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Grand Slam Camp, January 2023. Day 4, 5 & 6

Day 4 of fly fishing the Yucatan kicks off with muted expectations. The swell forecast is high and when we arrive at the beach flats we can see that the forecast is correct. The beach flats are captivating when conditions are ideal but not every day can be perfect. Generally, if the swell is less than 3 feet, the beach flats are fishable and worth roaming. A swell higher than that, and it is time to fly fish the reef flats.

And that's what we do. Our first choice is occupied with other fly fishing folks. Second choice has local fishermen working the waters. We keep driving. After barreling through some heavy foliage choking the road, we emerge to the hail mary spot. It looks good. The tide is still low but coming in and the beach has considerably less sargasso than in May 2022. I wade out into the beach side trough while James rigs up his spinning rod. A fun side quest in less than ideal conditions.

James scans the reef flat post swim

The water is touch over waist deep and visibility is limited. I wade slowly towards the turtle grass flats, hoping to spot a permit cruising. Rolling clouds add to the drama and visibility is sporadic. Sure enough a permit appears, swimming away off my left shoulder. It is a tight and quick shot. And no interest is taken. All good. Plenty of trigger shots should arrive soon. I reach the turtle grass flats and it is crawling with tailing triggers. If you've never fly fished for triggerfish before, consider this a word of warning. They are cruel and unusual. They are moody. They are spooky. And they fight dirty. And once you actually land one, be careful. They have impressive teeth and would love to keep your finger(s) as a souvenir.

I try a variety of tactics with no luck. After a bit, I accept that the triggers are in a selfish mood. By now, the sun is starting to shine consistently. The reef break flat is starting to glow. The swim out becomes more inviting. I lob the idea at James. He is game. I roll my backpack one more time, check James’ backpack zipper and we wade towards the drop off. I am able to bounce along for a hundred yards or so and then no more. Time to really swim. I do my best to keep my two fly reels out of the water. The current is pushing hard to the south, forcing water between the interior turtle grass flat and the outside reef and out towards the open ocean to the south. It quickly becomes clear this swim is directly the book of bad ideas. I give up on the reels and put my whole body to work. The southern end of the reef gradually gets closer. And then we can bounce. And then walk. The fish gods are looking out.

The reef is uneventful at first. We walk north with the sun at our backs. Then the gift arrives. The clouds clear and the flat glows a blue-green unlike anything I have seen in the Caribbean. It is mesmerizing. For a moment I am exploring the South Pacific.

On the turtle grass, I exhausted my trigger fly go-to’s. Tied on now is a fly I found the night before re-organizing the back-up fly storage. A simple brown fly with lead eyes, lacking a weed guard but hosting a curly brown rubber tail, reminiscent of the soft plastic salamanders I fished with abandon when chasing farm pond bass in college.

A massive gray tail flops up. Gametime. I wade across the sharp rocks. Slowly getting closer, I wait close by. However, the fish will not leave the rocks negating any chance for a sand bottom presentation. I cast and keep the fly moving. The trigger chases, swimming at the fly but never connecting, spooking at my feet. This repeats itself a few more times. These are the happiest triggers I have encountered in the area. I think the channel helps keep them calm. But the rocks make it very tricky to present a fly. I try to a slower retrieve on one but, as I feared, the fly snags into the rocks. A weed guard and bead chain eyes ought to do it next time.

The swim back is uneventful. This time I strap both rods to my pack and have full function of my arms. Some bouncing, some swimming. Easy cruising even though it takes 40 minutes to get to shore.

Authors fly creation that landed 3 permit on Day 1

Back at the car, we weigh our options. The town flat wins out with a pit stop en route at a favorite rocky point. The rocks are bare, a rarity. We swim out to the town flats with a couple hours of light left. The tide is low but rising. I stick one early. A solo cruiser in a white sand hole. Great fun. We roam the interior turtle grass flats and rocky reef surf break with little luck across plenty of chances on tailing bonefish and tailing triggers. This is to be expected and must be accepted, alas. Heartbreak still arrives though. I am casting at a trigger in the waves, and I hear, not see, a fish spook. Hear. A 15-20 pound permit is somehow 20 feet away and inside the waves (to the south, in the glare of the setting sun) and it torpedoes to deep water. That hurts. I take the hint and stop casting at the triggers and wait. 10 minutes later a permit tail pops up in the waves. I get within range. Lay out a cast. And it spooks before the fly lands. PAIN.

Town Flat - full of promise

Back to the interior. Back to bonefish. I go super light. After sunset, the current is strong enough from the rising tide that I can use my favorite trick - an ‘upstream’ presentation drift. Get in line with tailing fish that are feeding into the wave current, cast ahead of them, keep the line tight, and hope I can feel the eat. Remember, a strip of the fly too early here will spook these fish. After a few tries, it works. I pull one bonefish from a group of 5. I am ecstatic. Once things settle down post fight, I hook another. This one breaks me off when I try in vain to keep it away from the rocks. The stars are twinkling as I wade, swim then wade again back to the beach.

Town Flat success!

Day 5 of fly fishing the Yucatan starts in similar fashion to Day 4. Swell. Lots of it. Over 6 feet to be exact. We ponder our options and head south. We check out two spots I haven't fished before. The water looks good despite conditions, but only one storming jack is spotted.

A sure sign that triggerfish like this spot

Next, we drive to plan A from the day prior. It is open. Confidence arrives. Little comes of it though. A few jacks and snapper. The highlight is raiding the shoreline coconut trees. From his time on a study abroad in the central Caribbean, James is a pro at cracking them open with just a hunting knife. Makes me wonder how much actual studying he did there.

Plan A - views and coconuts!

Relaxed and refreshed, we head north to the town flat for the final few hours, time to be humbled again.

The mission is simple for Day 6 of fly fishing the Yucatan, we must find James a tarpon. He is beginning to say things like “I would trade that permit for a tarpon for sure” and “I mean the permit was great, but I really want a tarpon.” It takes tremendous restraint for me not to slap these words out of his brain. My obsession with fly fishing for Tarpon dramatically changed the course of my life, so I get it. But for anyone who has endured normal fly fishing for permit (not catching one on your first day) this is blasphemy of the highest order.

Breakfast of Champions - left over empanadas

We head north in hopes of said Tarpon. Our goal is a spot Tommy showed Hal, Gavin and me in May, 2022 that could be accessed on foot and is loaded with tarpon and barracuda. After an inland cruise, we angle east towards the coast line. We check in at a modified shipping container, hammock and charcoal grill inside. Brief greetings and then we discuss our plan for the day with the guard.

Ahhh la laguna. Si si.

Si. Para pescar.

Amigos, muchos crocodillos en la laguna.

Si, pero solamente pescar a tierra firma. No en la aqua.

He nods, looks me in the eye and repeats “Muchos crocodillos.”

This seems to settle the case and we sign a log book wondering how smart our plan is.

The conversation continues, mostly on the guards side while I pick up every third word or so. We say our goodbyes and walk back to the car. The engine starts, I put it in gear and a voice rings out:


All we can do is smile.

Cove of great promise

Fortune seems to be swinging back to our side a few miles later as we drive along a cove. The baitfish are getting smashed by 7 pelicans. The best of signs. The tarpon must be nearby. We sit and watch. 15 minutes later and the Pelicans are bored. No big fish spotted.

We continue north, park, and hike to the cenote access. The water is much higher than the year before, dry land now swamped, and turbid. Not a tarpon or cuda in sight. Heartbroken, we cast what little water we can, while standing in knee deep water thinking about our new friends warning.

James works the cenote entrance

Patience is nearly rewarded when three snook cruise into view. The largest is over 3 feet, a trophy in any area. I get a follow. James does as well. The aggression is lacking, they seem sluggish in the cooler temps.

The sun climbs in the sky and I encourage James to try something new. He is fully focused on tarpon and remiss to relent after I spoke so highly of this spot, not to mention he has seen the videos of Hal jumping a tarpon from dry land the year prior.

We swing south, back to the pelican cove. The pelicans are there. And so is a monster jack, Go! Go! Go!

James gets a fly in the water as the jack exits. The hunt is on.

Another adrenaline surging blitz to the beach but no connection. I decide to roam. I follow a rock shelf line to its start and wade out. I then wade north, thigh deep,scouting inviting water on both sides. I get to sling a large baitfish pattern with both forward and back cast deliveries. Magic. I love casting, particularly when there is plenty of incentive to cast as far as possible. Most of the action comes from highly aggressive needlefish. These aren't your average needles though, plenty are over 3 feet in length. Good fun but the hope remains that a big jack or tarpon will appear. I'm nearing the end of the shelf, and a thudding bite arrives. No needle this time. A solid fight and a healthy blue runner comes to hand.

With tarpon on the brain, James takes off back to the cenote. I wade north to finish the cover flst and check the rock point. It looks like triggerfish heaven on the map. A couple hours pass and I hit the road back to the cenote, one triggerfish spurning wiser. James has had a similar lack of luck. Time to hit the road south so James can meet back up with Nick for a golden hour tarpon hail mary in the lagoons from the jon boat.

I stay in town, planning to get some laptop work done and get all packed up. A touch after 4pm, the sun pokes out again from the clouds. If there has been any consistent theme to my life the past 7 years, it is that I always choose to fish. And this will be no exception. I head to the town flat. It is a zoo with two cruise ships freshly docked. The bonefish don't mind the crowds, and feisty one comes to hand well before sunset.

Town flat parting gift

Back on dry land, I check in. James texts no tarpon and that both rods broke when the jon boat fell off the truck roof rack. Not the fairytale finish I was envisioning. I pull up to Nick's place weighing the odds it is all a joke. Fortunately it is.

James fights his first tarpon on fly

James lands his first tarpon on fly!

The rods are in plain view and James and Nick are all smiles. James has gone 2 for 2 to land his first and second tarpon on fly at the buzzer. That's exactly what I had hoped for.

We pack up in high spirits and hit the road with Tulum shenanigans in our near future.

All smiles for Nick & James

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