Leaving Cancun the road journey to Punta Allen is, at first, a long, nice newly built tarmac roads, leaving the sprawl of Cancun then passing the giant entrances of activity parks and large resort complexes of the Riviera Maya before more urban sprawl of Playa del Carmen. The journey speeds along to the hidden, yet sizeable, Tulum. A town that could be part of any Mediterranean coastal resort town, rows of al fresco restaurants and bars interspersed with boutique hotels and B&Bs.
Tulum may mark a change in town structure, but it also marks the change in the road structure too. For here you enter the Sian Ka’an Biosphere and the region of dirt roads. With still 60 kilometres of road left to go, you are now left to winding through an obstacle course of potholes, palm leaves, coconuts, mangrove branches and anything else that has come to rest on the road. The view for the main is wall to wall mangrove forest, suddenly breaking to show the reef edge to the east or the expansive lagoons to the west. The gates to the Punta Allen Fishing Club and a cold cerveza is a welcome reward.
The following morning coffee was to be offered from 0630, but for most the pull of the day ahead had a congregation of anglers forming around one of the seating areas from 0545, pouring over fly boxes and waggling fly rods. When coffee came, it only awoke the excited anglers more. Reels were matched with rods, leaders were tied up and Tiziano and head guide Juanito pondered over fly selection. We were to set up three outfits; one for bonefish with a Gotcha Size 6, one for permit with a Keel Shrimp Size 4 and one for tarpon with a Poontastic Olive Size 1/0.
With outfits now vaguely looking organised we tucked into a wide-ranging breakfast spread, fresh fruit, toast, pancakes, eggs, bacon and limes served with everything. Fuelled and ready to go we walked the short distance from the lodge to our put in tucked away in one of the small branches of mangrove lagoon. Teamed up, I headed out with Peter and guide Eduardo requesting to warm up on some bonefish for starters.
We threaded our way through tight mangrove channels before suddenly emerging into a great expanse of glistening cerulean waters. Opening up the 50 hp engine we headed south across Ascension Bay, towards the small islands that make the southern edge. Here, there are a series of hard and shallow sand flats that are perfect for wading and hunting bonefish. As if like magic, the first flat we arrived at a small school of bonefish could be seen moving their way across sand before seemingly disappearing into the darker turtle grass. Out hopped Peter and Eduardo, and the first pursuit was underway.
That first stalk across the flats, proved unsuccessful but still a great way to get going. Carefully stepping towards the grey ghosts as they flit from one feeding patch to another. Each cast, you could see the anticipation on the guide and angler as they leaned towards their prey, teasing the fly away from the fish but with little response. Before long the school had disappeared and the opportunity had gone.
We moved a little further on, pulling up at a long sand spit that had formed a huge beach flat that Pete and Eduardo worked their way along whilst I went to the other side and found a large shallow sandy lagoon. Wading through the shin deep water, it was possible to see the rummaging marks from where the bonefish had been but incredibly difficult to see the culprits. I pushed on until I reached a slightly deeper area, here it was possible to find small schools of bonefish moving out on to the shallow water. The casts had to be perfect, for any wrong movement (or wrong fly colour!) the fish would spook. I managed to get it right on a couple of occasions, and I soon found my reel singing loudly followed by the glistening grey ghost resting calmly in my hands.
After a quick lunch stop we headed off to some new bonefish flats. At first we were able to target pods of tailing bonefish, for those yet to experience this it is one of the most thrilling ways of bonefishing. Sighting the glistening tails at distance and slowly making your way into position. Casting towards them and hoping to see at least one tail turn your way. Get it wrong and the water erupts as spooked bonefish exit the flat in all directions! Fortunately we got it right a couple of times…
When the tailing schools had dispersed we were able to target ‘mudding’ bonefish in deeper water from the boat. This is when a school get into such a feeding frenzy that they can cause large muddy clouds in the water. At times it was also possible to identify the schools from the nervous water they created when sweeping across the shallow water.
To round our day off we headed into the mangroves for the last half an hour to have some shots at baby tarpon. We saw a good few fish as we pushed through the channels and cuts, but so often they stuck their noses out from the mangroves only for a moment before disappearing deep into the branches making it almost impossible to get the fly to them. Several half chances proved unsuccessful and then it was time to motor back to see the others over a cold cerveza.
Returning to the lodge, it was a quick wash down of all of the equipment and up to the bar to trade fishing stories from the day. Everyone had found success mainly with bonefish but David W. had also put our first permit of the week on the board, one of about 3 lbs.
Day 2 began much the same way, early rising, coffee and tackle talk. With all raring to go it was back to the boats and off to the flats. This time I was teamed up with Rich and head guide Juanito and his assistant guide Pablo. Keen to try for permit we advised Juanito before heading out. Rather than nod and take us straight out, he insisted first that we check through all of our equipment and sorted a small box of go to flies. It was clear that preparation was key.
Once out of the mangroves we were both put up front to show our casting and instructed on the best way to retrieve the fly. Now happy that we vaguely knew what we were doing Juanito and Pablo worked the boat to find permit. They were excellent, constantly talking about where to position the boat and scanning the water for likely movement or any shadows coming our way. It was not long before the first shot presented itself, and then another, but getting both fly and fish to do the right thing was proving tricky.
After a while it became my chance to get up front, a new flat and new opportunities. As we poled along, suddenly there was excited chatter, a solitary black fin was carving its way towards us. I was told to get out and wade, now! No time to put boots on or think, it was over the side and wading the soft sand and chest deep water in my socks. The fish was approaching fast, and my opportunity came, I placed the cast with a good 10 feet lead… too far in front, my fly sank below the fish and no interest was show, the chance had gone.
It was a good half hour before I got another chance, but this time it was possible to see a school of smaller fish. The key was to get the fly as close as possible, but do not let it sink as the bonefish would be underneath the permit and they would happily grab the fly and potentially spook everything. I got the cast, retrieving immediately. Then the soft tension came, “set the hook!” cried the guide, and I gave a long pull. It was on, not a monster but a fish. Tearing off it shimmered one way and then the other. My heart rate climbing, I can’t lose it! Fortunately, Pablo grabbed the leader and the fish was ours… my first ever permit! No giant, but a respectable 4 lbs.
After a quick couple of pictures, and safely released it was Rich’s chance. The school were still around and it was too good an opportunity to pass up. Poling after them as they moved along the flat, Rich placed a few cast. Catching two bonefish and a jack, there was clearly a lot of competition amongst the fish. Then, he got the perfect cast and retrieve, the excited yelps to set the hook came again. Another permit was brought to the boat, two before lunch!
We could have mixed things up in the afternoon and gone for different species, but we were both keen to hunt more permit. The thrill of seeing the black backs approach you at speed was just too desirable. And we did see more, all in all we probably had 30+ shots that day. We saw a range of fish from small school fish through to large singles in excess of 25 lbs. A mix of angler error, wrong flies, wrong fish, wrong wind, any excuse really… we only managed to convert two opportunities.
Returning to the lodge, we sank our sundowners and discussed our days successes and failures. Again bonefish had been the mainstay for most but Peter had also taken a permit, John had landed a snook and a few more tarpon had been seen and cast at, but not hooked.
Day 3, this time I headed out with David S. and guide duo Xavier and David. Permit again were to be the focus, and it was back off to the southern edge of the bay. We positioned ourselves on a mass of flat, and worked the boat for nearly two hours, but opportunities were scarce with only two genuine chances. Even when nothing was happening it was a joy to watch large sting rays glide through the water, turtles breach in the surface, and various birds move from island to island including pelicans and ospreys.
We moved to a new area, a small channel between islands and almost immediately stumbled upon two large schools of permit. The fish ranged from 1/2 lb through to 15 lbs+. The difficulty was the wind always blowing from the wrong direction! David had several good shots and eats but it seemed the fish never stuck. I then had several shots, you could see the fish follow, jostling each other out of the way, only to then lose interest and turn away! It was infuriating, and aside from a couple of small jacks we both failed to hook any of the permit.
The afternoon was similarly fruitless, as the quest went on but the flats seemed quieter. Even the bonefish were scarce and spooky as hell when we did find them. As the end of the day neared, so did these giant black clouds and ocean swell. Perhaps the fish knew this was coming… The wind and rain came and the journey back to the lodge was a slow going process as we navigated stinging rain and rode the rolling swell. At least it was warm.
We arrived back at the lodge to find most of the others already back and enjoying there cervezas and cocktails in the shelter of the palapa. Mixed successes again amongst the group with bonefish the mainstay but Peter again leading the way with another two small permit. After a quick exploratory walk around the village including a visit to the giant permit statue, we returned to the lodge and drowned the sound of the rain and lightning out by drinking the red and white wine as quickly as it was presented to the table.
The following day did not look much better than the night before, thick cloud and regular heavy downpours. The forecast was not good as a tropical storm had settled in its path straight for us, but with little we could do it was raincoats at the ready and off to the boats. I had planned a day on the mainland today, seemed a good idea as I watched the rain run off the palm leaf roof. Unsurprisingly the first boats were back shortly before lunch, fish landed but keen to shelter from the weather.
Never one to be defeated, I hopped in the car with Tiziano and we headed to one of his favourite spots to fish when the clients are out. As we arrived, the wind made it hard to open the doors and you could hear the deafening roar of the reef edge about 200 metres out. We soldiered on and walked the beached. On the Oceanside, over the last couple months large beds of Sargasso weed had been blown in. Whilst it smells of sulphur, it also brings with it a type of sea lice which the bonefish love to eat. And that they were, much bigger fish than I had seen on the flats too.
Braving the wind, and then the thick stinging rain, Tiziano and I managed to find a couple of bonefish each before eventually giving in and retreating to the lodge. The puddles in the streets were now beginning to swell and palm leaves and rubble was gathering all around. Morale amongst the group remained good, weather is weather and fish were still be landed. This time a permit for David S. and John.
More threatening clouds, but for the start at least, no rain. This time I headed out with David W. along with Juanito and Pablo. The blanketing cloud made spotting fish very tricky but credit to the guides they found more permit for us to target.
We both had good shots in the morning, and I thought my chance had come again as I had seen the black fins approach before the line tightened. The first run took off and then the realisation that I had hooked a bonefish was quite crushing. With conditions against us we then chased some bonefish in the shallower water with David finding some lovely fish. The rain then moved in, forcing us to hunker in the mangroves and enjoy an early lunch.
There seemed little let up in the rain, but we gave some churned up water a shot for possible snook or tarpon that may have moved out from the mangroves. I was up front when all of a sudden there was a big splash, a bang against the boat and a startled expression on David’s face. A big snook must have been chasing baitfish and had somehow crashed into the boat right under David’s arm. Shortly after the decision to return to the lodge to weather the next rain storm was taken.
By this point, most of the boats had returned, and as the rain let up slightly there was no real enthusiasm for anyone to head back out. Apart from David S. who had again landed a small permit that morning. Rather than go back in the boat and get caught out, he joined Tiziano and I as we headed back to the spot from the afternoon before. It was more pleasant today, just a stiff wind and gentle rain, making it much easier to spot the feeding bonefish.
As we worked our way along the beach edge it was possible to see the bonefish working up the ultra shallow water. I fished an Amber Bitters Size 8 to great success, landing fish of 4 – 6 lbs and having several double hookups. From time to time it was possible to hear the ‘slurp’ as a bonefish took the sea lice from the surface film. It was incredible fishing considering the weather that we had. Before returning to the lodge, Tiziano took us to a small mangrove lagoon in the hopes of finding a small tarpon – David was on for his Grand Slam. But the lagoon seemed to only be housing a small crocodile today and no tarpon… so it was back to the lodge to shelter from another stormy night.
The last fishing day was upon us in a flash, and whilst the main part of the storm had passed us we now had the rainy and windy tail. Keen to make the most of the limited time we had it was back to the boats and on to the water. The weather was even more unrelenting today, arriving at a beautiful shallow wading flat we got out of the boat and started walking up quickly. Seeing some bonefish we waited to cast, trying to get above then but as we neared our starting point the horizon started to disappear into a grey haze on impending rain. It simply did not let up, turning the once calm waters into a frothing mass of small waves.
When there was a small let up we took the option to head for shelter. There looked to be no real break today and before long we reluctantly headed back to the lodge. Again some of the others were also back, and it was David S. that took the opportunity to head back out in the car with myself and Tiziano.
This time the Oceanside flat seemed quieter on the fish front, probably due to the harder visibility and bigger waves. We did, however, manage to find fish swimming in water that can’t have been more than 3 inches deep, but they were so spooky. Deciding to try another spot we headed back to the car, just before we got there Tiziano spotted the electric blue back of a bonefish nudging along the weed. This fish was a giant, we estimated it at 10 lbs+, but it was facing away from us and required a cast directly into the wind. Unfortunately, we were unable to make the shot but it still provided the thrill of the chase at least…
The final flat, it did the job for David as he managed to stalk and catch his last bonefish of the trip whilst I managed a boxfish at range which I think was as surprised as I was!
The week had come to an end, whilst the weather was frustrating and unrelenting our catch stats were very impressive given the conditions. Nine permit, two tarpon, one snook, numerous bonefish and various small jacks, perch and other little reef fish. It was just a glimpse of what this incredible destination has to offer and a return visit is definitely on the cards.
The final evening was a great celebration, a wonderful group of people who had definitely made the most of some mixed conditions. The last hurdle was the road journey back to the airport. The road now only accessible for 4 wheel drive vehicle capable of fording 3 foot deep puddles, and then it was back on the plane to the UK bathed in hot sunshine…