Clothing protection from Sun and insects
Tackle and Equipment
Fish Species and Skiff
Searching for Bonefish
Playing and Landing Bonefish
Being Quick on the Draw
Flies, knots and Casting Preparations
Books and Articles
Saltwater fly fishing seems to be another dimension over and above fly fishing for trout. The fish are bigger more aggressive and require bigger flies hence bigger stronger kit. Bonefish run like the wind, cuda and tarpon spend most of their time airborne or walking on their tails, snook charge like elephants, pure excitement. You can experience “top of the water fishing” by using poppers, and deer hair lures to dramatic effect.
Fishing in turquoise tropical waters on white sandy flats has a huge appeal even more so in the winter particularly when the trout season in the UK has come to an end. Boy did I have some winter fun. This experience is now locked in to be an annual event in my diary. If you go Salmon fishing you can afford to go Saltwater fishing you won’t have any regrets. Every fly fisher should go bonefishing at least once or twice in their lives.
Mexico is an affordable Caribbean location, charter flights to Cancun are about £550. Other tropical saltwater destinations tend to be a bit more expensive and involve transfers or connection flights, Bahamas, Key West, Cuba, Venezuela, Guadalupe, Xmas Island, New Caledonia. Accommodation and food in Mexico are both good and good value.
Punta Allen’s Beach Villa accommodation with sea views of the coconut and palm trees on the white sandy beach. Bonefishing skiffs in the background.
On my first trip to the Yucatan nearly over a decade ago I described Cancun as mad, just like Ibiza but on steroids. I may have been a little unkind and my thoughts are directed to nightclubs like Coco Bongo. I stayed in the “old” part of Cancun and remember giving up on sleeping and just went outside to join the big long party.
With a little effort you can avoid the resort and the nocturnal hedonist pleasures that the disco scene has to offer. For there is much see and do in Yucatan and it doesn’t only involve fishing. There are hundreds of Mayan ruins along the peninsula waiting to be uncovered. Chichen Itza, Palenque, Uxmal, Tulum are the most established Mayan archaeological sites. They are truly fascinating structures all achieved without the European invention of the arch. Waterfalls at Agua Azul & Misol Ha. A visit to the friendly mountain town of san Christobal, bathing in the Cenotes, and miles of white sandy beaches.
Ascension Bay is a world apart from the hustle and bustle of Cancun with its resort hotels and bar dancing night clubs. Where is Ascension Bay ? Well you will find it just over half way down the east coast of the Mexican Yucatan peninsula. In between Cancun and Chetumal on the Belize Mexican border. Ascension Bay is accessed by a dirt track road 30 miles to the south of Tulum built on a spit of sand. A small fishing village called Punta Allen services Ascension Bay. Here you can find a couple of shops, restaurants and bars and nice white beach. Mobile phones don’t work, there is an internet café expect the connection to be slow. There is no ATM there is a doctor.
The journey takes about 90 minutes to get to Tulum from Cancun airport and then anywhere from 2 to 4 hours down the track road to get to Punta Allen. This leg of the journey is dependant upon the condition of the road. During the month of November the rains had severely damaged the road. During our stay repairs were being made to the road. It took us four hours to get back to the airport.
I went for one week got pretty clued up by the end of it, with Cancun being a 10 hr flight I could easily have justified a two week trip. When to go ? We went in the first week in December chasing the winter sun.
The hurricane season lasts from June to November but most hurricanes are found in the months of July through to October. 2008 was an unusual year in that there were no hurricanes to speak about.
Randall Kaufmann suggests there is fair to good fishing all year round but suggests the months April, May, June are the best , with possibility of excellent fishing in the months of November, December and March.
The fishing conditions were far from ideal but they were good enough. The new moon was receding, it is thought that the more moonlight there is the less active permit are during the day, several permits had been caught during that week. The weather systems were coming down from Northern America, north winds reduce the water levels in the bay and cooling the water surface resulting in fewer fish come into shore. Like I said though these conditions were not ideal they were good enough with out exception everybody caught plenty of bonefish plus a couple of exotics.
Accommodation is in self-catering style cabanas, quaint palm thatched beach villa’s. Niki was our excellent American host getting us organised with breakfast, pack lunches and a parting lobster meal. She also made sure the fridge was topped up with Sol.
The whole trip was organised by Mat of Fly Fishing Odyssey so all I had to do was turn up and cast.
With Ascension Bay having a tropical climate the winter sun gets very strong. The back of my legs, feet, lips and nose got sun burnt you need to cover up. The daily temperatures were around 25 centigrade with the days been overcast with occasional bouts of sunshine.
I used factor 30, and a ski lipstick factor 50 for my lips. Be sure to wash the sunscreen off your hands before you touch the fly or the fly line. I used a wide brimmed hat which kept me cool for the most part, you will need something to protect the back of your neck.
The guides cover up with a Buff, and with their sunglasses you might mistake them for a reformed Tusken Raider. They leave the absolute minimum of their face exposed. As you wade in the water the sun protection just washes off for that reason I switched from shorts to long trousers, long sleeve shirt, fingerless mitts and flats wading shoes. The flat wading shoes (Snowbee) are made from a neoprene sock with a hard sole, which aims to protect you feet from sharp coral. We did not encounter any sharp coral but the odd spot of soft sand. Its most important that boots are tight fitting around the ankles to keep the sand out. I wore a pair of walking socks which provided some cushioning against loose sand grains. The guides would were flat boots or wade in bare feet. To keep the noise down in the boat I took off my flats shoes and fished in bare feet that was until my feet got burnt, I then fished in socks to protect them from the sunlight.
Guide Juilo sports flats clothing wearing a buff (snood) helps protect his face from reflected sunlight. Typical bonefishing attire.
The advantage of using bare feet or stocking feet in the boat is that you compensate more easily against the movement and roll of the boat, your more in balance and can adjust for sudden movements of the pole or the odd big wave. You also get to feel when your standing on your fly line consequently your casts are not interrupted or snagged.
I also took with me a light waterproof rain jacket to keep the spray from the boat from soaking me when we were zipping along to our fishing drop off point, we did get caught out in the rain for a little while but light clothing dried very quickly as we were on the move.
A minor annoyance was the little tiny sand flies which made an appearance at dawn and dusk. These little things don’t seem to stop biting. I used jungle formula on my clothes and skin, but the little B’s even bit under my watch strap. The beach villa’s are protected with insect screens and bed’s have mosquito nets, which you must keep tied up. When outside the locals would use the smoke from burning coconut husks to ward the sandflies off.
I carried my tackle in a bum bag which was ideal for the flats, though at one point when wading in between some islands the water went above nipple height. I had to carry my bag above my head or my camera would have died. Its worth getting yourself one of those waterproof Olympus or Pentax cameras then deep water wading holds no worries and it does n’t matter if the guide baptises your camera. Alan and Colin two guys on the trip who do a lot of saltwater fishing recommended the 20 litre overboard waterproof day sack which would have done the job nicely. I also used a small Airflo boat bag, Mark used the Simms boat bag. There is bound to be water in the bottom of the boat so worth getting something substantial if you want to keep your kit dry.
I carried my gear on the plane in a Snowbee holdall, which fitted the bill but the bag weighs 6kg empty. Thomson airways baggage allowance was 20Kg. Going out was fine but coming back I was 3kg over as I had transferred some stuff from my hand luggage. Thomson airways were really strict on excess baggage and they stiffed me £10 per kilo. A light weight duffle bag or North Face hold all for kit has a big advantage with weighing so little.
I brought at two reels with me a Danielsson LW8 for permit tooled up with 200 yards of 30lb backing, and a good value Airflo VCR reel with a good drag and 150 yards of backing for bones. I took three rods with me 7, 8 and 9 wt the 7 wt was supposed to be my spare rod in case I bust up on the 8 wt. I ended up using the Airflo delta 7 wt for bonefish and a 9 wt for permit. The 8 and 9 wt Orvis frequent flyer rods are seven piece which makes them convenient for travelling as they pack down really small. However if you are casting all day experience has taught me to tape up the joints on these rods, if you don’t there’s will be £50 replacement fee waiting for you. Ideally you want a fast action rod as you will be casting into a head wind. The leader setup only calls for one fly so tight loops and accuracy are the order of the day.
My amigos went for Tibor, Abel, Nautilus reels, Sage, Thomas & Thomas and Loomis saltwater rods, ranging from 6 to 10 wt. I used Orvis tropical bone fish line which performed adequately, other favourites were Rio, Teeny, Scientific Angler. My line was made for the tropics thought this time of the year (December 25 centigrade) it probably wasn’t necessary. As you need to be quick on the draw and have good line control with as little loose line as you can get away with, its worth going one wt heavy than the rod rating, then the rod loads up more quickly with a shorter head.
Mark tucking into a snoop as it charged full steam into his Skunk fly, a deer hair emerger pattern I don’t think so. Note guide lifts the snook up by its lower lip. Toothy predators need a bite guard.
Ascension Bay has a good variety of saltwater game fish, permit, snook, cuda, baby tarpon and of course bonefish, which was why I was there. Paul Proctor was here the week before and at the end of the week managed a Super Grand Slam – Permit, Bonefish, Snook and Tarpon. No doubt he probably caught the odd needlefish too. If your ambition is Grand Slam or Super Grand Slam this is the place to do it. Let your guides know that this is what you want to do. They are usually incentivised so will pull all the stops out for you to get your fish.
Picture of skiff poled by Carlos spotting for Mark ready for action.
The guiding system here at first feels over the top in that you get two guides in the boat. A guide and an apprentice but this has the advantage that each of you has an extra pair of eyes and it is very affordable when split between two. The cost is in the order £150-200 a day depends upon the exchange rate. Everything is booked through an agent or a Cooperative, this means the guides are of a high standard and the equipment is well maintained. Before the formation of a Cooperative this was n’t always so.
Though it might be possible to wade some of the flats for bonefish close to the beach house the majority of our day trips involved a 30 to 60 minute boat ride. The shallows and lagoon access that the skiff afford you gives you excellent fishing. If you split it right with your boat partner one of you wades whilst the other is poled in the boat. In my experience the bigger bones were found when wading out in the shallows.
If there is just one of you in the boat your going to be work hard without respite. It goes without saying that you need to have a good understanding with your boat partner or one of you may end up disappointed.
The setup that worked for us was: wherever possible one of us would wade the other would be poled in the boat, 1 to 2 hrs later the skiff would find you and pick you up and you would exchange places. Some days both of you would wade just depended upon the location and the conditions. Our guides would remain in contact with each other on shortwave radio and would check-in on the hour. If things were looking slow we would be picked up and moved on to another area. This way you both get to maximise your fishing time.
The Punta Allen guide’s eyes are a tuned into looking for bonefish activity. They can tell from the behaviour of the fish what species they are be it permit, bones or mullet. The guide poling has a major height advantage so can spot them coming way ahead of you. As you would expect they wear the best sunglasses to help them spot fish. They are looking for a cloudy bottom or surface disturbance indicating feeding fish, or a flash of silver. A big school of bonefish looks like a large shadow moving erratically in the water, almost as if it were a cloud casting a shadow on the water as it moves over the sun.
Tailing bonefish which are nice to target can be hard to spot as their fins are almost translucent. Permit have black fins poking out of the water and wave their tails in the air. Tailing bonefish are easier to spot in calm water on the lee side of an island or bay. Invariably the guide will be able to see more than one fish. There is a chance that you will be both looking a different bonefish, try a cast around your target so that you don’t spoke the rest of the school. Always assume that there are additional fish close by your target.
Our guides could spot bonefish in turtle grass (dark background), in waist high water and up to a hundred feet away. I could only see them silhouetted against white sand in skinny water up to about 50 feet away. Life gets more difficult if the Sun is in front of you as it casts a glare across the water. If the wind picks up this difficulty is compounded and its hard to see bonefish through the dazzle of the reflections on the wave. I would try to peer into the bottom of the wave and follow the “window” as it moved away from me. Occasionally pausing to see if the light grey patch moved. If it doesn’t move it’s the “barom” bottom. Spotting bonefish gets a little easier when the Sun gets higher in the day.
Other signs of bonefish apart from tailing, are bow waves created as the fish moves forward at speed especially in shallow water. The guides call this pushing water. You must cast 5 feet in front of the bow wave as bonefish will be moving at speed. At a distance you may see flat water on the surface or something the guide call nervous water, this is the turbulence of moving water around the school of fish. The water surface just looks different to everywhere else almost as if it were boiling. Anticipate the school cast to one side ambush and then wait for a follow. Another sigh of bonefish might be a patch of muddy water indicative of a school of fish feeding off the bottom, the tactic here is to cast blind and it becomes lucky dip as to what you will catch.
The bonefish in Ascension bay were seldom solitary usually in pairs or schools of up to 20 to a couple of hundred. The school of bonefish could be arranged in a line one behind the other, or spread out shoulder to shoulder. Sometimes the school could be arranged in the shape of a V as they make their way towards you. The bonefish tended to drift upwind moving erratically to and fro looking for food. They are looking for small baitfish, shrimps or crabs. Consequently they come in to the shore and lagoons on the rising tide, moving in and out of channels on the falling tide. The tidal range is only a foot or so. One sign that a school has past you by is the small pot mark holes left in the sand, they are about the size of a golf ball, betraying the presence a small crab or shrimp which has ended up on the bonefish’s menu.
My most successful locations were in the lagoons, around islands in the channels, along the sand bars in between the islands as the fish move from the deeper water into the shallow water and finally along the beach. If I could I preferred to walk along the beach and target the bonefish as they are coming up wind. Walking along the beach is quicker and quieter than wading you also have the chance of doubling back for a second chance without being spotted. The bonefish could be on the shoreline to 50 feet out. Peninsula’s and bars of raised sand were good fish holding areas.
Targeting bonefish from the skiff is a little more skilful you have to allow for the fact that the skiff is drifting with the current and the sudden movements of the guiding poling, as well as the skiff rolling in the water. Also if there are people behind you have limited casting options unless you want to deliberately hit one of the guides in the boat or wrap your fly line around the pole.
Bonefish can be spooked for no good reason other than startling each other darting about as they are extremely cautious in skinny water. Other spooks include heavy fly line, tapping in the boat, flash of the rod, overhead bird or shadow, the sound of the pole hitting the sand, the slap of the waves on the boats hull, predators such as cuda, your fly might be too heavy as it makes a plop, and the list goes on. I would use flies with unweighted or nylon eyes in 30 cm of water or less, and small to medium chain bead eyes for the shrimps to be used in waist deep water. You want your flies to be at the feeding depth as quick as possible bonefish move very quick even when their stood still you still have a tide to contend with, you don’t always have time for the flies to sink down to the bottom.
Julio one of the guides showed me a technique for wading in the flats which creates a finite amount of water disturbance. As you slowly walk along the flats you move your foot forward but with your toes pointing down at angle and land on your toes not your heels. This avoids creating a wave of water pressure moving forward through normal walking disturb close proximity fish. Feels odd takes a bit of practice, not sure how much it helps but it doesn’t do any harm.
I did n’t get many refusals using standard shrimp bonefish patterns. The fly pattern colours varied from white, tan, brown and pink, they would have a little crystal flash in the tail. The black eyes look dramatic against light coloured body. Patterns I used where Alan’s gotcha, Colin’s gotcha, white Reverse Charlie.
Cast the fly to the lead fish of the V shoal or to the right o left of a pair. If the fish is tailing close to the shore, I cast in between the fish and the shore. Let the fly settle slow steady retrieve with the occasional pause so the fly kicks up a puff of sand. Ideally you want to see the fish follow.
Learning curve, do n’t go easy on the tippet some of these critters have sharp mouths and if your fishing for cuda your going to need some wire. I used 8lb, 15lb and 20lb tippet with saltwater tapered leader. The breaking strain did n’t seem to matter so long as the presentation was good, there might not be any leeway with the bigger bonefish.
When setting the hook use the strip strike always, this took me a little while to get right but soon becomes instinctive. You need to pull that hook home. Sometimes you cannot pull fast enough. Don’t lift the rod the critters mouths are too tough so any give in the rod works against you, counterintuitive if trout is your thing.
Once your hooked into a bonefish all hell breaks loose just let it run take all your slack line and play the fish on to the reel as quickly as possible. They will run and run take you to your backing after all that’s why were here are n’t we ?
Don’t take size for granted even the one pounders are surprisingly feisty. The bigger fish will just keep on running and running. As you wind them they will occasionally bolt, lower the rod and play them off the reel, its important that your reel has a good drag. Set the drag so that you can just about strip line off the reel using your lips. In shallow water 30cm (12 inches water) they swim like the whirlwind. They will come round to you in ever decreasing circles. You might even find for a while that the whole school of bonefish follows your hooked fish.
A guide comes in handy as landing nets are not used. Very welcoming it is to have some one to help release fish. You can land them yourself but just watch that you don’t break the tip off your rod, just take your time. As the bonefish comes close grab the last few feet of fly line, ease some slack off the spool with your hand and then ease your way to the fish’s mouth. Tail the fish and support it under its belly with the palm of your hand, they will usually remain quite still. Make sure you have some slack line between you and the fish just in case it bolts off. A bonesfish’s mouth is somewhat rubbery. In my limited experience I found the hook came out easily, only on two occasions had the bonefish eaten the fly into the back of its mouth, and had to use a pair of forceps to coax out the fly. Gently return the bonefish to the water no harm done and off it goes. Once your confidence builds up and you feel like you know the socre pinch the barb off and go barbless.
The other thing to watch out for are Cuda, if they sense your bonefish is in distress, you might find it suddenly attacked by one of these toothy predators. This happened to Colin with a very nice sized bonefish (4lb), his line got cut and all that remained was the head of the bonefish laying in the water. You will be pleased to know that although he lost his catch without hesitation Colin jumped in to get his fly back!
First Bone Fish of the week, perfect head shot ! Good eyes need some help with camera work. Bonefish on its way.
If you want a picture of the event make sure your guide is familiar with your camera. Show him/her the type of shots you want and how much zoom you need. Well worth spending 10 or so minutes getting the guide to become comfortable with your equipment. Ideally you want to take a waterproof camera and then there won’t be any tears, if in the chaos of the release the camera gets a baptism of saltwater. All the remains left is to spot another and do it all over again. Easily done If you stalk the school quietly continue pick another bone off for as long as you can.
As you walk along have a maximum of one rod length of fly out of the rod tip, 7m or 20 feet of coiled flyline together with the hook in your non rod hand ready to pounce. Always be ready, quick on the draw is the name of the game, the bones are always moving, your window of opportunity might only last a couple of seconds, so you cannot fuss about changing your fly or your tippet. Hesitate and you will have lost the moment. As well as spotting bonefish for you the guide might even the carry spare line for you so you can be light on the trigger. Be mindful if you are lax with your line control you might have the tippet round your ankles or worse the fly might end up under the guides feet. Not good if the guides foot attire is in his bare feet. It takes a little adjustment to get comfortable this setup so don’t be too hard on yourself. With trout you seem to have time to change your fly in saltwater the pace seems a lot faster.
The same applies if your on stage on the bow of the boat. Don’t have more than a rods length of line out as it will drift under the nose of the boat, hold the fly in your non rod hand ready to do a roll cast pick up. The guides apprentice comes to his own here, as well as being your pair of eyes he will organise your slack line for you, even let you know if your standing on the line.
You never know what species might swim past, bonefish, barracuda, snook, triple tail, permit, tarpon. Catch three different species and your on your way to a Grand Slam, four and it’s a Super Grand Slam, needle fish and jacks don’t count. As the window of opportunity might only be seconds you want three rods set up in the boat and ready to go: one for bones 7/8 wt one for cuda, snook, tarpon 9wt one for permit 10 wt. You won’t have time to set up a rod so do this before you get on board.
Carlos holding up last bonefish of the trip taken on Alan’s Gotcha.
Before you go prepare yourself with flies, knots and casting skills. Practice your knots and leader set up. What knots do you need to know? If your just fishing for bonefish you can get away with tucked half blood knot. An even knot is a loop knot like mono non slip loop knot or Homer Rhode, this give your flies or lures more movement. Use tapered knotless leader or uni knots if you plan to make up your own tapered leaders. Perfect loop or figure of 8 knot for loop to loop connection.
If your fishing for toothy critters it gets a little more complicated will need wire for cuda, a bimini twist, with a Huffnagle knot for shock leader connection for tarpon/snook 20lb/40lb and a 40lb bite guard. Slim beauty provides for an easier alternative to the bimini twist. This knot is used to connect mono tippet of different line diameters such as when class tippet is connected to a shock tippet (bite guard). You want to use the thickest tippet for the poundage available this offers abrasion resistance against these tooth critters. Reffered to as hard nylon.
Get yourself a pair of substantial snips or pliers that will cut through 40lb nylon with ease.
Elk hair, crystal body nylon eyes Gotcha
Colins’artic fox tail with rubber legs Gotcha
Alan’s pink nose Gotcha. Wrapped crystal body over pink thread, tan artic fox wing, black beaded chain eyes.
Shrimp flies were tied on Mustard C70’s saltwater hooks, size 4,6,8 with a range of beadchain eye weights.
Other well know bone patterns Mini Puff, Yucatan Special, Interceptor, Bitters, Marabou Shrimp, Epoxy shrimp patterns.
Crab patterns target permit
Borski’s Skunk tied by Mark Nick
Chico’s snook fly
Snook Deceiver Yellow
Stu Apte tarpon fly
Bleeding black marabou
Various needlefish patterns
General Saltwater Patterns
Poppers, Seaducer, Lefty’s Deceiver, Bend Back, Whistler, Clouser Minnow.
It’s a long way, a once in a while trip so its worthwhile getting a little casting practice in before you go. Make sure you can cast accurately in the range 30 to 50 feet, aim for good turn over and practice casting into a head wind 10-20 mph. Ideally you want to learn how to do the roll cast pick up from holding the fly in your non rod hand. A Belgian cast comes in handy for those big flies designed for the toothy critters. A hooked cast comes in handy when you want to avoid lining a bonefish as it moves away from you. The under arm or side cast is perfect for getting your fly under the mangrove leaves and knocking out the the snook or tarpon. The guides would bang the pole on the bottom to draw out the snooks as they are curious predators.
My thanks go to Alan, Carlos, Colin, Julio, Mark, Mat, Mike, Niki and the Bones who made this saltwater trip a blast.
Well that’s it for now, hope you find this article helpful and opens up possibilities of saltwater fly fishing to you. If you want to make it for the next year or just want some help or info get in touch. Zipping lines.
Bonefishing with A fly by Randall Kaufmann
The Orvis Guide to Saltwater Fly Fishing
Snook on a Fly: Tackle, Tactics, and Tips
Chasing Silver – Tarpon DVD
Saltwater Fly Patterns by Lefty KrehA bumpy trip to Punta Allen, Mexico for bonefish and tarpon by Martin Joergensen
Fly Fishing Knots Midcurrent
Money in Dollars/Pesos, Insurance, Tickets, ID passport, phrase book.
Always carry some ID on you even out on the water, you may get boarded by the Mexican Navy looking for drugs.
Clothing, light trousers, long sleeved shirt, socks, shreddies, flat boots, light waterproof coat, hat, buff, sunnies, fingerless gloves, beach wear, flip flops.
Wash kit, DET, Sun screen, Hat, head torch, US two pin mains adaptor, basic first aid kit, dehydration kit, immodium, headache pills, antihistamine pills, after sun, TCP, bite cream, plasters, blister protection, water tablets, reading material, water bottle, pen paper.
Fly rods, reel, fly line (tropical if in summer), tippet (8, 10 15, 20, 40 lb), flies (permit, tarbon, bones), snips, waterproof pack, boat bag,
waterproof camera, batteries, basic fly tying kit.