Antonio is a tiny man. He might scratch 5 feet 4 inches. And he's not the shortest fly fishing guide working the flats of Ascension Bay. That honor belongs to Fabian. If Fabian mousses his hair, he'll tickle 5 feet. Tony's senior guide, Jonathan, might be an inch taller.
So, as I stood in the green water up to my armpits listening to Tony trying to calm my nerves as a pair of cruising permit approached from 12 o'clock, my mind inadvertently switched from panicked pleas urging myself not to screw up the pending permit shot to wondering how Tony was keeping his head above water.
"Just keep your line clean," Tony whispered, almost soothingly in his heavily accented English. My bare feet were buried in a foot of soft mud at the bottom of the bay, leaving me to assume Tony was treading water. "Don't worry. Just cast. Don't think about it." I cast.
"Long and slow," Tony instructed. "Strip it long and slow." I followed orders. Long. Slow. The line pulled tight. "Okay, let him have it," Tony said. "Just let him have it." A few seconds later, saltwater fly line screaming out of my reel, I hear Jonathan on the boat. "Tell him to set the hook with the rod."
"Set the hook with the rod. Lift the rod a couple of times," Tony said. I did as commanded. "Okay. That's good."
And that was that. In all, it happened three times over the last two days of my weeklong visit to The Palometa Club in Mexico's Ascension Bay. Had I only fished those two days, I'd have thought permit were overrated. But, truth be told, over the first four days, I hadn't seen a damned thing that even resembled a permit.
The guides from The Palometa Club, each one a carbon-copy of the other — stocky, brown, friendly ... Mayan — they saw fish. Once, while standing on the bow of the panga, I saw something distinctively big in the green water ahead of me, and something in my brain spurred me to pop off with a throaty, "Permit!"
"Cast," was all Jonathan said.
"Wait," he said. "That's a bull shark." Only it sounded more ominous. "Bull" came out "Booool."
I lifted my line out of the water and watched as an olive-brown shark as big as me swam right by the boat, as if waiting for one of us fall in. Bull shark. Christ. I've seen Monster Fish. These little Mayan dudes want me to get in the water with bull sharks to catch permit?
As Eddie Murphy once said in a famous skit, "That's okay, I'll take the zero."
Our arrival at the club, days earlier, concluded with a short boat ride across the water from the end of the road, where the S'ian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve meets Ascension Bay. It was dark, and we'd been drinking for hours, ever since our van driver, Manny had collected us at the airport bar, also known as the home of the $14 margarita. Along the way, we stopped only for more beer, a fistful of Cuban cigars or to drain our bladders. "Don't step off the road," Manny instructed us. "Just pee from the road into the jungle." Manny eventually deposited us at a rickety old dock at the edge of nothing, although we could hear water lapping softly against the sand and the mangroves. We waited in the dark at the edge of the bay, donning our best sober faces and staring off into the silent blackness illuminated only by the star-filled night sky. Shortly thereafter, a large panga motored up and host of Mayan children swarmed the dock, grabbing our bags and our gear and finally the three tipsy anglers who stood by watching the commotion.
A small child sat in the bow of the boat, shining a flashlight ahead into the coal-black night as the boat motored into the darkness. The wake of the motor turned up the phosphorus in the water, giving it an eerie green glow. Ahead, we saw two bright lights reflect the glow of the flashlight, and then quickly disappear.
"Cocodrilo," the child said, smiling. I moved a little closer to the middle of the boat for the remainder of the trip through the mangroves to the tiny little spit of sand between the Caribbean and Ascension Bay — the little village of Punta Allen.
Crocs and "boool" sharks? That's okay, I'll take the zero.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the permit flats. On the very first day, I found myself in ankle-deep water casting to and catching what I honestly believe to be the most aggressive bonefish on earth. And not the little one-pounders that I saw in the brochure — big, "Bahamas-grade" bones — four, five even six pounds. I cast to one that took my fly, spit it after a short fight and then, after a once-in-a-lifetime rollcast, took the fly again.
One day, our guides floated us over a chokepoint, of sorts — a little fishy superhighway where bones and jacks and snappers and (presumably) permit all moved through from one stretch of flats to another. They kept their eyes tuned into permit, but every now and then, a school of big jacks would amble by. I made a lucky cast with a fly we were using to cast to barracuda, and a horsehead jack jumped out of the school and just slammed it.
Twenty minutes later, we got it in the boat.
My buddy Chad cast that same fly to a 'cuda, spooked the big fish and then watched as it did perhaps the fastest 180 I've ever seen, dive deep and then torpedo the fly and lead the boat on a wild chase that ended with the fish getting safely tucked away in the stern of the boat. Ceviche.
And we watched in awe as the unwieldy pangas coasted through backcountry creeks, putting us within casting range of small but fiery tarpon living in dark water well off the grid. We parked the boat under clingy mangroves for lunchtime shade, or on aptly named Iguana Island —dozens of the huge lizards met us at the beach, hoping for an apple core or a ham sandwich. Or a finger.
And, as with any great fishing adventure, the fishing was only a portion of the experience. Imagine a seaside lodge facing the windward side of the spit — the vast Caribbean Sea stretching to the horizon. Imagine the sand behind the lodge, meticulously raked free of footprints every evening, only to be tread across every morning by anglers freshly full of hot coffee and spicy local fare, the thought of which, months later, makes me salivate.
Imagine hammocks stretched out for water-weary fishermen in search of their land legs, and a perspiring margarita or an ice-cold bottle of Sol beer resting on the sand within arm's reach. Imagine going to sleep each night, tired bones lulled into unconsciousness by the rhythm of the sea meeting the grit of the beach and awaking each morning to busy rattle of kitchen clamor and the smell of hot chiles.
Crocs and bull sharks? No problem.
But, yes. It is a fishing lodge. And the fishing is epic.
One afternoon, diminutive Fabian and I quietly waded a white-bottomed bonefish flat, enjoying what I honestly believe to be the best flats fishing I've ever experienced. We'd brought a number of quality bones to hand, and we were busy chatting quietly when Fabian put his hand on my arm.
"Wait, " he said. "There is a fish. Eleven o'clock. See it?"
I've become pretty good at spotting fish on the flats, but I hadn't seen this big bone move up on us. I stared intently and, after a bit, I did spy the fish. It was a big one and it was moving slowly under the chop.
"Cast," Fabian said to me. "Quickly. Cast."
I loaded the 8-weight with one back cast, threw in the haul and sent the Gotcha flying about 80 feet. The fly landed just at the nose of the big bone, and I let it sink, immensely satisfied with my effort.
"Okay. Strip," Fabian said. And then silence. I looked down at the little man — a good 16 inches shorter than me — who now had put his hands around the edges of his glasses.
"Wait," he said, peering for one final moment before continuing. "It is a stick."
I had delivered the best cast of my life. To a stick. We laughed. A lot.
As we walked further along the flat, the bones began to appear even more frequently, and we brought a couple of truly nice fish to hand. Taking my cue from Fabian, I navigated around mud and muck, staying atop the hard sand whenever possible. Once, as I looked out over the flat ahead of us, I heard a little splash only to look back at Fabian and find him missing entirely.
I looked down and found him up to his neck in mud and water.
"I find the hole," he said to me, reaching for my hand so I could pull him up. The bay's flats are full of little freshwater spring seeps that keep the waters cool, even on the hottest days, and while they're a welcome addition to the waterscape, falling into one might not be the best way to find one.
But falling in, well, that's my specialty. One afternoon while on the boat with Chad and a couple of the guides, I was walking from mid-panga to the back, only to misstep and lose my balance. As I tried to regain my balance and step down onto the bottom of the boat, I realized my foot was about to land directly atop Chad's camera gear.
I made a quick decision and, as gracefully as I could, plunged overboard into the clear water of the flat. The two guides and Chad turned to look at me as I popped out of the water, a sheepish grin crossing my face.
But the bay is big. Huge. Its green waters shelter an immense amount of life, and, while it's never truly deep, it's not always a shin-deep wade, either. And the wind ... it is the salt, after all, and the wind blows freely here in the tropics, sometimes carrying sheets of rain with it. There are dozens of blue holes, and the lodge's guides know where they are. In fact, the very first permit I caught — and the first permit of the trip — was caught as we were anchored near one of these deep depressions in the bay. The keen eye of the guides spotted a school of smallish permit circling the edges of the deep hole, and the guides directed me expertly. I made a simple, short cast, followed instructions to the letter and seconds later I came tight to a 5-pound permit that pulled plenty hard for a fish that size.
But that wasn't the permit experience I was seeking, honestly. I wanted that classic spot-and-stalk experience. I wanted to cast to a tailing fish. A feeding fish. I wanted that challenge that I'd heard others describe. I wanted my own fly-fishing Valhalla.
So, the next day, when Jonathan whispered to me the first time, "Get in the water," I obeyed without thinking about all the critters in the bay that, whether they know it or not, occupy a higher spot on the food chain than I do. I gleefully complied, perhaps a with a bit too much zeal.
"Don't make a sound," Jonathan said, a split second before my feet slipped out from under me and I tumbled unceremoniously over the side. He rolled his eyes.
A few hours later, he said to me again, "Get in the water. Do not make a sound."
Again, I plunged into the drink. More eye rolling. Tony laughed. Back in the boat, exhausted after a fruitless chase, Jonathan looked at me again. "There's another fish. Get back in the water." And he paused, looking me right in the eye. "Please. Do not make a sound."
Another boisterous plunge.
More eye rolls. More giggles. Let's face it, I'm no ballerina.
The last night, as five permit flags flew outside The Palometa Club in the Yucatan breeze, the guides joined us for a few drinks. Dick Cameron, who owns the lodge with his wife Kaye, came up to me.
"I have to tell you something," he said. "I just talked to Jonathan."
I figured Jonathan had outed me as a total fly fishing poser — the luckiest angler on the planet who stumbled upon two permit within an hour of each other on his able watch.
Adopting a Mexican accent, Dick started to speak.
"He said, 'That Chris, he is a very good caster and he can see de feesh. I tell heem to cast 30 feet, he casts 30 feet. I tell heem to cast 60 feet, he casts 60 feet. I tell heem to cast as far as he can, and he casts as far as he can. But if I tell heem to get out of de boat without making a sound ... well I might as well throw a fuckeeng bomb, man.'"
Dick patted on me on the back, and we both looked up at the permit flags flying in the breeze. "La Bomba," he said. "That's what the guides call you. La Bomba."
"La Bomba?" I asked, wondering if I should be offended. Then I recalled Jonathan's clear pronouncement: "You make too much sound."
La Bomba, I thought. "I can live with that."