In Pursuit of Bigger Bones | Targeting Bonefish in Xcalak Mexico

Mark Pendlington of Westcoast Sporting Journal and I first met back in early 1996 at an Outdoor Show in BC Place. He was promoting his fishing program, and I was putting on fly-casting demonstrations. Throughout the three-day event Mark and spoke several times, and he asked me if I had any interest in shooting a Stillwater show with him. I told him that I didn’t think I was confident enough to be on camera, so I gracefully declined. A few months had passed, and Mark eventually convinced me that shooting a show together would be a lot of fun. In May of that year, we shot our first show together on Lundbom Lake in Merritt. I must admit we did indeed have a lot of fun. Since that first show Mark and I have now shot over twenty-five shows together throughout BC.

Over the years we fell out of contact with our busy lives. Until I reached out to him in 2023 to see how he was doing. Mark extended an invitation to join him at Legacy Lodge in Rivers Inlet to catch up and shoot a coho show. I accepted the offer, and we shot a great show together even though the fishing was a little challenging. While catching up I shared with Mark all the fisheries I have experienced over the years and how I had become very fond of pursuing bonefish on the fly. Mark said he had only tried it once many years ago, but the conditions were less than favorable resulting in only a few fish hooked.

When I told Mark about fishing the flats in the town of Xcalak, Mexico he said maybe we could arrange a trip there together one day. A couple months after our Rivers Inlet trip Mark reached out and said he arranged for a trip to Mexico for us to shoot a bonefish show. You can only imagine my excitement. Throughout the winter months, I tied flies and prepared my gear in preparation for our mid-February trip to Mexico.

Now that you are all caught up, fast forward, and we are pulling into the Tierra Maya Lodge in the town of Xcalak after a leisurely 6-hour commute from Cancun. Once we were all settled in, we spent the next couple hours preparing our gear for the following morning on the water. At that point, all that was on my mind was thoughts of bright hard-fighting bonefish screaming line off our new Islander reels. The plan was coming together so perfectly that nothing could stop us from hitting the water in the morning.

Well, this is where things did not play out exactly as planned. We awoke to heavy winds and overcast skies. As it turned out it was so windy that the harbor authority did not let any guide boats leave the harbor due to safety concerns. With very little to do in the area other than water-related activities we decided to go for a walk to check out the town of Xcalak. There really wasn’t much to see but a little exercise never hurt anyone.

A couple more meals and a little sleep and a new day was quickly upon us once again. This time when we got up the wind had dropped off substantially from the previous day. After a great breakfast we looked out at the end of the dock to see the guide boats starting to arrive. Following a quick introduction, our guide Dee offered us options on what species of fish we wanted to target that day. As we made the long journey there to shoot a show on bonefish fishing, we stuck to our plans and asked Dee to head for the flats in Chetumal Bay.

Once there, Dee started the day by poling us along a large shoal where he said bonefish are known to feed on a regular basis. The large shoal did indeed hold a lot of bonefish but not of the size we were looking for. Throughout the day we moved around to numerous locations, but we just could not locate any large bones. That all said we did have a productive day on the water with over a dozen decent bonefish hooked.

Back at the lodge we spoke to some of the other anglers and many of them also had a successful day on the water with a couple Permit landed and a lot of bonefish to go around. Before we knew it day three had arrived which was to be our second day on the water. Once again, the day started off quite windy, so our guide moved us around in search of sheltered fishable water. Before we knew it, it was 11 AM and we realized that spotting bonefish with overcast skies and heavy winds was going to be next to impossible. For that reason, our guide suggested we spend the balance of the day going into a northern lagoon where it should be sheltered from the wind.

The lagoon was commonly known for its Tarpon fishing which we were also set up for. We did spot some ten-pound plus Tarpon moving around the edges of the Mangroves, but we just could not get a clean shot at them. After a few hours, we decided it was time to start making our way back towards the Lodge. On the way back Dee pulled the boat along the shoreline in search of bones as the wind had subsided a little. We spotted some bones and got a few shots, but it just wasn’t meant to be. It is hard for me to admit but we did not poke a single fish throughout that entire day. Fortunatley, it was only day three which means with any luck we would have three more days on the water to try and find some larger bones.

On day four we woke to clear skies and minimal winds. On this day we were going to hit it hard in efforts to bring a larger bonefish to hand. Dee found us some fish right out of the gate, and we even had a couple double-headers. The only negative was the size, they were better fish but not the big chrome handful we were searching for. On this day we tried something new for me. In the past I only casted to cruising fish but Dee put us onto fish that were in deeper water feeding in the sand. All we could see was the flashes in the water which tipped us off to the bone’s location. It was still fun but nothing like dropping your fly in front of cruising fish in efforts to intercept their cruising path. That all said, we had a good day
landing and filming a good number of decent bonefish.

On day five we headed further into Chetumal Bay to flats that I had never been to on my previous trips. Dee promised bigger bones then the previous few days and we could only take his word for it. We did indeed find some nicer fish and things were looking up. With only a few hours left in the day Dee said let’s try one more spot that is known to hold better bones. To our surprise we hooked up on a lot of good-sized bones. With only minutes left in the day I made another cast into an area where the bottom had been stirred up by feeding fish. After only a couple strips the line tightened and I strip set the line aggressively. This time when the hook was burried all hell broke loose. Bonefish are known to really pull extremely hard, but this was even crazier than the previous ones we hooked on the trip. My Islander LX 3.6 reel screamed off line well into the backing before the fish turned and ran right towards me. When I caught up to it the bone turned again and peeled off another 60 yds of line. All I kept thinking is this is why we made the journey all the way to Xcalak. After a great battle the nineteen-inch bonefish came to hand and camera for that matter. While packing up Dee said the fish, I just landed was the second biggest bonefish he had ever guided someone into. What a way to end a day.

After a good night’s sleep, day six had arrived. I was chomping at the bit to get back out on the water. Mark and Norma decided to stay around the lodge to film the area and do some interviews. So, I had Dee and the casting platform all to myself for the entire day. As it turns out, this day had the least amount of wind of the trip. The skies were mostly clear with only the occasional clouds passing overhead. Dee took me to the same general area that we fished the previous day. I wanted to spend a little more time out of the boat covering the flats on foot. The day started off good with the first nice sized bone landed only fifteen minutes after we started.

Throughout the day I had another 10-12 quality shots landing another seven decent fish. It was the perfect day as I hooked some fish from the boat. Others were targeted while wading the flats along the edges of the Mangroves. Before we knew it three o’clock had arrived, and my last day was quickly winding down.

Dee said let me take you to one last area before we call it a day. While entering the flat we noticed a few very nice bonefish slowly cruising along the edge of a coral flat. The gods looked down on me as my fly dropped only six feet in front of the cruising fish. I waited a few seconds and then started retrieving as the fish swam within sight of the fly. Instantly the largest bone in the pack raced over and picked up my fly. When the line tightened, I strip set the line and once again, like the previous day the reel started singing. I honestly have never had a fish strip line off a reel so quickly.

Halfway into the battle the fish slowed and then stopped as if it hung up on the bottom. I eased off on the line and miraculously the fish came free of the obstruction and took off at a high rate of speed again. The battle continued for another five minutes before the beauty came to hand.

This bonefish turned out to be a mirror image of the largest fish I landed the previous day. We photographed the beautiful fish and released it while it still had enough energy to swim off. At that point, we decided it was time to call it a day and for that matter the trip sadly came to an end. While putting my rod away I noticed that the leader was heavily frayed from the encounter it had with the coral bottom. As I stated it looks like the fish gods were looking down on me that day.

If you have never experienced the thrill of pursuing bonefish, you must add it to your bucket list. There is simply nothing more exciting than targeting hard-fighting fish in shallow water. As they run at an alarming rate of speed once the hook is set.

When it comes to the best gear for targeting bonefish, I recommend using a 7wt rod paired up with an Islander LX 3.6 reel. As for flies, the possibilities are endless. But if you stick with tan Gotcha or Crazy Charlie patterns you will be in the ballpark for success. I also recommend you do your homework when it comes to clothing. The sun is relentless in this part of Mexico. You will quickly realize that buffs, gloves, sun hoodies, and good sunglasses are all a must if you want to stay comfortable for the entire trip.

Tom Johannesen

Tom Johannesen grew up fishing but at the age of 23 he had his first article published in a British Columbia Federation of Fly Fishers (BCFFF) newsletter and something changed.

Since that first article, Tom has been on a mission to master his craft and to share what he has learned with others. With over 200 articles published in magazines like BC Sport Fishing, BC Outdoors, Outdoor Edge, Canadian Fly Fisher, Home Waters, Reel Angler, Western Angler and Island Fisherman, it’s clear that it’s a mission he takes seriously. He also regularly hosts seminars and tutorials at fly clubs and shops in the hopes of lighting that spark in the next generation.

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