Holá México Part 3: To swim or not to swim

Holá México Part 3: To swim or not to swim

Text and photos by Gerald Penkler

“To swim or not to swim”, she appeared to ask with a toothy grin.  A monstrous hulk was basking in glorious sunshine, mouth agape and dark beady eyes watching and waiting.  We had planned to swim across a dark, murky green, mangrove-lined channel a bit further down to reach the brilliant white sand flat beyond.  The unexpected sight of our 8 ft toothy friend very rudely interrupted the dreamy visions of stalking cruising bonefish.  From a gap in the mangroves we watched, waited, watched some more, before silently backing out and instead headed towards the comforts of a white beach and emerald surf.   So close and yet so far, but we would not be croc chow today.

I had expected a few small crocs, but was mentally not prepared for this.  Had I researched better, we would have known that Morelet’s and American crocodile species found in Mexico get to about 3 m in length.  Attacks are uncommon and rarely lethal (<10%) compared to the ruthless mammal hunting Nile (70% lethal) or saltwater crocodiles (50% lethal).   I do not subscribe to scare tactics, but there are enough reports of attacks across Mexico to exercise caution. See http://www.crocodile-attack.info/data/map for logs of croc attacks globally and various interesting stats on the subject.

Surprise! Hello Mr. Croc. This is a little resident at a local cenote.

Toothy thoughts quickly evaporated under the warm, friendly and relaxed beach atmosphere. The tide had started to push, a fresh breeze cooled the air and the emerald water, as always, looked incredibly inviting and fishy. Two bubbly ladies were fishing with shrimp in a channel and every so often their spindly light tackle would double up with small bonefish.  Occasionally curses and laughter rose as larger specimens smoked them.

Fly action, however, was very slow, but the pushing tide was now washing over the sand flat and forming a rich sandy water interface with the emerald channel.  If there was some feeding activity, it was going to be here in this rich milieu.  Expectation rose and on went the all conquering 1/0 tan over white Clouser.

Slowly stripping back along the edge of the sandy water I felt a light resistance and instinctively gave the line a sharp strip. Expected to feel a little bonefish run off into the channel, I was surprised that nothing happened at all; the fly was simply ‘stuck’.

Sharp yanks on the line failed to dislodge the fly and so I walked a couple of meters upstream to change the angle, and repeated.  I was just about to initiate the straight stick ‘death sequence’ when it moved ever so slightly and then bang, bang, bang as some huge headshakes rattled the fly rod. This was no flashy drag race of a bonefish or jack, but rather the raw muscle of a Land Rover in low range.

It nonchalantly chugged out across the channel, found a deep hole and tried sitting it out.   Trust a Land Rover to break down when you don’t need it to.  Several rod yanks did nothing to move it and I ended up having to straight stick it out of there.

The beast finally awoke and moved about with some urgency; and by urgency I mean a Land Rover now in first gear.   Up and down the middle of the channel it doggedly trudged with the 10 wt bent flat out.

The fish had stayed deep and I had no clue what I was connected to. I had heard reports of big snook being caught here, but YouTube videos had showed snook tail walking on the surface and going ballistic.  Perhaps a big snapper, but this felt too sedate?  In reality I was expecting an oddity to emerge.

Finally, the Land Rover ran out of diesel and with a flash of silver and yellow rolled up onto the flat in neutral.  It was in fact a snook, a big Land Rover of a snook!

I was suddenly really grateful for the toothy grin of that big old croc. Satisfied for the second time this trip, we ended the day walking along the beach and watched the sun dipping red and orange over the horizon. The beaches are truly stunning.

However, they are firmly in the clutches of a serious plague. I am not talking about the annoying line grabbing Sargassum weed, but rather the plastic scourge that has gripped the entire coast.  Wherever you look, even when 100 km from the nearest town, a thick line of plastic litter lines the high tide mark and above.   The sheer volume of rubbish on the beaches is astounding…Plastic containers, plastic bags, aerosols and plenty of plastic syringes – even one with a needle attached.  Our recycling regime has become far more dedicated ever since, but I cannot wait for a biodegradable alternative to plastic to be invented.

That night I could not get the vast sand flat and schools of bonefish out of my mind.  Despite the toothy critter, I had to visit this before having to head back to Cancun the next day.

Early the next morning I found myself standing alone in a small clearing, overlooking the dark, murky green, mangrove-lined channel. I watched and waited, alert and senses heightened before quietly easing my way into the depths and set off.  Some company was provided by  the waterproof backpack bobbing gently against my head and the cold touch of Leatherman steel grasped firmly in my left hand.

My heart almost exploded at the sound of a huge splash to my right as a startled little croc launched into the water.   The short swim seemed to take forever, but I won’t forget the profound sense of relief that washed over me as I reached the flat.

A small tan Clouser trailed a few meters behind as I slowly navigated along the margin of the flat, rod poised.  A shadow, somewhat akin to a mullet slowly moved towards me.  The fly puffed up out of the sand as it got closer. The bone pounced, hooked itself and raced away with the reel screaming in protest.  So this is what the fuss about bone fishing on the flats is all about!

Bones appeared regularly as singles or small schools of 3 or 4 in the 12 – 18” range.  The ‘pod’ fish were very spooky and any fly that landed closer than 2 m to them resulted in shadows quickly disappearing over the flat.  With the wind picking up it became increasingly difficult to spot the fish, although with each bone my eyes adjusted and I learned what to look for. I can imagine that an eagle eyed guide would be invaluable at times like this.

Whilst stalking, I noticed how bird shadows flitting across the surface sent baitfish scattering and jumping in all directions. However, I quickly gathered that these were not bird shadows but a school of small jacks raiding the flats.  Closely following these little guys was a big jack, its back and tail protruding out of the water as it carved a frantic semi-circular path across the flat.

Dropping my 8 wt, I grabbed the 10 and the big merkin whistled through the air and landed a few meters ahead, but the jack propelled onwards, not deviating in the slightest.  “Aaargh!” I tied on the silicone mullet, but Mr. jack never came back. With bones regularly still appearing in front of me I needed to force myself to leave the flat before the tide came in and light dimmed, the swim back across the croc-infested channel haunting my session.

Mrs Crocodile had the last toothy laugh when, after leaving the bonefish flat earlier than I would have, I discovered that I did not need to swim the gauntlet after all, but could’ve waded calf-deep to the safety of a hidden path behind mangroves…

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