Stalking Bones in the Bay
On one especially windy day, Julio and Eduardo motor us through a man-made channel next to a military outpost in Xcalak, and then on into the bay’s maze of lagoons. We wind our way from one to the next, eventually arriving at the end of a narrow flat, inches deep. We leave the boat behind and take off sloshing into the mangroves. After a 15-minute hike, we emerge at the edge of an isolated system of three or four interconnected lagoons lined with mud flats.
Julio surmises that during periods of high water, bonefish slip into the shallow lagoons to feed, but wind up staying because of the abundance of prey and the lack of predators. Chowing down in relative safety, the resident fish become bigger than the schooling “dollar bill” bones found in less remote areas of the bay. Most range between five and seven pounds— nice bonefish for Mexico and Belize.
Within minutes of arriving, we spy several fish tailing around a sparse cluster of mangroves. Patrick and I are rigged with a size 4 tan mantis shrimp, which Julio suggests we retrieve with steady five to six-inch strips. As I’m approaching the tailing bones, a closer school materializes. The fish are cruising at a good clip, so I lead them by a couple yards and don’t start stripping the fly until they are within about two feet of it. A chunky one pounces, but in the blink of an eye, the fish disappears into a nearby row of mangroves and snaps my 12-pound fluorocarbon tippet on a barnacle-encrusted shoot.
After I express my dissatisfaction with a string of words not fit for print, Julio and I have a good laugh at the schooling I just received. Patrick comes tight to a fish a few minutes later, and we’re off to the races. He and Eduardo go left, while Julio and I keep fishing our way down the right edge of the mangroves. The four of us reconvene at the next lagoon, where Julio and Eduardo immediately spot a large school of bonefish excavating crabs in the middle of a mud flat. I switch over to a simple tan pattern with hot legs and retrieve it with long, slow strips, making sure to pause after each one, as crabs typically do not scurry away from predators but hunker down in the sediment. It’s not long before I hear the drag sing.
As I release one of several memorable fish Patrick and I caught from the school, I wonder where it will go—will the fish stay put in these lagoons in Mexico, or will it perhaps end up on a flat in nearby Belize? If the fish does move, will it return to this same location in the bay? The Belizean biologist Addiel Pérez, a PhD candidate at El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR) in Chetumal, Mexico, is working to answer questions like mine on a regional scale to better understand the extent to which the flats fisheries of Mexico and Belize are connected. Despite the socioeconomic importance of bonefish to the two nations, little research has been conducted in the border region.
“The study will fill in gaps in knowledge about the ecology of this shared resource and will improve the management and conservation of bonefish and its habitats for both countries, which currently have different fishing regulations,” says Pérez, whose work is supported in part by Bonefish & Tarpon Trust.
In Mexico, fishing for bonefish is largely unregulated, and they can be caught for consumption or sale in artisanal and subsistence fisheries. The good news, Pérez points out, is that many local communities have begun to see that the fish are more valuable alive than dead and so have started to informally manage their bonefish fisheries as catch-and-release for fly fishing. In Belize, bonefish, along with tarpon and permit, are catch-and-release nationwide, although there is still some netting that takes place and lax enforcement.
Pérez and his research team, consisting of his ECOSUR colleague Roberto Herrera and Belizean fly fishing guides Omar Arceo and José “Chepe” Polanco, have been conducting monthly fieldwork for the past two years. On the last day of the trip, Patrick and I tag along to help collect bonefish from an oceanside flat a few miles north of Xcalak. After spotting the mudding school, the team corrals the bonefish using two 50-meter-long nets, and then gathers them into submerged holding tanks. One by one, Pérez measures each fish and inserts a tiny plastic tag, each coded with a unique number, beside the dorsal fin. This way, if the fish is recaptured, either by Pérez’s research team or a recreational angler, he is able to determine how far the fish traveled from the location where he tagged it and how much it has grown. Since Pérez began his study, he has tagged over 8,000 bonefish and more than 200 permit caught as “bycatch.”
“My preliminary findings are interesting,” he says. “There seems to be a seasonal migration of bonefish between bay areas of Mexico and Belize into an area of the Caribbean coast of Belize from November through January. This area is likely a prespawning site, meaning the spawning site could be near. During the rest of year, bonefish can be found in the same area where they were tagged.”
The existence of a spawning site shared by bonefish from Mexico and Belize further highlights the need for the countries to take a collaborative approach to conservation. The more Pérez continues to learn about the habitat use and movements of the region’s bonefish, the better he’ll be able to advocate for improvements to the management and regulations of the fisheries.
“I’d like to see Mexico adopt the same catch-and-release laws as Belize,” he says. “That would go a long way toward helping conserve the bonefish of both nations.”
Watching Pérez tag a pair of tiny juvenile permit netted along with the schools of bones, I think about how these little silver fish, hardly bigger than saucers, will one day grow up—if a barracuda doesn’t eat them first—to be the black-tailed devils that both fascinate and torment anglers like me. Like the rest of their species, they will frustrate us with their elusiveness, superb eyesight, and moody disposition, but permit also challenge us to be better anglers, bringing out our best, and these two will hopefully make fishing dreams come true for a lucky few.
Patrick and I spent our good-weather days fishing for permit in Chetumal Bay and on the oceanside flats north of Xcalak. We relied on the usual suspects: Mantis Shrimp, Rag Head Crabs, EP Spawning Shrimp, and the versatile Squimp, to name a few. In general, the fish in the bay tend to be bigger but spookier, probably because they see more boats and casts; guides from both Mexico and Belize routinely fish the areas where the permit are known to feed. While we had some close calls in the bay, the fish were more squirrely than usual. Julio decided that our best bet would be to concentrate our efforts on the grass and hard-bottom flats out front, which is where we began to hit our stride. The fish were far more active than in the bay, leading to more opportunities, which is all any permit angler can hope for.
Now, I’m far from being a permit pro, but I do know one thing: These fish reject even the most perfectly presented flies way more often than they pounce on them. That’s why when the line finally went tight, as it did for me that evening on the way back to the lodge, and for Patrick the following afternoon, we owed it to ourselves to soak up the moment and take a celebratory swig of La Mula Blanca—you never know when one like it will come around again.
Nick Roberts is the director of marketing and communications for Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, and the editor of the Bonefish & Tarpon Journal. He lives in Miami, Florida. Patrick Williams is a freelance photographer and fly fishing guide based out of Asheville, North Carolina. See more of his work at www.ecoclinephoto.com.