Feels Like the First Time

Feels Like the First Time

Our Reader Sweepstakes Winner hits the flats.

  • By: Fly Rod and Reel
butlera.jpg

Zane Wyll is just like you and me. Well, OK, you probably didn’t spend 15 years working on an Alaskan crab boat like those guys on Deadliest Catch. And you probably don’t claim to have been in a bar fight with Sig Hansen (of the same program). But now Zane has a wife and kids, manages a yacht-charter and brokerage business outside Seattle and spends most winter evenings at home tying flies instead of fighting icy swells on the Bering Sea. The majority of his fly-fishing is for trout and steelhead.

Zane was a flats virgin when he won the Fly Rod & Reel 30th Anniversary Reader Sweepstakes drawing, securing three days of fishing at Pesca Maya. He’d never cast a fly to a bonefish, tarpon or permit. Duty-bound as an editor-at-large of FR&R, I went along as Zane’s, umm, escort, to make sure things went gently.

Pesca Maya is a fine fishing lodge on the edge of Mexico’s Bahia de la Ascension, on the Yucatan Peninsula. Besides fishing the waters of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Preserve, the lodge management can also arrange for fishing (and non-fishing) day trips all over the Yucatan. (For more, see the sidebar on page 62.)

Our first morning included the usual quiet breakfast with the other guests (who didn’t know what to make of the new pair in their midst), and an awkward, shy introduction to our guides, and then we made a 40-minute run across Ascension Bay to a broad flat bounded by a C-shaped, white-sand beach, palms swaying in the breeze. A romantic setting for a first encounter . . . .

We piled out of the boat, me with camera at the ready, trailing behind Zane and our head guide, Nestor; and the slow stalk began. In our three days at Pesca Maya, we fished flats with moderately soft bottoms; not the hard coral you’d find right along a reef, but not ankle-deep in muck, either.

Zane followed Nestor’s lead, padding softly through water that was mid-shin deep. Fish came into view, but scooting toward us along the flat rather than holding steady and tailing. A solid caster, Zane made the most of his shots, repeatedly delivering a Crazy Charlie on target, and he had a fish on within five minutes of first getting our feet wet. But he worked that fish pretty hard, as if it were a steelhead, and it quickly came unbuttoned.

Not to worry. The bones kept coming, in ones and twos, and before long Zane had another on the hook, and he was whooping and hollering as the fish got its fill of runs. Soon enough, Zane had his first bonefish, a 2-pounder, in his hand. As I looked through the camera viewfinder at him, it struck me: No doubt about it, Zane was sporting an afterglow. It was time to move to another flat and, back at the boat, with a beer in one hand, a satisfied and spent Zane lit a cigarette.

 

 

For the rest of the day, the pattern held. If we paid attention, we saw bonefish. Nothing was too easy, making each conquest that much more satisfying. If we did the right things, offered the right trinkets, the fish were willing.
Well, sort of. On another, deeper flat, wading up to our hips, we came upon a tailing bonefish. It was a steady feeder, its tail and dorsal fin flopping happily back-and-forth. With guide Henry at his shoulder, Zane made delivery after delivery. Every once in a while we’d see the fish turn as if to follow Zane’s fly. His line even tightened a few times, but each time it turned out that the fish that agreed to dance was a smaller bonefish patrolling the edges ofwhere the big fish was on the prowl. After Zane landed three or four modest-size bonefish, the big bone moved on, and so did we.

We made short visits to a couple of known permit flats, spotting one fish as it zoomed by with barely a moment for Zane to take a shot (unacknowledged by the permit). Then to a mangrove lagoon, for the off chance at a tarpon.

As Zane took his second cast from the left side of the boat, a tarpon rolled on the right, 25 feet from us. Somehow managing to not fall overboard, Zane made a quick and ultimately futile cast at the dispersing boil with his red-and-white streamer.

I guess a visual grand slam on your first day on the flats can’t really be called a disappointment. Although truth to tell, it compares to actually catching the fish the same way ogling girls at a bar compares to . . . well, never mind.
Back at the lodge, we had a better opportunity to meet our fellow guests than we had at breakfast. Five guys, four of them fellow graduates of the University of Maryland, were traveling together, and it seemed this was something of an annual (if not more frequent) ritual for them, although this was their first time at Pesca Maya. Also joining us was Ann Johansen, a representative of Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures, a Bozeman, Mont., booking agency, on a lodge scouting trip.

There was, perhaps inevitably, a certain lapsed-frat-party flavor to the proceedings as the pre-dinner drinks flowed, and the Maryland boys were merciless, to Ann and to each other. The most ribald of the comments can’t be printed here, but suffice it to say that things deteriorated after we all repaired to the Maryland boys’ cabana after dinner for a couple hours of poker of various standard and mutant forms. There were even several hands of something I believe was called Egyptian Rat Screw, but the details (and the rules) are fuzzy.

Ann had the last laugh, however, eventually walking away with about $140 of everyone else’s money (it was a last-man-standing sort of tourney) and also getting in what I thought was the evening’s best zinger, with her “No, I will not come back to your room to see your conch!” That’s a complete picture, in one line, and we now draw the curtain on the happy scene.

On Day 2 of Zane’s flats initiation, we again made a fast run across Bahia de la Ascension, this time to a long, narrow island complex called Cayo Culebra. The wind gave us a good drift along a fishy-looking bank, so we rigged the tarpon rod with a Cockroach and went to work. Zane banged the streamer into pockets in the mangroves. Everything looked so good, it was hard to believe each and every cast didn’t elicit a strike.

About 15 minutes in, Zane grunted and set the hook into something heavy. Fifty feet away, a fish heaved itself half out of the water. It wasn’t the skyrocketing leap of a tarpon; what Zane had on was a good snook.
We had a few nervous minutes, but the fish was well-hooked, and soon enough Zane brought it to net. A good eight to 10 pounds of snook, and getting relatively rare in Mexico, according to our guides.

Did I mention the wind? It had been building since our arrival, rumbling out of the southeast, and by this time it was fairly howling. Casting was getting more and more difficult, and we were seeing fewer and fewer fish moving along the flats. We checked out some permit flats; no fish. We poked the boat into remote mangrove lagoons; no tarpon. Zane was able to woo a handful of ladyfish, but mostly by chance.

Back at the lodge, Ann had moved on to check out the fishing around Campeche, and the Maryland boys were noticeably less raucous without a young woman in camp to show off in front of. The zingers still got tossed back and forth, it’s just that the banter seemed to lack, I don’t know, vigor. Verve. A certain je ne sais quoi.

Speaking of verve, it’s what our third day of fishing lacked, too. Other than the wind, that is. Henry and Nestor fairly killed themselves, poling across flat after flat, but the closest we came to a fish was a couple of follows from big barracuda. Not a single bonefish nor permit did we see. All day, Zane got no love.

But when it was all finally over, and as we said our goodbyes at the Cancun airport, I could see love’s light shining in Zane’s eyes. No longer pure, no longer untouched by the flats, he was now, well, experienced. Yes, he’d be back.

Jim Butler is the former editor-in-chief of Fly Rod & Reel. He lives in Rockland, Maine.

Make Mine Pesca Maya
Over the years, I’ve come to judge fishing lodges based on whether, after a trip to a particular place, I’d return there with my wife. It’s not because Michele is terribly fussy, mind you. Put a fly rod in her hands, and she’s as much of a fun-hog as anyone. It’s because, since we don’t travel together like we used to (careers, small kids, you know the drill), I want to maximize enjoyment when we’re able to get away. And as far as I’m concerned, Pesca Maya goes in the “Yes” column. And if we did a trip and the Maryland Boys were in residence, even better; I think they’d meet their match in Michele.

Certainly the lodge has the basics covered: A warm, welcoming staff; clean rooms; comfortable beds; terrific food (by the way, any day that starts with huevos rancheros and ends with ceviche and cocktails before dinner can’t be all bad, in my book).

Then there’s the setting, in the 1.3-millon-acre Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, created by presidential decree in 1986 and named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. Specifically, the lodge itself is on a narrow strip of barrier beach, with the Caribbean out front and a network of flats and mangrove channels in back (and, from there, quick access to the famed Bahia de la Ascension to the south). The surroundings are unsurpassed, and potential fishing grounds are enormous.

Zane and I had outstanding guides on our trip, and the Pesca Maya approach to guiding is itself unusual. Each pair of anglers is matched with two guides in their boat, a lead guide and an apprentice. Lest you think that means you get one good guide and another who’s not (yet) much of a guide, wrong. I would have been perfectly happy fishing independently with either of our guides for the entire trip. This system spreads the strain of poling and the like around, of course. And it also means each angler can wade with his or her own guide when fishing a flat that can be worked on foot.

As for equipment, Zane and I went armed for the proverbial bear, with at least two rods in each 8-, 9- and 10-weight categories. Given the wind, we probably could have skipped over the 9, and fished 10s for permit or tarpon. Or we could have carried only 9s and 10s. But, in a boat with plenty of rod racks, what’s the matter with overkill? Toys are meant to be played with. We went with the full complement of flies (as in, everything we could get our hands on), and the lodge has a well-stocked fly case of its own (also leaders and other essentials should you run short). Need to know more? Go to www.pesca maya.com —Jim Butler