All Jacked Up

All Jacked Up, Dreaming of Permit Tails
For many months, we had been anticipating our journey South to the famed “Permit Heaven” in the sleepy little village in Xcalck, Mexico, started by Jesse Colton, wildly known as XFlats. While only 2 Permit were landed on this trip, I believe every person on the trip would agree that this zone is an extremely target-rich environment, loaded with wonderful birding opportunities and many very special people to boot.
For weeks we had been tracking the massive amounts of Permit landed each day in pristine waters and heard excellent reports about the lodge at XFlats itself. Days prior to departure, the weather showed strong wind forecasted for the week. How could this be? Wind all week, IN MAY!? WTH!? there’s no way! Well…while this unheard-of wind event absolutely made for a freak show of challenges, we were pleased with the overall experience at XFlats enough to easily see the potential for future excursions as those Permit tails really were everywhere!
Guide Balbino (Alejandro) so eloquently summed up the love of this place for himself; “The Sea is my home; the fish, the water.” Most of the guides here grew up in the village and have been fully saturated in a pristine fishing environment their entire lives. It’s evident that the locals here are all nurtured with time and patience, rooted deep in family and community. Our daily lunches were handmade by each individual guide's family, a special touch that connects you further to the overall daily experience.
Alejandro and Tommy: the dynamic father and son duo that are unlike anyone else you’ve ever met. I’ve never seen a right hand man live up so true to the name. Tommy is not just his Father’s helper but rather a brilliantly talented Seeker, if you will, who has a unique sense of sight. While deaf and mute from birth, his strong and sensible voice is as strong as his passion for tracking fish in the water, especially the elusive Permit. Tommy’s eyes and head are always scanning the surface of the sea waters for any trace of movement that might be a fish to cast to. Tommy has been with Alejandro on the water every day for the last 6 years ~ he is the only guide helper he’s had. Their language is clear: full of respect and affection for one another.
Outside the fishing world, Tommy is married and has a beautiful wife and an adorable one-year-old daughter. Balbino (Alejandro’s nickname) and Tommy are the closest of friends as well as true Captains of the water. One day along the edges of the Sargasso grass, Tommy watched a Permit eat repeatedly off the surface. Tommy’s driving curiosity about the environment and overall attention to detail is what conjured up his idea to tie up floating crabs to cast at Permit. A very effective and exciting method that has helped put XFlats on the map worldwide. Psssss…Stay tuned to XFlats for an incredible documentary and interview with this incredible young man! We couldn’t be more thrilled for you, Tommy! A number of us Anglers on this trip were proud to purchase a bunch of Tommy’s floating crabs.
Every day, each angler and guide pair showed up hard to work on what we knew should be tricky conditions. We searched for fish diligently, making casts to those we could find in the wind who were willing to play. Each night at the lodge, we celebrated in one another’s stories of jumping Tarpon, first-time Bonefish, and all of us longing for a Permit in what felt like a mild hurricane meets heat wave and dizzying wind.
Joel has incredibly savvy Permit eyes and was able to spot fish oftentimes before the guide, getting off more than a few handfuls of perfect shots to fish who just weren’t interested in taking the fly.
It’s always amazing how, when fishing, there is an omnipresent luck factor; situations can seem perfect to us, but we can not make the fish take the fly. “That’s why we call it fishing, not catching!”. Fortunately, on day one, Joel had a nice Tarpon to hand in the morning and, two hours later, landed his one and only Permit. With the wind now picking up, we struggled to see or locate any bonefish at all, which kept him just outside the elusive and desirable “Grand Slam”.
Many times on the water we only catch bonefish, but this day, we couldn’t find a single one to complete his slam. As the day went on, so did the hunt. Finally, looking at our 4:30 PM watch, we knew it was Margarita time. While thankful for the day, we were slightly disappointed we could not secure the slam with a bonefish, aka the “Grey Ghost,” for good reasons. We got back to the lodge and cleaned up, enjoyed delicious appetizers paired with liquid libations, and played with highly entertaining, mischievous lodge dogs.
Unsettled about the lack of bonefish, I grabbed my eight-weight and headed to the dock, determined to find something or at least clear my mind a bit. I landed several small snappers a few Perch and finally I got a take that felt familiar! This had to be a bonefish!! I walked down the stairs with hopeful anticipation of seeing delusive little fish as I wanted to be able to carefully release it in the water. Bringing it in close, my friend Andy and I were excited to find a small little bonefish putting a good bend in my rod. Andy and I both said to one another, “Joel’s got to get out here and find himself a bonefish and get his grand slam!” Minutes later, Andy and Joel returned to the dock, and we encouraged him to make his Grand Slam happen. Within minutes, several of the guides and more lodge dogs were out encouraging Joel, all of us anticipating this celebratory fish!
And then it happened! That feisty grab, a deep, bouncing bend in the rod, we KNEW this was it! Usually it’s the Permit that we all go nuts over, but this evening we couldn’t be any more delighted to see a little Bonefish!! Everyone cheered, the dogs barked, and the smile on Joel’s face is one I will never forget. WE did it! It was a team effort and the true spirit of flyfishing itself.
A nod to Andy Smith here for filming so much of this trip and congratulations to him on his first Permit as well! I’ll give myself a nod, too, at landing my first big fighting saltwater fish. At first, we saw a school of permit come close to the boat, I made a few, quick short casts off my right hand in front of Fish, who quickly zoomed in front of the boat. I switched to my left hand and made two more casts. All the fish were large and one broke away from the school, snapped back, grab my fly and took off. We were all sure it was a nice Permit, and in an instant, I was deep into my purple backing with the excitement of a the fish I had been dreaming about for the last five years. 15 minutes later and still tumbling with adrenaline, I finally had the fish to the boat, and we all took a sigh and said “ohhh it’s a Jack”. Lol. A 25 pound jack who just ripped me up and down six ways to Sunday!!!! An excellent “starter fish” I would say, to get me on point for bigger action in trips to follow. My only request that day was that this fish stay in the water. My awesome guide, Pio, kindly repositioned the boat into more wadable water so I could have a close encounter experience while keeping the big Jack wet, calm, and breathing. What an incredible fighting game fish!! I may not have touched another fish for a few days, but this entire trip was one memorable experience for my bucket list of amazing adventures!
Joel and I are both bird crazy, and we loved being able to check off at least five new species on our life list, my favorite being the Wood Stork. Our various interactions with the culture and the generous people at XFlats are truly much appreciated. And once again, am already in countdown mode for a return visit! You should join us!
“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”
-Anthony Bourdain, No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach
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