Nick Hart’s Trip Report:
“When I head to bed, I can hear laughter and when I wake up, I can hear laughter”, a comment from Andy Barrett, a guest of Farlows Travel, which about perfectly sums up our recent visit to Tiziano Rizzotto’s Punta Allen Fishing Club situated in the vast wilderness of Mexico’s Ascension Bay.
Getting There: London – Cancun
After a comfortable ten-hour flight from London Gatwick to Cancun, our team regrouped in baggage reclaim and were soon talking fishing. This was my second time through Mexican customs in as many months and once again we breezed through into the pleasant 30°C to await our air-conditioned minivan. A short while later it arrived and we were on the way, loaded up with water and snacks for the road journey ahead.
It was perhaps the only arduous part of the trip, as following a couple of hours on tarmac we entered the Sian Ka’an Reserve (a protected World Heritage Site) to be greeted by a rough dirt track for the remaining two and a half hours of the journey. Despite some post-flight tiredness, the group remained in high spirits, laughing and joking as the potholes became increasingly deep!
At 9.30pm Mexican time, we arrived at the lodge and were greeted by the owner, Tiziano, and after we’d freshened up, we headed straight to the lodge bar laden with snacks and cold beer. Better still, we were informed that the next morning would start with a relaxed, late breakfast, followed by an introduction to what the team could expect from the vast 400 square mile Ascension Bay in the days to come. We all retired to bed tired, but laughing and excited by what lay ahead of us the next day.
Day 1 – An Introduction
Following a filling, first-morning breakfast, Tiziano spent a fascinating couple of hours talking us through tactics, casting techniques and the all-important ‘strip strike’ prior to tackling-up ready for some casting practice. This was an important addition to most saltwater fly-fishing trips I have been involved with, as three of the team, Martin, Andy and John had no previous saltwater experience, with Adrian and Sam sharing just a few trips between them.
Geared-up in the latest flats fishing clothing we were then transported by very stable 25’ Pangas, boasting 50hp Yamaha outboards, to Paradise Lagoon for some training in how to spot bonefish while acclimatising the team and giving them a chance to practice casting. With a brisk southeast wind that was unrelenting for most of the session, everyone quickly understood how important being able to deal with such conditions was going to be. Punta Allen is a great place to get started but I cannot emphasise enough the need to rehearse casts, at home, on a regular basis, prior to stepping out on the flats.
On that first day plenty of fish were seen and some frantic casts made, especially when a permit showed its iconic fin, but it was Andy who was to first triumph under the guidance of Tiziano with his first ever bonefish. The atmosphere around the dining table that night was electric!
Day 2 – A Grand Slam and a dream permit!
Breakfast is served each day at 7.00am, but much of the team had been awake earlier as fresh coffee is available from 6.00am. Once again, good humour abounded as the group laughed and joked, relaxing into the Mexican way of life, before the guides hurried us along to the waiting Pangas. One thing is for sure, Tiziano’s team of guides are just as keen to see their guests bent into fish as the guests are to hook them!
Perhaps none more so than Juanito, the head guide who Sam and I were lucky enough to have looking after us for the following eight hours. After spending at least half an hour working with Sam on his casting, Juanito didn’t take long to find what we were looking for – a huge shoal of very relaxed permit, perhaps 50 strong, and now within casting distance of Sam who became the week’s first victim of ‘Permit Fever’. After having a few good shots at passing permit with no takers, Sam graciously gave me a chance to have a shot at the next fish that turned up. And then it happened…
“Fasss Niiick, Fasss … get out the boat, BIIIG Permit”. Juanito, our 33-year-old guide with a decade of professional experience, was urging me to take my first shot at an Ascension Bay permit, the holy grail of tropical saltwater fly fishing. “100 ft, you seeee it, you seee?”, enthusiasm and excitement pouring from Juans every pore. “Got it”, I whispered. These are the moments that fly fishers crave and the reason we travel so many thousands of miles, searching, hoping and dreaming.
The fish was now at 75ft and Juan had positioned me for just about the perfect shot at 12 o’clock with a low profile, out of the Panga in waist deep water. “Waait, waait … OK, … Casst, CAAAST!”. The fish was at 50ft. With as little noise as possible I peeled the line from the water and made a cast. The cast fell slightly short, so carefully I represented the fly, leading the fish by three feet. Two strips later and it happened… The fish took the fly. Euphoria.
As the elation became realisation, I sensed the need to concentrate. The ecstasy could soon turn to despair. At two hundred and fifty feet I become concerned; this fish didn’t seem like it was going to stop! Reassuringly, Juan had me back on the Panga as he explained that permit have at least three long runs in them and vast reserves of stamina. Landing this fish was clearly going to be about playing the long game. Sat in a running tide, the fish seemed as if it was exerting little energy, effortlessly using its hydrodynamics to stay tantalising just out of reach. I don’t think I have ever wanted to land a fish so badly! I was doing everything possible to appreciate the moment, memorising as much as I could while saying over and over to myself “please don’t come off, please don’t come off!”. Beware, permit will seriously get under your skin!
Twenty minutes later Juan finally had the leader in hand and, as my heart skipped a beat, we had the fish by the tail. That was it; we’d done it, and finally I was experiencing the ultimate fly-fishing rush as high fives, fist bumps and joy filled the air. I couldn’t be in better company with uber-talented marine sculptor Sam MacDonald at the ready to capture the moment on camera, while the other half of the guiding team, Caesar, expertly repositioned the boat so that I could get back into the water and spend a moment with this most prized of tropical saltwater species. As we released the fish and it powered away, I couln’t control my emotions, shrieking with excitement as my Costa-encased eyes fill with tears of joy. We looked at the photographs, played the video and relived the moment over and over again. This was undoubtably one of the best moments of my life which I was privileged to share with great people.
We continued until late that night, washing down fishing stories of battles won & lost with Tiziano’s moreish home-brewed rum, which followed the first of several first-class suppers, preceded by a bar laden with empanadas, hot sauce and ice-cold beer. Between Tiziano and camp manager Pascale Lablanc, a charming French lady with decades of experience in the hospitality industry, nothing is too much trouble. In fact, we were invited to treat the lodge with a traditional Mexican welcome of “mi casa et tu casa” – “my home is your home”. This was no hollow offer either with wine on tap for the thirsty team, a decent packed lunch ready for us each day and perfectly presented rooms to welcome us back after a long day on the water.
It was in the traditionally built Mayan Palapa where we did most of our post-fishing socialising, a beautiful open-sided, purpose-built lodge, with a thatched roof of palm leaves making it the perfect place to unwind. Fly tying tables are available, a rod rack to stow gear and a comfortable seating area. It’s fair to say that the internet connection is patchy at best and there is no mobile phone coverage, but this isn’t a place to be working or worrying about what is going on back home. Punta Allen is after all the permit capital of the world and one of the very best places to achieve the much sort after Grand Slam comprising of a bonefish, tarpon & permit caught during the same day.
I had been lucky enough to experience this (another first!) during our day searching Tiger Island with Juanito and, as the second bottle of rum began to be poured, we talked, laughed and became more excited about what the coming days may hold. The entire team was off the mark, with John catching a particularly nice bonefish, his first saltwater species of any description using fly fishing tackle, and Martin also had his first, which he was relieved about as Andy was already keeping a tally of what was being caught! Once again, we retired to bed, tired, but very happy.
Day 3 – A Battle with the Elements
Saltwater fly fishing is so much about hitting the right conditions and, as we tucked into fruit, pancakes, and bacon & eggs the next morning, it was evident that the wind had got up. The team was primarily made up of saltwater fly-fishing virgins and while distance casting is rarely required here, coping with gusting winds can be difficult, especially when accuracy and speed are required to present a fly in front of a fast-moving target.
We armed ourselves with 9-weights and the most up-to-date fly lines that money could buy to help counter Mother Nature’s forces. Casts of 20, 30, 40 and 50 feet, with winds from every angle should be rehearsed repeatedly in readiness for these far-flung adventures – it’ll help you hugely. As Tiziano made clear during his introductory talk, “Trout will stay put, sometimes allowing multiple presentations and changes of fly. Often saltwater species give you just one chance and if you are lucky, maybe two”.
Boarding the Panga with Adrian, Miguel was our guide for the day, a Mayan descendant who has been on the water all his life. With bonefish already caught, the more experienced Adrian opted for a day on the permit – a notoriously difficult species to catch on fly, the only way to have a real chance to experience the euphoria of a hook up is to cast a blind eye to everything else and go hunting.
This was to prove to be a particularly tough day as the wind had strengthened, and cloud cover was making finding fish difficult. We spent the morning chasing a shoal of permit to no avail, so stopped off for what turned out to be particularly good lunch of beef marinated in Valencia orange, which Adrian proclaimed might have been the best sandwich he had ever tasted! At least the food was making up for the slow fishing and while the guide took a well-earned break, I revisited my previous life as a casting instructor to give Adrian a a few pointers, which he put to good use a short while later on the bonefish.
We resumed our search for permit, but the changeable weather and light conditions made for a hard day, which turned out to be the slowest of the week. Everyone returning to the lodge reported similar experiences, although the good mood continued to resonate around the bar as it was quite clear that there were plenty of fish around.
Day 4 – Tricky Tarpon
On day four I was paired up with John, who benefited from another Juanito casting lesson prior to a 30-minute steam out to a new mark, an exhilarating start to the day which began within the tight mangrove channels and then opened out into the electrifying vista of the Ascension Bay.
Juanito did everything possible during the next eight hours to find fish in far from friendly weather conditions. By the end of the day, John had many shots at bonefish, tarpon and permit, but with a tricky gusting wind to cope with he returned without boating a fish.
Despite this we had an enjoyable day laughing with the guides, observing the wonderful birdlife the region has to offer and relaxing in between shots of intense adrenaline as several large tarpon shoals remained tantalisingly just out of reach. But perhaps the highlight of the day was spotting a massive permit which Juan guessed would be at least mid-30s if not 40lb. What on earth that would be like after my first experience of fighting a fish in the mid-teens, I can only imagine!
The rest of the team also struggled a little in the conditions, part and parcel of destination fishing, but Adrian had been close to success, jumping a Tarpon of in the region of 40lb and his boat partner Sam, also hooked one. Meanwhile, Martin & Andy had both once again caught bonefish and were also having a competition to see who could catch the most snapper-like fish, a species that the guides referred to as perch!
Day 5 – An Island Paradise
The days were disappearing too fast and, despite already shooting a reasonable amount of video and taking plenty of photographs, I was keen to ensure that everyone had plenty of memories to head home with.
Buddying up with Sam once again, we battled with the wind during the morning session while capturing some footage for a short film. It was clear that permit were out and that we needed to turn our attention to bonefish.
Arriving at the most beautiful chain of islands known as Tres Marias (Three Marys), which can only be described as paradise, the team descended on a mouth-watering flat to begin the search. Several good fish were found, some hooked but none brought to hand. The light conditions were excellent, with very little cloud to make spotting relatively simple, but the gusting wind continued to be an obstacle to success.
Gathering together for lunch we experienced one of the highlights of the trip, meeting the local Iguana population, sharing food on an idyllic island and joking with the guides. This trip continued to be about so much more than the fish.
That afternoon, we went in search of bones, trying numerous flats before returning to base with slightly heavy hearts, as just one day remained in this saltwater fly fishing paradise that so far had only offered a glimpse into its full potential. Served with good conditions, anyone able to deliver an accurate 50 foot cast off both shoulders will be set for the trip of a lifetime at this world class destination.
Day 6 – Dicing with Danger – Toothy Critters in the Mangroves
Complete saltwater newbies and lifelong friends, Martin & Andy, caught bonefish all week while spending a large part of their days indulging in ‘friendly’ banter! I was to experience this on the last day for myself, heading out with them for one last soiree.
The wind was up again rendering some of the bay close to impossible to fish, especially with anglers new to maintaining their balance, while following guide instructions to cast at fish which are moving quickly and difficult to see in water churned up by the weeks far-from-ideal weather conditions. Despite all this, our guide for the day, Augustine, demonstrated the kind of balance a tight rope act would be proud of, working tirelessly from atop the poling platform to put his guests in front of fish.
A red tide caused by decaying Sargassum weed provided the first stop and very little happened for an hour, although every now and again Augustine would shout to Andy or Martin to take a shot. Even I began to wonder if Augustine was seeing things as I concentrated hard on the water while acting as line man, ensuring that Martin’s fly line was ready to make a swift cast if necessary.
He (and I!) almost fell out of the Panga when just after another episode of frantic pointing and appeals to “CASSS, CASSSSSS, CAAASSSST!” a missile like projectile of silver scales launched itself at Martins fly but missed! “F***ing Hell, what on earth was that” he exclaimed. “That”, I replied “… was a tarpon!!!” Faith restored it felt like an old episode of Bullseye as Martin realised “what he could have won” had that fish stayed hooked. No more action came our way, so the guide came down from the platform and buzzed us to perhaps one of the most beautiful flats we had seen all week.
Swapping out the ten-weight tarpon kit for a nine, we were now on the lookout for permit again, but nothing showed until Augustine burst into excited commands once again. “Cuuuda, BIG Cuda” … and not just one but two. I quickly rigged the tarpon rod with a needlefish fly for Andy and we got a shot at the targets which were well into double figures. “Strip, Striiiip, STRIP!” Augustine & I chorused as Andy pulled on the line for all he was worth. In split seconds one of the barracuda turned on its afterburners and within moments was at the side of the boat, jaws agape and about to grab the fly when Andy ran out of room and pulled it out of the water! Several minutes of rolling about the Panga ensued as we chattered and laughed at just how close Andy had been to nailing the toothiest of critters. A short while later a bonefish turned up which Andy cast to perfectly, but in uncharacteristic style the fish refused to take. It was then lunchtime and, if the stars had aligned, we would have had three different species to show for our efforts. Would the afternoon see a change of luck?
Martin was now back on the casting deck and Augustine had positioned us within a scene straight out of Jurrasic Park, with gnarly pieces of sunken wood and mangroves producing a network of mouth-wateringly fishy looking features. It didn’t take us long to find the snook our guide was chasing but the shallow water, turned milky by the strengthening wind, was making them difficult to see. We spooked at least two dozen before Martin got a shot at one right at his feet. He perfectly slammed the fly right on to the fishes head (one of the best ways to get a snook to take), it turned, opened its mouth and Martin pulled the Peanut Butter Baitfish, right back out again! Fish 4, Martin & Andy 0!
This was the hour we had been dreading as time was running out, but not for the first time, Augustine had the Panga positioned in a very fishy looking location, a deep channel of clear water, framed by mangroves either side. A few test casts produced nothing until the push pole was used to splash the water, a tactic which can entice tarpon and snook from deep inside their twisted lairs. Suddenly, as Andy stripped the line at high speed a huge JAWS-like bow wave appeared behind the fly, following it for several yards before the line went tight … “STRIP … STRIIIP HARD” we all pleaded in unison (including a few un-publishable expletives!), but the line went loose again. Most certainly the culprit responsible was a big snook.
Cruising into the channel the guys give me a chance to have some casts and while I was on the deck a shark appeared, a Lemon of around 40lbs. The Peanut Butter streamer got a little interest, but the shark disappeared before returning with a companion, by which time the fluorocarbon leader has been swapped for wire and a Fluorescent Chartreuse Needlefish tied on a Gamakatsu 5/0 was attached in anticipation.
When a third Lemon Shark appeared, I took my chance to create a frenzy, slamming the fly down hard amongst them and bringing the artificial to life with a jerky strip retrieve. One of the sharks mouthed the fly, before it was stolen from its jaws by one of its companions! Such an aggressive take made for an easy hook set. At last, the rod hooped over, I chucked it over to Andy to enjoy the fight and, as he looked over at me in bewilderment with the backing rapidly disappearing, I begged him to “keep the fish away from the mangroves!” Too late! That was exactly where the shark went and the line fell limp once again as the leader was parted by the Lemon’s sandpaper skin. Fish 6, Martin & Andy 0, Nick 0!
Time was finally up but we had one last wonderful moment ahead as we meet with the rest of the team for an evening in the Paradise Lagoon. We find tailing permit and although I was confident to have finally landed one earlier in the week, I frustratingly managed to get just one follow, despite casting to four individual fish. That frustration soon changed to elation as we watched an incredible sunset with a cold beer and enjoyed a final high-speed ride back to the lodge. What an incredible finale to our adventure!
The guides worked extremely hard for their guests all week and while many more battles were lost than won, the group were returning home with broad smiles having had their first experiences of the world-famous power exuded by bonefish. Mexican bones are generally in the 2-4lb range and by the end of the week everyone had caught fish of this size, despite the weather doing its best to spoil the party.
Truth be told, the weather did very little to dampen spirits and throughout the week raucous laughter could be heard as the group bonded over bottles of white and red, arriving as strangers and leaving as lifelong friends. I must confess that upon saying our goodbyes to Tiziano and Pascale’s team, who had worked so hard on our behalf, my eyes filled once again. Punta Allen really is a very special place, and I cannot wait to return.
What the guests said …
“Wow what a fab experience. I never in a million years expected what we all experienced. Not only was the fishing, lodge and environment incredible, the fact that we all got on so well was brilliant. Non-stop enjoyment” Andy Barrett
“Thanks for setting this up Nick and thanks for organising a fantastic trip” John Anderson
“It was an amazing trip. A highlight of my fishing career was seeing your face on catching the permit and then the tension and excitement of the tarpon to complete the GRANDSLAM!” Sam MacDonald
“Great week Nick, thanks for all your tips while we were away” Martin Blake
“Very impressed by the photo album Nick, many thanks for sorting that out and I hope you know that all your efforts on our behalf are appreciated” Adrian Francis
Punta Allen 2020
If you would like to join me on next year‘s hosted trip to Punta Allen, it will be running from 24th April to 1st May 2020. For further details contact Farlows Travel on 020 7484 1006, or email me at: [email protected]
Footnote: Punta Allen Fishing Club can also be accessed by boat transfer for an extra fee which considerably reduces journey time by eliminating the need to travel via the dirt track road.