Our friend Mike Thompson wrote this dispatch about his recent trip to the ESB Lodge in the Mexican Yucatan.
The alarm went off as usual at quarter after five, which was earlier than my roommate and most everyone else at the lodge was ready to stir. I, however, was already awake and thinking about my final day of fishing in Bahía del Espíritu Santo. My feet hit the floor in darkness, and I slipped out quietly to begin my work. As the self-appointed barista, my chore was to strong brew some of the coffee that I had brought with me from Austin. Like a mantra, coffee-making is a quiet time when my sleep-fogged brain can begin to find its bearings without fear of interruption. As I poured hot water through the muslin sock filled with the remnants of the stash from home, I had time to dwell further on the hits and misses of the past five days of fishing: a nice juvenile tarpon caught on the flats; bonefish larger than any I had encountered on my past trips to the Yucatan; permit and snook hooked but not landed. Today was to be my last chance for the trip. I really needed to step up to the plate and deliver on both coffee and fish.
I began fishing in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, primarily in Bahía de la Ascensión, in the early eighties. That bay and the lagoons and rivers that feed it introduced me to an amazingly diverse and beautiful ecosystem. The guides, lodges, and community of Punta Allen taught me and provided me access to the bay’s secrets and occasionally a hook up with a permit. I had heard there were other fisheries, south toward Belize, and I had itched to explore them.
“You have to see this place! Who knows how much longer it can remain this pristine,” had been Billy Trimble’s message to me. That communication came after Billy had spent a week at ESB Lodge last year, and the message was clear. Bahía del Espíritu Santo was the bay that I had heard about. Situated inside a UNESCO World Heritage site, the bay is protected by rules that limit the impact of overuse. There are only seven licenses for flats skiffs in the entire system, and ESB Lodge holds four of them. But regulation is only one piece that ensures the bay’s preservation; the other is the difficulty of getting there… just my kind of place.
Billy had snagged four spots. I was hooked. So it was Billy and me, Moldy Chum, and my Peace Corp buddy Bill Schweri. The four of us had almost a year to sweat out our departure, scheduled for late August. New rods, reels, flies, logistics, etc. were discussed ad nauseum. In short, we had months to enjoy one of the most important and fun parts of any fishing trip: anticipation.
From Cancun, we flew to a jungle airstrip. We were to be dropped off, and a group of anglers from the week before were to be shuttled back. The three of them, along with Dane and Manny from ESB Lodge, stood waiting, clustered in the available shade. I was determined not to ask how the fishing had been, because almost inevitably that leads to a comment from a guide, “You should have been here last week, they slayed ‘em.” I did glance at the waiting anglers and they seemed relaxed and happy, with an aura about them that signaled success. One of their group, a permit fishing savant named Carlos Cortez, was staying over with us for another week. Their fish tally did slip out, but I chose to ignore that twenty-four permit were landed.
The final two-hour road trip to the lodge was a slow crawl over a narrow, rutted, canopied jungle road flanked by the Caribbean on one side and lagoons on the other. I could not have been more fired up.
The first five days of fishing were good for all of us, although better for some than others. From our group, Bill Schweri had boated his first bonefish, permit, and tarpon for a personal trifecta. Moldy Chum had landed two very nice permit, several good-size bonefish, four tarpon, and a freaking triggerfish. Billy had caught everything, as is his way. I really shouldn’t complain, as I had gotten my fair share of shots, but every day when all the boats had returned, precisely at five o’clock, my box score had shown below-average performance. With one fishing day left, I was the only one who hadn’t landed at least one permit… the fish I most wanted to catch. I tortured myself with memories of permit caught or lost on past trips and new errors made this week. Elation was the order of the day for most at the lodge; not for me. I tried to convince myself that it didn’t matter and that fishing was the reward in itself. Waxing philosophical didn’t raise my spirits one bit.
Billy and I were paired on the last day, and as we motored out I began to have a recurring thought: this was the bottom of the ninth inning for me. I had to get it done today, or who knew when I would next get a chance. Fishing with Billy, a very accomplished angler and fly-caster, only added to my self-imposed stress, as I knew he was as anxious to fish as I was. He was aware that I still needed to seal the deal on permit, so he generously gave me plenty of time to get it done. Relaxed I was not. All week when the permit fishing shifted from the flats to deeper water I was challenged by the wind, seeing fish, and setting the hook: skill dissolved, and a can’t-do attitude replaced it.
I missed another opportunity before lunch as a short cast got a hook set, but there was too much fly line still on deck and ultimately under my boot. I danced on the bow and tried to get tight to the fish, but it got away. That was three lost fish for the week, and two of them were definitely operator error. The inevitable hour when we needed to pull up and race to the dock was fast approaching. It was law that all the skiffs had to be back at five o’clock, or there would be hell to pay from the shuttle driver. I never, all week, saw any boat not make it back on time. As one might imagine, adherence to this punctuality could and did leave sighted fish for another day. I didn’t have another day, and time was running out.
As the afternoon closed in, we motored to a deeper area where many permit had been caught during the week. Large schools of fish and their muds were often sighted here, and they were usually good-sized ones at that. We began to see fish midafternoon, and Billy and I took turns trying to fool them. We used every spawning shrimp color in the box, as well as the other guide favorites. Finally, we resorted to crab patterns. By now it was dangerously close to closing time. I was up, and I finally got a decent enough cast. A slow, steady retrieve connected with a nice fish. This one I landed, thankfully, and ten minutes after release our guide Jorge said, “Roll up your line, we have to go.”
La Bahia del Espiritu Santo (ESB) is the true gem of the Yucatan, and perhaps the last remaining wilderness fly fishing outpost along the entire Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. For the dedicated saltwater flats fly fisherman, ESB provides the least pressured angling opportunities in the entire Caribbean. For permit fishermen, there may be nowhere else on the planet that can compare.
For more information about ESB and the ESB Lodge, check out the link below to The Fly Shop who is the exclusive booking agent for this signature destination.