Article - Fishing

Fisherman Magazine | by C. Boyd Pfeiffer


X marks the spot - Xcalak

Costa de CocosLooking for a fly-fishing treasure? Head south on the Yucatan to the village of Xcalak, where you will find big bonefish without the big crowds.  

Her line was in the air, fighting the wind to deliver a small Crazy Charlie several feet from shoreline and into a turmoil of feeding bonefish. The bones scurried along th bottom in slightly muddied water, busy with their own hunt, tails out and waving. My wife Brenda, gave her line a strip, then a pause. A second strip produced a quick follow and a fast U-turn as the hooked bonefish ran for the far shore of this wide-open cove near the Mexico Belize border. Brenda was into her first bonefish and having fun.  

I, of course, was certain she'd lose it. My wife had muscled a few small Chesapeake stripers to the transom before, but she'd never fought anything as racy as a bonefish. To winch one in as she had done with the stripers is an invitation-no, a guarantee-that something will break.  

But she did well, holding the rod high, hands off the screaming reel as first the fly line and then a considerable length of backing shot from the rod tip. The line raced over the sandy flat, singing slightly in the wind until the fish stopped. Brenda began pumping, relying on instinct and a few pre-trip instructions I'd given her in the backyard between the pine trees and the dog kennel. She worked the fish in perfectly, allowing it to run when it wanted and ultimately using side pressure on the rod until guide Alberto Batun Palomo could reach down and land her fish, holding it for a photo or two before releasing it back to the shinny water.  

Minutes earlier, with neither a boat nor other angler in sight, I had caught a bonefish on this same flat, which lies north of the village of Xcalak (pronounced Shkalak) on the remote southern end of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Each of our fish weighed about six pounds, respectable fish to be sure, but not close to the camp Costa de Cocos record of around 14 pounds. In fact, our couple of fish were a tad small, as and typically take at least a few bonefish in the 7- to 8-pound range during a week fishing here. And almost all are taken in the skinny water that we were stalking  

In some situations, the last is truly the best, and this might be the case at Costa de Cocos, a remote camp carved out of the beach and jungle just north of Xcalak, the last town on the Yucatan coast before reaching Belize. It is the farthest south one can travel on the Yucatan and still find a camp on the flats, and little to no fishing competition within 70 miles.  

"Everything south is being worked, and everything north is being worked, explains owner David Randall of the fishing competition in other areas, and almost virgin fishing in his. During our days, we saw only one other sport-fishing boat.  

Randall and his wife, llana, bought five acres of beach back in 1987 and started the camp in 1988 as a dive-and-fishing operation. Randall sold his US catfish-farming operation in 1989 to move here permanently that same year, then started the fly-fishing operation10 years ago. Presently, Costa de Cocos can accommodate 42 guests, but it allows only six anglers as a result of limitations on guides and fishing boats.  

Diving is still permitted, there is no spear fishing, and sport fishing is strictly a catch-and-release operation, which makes it an angler's paradise.  

The camp's location also helps. Turneffe Island Reef, the second largest in the world after Australia's Great Barrier Reef, is less than a half mile off the Costa de Cocos beach. With 35 named flats and a number of unnamed flats to choose from, the area is a bonefishing bonanza. You can cast to bonefish on flats or in coves; around turtle grass and in huge muds, along the inches-deep sandy shorelines; and in holes where bonefish hang out when the water temperatures drop a tad.  

All of this fishing wealth is found along the skinny-water shoreline of Chetumal Bay, which dwarfs the more northern Ascension Bay located about half way up the coast. With its semi-remote status and rich marine environment, Chetumal Bay· and Costa de Cocos might be some of the best bonefishing for big trophies in the Western Hemisphere.  

Anglers traveling to Xcalak also have the potential of taking huge permit along with small tarpon in the cuts and' deep lagoons between islands, snook along the mangroves, snappers in holes, and barracudas that cruise everywhere. Sharks also wander onto the flats, ready for an easy meal or a fly that looks like fast food.  

Although we could not get out to them because of the weather, larger tarpon lurk in a hole between two parts of the reef. And when Randall and the guides say big tarpon, they mean big tarpon some up to 200 pounds. They are usually found in an area bound by the coral reef, which means difficult fishing due to the potential for cut-offs, though nonetheless a challenge for the future.  

In fact, Randall recently outfitted a 33-foot boat to be used for taking divers to the reef for scuba diving and snorkeling or for separately guiding fly anglers out for a chance at 200-pound tarpon. For this, you will need 12-weight rods, large reels filled with 30-pound Dacron, stout leaders, and big flies.  

After we caught and released our first bones, the skunk was gone, and we relaxed and concentrated on the fishing. Alberto spotted fish as we took turns on the casting platform. He poled from the stern or sometimes even from the bow, to see the fish better and to more exactly direct a cast to the right spot and intercept zigzagging bones. We cast, caught bones, poled along, missed fish, got out, waded the flats and shorelines, landed fish and took pictures, cast and hooked up, fought fish and had fish come unbuttoned, all while moving between flats and lagoons, coves and small inlets.  

There is also bird life galore here. Wood storks, ospreys, hawks, herons, roseate spoonbills, and egrets fill the skies as a colorful background to your fishing. They roost, nest, and feed all around the islands and lagoons.  

At times, we cast to snook that we found cruising the mangroves bordering these inlets and lagoons. 'While our snook were only a couple of pounds each, double-digit fish are not uncommon, and anglers have taken snook to more than 20 pounds. Best flies are 1 to 2/0 Whistlers, Sea-Ducers, baitfish imitations, and other similar flies in white, yellow, chartreuse, and black.  

This area presents open-water blind casting for big barracuda, too. Thus two anglers in the boat can switch off between trying the precise casting toward the mangroves to hook a cruising snook, or casting open water for a 'cuda or perhaps even a tarpon. Best flies for barracuda are needlefish imitations in white, green or chartreuse, tied on 1/0 to 3/0 hooks.  

The deeper waters of the inlets and some lagoons are , where you will find tarpon to 35 or 40 pounds rolling on the surface, often ready to take flies, such as the typical white, red, yellow, or black Sea- Ducer patterns or Apte-style tarpon flies. Since some of the tarpon can be small, flies from 2 to 2/0 are best. Even though they are in mangrove-lined areas, they are in enough deep and open water to make landing them more an exercise in ·proper handling than -in' fighting tangles with mangroves and turtle grass.

Big permit are another challenge for fly fishermen here. They are more of a morning fish but can be encounter almost anytime of the day, prowling deeper waters that are slightly different from the shaIlow flats that bonefish favor. And Xcalak permit can be big, up to 3;) pounds. It helps to keep a separate 9 or 10-weight outfit rigged and tipped with a crab pattern, such as a Merkin, McCrab, or other light-brown or tan pattern. While you can overstock your boar with rods, also consider carrying a 9- or 10-weight outfit rigged with wire and a needlefish fly for the occasional barracuda that will show up on the flats or for some serious barracuda fishing around the reef  

The best fishing varies with the species sought. For bonefish, consider the March-through-July time frame. According to our guide, Alberto, permit: action peaks from March through May. Look for the best tarpon fishing in June and July, and the best snook late in November and December. This doesn't mean that you can catch only certain fish during these time periods; we fish the fall and hooked up with all these species. But bonefish are still the main game in town at Costa de Cocos. David Randall related one incident in which an  experienced angler found a good bonefish area. "He caught and counted sixty-four bonefish in one day on flies. Most were about in the two-and-a-half pound range," Randall says. They were not the biggest bonefish, but with a double-digit specimen as a distinct possibility, and considering that daily catches can easily,average in the teens and more, Costa de Cocos near Xcalak is a great place to explore some of the Caribbean's best bonefishing that is off the beaten path.  

The bonefishing at Costa de Cocos requires slow-sinking flies both for the skinny water-in which bonefish sometimes have their backs and tails breaking the surface-and because of the frequently soft bottom. A little puff as a fly works the bottom in bonefish range is good. Sinking a heavily weighted fly into the same bottom is not  

Still, some bones can be taken from deeper water (three to four feet) in muds where they are feeding; therefore, you should bring a selection of flies with plastic bead eyes, some with light bead-chain eyes, and some with lead or lead-substitute hourglass or dumbbell eyes.  

A list of standard Costa de Cocos flies would include different colors of Crazy Charlies, Gotchas, mini Puffs, and the usual assortment of point-up, high-wing flies in sizes 8 through 4. The best colors are tan and light brown, along with some pink, a few of chartreuse, and some with a little flash for stained-water. Also pack a few black and dark-brown flies.  

Angling writer C. Boyd Pfeiffer. For more info, go to