A DIY approach to flats fishing, sightseeing, and a little family fun in Mexico.
[by Phil Shook]
I THOUGHT I HOOKED A BABY TARPON. The fish hit my tan Clouser Minnow with authority, and in the early dawn light, I could see a big boil on the surface. The fish even went airborne a few times before I was able to make out the long, dark black lateral line running down its side. The telltale signature marking of a snook; a big snook. “Buenos días Señor Róbalo,” I thought to myself, thrilled to be hooked up to such a prized Yucatán fish.
It was an earned fish, caught on my terms, DIY style. Instead of staying at one of Mexico’s remote fly-fishing lodges, I was on my own, looking for action along the beach of one of the most popular tourist destinations on the Riviera Maya.
I arrived the night before with my family at a beachside resort in Tulum, Mexico, the historic Mayan pueblo 80 miles south of Cancun’s international airport and a stone’s throw from the dramatic fortress-sized ruins of past civilizations. It’s a great place to mix a little family time with some sightseeing, and of course, some fishing.
Tulum, with its beach hotels, archeological sites, snorkeling, and kayaking on jungle cenotes, is a dream adventure destination for the entire family. For fly fishers, there are opportunities in all directions. Each day, when I wasn’t sampling the regional cuisines at the local restaurants, visiting a Mayan ruin, or kicking back on the beach with my family, I set out exploring, with fly rod in had, any action I could find.
Surprisingly, the best place to start was right in front of our beachside hotel. After just a short hike from the carefully tended strand of white sand in front of our hotel, the beach went native—replete with washed up sea grass pushed against thick jungle foliage. Here, Yucatán jays flitted between palm branches, frigatebirds glided gracefully overhead, and I felt like I had the entire turquoise ocean to myself.
Fishing Tulum’s Ocean Flats
My family and I stayed at a hotel located on Tankah Bay, a part of Tulum National Park that stretches southward along the beach to the Tulum ruins about four miles away. Standing on shore, I could see the breaker line where the surf rolled across the big reef protecting a broad ocean flat about a half-mile away. Ocean flats created by well-defined reefs are common features around this part of the Yucatán, though the bays and flats created behind the big reef are a little deeper than the shallow mangrove-lined bonefish flats in the giant bays to the south. But with a mix of light-sand bottoms and sea grasses, scattered small reefs, and underground inflows from sinkholes called cenotes, these ocean flats also offer prime habitat for inshore game fish.
Here, in front of Tulum’s beachside hotels, I scoured for surface baitfish activity like diving birds or fish pushing wakes that tip off schools of bonefish, permit, jacks, barracuda, snook, and tarpon. I quickly found that dawn and dusk were the best times for action, especially if there was a light wind and modest long-shore current.
One evening after a short walk down the beach from Pavo Real Beach Resort, I hooked another big snook on a Trey Combs Sea Habit pattern. The fly matched up well with the schools of finger mullet I was seeing. But I also caught mangrove snapper, mutton snapper, jack crevalle, schoolmasters, lookdowns, and barracuda along the same stretch. I was in my own world, and I hadn’t even left sight of the hotel.
I remembered Steve Kean, a New England fly fishing guide who makes frequent trips to the Yucatán, telling me he also found some exceptional fly fishing on the ocean flats to the south off Punta Nohokú and Punta Pajaros, near the entrance to Ascension Bay. He and his friend, Peter Courossi, guided by Capt. Jose Enrique Ucan Briceno, or Careto as he is known, had a December day they will never forget.
If you Go
Tulum is located 80 miles south of Cancún, Mexico on highway 307. American Airlines, United Airlines, US Airways, Continental, Delta, United, Aeroméxico and other international carriers all service Cancun’s International airport. Bus and shuttle services to Tulum, as well as major rental car agencies, are all available at the Cancun airport.
“It was an almost dead-calm day so we decided to fish the ocean flats facing the Caribbean,” Kean said. “We were ignoring the bonefish, they were up on the beach in our back pocket. We didn’t care about them because everything else was everywhere. Permit were coming in, snook were coming in, and tarpon were all around.”
Kean was casting from the bow of the panga when a school of snook came into casting range. “There were eight of them hunting like a pack of wild dogs,” he said. “We were drifting over the dark grass, and I could barely see them at first. Then, all of a sudden, I saw the sun shining on them.”
When the snook moved over a light sand pothole, Kean got his shot. “I let a red-and-white Deceiver float right down to them,” he said. “Their mouths were wide open, and they locked it up really quick.”
Kean and Courossi continued to get shots at snook but it wasn’t long before Careto began spotting permit.
“I got a shot at about a 10-pounder by itself on the edge of the turtle grass,” Kean said. I hit it in the head, and it took off.”
When it’s Courossi’s turn to cast from the bow, tarpon appear and he hooks up, but eventually breaks it off. A little later in the day, Kean lands a small fish.
“We were just picking up different fly rods, waiting to see what was next, ” Kean says. When his guide spotted a permit, Kean says he would grab the permit rod and make a cast. “I finally hooked one and it took off, probably a 5- to 8-pound fish. I got it in, and now, suddenly, the snook are coming across again. The only time you can fish those areas is when you get days like that,” Kean said. “Oh my god, the stuff that goes by out there.”