In October, I traveled to Mexico to meet up with 15 other women through an organization called Women on the River Collective with the sole purpose of fishing the flats of the Yucatan Peninsula. While this was my first dedicated salt water trip, many of the women had made yearly pilgrimages to the ocean in pursuit of the many species it has to offer. I had no idea what to expect other than what I gathered from hearing whispers of prized permit and energetic bonefish. All of the trip research that I did could not prepare me for the experience that was flats fishing. 

Photo by Mac Elliot (@macelliotmedia) at X Flats Lodge

Our first day on the panga, I quickly realized that things happen within the blink of an eye. If you are not ready to jump into action with speed and precision you could miss your chance at your only fish of the day…or the week. Despite the anticipation of high adrenaline moments, the cadence of days on the water was quite slow. Long hours were spent standing at the bow of the boat in the heat of the Mexican sun, dressed in protective sun layers, simply scanning for fish activity. 

Targeted Species: Permit

We did a lot of waiting and watching for nervous water and tailing, which indicate a school of active or feeding permit. When permit were spotted by our guide, who was elevated on a platform, they would diligently push the panga over to the group of fish at a realistic distance for a cast. Matching the breathless excitement of the moment, they would hurriedly say some variation of cast 30 yards. 12 o’clock. No. Now 20 yards. 2 o’clock. Quickly, quickly. Cast again, not close enough. Again to the right. They’re coming. STRIP SLOW. Slow. SLOWER. Ok. Ok. SET. SET. SET. It was amazing to see the passion of these fishing guides. To them, putting a client on permit was often as big of an accomplishment as it was to the angler. At the end of the day, eager lodge mates would inquire how did your day go? And, if you caught a permit, you were celebrated all night. 

Angler Morgan Harrow (@morgan_is_fishing)

Targeted Species: Bonefish 

Bonefish hunting tended to be more active and engaging. We were able to wade on the shoreline while observing signs of bonefish, which were indentations in the sand where they had recently fed. During the day, it was not uncommon for us to intercept several bonefish schools or big singles on the flats close to shore. They are more eager to take a fly than the permit are and, boy, do they peel your fly line out faster than you can imagine! 

Targeted Species: Tarpon 

The other most popular species of the week to catch were tarpon that rolled near the mangroves. Tarpon are large, aggressive fish that are enticed by a fast retrieve. The trickiest part about these fish is that you have to set the hook very hard and twice in a row. If you do not set the hook hard enough, they often spit the fly when they do a spectacular jump out of the water. To jump a tarpon was one thing, but to land one was a whole different feat. 

Tricks and Tips for Flats Fishing

The biggest advice I could give a first timer is to set realistic expectations. Stealth, accuracy, reflexes, and advanced techniques will be put to the test in order to create successful outcomes. You will likely have to adapt to new retrieval speeds and setting methods. For instance, stripping a crab for permit is done in a very long and slow motion, which is much different than what you do for other species. Additionally, many of the trout anglers fall victim to the trout set rather than the necessary strip set for these kinds of salt water fish. 

With setting realistic expectations comes my next piece of advice: Enjoy every species of fish you catch. While these three well-known species are fun, there are more fish to be caught and marveled over. If you spend some time out on the reef, you can catch a large variety of colorful reef fish. My most memorable fish of the trip was a large triggerfish that I fought for a bit before it spat the fly with its comically puckered mouth.

The Essentials

Do not underestimate the power of the tropical sun on the flats. Sun hoodies, breathable pants, and obsessive reapplication of sunscreen were essential to protect my skin from burns. Do not forget a lip balm sunscreen because your lips will get burnt and blister quickly while spending all day on the panga. Also, keep drinking water and electrolytes because you will quickly become dehydrated by sweating throughout the days heat. 

Polarized sunglasses are an absolute requirement to cut the glare of the water. Experts recommend green or copper for flats fishing to increase color contrast. Additionally, at the end of each day, wash off your sunglasses in freshwater to remove sand without scratching the lenses, using a cleaner and microfiber cloth to remove smudges and sunscreen.

Lastly? Enjoy the Ride! 

Saltwater trips are significant investments of time, money, and energy. Your dream fish is by no means guaranteed, no matter your skill level. As a beginner, I was happy to have made it out with many bonefish, some permit and tarpon chases and about eight other species of fish. Enjoy the moments of excitement and fun along the way, because there is only so much you can control with fish as picky as these.

Photo by Mac Elliot (@macelliotmedia)


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