The Road to Punta Allen
By Mick Spaulding, N2flyfishing.com
March 22, 2016
5:20 a.m. – As the alarm went off I awoke surprisingly rested and having minimal back pain. The resort beds are notorious for literally being”board-like” and lacking any cushion or respect for the human bodies forms or features. As was the norm, I had already laid out all of my clothing and the gear was already packed. As I tip-toed out the door trying to not wake my bride, she quietly wished me luck for the day as she always has done. One of the many amazing attributes my bride has brought to our 23 years of marriage, her support in all of my efforts is one of the best. Every year we take our family out of country and every time it is my bride who brings up the fishing possibilities in proximity to our destination.
We were staying at the Barcela Maya Resort on the new beach property. My lobby for pick-up was only a few hundred yards from my room, so I didn't have to carry my gear far at all. Having been to the Ascension Bay a few times before, I had a pretty good idea of what gear would be necessary for the trip. Unfortunately, I didn't have the time to tie the flies that I really wanted to for this trip, but I did tie up 2 versions of a fleeing shrimp pattern I really like and have done well on in the past. Those flies along with the leftovers in my box from previous trips would do just fine.
6:30 a.m. – My pickup time was scheduled at 6:00 a.m., but as been the case each time, they were late. It has been my experience the van drivers in the Riviera Maya don’t place a great deal of emphasis on punctuality. That type of laid back mentality is one of the qualities that keeps me coming back to this part of the world but not when getting picked up for a fly fishing excursion. The van pulled up nearly screeching the tires as the driver was clearly aware he was running late. Believe me, this road is NOT one you can make up time. One of the draw backs of booking these day trips is there are multiple stops along the way to pick up additional fisherman and today the van is full.
7:30 a.m. – After being on the road a little less than an hour, we ran into Tulum and ran out of pavement soon after. We then turn down a dirt road that has tree limbs touching both sides of the van and a pothole every 5 feet. This is not a ride for someone like myself who has a bad back, but I’ve learned to not sit in the front or the back of the van, so I make sure I found a spot in the middle. I have heard rumors the money that had been appropriated for repairing this road (Ctra Tulum-Punta Allen) was finally going to be used for just that. The story goes that the Quintana Roo Province of Mexico has allocated the necessary funds to pave the road all the way to Punta Allen multiple times. It seems the funds never quite make it to the job site and out of the local elected officials pockets. As you can already guess, the road was just as bad as ever, but the vehicle we traveled in had improved greatly. We actually had to stop about 10 miles short of our destination to find our fishing boats waiting on us. This was a great idea. Due to the road conditions the remainder of the trip could take more than 1 hour if we kept with the van/road plan, where by utilizing the boat had condensed the remainder of the trip to only 20 minutes.
8:15 a.m. – The boat ride was excellent with very few serious waves. We were being ferried on the lagoon side, so there was ample wind breaks all along the way. After only 20 minutes of actual boat time, we turned the last corner and saw the simple dock jetting out from the mangroves. Once we had unloaded our gear on the dock, it was quickly collected by one of the apprentice’s and carried the 150 yards through the jungle to the Pesca Maya Fishing Lodge. I’m always impressed when entering this building. It is a huge open room built in the same style as buildings have been for centuries. Utilizing, what has to be what we know as palm trees, very long logs complimented by thatch roofs also made from the palm leaves and fans growing in the jungle everywhere. The center piece was a 20 foot dining table perfectly set and waiting our arrival. The room smelled of fresh tortillas and the rest of the food they prepared for our breakfast. The plates consisted of scrambled eggs, rice, fresh melon, and cheese rolled in tortillas and warmed to melt the cheese. The coffee and juice was continually filled and prepared just the way you prefer. As with anyone who has been on as many excursion like this, my food and drink intake was regulated to making it through the day with a minimum of rest room breaks. The service was outstanding and it gave me a chance to relax after the tumultuous van and boat journey.
8:45 a.m. – Just as quick as the dining table could be cleared it became the location for getting all of your gear prepared for the day. I learned a long time ago to over-pack for trips outside of the United States. You can’t count on the guide gear or flies being of any quality at all. Even a highly respected outfitter like Pesca Maya can experience issues. We take for granted just hopping in the truck and heading down to the fly shop or go online and have items delivered the next day. Punta Allen is very isolated and there are only a few actual mailing addresses in the whole community. So, having high-quality materials for tying flies and lightly used equipment is nothing to assume from these desolate locations.. In most cases, the guides welcome flies and materials as much as the money you would leave as a tip. I packed the usual gear for a trip of this kind; Sage Salt 8 weight & 10 weight, Orvis Mirage reels (one with Rio Bonefish line and the other with Rio Permit line), Rio 12 & 16 pound test Tippett, multiple Rio leaders, and my saltwater fly box. Most of my trips are spaced up enough to allow me to fill my box with a large selection, but time was not my friend for this trip as I did not get much tied up. But, I did tie up two versions of my own McShrimp pattern (photo attached). As bad as I felt my box looked, It made me feel like an accomplished tier when the guides all fell in love with some of my patterns. It lead to some interesting conversations on the guides thoughts and ideas as they related to successful fly patterns for the Ascension Bay waters. It was then I was introduced to my guides for the day. In my previous visits, I had the fortune of meeting some wonderful guides. So, I was pleasantly surprised to be partnered up with Pancho. Pancho is well known on these waters and has lived 43 of his 50 years in Punta Allen, while being a lead guide for 16 of those years. As is the practice in this part of the world, each guide is given an apprentice. This apprentice is one of the chosen few and with this position comes great honor as the next generations guides. Poncho’s new apprentice’s name is Allen and it only took a few minutes to understand why he had been selected. In addition to this position being important for the future life of the apprentice, it was an even bigger honor to be the apprentice for such an experienced guide as Pancho. Allen is 20 years old and only been with Poncho for a month. Needless to say, he was a novice to the fly-fishing/guiding world but there was no question he had the character qualities that are present in all the great guides. His English was better than most and I have no doubt he will continue to work on it as hard as he will any other aspect in his learning curve with Poncho.
9:15 a.m. – With the rods lined up and the flies selected (a bonefish bitter with 12 pound tippet for the 8 weight with 16 pound tippet and a crab pattern for the 10 weight) we walked back down to the dock. Allen was quick to make sure he carried all of my gear and began a service type attitude toward meeting my every need that lasted the entire day. As is almost always the case in the Riviera Maya, in the pre-fish meeting the guides discuss what water they are going to be working. This cuts down on too much pressure on the fish and the seniority of the guide dictates who gets the pick of the water. This was another reason it was good to be fishing with Pancho and Allen. I knew we would have the best water and a higher likelihood of chasing better fish. Once the boat was loaded, Pancho took a straight line across the bay and found an overgrown mangrove where he could park out of the wind and go over our plan of attack.
9:30 a.m. – Once the boat was strategically parked up-wind of a beautiful flat, Pancho was waiting for a bit assuming we may have spooked a few fish and give them time to re-acclimate to the flat. This was the “test the client” time where the guide asks the client to cast the rod a few times. This is an effort for the guide to basically see what he has to work with for the day. Once I dumped my line with the forward cast and then the back cast, I got a small smile out of Poncho and we both knew we were in good shape. The next 5 minutes were one of the highlights of the trip. I always pride myself in trying to learn as much as I can every time I fish with someone new and was eagerly waiting to have a conversation with Poncho. He immediately took both rods and checked the fly line, leader, tippet, and the flies knots. Once he approved, he looked at Allen and gave a nod of approval (It’s the apprentice’s job to set up the rods and the lead guides job to review and approve). Then Poncho asked to see my fly box. As he opened it he slowed down to evaluate each fly individually. He then looked up and said, “wow, did you tie these?”. With an incredible sense of personal pride, I said yes. I then explained I had not had time to tie as much as I would like and the box is actually in poor shape in relation to the amount & quality of flies I carry to fish out of country on most occasions. He immediately pulled out a shrimp and a crab pattern and began breaking down how the fly needed to swim under the water. He accompanied this with a visual of the actual stripping motion and pattern to accomplish the desired swim. This is a critical factor in the success of the trip. I would be relying on Poncho to guide me through each retrieve once he feels/sees an interested fish in pursuit. It is very important you and the guide are acting as one during this process. It was obvious to see Pancho was also assessing my knowledge of this entire flats fishing game. He selected a different bonefish bitter XXXXX(pictured) for the 8 weight and changed from the fly we originally tied on and kept the Turneffe Crab pattern on the 10 weight. He then explained how he would pole the boat in relation to me being a right hand caster and the increasingly high winds. I then made sure he was aware this wasn’t my first rodeo and I understood the challenges and expectations of fishing in these conditions. I have found the more you communicate your expectations to the guide, the more relaxed and successful the outcome.
9:45 a.m. – We then pushed off and found his patience had paid off as it was only my second cast that I was into a small bonefish. It was a weird bite for the next few minutes as I felt multiple small tugs on my line with nothing significant enough to warrant a strip-set. It was then we realized we were in a group of spawning needle fish. They were everywhere. There were so many, they would never let the fly get down to the depth necessary to entice the bonefish. On most casts there would be 5-6 hits by the needlefish, so we decided to push down the flat in an effort to get away from them. Poncho and I both saw a couple of schools of bonefish in an area that was prime for wade fishing, which is my favorite way to fish the flats. So, Poncho and I hopped out, grabbed a few extra flies and tippet just in case of an issue away from the supplies in the boat. Allen stayed behind, as it is the apprentice’s responsibility to watch over the boat and be prepared to move the boat back to the wade fisherman when requested. It didn’t take us long until we were in great position for a down wind cast to the fish. During this “prep” time, Poncho was talking me through exactly where he wanted the fly to land, how long to pause before beginning to strip, and then the increments of the actual strip itself. This produced a few smaller bonefish and one very ambitious puffer fish. After we had exhausted our opportunities and the bonefish schools had moved out to deeper water, Poncho waved to Allen and he walked the boat back down to us. Poncho then polled us to another flat where we found a few more schools of bonefish.
He had reminded me that I wanted to fish the 2 new flies I had tied for the trip specifically for this trip.. They were a fleeing shrimp pattern I had come up with after watching a video created by Enrique Puglisi. Enrique has developed a new series of smaller brushes that can be utilized in multiple saltwater situations. It’s a very easy fly to tie by simply wrapping the brushes and then picking out the material to give the fly a perfect silhouette of the desired crustacean. I liked a few of his ideas and then combined those practices with a few of my personal preferences on the legs, flash, and eyes. I like to document the recipes and name all of my final products. Lack of a great way to name my final fly patterns, I always just throw a “Mc” in front of the name in an effort to personalize the final recipe and keep them organized in my library. Having a first name of Mick, in some crazy way, this has always made sense to me. The first McShrimp I tied on was tan in color. It’s constructed of clear and brown barred silly legs, black & silver flashabou, black eyes, black lead eyes for weight, and wrapped in one of the new Enrique Puglisis 1” tan brushes. It’s a fly that looks too bulky when dry and I had not seen it wet before. Once Poncho tied it on, he pulled out a few feet of line and swam it next to the boat. He quickly looked up at me, smiled, and said “excellent”. Due to the waves, my first cast was in the general area we had seen the bones and POW! The first cast and the next 4 resulted in bonefish. I believe Poncho was more excited than I was, and I was very pleased. So, we decided to try the other version of the McShrimp. It was developed as more of a translucent shrimp pattern. It’s constructed of clear silly legs, silver flashabou, red eyes, silver eyes for weight, and wrapped in a 1” white and silver brush. Once Poncho repeated the same process, we were both impressed how the material really gave it the appearance we were looking for and they both swam great. Sure enough, this fly had the same result only we noticed the bonefish were smaller in comparison. This was when I stuck a bonefish that was definitely larger in size and the pull was much better than what I had experienced thus far in the trip. But, in the middle of the fight, the line went slack. Which is odd when hooking bonefish. Once they are hooked they rarely come off the hook when not on a run with the reel screaming out fly line. Then abruptly it had a hard tug again. Then I heard Poncho yell, “Barracuda!” The Barracuda had eaten the back side off of the bone and that is why it went slack. But then grabbed the remaining half of the fish and that is what I was fighting. Luckily the Barracuda had not eaten his way to the fly and I managed to shake it out of the 3/4 eaten bonefish before it would be destroyed. I only had 2 of these flies and Poncho wanted me to leave it with him for future tying and not lose it in the gnarly teeth of the Barracuda. With the effectiveness of the fly, I could see why Poncho was concerned. Needless to say, I had a great sense of satisfaction with the visual of the fly in the water and the amazing action it had during the retrieve. If nothing else, I knew I had found a pattern that would move into a permanent place in my saltwater fly box.
12:00 p.m. – By this time we had put approximately 15 fish in the boat and due to my back issues, we pulled up to an abandoned dock and decided to take a break and have some lunch. The main course for the day was a simple ham & cheese sandwich with onion and jalapeño for some “kick”. This was the first opportunity to enjoy a cold cerveza. The cooler had kept it plenty cold and I was ready to watch how Allen would open the bottle. I know this sounds weird. Why would I be watching for this? It’s all because over 10 years ago on my first trip to the Ascension Bay I saw a really cool and unique way the locals open bottles. While I would spend 5 minutes going though my gear to find a bottle opener, the apprentice simply grabbed and empty water bottle, turned it upside down, and easily popped the lid off the bottle. I was fascinated and spent 15 minutes trying to figure out the physics involved to make this look so easy. Well, I eventually gave in and realized I just couldn’t do it. Sure enough, Allen grabbed an empty water bottle and did it again. This is something I will try to learn for the future. If for no other reason, to not feel completely stupid with something so simple. It was my idea to stretch out our break time for over ½ an hour. The wind was brutal on my casting, my back, and it’s important to keep the guide in mind as well. Remember, if you are on the front of the boat and find yourself getting exhausted casting in the wind and keeping your balance, the guide is feeling that 10 times over. So, I always make sure that the guide is comfortable as well. It has been my experience that a well rested and comfortable guide tend to see more fish and work more efficiently.
12:30 p.m. – Poncho and I both were comfortable with the bonefish we had brought to hand so we both committed to finish the day looking for permit. The wind had picked up on the flat so Poncho decided to move to another spot. Once we arrived it was easy to see this was going to be our best opportunity to see a permit although it was still going to be tough. The wind was not showing signs of letting up and we were in and out of cloud cover which made it extremely difficult to see the fish. I was fully aware that mid-March was not the prime time for permit to be in the Ascension Bay. Poncho had shared with me earlier, not many permit had moved in the bay yet this year. We decided we would give it a couple of hours just to see if we might get lucky enough to see one. We both knew that just seeing a permit wasn’t the most difficult task. It was getting the boat in the right position and wind effecting the cast that would prove to be most difficult.
1:30 p.m. – After an hour with no luck, it was time to take a break and enjoy another cold cerveza. One of the really cool things about this trip was that each time we stopped, Poncho would fill the time with knowledge of the water and his experience in this fishery. Looking back, I enjoyed this opportunity to pick his brain and establish a personal relationship with both guys as the most memorable aspect. After the cerveza was finished, we committed to one more hour. Unfortunately, we met the same result. It’s different going through a day trip not seeing fish, but when you know you are in the prime water with the best guide it’s more affirming the permit are simply not there to be seen. As we approached our limit in time we wanted to spend chasing the permit, Poncho offered me an amazing opportunity. He invited me to visit his home in Punta Allen and a walking tour of the island.
Allen, Mick, and Poncho
My beautiful bride Jennifer and I taken after the day trip to the Ascension Bay.
STOP - just in an effort to prove that the wind at your back while wearing vented shirts
and pants can add 100 pounds - heres a few pics for comparison.......ok, continue...
2:30 p.m. – He assured me it was only a five minute boat trip near the camp and it would be a “beautiful experience”. As we pulled into the main dock of Punta Allen there was still no sign there was any type of a community behind the mangroves. Let alone a town of nearly 1,000 people. We docked the boat and Allen stayed behind to watch the gear. The dock had approximately 10 boats already docked and all were working boats. The entire community revolves around fishing and lobstering. As we walked down the long dock it soon opened up to a dirt road with houses on both sides. The dirt roads lead to the center of town. I was surprised at the number of restaurants and tourists staying in the town. Everyone who passed knew Poncho and he knew them as well. There were kids on bikes, playing in the street, and sitting on porches. Each living residence was very simple, some with doors, and some without. As we passed the restaurants there was a intense smell of warm tortillas in the air. As always, there was always an offer for tequila from each vendor. Poncho literally walked me down each street and did an amazing job as a tour guide passing a number of landmarks that deserved a lengthy explanation. This is where having a guide that knows English is even more important. We then walked to the Caribbean side of the island and it was absolutely beautiful. Long white sandy beaches complimented by more colors of blue within the water than can be imagined. All along the ocean was places to eat and stay if needed. Multiple opportunities to rent scuba, snorkeling, and paddle boards as well. These were not the commercial type businesses we are used to seeing in the United States, they were Mom & Pop establishments with well used gear. We then headed back the way we came and took one of the only streets we had not been on. Poncho said, “this is my house” with a great deal of pride. It was a fine house in relation to the others on the island and it was easy to see he had been a long time resident and lived there most of his life. Across the road was a very cool looking place to lodge. Poncho said it was the finest lodging in Punta Allen and I could see why. The murals on the walls were amazing and it extremely well kept. This will definitely be the place I will stay on my next trip – no question. Poncho informed me he had forgotten his lip balm and the sun was taking a toll, so he went into his house to get it. As I was waiting on Poncho to return to the tour, I noticed a few concrete poured items in four foot squares. Then once I looked around, I noticed they were everywhere. Once he returned we began the walk back to the boat, but taking the one remaining road we had not seen. I asked Poncho what the strange concrete creations were. He explained that they were actually lobster traps. Each four foot square was propped up by 2 foot legs on each corner. He explained that the locals would place them in strategic locations in the water and the lobster would simply find their way under the structures and used them as shade. Then the locals would dive down and just grab the lobsters from underneath the structures. Incredibly simple and it made perfect sense. We continued down the road we initially came into to town on and arrived at the boat with Allen proudly holding post over the boat and all of its contents. He greeted me with another cold cerveza for the short boat ride back to the lodge.
3:45 p.m. – Once we arrived at the dock Allen took all of my gear and washed it with clean water to remove as much of the salt as he could. He then gathered all of my gear and followed Poncho and I back to the lodge to break down the gear and settle up. Once we had the gear cleaned and packed away for the trip back home, Poncho and I began to talk about the difficulties of getting the necessary materials to guide. He was impressed with my flies and wished for access to those types of materials. I opened my box and told him to take what he would like. In my opinion, it's the relationships, people, and places that make a great fishing trip. Sure, holding up a monster specimen as fish pornography in order to feed our ongoing need to justify our place among the fishing Gods is great. But, it’s people like Poncho and Allen who share a little bit of what their lives are like and where they live that make it a truly memorable trip. With that being said, I requested an address where I could begin sending both guys some materials. Allen was fascinated with how I tied my flies and you could easily see a sincere desire to try and become a fly tier himself. So, I promised to send him one of my many vices that I have long since evolved away from for him to begin learning the craft. I also took this time to pick Poncho’s brain on what materials he liked and put together a list of supplies that would take nothing for me to get. At first glance, you would think I was doing this as a nice gesture to make Poncho and Allen feel better. But, it’s quite the contrary. I know that by doing this I will genuinely be helping Poncho with his effectiveness as a guide, and opening a new door for Allen to expand his career as a guide. No folks, I’m doing this because it genuinely makes me feel great. I know that when I return to Punta Allen I will have two friends who greet me with a cold cerveza and a warm welcome into their community.
4:15 p.m. – We were informed that Pesca Maya had decided to take us nearly all the way to Tulum by boat which would cut our drive time by more than 1 ½ hours. This may have been the most amazing part of the trip. Poncho drove the boat, in very low tide, full throttle for 25 minutes through countless pockets of water. Left then right then left, in the bay and back in the ponds, and absolutely no marks to follow other than the sun. Sure enough, we eventually pulled up to a small dock jetting out of the mangroves with our van driver Pedro waving his arms to greet us. We were all in amazement at Poncho’s knowledge of the water and ability to navigate such low water. As we unloaded our equipment I realized that this extra journey was an inconvenience for Poncho and going to be even more difficult going back as the tide continued to fall. This was far and away from his expected responsibilities as a fly fishing guide. He was doing this a a gesture of customer service and his way of building relationships as well. So, it was easy for me to add to his existing tip for guiding and to thank him for this extra service. It was an easy thing to do knowing how he had saved my aching back from the long bumpy ride in the van. I reluctantly shook Poncho’s hand to say goodbye and assured him he would be receiving a package from me in the near future. I informed him I was going to take him up on his offer of hospitality and stay in Punta Allen on my next visit to the Riviera Maya. It is a long and bumpy ride to reach Punta Allen, but once you arrive there are treasures far more glorious than expected on a fly fishing trip to the Ascension Bay.