The fishing gods (most namely my wife) granted me a short window of fishing opportunity in prime Mexican waters to break up the long Minnesota winter. After a hefty round of research, I decided the destination would be a quickie day trip to the north end of Cozumel. If I had more time I would have chosen Ascension Bay, but from what I gathered it seemed that might be a bit ambitious from our hotel in Puerto Morelos. Based upon several online recommendations, and one from Mike at the Fly Angler, I chose to fish with guide, Alejandro “Alex” Euan Martin.
I arrived in Cozumel on Thursday morning via the first ferry of the day. Alex was there to greet me at the station and I was immediately struck by his quiet and serious demeanor, which was a welcome respite after several days filled with chatty bartenders and timeshare sales guys.
He set me up with a taxi and followed behind in his vintage 1980′s Toyota van. Quickly we headed northbound leaving the bustling tourist section and hotel zone far behind. There’s no doubt that Mexico is wise in the ways of the speed bump, but the road to the north end of the island sets a new standard in terms of natural obstacles. It was a painfully slow process, but it gave me time to shoot a few pics and contemplate the day ahead. For some reason, Bob Dylan’s lyrics to “Blowin’ in the Wind” entered my mind as I traveled the last few of several thousand miles at a snail’s pace. In a moment of reflection I asked myself, “How many roads must a man walk (drive) down?”
The “road to somewhere” ended at a beach inhabited with a small fleet of commercial fishing boats, pangas and an eclectic mix of non-specific artifacts. We didn’t waste much time. Alex jumped into his boat to prep for the journey and I unpacked my gear. The unfortunate part of coming all the way from Puerto Morelos is that any hope of an early bite evaporates in the travel time (a 30-minute cab ride to Playa followed by a 45-minute ferry ride to Cozumel).
I gave Alex a brief rundown of my fishing experience, a resume of sorts, and added I’m an infrequent flyer when it comes to saltwater. My last outing was a few years back chasing the redfish of Mosquito Lagoon. This explanation was probably unnecessary, but my nerves were getting the best of me and I deemed it necessary to begin the excuse making early for my sub par casting skills and misplaced flies. Alex handled this, as he would for the rest of the day, with few words and simple instructions to get up on deck and be ready.
I quickly fumbled to get my GoPro setup to capture some action as I felt obligated to capture some of the day on film. In addition to the GoPro, I was committed to put my new Panasonic TS3 through its paces as I chose to go minimal and not bring my DSLR. The Adrift production budget had already been blown on plane tickets and bottomless cervezas, so I’d be stuck, as I have in the past, being the one man film crew. These relatively cheap cameras have the ability to both amaze and disappoint from one shot to the next. Some of the shots you get you’ll be impressed that you only spent $200 for such a fine instrument, then subsequently curse the disappointing results. Either way, these cameras have come a long way from the first shots I took from my Apple QuickTake 100! I would quickly come to realize, not through words but actions, that Alex would have little patience for my filmmaking and that I wasn’t going to get some of the shots I had imagined in my head. In the end, it was a good thing as I was “on the clock” and any moment spent shooting was wasting what little time I had to fish.
Within 10 minutes Alex shouted, “Bonefish twelve o’clock, 50 feet!” While I stood up on the deck ready to cast, I found myself wholly unprepared. I could not see the fish he was referring to. I’m not sure why, but for some illogical reason, I thought I might get in a few practice casts. I’ve spent more time than I care to admit sight fishing for bass in shallow water, amongst other things, and pride myself at being a well-rounded angler. But I just had a hard time seeing these fish. I blindly cast the fly to what I believed was the location Alex was referring to but, based upon his response, missed the mark. Quickly, I fired a second cast as the fish emerged from the fog only to watch it gingerly scoot away. Round 1: bonefish 1 – bonehead 0.
With the “first date” out of the way, I felt more prepared to contend with the task at hand. Another 15 minutes passed when Alex once again yelled from the back, “Bonefish 10 o’clock!” I don’t even recall if I saw this fish or not, but I fired off a cast in the zip code of this one and followed the strip, strip, strip, pause cadence of the jedi master towards the stern of the craft. Sure enough, I hooked up with this fish despite my fly line’s insistence on decapitating me when clearing the line. I sat back and enjoyed the ride. After a few quick pics, I naively said to myself, “This isn’t that hard, it’s going to be a pretty good day!” I’ll apologize in advance for the obligatory “grip and grin” closeup shot, but that’s what I got for my camera time with Alex.
After a quick flyby from a small school of bonefish, a miss in the cast department, and blind casting a weed bed for 15-20 minutes, that was it for lagoon #1. One of the stranger revelations that Cozumel presented was not how different the fishing was, but actually how similar the tactics and locations are to my home waters of Minnesota. In an odd way the lagoons are eerily similar to the milfoil-infested waters of Lake Minnetonka.
The next chapter of my saga was a 20 minute run to one of the easternmost lagoons. I only shot video in this portion of the journey and, to be honest with you, it was somewhat uneventful from a fishing standpoint. We beached the boat and hiked into an amazing flat crowned with a small Mayan ruin. In retrospect, I should have shot more footage back here but we were absorbed with the slow motion wading that is skinny water bonefishing. My concentration level was so high that my irrational fear of all that is reptilian, typically snakes, but in this case both snakes and crocs, never even crossed my mind as we traversed some mangrove-lined deeper runs. I only had two shots back here as there were so few fish. On the first shot I misjudged their velocity and placed the fly too far away. The other never even made if off the ground because I fired off a cast and my flyline tangled behind me. At this point the scales were clearly leaning towards the fish, and my early morning optimism was starting to wane.
After a couple of hours wading the skinny flats with little success, we hiked back to the beach for a change of pace. The photo above is typical of the uninhabited beaches on the north end of Cozumel. Alex opted to pole me along the beach en route to another lagoon in search of bonefish and permit. He mentioned earlier that his client the previous day had been skunked for the day, but had seen a permit even though this isn’t the prime time. I’m a glutton for punishment, so I was game to search for the infamous fish. After 45 minutes of searching shallow rocks and recesses in vegetation I heard the words I had been waiting for, “Permit 4 o’clock 50 feet!” While my vision hadn’t improved much since the morning, I was able to decipher the hard charging black cloud that I can only describe as characteristic of Lost’s black smoke monster. In a split second, I surprisingly put the fly in the strike zone and watched the smoke monster turn and follow my offering towards the boat. Strip, strip, strip, pause! Rinse and repeat. But it just wasn’t meant to be as the “muskie of Mexico” rejected my offering after a brief flirtation. I thought there may have been 3 fish in the school, but Alex was quick to correct me that there was in fact 4. I had f’d up a few casts, but somehow I had managed to not completely botch my one shot at a permit.
We spent the final hour of the day blind casting a smaller lagoon. By this time the wind had reached a fever pitch. I laugh now when I think back to some of the “windy” days that we have here in the midwest. There’s no question that the wind can blow, especially out on some of the largest of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes, but generally I don’t find myself attempting pillow-soft presentations to wary fish in those conditions. And it’s not like I didn’t expect it either, as I had test driven my 8-weight TFO BVK at my neighborhood park next to the quickly vanishing ice rink in preparation for my impending wind-filled trip. The BVK didn’t disappoint, and hype behind is warranted. It cut through the wind like a hot knife through butter. Our blind casting session netted a handful of snapper and a small ‘cuda with only one brief hookup with what I can only imagine was a bonefish, none which were worthy of photographing.
Upon our arrival back to the launch point, I took some time to snap a few shots and enjoy a well-earned cerveza after a tough, but delightful day on the water.
Alex and I climbed aboard his van for the long, bumpy road back to the ferry. Clearly his vehicle had many years under its belt and came to a halt at the side of the road. His exhaust dropped to the ground and we were stranded until I suggested we tie it back to the underside of the vehicle and continue on. Alex and I parted ways at the terminal, and I had some time to kill until the next ferry so I opted to explore the heart of Cozumel’s tourist district.
I was running several hours later than I had expected, much to the surprise of both my wife and Juan Gonzalez. Juan was the cab driver that was kind enough to take me to Playa in the morning and return me back to the hotel later that day. I must admit that I got completely lost when trying to meet up again with Juan that evening. Somehow I found the few streets in Playa that had very few english speakers in which to help a sunburnt noob from the midwest find his way. Needless to say the transition from ferry to cab took much longer than anticipated.
Sometimes at the end of a disappointing day of fishing in terms of number or size of fish caught, I inevitably ask myself why I’m doing this? On one hand the deliverable didn’t live up to my hopes and expectations, but on the other hand the experience greatly exceeded it. I don’t know, I suppose the answer is blowin’ in the wind?