Ninety miles south of Cancun’s mega-resorts littering Mexico’s Mayan Riviera, Ascension Bay is nestled in the heart of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere. This prolific stretch of water is, without a doubt, the most likely place in North America to score an inshore grand slam, or if you’re really lucky an inshore super grand slam.
Stalking the shallows requires patience and persistence. Local knowledge doesn’t hurt either.
Ascension Bay offers visiting fly fishermen—novice and expert alike—with hundreds of ultra-shallow flats surrounding tropical islets. The waters are so beautiful that the views in every direction simply defy description. Along with a fleet of traditional pangas, anglers wade-fish in knee deep, crystal clear water that covers a firm, white sand substrate. Year-round, visitors test their stalking prowess against shallow water’s most worthy adversaries. Along with prized bonefish and permit, the seemingly never-ending mangrove shorelines encompassing the bay and adjacent lagoon harbor hovering snook and cruising tarpon. Aggressive barracuda, mutton, mangrove and cubera snapper, and a variety of hard fighting jack are also plentiful and easy to persuade from deep blue holes and shallow reef formations.
Armed with a keen sense of smell and fantastic eye-sight, bonefish are famous the world over for driving experienced fly casters to the brink of insanity…
If you’ve ever read a book or flipped the pages of a magazine on saltwater fly-fishing, you’ve surely seen the pictures and read the alluring tales on the merits of Ascension Bay. Let me assure you…they are all true. After only one visit and dozens of successful releases, Ascension Bay is now my hands down all-time favorite fly-fishing destination. It is these secluded flats I now fish in my dreams.
While variety abounds, the primary motivation for angling adventure-seekers are bonefish—undisputed masters of deception. Unlike Bahamian or Florida Keys bones that reach double-digit figures, Ascension Bay bonefish average two to three pounds, with occasional fish twice that size inhaling perfectly placed flies. However what they lack in size, the region’s cooperative bonefish population certainly makes up for in quantity. While tarpon and permit frequent the same flats, it’s Ascension Bay’s unparalleled bonefish numbers that thrive in water less than 20-inches deep.
Made of muscle, their shimmering bodies are coated in transparent ooze, which enable the streamlined predator to glide through the skinniest of water with stealth-like precision, an advantage for capturing prey and escaping the jaws of relentless predators. Armed with a keen sense of smell and fantastic eyesight, bonefish are famous the world over for driving experienced fly casters to the brink of insanity—even when they are in a cooperative mood. However with so many shots at cruising and tailing fish, not to mention plenty of pronounced muds to blind cast to, even aspiring fly fishermen successfully hone their skills here.
While willing species anxious to jump all over a properly presented fly you will find, what you won’t encounter around Ascension Bay is overcrowding, modern composite skiffs zipping across the flats, or Club Med. But that’s okay. It’s the authenticity and natural beauty of it all that makes Ascension Bay a true off-the-beaten-path destination.
With more than one operation catering to traveling anglers (Ascension Bay Bonefish Club is a popular option), we took advantage of a longstanding invitation to visit Pesca Maya Fishing Lodge.
Quaint, comfortable and remote, Pesca Maya offers guests (up to 22 at a time) with a unique experience including first-class meals, air-conditioned rooms, and a wide variety of flats fishing opportunities rivaling anywhere you’ve previously fished. Personally, I was tickled pink when the first question my guide asked after a brief introduction was, “Capt. Mike, what do you want to catch today?”
Felipe continued by pointing out that we could head south and be in Ascension Bay in 15-minutes, or point the bow north and test our skills in Boca Paila Lagoon. The lagoon funnels into the bay and is fully protected from wind and sea, and also holds large numbers of bonefish and permit with tarpon, snook and snapper real possibilities. That’s one thing that’s so unique about this destination; protection from the elements is available 365 days of the year.
Over the next three days we proceeded to fish every corner of both venues. We released plenty of bonefish, had no less than four failed shots at tailing permit, spotted pods of cruising tarpon, and landed way too many snapper and jacks to count. A lone barracuda and juvenile palometa also found their way into our photos. We left feeling fortunate to have experienced such diversity during such a brief stay.
Savoring grilled lobster, we learned over dinner one evening that Pesca Maya initiated a guiding school more than a decade ago by enlisting some of the region’s legendary fishermen. All are native professionals with years of experience who know Ascension Bay and Boca Paila Lagoon better than the back of their hand. Most speak fairly good English, enough to instruct, spot fish and direct your casting, and all are personable and caring. It’s no wonder the lodge’s guest list is filled with repeat clientele.
Unique to Pesca Maya is a two guide per panga policy with head guide and a younger assistant. Both have the eyesight of a frigate bird. The dual-guide policy allows multiple anglers to explore different venues. Along with Florida Sport Fishing’s very own publisher and clearly my better half, Leah and I took advantage of the situation as I routinely headed off to wade promising flats while she remained in the panga scoring numerous bonefish and colorful mutton snapper from nearby muds.
Have no doubt; if the adrenaline rush that comes with stalking tailing permit excites you, or if casting to a school of 50 bonefish in six inches of water really floats your proverbial boat, Ascension Bay is clearly where you want to be. Regardless if you go for the world-class flats fishing, a well deserved escape from reality, or simply to enjoy the natural serenity and abundant wildlife, you’ll depart feeling rewarded and rejuvenated, and you will certainly be back!
Pesca Maya houses a mini-tackle shop on premises. While you won’t find a large selection of specialty items, they do have assorted flies, leader material, and a variety of artificial lures. Nine-weight equipment and spinning outfits are available for guests.
I enjoyed fishing my 6-weight for bonefish (all under five pounds), while a 9-weight is more suitable for tailing permit and cruising tarpon. If you have both bring both.
Weight forward floating lines with 200 yards of 20lb. backing are the norm, as are 8 to 40lb. tapered leaders depending on target species. Effective bonefish patterns include; Crazy Charlies, Pink Puffs, Popovic Ultra Shrimp, Mangrove Critters and Gotchas. Bring a few larger crab patterns for permit as well as few proven tarpon streamers.
As an alternative, a 7′ spinning combo loaded with 300 yards of 10lb. braid is ideal for nearly anything you’ll encounter. A selection of plugs and small jigs will keep you connected on the flats and along Pesca Maya’s sandy shoreline where relentless jacks patrol the wash. A bright ‘cuda tube is a good idea as well.
Sunscreen, buff, hat, sunglasses, camera, multi-tool…you know the routine.
The Sian Ka’an Biosphere
The Sian Ka’an Biosphere (Maya for “Where the sky is born”) is composed of tropical forest, wetlands, savannahs, and marine habitat with flourishing reefs. The region was established as a protected reserve in 1986 and incorporated into UNESCO’s list of natural world heritage sites in 1987. Today, Sian Ka’an Biosphere encompasses over 1.5 million acres along the central coast of Quintana Roo, Mexico, and is home to more than 340 species of birds, including the rare jabiru stork. All of southern Mexico’s endangered cat species are also found in Sian Ka’an, including jaguar, puma, ocelot, margay and jaguarondi. Not to be overlooked are spider and howler monkeys, and white-tipped and collared peccary and tapir—pig-like mammals. The biosphere’s wetlands and marine habitats shelter endangered Morelets and American crocodiles as well as manatee, turtles and porpoises.
Make no mistake; Pesca Maya caters to shallow water fly fishermen. However, not every visitor is up for spending eight hours a day on the flats for four to seven days straight, so alternatives do exist. Offshore fishing charters targeting sailfish, marlin, wahoo and dorado can be arranged. Wildlife enthusiasts will really be in for a treat with whale shark encounters, dolphin tours, and a variety of eco-tours. Pure, uninterrupted relaxation along the lodge’s pristine Caribbean shore isn’t a bad way to spend the day either. The colorful hand-sewn hammocks swinging in the breeze were the most inviting I’ve ever encountered.
Travel arrangements couldn’t be easier. Fly to Cancun Int’l Airport from nearly any major hub and a Pesca Maya representative will be waiting for you outside the gate. An air-conditioned van with refreshments will whisk you to the lodge. The scenic ride takes approximately three hours, with the last hour on an unpaved road snaking through the protected biosphere. The bumpy trail winds through a narrow peninsula pinned between Boca Paila Lagoon to the west and the Caribbean Sea to the east. The road ends just past the lodge in the small fishing village of Punta Allen where eco-tours and wildlife adventures are transforming traditional fishing boats into sightseeing vessels. Tourism dollars are quickly replacing income from commercial lobster fishing.
Once on site, Pesca Maya guests are greeted with a frosty drink and shown to their room where they are provided a brief overview of lodge procedures. It’s now time to exhale and begin enjoying life. Breakfast is served at 7 a.m., and lunch is packed for your day on the water with choice of food and beverages. Typically you’ll be on the water by 8 a.m. and return by 4 p.m. with a late afternoon appetizer and cocktails before dinner and desert. A fantastic chef using only the freshest vegetables and local ingredients prepares all meals. Guests typically finish the night recounting fish tales of the one that didn’t get away before hitting the sack in preparation of another action-packed day.