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Articles: Holbox México

by: Daniel Beilinson

Holbox island is located 100 miles from Cancún in the direction of Merida (to the north). Access to the island is easy; the trip takes about two hours and a half on a paved road. The landscape you see while traveling is that of a jungle, driving past small villages whose population descend mostly from the Mayas. It is interesting to see the three-wheel bicycles that work as “tricitaxis” in these villages.
Once you get to Chiquila harbor, regular watercrafts are used to cross to the island. It costs about U$S 3.50 per person, sharing the trip with local passengers, or you can hire a panga ( a 23-foot outboard motor boat) for about U$S 25.00. Crossing to the island is quite fast, about half an hour. If you are coming from the Caribbean, the green water, typical from the Gulf of Mexico, calls your attention.
Holbox is a picturesque island of unspoiled natural beauty. Local people live on fishing and ecological tourism, which started to grow not long ago. The island is currently populated by about 1000 inhabitants, most of it is uninhabited. Its northern shore has beautiful beaches of dazzling white sand, clear waters and mangrove swamps in some sections; the south is covered by mangrove swamps, shallow waters and mud/sandy flats, aquatic vegetation and an amazing variety and number of birds. As this is an area where waters from the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico mix, marine life is rich and varied.
There are no big vehicles on the island; golf cars, moped, bicycles and tricitaxis go along the sandy roads of the village.
I had organized my fishing trip in advance and my contact and fishing guide, “Ruso” Alejandro Vega, was waiting for me on the pier last 9th January.
It was easy to recognize each other because we had seen photos and talked on the telephone several times. “Ruso” picked me up and took me with my hand-luggage (rod case, tackle case and rucksack) to his house in his small moped. We planned our fishing outings among his daughters who were studying and his wife who was getting dinner ready. After having a delicious snook prepared by the “Ruso” himself and telling fishing stories, he led me to my cabin to go to sleep.
The three following days (10, 11 and 12th January) turned out to be very different due to the type of fishing and weather conditions.
On my first fishing day we left very early in the morning (4.30 a.m.), while it was still dark because there was no wind (quite unusual). “Ruso” wanted to get to some flats situated an hour and a half from Cabo Catocho by boat; he wanted to see if the schools of permit he and a friend had seen some days before were still there. As I have already said, it was still very dark so we were sailing under an amazing sky full of stars. “Ruso” switched on his lantern once in a while to see if there were fishing nets (legal or illegal). When he switched on his lantern for the first time, I was amazed to see thousands of 12- to 16- inches fish leaping out of the water!! “Ruso” told me they were balihu, a fish used for height fishing, which leaps because it feels attracted by the light. Once I got over my amazement, every time he switched on his lantern I watched thousands of fish leaping over the surface. As we kept going the shore could be seen more clearly; the sun started to rise (it was about 6 a.m.) and we got to a sheltered spot. The sea was calm. I prepared my fishing tackle: one for permit and another one for bonefish. The permit tackle included a 4-piece graphite III Powell rod, a Billy Pate “Bonefish” reel with 250 yards of 30-pound backing and saltwater floating line, with a 10-foot leader and 12-pound-test tippet (fluorocarbon). “Ruso” picked out the fly from the fifty ones I take for permit. It was a brown crab with long legs, tied in hook #6; it is quite a small fly I usually use for bonefish.
We were fishing at seven in the morning. “Ruso” was poling the boat slowly trying to locate permit or bonefish, although he had already told me that it was quite difficult to find bones in that area because the illegal commercial fishing and the inaction of the authorities contributed to exterminate this species. At about 8 a.m., we thought we had spotted some permit tail rises 100 metres from us. We approached slowly and quietly to get to within casting distance; we saw there were other schools of permit ahead. There were more to our left and right eating and swimming in circles. When “Ruso” put the boat so that I could cast, I cast too shortly. I tried again with the same result because I didn’t want to cast over the permit and spook them away. The permit started to move so we followed them to make another try which was also in vain, so we headed towards another school swimming nearby. The same effort, the same slow approach and turning the boat to get a good casting distance. I cast a couple of times and in the third cast, as soon as the fly struck the water and I was making slow irregular strips, imitating a crab swimming in the sea, a permit swerved from the school and followed the fly. I felt quite excited because catching them is no piece of cake!! I could feel when it took the fly because the line got tight and I hooked a couple of times to make sure the fish had hooked up. When the fish felt it had been caught it rushed so strongly that 80 or 90 yards of line and backing ran off the reel before stopping. It took about 15 minutes to land it. It was a beautiful 10-pound permit!
We photographed it before releasing it to swim tiredly away, checked the line, the knots and the hook, and we went on searching for another school. It was already 9.30 and we had made several attempts with permit that didn’t take the fly. Some of them didn’t feel attracted by the lure or they got nervous when listening to our boat; others swam away before we got to a casting distance or bumped into other fish or schools and moved away frightened. Finally we managed to get close to a school where big tails rised on top of the surface. The same ritual, the same slow approach wishing we didn’t spook the fish and “Ruso” placing the boat before starting the casts. After the first short casts, a permit took my fly! I tried to hook her but the fish headed for the boat instead of swimming in the opposite direction. I felt she had hooked but I couldn’t pull the line so tightly to hook her properly. The fish turned and I could feel how it unhooked! How disappointing!
I checked the line, the knots and the fly again ( the same fly I had used to catch the first permit). We went after a school that was quite close to us. It was 10 o’clock by the time. We moved close to the school, which was still quiet showing their large tails. “Ruso” stopped the boat in the adequate position and I cast. The fly touched the water and I made some gentle strips first, a bit faster then; I saw a permit go for the fly and lower its head to take it. When I felt the tension, I hooked; I felt I had hooked it up! The fish darted away so powerfully that line and backing started running off. I wondered what would happen if I ran out of backing!! In the end, the fish got tired and stopped, after taking over 200 yards of backing out. From that moment, the long process of catching that permit started; it took one hour and ten minutes. I didn’t apply too much pressure. Whenever the fish ran, I let it go; when it stopped, I started to recover. I didn’t care about the time, the only thing I wanted was to land that permit, which was not easy. She ran and took as much backing as I had recovered (I felt her movements in the line and the tip of the rod). She was so strong that she dragged our boat with the two of us inside. The permit made us turn in a circle by pulling the line! I could pull her closer to our boat with a lot of patience but our shades spooked her and started her race, taking hundreds of yards out again. After an hour and ten minutes of battle, she was exhausted; I pulled her close to the boat so that “Ruso” could catch her tail. When he landed her, none of us could believe the size of that permit! It was really big. We removed the hook, took several pictures and weighed her with the Boga Grip: 21 pounds! Both “Ruso” and I were euphoric. After some more photographs, I slid the fish to the water gently, I held her for a couple of minutes to revive her and sent her back on her way. We watched her swim away through the seaweed to recover her freedom.
To finish the day, “Ruso” suggested looking for bonefish and baby tarpon to see if we could reach the Grand Slam. I felt satisfied with our performance but I liked the idea so we started our search for bones. We only spotted one but I couldn’t cast. As it was getting late, we went to different caños (the outlet of small rivers or an area of calm waters and mangroves) looking for baby tarpon. We saw some baby tarpon within casting distance but they didn’t take the different flies we presented. In the end, we decided to go back, after an extraordinary day.
The second day was windier and according to what “Ruso” said the weather was going to change, so we headed for the southern coast of the island searching for baby tarpon and snook. I got my tackle ready: a SAGE RPLXi #10 with anti-reverse Billy Pate “Bonefish” reel, floating line, a 16-pound bimini-twist leader and different types of streamers like seducers, cockroach, etc. We found some groups of baby tarpon in the caños and other areas with channels that connect the northern and the southern region. Some baby tarpon took the flies but they were not very active or interested. “Ruso” said that was because the weather was going to change soon. I hooked up five baby tarpon and landed only a 10-pound one. We took a photo and released her. The others managed to unhook after some leaps, although I hooked them powerfully. We spotted small snooks but it was not worth casting to them. We decided to return at two p.m. In the afternoon, “Ruso” took me to some posadas and hotelitos (small hotels) because I wanted to get a good idea of them.
The third and my last day – I had to go back to Cancun in the afternoon – was quite cloudy with a north wind ( the one that brings the storms to the region). “Ruso” picked me up at 6 a.m. and we set out on our journey with the intention of not going too far because the sky was covered by clouds with signs of rain in the horizon. We went into a couple of caños, full of mosquitoes and no baby tarpon, so we went back to the places where we had seen them the day before. We were surprised to see some of them under some mangroves. They were surprised too and ran away before we could attempt a cast. The rain started to pour down but as it was still early we decided to go to the nearest caños. “Ruso” was poling the boat out of the caño while I was staring at the bow of the boat trying to see a tarpon’s riseform. We had poled the boat along 200 yards when, in a close caño lined by tall mangroves, we saw rises at the water surface. We approached in the middle of the heavy rain to discover that the tarpon were having a party under those mangroves. Tail blows could be seen everywhere. “Ruso” placed the boat to cast so as not to alter the tarpon excitement and to avoid tangling up the mangroves. In the beginning I didn’t know which way to cast because there were tarpon everywhere, but then I started casting to different points and hooked twenty or maybe thirty times. The baby tarpon darted at the fly every time it touched the water and I started to recover. They were in such an active state that they leaped frantically when they were hooked up. That is why many of them managed to unhook. I caught five baby tarpon from 4 to 8 pounds which I couldn’t photograph because of the heavy rain. It was 11 in the morning; we were soaked to the skin so we decided to put an end to our fishing day, even though the tarpon kept rising right in front of us.
“Ruso” gave me a lift on his boat to Chiquila where we said goodbye. A “tricitaxi” took me to a small hotel that seemed to have been taken from García Marquez’s novel “One hundred years of solitude” and where I could take a warm shower. The sun started to shine in the clouds. While waiting for a taxi to go back to Cancun, I lit up a Montecristo cigar #3 and smoked it slowly recalling the experiences in Holbox in those three days and anecdotes of the place, the fishing and the people.

Daniel Beilinson
Jan. 22nd 2003

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