Farlows Fishing Manager, Nick Hart, recently hosted a Farlows Travel trip to Punta Allen Fishing Club, situated in the vast wilderness of Mexico’s Ascension Bay.
The Journey to Mexico
After a ten-hour flight from Gatwick to Cancun, the team met in baggage reclaim and were soon talking fishing. This was my second time through Mexican customs in as many months and we breezed through into the pleasant 30C to await our air-conditioned minivan.
After a couple of hours on tarmac we entered the Sian Ka’an Reserve (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) to be greeted by a rough dirt track, which lasted for the remaining two and a half hours of the journey. It was the only arduous part of the trip, as having landed late afternoon, with a six-hour time difference, the track seemed never ending. That said, we remained in high spirits, laughing and joking as the potholes became increasingly deep!*
We arrived at the lodge at 9.30pm Mexican time and were greeted by the owner, Tiziano, before freshening up, and heading to the bar for a cold beer. The good news for these tired travellers was that our first day would start with a late breakfast, followed by an introduction to what we could expect from the vast 400 square mile Ascension Bay in the days to come. We went to bed tired but excited for what lay ahead.
Day 1 – First steps into tropical saltwater fly fishing.
After breakfast, Tiziano spent a fascinating couple of hours talking us through tactics, casting techniques and the all-important ‘strip strike’. This was a great way to start the trip as three of the team, Martin, Andy and John had no previous saltwater experience, with Adrian and Sam having only a handful of trips under their belts.
After donning the latest high-tech flats clothing we were transported, by very stable 25ft pangas boasting 50hp Yamaha outboards, to Paradise Lagoon for training in how to spot bonefish and to allow the team a chance to practice their casting. With a brisk south–easterly wind, which was to persist all week, everyone quickly understood how important being able to deal with the conditions was going to be! Punta Allen is a great place to start saltwater fly fishing but it always pays to get as much casting practice as possible in before embarking on any trip.
Plenty of fish were seen and some frantic casts made, especially when a permit showed its iconic fin but Andy was first to triumph with his first ever bonefish, under the guidance of Tiziano. The atmosphere around the dining table that night was electric!
Day 2 – A permit and a Grand Slam!
After breakfast the guides hurried us to the waiting pangas, keen to get our fly rods bent, and I teamed up with Sam and Head Guide, Juanito, who would be looking after us for the next eight hours.
After working with Sam on his casting, Juanito found exactly what we were looking for as a huge shoal of very relaxed permit, perhaps 50-strong, came within casting distance. Sam then became the week’s first victim of ‘Permit Fever’ as he frantically tried to place his fly onto the right spot but, as so often with permit, it proved tricky to get one to eat and a short while later he graciously gave me a chance to have a shot at the next one that turned up. And then it happened…
“Fasss Niiick, Fasss … get out the boat, BIIIG Permit”.
Juanito was urging me to take my first shot at an Ascension Bay permit, the holy grail of tropical saltwater fly fishing.
“100 ft, you seeee it, you seee?, enthusiasm and excitement pouring from Juan’s every pore.
“Got it”, I whispered.
These are the moments that fly fishers crave and the reason we travel so many thousands of miles, searching, hoping and dreaming.
The fish was now at 75ft and Juan had positioned me for a perfect shot at 12 o’clock, out of the panga and in waist–deep water to offer a low profile.
“Waait, waait… OK… Casst, CAAAST!”.
The fish was at 50ft and with as little noise as possible I made the cast, it was slightly short, so I carefully re–presented, leading the fish by three feet. Two strips later and I cannot perfectly describe what happened next. Euphoria!
As elation became realisation, I sensed the need to concentrate as the ecstasy could soon turn to despair and after a run of some 250ft I became concerned; the fish didn’t seem like it was going to stop! Reassuringly Juan got me back on the panga and explained that permit have at least three long runs in them and vast reserves of stamina, landing this fish was clearly going to be about playing the long game.
Sat in a running tide the fish seemed as if it was exerting little energy, effortlessly using its hydrodynamics to stay tantalising just out of reach. I don’t think I have ever wanted to land a fish so badly and I was doing everything possible to appreciate the moment, while saying over and over to myself ‘please don’t come off, please don’t come off‘. Beware, permit get under your skin!
Twenty minutes later Juan had the leader in hand and, as my heart skipped a beat, he grabbed the fish by the tail. We had done it!
Later we looked at the photographs and played the video and I relived the moment over and over again. This was undoubtedly one of the best moments of my life, and one which I was privileged to share with great people.
We did most of our post–fishing socialising in a traditionally built Mayan palapa, a beautiful open–sided purpose-built lodge with a thatched roof of palm leaves. It was the perfect place to unwind and we continued until late that night, washing down fishing stories with Tiziano’s home-brewed rum.
Punta Allen is one of the very best places in the world to achieve the much sought after Grand Slam – comprising a bonefish, tarpon and permit caught the same day. I had been lucky enough to experience this (another first!) during the day and as the second bottle of rum was poured, we talked, laughed and became more excited about what the coming days might hold.
Day 3 – All about the conditions.
Saltwater fly fishing is all about the conditions and as we tucked into fruit, pancakes, bacon and eggs the following morning it was evident that the wind had picked up. The team was primarily made up of saltwater virgins and while distance casting is rarely required, coping with gusting winds can be tricky, especially when accuracy and speed are required to present a fly in front of a fast-moving target.
I boarded the panga with Adrian and Miguel was our guide for the day, a Mayan descendant who had been on the water all his life. Having previously caught bonefish, Adrian opted for a day on the permit and the only way to have a real chance of a hook-up is to ignore everything else and just go searching for them, but changeable weather and light conditions made for a challenging day and when they didn’t want to play we kept picking away at the bones.
Day 4 – Shoals of tarpon
On day four I paired up with John, who benefited from a Juanito casting lesson prior to a 30-minute steam out to a new mark, an exhilarating start to the day which commenced within the tight mangrove channels and then opened out into the electrifying vista of Ascension Bay.
Juanito did everything possible to find fish in far from friendly weather conditions and although we had good shots at bonefish, tarpon and permit, tricky winds meant that we didn’t make it happen.
Despite this we had an enjoyable day observing the wonderful birdlife the region has to offer and relaxing in between shots of intense adrenaline as several large tarpon shoals remained tantalisingly just out of reach. Perhaps the highlight of the day was spotting a massive permit which Juan guessed was at least mid-30lb if not 40lb. I could only imagine what on earth fighting that would be like, having just had my first experience of fighting a fish in the mid-teens.
Days with tough conditions are part and parcel of destination fishing, but that didn’t stop Adrian jumping a tarpon of in the region of 40lb and his boat partner, Sam, also hooked one. Meanwhile Martin and Andy both caught bonefish and were having a competition to see who could catch the most of the snapper-like fish that the guides referred to as perch!
Day 5 – Tres Marias lunch
Buddying up with Sam once again we battled with the wind, hunting for permit during the morning session. It was, however, clear that permit were out and that we needed to turn our attention to bonefish and arriving at a beautiful chain of islands known as Tres Marias (Three Marys) the team descended on a mouth–watering flat to begin the search. With excellent light conditions and very little cloud spotting was relatively simple, revealing several good fish that obliged us with a take and a run, but managed to slip the hook!
Gathering together for lunch we experienced one of the highlights of the trip: meeting the local iguana population, sharing food on an idyllic island and joking with the guides. As always there is more to fishing than simply catching fish!
That afternoon we went in search of more bones, trying numerous flats before returning to base with a slightly heavy heart as just one day remained in a saltwater fly fishing mecca that had, so far, only offered a glimpse of its full potential.
Day 6 – Almost… but not quite!
Saltwater newbies and lifelong friends, Martin and Andy, had caught plenty of bones between them during the week, while spending a large part of their days indulging in friendly banter! I was to experience this for myself on the last day as I was headed out with them for one last sortie.
The wind was up again and fish were tricky to spot but despite this our guide, Augustine, demonstrated the kind of balance a tight rope act would be proud of, working tirelessly from atop the poling platform to put us in front of fish.
A red tide, caused by decaying sargassum weed, provided the first stop and very little happened for an hour, although every now and again Augustine would shout to Andy or Martin to take a shot. Even I began to wonder if Augustine was seeing things as I concentrated hard on the water while acting as line man, ensuring that Martin‘s saltwater fly line was ready to make a swift cast if necessary.
He (and I) almost fell out of the panga when, just after another episode of frantic pointing and appeals to “CAST!” a missile–like projectile of silver scales launched itself at Martin‘s fly – but missed!
“F***ing hell, what on earth was that” he exclaimed.
“That”, I replied, “was a tarpon!”
Faith restored, it felt like an old episode of Bullseye as Martin realised ‘what he could have won‘ had that fish been hooked. Nothing showed for a while, then Augustine burst into excited commands once again.
“Cuuuda, BIG Cuda!”
There were actually two fish and I quickly rigged the tarpon rod with a needlefish fly for Andy and we got a shot at the targets, which were well into double figures.
“Strip, Striiiip, STRIP!” Augustine and I chorused as Andy pulled on the line for all he was worth.
In a split second one of the barracuda turned on its afterburners and was at the side of the boat, jaws agape about to grab the fly, at which point Andy ran out of stripping room and pulled it out of the water! Several minutes of rolling about the panga ensued as we laughed at just how close Andy had been to nailing the toothiest of critters. Fish 2, Martin and Andy 0!
Martin was now back on the casting deck and Augustine had positioned us within a scene straight out of Jurassic Park, with gnarly pieces of sunken wood and mangroves producing a network of mouth–wateringly fishy-looking features. It didn’t take us long to find the snook our guide was chasing but the shallow water, turned milky by the strengthening wind, was making them difficult to see and we spooked at least two dozen before Martin had a shot at one right at his feet.
He slammed the saltwater fly right onto the fishes’ head (one of the best ways to get a snook to take), it turned, opened its mouth and Martin pulled the Peanut Butter Baitfish, right back out again! Fish 3, Martin and Andy 0!
A little later, Augustine had the panga positioned in a very fishy–looking location, a deep channel of clear water framed by mangroves on either side. A few test casts produced nothing until the push pole was used to splash the water, a tactic which can entice tarpon and snook from deep inside their twisted lairs. Suddenly, as Andy stripped the line back in at high speed, a huge Jaws-like bow wave appeared behind the fly, following for several yards before the line went tight…
“STRIP … STRIIIP HARD” we all pleaded in unison (including a few un-publishable expletives!), but the line went limp, the culprit almost certainly a big snook.
Cruising into the channel the guys gave me a chance to have some casts and while I was on the deck a lemon shark of around 40lb appeared. My Peanut Butter Streamer got a little interest, before the shark disappeared – only to return with a companion! By that time I had swapped my fluorocarbon leader for wire and the streamer for a Fluorescent Chartreuse Needlefish on a Gamakatsu 5/0.
When a third lemon shark appeared I took my chance to create a frenzy, slamming the fly down hard amongst them and bringing it to life with a jerky strip retrieve. One of the sharks mouthed the fly, before it was stolen from its jaws by one of its companions!
Such an aggressive take made for an easy hook set and at last the rod bent over! I chucked it to Andy to enjoy the fight and, as he looked at me in bewilderment with the backing rapidly disappearing into the mangroves, the line fell limp as the leader was parted by the shark‘s sandpaper-like skin. Fish 5, Martin and Andy 0, Nick 0!
Time was eventually up but we had one last wonderful moment when we met with the rest of the team for an evening in the Paradise Lagoon. We found tailing permit and although I was confident, having landed one earlier in the week, I was frustrated to get just one follow, despite casting to four separate fish. That frustration was soon forgotten as we watched an incredible sunset with a cold beer and enjoyed a final high-speed ride back to the lodge. What an incredible finale to our adventure!
The guides worked extremely hard all week and while many more battles were lost than won, we were returning home with broad smiles, everyone having had their first experience of the world-famous speed and power of a bonefish.
The weather was tricky at times but it certainly didn't dampen spirits and throughout the week raucous laughter could be heard as we bonded over various bottles, arriving as strangers and leaving as lifelong friends. I must confess that my eyes filled as I made our goodbyes to Tiziano’s team, who had worked so hard on our behalf. Punta Allen really is a very special place, well worth enduring the bumpy dirt track for, I cannot wait to return.
Punta Allen 2020
If you would like to join me for next year’s hosted trip to Punta Allen it will be taking place from 24th April to 1st May 2020. For further details call me on 020 7484 1006 or email me at [email protected]
What our guests said…
“Wow what a fab experience. I never in a million years expected what we all experienced. Not only was the fishing, lodge and environment incredible, the fact that we all got on so well was brilliant. Nonstop enjoyment” Andy Barrett
“Thanks for setting this up Nick and thanks for organising a fantastic trip” John Anderson
“It was an amazing trip. A highlight of my fishing career was seeing your face on catching the permit and then the tension and excitement of the tarpon to complete the Grand Slam!” Sam MacDonald
“Great week Nick, thanks for all your tips while we were away” Martin Blake
“Very impressed by the Flickr album Nick, many thanks for sorting that out and I hope you know that all your efforts on our behalf are appreciated” Adrian Francis
*Footnote: Punta Allen Fishing Club can also be accessed by boat transfer for an extra fee which considerably reduces journey time by eliminating the need to travel via the dirt track road.