Mixing bonefish, permit, and homemade bourbon on the Mexican Caribbean.
[Story by Nick Roberts / Photos by Patrick Williams]
THE SUN IS SETTING OVER THE SLEEPY FISHING VILLAGE OF XCALAK, MEXICO, casting the barrier reef in amber light and bringing out the vibrant green and blue hues of the oceanside flats. We’re on our way back to Costa de Cocos resort, idling down the outside edge of a long expanse of turtle grass, when suddenly our guide, Julio Gomez, cuts the engine and plants his bamboo pushpole, bringing the panga, aptly named Permit Me, to a halt.
“Palometa—alla,” he whispers, pointing into the glare.
Julio’s younger brother and apprentice, Eduardo, spots the fish right away. I’m not far behind. There they are—three or four tailing permit leisurely zigzagging across the flat, their sickle fins slicing through the water’s rippled surface.
“Get in, amigo,” Julio tells me as he hands off the pole to his brother. We zip up our wading boots and slide over the gunnel into the lukewarm water as quietly as possible. The permit are still there, about 20 yards out,
foraging in the turtle grass, perfect cover for crabs and shrimps. As it tends to do at inopportune moments, the wind—today blowing a steady 15 from the east—picks up, increasing the chop. Julio and I stealthily close in on the fish, their black spikes silhouetted in the fading light. The permit are swimming right to left, on a diagonal line, but suddenly, they start coming toward us. Julio raises his hand, signaling me to stop. “Go now,” he whispers excitedly.
I toss the Rag Head Crab into the air, load my 9-weight, and aim a couple feet in front of the lead fish. The cast is decent, and the 12-foot, 16-pound fluorocarbon leader unfurls in the path of the school, and the fly lands with a subtle plop. I make a long, slow strip.
Shots at permit are what brought my fishing buddy Patrick and me to Xcalak—a small pit stop on the Yucatán Peninsula at the southern end of Costa Maya, perfectly situated on one of the last undeveloped stretches along the Mexican Caribbean. Home to fewer than 500 people and only about six miles from the Belize border, Xcalak remains free of tourist traps and condos by virtue of its remoteness. From the city of Chetumal, just 30 miles across the bay, the village is a 2 1 /2-hour car ride up the coast and back down the peninsula. For the majority of anglers traveling from the United States, the most direct route is to fly into the spring-break mecca of Cancún and drive the rest of the way, which takes about five hours. There is a landing strip in Xcalak, but Patrick and I can’t yet afford to charter our own plane, so we opted for Cancún, where Miguel and his brother Alberto, the amicable drivers of a shuttle arranged by Costa de Cocos, met us amid the throngs of vacationers outside the airport.
The long ride south to Xcalak along scenic Highway 307 offers a fascinating look at the countryside and the villages dotting the eastern edge of the Yucatán Peninsula. The farthest most tourists go is Tulum, a lively resort town named after the nearby Mayan archeological site and lined with hostels, cafés, bars, and openair restaurants. At Miguel’s suggestion, we stop for a late lunch at a taco stand, where the four of us eat our fill of pollo and carnitas for only eight dollars.
Beyond Tulum, the communities become more rural and become fewer and farther between. The jungle starts to encroach on civilization and lines the road like a solid green wall. Home to jaguars, howler monkeys, and the deadly fer-de-lance pit viper, this land, along with the rest of the Yucatán Peninsula, was ruled by the Maya for centuries. Today, tourists come from around the world to visit the temples dotting the jungle, just as anglers from far and wide travel to the peninsula’s flats in search of its bonefish (macabi) and permit (palometa). We emerge from the jungle after a couple hours, and when I spot a stand of mangroves sprouting in a pool of water along the road, I know we’re almost there.
Ilana and David Randall founded Costa de Cocos over 25 years ago on an idyllic 350-foot stretch of oceanfront property a half mile north of town. A pair of windmills power the resort, and like any good fishing lodge, it has its own restaurant and bar, which is where Patrick and I head after stashing our gear in our cabana, one of 16 spread along the water’s edge. We’re pleasantly surprised to learn from the bartender, José, that Costa de Cocos not only brews and bottles it own beer but also distills its own bourbon and corn liquor, which could double as fuel for the pangas anchored out back. Known as La Mula Blanca (The White Mule), this Mexican moonshine has no doubt comforted many permit-scorned anglers; a few days later I, too, order a round to ease the sting of rejection.
It’s early June, the official start of hurricane season, and the only other guests of the resort are pairs of anglers from Argentina and Texas. Like us, they’re here to take advantage of Costa de Cocos’ great off-season rates. The downside is the weather can be unpredictable this time of year. The upside is the permit fishing is consistently good through June and July (Julio notes that May is typically the best month), and June is also when big migratory tarpon begin to show up along the reef. Targeting the plentiful bonefish is always an option. Even if the wind is howling out of the east, there are plenty of sheltered places to fish in Chetumal Bay, which is as large as Espiritu Santo and Ascension Bays combined.