A Dream Come True – Fly Fishing for Bonefish in Cozumel

I was fortunate to fulfill that dream in my youth, and with more enthusiasm than economic resources, I began planning this trip that will remain in my memories as one of the best, and that transformed me into a saltwater fishing fanatic. I saved as much as I could with the earnings of my classes as a fly fishing instructor at the Rod and Gun fly shop in Chile, and invested in fishing equipment, tying materials and all that was needed to make this trip a perfect one, to fulfill the dream of many, and that at my young age I was lucky enough to perform.

You can find out more about Martin at http://martinflyfishing.wordpress.com/ & http://patagonianation.com/anglers/martin-aylwin/

Fishing in Maya Land

After a 10 hour flight, and almost 2 hours by car, we arrived in Playa del Carmen. Only 8 hours separated me from making my dream come true, a dream that has been fed by the previous 4 months of waiting. 06:00 am, the alarm clock rings and I head to the pier in Playa del Carmen. My destination? Cozumel, one of the best bonefish fisheries in Mexico. A beautiful island, once a trade port between the different Mayan settlements in the area.

Once I got off the ferry that connects the mainland to the island, Gaspar –my guide- was waiting for me. Gaspar is an expert and easy-going man, who was going to be my professor and partner, in this, my first adventure of fly fishing in the Caribbean Sea, a well known destination for all fly fishermen for catching species such as tarpon, permit and bonefish. As Nassim Joaquin – owner of the operation- told me, Gaspar is a strong “paddler” that will always put me in front of the bonefish. With this reference, I decided to listen and obey all what my guide had to tell me.

After 15 minutes of car ride and pleasant conversation, asking all I could before the fishing day started  and solving some doubts, we reached a small pier full of coloured boats on a paradise beach, most of them for local small scale fishing, and among them, a modern boat, that will be our skiff for the day. It was a simple place, no major tourist facilities and no pretensions, that even with its beautiful, secluded white sand beaches, made you leave behind the image of big all-inclusive hotels, restaurants and tourism, and makes us appreciate Mexico in its more pristine state.

We got on the skiff especially designed for fly fishing on the flats, with a completely flat deck, and organizers to hold any and all possible fishing tools. Equipped with everything needed for a day of fishing in the Caribbean (rods, reels, flies, tippet, food, drinks and lots of sunscreen) I started my first day of fishing in the Caribbean Sea.

After 20 minutes of navigation through beautiful turquoise and deep blue waters, we arrived at a beach on a very narrow peninsula. We got out and walked 30 meters that separated us from a saltwater lagoon, before it connected to the sea, where we would be fishing that day. Gaspar left me on a clear water and extensive dream beach. On it, Gaspar tells me I must fish alone for about 40 minutes to allow him to switch to a special boat inside the lagoon and more suitable for access to the mangroves to fish an area in which only his business has access.

And there, giving me minimal prompting, he left me alone to my own devices, trying to catch the elusive bonefish and practice for when he arrived. For Gaspar it was only meant to be a practice session while he was gone, to loosen up after many months without fishing, a pre-apprenticeship, perhaps to refine my casting, for me though it was a challenge, a personal duel. I had to apply, without having done this in the field before, all the knowledge gathered from reading many internet articles, magazines, and practice without any help a style of fishing that is far removed from anything I have been doing for 15 years: trout fishing. It was for me testing my skills as a fisherman.

I did not walk more than 10 steps from the shore of the lagoon, and already at just 20 cm of water depth I noticed how a group of fish was frightened and swam away incredibly fast. Immediately I thought it was a bonefish school. With no experience of the flats, I started looking for fish, and remembered again and again what I had read in articles and reviews, you don’t fish what you don´t see. You don’t fish blind. And with that thought in mind, I began what became a real hunt. Taking small, quiet steps, walking along the flat, I could see fish everywhere, but without the trained eye, the shadows, could be any fish species. Without a guide to help me, I had to try to attempt to capture some of the shadows, to hopefully connect with a bonefish. Basically, learn from my errors was my objective at that point.

I located two fish (that I hoped were bonefish) at 50 feet away that swam freely searching for food. I prepared my cast but was not effective, the fly fell behind the school. Second cast, which was in the correct direction, was not effective because while I was casting, the school suddenly changed swimming direction. Third cast, well placed, just one meter in front of them. When the fly touched the water, the fish reacted immediately, speeding toward my fly, a pink crazy charlie tied by me. I kept stripping with short, quick strips, as I read on the internet. I’m nervous, the fish are getting closer, I move the fly, and one of them, decides to attack. It takes the fly, l strip-strike to hook the fish, and BOOOM!! The fish frantically swims like a torpedo toward the depths of the flat, the drag begins to sound like I had never heard – and not surprisingly for the strength and the speed of the bonefish was amazing. Now I know what the reels are for I thought as the drag kept ringing sharp with the bonefish putting a bend at the tip of the rod.  The bonefish had take more than 70 feet of line when my leader broke! I checked it, and the strength of bonefish had cut the knot. Thinking about this later, I realized that I made the mistake of having the drag too tight.

Learning this lesson I loosened the drag.  I repeated the knot, and tied a pink crazy charlie again. I returned to my new found role as the “ghost flat” hunter, all alone on a 300 meters long flat. I must find a new school of bonefish. My inexperience made me make a mistake that I repeated several times while I was alone without my guide Gaspar. I saw a solitary figure in the water swimming alone in the flat. I cast just in front of it, and as soon as the fly gets to the right depth the fish takes the fly and cut the leader just after the strike. It was a small barracuda, very similar to the figure of the bonefish to my untrained eyes. Later, Gaspar, and the passage of hours, gave me the experience to easily recognize the bonefish, and thereby avoid throwing the fly to barracudas. I was lucky enough to catch a barracuda in the cheek, so that it could not cut the leader, and begun swimming with a stunning force, similar to a bonefish. In less than 6 seconds, this 3 pound barracuda had taken all the line in the water, plus 20 meters of backing. The barracuda fought hard and did two amazing runs before giving up.

A few minutes later, I located another school. I followed them for more than 60 meters of beach, and got to the perfect position to cast. Bonefish swim fast and it is not simple to follow them in the vast flats of Cozumel. I cast to them, the fly fell about six feet in front of them, a bit too far. But I don’t have enough time to cast again. I decided not to move my crazy charlie until the bonefish were just two or three feet from it. I start stripping the fly with fast and sudden stops.

Suddenly, I had 5 bonefish chasing the fly. I kept stripping. One of them leapt ahead of the others and attacked the fly. I strip-struck and the bonefish started its impressive escape at an incredible speed. And I – with an overwhelming happiness – was watching the line going out like crazy from my reel. A good picture of how these fish fight is like fighting a trout of 5 kilos on steroids. In less than 3 seconds, the bonefish had taken most of the line in the water, when my suddenly line tangled in the index finger of my left hand. Immediately the strength of the run produced so much pressure in the line, that having wrapped around my finger, it broke the 10 lbs leader. Never before has the reel been so fundamental in my fishing than when fishing for “bones”. I was left with a bittersweet happiness and frustration.

Once Gaspar arrived with the smaller boat, we went fishing in some mangrove flats in the lagoon, and we ran into some schools of up to 40 bones. Once located, the guide is extremely important, their mission is to direct the boat to chase them, positioning the fisherman at a moderate distance to cast without spooking the school. We repeated this procedure with 6 schools we encountered on our way. But the sensitivity of these fish, and the inexperience on my part, resulted in two inaccurate casts that spooked 2 bonefish schools. Fishermen always cast perfect until the bonefish appear. Another 2 schools repeatedly ignored my fly, but we managed to catch two bonefish from the boat eventually.

One of those catches was especially significant. We were in a lagoon connected by a short corridor to another smaller lagoon and 10 meters away we spotted a school of at least 30 bonefish eating and tailing, devouring everything the swamp puts in their path. Gaspar, my guide, recommended me to bend over, and carefully cast. They had not seen us yet he said. First cast, and because of the excitement of the moment the cast was not long enough. Bastards! Gaspar said, they saw the fly. “Pongase agudito mi pescador” he kept telling me (be sharper my pescador), I cast again, and this time with Swiss precision, the fly falls softly 50 inches from the leader of the school. Immediately I notice that changed the behavior of the bones, and all of them swim faster to my fly. I stripped faster and without stopping, and saw 3 bonefish chasing my crazy charlie. One of them came forward and took the fly just 4 meters from the boat, like a torpedo it ran towards the end of the lagoon, taking all of the line that was in the boat and over 20 meters of line more on the spool. I, being careful not to repeat past mistakes, was especially careful to protect the line from not getting tangled and not losing the “bone” this time. When it stopped swimming, I started retrieving the line, and 10 meters from the boat the bonefish ran again, taking off more than 30 meters of line again, just as if my reel has no drag. I was only seconds away from taking my first bonefish, and for Gaspar’s joy, the bonefish did not escape and I could see the majesty of this pearl trophy, the ghost of the flats as English-speaking anglers call them. A reward that exceeded by far the effort and made the whole trip worthwhile. I congratulated my guide, and celebrated with a cold beer my first bonefish.

After a few minutes of following a few schools, I managed to capture my second bonefish from the boat. A new beer and then we started the return to where we had got the skiff. In that place my guide left me once more to catch some bonefish that returned to the flat with the high tides. I got off the boat, and walked quietly across the sand. Slowly walking and looking in all directions for a bonefish tail, to close a day that was already perfect. On a seaweed bed that was located in deeper water, and 35 meters from myself, a bonefish school appeared moving fast from my right. I estimated the direction of the school and walked to achieve the perfect position to cast. From where I was, I had to cast about 16 meters and if the cast was accurate it would be a bite for sure. They swam quickly in to me, and when they were 10 meters from the strike zone, I decided to cast, and although the wind was strong, the fly landed right where the bonefish would pass according my calculations. Although I cast before I needed, the fly was in the strike zone, and the bonefish were swimming into it. I let the fly sink, and when they were just a feet from the fly, I began to strip fast. Immediately, several of the bonefish that were “tailing” jumped on to the fly and one of them took it hard, I strip-struck and hooked it, and then I became a spectator of one of the most amazing runs I have witnessed in my 14 years fly fishing. I had cast 15 meters and the bonefish had removed the remaining meters of line from the reel in a matter of seconds, and now I watched as the backing left the reel fast also. I could not do anything but rely on my reel, and could not retrieve, because the handle would hit me in the fingers. I never heard my reel sound so fast and strong. I laughed, thinking about how envious my friends would be and how lucky I had been to be there at that moment and that time. 20 meters of backing out, and I started to feel that the small bonefish was tired, so I wound up until the first 10 feet of line entered the reel, when suddenly the bonefish in a second attempt to escape tried to run again. Already exhausted though, it gave up.

That bonefish was the third of the day, and I couldn’t be more happy. This trip I had planned for so long, closed perfectly. With the rod in my hand, on a beach with turquoise waters and white sands, with a bonefish captured after a good fight, and the sun shining, I couldn’t ask for more. Few things can compare to that experience. We took some photos so that friend back home in Chile believed my stories. I reluctantly left the bonefish in Cozumel, where I hope to return to capture a bonefish again, that for me has been one the most incredible species that I have ever fished for.

Thanks to:
I would like to thank Nassim Joaquin, who organised the fishing trip to Cozumel He is a great saltwater fisherman and he can help you whatever your need are. If you would like to ask any questions about this article or my trip you can contact me at: maylwinf@gmail.com

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