Mexican mangroves, fly rods and mescal.
DIY kayak fly fishing cozumel mexico bonefish baby tarpon was a travel adventure that we luckily stumbled upon during the winter of 2014/15. It was the beginning of a love affair. The mesmerizing, isolated lagoons quickly became a “home away from home” and a destination where we would ultimately return.
Day 1: On Mexico time
Stepping foot on the empty expanse right on the edge of the Caribbean sea was a grounding moment. It sent my head spinning with anticipation of what was to happen in the next few days. A soft veil of foam fringed the chartreuse sea as it rhythmically lapped onto the perfect, white sand. Our gear was scattered. The events that led up to this blissful moment did not go as planned. We’ll just call it the charm of Mexico. Yet, there we were, a full day later than planned… but we had made it. We were two, wide-eyed gringos with inflatable kayaks and fly rods with dreams of uncovering what hides within the gnarled mangroves of Cozumel’s isolated, northern lagoons. The sea was a picture of tranquility as our daylight dwindled. We waved to our new friend Josue as he throttled up and headed back to the dusty, little marina at Bahia Ciega (“Blind Bay”).
Bahia Ciega is technically a marina. However, marina is a generous term. Most visitors to this place are looking to catch a ferry ride over to Isla Pasion (not an actual island) and its highly advertised tourist beach. At the time of this blog post, Bahia Ciega had only a couple docks and few tattered pangas tied to flimsy moorings and trees. With plans from the local government to pave the rough, dirt road leading to the bay, I imagine there to be major overhauls to the facilities in the future. On a side note, there are actually a few full-time residents of the marina. And, they are unavoidable. They are the rare, endangered and endemic pygmy raccoons and they commonly welcome newcomers with curious eyes as they look for snacks.
Enough about the raccoons. Let’s get back to the fishing story.
Ryan and I traded off on the mezcal. The ceremonial swigs of clear, smoky, Mexican goodness marked the true beginning of this crazy Mexican pipe dream. Evening quickly cloaked our newfound campsite. Just above high water line, Ryan’s tent found the only suitable sandy spot on the beach. My hammock was stretched between two young palms near the boundary of dense forest. Water boiled on the stove as the insects moved in. I had packed no pants, only board shorts. It was a mistake made bitterly clear as the no-see-ums relentlessly pursued my silky, gringo legs leaving irritating reminders of our recent separation from the concrete jungle of San Miguel.
Day 2: Donde Esta?
“Mexico is a mosaic of different realities and beauties.” – Enrique Pena Nieto
After a calm, quiet night the morning brought cool wind and vibrant skies. Caribbean heat would soon follow. We crammed our faces with breakfast tacos, rigged the boats and kayaked northeast along along the shore of the Caribbean. Separating us from the vast lagoon ecosystems was a thin, sandy berm a few meters wide at its narrowest point. We found a suitable access spot and carried the boats over the barrier and into the mucky shallows on the other side. With graceless efforts we schlepped the kayaks through the network of sparse mangroves, eventually launching into deeper, navigable water. A few cruising, spooky bonefish made their presence known but not a single one was enticed by our frantic presentations. A small crocodile crept its way to about 20 feet from the boats and abruptly disappeared. Herons, ibis’s, pelicans, egrets and the occasional pink flamingo soared overhead… no doubt pondering the intentions of the odd visitors now sharing their watery home.
It was midday when I lost Ryan in the maze. I decided to head southwest thinking he might do the same thing. I zigzagged from cove to cove and ultimately worked my way into a new, very expansive lagoon. The mangroves were larger and appeared much healthier. Water depths varied. The heavy breezes powered my kayak as I explored the lagoon’s northern border. It’s intricacy and diversity ignited high hopes of finding baby tarpon. What I found in abundance were mangrove snappers. One after another found my fly to their liking. Activity such as this could only be a good sign. I continued to keep an eye out for Ryan but he was nowhere to be found. I envisioned him landing trophy fish in some honey hole. Late into the afternoon I found an odd cut leading toward the ocean. The narrow channel was more than a meter deep. Lining its borders were tangles of dead, white mangroves apparently bleached by the sun. The passageway led to a tiny beach with easy coastal access. The lapping waves of the Caribbean were literally only a stone’s throw away. More importantly, this location was in close proximity to the campsite. I had found a nice, easy gateway for our daily fishing exploits.
It was 5pm and there was still time to make a few more fly casts. Not far from the little beach, in the depths of thick, overhanging mangroves I sighted a huge tail peeking out from under the intertwined root system. I silently circled back and cast, letting the fly sink to the bottom. I stripped it in quickly. There was a heavy take with firm tension on the line. A second later there was a massive silvery explosion at waters edge. It was a baby tarpon. A second explosion unfortunately dislodged the hook. The fish once again found safety within the mangroves. It was a defining moment. My disappointment at losing the fish was superseded by the confirmation that, indeed, baby tarpon were present in these waters. It was a question mark going into the trip. With this new found clarity I headed back to camp and reconnected with Ryan with a grin on my face and a fishy story to share.
Day 3: Mother Nature taps us on the shoulder
We filled our bellies and hit the water after a very wet and blustery night. Wind swirled. The sky displayed different shades of grim. We entered the lagoon just southwest of camp at the access point I had found on the previous day. We were on the water maybe a half-hour when Ryan yelled from the next cove over. I found him in the middle of a battle, his rod bent with a feisty baby tarpon on the other end of the line. It breached the surface a few times with power and determination. After a couple minutes he lifted the chrome beauty from the shallows. Pay dirt! It was the moment of validation we had hoped for. Our lofty dreams had become reality.
The wind increased out of the east and carried a dark, nasty storm front with it. Pressing on we found what looked like an ideal bonefish habitat: shallow, protected flats with patches of turtle grass and multitudes of young mangroves. We took a moment to stop for a snack and observe. Right away we spotted four bonefish tailing within ten feet of our kayaks. It was classic A.D.D. We forgot about the food and got out of the boats, fumbling for our gear in the process. Eventually, we both hooked a few fish but had no luck in landing them.
Just then, from up on high, the sky opened up and proceeded to beat down upon us with relentless fury. I couldn’t help but smile. One can either sulk in these moments, or one can embrace them. Ryan and I chose the latter. The downpour lasted 20 minutes. The rain slowed to a few drops. We moved on.
Our exploratory efforts were fruitless until we found the mother load of bonefish flats. There was an eerie calm as we entered the shallow cove. Dark skies persisted. But, the winds subsided. In all directions bonefish tails broke the glassy surface. We parked the yaks and, with determination, moved cautiously by foot. Immediately my fly found its way into the path of 3 unsuspecting bones. With 3 short strips a bone took the fly. It ran like I’ve never seen a fish run taking my fly and line around various mangrove islands. I thought the worst as my reel was well into my backing.
I clumsily made chase through the maze. Miraculously, the fish was still on! The fish slowed in an open area. As I approached I took more and more line in. The fish started to run again sending my reel screaming. I eventually landed the hefty bonefish. Just a few minutes later these perfect flats gave me another, even larger, bonefish. Ryan and I shared a similar sentiment: on this day all our pre-trip hopes and dreams came to fruition. We knew that most of these grail quests… these “do-it-yourself” fishing expeditions… don’t always result in triumph.
Dark clouds cloaked the impending approach of dusk. It’s a common occurrence with fishermen everywhere: the day’s end just sneaks up on you. We began our return to camp. The air remained still in the late hours as we neared the ocean access point and our final leg back to our coastal home. It was only 24 hours prior when I hooked a baby tarpon in the exact location. I decided to give it another go. Maybe, just maybe, the fish would still be there. My cast found the edge of the mangroves. The splash of the fly on the water seemed to heighten the curiosity of four baby tarpon from within the overhanging vegetation. Yes! I cast a second time into the path of one of the monsters. It took the fly… and this time it would not get away from me. It was nearly dusk when I hoisted the final fish of the day… a beautiful 30″ baby tarpon.
Day 4: Finicky bones
The north wind still howled as we awoke. I had another night of free-swinging in the old hammock. Thank God I’m don’t get sea sick. Needless to say, very little sleep was had. After breakfast we hit the lagoon around 9am on, what would be, our final day of fishing. We headed west to yesterday’s trophy flats. We quietly entered the shallows. Like any other day, we were giddy like a couple of school boys on the last day of school, hoping yesterday’s success would continue. Immediately, I sighted two tailing bones. Ryan already on foot with his rod in hand. He was close but, due the angle of the glare, couldn’t see the fish. I verbally guided Ryan’s cast to the nose of one of the cruising fish. It took the fly. But, the set wasn’t solid and the fish was gone.
The storm clouds diminished, the wind howled and the sun hammered the shallow water. Time passed and the water slowly warmed. It was nearly 85 degrees. The bonefish numbers became more and more sparse. Those that remained seemed a lot more spooky. I racked my brain in frustration. My results were zero. Ryan did better. Hearing his screams of triumph, I knew. I shuffled through the shallow flats to find him hoisting a beefy bonefish.
Ryan’s triumph appeared to be the finale for the flats. The cove was all spooked out and the fish sightings became sparse. We headed east looking for more active and abundant fish. It was midday when we paddled into yet another promising flats section on the edge of the lagoon. The cove’s shallow water was protected from the open lagoon and had young, evenly dispersed mangroves. And yes, there were bonefish. We separated hoping to cover more water. From beyond my view Ryan hollered once again in triumph. He had landed another one. I found him in an area where the bones cruised the shallows in large schools of 5 or more. But, they didn’t appear to be feeding. After 10 minutes I coaxed one into taking my fly. He was on for a moment; then he was off. After that, our efforts were null.
We explored the remainder of the day in the endless sea of mangroves and sparse flats. There was not a single cooperative fish to be found. My mind wandered with thought. I laughed when I realized it was jumping back and forth from Spanish to English. I guess that’s what happens after you spend a month in a Spanish immersion school. I figured it’d be a good skill to have on future tips south of the border. But I digress.
The day culminated with a heaping dinner and, ultimately, thoughts of tomorrow’s return to civilization.
Our trip just happened to coincide with Cozumel’s nastiest winter weather of the season. One question loomed—would tomorrow’s weather cooperate for our return paddle?
Day 5: Come hell or high water
Our last night camping brought 30 knot gusts that persisted well into the morning. It was painfully evident that kayaking back to the truck with weighted boats would be a daunting task. We packed our gear onto the boats and launched into the windswept waves. Ryan’s boat was as far from sea worthy as a vessel could be. But, he made it successfully past the oncoming waves into deeper water. My boat looked like it was right off the set of Sanford and Son. Every available piece of real estate was taken up by a different item gear. I launched into the turbid sea. The onshore wind waves slapped me with a reality check as I found myself quickly in the drink; a few items dislodged but recovered. Ryan was having a difficult go of it too. We were forced to change our plan of attack. Really, we were forced to go on the defensive. We decided to hike everything down the coast a kilometer or so, then reload the kayaks at the lagoon and cover a fraction of the total distance by way of its protected waters.
The wind and waves continued their ruthless, coastal onslaught when we emerged from the lagoon back onto the beach. We successfully knocked off a small portion of the overall distance. Once again the decision was made to hike gear down the coast to another spot where we could access calmer water. A couple hours later the truck was a welcomed sight after a tooth-pulling journey.
Our little pipe dream was a success. Milking what little we had left of “Mexican time”, we passed the mezcal between us for the last few celebratory swigs.
Story by Brock Munson
Photos by Ryan Bonneau
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