May 16, 2011
Fishing in Sian Ka'an's 1.3 million-acre biosphere.
Surveying the Mayan jungle between fishing days.
For those who have never faced the proverbial 40 miles of bad road, rest assured it still exists in the Yucatan. We found it, all right; the headlights on our tiny rental car barely lit up white sand, watery potholes and black jungle, as we bumped our way south toward Belize. A Caribbean beach was on our left, mangrove thickets of Ascension Bay beyond the jungle on our right. We started out in sunny Cancun, eager to meet the folks who run Sian Ka'an Biosphere, a huge nature preserve of 1.3 million acres. It's a land of hidden pyramids, thick jungle where jaguars roam, with bonefish and permit cruising the mangrove-lined flats.
It was a good thing Manuel, our Sian Ka'an representative, was driving us all the way to Punta Allen. After a fine meal back in Playa Del Carmen, my head was lolling, even when small animals ran across the road. They had gotten their last klick (kilometer) out of Junior, so to speak. Amy was wedged in the backseat with a pile of shifting luggage. In the darkness she dug at the cork in a bottle of Chilean wine we'd bought at the marketplace in Tulum, but without a corkscrew, made little progress...Would we never get there? Sweaty and half asleep, we were finally dropped at a cabana two miles from Punta Allen, where the town's generator was cranking out electricity until midnight. We walked a deserted beach in the moonlight, too wired to sleep, but each with a full glass. It had been a long day.
More than a million acres, much of it unchanged since the Mayan Empire of 1200 A.D.
Sunrise and rooster's crow. The locals are a little laid-back for the dawn patrol, which was a good thing in our case. Our panga sailed at 8 a.m. with Armando and Augustin, two local Mayan brothers who not only guide, but patiently teach anglers how to fly fish. That's something many South Florida guides would be reluctant to do, starting out the day with a complete novice. Can you imagine the hair-pulling after blowing a chance at passing fish? Fish here are certainly more forgiving of errors, anyway. Armando had guided permit charters in Belize for a number of years, before returning to his home town of Punta Allen, no doubt to help train his brother Augustin. And these guys were patient, low-key, quiet, and knew the local fish. Their panga carried tubes armed with half a dozen fly rods, their tackleboxes brimmed with an assortment of flies. This is fly-fishing-only for visiting anglers, a conservation method adopted by all the co-op guides fishing in the Biosphere.
The sun rose higher and hotter, and we sailed across miles of light-speckled shallows. Then the quiet approach, poling in from upwind, and we began to see bonefish—groups mudding, single fish pushing slight wakes, even a small pack of 5- to 7-pounders over clean bottom, very decent fish for these waters. (Yucatan bonefish average smaller than some areas.)
We bailed out of the panga, Amy uncertain with the fly rod, as she waded off with Augustin. As she later explained, he was wonderfully polite and patient, teaching her the basic skills and pointing out fish. Working 80 yards apart, I heard her whoop from afar; she was hooked up already, amazed at her first runaway fish on a fly rod. Hooked up myself, I was powerless to take pictures of her first bonefish; at that distance, nothing could be done. I had to settle for shots of Armando with several fish, all released. It was obvious the guides here prize their bonefish and take care of them. In fact, they release everything during a trip, unless someone saves a different fish for dinner. (We baked a nice snapper that very night.)
We continued to explore a series of islands, flats and creeks, only spotting one skiff on the horizon, based out of a fishing camp much farther south. Later in the day we prowled a deeper creek, where cubera snapper up to 50 pounds lurk in the tree roots, though they're mostly caught at night. One can only imagine what goes on around there after dark: The fish must feed with complete abandon when the tide runs. But one would have to be hardcore to stay out there past happy hour, good company and a fine supper.
Back at the dock, rather worn after nine hours on the flats, the only boat heading out was a Marine Patrol vessel on a night mission. As one of the locals on the dock explained, they patrol the coast looking for pirates or Columbians. “Who knows, even Arabs,” he said with a wink.
No shouting guides here. Augustin, above, was a real teacher.
Indeed...we pondered that over our snapper dinner, but not for long. Our hosts provided many details about the local fishing co-op, and how proud they are that marine conservation and ecotourism work so well here. The co-op includes an earnest group of up-and-coming ecotour/fishing guides who are anxious to show their expertise and protect their fish. We even met the school teacher brought in from the States, who teaches night classes on conversational English to fishing guides, among others.
Next day promised a real Mexican offshore fishing tournament—the biggest event of the year for Punta Allen. The boats, mostly center consoles, arrive by water from Cozumel or Cancun and anchor just off the beach. Local guides compete against each other in a spirit of fun. They weighed in mostly big mahi-mahi, kingfish and smaller yellowfin tuna. Hundreds of locals clapped and cheered, beer banners were strung up, kids played on the tops of overturned pangas, small groups of (rather happy looking) dogs wandered everywhere or lay in the dirt roads. The master of ceremony yelled in the microphone while some real talent cavorted on stage to loud music. No one spoke a word of English, but the fun was universal. Top prize was $3,000 and the government donated a free motorcycle for the winning angler.
This is one laid-back town on the edge of the biosphere, electricity provided by the town's huge generator for 16 hours a day, the entire place only a few feet above sea level. A happy community by the looks of it, with the other half of the fisherman's co-op continuing to manage and harvest mostly lobster each year, exported to the States.
The commercial fishermen showed us their artificial reefs, which are 6- by 4-foot, low “shadow boxes” made of concrete. The lobsters are free to come and go, when they are not being harvested by divers. None are wasted as live bait, or from traps lost forever in stormy weather. Each year the lobster harvest increases. The entire community watches for poachers. It's almost a reverse picture of commercial lobster harvest in the Florida Keys.
Perhaps because the town is so isolated from industrial tourism, their fishing co-op has survived and prospered. In other towns along the same coast to the north, such as Playa Del Carmen (fastest growing town in Latin America, now with a Sam's Club), Isla Mujures and Cozumel, fishing co-ops have withered away or died. Cruise ships, high-rise hotels and jet skis have won out—until some day the economic tide shifts back to fishing.
Meanwhile, Sian Ka'an Biosphere perseveres, under pressure no doubt from would-be developers. Whether it can survive the high watermark of modern development remains to be seen, but they're doing one heck of a job so far. We only saw a tiny part of the biosphere, though we diddrive back north to Tulum and westward into the real jungle, where pyramids stand the test of time.
Cultures unite in the pursuite of bonefish, a species thriving in this tropical climate.
That's where we floated down an incredibly pleasant freshwater creek dug by the Mayans around 1200 A.D., connecting a series of lakes with the coast. The folks at Sian Ka'an have been talking about launching overnight kayak expeditions, paddling across and then down Ascension Bay all the way to Punta Allen, a trip of several days in good weather. That would certainly be for paddlers who don't mind camping in the jungle, or being towed around by tarpon or huge cubera snapper. It sounds like a true adventure, a serious escape from civilization, one we will have to consider soon.
That long road back from Punta Allen, by the way, is way more fun in the morning while driving—after a strong cup of coffee. FS