In Search of The Yucatán Grand Slam

Sian Ka'an
Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve

Photo by: Mark Going, Columbia Sportswear

“Look — 10:00. See them? Cast now,” our guide called out quietly. “Strip. Strip. Wait. Strip. Strip.”

Luciano stood atop the platform at the back of our 16-foot Dolphin Boat, helping Brent locate fish hidden amongst the mangroves. Using a long pole much like you find on the gondolas in Venice, he pushed us slowly along the shallow, calm, and crystal clear water.

“Snapper 11:00. Cast again, a little left. Wait. Strip. Strip.”

It was mesmerizing to watch, like an intimate dance between angler and fish, the tension building as we anxiously waited for a bite. Beneath the warm sun and surrounded by the rhythmic lapping of waves against the boat, I felt as if I was being hypnotized by Luciano’s calm words, slowly revealing the secrets of this place he knows so well.

“After you’ve caught a fish in Sian Ka’an, nothing else comes close.”

Thanks to 10-foot swells off the coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, deep sea fishing was scrapped in favor of saltwater flats fishing in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. We were on the hunt for the elusive grand slam — bonefish, permit, and tarpon.

Declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1987, Sian Ka’an is home to thousands of species of flora and fauna — countless fish, birds, adorable manatees, not so adorable crocodiles, and 310 different varieties of mosquitoes, something you find out the hard way the minute you step out of the car into the surrounding jungle. At 1.3 million acres, Sian Ka’an remains the largest protected area in the Mexican Caribbean and the largest coastal protected area in all of Mexico.

The beautiful mangroves of Sian Ka'an.

Photo by: Mark Going, Columbia Sportswear

The still, saltwater lagoons of Sian Ka’an are world-renowned amongst anglers, both for the beauty of the scenery and the quality of the fishing. As one of our guides put it, “After you’ve caught a fish in Sian Ka’an, nothing else comes close.” A food-rich resource, the area is best known for an abundance of bonefish and a large permit population. And there are plenty of bonus fish to make it extra fun — tarpon, snook, barracuda, jack crevalle, moon fish, and cubera snapper.

Our guides for the day came from Boca Paila Lodge located within the boundary of the reserve. As Luciano exemplified, they were extremely knowledgeable, skilled, patient, and excellent teachers.

I was snapped out of my hypnotic state when Brent shouted, “Got one!”

He wrestled with the line for awhile before it suddenly went slack. A barracuda had bitten straight through the end. Let’s just say I don’t want to run into one of those in the wild.

With a new fly quickly knotted on the end of the line, Luciano suddenly spotted a school of bonefish swimming straight towards the boat.

“12:00. Cast now!”

Brent made a couple of swings then cast his line perfectly in front of the fish. His pole immediately bent under the weight of a catch. The bonefish put up a good fight, Brent letting it run then reeling it in when the fish stopped to rest. Once at the side of the boat, Luciano scooped the fish up in the net.

Our first catch of the day!

Brent's bonefish caught on fly.

Brent now grinning from ear to ear, Luciano steered the boat towards deeper waters where we beginners could cast the spinners to see what would bite. He chose a spot where the open lagoon narrowed into the mangroves, corralling the fish around us.

Hermit crab was our bait. With one finger holding the line, I flipped the bail, cast out, and locked the bail. Reel, reel, reel, jig. Luciano told me to keep repeating that rhythm. Not too fast and not too slow.

I grew up fishing, but mainly dock or pontoon fishing on the lakes of Northern Wisconsin. Despite the odd musky, perch or sunnies were about all that ended up on the end of my hook. I had no idea how to catch a saltwater fish.

A felt a nibble and quickly snapped up my rod. The line whizzed out rapidly then stopped. I froze.

Brent shouted at me, “Reel it in!” I came to my senses.

Thus began my own dance with the fish — let it run, reel it in — until the wriggling flash of silver came within reach of Luciano’s net. A ladyfish! She was long and beautiful with big, wide eyes. I took a quick photo before placing her back in the water.

bonefish sian ka'an
Landing a bonefish.

Photo by: Mark Going, Columbia Sportswear

Beside me, Katy was on fire. She caught fish after fish — jack, bonefish, ladyfish. Our heads were spinning.

I cast again and almost immediately got another bite. This time a bonefish. One down, two to go for my grand slam.

We kept casting. A couple false nibbles then yet another one landed. And this time it was not coming easy. The dance turned into more of a wrestling match until finally this translucent orb swam into the net. It was the most unique fish I had ever seen — flat and glowing with long, feather-like fins. A moon fish.

I could have stopped there as that catch was super cool but decided to cast one more time to get rid of the remaining hermit crab on my hook. Reel. Reel. Jig.

Suddenly, huge amounts of line whizzed out of my spool. I grabbed the handle and held on for dear life. The whizzing stopped and I quickly reeled in some line. The fish ran again. This pattern continued for what seemed like an eternity until Luciano yelled out, “permit!” I had caught a permit. Two for three.

permit fish
My permit!

Photo by: Brent Brauner

With its black accents, including what looked like eye shadow, he was super cute even if a bit small — amazing how that little guy put up such a big fight.

I went in to give my permit a little kiss before gently putting him back in the water. It was only then that Brent decided to tell me they have teeth and can bite. “Teeth?!” I shouted. And I thought barracuda were bad.

All in all, I caught four fish that day. It felt a bit like karmic payback for spending the previous day throwing up over the side of the boat on our whale shark tour. I may have only caught two out of three for the Yucatan grand slam, but that didn’t seem so bad given that most flats anglers spend days just trying to land a single permit.

I went in to Sian Ka’an an indifferent angler and came out eager to head back and finish off the job. Maybe even go for a super grand slam next time — a grand slam plus snook.

The Gear

Omni-Shade Sun Deflector
Omni-Shade Sun Deflector

Photo by: Mark Going, Columbia Sportswear

As you are a captive audience beneath the sun, with its harmful rays reflecting off the water to inflict even more damage, you couldn’t ask for a better environment for Columbia’s new Omni-Shade Sun Deflector apparel. I covered myself almost head to toe, including a neck gaiter pulled up over my face.

Don’t forget the Drainmaker III shoes — great for traction when standing on the front of the boat and nice drainage for when you go wading.

If You Go

Nueva Vida
Beachside bungalow paradise.

Photo by: Mark Going, Columbia Sportswear

Guides: If you too want to catch a grand slam, I can’t recommend enough the guides of Boca Paila Lodge.

Where to Stay: We stayed at the beautiful beachside eco lodge — Nueva Vida de Ramiro — in the town of Tulum, just a few miles away from the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.

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