Speed Bumps and Black-Tailed Devils by John Retallack

Speed Bumps and Black-Tailed Devils by John Retallack

In 2019 and 2020, I booked trips with Fish Tales to Cuba (Zapata Peninsula) and Mexico (Yucatan, Punta Allen) after deciding I needed to get serious about fishing for permit. I also realized that, after more than 15 years of trips through Fish Tales, I had never fished with Nancy.

David had arranged the trip to Mexico to help celebrate Nancy’s birthday. Covid killed those plans, but, after rebooking a couple of times, the trips happened this year (end of March/early April for Cuba, and mid May/early June for Mexico). Notice the addition of an extra week for Mexico to make it three weeks of permit fishing over a two-month period. It was go-big or go-home time and the yearning for a permit caused by two years of Covid lockdown had created an obsession. I added X-flats at Xcalak for the second week.

 Cuba was great, except for the very strong winds throughout the week…and a partially torn rotator cuff gained on day 1! I was not able to cast with my right arm and thought I was destined to be known as Lefty John.

After six weeks of fairly aggressive physiotherapy (thanks Angela at Kensington Physiotherapy), I was judged to be in good enough shape to head to Mexico for two weeks.

Both lodges, Kay Fly in Punta Allen, and X-flats in Xcalak, only minutes from the Belize border, are very well run and are located right on the water. Both have a family-friendly feel, great food, and they are dog friendly.
The first thing that struck me about the trip to Cancun and south along the Yucatan Peninsula wasn’t the tropical heat, crisp tropical winds, birds everywhere and great Mexican food; it was the speed bumps. ‘TOPES’ are everywhere on the Yucatan roads. On the main highway, the double concrete
ones seem to be positioned randomly. Just as everyone is getting up to speed on the major highway another set of TOPES causes panic braking and traffic jams. The concrete ones were annoying but the bumps themselves were reasonably sloped to prevent our van bottoming out. The TOPES in the
backcountry, where we spent most of our time, consisted of lengths of five-inch braided nautical rope nailed into the roadway. They demanded respect and our van drivers came to a dead stop while crossing every one that we encountered. Even the ones flattened over the years still held their stopping power.
I came to Mexico to catch a permit. On this trip to the Yucatan I was able to witness firsthand three people catch their first permit. The first one was with Dan at Kay Fly. The second was with Father John at X-flats. Nancy also caught her first permit at X-flats but I did not witness the catch. All first time permit catches were the result of seeing the fish at distance from the boat but exiting the boat
and walking the flats to intercept the fish and ensure an opportunity for good casts.
Oh yeah, the third of the first-time permit I witnessed being caught at X-flats was - MINE! 

After spending six days in Cuba, a month and a half earlier, and countless days on previous trips, concerns mounted on day 4 of week 2 in the Yucatan, but how could anyone get truly frustrated in this fabulous Mayan paradise?

 The Yucatan is different. For the first time in my pursuit of permit, I saw  hundreds of permit in the two weeks and I was finally able to understand the key components of casting to permit and dealing with rejection!

Assuming you have the right fly at the end of your line, if you cast too short - No bueno! If you cast too far - No bueno! If you cast perfectly - No bueno! I heard from the veterans over the years that mindless persistence was needed for an eventual “bueno” response.


“It will happen” they said.
“Cast now, 10:00, 50 feet” the guides said, but the result always seemed to be the same; “He see the fly, but no eat”, “He no see the fly”, or simply “No sé!”
I had tied up a bunch of flies; spawning shrimp, Veverkas, Avalon crab, alphlexo crab, fleeing crab, etc. etc. per information packages from the lodges and various other “experts”. But, like all other saltwater locations, when the guides looked through my fly boxes in the Yucatan, they always ended
up with that skeptical look - if you know, you know that look, and I don’t need to describe it! “Too big, too small, too heavy, too light, too much colour, not enough colour.” And then, with a barely audible sigh and an eye-roll, they would select one and tie it on. Permit would then refuse it, be afraid of it, or whatever $%&#*&@ excuse the fish had for ignoring it.
June 1, 2022. Big John and I were in the boat with Erick on the pole and D at the front of the boat scanning the horizon and tending the line. We spent most of the day looking for permit or casting for tarpon on the outside shore or inside on the flats. We were seeing lots of fish, but there was no fish love! Erick gave the now familiar, “Reel up” command “we’ll go somewhere else.” And with the push
pole stowed, we headed out Canal Zaragoza by the Mexican Naval base and turned left back toward Xcalak. We continued past the town and, just past X-flats Lodge, he shut down the motor, grabbed the push pole and headed to the platform above the engine.
I was up and D handed me my 9wt Sage METHOD with my 9-11 Lamson Speedster. I peeled off 60 or 70 feet of blue and yellow 10 wt RIO Permit line and started scanning. Almost immediately, Erick spotted some permit ‘pushing’ water about 100 meters further north. “Let me see your fly.” I had a spawning shrimp on “Too heavy! Do you have any crab flies?” They were all too heavy, too big, etc.
But, I had another box of crabs that another guide earlier in the week had looked at and declared way too small and too light. I exiled it to the bottom of my pack. Erick picked one out that had a body smaller than my pinky fingernail and tied it on. So much for big and heavy like Facebook and YouTube says. This fly had zero weight and it floated proudly without any part of it getting wet!
“Out of the boat!” he commanded as he quickly descended from the platform, never taking his eyes off the approaching school of permit, and silently got in the water with his hand out for my fly rod. I handed him my rod, with the pile of line still in the boat. He quickly organized the line as I got out of the boat into 2 ½ feet of water. From the boat, the bottom looked mushy, but when I got in it was fairly firm and I only sunk in about half an inch. He motioned me forward as the small pod of fish came in from the left. I sent out what I thought was a reasonable cast.
“Too short! Another 5 feet.” I prepped again adding another 5 feet or so and dropped the fly on one of the fish’s heads and they took off. Erick kept watching as they headed south. And then they turned and started to circle back.
“Wait, wait” as he touched my rod to make sure I didn’t do anything stupid. The small school turned and headed straight for us. At about 50 feet he took his hand off my rod and calmly said, “Cast now.”
This was about as good as it got for permit opportunities. In hindsight I have to say I was calmer than I thought I would be. After one false cast, I made a perfect cast and dropped the very small floating crab about 45 feet out, directly in front of the approaching fish.
“Remember, looong and slooow strip.” I did as I was told and on the second strip the half the fish came out of the water, sucked in the fly, and the line went tight. I made one more straight set and hung on!

The Yucatan guides seem to like a fairly loose drag so there is no danger of breaking the fish off at the strike. There was no screaming run; the fish was just swimming with the school. Slowly all of the line floating around us was taken up and the fish felt the limited drag for the first time. The rest of my fly line and the knot at the backing joint disappeared into the distance in seconds. I placed my hand under the reel getting ready to add a bit of palm drag, but felt Erick’s gentle touch and a sharp “Don’t! No palming!” The fish took off toward deeper water and the reef in the distance but eventually slowed and I could start to gain a bit on the reel.
They say time stands still when you are having a good time…it does and I have absolutely no idea how long I played the fish!
After a while I had the backing reeled in and was onto my fly line. Erick made a move toward the fish. 
I thought it was a bit early, the fish agreed, and I was again well into my backing. After the second or third run Erick was able to get his hand on the line and grabbed the tail.
I had caught my first permit!
D followed along with the boat with Big John capturing the moment. Pictures were taken. The line was cut, because the fish had taken the fly deep. I even kissed the fish as I let it go. And then Big John yelled, “You need to do a Christmas Island! Remember on Christmas Island when I caught my
big GT.” Memories came back! I stood on my knees, leaned back and did a full body back-splash immersion into the Caribbean Sea, about 30 meters from the shore and probably no more than 150 meters from the X-flats dock.


We still had some fishing time left, but I let Big John have the rest of the day. After many years of trying to catch a permit, I had the evidence and I was done!
Back at the lodge I was on the hook for drinks; some gin and tonics, some margaritas, some straight rum, and a few cervesas were consumed that evening.

Unlike the ritual at Kay Fly in Punta Allen, I didn’t need to eat a pickled scorpion. But I did get to spray paint a permit on the X-flats wall-of-fame, along with my name and the date to commemorate my first permit.
I chalk up my permit to a fairly good cast in the heat of the moment, but also to the good luck from the 4-leaf clover given to me by 6-year-old Romeo at Kay Fly when we left Punta Allen.

Thank you Romeo! 



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