It’s mid-July and I’m hunting around the bottom of my closet for fleece pants and wool socks. I’m heading to Alaska in less than a week and I’m excited but getting a little nervous since I’ve never been and I was invited there to fish and talk tenkara. It’s sort of surreal that its happening and the invitation only came a week ago from Deneki Outdoors, Rapids Camp Lodge in King Salmon. It took me less than 24 hours to say, “Yes!” But before I start yammering about Alaska I realize I haven’t yet shared about my bonefishing experience on tenkara in Ascension Bay, Mexico.
That incredible trip happened the last weekend in May and went through June 3rd. The plan was to fly into Cancun then drive about an hour south to an incredible private residence rental, Margarita Villa, situated directly on the beach in Soliman Bay and only 10 minutes north of Tulum. I was being indulged with 3 days of guided fishing with Pesca Maya Fishing Lodge, a well-known and respected destination lodge that knows how to get you into fish and provides a relaxed but super professional saltwater fishing experience to anglers from all over the world.
I was bringing several Kyojins and Sagi Zen Tenkara rods, along with my Winston Boron III Plus 8wt and Hatch Plus 7 Finatic Series reel. I thought I’d fish with a reel the first day to get a handle on bonefish then try to switch over to tenkara once I dialed in how to fight and land them. I gotta tell ya, I had no idea if it would be at all possible to land a bonefish on a tenkara rod. Everyone, and I mean EVeRYOne, said it couldn’t be done.
In October I traveled to the Florida Keys and spent a day on the water with Scott Yetter of Sight Fish Charters looking for bonies. That day was a “bonefish bust.” We saw nothing, but he saved it by getting me into shark and tarpon instead. I wasn’t sure if I could land those species on a fixed-fly line either, but it went well, better than well. In fact, it ROCKed! Thrashing hammer and bonnet head sharks and aerial tarpon proved a saltwater tenkara thrill – and throughout the entire day, I only broke a single tip section, and that was definitely a user-error.
So now I’m targeting bonefish but have the same initial concerns and hesitation. People keep telling me how these fish are like bullets and are line-strippers, sprinting all the way into your backing. How the hell am I going to do this on a fixed-line tenkara set-up? I did feel slightly more prepared for this saltwater adventure thanks to the October trip, but was still completely out of my element with the word bonefish.
The van picked me up at 6:15am and drove south through Tulum and on, for about 20 minutes. After going over about 3 dozen speed bumps, the driver took a quick turn down a dirt road and we unloaded and got on a flats boats. The water was calm early in the morning and the wind thick with salt. My South Florida upbringing and time spent in the Bahamas all resurfaced and I was at once at home on the water, in the ocean and with the salt air expanding my lungs and filling me with a warm, relaxed calmness. I am always at home on the ocean.
We arrive at the lodge. I get my fishing license and enjoy a delicious and well needed breakfast. Meanwhile the guides have started to rig and set-up rods on a nearby table. When Wilbert gets to my Kyojin tenkara rod, I see him trying to figure out what the heck it is, where the guides are, and how the reel attaches. I chuckle and head over to him knowing I’m about to get laughed at and have to explain what tenkara, aka “fixed-line fly fishing” is. This is when I fall in love with Wilbert, my amazing guide and the entire Pesca Maya Lodge and staff. These guys don’t laugh, they don’t chuckle, they listen, and examine the rod closer. Wilbert is interested and describes how he uses something similar to fish back in the mangroves, but says his doesn’t collapse and he doesn’t do much of a cast with it. I promise him my rods can throw line.
We head out on about a 30 minute boat ride and cross open water. Wilbert and his assistant guide seem to have a very exact spot in mind. We find our first school of bonefish mudding and I decide to throw the reel first, as planned, in order to size up the notorious and revered “bonefish blast.” Within 2 casts I’m into my first-ever bonefish and the Winston Boron III Plus is just perfection in action. With my adrenaline surging and heart beating fast, I land the fish with the biggest smile plastered on my face. Immediately and without hesitation, cocky-assed as ever, I say, “That’s it? I can do THAT with my tenkara rod!” Oh boy…
I pull out my home-made 25 and 30 foot saltwater lines that I have tied slip knots at one end to attach to my rod, and a loop at the other to attach my Rio Saltwater Bonefish Leader. Wilbert says the presentation has to be sweet so we’re using a 12lb test. Similar to the Patagonia trip to Las Pampas Lodge, my total cast reach including line, leader and rod, is over 50ft so I’m in the zone…the Zen Zone as I like to call it. Wilbert decides we should wade first before trying from the boat. We climb out and slowly begin walking towards the mudding. I’m too excited and I have to be “SSshhhed” several times because my mouth is my overflow mechanism. Laughing and terrified at the same time, I’m told where to cast and even though my first one isn’t great, water-loading the line while standing in water up to your hips, I get it in there and start a horizontal jig while I lay my rod over and parallel to the water.
With 12-13.6 feet of rod, a slight movement in the handle transfers to a sizable movement at the tip. It doesn’t take much to create a nice little bounce action and move my Flats Critter pattern tied up by Jason Haddix of Waters Edge Fly Co., through the water. I miss a hit or two because I’m just so damned excited, nervous and surprised but on the third hit I get into it. I’m using the Kyojin and do a full on trout set. Rod up high in the air and “PoP!” goes the tip. The first section breaks, just like on the Lemonhead Shark in the Keys. I could use a filter over my mouth right about now. Suddenly I notice the tip section floating a few feet away from me in the water. I wade over and reach out to retrieve it. Holy Shit! As I pick it up, I realize the fish is still on! I start hurriedly hand lining it in and BooYah,the first-ever bonefish caught on a fixed-line tenkara rod has been landed. Unconventionally, but landed.
Once my blood pressure lowers and my heart is back to a regular beat we discuss and reflect: No trout sets. Rod tip down when it runs. Take is slow. Once set and fairly under control start moving away from the school. Walk backwards and keep the tension on, but easy. Okay, nothing to it (nervous laugh.) It doesn’t take but another 2 casts before we’re into a fish again. This time I follow the plan, remember my head and land the fish. Now this is FUN! This continues for the rest of the day and I don’t pick up the reel again until the third day…just for the fun of it. A whole other story to tell, but I get into a HUGE cruising, single tarpon, about 4ft long and fight that baby, jumping and running and lose him directly, at the side of the boat. Oh the sorrow…but that’s another story.
On the second day I decide to see what the new Zen Sagi Tenkara rod can handle. I figure it might break but that’s what we’re here for, right?! We rig it up the same but the cast on this rod is different. It’s not a water loaded roll cast, it’s an actual cast, back loop and all. Both rods are accurate but this thing is so receptive, so on-the-spot, it’s almost scary. It practically bends in half and hums when it’s fish-on, and it’s so light, so lean and elegant I feel like some how my arm has been extended 13.6ft and I’m able to throw line and land with such minimal effort. I’m actually casting, setting hook, landing and releasing in half the time as when using the reel. And truly, the fish is being released in much better condition. I am amazed.
The same story plays out all day long on the second and the third day. I have landed 20+ fish each day. In additional to the bonefish I get the treat of landing several Jacks. These are in the same family as Permit and have the same flat dish-shape. They fight, they drag and turn the line and they, in my humble opinion are almost harder to land than bones. I also got a chase from one Permit on tenkara. I just didn’t get the take. Oh well. Next time. I’ll admit, from the boat it was a little trickier because you have less room to move. Ultimately, you’re steering the fish towards the boat where your guide can scoop him up. It can be done. It was done, over and over again. And after 3 days of saltwater tenkara, fixed-line fly fishing even the guides wanted to play and cast…and they did. Ultimately I hooked more than lots of fish. We returned to the lodge and when I asked Wilbert, a man of few words, what he thought of my rods, he responded in his Spanish accent, “I think it good, very good.”
I had the special treat of meeting Rogelio, the owner of Pesca Maya Fishing Lodge. He was curious and interested in the rods, and the method. He indulged me by listening along with the rest of the lodge guides. He was intrigued and eager to learn more. I left him and Wilbert a few rods to play with. Destination tenkara trips….. hmmmmm? Pesca Maya Fishing Lodge may be the first saltwater fishing lodge to offer tenkara and fixed-line fly fishing options to its anglers. We’ll see. In the end, we landed more fish than any of the other guests going out on any of the three days. Luck? Maybe. Our guide? Possibly. Tenkara? We’ll never know. But it was an awesome trip to a fantastic fishing lodge with impressive and fun guides, and the most beautiful accommodations I could ever wish for. If you’re planning a trip to Mexico, want to fish, or even better, want to fish extreme tenkara, reach out to these guys and you’re guaranteed an experience that’ll give you plenty of stories to talk about and thrills to remember.
Check out our Zen Tenkara/Zen Fly Fishing Gear Facebook page for videos. More will be posted soon. And stay tuned for my Alaska Adventure to Rapids Camp Lodge where I’ll be fishing hard, pushing tenkara to the extreme and trying hard to explode Zen rods on different species…