May 10, 2023
By Ross Purnell
In 40-plus years of fly fishing, the most common complaint I hear is some variation of “It ain’t like it used to be.” Sometimes the beauty of a fishing area has been ruined by development of roads, bridges, buildings, and parking lots. Sometimes the fishing itself has deteriorated, with fewer fish, or fewer large or wild fish. And sometimes the fishing and scenery remain the same, but too many anglers congregate in these precious places, and crowds of people looking to “get away from it all” end up getting in each other’s way. Just ask the old-timers on the Madison River.
It’s harder and harder to find a place that hasn’t been degraded over time. If you are new to fly fishing, you likely don’t notice—you have nothing to compare, and it’s always great to be out there casting a line. But if you’ve been at this for decades, it can be a little depressing to visit old haunts and realize they have suffered at the hands of humanity.
Islands where I used to camp on my home river are now crossed by a freeway bridge, and homes and golf courses have replaced open pastures. The river where I first learned to fish for steelhead still looks the same, but the fish are gone. It’s sad to see what a poor job we’ve done of protecting wild places, but I didn’t start tapping on this keyboard to complain about these things you already know.
Instead, my intent is to celebrate a place that, incredibly, looks exactly the same as it did decades ago. It’s a tropical paradise with palm trees and white sand beaches covering more than 1,080 square miles of land, sea, and coastal ecosystems. It’s a community where locals came up with a plan to protect the fishery, freeze all development, and restrict the numbers of boats to the same as they were in the last millennium.
Mexico’s Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve is one of that country’s largest protected areas, and it’s not just the same as it was long ago—it’s better. And a new generation of guides and anglers in the town of Punta Allen are continuing what their parents’ generation started. Now there are strict harvest and pollution controls on Ascension Bay, a complete ban on development, and a frozen number of guide boats and permits that will never increase.
Mayan civilization stretched across the Yucatan Peninsula for centuries, but their cities and settlements were almost always centered around life-sustaining freshwater cenotes. The modern settlement of Punta Allen (in Mayan, Punta Ah Allin) began from 1898 to 1901, when Major General José María de la Vega was appointed the administrator of the Federal Territory of Quintana Roo and constructed a lighthouse at the strategic tip of a long, narrow peninsula reaching into Ascension Bay. The first lighthouse operator—who was also the owner of the surrounding property—was Don Manuel Mendoza Martin. The founding members of the community sought his permission to build their houses on his property, harvest fish, and farm the land for coconuts.
The Mendoza, Choc, Ancona, and Pereira families were the first residents of Punta Allen, and in the following decades, many relatives joined them, along with other fishing families who saw strength in numbers in what was essentially a tropical frontier.
All the buildings at this so-called “Camp Vega”—except the lighthouse—were destroyed when Hurricane Janet made landfall in 1955. The hurricane also ruined most of the coconut farms, causing the locals to shift to an almost exclusively fishing economy. The current townsite sprang up in 1972 and 1973, when Don Susano Torres drilled dependable freshwater wells about 2 kilometers north of the lighthouse. Approximately 20 homes were built on the Atlantic coast, where the inhabitants actually owned the property they lived on. They named the town Colonia de Pescadores Javier Rojo Gomez. Punta Allen is actually the name of the tip of the peninsula.
From the early 1970s to the mid-1980s, local fishermen enjoyed almost unlimited harvest, and Punta Allen prospered. But indiscriminate netting, overharvest, outside fishing pressure, and looming development threatened the Ascension Bay ecosystem. Residents saw firsthand what was happening in the tourist areas to the north: Tulum, Playa del Carmen, Cozumel, and Cancun. Mangrove forests were cut down, canals and beaches dredged to make way for marinas and cruise ships, and jungle habitat paved to make way for roads, parking lots, and hotels. Worse, all this “progress” brought unregulated numbers of people to a region with no sustainable way to deal with trash and wastewater, protect the water quality, or regulate harvest.
The residents of Punta Allen knew more than the fishing was at stake. Their way of life was on the verge of a catastrophic shift, from a life in balance with the ocean toward a future where their children would be hotel and nightclub service employees. So they took action, appealing to local and federal officials to protect Ascension Bay and the land around it. They became the primary stakeholders, organizers, and creators of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.
In contrast with the U.S., where local property owners often oppose federal regulation, here the locals were the primary drivers behind the creation of one of Mexico’s largest protected areas—652,000 hectares (1.3 million acres) of intricately linked marine, coastal, and terrestrial ecosystems. It has 120 kilometers (75 miles) of coastline, tropical forests, palm savannahs, one of the country’s most pristine wetlands, lagoons, mangrove stands, sandy beaches and dunes, and extensive saltwater flats and shallow sea grass beds. Part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef—the world’s second-largest barrier reef—is also protected. In short, Sian Ka’an is heaven for bonefish, permit, tarpon, and countless other fish that thrive in this type of tropical environment.
Sian Ka’an means “gate of heaven” or “place where heaven begins.” The biosphere was created in 1986 and became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. Legal protections are extensive, and include restrictions on how fishing takes place. No nets or traps are permitted. In the lobster fishery, artificial lobster habitats are GPS marked throughout the bay, lobsters are harvested by hand by free diving, and each lobster is carefully inspected so no egg-bearing females are harvested and each lobster meets minimum size requirements.
The fly-fishing guides tell stories of their grandparents hauling nets filled with entire schools of permit and other gamefish. But that hasn’t happened for decades—fly-fishing tourism now drives the economy here, and even that is tightly regulated. The prohibitions against development ensure that the town (and the ecosystem) stay the same. The population of Punta Allen (about 500) has remained static since I first visited in the late 1990s.
Nothing has changed, except the snook, permit, and other gamefish are more plentiful now, and the guides have soaked up the previous generation’s knowledge and added more sophisticated methods, better flies and strategies, and fluent English. This adds up to a better experience for visiting gringos who want to catch the most challenging tropical flats species.
That was my revelation the last time I stayed at Palometa Club, which has evolved over the years to become the number one permit lodge in the Caribbean. Yes, Ascension Bay has tons of bonefish—possibly too many. It’s a very good place for first-time saltwater fly fishers to walk sandy flats and cast to large schools of willing bonefish.
There is seasonally good fishing for large migratory tarpon, and it’s an underrated snook fishery. Sight fishing for large snook along the mangroves is especially good starting in November and through the winter months, when cool weather pushes migratory snook from the north and toward Punta Allen. The reverse happens when things heat up in the summer, tarpon move in, and the snook creep back northward.
But while snook, bonefish, and tarpon are all viable options, and many people visit the other lodges in the area for the flats grand slam potential—or just for warm weather and the chance to see dolphins, manatees, and rare birds like spoonbills and flamingos—serious anglers visit Palometa Club for just one reason, and that’s to spend a week hunting exclusively for the black-tailed devil of the flats: Trachinotus falcatus. Palometa Club is the only Caribbean lodge where both guests and guides are tuned toward a singular purpose. There’s no talk of “What would you like to fish for today?” or “The tides are good for tarpon” or “This north wind is best for bonefish.”
Guides and guests here understand that they’ll be fishing for permit every day unless someone asks for an alternative plan. Some people feel it doesn’t makes sense to spend a week’s vacation to fish a saltwater venue with a variety of species, yet commit yourself to the pursuit of the one fish you’re least likely to catch. The rest of us figure it doesn’t make sense to come to the best permit location in the Caribbean, with the best permit guides in the region, and then squander the opportunity by fishing for bonefish, snook, or barracudas.
Permit are widely known as the most difficult of all flats species to catch on a fly, but when you are at Palometa Club, the odds are tipped more in your favor for a number of reasons. This vast ecosystem of reefs, sea grass, flats, and lagoons creates the perfect habitat for the entire lifecycle of Trachinotus falcatus, and the protections of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere do more than prevent harvest of permit. The biosphere prevents development and loss of fragile rearing habitat for juveniles, protects water quality, and limits the number of boats on the water. There are a lot of permit here—everything from schools of baby permit weighing 3 to 5 pounds, up to giants of 35 pounds and more. Don’t let the IGFA record book fool you—there are multiple record-size fish caught here every season. The guides just don’t carry certified scales or mess with line-class tippets unless you specifically ask.
Permit fishing out of Palometa Club isn’t great just because of Ascension Bay and the biosphere, though—there are layers to this cake. Over the years, Palometa Club has cultivated many of the top permit guides from the Punta Allen community. They aren’t employees, because all the guides are independent contractors from the Punta Allen cooperatives. But Palometa Club has sought permit specialists who have proved their merit year after year, and they have some of the best teams on the water.
Teams like Gerardo/Rodolfo, Correano/Veaudy, Jorge/Luis, Charly/Nino, Toluco/Sami, Alonso/Christian, and Jonathan/Julian are some of the best of a new generation of Ascension Bay permit guides. They have deep roots in the region—some of their fathers, uncles, and grandfathers were part of the cooperative when the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve was created. They are proud of that heritage, they have absorbed all that their forebears learned on the water, and they bring a new energy to the flats that didn’t exist here 10 or 15 years ago. It used to be that Ascension Bay guides were lobster fishermen for much of the year, and part-time fly-fishing guides.
Not so with the majority of guides at Palometa Club, where they prefer professional year-round fly-fishing guides so their guests can take advantage of that expertise and experience. For instance, Jorge, Charly, and Alonso have all guided for Untamed Angling on the Rio Marié and bring with them a wealth of experience. All the guides on the Palometa Club roster are these kinds of global superstars . . . they speak fluent English (communication is paramount when chasing difficult flats species), they share their passion for permit on Instagram and understand the permit culture outside of Punta Allen, they are aware of and know how to use the best equipment to maximize your opportunities, and they tie and design flies to match specific seasons and flats.
They tie and use flies you can’t get in Colorado fly shops—mantis shrimp with a rear claw, floating shrimp flies, and crabs weighted in line with the hook shank so they cast better and land with less impact. They have new ideas, new flies, and new techniques. They are a new generation of Punta Allen guides, and when it comes to permit, they are the best of the best.
Flies for Finicky Fish
I was sharing a boat with my friend John Frazier when we came across a large, mixed group of permit. By “mixed” I mean there were big permit swimming with little ones—something you don’t often see. There was a passing tropical depression to the south, so there was enough wind and clouds to make permit fishing even more difficult than normal. We hadn’t seen many fish that day, so when we came across this group moving slowly and aimlessly in deeper water, our guide Toluco worked hard not to lose track of them. My first cast was not bad for a trout guy—right out in front. I let the fly drop, then used long, slow strips to keep tension on the line and not move my crab pattern too much. The line went tight, I set the hook, and was about to let out a whoop, but something felt a little off.
“This is an awfully small permit,” I thought until I realized it wasn’t a permit at all. It was a runt bonefish. I quickly stripped the fish to the side of the boat, while Toluco backed the boat away to offer another shot. Same thing.
Clearly there were permit—we had seen their black fins at the surface—but the weighted crabs were getting down below the fish too quickly. Toluco circled around while our other guide Sami changed to a lightly weighted shrimp pattern, and encouraged me to strip a little faster. Yet another bonefish. These little guys were feeding right under the permit and were clearly faster and more aggressive. After I changed the timing and the stripping speed—and still caught bonefish—Sami reached for a floating shrimp pattern given to me by Matt McCannel—who at that time was the Palometa Club manager and had notched more than 100 permit himself.
The fly has a tan foam carapace mottled with a Pantone marker, and it’s shaped like a fat Gurgler. Evidently, injured or dying shrimp can twitch and wiggle at the surface, but bonefish won’t touch them. I didn’t believe the permit would eat a surface fly either until a few casts later when I saw a 20-pound+ fish rise out of the water like a trout—with both black eyes above the surface and focused on the fly—and attack that fly. I had never seen anything like it, but the guides say they’ve been perfecting this bonefish-avoidance strategy for years. It really works.
Everyone thinks “crab pattern” when they think about permit, but in Ascension Bay they eat mantis shrimp as well. The fish come at the fly from behind, so the profile is less important than the rear view of the fly. McCannel’s pattern looks just like a shrimp should, when the shrimp is fleeing and the permit is coming from behind—it’s all eyes, mouthparts, legs, and yes, they have a powerful claws like a crab.
Fly fishers around the globe have been perfecting crab flies for years. Skok’s Strong Arm Merkin works, as do Cathy’s Fleeing Crab, the Danger Muffin Crab (see page 66 this issue), and the Belly Flop. McCannel’s crab pattern has a single claw, rubber legs, eyes, and looks just like the real thing, but the dumbbell eyes are tied in line with the hook shank, not crosswise like a Merkin. The result is a fly that is more streamlined, is a little easier to cast, and slips into the water with a lot less splash that many other crab patterns.
Palometa Club sits right on the beach in Punta Allen, facing east over the ocean so you can drink your coffee, watch the sunrise, and assess the weather for the coming day. In prime conditions, you’ll launch right from this beach in the morning and return in the afternoon, so you can walk up to the outdoor bar and stand barefoot enjoying celebratory margaritas while the lodge staff washes and hangs your gear.
When the wind gets nasty, the boats leave and arrive from a sheltered dock on the west side of the peninsula, which is a three-minute walk—it’s a very narrow strip of land. Due to the 300-degree shape of Ascension Bay, and the numerous small coves and islands and sandbars, the guides can always get out of the worst of the chop and find flatter water to pole or wade.
Clouds are harder to beat, but the guides do a good job of monitoring the clouds, and when possible moving to stay in sunlight for better visibility. When clouds are really socked in, they will focus on shallow flats, where you’re more likely to see pushes, nervous water, or tails. Solid cloud cover is rare, but when it’s there, and you find pushy fish under dark skies, they’re far less spooky than under a bright sun.
The club’s central gathering point is the outdoor bar and spacious outdoor dining area, where there is music, a full bar, cold beer, and a cornhole set against a backdrop of moon, stars, palm trees, and the Caribbean Sea.
Palometa Club can accommodate up to 12 guests at one time, based on double occupancy of rooms and boats. Each 23-foot panga has two guides, and this serves a very specific function while permit fishing. Even with two guides, only one angler fishes at a time. In the panga, the junior guide stands at your shoulder, managing your line and directing your casts. Pangas are big, comfortable boats, perfect for the long hauls and open water of Ascension Bay, but two o’clock from the poling platform isn’t always two o’clock from the bow, so the junior guide actually points your rod directly at the fish so you can lock on quickly.
When the guide on the platform sees a fish or group of fish from a distance, you and the junior guide will jump out of the boat and wade toward the fish. The guide maintains his position on the platform with “eyes in the sky,” and the junior guide will follow his instructions and get you close to the fish. Make no mistake, when you jump out of the boat, the odds of hooking a fish skyrocket. The panga’s slap and silhouette will spook many permit, but if you’re wading, they will feed confidently very close to you.
Founded in 2005, Palometa Club has been the go-to lodge for permit anglers for many years. In 2021 it was purchased by Paul Comer, Alan Steele, and David Leake. The new owners renovated the building in the summer of 2022, updated the decor, and made the rooms and the whole lodge more comfortable. Everything works, and that’s no short order in a remote region of Mexico. The entire building has central air, the modern en suite bathrooms have walk-in showers with stone floors, and the beds are a welcome retreat after a day on the flats.
The new ownership group also changed the menu to favor more seafood and more authentic local food, and in January of 2023 brought in new lodge managers, the globe-trotting husband-wife team of Francois Botha and Dasha Uspenskaia. Originally from South Africa and Russia, respectively, the couple has a long history of guiding and managing at fishing venues around the world, from the Seychelles to Argentina and Alaska, and of course their home countries. They know how an upscale lodge should operate, and they know what well-traveled fly fishers expect of their trip.
David Leake owns Tailwaters Fly Fishing Co. in Dallas, Texas, and is a longtime permit aficionado. Tailwaters has been the exclusive booking agent for Palometa Club for many years, and Leake has a deep fondness for the place and its staff, which motivated him to become an owner, and to upgrade this slice of fly-fishing heaven.
Getting to Ascension Bay is twofold. First you fly to Cancun, where a private shuttle will pick you up and drive you south for 90 minutes through Tulum and the Maya Riviera. That part is easy. The last leg of the journey historically has involved a drive along an unimproved dirt track in the jungle that has jarred many spines and instilled fear and anxiety in all who travel here. The 5-mph “jungle drive” has become almost legendary among permit fishermen as the final obstacle in getting to saltwater nirvana. However, Palometa Club has worked out a much easier alternative—a water taxi picks guests up at the bridge at Boca Paila, and a quick 30-minute boat ride replaces the grueling one-hour jungle tour.
Ross Purnell is the editor and publisher of Fly Fisherman.