Ascension Bay,

The Land Where The Sky Is Born

You can’t sugarcoat anything about the “road” from the dusty southern city limits of Tulum to the bamboo fences that signal the entrance to a tiny Mayan fishing village 50 kilometers to the south. Narrow, deep-rutted, and unpaved, it’s the closest most of us will ever come to riding an angry bull. When it rains, potholes and ruts fill up with gooey mud. When dry, clouds of dust choke the air.

We are traveling through the 1.3 million-acre Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve of grass savannas, mangrove islands, lagoons and white sand flats, in the Southeastern Mexican state of Quintana Roo. Overhead an army of misshapen cloud formations, cumulonimbus, altostratus, cumulus and stratus, many taller than the Tetons, march across a troubled sky above Ascension Bay, a body of water so vast as to defy description. In the ancient Mayan language, Sian Ka’an, means “Where the sky is born”. It’s easy to see why the Mayans chose the phrase to describe their homeland...

Mexico Fly Fishing
Where the Sky is Born 11 O'clock. Cast! Nice Tail King of the Flats Point Me in the Direction Linesider in Mangroves Phantoms of the Flats Tiger of the Sea Vibrant Mayan Batik

The Biosphere Reserve is also home to rare and spectacular creatures including ocelots, jaguars, manatees, salt-water crocodiles and hundreds of species of exotic birds. Deep within the tangled mangroves and narrow lagoons, the mark of the Ancient Mayans can still be seen. Crumbling temples and hidden tollhouses guard aquatic passageways. Today, only iguanas rule these long abandoned ruins.

It is the latter part of January. I have said farewell to the cold, wet climate of Seattle, Washington, and booked a flight to the warmth of the tropics. Landing in the resort town of Cancun, I’m headed 4 hours south by van to stalk bonefish, permit and tarpon on a long overdue second visit to Ascension Bay on the Caribbean coast of eastern Mexico.

Stretching over 300 Square miles, Ascension Bay is a virtual fish factory for bonefish, permit, tarpon, and snook. The seemingly endless expanse of flats, mangroves and lagoons are legendary for the number of fish, remarkable diverse bird life and natural beauty. Schools of bonefish in the millions, unimaginable numbers of permit, tarpon and snook, have been swimming untouched for millennia, offering anglers some of the most productive salt water flats fishing on the planet. It’s the perfect destination to catch your first bonefish or your one thousandth. It’s azure clear waters are a permit incubator. Widely regarded as the toughest flats fish to take on a fly, permit thrive in Ascension Bay’s protected habitat. It is one of the rare places where an angler can target permit everyday, weather permitting, and have a realistic chance of success. Anglers also have a better than average chance to score a “Grand Slam”, catching a bonefish, permit, and tarpon in one day. Add a snook to the mix, and you have achieved the holy grail of salt-water fly-fishing, the “Super Slam”.

I’m sitting shoulder to shoulder in an eight-passenger van with seven other anglers. Mountains of gear bags, suitcases and rod holders are jammed floor to ceiling behind the last row of seats. We lurch from pothole to pothole, jerking us sideways and back and forth. Suddenly, one in our party asks to stop the van. Car sick, he heads for the dense brush. We all scramble out thankful to stretch. Back in the saddle, we “cowboy up” for the next 30 kilometers of bone jarring potholes.

Our final destination is a tiny, remote Maya lobster fishing village that the locals call “La Colonia”. Named after a former state Governor, Colonia de Pescadores Javier Rojo, gringos know it by another moniker, Punta Allen. Inhabited by seventy Maya families, Punta Allen stretches out like a lazy dog sleeping in the afternoon sun along the white sandy beaches of Ascension Bay on the Caribbean coast of eastern Mexico. But don’t ever let the quiet solitude and remoteness of the region fool you. If you’re searching for non stop action-packed fishing days there’s no better salt water flats destination anywhere else in the world.

We reach Punta Allen a little after 9pm. The van slows. To our left, a glare of light exposes the silhouettes of two uniformed men, one sitting in an open doorway, the other slouched against a wall, automatic weapon, slung over his right shoulder. We creep along a sandy street past a small, dimly lit Mercado. A pack of dogs scamper by. The pungent smell of wood smoke mixes with the muggy air.

Any weariness from a full day of travel seems to fade away as we pull to a stop in front of our lodge, Casa Viejo Chac. Owner Manuel Chac, a direct Mayan descendant, is there to greet us. “Buenos noches, amigos. Mi casa esta ellos casa.” I shake his hand and he says he remembers me from three years before.

I remember him as well. I once watched in amazement as he double hauled an entire 9 weight fly line into a stiff easterly breeze from the bow of a panga.

Casa Viejo Chac is a two-story building with eight rooms on the second level. There is a central kitchen adjacent to an open patio. For nearly a decade, Manuel has continued to expand the lodge, adding new rooms and a roof top lounge. While not as well publicized as other fishing lodges in Ascension Bay, Casa Viejo Chac has quietly earned a well-deserved reputation as one the best-managed and most affordable fishing lodges in the Caribbean.

We unpack the van and take our rods and gear to our assigned rooms. Colorful batik prints depicting ancient Mayan gods and symbolic rituals share the walls with countless photos of huge permit, toothy barracuda, bonefish and tarpon. I’m reminded of why I have come so far. Before turning in, we string our rods and select our favorite bonefish and permit patterns, pretending to know what will work best. No doubt in the morning our guides will open our fly boxes, shake their heads, and pick a different pattern.

The fishing days start early at Casa Viejo Chac. Wake up at 6:30am, breakfast at 7am, meet our guides, then a short walk to the boats that are moored in a protective Cay. Unlike the flats boats of the Florida Keys and Bahamas’, the Mexican panga is longer, about 22 feet, and narrower. Equipped with a polling platform atop the stern, and a spacious casting deck in the bow, the boats are incredibly seaworthy and comfortable. Good thing too because it’s often a 45 minute ride to prime fishing spots over sometimes choppy open water.

About the contributors:

Michael Hamilton is an international free-lance writer and fly fisherman. He has written for American Angler, African Angler, Northwest Fly Fishing and other lifestyle and travel magazines.

Steve Joyce, General Manager, Red’s Fly Shop Ellensburg, Washington

Casa Viejo Chac

One of the distinct advantages of fishing with Casa Viejo Chac is having two guides per boat. The one-to-one ratio is non-existent at other salt-water destinations unless you pay extra. Whether walking the flats searching for schools of bonefish or working from the boat as a team to spot cruising permit, tarpon and snook, having two guides is absolutely invaluable. They see fish that we could never see.

Most anglers choose to target bonefish on their first day of fishing in Ascension Bay. It’s a good plan if you are new to salt water flats fishing. There are so many bonefish that, weather permitting, you will get multiple casts to big schools.

On my first day, I was fishing with my friend and trip host, Steve Joyce. Steve is General Manager of Red’s Fly Shop and Outfitters in Eastern Washington State. Red’s has built an exceptional reputation in the fly-fishing travel industry for trust and experience. During the winter months of January through March, Steve schedules weekly trips bringing 8 to 10 anglers to Casa Viejo Chac.

I wanted to walk the flats searching for bonefish. I needed to get the kinks out of my casting and get back in touch with the subtleties of flats fishing. Steve wanted to search for permit in deeper water. He seems to always catch permit when no one else does.

“Strip strike, strip strike, strip strike,” I murmured to myself like a yogi chanting Om. Two simple words so easy to say yet so hard to do for a devout trout fisherman. Probably the hardest thing to remember in salt-water fishing is to keep the rod tip low or in the water and strip the line back hard when setting the hook. Never raise the rod tip to set on a fish.

Walking ankle deep in 70-degree water along a starkly white, hard sandy bottom flat, surrounded by thousands of miles of open-ocean, time stops. I think to myself, “Is it Monday or Tuesday?” The fact that I don’t care is exhilarating. There’s not another human anywhere in sight, except for my Mayan guide Alexandro who walks silently beside, holding my 8-weight, in case we chance upon a permit or two.

Walking ankle deep in 70-degree water along a starkly white, hard sandy bottom flat, surrounded by thousands of miles of open-ocean, time stops.

As the sun slid from behind a passing cloud illuminating the flat before us, Alexandro stopped, pointed ahead and whispered, “Bonefish one o’clock, 40 feet. Do you see them?” “Where”, I ask, straining to see what he sees. “Cast, cast”, he urges. I make one double haul. I see the school of bonefish coming right at us. I stop the rod at 10 o’clock and my fly line floats to the surface thirty feet in front. “Wait. Wait. Okay strip, slow, slow, set!” My fly line comes tight and the bonefish races across the flat faster than any fish I have ever hooked. How fast is fast? Bonefish can move at up to 64 kilometers per hour (almost 40 miles per hour). Sometimes called “Phantom of the Flats” it’s a name well deserved. Over the next three hours, when the clouds parted and the sun shown the way, the action was best described as fast and furious. I would site cast to schools of bonefish on the move or tailing bonefish, heads buried in the sand, tails sticking straight up, foraging for tiny crabs. I lost count at twenty. Lunch was a welcome break.

In the afternoon, a front moved in from the north and brought a heavy band of clouds. Without the sun, it’s darn tough to see fish either on the flats or in deeper water. When skies clear, the sun illuminates the flats and you are able to see dark shapes of fish moving over the white bottom. Bonefish often “push” water when they move around the flats or tail up, snouts in the sand, feeding on small crabs. Permit usually swim in small schools constantly moving and feeding together for security from sharks and other predators. The weather from January through April can be unpredictable. One day bright sun, the next three, clouds, wind and partly sunny. I figure if you get four good days out of five you are doing well. No question that May and June offer more sunny days with light tropical breezes as the season winds down. It’s hotter and there are more bugs to contend with but the fishing pressure is less.

Over the course of my week at Casa Viejo Chac, our group of anglers caught five permit, scored one grand slam, released more bonefish than anyone wanted to count and even jumped and landed several tarpon! We fished multiple areas of Ascension Bay from the east, to the north and to the far south and rarely saw another boat. There are other fishing and eco tour lodges at the north and south ends of the Bay, but the landscape is so vast that visiting anglers seldom cross paths.

Leaving for the trip home, the road ahead seemed less formidable. Maybe because we knew that the ruts and potholes were the only barriers preventing hotel developers from turning Punta Allen into a mini Mexican Riviera. To date, the hordes of Cancun tourists are completely unaware that just four hours south of the loud cacophony of their nightly partying sits the remote village of Punta Allen and the pristine beaches of Ascension Bay.

Descending into this Ancestral Mayan World is a trip of a lifetime and a unique opportunity to discover “the land where the sky is born.” We pray it remains so.