Phantoms of the Flats

Casting for bonefish in the mangrove-choked lagoons of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula

On the hunt: bonefishing off Andros Island, Bahamas     Photo: Brian Bailey

AT THE CANCUN International Airport, in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, you have to hang around until your fly-rod case comes in from the plane on an oversize baggage cart, because the long, skinny tube won't ride properly on the conveyor. This can make for a harrowing wait. There I sat, my backpack full of camping gear, with $200 in cash (which about wiped out my bank account) and a month to kill, and the one thing I really needed in order to do the one thing I really wanted to do—catch some bonefish—was likely lost and sitting on some other plane in some other country. When I finally spotted my rod case, my mind moved on to another anxiety: whether I'd have any luck hitching rides and finding fish.

Much of this anxiety was thanks to the naysayers at a fly-fishing shop back home, who assured me that my plan to hitchhike around the southern Yucatan Peninsula would yield me no bonefish and probably find me dead in the jungle by its conclusion. They told me that catching bonefish usually requires a small fortune, and they suggested an island resort where, judging by the brochure, a handful of bathing-suit models and I would loll on a private beach, sipping daiquiris while casting at millions of fish.

I was committed to my plan out of sheer stubbornness if not near-poverty, and once I changed into some cutoffs and got on a southbound bus to Tulum, I was feeling much better. Tulum is a small Caribbean beach town with a nice blend of local culture and European beach bums selling pot and handmade jewelry, and the place really sets you at ease. The main street is dotted with curbside chicken joints; after sampling around, I can definitively say that Jorge, the grillman at Pollos Asados Marisol, serves the best bird in town.

Tulum is also a good jumping-off point for fishing, because stretching south of there along the coast almost to Belize is the Sian Ka'an, a United Nations-sponsored, 1.3-million-acre biosphere reserve that has lagoons and beaches, Mayan ruins, monkeys, manatees, two kinds of peccary, jaguars, two species of crocodile, 350 species of birds, and plenty of fish. I bought rice and beans, a $12 hammock, and four gallons of purified water and thumbed a ride to the reserve's north entrance, where I started walking down a long, bumpy road that led to Punta Allen, a lobster-fishing village some 40 miles distant.

The road runs the length of a thin peninsula separating the Caribbean Sea from a large saltwater lagoon. Every hour or so a truck would come by and not pick me up. After I'd gone quite a ways, I found a dead bonefish as big as a loaf of French bread lying in the dust on the side of the road. A guy hauling bananas and limes finally stopped. When we got to a good-looking area I banged on the back window of the truck. He wouldn't let me out until he counted the bundles of fruit to see if any were missing. Just to the east of the road, waves pounded a long, sandy beach; to the west was the saltwater lagoon—primo bonefish habitat—barely visible through a 50-yard-wide, seemingly impenetrable thicket of mangroves.

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