly to continue their flats revitalization mission, their second year of intense cleaning of beaches and flats around Xcalak, a mission they plan to extend to flats worldwide. Eyeballing the food and cerveza rolling in we figured there was nothing to do but join the party.

There was live music, and a singer whose name I’ve forgotten. But she was good. Folks from Xcalak village drifted in. There was dancing, and the dogs joined the festivities, at one point little Joey—deciding that Bombi, lying flat and peaceful had wimped out—took a flying leap that landed her four-footed atop the larger dog, sparking all kinds of excitement.

Xflats hosted a festive evening kickoff party for the annual Silver Scales tournament that brings guides and anglers from afar.

IF YOU GO

Note that at this writing Mexico customs was limiting each traveling angler to four rod/reel outfits. More than that, and it’s possible you may be required pay a tax on the current equipment value

Rods/Lines
8-weights for bonefish.
9-weights will cover both permit, smaller tarpon and jacks.
11 or 12-weights for large migrating tarpon. An intermediate integrated line could be useful.

Leaders
I used self-tied tapered leaders. Whether or not you choose to stick with IGFA-legal class leaders you should figure on 50-pound-test bite tippet for small tarpon and jacks, 80-pound bite for migrating tarpon. Use wire tippet if you want to play with barracuda (Rio’s Toothy Critter leader). 16-pound test is fine for permit, 10 or 12-pound for bones. The guides often forego niceties and go with straight lengths of 50-pound mono or fluorocarbon for the teenage tarpon and jacks, heavier for migrating ‘poons. Have tippet spools in 50, 40, 20, 16, and 12-pound test fluorocarbon.

Flies
Permit—
Pato Crab—my go-to pattern—in cream or tan with yellow lead eyes, sizes 4, 2, 1/0. Tarpon will also eat it. When they’re on shrimp try a Squimp in tan with yellow eyes, sizes 4, 2. Good for bonefish, too.

Tarpon—
EP Mullet and EP Black Tail Mullet
EP baitfish patterns, like Peanut Butter (chartreuse/white, red/black).
Classics like the Cockroach, Horror, Black Death.
Don’t forget a Gartside Gurgler in white. Size 1/0 for juvenile tarpon.
For migratory fish, flies should be 2/0 and 3/0.

Bonefish—
The usuals, such as Gotcha (pink), Crazy Charley (white, pink, tan), and Ververka Mantis Shrimp in tan. All in sizes 6 to 8.

Footwear
Neoprene wading boots suffice. No real coral issues.

Jerry Gibbs
Jerry Gibbs lives, fishes and writes from the mid-Maine coast unless he is on the road hunting off-radar waters, fish and anglers that will make a good story. Gibbs is the former Outdoor Life fishing editor.