Punta Allen, a former lobster fishing community on Mexico’s Ascension Bay in the Caribbean…….. where the road ends and miles of flats and big skies begin. Seven hundred square miles to be precise. What a venue, and what a special slice of pristine tropical paradise. This trip had been a long time in incubation. Conversational snippets with my globe trotting boat partner had crept in to our annual reservoir trout fishing trips to Chew Valley Lake, including descriptions of turbo charged bonefish, that he assured me, went ‘like trout on steroids’. Images from his earlier forays of chrome plated Tarpon and slab sided Permit with their dramatic black sickle tails, tantalised me further. I was never convinced that a trip would ever happen for me, and the UK game and saltwater fly-fishing scene seemed to be the limit of my horizon. Now my ‘note to self’ at the start of 2013, is to ensure that this wasn’t the ‘trip of a life time’, but my initiation to a thrilling new branch of the sport. During the week I enjoyed close encounters with most of the main flats species, but left unfinished business aplenty in Ascension Bay..
For me, that ten second blast with a marauding ‘Barracuda was the ‘oh my god moment’ of the week. I cast a flashy blue and silver lure on my nine weight during a lunch break on day two, having spotted the ‘Cuda 50 yards away tracking lazily across the flat towards the boat. It hit the fast stripped lure like a guided missile, and then took off with blistering acceleration before shedding the hook 50 yards away….I could spend a few days specialising in them quite happily, however bizarre that may be to many experienced flats anglers. Most go to Ascension Bay to patiently stalk the enigmatic Permit, as it is one of the worlds best venues for this most prized species, as I was to discover… Generally, Barracuda are not particularly revered, which is a real puzzle. I guess all branches of our sport develop their own culture which takes newcomers some time to unravel. Of the species that I encountered, this was the one that really took my breath away. I was pleased to jump two baby tarpon of about 4lb, after a long stalk in the crystal clear waters of a channel that penetrated deep into the mangrove, as they were scarce during our week, and a high priority,. And boy, can they jump! Next time one will stick, and I can imagine that the aerial battle that will ensue will be a nail biter in the tight spaces that we fished. My first Jack was hooked accidentally whilst blind casting a chartreuse lure into likely looking shoreline pockets for Snook, on the fringes of a mangrove island. They can turn up anywhere on the flats, or in the deep water channels I was assured. A real blood thirsty marauder. It was a modest fish of several pounds, compared to the 20 pound bruiser caught by one our party that took an hour to land!
Eventually, I hooked my first Snook, all ten inches of it! It took nearly three hours of landing the fly into pocket water to track it down. Other larger fish were seen, but often not soon enough, as they left a puff if silt in the water as the punt almost drifted on to them.
There were a few proper Snook caught during the week. They are wonderful looking predatory fish with a striking black stripe along the lateral line. They are reminiscent of the Zander, and commonly the guides take them home, as they are very good for the table and big enough to feed a large family.
To be able to develop my bone-fishing savvy was great, and learning to sight them and predict their movements was the first and most important skill to develop. The guides helped greatly in the early stages. Casting to and catching tailing fish in shallow water without spooking them and hitting a few at long range quickly built my confidence, and I landed fourteen on the most prolific day. In terms of my flats fly fishing apprenticeship this was just perfect, with plenty of shots, thanks to my partner leaving most of the bones to me. They feel familiar tactically, and are quite cooperative, but far from a give away, especially if tailing with their nose down in shallow water, when both accuracy and delicacy must come to the fore. Bone fish on the move can be intercepted, but you have to be quick and decisive, and they often catch you out by changing direction more drastically than a trout would, just as you release your line!
I was pleased that the Permit arrived, in impressive numbers on the last day for my partner. This species is his holy grail theses days, and I was keen to see what all of the fuss was about. He felt we were very unlucky not to boat one, but, then my ‘semi trout strike’ on the first Permit I have ever cast to didn’t help! Keeping a low rod, with a direct contact with a taking fish, and strip striking is by far the most important lesson for a newcomer to learn, otherwise fish will be missed for sure. Getting the fly on target from all angles in a stiff breeze, including fast moving fish as they disappear upwind, is a real test of skill, and an exciting challenge that a good trout angler can readily rise to. After an accurate delivery, a Permit may slightly turn towards the fly, briefly. At other times they may follow it to the boat and even balance the fly on the end of their snout! Often, they never flinch. Just occasionally one will engulf the crab or shrimp imitation in earnest, and then the strip strike must be reliable. To be honest, although the guides were great generally, they can be a mixed blessing when hunting Permit, because most of them get so excited!. It was interesting for me as a trout angler to note that their retrieve instruction did not vary whether we were drifting onto the fish or away from them and casting up wind. This made no sense at all., as the speed and depth of fly presentation varied enormously as a consequence, and I expect reduced the number of takes. Every time a permit didn’t take a fly the guide would change it, as if the fly pattern was the only possible cause of rejection. Now, we trout fisherman know better than that don’t we? I developed a sneaking suspicion that being prepared to selectively ignore the guides may have helped for Permit, especially when it came to the retrieve. On that last day my partner counted 19 Permit shots in total! Typically on many Permit flats, several shots or so in a day is considered par for the course. It was a fascinating game of cat and mouse, and we came very close to fish taking, several times.
I understand how a seasoned flats angler could get preoccupied with Permit, and why there are Ascension Bay’s forte.. I was pleased that they were a part of our week, but for me, it was the variety within the week’s hunt, the technical demands and subtleties of bone fishing, the short lived blast from the Barracuda, and the daily anticipation and excitement of being in that vast wilderness that will draw me back. We saw wildlife in profusion aside from the fish, Frigate Bird colonies, nesting Ospreys, Spoonbills, Herons, Horseshoe crabs, Spiny Lobsters, and were able to share our sandwiches with Iguanas on an island at lunch time. One of our party even came across a juvenile Manatee in the mangroves.
It was worth the twenty years or so wait, and a hugely inspiring introduction to an enthralling branch of our sport. If like me you are a regular still water trout fisherman, if you possibly can, spoil yourself at least once, and follow the road to where the land ends and the big skies begin…You will more than cope, and you won’t be disappointed.Martyn Haines has been a lifelong fly fisher and has worked as Academic Section Head of Fisheries at the SRUC near Dumfries, Scotland. Currently, he is working closely with the Angling Development Board of Scotland, helping to introduce angling and an appreciation of the environment to the secondary school curriculum. Brought up in the midlands of England in the 70’s and 80’s, Martyn learnt to fly fish on the midlands still water trout fisheries, and was influenced by the ‘gurus of the day’, including Bob Church and Arthur Cove. On moving to Scotland in 1986, river salmon, sea trout and brown trout fishing have been added to his repertoire, and dry fly fishing for trout on the Annan in the spring is anticipated feverishly each winter.
Next Time – The long anticipated Rivers Dee, Tweed & Teith season openings!
Keep your eyes peeled for our next post on or around the 3rd of February. Greig Thomson will have his reportage from the opening days fishing on the Dee as well as the round up from the Tweed & the Teith openings.
To all who are venturing out on the 1st February to catch that elusive springer, the team would like to wish you all tight lines and the very best of luck.
If you are lucky enough to catch an opening day springer and have a good picture, then please email the image to firstname.lastname@example.org along with a few words on your catch to be included in our round up of from the rivers.