Never underestimate the town dock

Docks and jetties offer enormous learning—and catching—opportunities
town dock xcalak mexico
Photo: Chris Hunt

On a recent trip to the far southern Yucatan, our plans to walk and wade the sea-side flats for bonefish and permit were spoiled, quite literally, by decaying sargassum that lined the beaches and chased most folks away with its rancid stench.

Ocean conditions in the Caribbean were just right for this agal seaweed bloom, and as mats of it drifted ashore with a full-moon tide, the beautiful little fishing village of Xcalak was was awash in an aroma that simply can’t be described appropriately without an occasional retch.

And, of course, in order to get to the flats, we had to walk over the rotting algae that floats ashore with the aid of tiny gas-filled “berries.” When those berries burst … well, it ain’t pretty. With the right breeze, even approaching the beach was unbearable—as I walked along a beach-side trail north of town one afternoon, I nearly vomited. It was that bad.

But, we quickly learned, if we could get beyond the beach and farther out into the water, the smell was gone. And the best place to do that was to walk out along the village’s jetty and, eventually out to its long, concrete dock.

There, among the pilings of the dock and the rocks of the jetty, we were able to cast to all sorts of fishy critters, ranging from jacks and barracudas to snappers and even groupers. It’s amazing what will take a Clouser, isn’t it?

Late on our first afternoon I saw a small school of really big jacks—I’m guessing they were pushing 30 pounds—trapping sardina up against the rocks. With a quick cast, I put a yellow Deceiver in front of the lead fish and it ate the fly immediately. Almost as quickly, it rolled over a jagged rock at the edge of the jetty, and it was gone.

It was a good reminder that structure matters, even to big saltwater fish, and that jetties and docks provide really good underwater structure. We spent a few evenings over our week in Xcalak casting along the pilings and playing with smaller jacks, grunts and the like. It killed time before dinner, and it got us out of the smell gifted to Xcalak by mats of drying seaweed.

As we walked to the jetty one evening after battling the stench of rotting sargassum all day, we ran into Alex Beck, a local outfitter and an ex-pat Colorado angler, and struck up a conversation. We grilled him a bit on DIY spots near town, and one of the first things he did was point to the dock that stretched out into the sea.

“Never underestimate the town dock,” he said.

Over the years, I’ve caught some pretty impressive fish from docks and jetties, particularly in saltwater. A few years back, while fishing off the dock at Port Aransas along the Texas Gulf Coast, I caught the biggest king mackerel I’ve ever hooked on a fly. That same evening, as the sun set behind me, I tangled with redfish, black drum and ladyfish. It was an epic couple of hours.

On a trip to Australia several years back, I caught queenfish off a jetty in tropical north Queensland. On the jetty that opens northern California’s Humboldt Bay to the ocean, I’ve wrangled with surf perch and once watched an angler battle a big king salmon for a good half an hour before it finally broke off.

These rock and concrete structures penetrate the shallows and can get foot-bound anglers out into more fishy water, away from punishing waves, rip currents … and rotting seaweed. And, of course, there’s that structure. Rocks provide hiding places for ambush predators, and pilings and rocks break the surf, providing calmer waters for baitfish and the bigger fish that eat them. It’s never a bad idea to cast from jetties and docks, particularly if you’re just trying to get to know a fishery. It’s there that “every fish in the sea” will gather for a buffet—you’ll likely get the chance to see, if not catch, what the local waters have to offer.

And, oddly, I find them beautiful. They’re little fingers of man-made habitat that stretch out into blue-green waters and they brim with opportunity. Even as we chased fish with fly rods, the locals descended on the jetty in the evenings with hand lines, catching dinner or fish to sell to the local restaurants. For these folks, the town dock is a social gathering place, where the day’s stories are shared and where the locals can laugh at a couple of gringos with their snooty fly rods.

And where they can catch fish, of course. Never underestimate the town dock.