Mexico'01Sun, summer and strong fish..
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A slow and cold winter morning in Oslo, leaning lazily back in my favorite reading chair, with a fresh copy of the latest Lonely Planet guidebook for Yucatan, Mexico, I was outraged. According to the book, and Lonely Planet is considered rather reputable, the little cozy village of Playa del Carmen had transformed into a bad place. The book portrayed a 2001 version of Playa with frequent episodes of violence, crime, drunks, mugging, murder and even weekly rapes of naive blondes. Woohooo! There's no way we could pass up an opportunity like this, God damn it, we wanted a piece of the action! Besides, it was winter in Norway, meaning cold, dark and plenty of that useless snow that still seem to fascinate Norwegians after all these years.. It was time for Mexico Bonefishing expedition two.
We'd been to Mexico before, in 1999, and that turned into an orgy of drinking and partying, bad sunburn and one measly bonefish among the two of us, and plenty of dollars spend. Being Norwegians, it was a trip that we look back upon with unmistakable pride. But the fishing part is kinda the whole purpose of the trip, so why did we want to go back to Mexico? The answer is that we know knew what to expect, even though Cuba, Bahamas, Belize and Venezuela looked more adventurous on paper, Mexico was a safe bet. So, we're wussies, sue us. Making arrangements for fishing and accommodation was a breeze, and in the middle of February, we were on our way (not because fishing is particularly good at this time (it isn't), but because this is great time to get out of Norway..)
Missing luggage, sir? Please fill out this form..
After a long and event less flight, we're finally in Cancun. The hot, humid air greets us welcome as we rush the crowds for the passport control. So long, suckers! we thought. Of course, the other pax quickly caught up with us, as my luggage never made it. Julern's monstrosity of a backback was one of the first to hit the belt, but my backpack and my rods are nowhere to be seen. Finally, a representative of Martinair helps me in fill in about twenty forms, and suggest I call them tomorrow. "Maybe we have tomorrow, maybe not".
We're the last guys outa the airport, after again winning the customs lottery (you press a button, and supposedly random, light goes green for pass, red for search). We both went green and it always feels good to give out a big shout "YabadabaDOOOOO!!! Haha, you should see the stuff I got in here, man.. Suckers!" and then dance your way outside. Customs are the easy part, the hard part is getting a taxi. The union rule the Cancun airport, so only union taxis are allowed to take rides from the airport. This is really very convenient.. For them, that is. I bet they especially enjoy setting the fixed tariffs.. I can imagine the union meetings where they discuss this kind of stuff.. "Hey, come on, let's be fair to the tourists and keep the prices at a reasonable level. We really shouldn't exploit the monopoly situation we got here. Hey, it's the least we can do! Are you guys with me?!?? " guess that's not quite how it works..
Anyway, a ride to Playa is about USD $50 this time around, and then we need to wait for the next flight so we can fill the van. We decide to do the budget thing, and head for downtown Cancun and catch a cheap bus to Playa. It's a five minute drive from the airport for USD $20. Sounds good, except that the fucking taxi driver refused to go until the van was filled (something he apparently remembered to tell us just after we paid him). So, we wait for the next flight to land, and it all ends with the Taxi going through the entire hotel zone of Cancun, dropping off Americans every now and then, before we get to the bus terminal, an hour later. Cancun is a place as charmless as they come, filled with all-inclusive hotels along the paved highway. It's like a Las Vegas where gambling has been replaced by "All you can eat LOBSTER $USD 19,95". Good place for partying they say (especially with the annual spring-break invasion of American teenagers used to the 21 age-limit on alcohol), but we're here on business. Anyway, finally at the bus terminal in Cancun, we shell out for a couple of first class tickets, and jump on board the departing bus. Which is packed, so we're left to stand in the aisle for the 45 minutes drive to Playa, which turned into an hour plus since the driver drove like an old woman. At least I didn't have that much luggage to worry about.. hehe. Welcome to Mexico, where you can never assume that things will work out as you think. Always remember to ask when it will depart, how long it's gonna take, are there actual SEATS available, does the vehicle have an engine or are we supposed to get out and push..:-) Oh well, first day in Mexico, que sera sera, this bullshit is just charming anyway. But, I am writing a letter to the Cancun Council of Tourism, to propose a slight change in the arrival process at the airport. It would really make life a helluva lot easier if they just move that random green/red traffic light thingie from customs to the taxi-stand, just press green and someone will promptly take you to your destination at a reasonable fare.
Playa del Carmen
In Playa things are looking better. Quinta Avenida is just as we remembered it (just a few miles longer), swarming with salespeople offering various junk, small businesses selling t-shirts and hammocks, and of course plenty of tanned tourists roaming, seemingly without a care in the world, expect maybe that some schmuck down the street has the same t-shirt you just bought, only 10 pesos cheaper.
Judging from the email I get, quite a few finds this page looking for tourist info about Mexico rather than fly-fishing, so here's an attempt of sharing some useful information about Playa:
We stayed at the Corto Maltes hotel, which we'll highly recommend. They call themselves "the last of old Playa", referring to time where Playa actually was a cozy little drowsy fisherman's village, with a few tourists every now and then. That sure is a long time ago. Anyway, Corto Maltes got a dozen small cabanas right on the beach, and that's really the only place to live on Playa: on the beach. The hosts were the best though, Ron and Patrica, they really made our stay enjoyable. Some places you get the feeling of being a paying guest, and other places you get the feeling of being welcome. Corto Maltes is definitely among the latter. Excellent service, and quite a few late nights with Ron in the bar, discussing whisky, Playa del Carmen, the meaning of life, and the insane amounts of fish we were gonna catch later, made it an excellent start on the trip.
The number one asset of Corto Maltes is that it's placed just on the beach. The first thing I did after checking in, was to take the shoes off and dig my feet into the fine-grained sand. That combined with a beer, helped my brain acknowledge that I was in Mexico.. Doing all the in hotel "lobby" is even cooler..
Playa del Carmen
We had a few days in Playa before fishing, just a buffer for any adjustment problems with our stomachs or luggage. well, actually just to get used to the climate.. Actually just because Playa is a pretty good place to be, day and night. Playa has grown a lot since our first stay here in 1999, and they are still building like crazy. New hotels are popping up by the hour it seems. It's now a tourist machine with discos and clubs, and not really a hospitable little village, even though it appears someone forgot the tell the tourism advertising industryabout this recent development, that it perhaps has outgrown its own charm.
I'm guessing about 85% of all tourists in Playa are Americans. That definitely shapes Playa. You'll find both McDonalds and Domino's Pizza on the main street, and the working language is English (unlike for example some real Latin American cities, such as Miami). Not that I mind Americans in any way, but that's not really what you're looking for if you go to Mexico from Europe.
The caribbean sea is still blue-greenish and inviting, the beaches are white and the sun gets up every day. I've yet to see anyone cry openly over how much it sucks to be in Playa del Carmen. The prices vary, the further you get away from the main street, the cheaper (and better?) it gets. The going rate for a beer is about 30 pesos on the beach, but then you get two of them (The first English phrase that Mexicans learn appear to be "Two for One!"). We often go to this one place in Playa, called Sueno Guarto (or something like that). Just a block up from 5th avenue, either on calle 6 of 8, a small place with dragons and stuff as decorations. We snacked/lunched here every day, going through an amazingly tasty and cheap menu of small fish dishes.. There's plenty of these little gems in Playa.
The blatant advertising for rapes and crime that had lured us to Playa, turned out to be bullshit. As far as we could tell, Playa is still a safe place with little or no violent crime. Playa is packed with young or middle-aged people on vacation, looking for a good time and some sun. But just to be on the safe side, Ron from Corto Maltes clued me on a trick when going for a night swim in Playa: if there's a rape, just yell and we'll be there in a minute, just make sure you hold her down so she won't get away!
Also, a 30 minutes boat ride from Playa, lies Cozumel. A little island offering some the world's finest scuba diving reefs. It's also possible to do some guided bonefishing on Cozumel, but we never tried it. Instead, we rented mopeds and drove around the island for a day, looking for somewhere to bonefish for free (no luck). The moped driving was a blast, especially when combined with some beer drinking, but then again, we're easily amused. Beside the scuba diving opportunities, Cozumel kinda sucks. Maybe it gets a bit more lively when the cruise ships anchor up, but that's not really our kind of crowd anyway. Okay, lets talk fishing..
The hunt for Clancy
This is the night. We're meeting our host, Clancy, for Punta Allen here in Playa. 8pm by a car rental agency on 5th. Martinair claims my luggage will arrive at 9pm, and tomorrow morning we're outa here. At 8pm sharp, we're ready and waiting. It's a small agency, and the English speaking guy isn't in, and we're not having much success explaining we're supposed to meet someone in Spanish. (we tried all the Spanish sentences we knew, but the idiot still didn't get it, and just pointed the bar on the other side of the street.. ok, so the only Spanish we master is the drink-ordering part of it, but someone intelligent should be able to deduce our real intentions from our body language. no such luck here.) So, we hang around waiting for the English speaking clerk. we wait and wait, smiling at everyone stopping by. Maybe it's him? Or him? .. The language wizard arrives, and tells us that because of a mixup, they didn't have a car for Clancy after all, so he went to another agency just down the street.. About an hour ago, this was.. What the f...??! We follow the trail, only to learn that Clancy did in fact get a car the other place, and then left.. What the f...?!? We don't believe this. Okay, Julern gets watch duty at the original meeting place, after all, it's only 8.30pm. I run to the nearest Internet cafe to check my messages, only to find an offer to buy Viagra waiting in my mailbox. real useful in Mexico. I return to Julern, but he's still on his own (if you don't count the beer). We split up and start trafficking the hotel and both rental agencies, but still no sign of Clancy. My luggage still hasn't arrived, by the way.
We eventually demand a description of Clancy at the car rentals. Hey, if he's a 7 foot albino wearing a Scottish kilt over his peg-leg, while juggling running chainsaws, we stand a good chance of spotting him on the street. Combined with a "bite me" tattoo on his forehead, we would have a dead give-away on our hands. However, Sherlock at the car-rental didn't offer any interesting traits on the mysterious Clancy other than "colorful shirt" and that he has a mustache -- which didn't quite narrow it down as much as we'd hoped.. Still, in lack of better ideas, we spend the next hour roaming Playa, asking anyone with a colorful shirt and/or some facial hear, if they happen to be Clancy from Punta Allen. We did find a few Johns, a Mark from Houston, an Edfrom Chicago, and a Hans from Germany, but no Clancy, and they all gave us weird look when we suggested they take us fishing..
New check of mail, but nothing new. Back to the hotel, to find that the luggage hasn't arrived. This is going straight to hell. No guide, no transport to Punta Allen, and I don't even have my fishing gear. We're supposed to leave in the morning, and it's already 11pm. For the first time, I get this horrible feeling that this all might go terribly wrong, and that there won't be any fishing at all..
Well, there's only one way to deal with this problem: Alcohol. We go the Corto Maltes bar, and start emptying our whisky (quality whisky/cognac/gin etc. are expensive and hard to find in Mexico, so one is advised to bring your own liquor to Mexico. This does not apply to tequila drinkers.) As always, the seriousness of our problems fade proportionally with alcohol consumption, and after a few drinks we got it all figured out. We'll just rent a car tomorrow and go on our own. Julern has a spare rod (always bring one set of gear as carry-on), and I got a reel and a few flies in my carry-on.
A new day..
As I wake up, my luggage is standing by the door. I pinch my arm, but it's not a dream. It arrived 3.30 am this morning. Things are looking good. Julern goes to his office (the toilet) for his morning reading (some stomach problems), and I go searching for a rental car. The budget is tight, so I get a 15 years old beetle from the highly respected Jose's Car Rental & Liqour Store, with very limited insurance. Not exactly what the tourist guides recommends, but I've always regarded those with a sense of irony anyway, especially after the raving reviews of all the raping opportunities in Playa.. Julern is still suffering from stomach cramps, and Patricia gives him some pills to clog his system for the drive. As soon as they start working, we're outa here. But then, Clancy and Libby comes running into the hotel, just having read our rather desperate mails from last night. Julern is feeling better, life is good, and after a big group-hug, we're ready to get going. Only problem is that we got one car too many. The rental agency is now closed, siesta until 4pm. Bummer. But Libby knows how to handle this and stops by the neighbour restaurant and gives them a call. And it went something like this (but in Spanish):
Libby:A guy stopped by you today and rented a car. A Norwegian.. Do you remember?
Rental guy: si si..
Libby:There was a misunderstanding, there are four of us going in the same car, another car that we already have. The Norwegian is not that good in Spanish, so some mistake must have happened, maybe he was confused.. Can you take the car back? Right now?
Rental guy: no no.. Not possible. We are closed until 16 o'clock. We are eating dinner now. You come back later! If they make deal for one week, they have the car for one week.. Sorry, no can take back. They have car and pay!
Libby: but we are going to Punta Allen, and we need to go in one car.
Rental guy: Sorry I cannot help.. Come back at 4 o'clock.
Libby: But the road down there is so poor.. It's not going to work.. I'm so afraid we will wreck your car..
Rental guy: stay put, I'll be there in 15 minutes!
And five minutes later he arrives to take the car back, for a half days rent.. hehe.
Finally set up in Punta Allen, we're ready for some serious fishing. Fishing starts at 8am, and we got up at 6.30 to prepare the gear. I decide to go with my favorite setup, and old Hardy 6/7 rod, and a trusty Daiwa reel, who set me back USD $30 some ten years ago. I was supposed to use another rod, and definitely a better reel, but as my luggage went missing, it dawned on me that the only thing I'd really miss, was this setup. This is my rod, this is THE rod for me. Both the rod, and its the trusty partner, the Daiwa reel, are pushing ten years, and frankly, they're in pretty poor condition.. A small shaft in the reel house has broken off, so I need to mount it left-handed to get it working. It doesn't have a drag at all, and high-pitched ugly sound as one reels in. Judging from the looks on the guides' faces, when you cough up this amount of money to go fishing somewhere exotic, I'm the only going out to fish with this kinda gear. Well, fuck them (and the donkey they rode in on), I've caught trout, sea-trout, salmon, cod, mackerel, greyling, whitefish and pollack on this combo. It is time for bonefish!
Julern on the other hand is ready with brand new gear, a high-end Fenwick rod, a large arbor reel with miles of backing, on which every knot has been tested and re-tested for weaknesses.. What a wuss.
It feels great to get out there in the boat, this is the day we've been day-dreaming about for the last two months. As usual, we start off with an hour's ride to the south, to get into the juicy flats. We start with some boat fishing. Willy is in the front scouting, while Benito carefully poles us ahead (yeah, we got two guides..heh) Julern gets the honor of starting, and within a few minutes, Willy spots a bone coming. Well, we all spot it. The water is only about 5 inches deep, so we easily see it plowing the water.. Benito turns the boat masterfully, to make sure Julern got a perfect angle at the fish. This is perfect setup, just as you'd dream about. The plan is to cast and let the fly sink, and retrieve as the bone closes. Julern must be very nervous, because the first cast is pretty poor, way to short. Time is running out, and he quickly retrieves some line and start casting again. I start taunting him, "Is that the furthest you can cast, you imbecile?!".. (So, I'm the fishing-buddy from hell, but hey, I had kinda envisioned me standing in the front casting, with Julern watching.. Not the other way around!!!).. Well, Julern is working the line, and I can tell from his determined look and movements, that there is no way in hell he's gonna cast short again.. Finally, he lets the line go, and we all sigh as the fly now lands a few yards onto the mangroves.. The flyline lands perfectly on the head of the bone, who of course takes off like a rocket. Slapping fly-line on their head will do that. "Gee, that's one suspicious son-of-a-bitch bonefish", I offer, "if it were me, I'd jump into the mangroves and take the fly in a split second"... Julern gives me a look out of a Mastercard commercial..
Airfare from Oslo to Mexico: $1200
High-end flyfishing gear: $900
Guided fishing: $250
Seeing Julern fuck up and place his fly in the mangroves: PRICELESS
(1) Julern's first attempt at a bone (see the fish coming from right-hand-side) (2) Julern decides to go the a mangrove tree instead.
Anyway, it's definitely bad luck to catch the first fish.. It's gotta be.
We head for another place, and suddenly Benito spots something. We're wading, but neither Julern nor I see anything, except a whole lot of water (and that's probably not what we're looking for). We know what we're supposed to see, we got top-notch polarized glasses and at least a foot's height-advantage on the guides, but to no avail. The water here is pretty deep, about 15 inches or so, on a muddy bottom. We're not looking for tailing fish or cruising fish. The fish tend to move slowly around the bottom here, digging up shrimps and crabs, and the trick is the look at the color of the water. As the bonefish digs in, mud and particles will twirl and raise toward the surface, changing the color of the water. So, basically, if you see a spot of muddy water, either a crab just farted, or a bonefish had dinner right there (or both). Sounds pretty simple, but it isn't. Muddy water doesn't mean a big spot in a totally different color, something you could spot while casually looking out window of a Boeing 747. We're looking for a change of about 0.001%, from 60-100 feet away. Seeing the actual fish is close to impossible until you get really close, so for now we stick to decoding the muddy waters. If the muddy water expands, the fish is still feeding and moving, if nothing happens, the fish either split or is still there snacking. Clued in on this system, I'm still not able to locate any hot spots, but at least I don't feel that bad for not seeing the actual fish.
Time and time again, Benito sees something, while I'm standing just behind him squinting with an undoubtedly rather quizzical look on my face. Come on, is this for real?!? I do my best to cast as instructed: "60 feet, coming at us, 11 o'clock".. "There?", I reply, "no no, more to the right!!!", "there?" again, "no. fish gone. you don't see?"... We continue wading, with Benito spotting fish and me smiling slyly just behind him, thinking about how cool it would be to drill Benito face-down 8 feet into the mud.. But I decide against it, as you never know how sensitive these guys are about expressing emotions physically, with all the mano el mano macho stuff and so on..
But eventually, when I finally got a cast straight, something tugs the line as I'm stripping, which can only mean one thing: Bonefish. And then it starts! Getting the loose line on the reel isn't really a problem down here. Anal-retentive wimps fishing for small trout spend a lot of time perfecting the technique of getting all loose line on the reel as soon as possible, but here the line just flies through the guides and makes your reel sing, before you really figure out what the hell just happened! No matter how much you prepare for bonefish, the first bone is always special. I'm on the top of the world right now. Benito is grinning, the bonefish heads for Belize in a hurry, the reel is screaming, and come to think of it, I probably did as well.
Benito, we make a pretty good team, you and me, with you spotting the fish, telling me where to cast and when to retrieve, and with me uhhh.. not perforating you through the muddy bottom..
The first bone of the trip. Awesome! Notice how my built-in "fighting belly" gives perfect support for playing fish. Artificial tools such as "fighting butt" just doesn't cut it here..
Lunch is next, with sandwiches and beer. Julern still hasn't connected with a bone, and he's feeling the pressure building up now.. Too much deja vu with our 1999-trip (haha sucker!). I'm grinning like a drunken redneck and keeping the beer flowing. I wonder if it ever gets any better than this, with me catching bones and Julern still skunked (he didn't catch anything on our last trip either), and I come up with the idea of "accidently" stepping on his new rod and then drinking all the beer.. or maybe drink the beer first.. Yeah.. hihi, I'm sooo adorable..
Eventually the thoughts wander off back to Norway, where the fly-slinging monkeys are out freezing their balls off in the middle of the night, hoping that a frozen sea-trout in zombie state will stick its sorry little head through the ice and snatch of their oversized flies. That thought made us both feel even better.. ha ha..
How to hook a bonefish?
Throughout this trip, we (well, especially me) struggled with hooking the bones. In theory it's pretty simple; Do NOT raise the rod as you feel the take, just firmly continue line-stripping with your hand to set the hook. Sounds ridiculously easy, and I thought I was doing doing pretty well at it. Until I got back home and saw the video that Julern shot. There was this idiot, looking remarkably like myself, waving his rod like a drunken flag-master in a gay-pride parade, at any indication of contact with fish.
After lunch I go with Willy, whose laid-back style was an excellent match for me. Whereas Benito acted like a sergeant going to war - no bullshitting here -, Willy and myself were goofing off and chatting about everything and nothing. No, we didn't leapfrog, sat around the campfire playing guitar or played scrabble or anything. We're still here to catch fish, but also to have some fun doing it. I'm usually second best in spotting the fish.. my sensors hone in on it just as Willy's been pointing at it for about 30 seconds. I'm getting the hang of this now! The casting goes well, and I usually see the fish I'm casting for, which makes a hell of a difference. It all depends on the conditions where you are, this is a newbie-flat, with bright sand bottom in shallow water to make the fish stand out, rather than the mud-analysis Benito subjected me to last flat. I catch two more bones pretty quick, we're right in the honey hole and everything rocks! Then (of course) the tables turn. Two tailing fish approach (tailing means that their dorsal/tail fin surface), and I get off a pretty good cast. I strip and the fish takes! But five seconds later, it's gone. That was a pretty nice fish! The leader snapped. Willy changes the fly and double checks the leader, and then we wait again. A big bone approaches, a really nice fish this one, I cast, hook it, and get ready for some serious runs... But I lose this one as well. The leader snapped again. What the hell..?!? Maybe I'm playing them a tad too rough, but to hell with it, I just love feeling the rod bending inside the cork. After catching a few fish, I skip the "by golly! look at this sucker run!!" approach and transform into a "EAT THIS!!" rod-clinching Hulk Hogan wannabe. Anyway, this is one of times when it really rocks to have a guide.. I just hand the rod to Willy with the words "you fix!", light a cigarette, pick my nose a little and stare at the numerous birds flying around here in Sian Ka'an.. Having a guide isn't that bad, I decide. In fact, if I ever win the lottery, I'm ditching Julern as a fishing-bud and getting one of these full time.
Willy tries to catch a bone.. Without much luck.. Somehow comforting to see experts fail once in a while, as it makes the "it just wouldn't take" excuse more plausible even for newbies
I insist that Willy do some fishing while I play around with the camera. After a short exchange of viewpoints on my beaten-up reel, he accepts the challenge (just after I pointed out that I insist and that I'm bigger than him). Not long after, a single bone approaches. Willy struggles a bit with the casting, as the fish got too close, but still he managed to get some good presentations of the fly. But the fish simply wouldn't have any of that, and continued his afternoon swim without a Crazy Charlie piercing. Somewhat reassuring to note that even experts fail every once in a while..! Next we spot a few tailing fish, and Willy casts effortlessly to them, and pretty soon the reel is screaming like a pig. A few minutes later he lands the fish, somewhat surprised that the reel didn't blow up.. Time flies when you're having fun, and Julern and Benito come wading with the boat, wondering what we've been up to for the last hours. Julern has finally caught a few bones, five of them actually, so we could see him grinning a few hundred yards away. And that's probably the one big thing I regretted about this trip, not being there when Julern caught his first bone, that's a moment he'll never forget..
But eventually Willy came through
Maybe it sounds kinda of silly to be hooked on such small fish. Because it's hardly trophy size bones we get down here. Most of them between 1,5 and 3 pounds, and frankly, that's peanuts on a 7 weight rod. But still, bonefish is bonefish, and they're in a quite different league than normal atlantic salmon/trout species. A trout in the shape of his life, can, in the best of conditions, do something like 7mph. A chunky bonefish can do 25mph, and speeds up to 30mph have been measured. Amazingly enough, they do this speeding in 10 inches of water.
Besides, it's pretty handsome
Punta Allen is a small fisherman village located on the caribbean side Yucatan peninsula, north of the Sian Kaan biosphere, a few hours drive from the touristy Playa and Cancan. On the map, it doesn't really look very far, and distance-wise, it isn't. However, please note the final stretch of road to Punta Allen isn't exactly highway standard, but more of jungle route. The standard of the road is varying, from pretty bad to extremely bad. This time around, in February 2001, it was actually pretty bad (that's pretty good), way better than 1999. The rainy season always messes up the road, to the extent of being impassable, so I always recommend a big chunk of luck on the timing of your passage. :-)
There's just a few hundred people living in Punta Allen, and it's a wonderful laid-back place. The odd adventure seeking tourist stop by, but Punta still has a long way to go before anyone would dream of calling it touristy. There's about 3-4 restaurants and about the same number of "hotels", at least that's visible to the casual by passer. The cool thing about Punta Allen is that it's not really organized here, this is no fine-tuned tourist machine, and people say hello when they meet you. I bet that sounds pretty silly, but a "buenos noches" and smile kinda establishes a quite different context than being attacked by various salespeople offering you a good price on a t-shirt, -- the latter pretty much sums up the interacting with local people in Cancun and Playa del Carmen. Granted, if you go to Mexico primarily to snatch a few cheap t-shirts reading "Sex Instructor -- First lesson free!", Cancun and Playa will be heaven of earth, but for the rest, a visit to Punta Allen makes a lot of sense when you're in that area. Besides fishing, there's plenty of things to do such as eco-tours and wildlife safaris -- but that's pretty lame, especially if you're a guy, so why not opt for the sit-on-your-ass-and-drink-beer-all-day activity (my favorite).
Punta Allen is a very charming place. While our neighbours in Playa had Domino's on speed-dial, Clancy's next-door had roosters, chickens, and pigs. It's easy to be appreciate the old-fashion farm style, especially when you're a heavy sleeper, which I happen to be the very definition of. Julern on the other hand eventually grew to develop some "issues" with the morning call of the rooster, which was topped only by the morning they slaughtered one of the pigs. What pig?, was the extent of my sympathy, even though I must admit that Britney Spears did have an expectionally vocal climax in that nice dream I was having, just before Julern woke me up.. Still, no complaints..
Last time in Punta Allen, we stayed at Cuzan, probably the best known place in Punta Allen. Things had gone pretty down-hill since our last visit, and the service level was definitely running on the back-burner this time around. But still, it's THE place to hang out in Punta Allen, and as usual we met a few other fishermen here. One of them was Peter, who was working as a guide/fly-tyer for the Casablanca lodge further south in the biosphere. Of course, after a few beers and the discovery that we both had bonefish slime stains on our shorts, we got along very well (male bonding works in mysterious ways). We would have loved to go fishing with Peter, but we couldn't make it this time around, but he did give us a handful of really cool-looking bonefish flies..
We were very happy with staying with the bonefishbum clancy. Genuinely nice people, who made sure we enjoyed our stay. The fishing was also excellent. The guides we got this time, were definitely a few classes above the overpriced weirdo we got from Cuzan in 1999..
A new day begins; the rooster wakes up Julern, and Julern then wakes me up. It's tough to get out of bed at 6am, but then you remember you're in Punta Allen, and the morning drowsiness is quickly exchanged with anticipation. Damn it, we're going out to nail some bones today!
Manuel is taking Willy's place, while Benito is still the commanding officer. Even though they all have their own personality, the fish spotting skills are pretty much the same, as in waaaayy above Julern and myself.
The day starts pretty good for me. We told Benito very specifically that we want to wade, rather than sitting in the fucking boat, picking our nose while watching the other guy fish. I start with Manual on an incredible sand flat. The bottom is all sand and depth is around 10-15 inches all around, so even us eskimos has a decent chance of spotting a fish or two.
We quickly see (Manuel a bit more quickly than me) four tailing fish in a small area, and I start casting. Careful careful.... I make a good cast, taking my time after the fly lands, actually feeling on-top of things, and one of the bones go after the fly as I start retrieving.. But just as it's within biting range, it turns back.. DAMN! I retrieve some more line and start another cast... WAY too soon.. The bones are spooked as the line and fly rips through the surface.. This is not the first time I've done this..
Armed with a fresh Crazy Charlie, we sneak around a spit and find ourselves in paradise.. There's tailing bones almost everywhere (of course, I'm exaggerating slightly). Closest one is 30 yards, and Manuel wants to sneak up on it. Feeling cocky, I tell him to stop and that even my grandmother could make the cast from here. Sometimes everything just clicks with the casting, and this was one of those times. I actually cast too far, with the backing sticking out of my reel, and the fish grow pretty nervous when the whole leader lands almost on top of them. Of course, I'll maintain that it was a pretty good cast, and you can't really expect that much accuracy on long casts (yeah, it would have been smarter to wade closer). All it takes is one bone to be spooked, and it will take off like a rocket, screaming "hey guys, let's panic!". The rest will follow in split second, screaming "good idea! woohoooo!!". We wait, and luckily, so does the fish, and after a some exceptionally long seconds, they're feeding like normal. I start stripping, and as the fly passes through the bonefish zone, one fish follows.. I can see it all very clearly, which is a kick in itself. The fish takes the fly, and I promptly set the hook and feel it pulsating, and wait for all hell to break lose..
Then suddenly Manuel starts to fiddle with the line. I've managed to tangle the backing around my hand a few extra turns, and my fingers are headed for the guides.. Manuel holds the line at the first guide, while I shake my hand like someone just hooked on a 60.000 volt power-chord in my shoulder. Just as we feel the rod bend violently to the pressure of the fish, I finally get my hand untangled, and let the fish go.. Manual is sweating, while I'm doing my usual "dumb grin" routine, but before we have time to debug the situation, the bonefish demands our attention. There's some mangroves about 40 meters away, and 40 meters is about 3 seconds in bonefish terms. When it got to this area, there's no more mister nice-guy on my behalf. If the line gets tangled around the mangroves or one of the many murderous plants, it's game over. So it was time to find out just how strong a bonefish is. Sure it's one helluva speed junkie, but is it really that strong? The answer is yes, it is. I feel the butt-end of the rod bending under the cork, as I desperately try to hold back the bonefish, and I remember wondering if I'll ever be able to take trout fishing seriously after this. I manage to keep the bone out of the vegetation (using the two basic fisherman skills, stubbornness and luck), and eventually the bonefish slows down and lets itself be retrieved.. Half expecting a 10 pound killer-whale with an attitude problem, I'm somewhat amazed as the tiny bonefish surrenders in my hands. If the sun wasn't so strong down here, I'd take my hat off and salute this amazing creature of energy and strength..
During the first hour of fishing, I'd gotten three nice ones, with one being well over 3 pounds. After the first slip-up where I spooked the fish by ripping the line to hard, I actually got a hang of it. I could see the fish most of the time, and I really had a great time catching them. Maybe pushing it a bit, but I think I would have caught all the fish here without the guide (well, I would have caught myself in addition, with the line tangle)..
We continue walking out on the big flat, and we eventually spot a really nice bone. There's a reason why he so big, because he's very shy, and whenever we try to get closer, it teasingly slides another few yards away, making sure we're always at least 35 yards away.. well, only one thing to do, even with the right-hand side wind picking up, and I cockingly say "check this out!" and prepare for the cast of my life.. Which goes according to plan, until I mis-timed a back cast with about 25 yards of line out.. I guess you've heard of the "double haul" to get more power in line for the really long casts, but I'll betcha the "double loop" is something new.. Anyway, I quickly found myself with flyline tangled all around me, and of course, the fly firmly planted in my nose. heh, even Manuel got a giggle out of that one, where he was standing at a safe distance on my left-hand side..
We hook up with Julern and Benito and head for another spot. Manuel jumps out of the boat and signals me to follow. The bottom looks a bit nasty, but I follow without putting on my shoes (I love being barefoot). Can he go barefoot, can I.. big mistake.
The sun hid behind some clouds, and the bottom was pretty much a school example if where not to walk barefoot. Okay, no coral (which is real nasty!), but small rocks and clams, and the water too deep to see the bottom clearly. So it must have been a pretty weird sight, with Manual in front leading, scouting for bones, with me lagging behind, whimpering every step; "awww!", "ouch!", "what the hell..", "ai caramba!", "arhg!".. etc. you get the picture (I hate being barefoot). To make things worse, I don't see a single fish this session. Manuel saw several, or at least he claimed to have, and I've learned enough about his fish-spotting skills to question it (more than a little, anyway.. seeing is believing). I eventually gave up trying to spot them, and resigned into a detached robot asking whether to cast or not. Seeing the fish makes everything so much easier and enjoyable. I guess it didn't help much that Manuel operated with a rather simplified view on distances. 20 feet is 20 feet. 30 feet is somewhat more than 20 feet, 40 feet is everything from here to Belize..
The icing on the cake came courtesy of the sea-lice, which was exceptionally bad in this area. Nasty little creatures, who (thankfully) were more annoying than harmful, but they can really ruin your day when they attack in numbers..
Time to try a new spot, and Manuel leads the way through a place with softer bottom. Well, anything to save my feet from the sharp rocks I guess, but then I face a new challenge. Manuel barely sunk into the bottom, and waded effortlessly forward, whereas I, with a rather large-framed posture, had some issues with gravity.. Wading in water can be hard, but being stuck in mud up to your thighs, is .. even harder. schlump. schlump.. schlump..
Julern was sitting in the boat with Benito watching our glorious march over the mud area, and that made it even worse. Trying to look cool and unaffected (as in "oh, I guess the bottom REALLY is kinda soft .. I didn't even notice.." or "Whatcha mean stuck?!? I'm just taking a break, that's all..) only works for so long, and I could hear their hysterical laughter from the boat..
Meanwhile, Julern has been on a roll, and made up for the poor start on his day. We take lunch, and Julern can't stop talking about how this bonefishing thing really is pretty easy. Spotting the fish? No problem! Setting the hook? No problem. Wading? No problem. Calculation pi with 87 decimals in your head? No problem.
Funny thing is, if we'd had lunch a few hour earlier, I'd be the obnoxious know-it-all saying that. It all really depends on the flat and the amount of accidental luck, I guess.
Anyway, we decide to try for Jacks after lunch. Jack being a fish that's actually edible, and looks somewhat like a Permit, but without the bad-ass attitude problem look that a permit has, but with more of a reborn-christian prozac-boosted like impression. Anyway, this meant blind fishing from the boat, as the guides took us to a spot that supposedly was a favorite hangout for the local jacks. It took us less than an hour to grow pretty sick of the blind casting, but at the same time it was a big relief to just stand there and maul out line as long you could, without worrying about some fish that everyone but youself can spot..
Well, back to bonefishing again. We go for another flat, but Manuel and myself must be cursed or something. Even Manuel can't spot much fish here, and no one within casting range.. But Julern and Benito are catching them regularly just a few hundred yards away.. Well, fuck this, I say to myself, and go the boat and drink some beer, while re-living the morning session and shooting the occasional picture of Julern and Benito..
Julern and Benito
So, how about a permit?
Sounds good, except of course, that Permit is one of the hardest fish you'll ever catch on a fly. To catch a bonefish, you need to be in the right place (pretty easy), present the fly reasonably good (very doable, especially as you get several chances), and you need some luck on the bonefish's mode (also realistic).. But permit on the other hand, requires that you be in the right place (that's pretty hard, permit do not roam around the flats in numbers like the gullible bones), you get one shot a presenting the right fly (which is extremely hard, both casting and finding the fly), and even if you're 2 for 2 so far, you still need the damn fish to take some interest in the fly (which they very rarely do).. So in short, catching a permit is almost impossible. On the upside, the permit come in cooler sizes, as in 10 - 30 pounds, and they could haul a school of bonefish to Belize without even breaking up a sweat... Despite all this, for the novice fly fisherman, permit is actually a good option. Coming back after a long day, you'll feel like an idiot if you fished for bones all day without catching anything. However, if you fish for permit, everyone assumes that you won't catch anything, regardless of your skills (and most permit fishers tend to be pretty damn good, so if you can bribe your guide to keep quiet, you can easily pose as a flyfishing expert, just by casually blurting out the magic P-word..)
So, permit it was. At least for the rest of the day. The guides take us to an area which is about 8 feet deep, and Julern and Benito go up front while I sit and watch. Julern and I agreed that we'll take turns fishing, alternating every 15 minutes or so. The problem was that it was a very hot day, the wind had died off in the afternoon, and the clouds had called it a day, to let the relentless caribbean sun heat us up.. Sounds perfect, except that at the end of a long day on the flats, sitting passively in a boat staring at some fisherman's butt isn't all that it's cranked up to be. It'll drain you for all your strength and initiative, and you'll just surrender to drowsiness.. Standing at the front of the boat also takes its toll, and Julern demands we switch after 25 minutes.. My turn to fish.. Well, fish as in standing there with the gear ready, trying to look like I know what the hell is going on, while Benito's eyes scan the apparently monotone water..
Then it happens! Benito raises his hand, and Manuel stops the boat. "Cast! cast" he whispers, and I respond "uhh.. huhu.. okay" (think Beavis & Butthead).. a few seconds pass.. "uhh.. huhu.. cast where? huhu..".. Benito points to somewhere out in the enormous sea, which apparently should have answered all my questions. I pretend I see something, and start false-casting. "quick! quick!" Benito hisses. "shut up, punk", I tell him (in Norwegian). Then I see it, a big shadow racing away just 25 meters from the boat, with his big side sparkling in the sun rays.. I react very cooly to this and say "Wow, that's one fat fucker", still false casting the line. "You're too slow", Benito responds, and signals Manuel to continue going. Apparently my shot at a permit is over, before I really understood that it had started.. "Hey, did you catch that on the video camera, Julern?", I query, still excited and but a bit concerned that maybe I hadn't performed like expected from a professional permit-expert.. But as I turn around, I see Julern with his head resting on his shoulder, drooling from his mouth, sound asleep.. I wake him up, telling him I almost caught a permit. And that's the truth, because this is as close as it gets.. Permit fishing is weird stuff.
So, how about some bonefish again?
A new day breaks in Punta Allen as the rooster wakes up Julern and Julern wakes up me. We've decided to fish together today. Going each to his own with a guide just doesn't cut it. Besides, we're looking to shot some pictures and video today, so we agree to alternate on the fishing. In retrospect, we could have shared our plans with the guides before we headed out, as we now had the somewhat awkward situation of Benito going with me and Julern, while Manuel took a long siesta in the boat. They seemed a bit surprised by our plan this day, apparently most people like to split up and just catch as much as possible, and then, maybe, brief each-other on the plane back home or something.
We also asked for a place with bigger bones today. We were happy with the numbers so far, and another 10 mid-sized bones wouldn't make squat difference.. A trophy size bone would be the icing on the cake.. In short, this turned out to be the best day for both of us. Fishing with someone sometimes adds a lot to the experience. Ideally, I'd like to go out with Julern completely on our own for a day or two, with everything being up to us. Granted, guides are very comfortable way of fishing, but you also lose out on the experience of doing it on your own.. Which, the more the I think of it, is an integral part of fly-fishing.
We started the same place as I got some nice bones yesterday, but things doesn't really work out today. The fish are there, but as I cast for the sweet spot, some friggin' birds do a low altitude fly-over and spooks the fish to hell. Lucky them I didn't have shotgun. There's always more fish, but I just couldn't get it to take the fly today. Julern is also out of luck, and we've yet to turn the video-camera on after two hours..
We proceed to a flat where we've never been before. It supposed to hold bigger fish, but that also implies that there will be fewer of them. The flat is a nice one, with evenly colored sand bottom, and relatively shallow. This means we have a pretty decent shot at spotting the fish.
Julern breaks the slump, and he successfully lands two bones before I've even felt fish. Of course, I elegantly accuse him of jeopardizing the fry-stock of bones, as his two first are pretty small.
I'm struggling like crazy setting the hook. Spotting the fish and casting is no problem, but I just can't seem to get then hoooked for more than a few seconds..
There and then, a giant mystery to me, and I started working on various conspiracy theories such as being cursed by the bonefish God and so on. However, safely back home, I was pretty embarrassed to see myself waving the rod like windmill, and then to complain about these "useless piece of shit #!%#£ flies!".. Julern really got the hang of the hooking, and whenever a bone took his fly, he'd keep his rod lowered, looking very cool, and just doing a quick final strip to set the hook.. I'm using one of Julern's flies, equipped with a big marabou tail. The latter being the suspect of the many failed hookings, so I chew of the whole tail, quickly making a mental to self about to use a pair of scissors next time (spitting marabou fibers for an hour is an effective way of learning).
I eventually change to the shrimp imitation I got from Peter, again making sure to trim the length of the tail. And then things finally change. Benito has spotted some bones, but my cast isn't good and the fish take off. I quickly make another cast, which sends the fly perfectly five yards ahead of the fish.. The fish immediately goes for the fly, and this time it's hooked. It's not a giant by any means, but it's bigger than Julern's (which is what matter anyway! hehe) and my first for the day, and it put up a strong fight for a few minutes.. And here's the video: Figen vs. small bonie(8 meg)
We're enjoying ourselves to the extent of perversity. Julern's up, and he responds by hooking a bigger one. This one really takes off like rocket, and Julern is well into the backing before he puts an end to it by setting the drag to maximum. A few minutes later, Julern lands a great looking bone of about 3 pounds. We can't believe a fish this size could put up such an amazing fight. Bonefish is a pack of dynamite, waiting to go off.. And here's the video of Julern:Julern playing a bone (or is it the other way around?)
There's no question the pressure is now for me now. But I can deliver. Benito finds me another fish, but it doesn't look that big.. As if you can tell 35 yards away. Peter's shrimp-fly is still the fly of choice, and we sneak within casting range. I make a good cast, and once again I manage to set the hook correctly.. And this time I really did hook something special.. At first, it makes a small run, while I let it suck up all the line, before I tighten the grip on the reel.. That only to seems to piss off the bone even more, and it keeps pulling even harder. The rod bends like a catapult, the cork is squealing.. What the hell?? I loosen the grip on the reel, just a little bit, and then the fish starts pulling even harder, and the reels starts spinning wildly, as I feel its momentum burning my palm.. Ok, if you want to go that bad, I think to myself, while I cool of my hand in the water.. Eventually, I gain control, and I fight it in inch for inch. The fish must be worn out by now. They all act very differently when hooked, even though they all start with a initial run, but after than most are pretty agreeable and be contained by applying hard pressure. But this one was no holding back, it just took off like a torpedo..
hooked on a rocket..
Check the angle of the fly line (centre image). This bone is halfway to Belize..
Best bone of the day!
Here's Julern and Benito with the last bone of the day:
(1) Julern sets the hook, (2) Bone (and Julern) panics, (3) All hell broke loose..
If you're considering going for a bonefish trip somewhere tropic, and you're not really sure if it's for you, consider this: You've definitely heard of people going on their first bonefish trip...
Have you every heard of someone going on their last? Me neither.