Day 4-6 Holy Crap there are Fish!
As we headed out to calm conditions we were in for a real look at what Xcalak had to offer. Personally, day 4 for me will go down as one of the most memorable days of flats fishing in my life... and I didn’t land a single fish!
I was out with long time friend Ruben (who was on his 7th week in the past 5 years at X-Flats) and we headed up the ocean side to see if we could spot tailing permit. We were out with Nato (on year 33 of guiding!!) and Jose who was training with the master. First stop Nato didn’t like the current, second stop good conditions but nothing. So, Nato decided to head to the farthest south area very close to the Belize border. We started to hunt and low and behold we saw multiple fish.
The thing was... they were rolling NOT tailing.
We had found a group of tarpon taking advantage of the calm conditions and dining on the Sardines. We only had one tarpon rod between the two of us and for the next hour and a half we were constantly casting (every few minutes) at rolling tarpon ranging from 5 pounds to 40! We had kind of rushed the tarpon set up and ended up relying on Nato’s 50lb he had in his stash to expedite getting the first shots (as at the time we had no idea we were into an extended tarpon session). Ruben hooked up on cast 4 or 5 and the “set the hook” excitement is elevated as this is the first tarpon seen all week. Ruben “gives it the business” and pop the tarpon jumps and the line sails back towards us. Ruben pulled the line in - the 50 pound snapped like a twig. It was degraded and had broken easily. A quiet descended on the boat while more tarpon rolled around us. Out came the 60-pound fresh tippet from Ruben’s bag and we felt much more confident. It was my turn up and 4 to 5 cast later I got an eat but unfortunately, I never came tight and the tarpon simply opened its mouth and said “later”! We cast for the next 45 min to many, many tarpon, changed flies multiple times, made some absolutely beautiful casts at the max of both of our distances and never got another one to bite. That’s just the way she goes sometimes. We were happy though to have had so many opportunities and had a completely different view of Xcalak and the opportunities it could present. We ate lunch with tarpon continuing to tease us until finally we said “let’s go get rejected by permit” that is somehow easier to handle! Off we went through the “creek” which separates Mexico and Belize to head to the inside lagoon to look for permit.
It took all of 10-15 minutes to get to the area and we started polling down the shoreline. Jose (who has excellent eyes) spotted some nervous water near the shoreline. As we approached he saw black tips of tails. Intensity level went up a couple of notches. The water was as flat as glass, so we needed to be super quiet and stealthy (so we thought). Ruben was up and Jose finally saw more of the fish and said it’s a very big school and directed Ruben to cast to the edge. We then started to see the spectacle in front of us. Incredibly about 50-60 permit were milling around happily feeding in a relatively small area (about the size of an average house). The cast was made with high anticipation as this was exactly what we had come for. Of course, permit being asses did what they do best and completely ignored Ruben’s fly.
Second, third, …. eighth casts were made with zero interest! Ruben changed flies to an even smaller crab than he originally had on. Finally, Ruben got a hook up and adrenaline being what it is got a tad aggressive with the hook set wanting to pull the fish away from the group and ping the tippet broke! If you’re keeping track that’s a broken off tarpon and permit now! All that was left was a bonefish and the “broken slam” was complete!
The Permit just kept coming in groups of 10 to 20 (a mix of sizes from small to 7/8 pounders) and joining the feeding fish and some would leave. So for almost two hours Ruben and I cast to very comfortable and happy permit. We went to 15-16’ long leaders with the smallest flies we could find and only had one other hook up. In desperation after 6-7 fly changes I went to a small “carp fly” that was absolutely the smallest thing I could find in my box (I had it to try in ultra-skinny water for tailing bones.) I got a hook up on the 2nd cast, tried to pull the small permit (salad plate size would be generous) and the fish surged and popped off. I got the hook back and sure enough the barbless competition style hook had bent open with the pressure. My only hook up of the day!
Ruben did manage to find a cooperative decent-sized bonefish mixed in with the permit that was happy to cooperate! So Ruben completed his “broken slam” and did actually land the bone. It was an unbelievable fishing session. It completely reminded me of fishing the Bow or the Missouri River’s for happily feeding trout and changing flies to try and figure out what they were eating. In the end I think we changed flies at least 15-18 times between the two of us and the fish didn’t care. We were both casting at the same time to the groups. Ruben ended up out of the boat for the last part of the session. They just kept feeding and teasing us. Now if we had of landed all the fish we hooked that day Ruben would have had a grand slam and I would have added to my permit count! But it wasn’t meant to be.
Ruben said that he had seen this feeding school behavior multiple times in Xcalak and that’s what keeps him coming back. I can completely see why. I have never in my 22 years of flats fishing cast at so many permit. We did pole the boat over the area before heading home to see if we could see anything obvious that they were eating but nada. The eat marks were just “brushes” on the bottom not the classic crab hole eats so whatever it was they were eating was small and not deeply buried in any hole or sand. As I said… one of my most memorable days of fishing and I didn’t land a thing!
We got back to the lodge to hear more permit “not eating” stories but people were sure happy with the number of chances they had. Then a quiet smile crossed John R’s (we ironically had three on the trip) lips and he said he did have one eat a floating crab and had landed his first permit! He got to watch the fish stick it’s head out of the water to eat the crab. Congratulations and drinks all around.
I ended up as a single on Day 5 and wanted another crack at tarpon. So, I re-rigged my 9wt with 60lb bite tippet and let the guides (Pio and Ruben again) know that for the first couple of hours anyway I’d like to see if there were more beach tarpon around. We headed north of the lodge. The first two spots were a bust. Then as we headed back south a flock of birds (pelicans, terns, frigate) were working an area. Sure enough there were sardines. Ruben spotted a roll. We concentrated on the area and saw the next full body roll. My eyes popped out of my head as a well over 100 pound tarpon slashed and ate some sardines. I looked at my 9wt and knew I was woefully undergunned for that particular fish but the others in the area were 5-30 pounders so the 9wt was ok. It wasn’t the same level of activity I’d had the day before, but the fish were more cooperative. I managed to hook three and land 2 tarpon that were perfect size! After lunch it was time to go permit fishing.
We headed into the lagoon again and my anticipation level was high for even having a slight repeat of the day before. But it was not to be. We didn’t find any larger schools, but we did see larger fish in the deeper water that we just couldn’t quite get into casting range. In the end I never even cast to a permit for the afternoon. Back to reality and a much more “normal” permit fishing day for me!
Back at the lodge drinks were already being had and I knew something was up. Both Nancy and a different John R had got their first permit ever. That made three anglers on the trip catching their first permit ever. An outstanding result. Drinks and stories all around and high hope for the final day!
Day 6 I ended up fishing with the other John R (who is actually one of Fish Tales’ Bow River guides) and our guide was Kissi. We tried a couple of spots on the oceanside for permit but found none so headed for the lagoon. As soon as we got to first area sure enough there were pushes of water heading our way. We had some primo shots at larger fish but they acted like normal permit! We came across a pair of permit that were “laid up” over a dark patch and absolutely not moving so we didn’t see them until they were 20 feet from the boat. They pushed off, but hadn’t spooked. We watched them move to the end of another dark area and never saw them cross the light sand after that so we had a pretty good idea that they had stayed on the black. I was up and ended up with a couple of absolutely perfect shots as they slowly turned around and headed back towards us. I completely credit Kissi with his patience to get me those shots. Alas again no eat but the adrenaline level was high!
We moved into the same area Nancy had her shots the very first day. We could see the nervous water and a tail flash at least a couple of hundred yards away. John was up. Kissi, extremely stealthily, moved John into casting range. John is an excellent caster so was bombing out 90’ casts and putting the small crab into the actively tailing permit. He managed 4-5 “in the money” casts but permit learn to be asses at a very young age and showed us their tails as they left the bay. Kissi said if we gave them some time they will come back. We were keen. So we took a 45-minute loop around the area and I got another couple of shots at larger fish with sub-optimal casts on my part and we were back in the area to see if the permit had returned to “the” feeding spot. Sure enough we could see them right back there. Again, full credit to Kissi for his patience and knowledge of these fish’s behavior. John had switched flies to a small mantis shrimp pattern in hopes that something completely different would entice an eat. Kissi slowly moved us into position and tails were flashing - fish were feeding and optimism was high in the boat. The fish let us get a bit closer and John managed another 3 or 4 perfect casts with the same result! Ah the crushing “joys” of permit fishing. It was time to head to one last spot “the home fish” before calling an end to the trip. We headed out of the lagoon back to the ocean side and ended up directly in front of town and literally 75 yards from Kissi’s house! True “home” fish. It was my turn up to end the trip.
One other boat, with the ER Docs fishing with Nato & Jose, were just ahead of us taking a shot at permit just as we pulled up beside the town dock. No eat for them and they slowly continued back toward the lodge. Kissi had us wait 10 minutes or so then slowly polled us yards from his house and said “If they have they will be there” and points to two spots. As we approached we saw nothing. Then out of the first little hole a push of water suddenly headed off to the left, Kissi quietly swore to himself for not seeing them, and I took a marginal shot but nothing. Kissi backed us out again. We watched very carefully and saw the nervous water loop around and head for the hole that was 15 yards further. We quietly approached and saw very subtle water movement and Kissi had me make the cast. As my fly landed a couple of permit flared away a short distance so we knew my fly was “in them”. Second strip and I came tight with Xcalak! The fly caught the bottom! I managed to pull it out and made a second cast into the same area but stripped slightly faster to avoid the bottom. Second strip I came tight again! This time it bolted off to the left and I was tight to my third permit of the week. It bolted around for a few minutes while John silently cursed me from the boat seat! We put the fish in the net, took a quick pic, watched it head back to its friends and enjoyed a shot of some very good rum that John had in a flask for just such an occasion. A spectacular way to end the trip for me and highlighted the “unfairness” of permit fishing. Back to the lodge for the last supper and to prepare for the trip home.
The trip home ended up taking 3 days via Toronto with flight delays (too much fuel and unloading of fresh fish and mangoes (I kid you not!!), an unplanned overnight stay in Toronto and finally getting to Calgary at 7:30am Monday morning when were supposed to get there at a very pleasant 8pm on Sunday evening. It will be awhile before travel gets back to normal but we were ultimately happy to have been able to see what Xcalak had to offer and extremely pleased with breaking the permit curse for Nancy and the others. We have rebooked for June of 2023!!