I think when they made the road they just drove a bulldozer through the jungle followed by a paver. To say it was tight doesn’t communicate how many dark, green tunnels we drove through. There was an incredible number of birds, none of which could figure out how cars worked. We’d take bets on how many would bang off the front bumper and windshield each day.
On the way home, day three, I only got one. From shotgun, Bear swore he saw the thing fold its wings, close its eyes, say the Lord’s Prayer and give itself over to the other side before bouncing off the glass. I don’t know about that, but by the end of the trip I was so twitchy I’d flinch at the sight of any bird near the van. Headed back to Cancun, I jumped and winced, ready for another thump.
Bear “…. That was a butterfly”
Back at the casa, the usual evening happenings were well in motion. We cracked cervezas, and watched dinner start to come together while rehashing the day.
Explaining to Victor that Tanner’s name was Bear, oso en espanol, which he found funny and useful. “Oso!” “Cast now oso!”
After he had snapped off a bonefish with a strip set – “Oso! You are big and strong, less next time”
“It was a bad knot!”
“…I think the knot was good Oso”
Chelsea explaining our ongoing quest for grande barracuda “Barry” to Felipe, like the coyote’s hunt for the road runner. The bad knots, forgotten wire leader, seized reels, trout sets. It may never happen.
With the number of empty bottles growing, I reminded Bear that he was technically one fish away from a grand slam. Maybe it would be a good time to check out the lagoon. Fuck it, how often does that chance come around?
So we left the party behind and dragged one of the two man kayaks down a narrow trail through the mangroves we’d found on Sunday. It was fine at first, little tight. Then we found the mud. Thick, clumpy, like fresh cow shit. Our feet would sink in and rip out with a loud suck, followed by the most incredibly terrible mix of methane and sulphur.
200 yards or so to the water, felt like half a mile. Bear bent over gagging while I called him a pussy with shortened breaths so I wouldn’t lose my beers.
No idea what we were doing, but had a pretty good idea which fly was good.
Right or left, it all looked the same. The water was deeply stained. I shoved a paddle easily into the bottom, there would be no wading in this shit.
“I guess just cast to the mangroves and strip?”
“Ya I guess”
Every few minutes we’d see a swirl along the edge, but nothing that was definitely a tarpon. Twice a wake pushed out behind the fly, the line would tighten, nothing. Then it got dark.
More stuck boots, more gagging. My shirt was soaked and I was getting pissed.
“I’m leaving this fucker here, I’ll come back and get it later”
“You can, I’m not.”
Back at the casa, dinner was going but I went out and sat in a hammock, the prospects of what I’d intended to do down here now fully evident. Through the first half of a trip it’s easy to blow a shot and move onto the promise of the next. At that point it hadn’t happened enough times to start counting how many chances I could possibly have left. Numbers always in my head, I don’t approach things romantically like maybe someone will come along and fill my half empty glass. Our guide trips were done, what were my chances of catching a permit from the beach? The one we’d seen was a fluke I was sure of it. And if it did happen what then, struggle back through that stewing mess in the mangroves when I had no idea how to catch a tarpon?
Up till then my plan was something like an outline. Tie good flies, fly to where the fish is, go to the water the fish lives in… that’s about as detailed as it got. As detailed as it ever gets. Until I’m tripping over rocks in the Deschutes, staring down the Kootenai with no evident hatches going, bent over, sucking air in Baja as my best shot leaves me in its wake. Then I start to understand exactly what it’s going to take.
I was intimidated and feeling like an asshole. So I ate a big slice of humble pie and got drunk.
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We found a bar with mezcals and anejo tequilas, pina coladas and margaritas made from scratch behind the bar. The bartender, Pedro, used to work cutting sugar cane in the plantations down near the Belizean border until the American owners found him through word of mouth and taught him to mix drinks.
Day four I had to pretend to be normal people and go see stuff that people go to see while in the Yucatan.
The nice thing about being that far south was the sites were lightly visited. No tour buses full of people from Ohio.
Travis the tourist. Travis never catches anything.
[img]http://i296.photobucket.com/albums/mm187/cbraybrooks/mexico/72_zpsufsbwqle.jpg[/img] [img]http://i296.photobucket.com/albums/mm187/cbraybrooks/mexico/73_zpsfuwy1hdz.jpg[/img] [img]http://i296.photobucket.com/albums/mm187/cbraybrooks/mexico/76_zpsft4ojj4r.jpg[/img] [img]http://i296.photobucket.com/albums/mm187/cbraybrooks/mexico/77_zpsqgpwtwqx.jpg[/img] [img]http://i296.photobucket.com/albums/mm187/cbraybrooks/mexico/82_zpsfp8ah1bd.jpg[/img] [img]http://i296.photobucket.com/albums/mm187/cbraybrooks/mexico/86_zpsty4kqrzz.jpg[/img] [img]http://i296.photobucket.com/albums/mm187/cbraybrooks/mexico/88_zpsy4bg7f8e.jpg[/img]
Saw a bunch of howler monkeys, first time I’ve ever seen monkeys outside of a zoo. Didn’t bring my zoom lens of course. We hung around until they started throwing poop at us.
On the drive back I bought two slices of the most incredible corn and pineapple breads I’ve ever tasted from a lady on the side of the road in a pina farming village. Like 50 cents. I wasn’t looking forward to going back home to where things cost money.
Day five. I’d told Travis the night before we were getting up early to go catch a tarpon.
“I’m not going back into that fucking mud”
“I’m not talking to you, I’m asking Trav”
“Trav it sucks, it smells so bad”
“Is it bad?”
“Not that bad”
“Yes it is”
“Can you shut the fuck up? I didn’t fly 1,000 miles to puss out about a little mud”
“Wake me up in the morning”
So I did.
We caught some of these. Like a cross between peacock bass and crappie.
Another wake, tight line, nothing. Timid fish. Tarpon maybe? No idea how they ate.
Then a big wake.
Tight line, nothing. A shadow drifted past the fly and out into open water.
“Shit that was a tarpon I think! Don’t stop stripping next time, when you see… HOLY FUCK TRAV”
I’d been watching the spot where the shadow had disappeared. The sun was just high enough now to see that despite the rust stain, the water was clear. Now I was pointing at two fish, unmistakable tarpon, coasting past us, close to the bottom.
I’d heard that lagoon tarpon were babies. 30 pounds, maybe bigger sometimes. These were 4 footers, 80 pounds apiece, just feet from a kayak that suddenly felt a hell of a lot smaller.
So there were tarpon here. Good. Big ones. Better. Not sure what we’d do if we hooked one. Let it tow us around the lagoon for a few hours before someone reported us missing.
Casting a big rod from a kayak was hard work. We switched, I was ready for my shot. I adapted the stripping cadence slightly, measured my distance from the edge in inches instead of feet. In the shade. Deep into the corners.
Hard strike, strip set, another peacock crappie.
Long cast quartering along the edge, in the zone longer I figured.
Two strips in my fly stopped dead. It was a fish, a heavy fish, but it wasn’t moving. Aren’t tarpon fast? They’re supposed to jump.
Travis said “Whatcha got there?”
One hand still on the line, I pulled back again, like I was trying to break my tippet free of a sunken snag.
“I don’t know but it’s…” It was like watching a missile launched out of a submarine. Black and chrome its body length out of the water, through a curtain of brine, head rocking.
I can’t remember seeing the fish land. I remember the sound, a crack like a fat kid going tits first off a diving board. I also remember my fly and its long, graceful arc back at me, assisted by the pent up load of the rod, which had risen with the fish rather than the opposite.
If there had been anyone within hearing distance, they’d have been concerned. Two men, back on an uninhabited lagoon, somewhere behind a shroud of mangroves, one screaming “AHHH!! AHHHHH!! AHHHHH!! AHHHHH!! AHHHH!! AHHH!!”
The other “NOOOO!! NOOOO!! NOOOOO!! NOOOO!! NOOOOO!! NOOOOOOO!!”
I was laying in the bottom of the kayak. Ruined. A spent shell of a man. Fly, line, and rod were wherever they’d landed.
I’d heard jumping your first tarpon was a tremendous experience. Cocktail of exhilaration, reverence, concern for the future. How would I go on? What else was there? I wasn’t even mad. Normally losing fish pisses me off. The concept of being mad at what had just happened was foreign at the moment.
I sat up and watched the bubbles settle, the only residual. I splashed water on my face. It was hot, the tall mangroves blocked the ocean breeze.
I’d been ridden into the ground. Hung up soaked.
We tried for a while longer, sort of operating on auto pilot. Then it was time to go back and re-enter life on the other side of that dog damn mud path.
By the time we got back the party was in full swing again. I walked through the house and on my way out the back, yelled at bear -
“I need that fly”
“Why? Which one”
“Because I just jumped a tarpon with it, big one”
I was already outside with a beer, headed to the water.
Chill won the day.
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How the locals fish
Sometime in the afternoon I took yoga pants out to try for an unassisted bonefish in the surf. We chased a few big singles, a trio at one point. She was learning line control and how to lead fish. They’d been having an issue with sargassum seaweed for most of the last year, and it had finally started to let up around Christmas, although it never really disappears. Day 5 proved to be the worst day of the trip for it, almost every cast ended up with a gob on the fly. I got frustrated and went back inside.
This is when two important things happened. First, through the window I watched Travis plant the white lawn chair out past where the weeds stopped accumulating, stand on it, and start hooking bonefish. Sometimes he’d have to lean around the swan as Chelsea floated past.
I could only stand it for so long. When he hooked a fish after making a reach cast around the neck of the swan, I had to walk down and make fun of him.
This is when important thing #2 happened. I’m standing there, Travis has abandoned his perch in favor of a cold beer.
“What are those?”
Permit. Four of them, and big, as big as the ones we’d seen with Victor. Two follows from two different fish, at that point it had stopped phasing me. They moved out from the beach a little, circling over the deeper sand. A fifth came from the left, considerably heavier than the others. If they were twenty this fish was thirty.
I measured a cast, it was quartering in, moving slow over a patch of turtle grass. Needing just a little more distance, I double hauled again, and….. the line came tight with a terrific yelp. I spun around and watched the neighbor dog disappear around a bush with my fly planted in its ass.
I looked at Bear, he looked at me, surprised. I looked at Travis, he was watching the dog sprint for home. I looked back at Bear as the drag buzzed and the spool appeared through the backing.
“What just happened?”
“You hooked the dog”
So we walked next door and said lo siento a bunch of times. I’d gotten it square in the ass, she’d be fine once she got over being scared. The owners didn’t seem to care. Esta bien.
After untangling 100 feet of line and almost 200 yards of backing from around every palm tree, clump of beach grass, and bush on the property, I decided I was done for the day.
So we paddled out to the reef and tried bottom fishing.
Bear and I decided we’d fish with Andres again on the last day. The wind had finally blown itself out and we wanted to see how good it could be.
That night I asked Travis if he could help yoga pants get a bonefish tomorrow.
Some background on Travis: Bear and I got him into fly fishing when we started working together at an outdoor shop in college. His first day out with us was the best day of steelheading I’ve had in my life, best day I’ll probably ever have. It jinxed him. Since then, it’s been one string of hilarity after another. Rigging up one day, a gust of wind blows his rod over, then blows the car door shut on it. His mere presence in town will shut off a river for days. That type of guy.
A trained fighter, he’s the first guy I want on my side after too many at the bar, the first thing out of his mouth when I throw out a trip idea is yes, and he could find bud on a desert island.
But Travis never catches anything.
Day 6 dawned calm. No viento.
As Bear and I piled our shit into his boat, Andres smiled “No viento hoy, bueno para permit”
And it was, Andres had us on permit all day.
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We had two good shots at feeding fish, finding new ways to screw up on each.
The rest weren’t feeding. Nothing he could do about that.
A lot of fish cruising, nervous water. Spooky.
It was fine. I’d resigned myself to defeat before then. I was truly just happy to be out there trying. We saw new water we hadn’t been able to fish on days two and three, and had tamales for lunch.
Andres was surprised when we asked for more of his salsa picante.
I had another shot at Barry in the afternoon as we cruised between Mexico and Belize.
Belize left, Mexico right.
I never saw it eat, because I was busy untangling the line that was expertly wrapped around my hand and reel. I’d spent most of the afternoon with the cuda rod ready, casting at fish that wanted nothing to do with the fly. This fish, according to Bear, closed a 10 foot gap in the blink of an eye and grabbed the fly before I’d even moved it. All I saw of the event was the jump and then my slack line.
Like I said, coyote and roadrunner shit.
Back in the van, after thanking Andres for the fun and refusing his apology for no permit, a thought crossed my mind.
“What if we were down here working our asses off and Trav caught one from the beach, standing on that stupid chair”
“Haha I really doubt that, but I’d be happy for him”
“Ya… me too, but I don’t think it would happen”
We pulled in, the thought forgotten, and the usual party was in progress. Except something felt off as I stepped through the door. Like I was walking into a trap.
Travis was standing at the kitchen bar, holding a beer, playing with his phone.
“Did yoga pants get her bonefish?”
Not looking up from his phone “Ya, nice one”
I caught a shit eating grin from Chelsea, across the kitchen.
Travis continued to thumb his phone.
“What the fuck is going on”
“Her bonefish was a nice one...”
“Ya that is a good one, thanks”
“I caught a permit”
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Standing on that fucking chair. With his bonefish rod. Saw it, casted to it, thing ate so fast the fly didn’t even sink. Almost grabbed it off the surface. Chomp, like an alligator. Some days it’s like that.
Whole group was down at the beach, saw him hook it, watched him fight it for 40 minutes. After we knew, the party shifted into another gear. They’d all been holding it in, the tension I’d felt on the walk in.
Everyone was excited, none of them fish at all, we’d shown them what bonefish look like on day one. Bear had taught half the house to fly cast by day five. We kept talking about permit, permit, everything was permit. They kept asking us what was so cool about permit.
Now that they’d seen it happen, start to finish, they were amazed. Travis held it in the water and let everyone get close to it while it recovered.
Tequila shots, cervezas, high fives, and I-can’t-fucking-believe-it’s. Travis never catches anything!
A half hour slipped by before I sat up “Trav you caught a bonefish today right?”
“Oh fuck ya, bunch of em”
“Get your shit, we’re going to the lagoon”
“Yes, I’ve gotta drag that heavy bastard back up here tonight anyway”
“I’m pretty drunk”
“Me too, let’s go”
So smelling like shit, muddy to the knees, we paddled out into the lagoon.
“Right or left”
“Dunno, let’s try right”
I picked a point to the right and paddled to it, then turned and positioned Travis to cast to the shore.
“Dunno how this’ll go, I’ve been drinking since 2”
“It’s fine just do it”
Secretly I had no idea how it would go. I spend enough time back rowing so he can pull his flies out of trees when he’s sober. But there was no way we weren’t fishing, I’d of grabbed his wrist and done it for him, dutch rudder style, if it meant a chance at what he had a chance at. I hope he’d do the same for me.
From now on I’m getting him shitfaced every time we fish. He was hitting every spot, working the fly hard in the cadence we figured was right.
Third cast, the fly was hammered just off a dead branch. I’d heard there were snook in the lagoons, still came as a total surprise.
We’d sweated out enough of the booze by then to get a loose grasp of the situation.
Neither of us said anything, but I could feel his sidelong glance, as I’m sure he could feel mine. A pitcher working a no hitter in the 8th inning. God have mercy on the soul who breaks that silence.
But it was getting late. It’d been another half hour and we were running out of time.
We’d worked 100 yards back to the left of where we’d launched, and I’d taken my sunglasses off as the light faded.
The words that always signal the end “Well what do you think?”
“We’ve got at least fifteen more minutes”
“That big tree up there, we’ll get to that and call it”
I could feel it slipping away. I started to lean back in the seat, less keyed up than when we started. It was fine, shit, a few white boys in Mexico getting all worked up over fish. It was a privilege to be alive and to have a shot at this. There’d be other chances, other times, it would happen. Maybe we didn’t deserve it this time, I sure as hell didn’t.
But Travis did. For all those days trying, paying his dues, learning it right. For always wanting to talk fishing, even when I didn’t. It was a running joke, Travis the student, watching us, doing it wrong, Travis never catches anything.
He’d sat on the beach, watched me get frustrated with the seaweed, and went and got a chair. Noticed that the permit in the surf weren’t a fluke, put his time in while we threw money at a guide to do it for us. Coached his girlfriend into a bonefish, then mine, something I hadn’t managed to do. Travis the student. Now back in that lagoon, as I sat back in my seat, thinking about tomorrow, he was measuring his casts to the edge in millimeters, not inches.
Under the tree we’d picked to end the night, when the line came tight and that beautiful piece of black and chrome launched skyward, he’d earned every second of it.
You don’t luck into a super slam. On a fly rod. Unguided. It’s not the work of student. I’ll never make that joke again.
Travis, who never catches anything.