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  • Lana Richardson

Tails, Flashes & Nervous Water

Fishing the saltwater flats has always been a dream for me. In January 2023, it came true!

I was very excited, but simultaneously quite apprehensive. I was worried that I would be out of my depth and not be able to make the most of the experience... From what I had heard and seen online, flats fishing is a world apart from trout and salmon fishing in Scotland, a different ball game entirely.

After months of anticipation and preparation, the morning of our first day of fishing had come. The weather conditions weren't brilliant, a northerly cold front was moving in which meant high winds & cloud cover, exactly the conditions you don't want on the flats. The cold front was annoyingly forecasted to stay for a few days. We had a narrow window of a few hours before the conditions worsened, as this was likely our last opportunity to get out and fish for several days, I couldn't miss the chance!

We set off from a small port on Cozumel island (Q.R. Mexico), and there was already a strong wind blowing. The choppy waves made for a bumpy journey, especially in a panga. We spent around 45 minutes hopping waves and getting totally soaked; I was relieved once we finally reached the North tip of the island. We asked the guide what our chances were, and he screwed his face up and said "hmmmmm"- although I appreciated his honesty, I didn't let it dent my enthusiasm!

We landed on a picturesque remote beach, the sea was a beautiful shade of turquoise and the sand was soft and white. We got a true sense that no one else was around (probably because they knew the fishing conditions were rubbish!). We took a hidden path through the mangroves and palm trees which lined the beach, it opened out into a vast shallow saltwater lagoon. It was slightly sheltered from the wind but visibility through the surface of the water for spotting fish was still poor. We started wading and quite quickly we came across our first small school of Bonefish, they were moving so quickly that I couldn't even gather myself fast enough to get a cast out to them; after realising very rapidly that this wasn't going to be easy, I gave myself an internal talking-to and kept going. Because visibility was so poor, we kept almost walking on top of fish and spooking them, this of course began to get very frustrating.

We entered a shallower area which was only accessible to the fish during high tide, it must have only been a foot or so deep, which made spotting the fish much easier. Things began to get very exciting; for the first time, I got to witness 'tailing' bonefish (when they are face down feeding in the sandy/muddy bottom and their tails poke up through the surface). In poor conditions when seeing silverly flashes below the surface is almost impossible and it's too wavy for any obvious 'nervous water' to show, seeing tails is a foolproof way of spotting fish.

This no longer felt like fishing, this was hunting, we were sneaking around waiting to see any sign of movement. Suddenly we came upon a school of around 10 bonefish, they were tailing and moving quite quickly in my direction, I can't begin to explain the excitement but also the nerves which I felt. My guide told me to make a long cast at 12'oclock, luckily I managed to keep my cool and the fly miraculously landed nicely around 10 feet in front of the fish, we waited until they moved a little closer to the fly and then I started to slowly twitch it, "STRIP, STRIP, STRIP!!" shouted the guide; a fish split off from the school, chased after the fly and totally whacked it, the guide shouted at me to set the hook but unfortunately as I set it the fish wasn't on, I'd missed it! I genuinely wasn't even disappointed at the time as that had to be one of the most exciting fishing moments I had experienced to date.

The conditions were constantly worsening, and we were sadly called back to the port after only 2 hours of fishing. I was grateful for the new experience and for the 'baptism of fire' I had been given into saltwater flats fishing. I was worried that I wouldn't get another chance due to the weather which was forecasted for the rest of the trip. Because I salmon fish, I am well accustomed to getting 'skunked' and fishing in substandard conditions, but something about it being a scenario involving new species and being so far from home made it especially important to me to catch something.

Once we got back to our accommodation, the wind got up and the rain which followed it was biblical. I spent the next 4 days horizontal on a sun lounger, binge-watching Yellowstone, eating copious amounts of delicious Mexican food & drinking far too many cocktails. You could easily say that I had absolutely nothing to complain about, but all I really wanted to do was go fishing!

The weather came good again so without hesitating we confirmed our next day of fishing. This time we were heading south to Ascension bay, which was roughly 2 hours away from where we were staying. I set the 4:30 am alarm without thinking twice. The last leg of the drive was along a very bumpy dirt road, I have never seen potholes so big, they'd be more appropriately described as craters!

We eventually reached the point where a boat would collect us to take us the rest of the way to the lodge. The sun was beginning to rise and there was hardly any wind; I was confident that we were in for a good day. Although still early in the morning, it was warm enough to be in just a t-shirt. The 20-minute boat journey to the secluded lodge took us through a vast network of mangrove-surrounded lagoons, they were connected by narrow and twisting channels which were visibly stuffed with lots of different species of fish. The bird life was phenomenal too, we must have seen around 10 different bird species within the 20-minute journey.

We arrived at the dock and made our way up to the lodge which sat proudly at the end of a palm-lined driveway. We received a warm welcome and as we walked through the door, the smell of freshly cooked pancakes with bacon and maple syrup hit us, I hadn't even caught a fish yet and this was already a great day! After an awesome breakfast and great 'fishing chat' with the other anglers there, we were introduced to our guide for the day, Pancho. He had been guiding in the area for 25 years so we were assured we were in good hands. We got set up and headed down to the boat, Pancho was pushing a wheelbarrow full of beers, which was of course a positive sign.

We loaded our panga and made our way to the first fishing spot. We turned off the engine and Pancho began to punt us along the edge of the lagoon which was shaded by palm trees. Quite quickly, we sighted a small shoal of bones from the boat, the conditions, although not perfect, were much better than my first day out at Cozumel island. Pancho told me to make a 40ft cast to 10 o'clock. Once the fly landed, I quickly stripped it and in a flash, I had my first-ever bonefish at the end of the line.

I had been told how strong bonefish were, but I think unless you experience it for yourself you can't really imagine it. Although only around 1 3/4 lbs, this little fish stripped line from my reel like a rocket. After a few minutes of runs and fighting, I got into the water to unhook and release him. I couldn't believe how solid they were, they are pure muscle, and the beautiful silver colour is in places almost iridescent and reflective. I was so pleased to have landed my first bonefish, I hate to say it but it definitely took the pressure off of my trip, I was able to relax and enjoy everything a lot more. I went on to catch a few more bonefish and some small jacks that day, I even had a barracuda bite off my fly!

The next day, the conditions improved even more, there were now absolutely zero weather-related excuses. It was flat calm and the water was crystal clear, this was a great thing but it also meant that my casting had to be on point, there was no room for any sloppy presentation today. We journeyed back to the lodge again and met up with our guides, you could tell that they were really enthusiastic about the weather. We quickly scoffed down some breakfast wasting no time to head out to begin fishing.

As we approached the first area we were going to fish, out up ahead of the boat in the middle of one of the channels I spotted huge circling fin, which my gut told me belonged to a big permit. It first I didn't want to believe it as I wasn't sure I could handle the pressure! Seconds later the assistant guide shouted "PERMIT!!". Shit really just got serious. We needed to swap my shrimp pattern to a crab, I have never in my life seen someone change a fly so quickly! I grabbed my rod and got some line out so I was ready to cast when the time was right. We slowly crept up to the fish in the boat and got to within around 30 feet from it. The permit seemed undisturbed and continued circling and feeding in the channel. It was time to make a cast...I very carefully placed the crab around a metre in front of it, it didn't seem to take notice of the fly and swam right past it. It continued to circle so I cast again, this time my cast was not as great, the fly presented gently but was far too close to the fish. In an almost non-reactive and calm way, the permit slowly submerged itself deeper into the channel like a submarine, and vanished out of sight. We stayed in position and kept an eye out for it, the water was only around a metre deep and this was a big fish but we simply couldn't see it! I had heard that permit were clever but wow... I caught a quick flash of the top of a fin at the back of the boat but I couldn't get a cast out on time. Even though I didn't even come close to hooking or landing this fish, even just to see it was phenomenal.

In an attempt to calm my permit nerves, we went and caught some bonefish on nearby flats. I hooked into one of around 3lbs which was my biggest so far, it took me into my backing within a blink of an eye, that quickly distracted me from my permit woes. I couldn't help but wonder what catching a 10+lb bonefish would be like... My Dad and step mum also caught their first bonefish, which was awesome!

The nature in Ascension bay and Mexico, in general, is astounding. Whilst we were out fishing we saw stingrays, crocodiles, dolphins, manatees, and unquantifiable amounts of different birds and fish. I caught a small Jack who swallowed the hook too deep so we gave him an aerial burial and threw him to a family of Ospreys, who definitely seemed grateful for the easy meal.

The day flew by too fast, as good days fishing tend to do, and it was time to head back. Although tonight I didn't have the long bumpy drive back up the coast, I was going to stay a night in the lodge.

It turned out that I was going to be the only person staying that night, I had the whole place to myself. I watched pelicans fishing in the sea in front of the lodge whilst the sun was setting, with a margarita in hand. I was totally spoilt with delicious food and drink including fresh snook for dinner. It was one of those nights when you're so content you just know you're going to sleep like a baby.

I sprung out of bed the next morning knowing it was my final days fishing before heading home. I was adamant that I would fish especially well and make the most of it. Although it was perhaps over-ambitious of me, I was desperate to catch a permit! Annoyingly, the weather had changed back to being cloudy and windy. We set off with the plan that we would head deeper into the sheltered and shallower mangrove areas to try for snook and tarpon instead. The guides took me along a maze of mangrove-surrounded channels which were so narrow the boat only just managed to push through them. I stood on the bow and kept an eye out for snook. There were lots of what the Mexicans call 'perch' around in these small channels, they are very game for taking your fly and it's tricky to manage to get your fly near a snook without a cheeky perch swooping in and nailing it first. Casting in the mangroves is hard work, at times I was casting into a gap around 2 feet wide with branches on either side and overhead, every 3rd cast or so was a half-successful one and the others would get caught up in the branches, this was where I learnt how effective a bow and arrow cast could be! I wondered how on earth I would control a fish in here if I hooked one, I had visions of hooking a huge snook and it getting tangled up in the mangroves and breaking off. Sadly I didn't have that issue because I couldn't hook one! The snook were very flighty.

We gave up on snook and headed back out of the mangrove maze to look for tarpon. It didn't take long before one of the guides spotted a school of baby tarpon, on the first cast and I was into one! It started the classic tarpon acrobatics which is really exciting, this one was under 4lbs and still got my heart racing so I can't begin to imagine the excitement of fighting a bigger one! They are such beautiful fish with what seemed like a real predatory instinct, especially from the way it chased and hit my fly. After releasing the fish and composing myself, a few moments later I spotted another baby tarpon around 40ft away in front of the boat moving quite fast from left to right, without consulting the guides I quickly cast to it and it immediately launched itself at the fly, I set the hook and it was game on, the acrobatics began again. Although small, these baby tarpon are still so powerful.

The wind had dropped off and the sun began to show itself. We decided to head back out to the flats and try for some bonefish. After I caught one, I didn't take long before one of the guides brought up the fact that I had now caught a tarpon and bonefish and should try for a grand slam. I almost felt that it would be crazy to try for a grand slam on my first-ever flats trip, but I had the opportunity so I was for sure going to take it. We changed our focus to permit and spent 4 hours looking for one, but sadly to no avail. It's as if they knew our game. We saw a shoal of baby permit which I cast to but they were totally uninterested. The fish gods love a trier!

It was time to head home, without a grand slam, but with unforgettable new memories and invaluable new knowledge. How brilliant that within one sport & pastime, there are so many different experiences to be had and techniques to master. The learning with fly fishing is unlimited, which is one of the reasons why I love it so much.

I look forward to the day when I can return to some saltwater flats somewhere, I have permit on my mind!

Click the link below to check out where I fished in Ascension bay!

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