Ascension Bay Fly Fishing // All You Need to Know
A Bay is a wonderful in-shore flats fishing destination for the beginning saltwater angler, or the person that wants to get shots and experience on all the major in-shore species. You will get shots at Bonefish, Permit, Tarpon, and Snook every trip. The scenery is fabulous, it's affordable, and Red's is here to help you have the best possible experience.
I believe this article to be the most comprehensive source for fly fishing Ascension Bay on the internet or in print. Feel free to add your advice in the comments if you have something to share. If you are serious about fishing "A Bay" then spend some time here. A Bay is a very special place.
The goal of this article is to teach you EVERYTHING you need to know to have a successful trip to A Bay. Yes, its long but these perspectives are not just from my own angling, our company usually host about 50-60 anglers per year in Ascension Bay and we get a lot of feedback on what works for catching fish... and what works for having a fun and rewarding experience.
Don't Be Intimidated... You're Going to Do Fine.
I remember being intimidated even before I ever even saw my first Bonefish. I totally psyched myself out. What if I can't see the fish? What if I can't cast far enough? What if I don't catch as many fish as I like? Will I get sick? Can I drink the water? Is it safe? I think questions like this prevent way too many anglers from signing on for this trip. If you are traveling with Red's you can relax. Its a vacation not an elephant hunt so don't stress.
I didn't grow up doing any traveling, so I will be frank is saying I had a lot of anxiety based on trip cost vs. trip value. This trip isn't horribly expensive, but for me it was a huge investment prior to becoming a travel host. After about the first 2 hours all of this anxiety was gone. I washed it away with cervezas ha! Maybe I was worried about the water. The fact is all those silly questions, and worries you might have are a total non issue. You are going to have a great time no matter what. And guess what? You will be able to cast far enough to catch some fish, and if your expectations are at all realistic you will catch plenty of Bonefish. The other species are a bit more challenging, but as far as just getting some hookups and having a great time goes all you need to do is show up.
It seems to me that most flats anglers like to spin tall tales about their 80' casts into the wind they are constantly having to make (and making!) to catch flats fish. It is pretty annoying quite honestly. It sure makes for a good story though and the casts get longer as they make it back into the states. A foot per 100 miles is about the right ratio if you want to spin up a good story. By the time somebody gets from Cancun to Seattle that is one long cast! It started as a 40' cast with a light breeze.... by the time they are stateside it was 90' into the teeth of a gale force wind!
Fishing and casting in the flats is really no different than fishing anywhere else. The better caster you are, the more fish you will catch. This is true no matter where you go so don't be scared by flats fishing. LOTS of Bonefish are caught at very reasonable casting distances. Sometimes as close as 10-20'. A typical cast is 40' - 50'. With an 8 weight and a floating line this isn't too hard. If you want to target trophy fish like Permit, Tarpon, Snook, and larger Barracuda I suggest you invest as much time into learning a strong, tight looped distance cast as possible however.
My First Time Fly Fishing Ascension Bay
If you are like me, I dreamed about going on my first flats trip my whole life but it was always out of reach. It wasn't until a few guide pals of ours in Montana put us onto a great little place that was actually affordable that my first flats trip became reality. The Montana boys said something like, "dude you have got to do this! Just squirrel away some cash and go fish your brains out for a week on the cheap!". These guys are pro guides, true pros, and they knew the difference between a good operation and anything less. We took their word for it and jumped on a plane! It exceeded every expectation I had ever had.
Before my first flats trip I didn't have a clue about what kind of fish I might find. I didn’t know the names, behaviors, or what flies to use. I didn’t know what type of food Bonefish eat or what a ‘shock’ tippet was all about. I thought a Permit was just a fishing license (it’s a fish’ THE FISH), but more on that later. The point is, you don’t have to know much about flats fishing to get signed up and get your trip planned. Some helpful advice goes a long ways and we hope this introduction to flats fishing gives you the intel you need to help plan your trip. Or at least be able to talk about it over a few beers with your buddies that flats fish without feeling left out.
Where is Ascension Bay?
Ascension Bay is on the Caribbean side of Mexico about 100 miles south of Cancun. This is the Cooperstown of flats fishing. It has been written about in every fly fishing publication on earth. The diversity is fantastic, it is easy to get to, and the whole experience is beautiful both in the water and out. It is the place where names like Brian O’keefe, Jack Nicklaus, and other celebrities spend their fishing time. It is a world wide destination. It is only a day’s travel yet a large percentage of the anglers that fish here are from Europe.
How Many Anglers do You See?
You'll see some other boats, no doubt about it. This is a world famous destination, but the ocean is a big place and there is lots of room for everyone. You will rarely fish within sight of another boat and when you do it is off in the distance.
What Kind of Fish are in Ascension Bay?
- Jack Crevalle
- Lemon Sharks
- Cobia (rare but possible on the outside of the reef)
- Lady Fish
- There are lots of other stuff like Snapper, Tripple Tail, Blue Runner, and some less common fish.
How Do You Get to Ascension Bay?
Red's coordinates a nice van service to pick up our group at the airport and we all ride together even if we come in on different flights. We always fish out of the town of Punta Allen, and its famous for its limited access and rough road. Its a fly fishing hot spot and eco tour destination. The limited access keeps the town quiet and the last census showed 586 folks living there. Small town, dirt roads, and no cell service or communication. There is internet but it is very spotty and limited.
There are (2) lodges located in the extreme south end of Ascension Bay that you can fly to in a small plane from Cancun, but most anglers will fish out of Punta Allen and boat south each day with their guide. It takes 4+ hours to get from Cancun to Punta Allen and the last 2.5+ hours is on a rough road driving down a small Peninsula with water on both sides. The drive is a grind after a long flight, so brace yourself. The flight isn't even half way! Stay hydrated with water versus beer, and Dramamine isn't a bad idea as the van tosses and turns on the dirt road.
What is a Day of Fishing Like in Ascension Bay?
Wade Fishing in Ascension Bay
- Ask the guide to carry an extra rod - I ALWAYS carry my Bonefish rod in hand, but I keep a Crab Pattern in my hat in case we spot a Permit. Although my leader won't be quite as heavy as I like, it will suffice in a pinch. I have the guide carry my 10 weight for Barracuda set up with a wire leader every time I leave the boat.
- Learn to manage your line in a way that you can cast quick.
- Talk to the guide. It just you guys 1:1, its a great time to ask questions and learn. You can slow down and get some great education.
- Ask the guide to carry your camera.
- When its dark and cloudy walk slow!
- Walk quietly, and learn not to splash your feet. Watch your guide and see how quietly they step. Remember, you are stalking PREY.
- Lighter flies when wading are a good idea. You are likely to get multiple shots into a school without the big scary boat there to spook them. A heavy fly is good for one shot out of the boat in deeper water. In the shallows a lightweight fly that you can place into a school is a big advantage.
Sharing the Bow of the Panga Boat
Fly Rods for Ascension Bay Trips
- 890-4 - I like an 8 weight as my Bonefish Rod. You can get away with a 6-7 weight if the wind isn't too heavy. Just keep in mind it is very one dimensional as you wouldn't want to throw it anything but Bonefish. When I am walking for Bonefish and a 20 pound Permit swims by I like to at least give myself a chance!
- 889-4 - This is my Mangrove rod. I like a Sage PAYLOAD for all my Snook and Tarpon work in the Mangroves. Its short, quick, and I can deliver a fly on a dime quickly under almost any branch imaginable. I have it rigged with a Snook Leader (40# Shock Tippet) at all times. These rods are crowd favorites. Every time I loan them out in Ascension Bay its hard to get them back! It also doubles as my Largemouth Bass rod back home.
- 1090-4 - This is usually rigged with wire leader for Barracuda, but I'll use a 10 weight for Tarpon in the open water (its tough to land anything over 25 pounds on an 8 weight). I'll also use this rod for sharks if we decide to get dirty. I like to have a 10 weight in the boat at all times. If you are fishing in a "pair" with the same partner all week this rod can often be shared.
- 990-4 - I like to have a 9 weight rigged for Permit at all times. You don't want to miss a shot because your "go-to" rod is rigged with a Bonefish or Snook Leader. Permit will come out of no-where sometimes and I want a good crab fly and a fresh 15-16 pound tapered leader ready to throw at the blink of an eye.
The reality here is most of you won't bring 4 rods/reels down to the flats. You absolutely have to have a go-to 8 weight rod that you enjoy casting and can count on. You can re-rig it for Snook and handle most Tarpon on it that you'll see. If a guy had an 8 weight and a 9 weight as his "Barracuda" Rod or backup rod that would be a pretty good combo. I implore you however to bring 3-4 top quality setups. You'll use 'em and if you don't have them you'll have wished you did. I know of no other place in the world where the game can change as fast as Ascension Bay.
Reel Selection for Ascension Bay
Bonefish in Ascension Bay
Recommended Rods: 6-8 Weights, 9' Fast Action
Recommended Lines: Bonefish Taper Tropical Fly Lines
Recommended Flies: Flies for Ascension Bay
I love Bonefish. They are the heart and soul of flats fishing. They might not be the biggest fish but they are the ultimate quarry for a fly fisherman. If you want some more incite specifically on Bonefish, be sure to read this article that I wrote a couple of years back. A Passion for Bonefish.
More anglers get on a plane to go catch Bonefish than any other species. They are aggressive, it is pretty much all sight casting, and they fight like crazy. They are caught in the most abundant numbers, and likely what you will spend most of your time pursuing if you are smart. Average size is about 2+ pounds and they run like crazy! Fish to 5 pounds are not uncommon here. Ascension Bay is know for good numbers of Bonefish, essentially a quantity over quality ratio. Plenty of fish. Bonefish love shallow water and when the fishing is good they will have their tails exposed, hence the term ?Tailing Bonefish? which is every flats anglers weak spot. We all love tailing Bones. One of the videos below has some great footage of tailing Bonefish in case you haven't ever seen that before.
They eat shrimp, small crabs, and other crustaceans. They travel in very shallow water and the juveniles (12-18?) will run in schools, and the larger fish (3-7 pounds) will usually travel in pairs or groups of three. 7-8 weight rods, 2X Fluorocarbon Tippet and soft casts catch the most Bonefish. Flies should be very lightly weighted with bead chain eyes or similar. Heavy flies tend to scare fish.
Permit in Ascension Bay
This is the most coveted game fish in Ascension Bay or so says anybody that has ever stalked the flats searching for them! Ascension Bay is one the top, if not THE TOP Permit destination in the world. Cuba is likely better, but not as accessible. Especially for a guy that doesn't have $7,000 to spend on a week of fishing. There are more than 1,000,000 Permit living in Ascension Bay. Anglers make many trips without landing a Permit but don't let that intimidate you. Many anglers traveling with Red's have caught Permit on their first ever flats trip. Some of you flats anglers just got nauseas. Sorry, life is not fair. Spooky, fast, wiley, and selective are words that describe them. Mystical, captivating, and addicting do too. They eat primarily crabs so you should have at least a dozen various crab patterns with you. Long delicate casts, longer strips, and quiet tip toe feet are required. The guides in Mexico like to say "Bonefish are fun, but Permit is our drug!"
When they are tailing (tail out of the water, head down feeding) is when you try to time your cast. Be prepared to get out of the boat in water that is thigh to waist deep to stalk these fish. They prefer water that is 2' - 5' deep.
They can be very frustrating. At the time of writing this, I have thrown about 65 near perfect casts at Permit without a single hook up. I have put it on their nose, had them swim into my tippet, follow my fly a couple dozen times, peck at my fly, but I CAN'T SEEM TO GET ONE. To this point I have personally only landed 5 Permit which were all in my first two trips. I am 6 trips without a fish to hand. Anyone that knows me knows that I fish VERY HARD. I never stop looking, no rests, no breaks, and my casting is about as good as anyone out there. Which leads me to this conclusion. Permit aren't fair. Its as simple as that. I have seen about 10 anglers that I practically taught to cast land their first Permit during my dry spell! Maybe I'm bitter, but these fish have my number. It just makes me want it that much more.
When it comes to Permit, you will likely be pursuing them in slightly deeper water and either casting from the boat or bailing overboard into waste deep water to hunt them on foot. Oh man that's a rush. High stakes fishing for the big boys. I love it even though I have been sucking at it lately. You'll fish crab patterns on 15# leader and you'll need to make one good shot. They are very spooky so don't press the fish too much... but you also have to play to win. Here are some tips. I have read a lot about Permit fishing, had lots of water time myself, and learned a ton by asking many different guides lots of questions.
Generally the big Permit in Ascension will travel in singles and the smaller fish will be in schools. They are the fastest and best fighting fish in A Bay. The biggest Permit landed in our company was about 30 pounds and took one hour and 45 minutes to land! Permit range in size from 4-40 pounds.
Here are a few tips.
- Stay calm. If you are going to get this done keep a cool head.
- If you need to re-cast, make sure to strip most all of your line back in. A back-cast that starts with too much line in the water is a disaster.
- Take a strip of line in to remove slack immediately after your fly hits.
- Long sllllooooow strips. Many flats anglers believe that you can't strip a fly and catch a Permit. While I have great respect for Lefty Kreh and Del Brown they fish the Florida Keys not here. All the Ascension Bay guides believe in stripping the fly. Therefore on this trip I believe they fly should be stripped.
- Don't hesitate between strips. Try to get your stripping hand back up for the next strip instantly.
- Don't wait to feel the fish to set the hook. This is my biggest error. I have missed a dozen because I am too much of a chicken to set the hook. If the guide says SET then set. The fish will eat and create a bit of slack so you won't feel it right away most of the time.
- Ask the guide which way the fish is pointed. A lot of times if the fish is meandering you won't know which side to cast at.
- Better to spook the fish and be in the game than to cast too far away. Play to win.
- Aim 6' in front of a cruising fish, 24" or less on a tailing fish.
- Have your shoes on when you are on the deck. No time to get your shoes on if a Permit is spotted.
- Fish Permit on calm days, Bonefish or Tarpon on cloudy days.
- I said this already, but have a dedicated rod that is always ready for Permit.
- Don't handle your fly with sunscreen on your fingers.
- When you cast, bring your rod tip all the way down to the water (not a hard stop), this will help the weighted fly unfurl at the end of the line and land a bit softer.
Tarpon Fishing in Ascension Bay
Leader Required: 60# Saltwater Shock Tippet
Recommended Rods: 8 - 10 Weights, 9' Fast Action Predator. IF you are using an 8 weight it should be built for handling saltwater fish.
Recommended Lines: SA Grand Slam Amplitude
Recommended Flies: Flies for Ascension Bay
The Tarpon in Ascension are found most abundantly in the Mangroves and will be juveniles 5-20 pounds. Not bad eh? We have cast at fish in the 60-100 pound range but don't come expecting monster Tarpon. In the more open water there are occasions when fish up to 100 pounds are possible but our entire focus is on "Baby Tarpon". Tarpon eat flies near the surface and it is the equivalent of a dry fly take as your fly is only INCHES under the surface! It is a rush like you won't even believe. They attack from underneath and hammer your fly.
We do find schools of Tarpon in deeper water out in the open and this where you'll to exercise some long casts. You'll want a 10 weight rod and a shooting head for this "open water" fishing. Much of it will be blind casting and quite challenging. A weighted fly is nice to have in this situation. A big Shrimp pattern like the Puglisi Mantis Shrimp is good for Tarpon running a bit deeper in open water.
Tarpon are famous for jumping like crazy and you should bow your rod to the fish as they jump. They eat varieties of baitfish primarily but will eat crustaceans at times too. A 9 weight rod with a 60 lb. shock tippet to protect against their sharp mouth is a great setup. A quality 8 weight will work but since you are dabbling with fish that can push 25 pounds commonly a heavier rod is wise.
Fly Rods for Tarpon in Ascension Bay
I personally like a short saltwater specific rod as my first choice in the Mangroves. I love the Sage PAYLOAD 889-4. It throws tight loops up under the brush and makes quick work of a lightning fast 40' shot!
If you plan to use an 8 or a 9 weight rod, it should be a saltwater specific rod if you want to land fish over 20-30 pounds. Sure your Steelhead rod will handle the 5-15 pound fish but when you hook into a fish like in the video below you'll want a tough 9-10 weight Saltwater rod.
Tips for Catching Tarpon in Ascension Bay
- The hook set matters most. Set the hook 4 times as hard as you think you can! Then double that.
- Lean forward with your feet all the way on the edge of the boat, this will allow for a stronger hook set and get low so that you can back up and stand up increasing your setting power.
- Keep your tip down on the set and during the fight.
- KEEP STRIPPING! These fish will swipe at the fly, miss it, bite it and get stung, bite again, and keep chasing. Keep stripping until that fish is hooked.
- Don't give up, I have hooked Tarpon with my leader inside my rod tip!
- I don't mind fishing Tarpon on cloudy days, if its a dark sky Tarpon aren't bad to target because you may see them rolling and be able to blind cast. Just my 2 cents worth.
Barracuda Fishing in Ascension Bay
Leader Required: 30# Wire Bite Leader
Recommended Rods: 9-10 Weights, 9' Fast Action, I like a 10 Weight especially for throwing poppers.
Recommended Lines: Some type of heavy taper, Grand Slam Taper.
Recommended Flies: Flies for Ascension Bay
This is the predator fish of the flats and perhaps the most underrated of all flats gamefish. They are like a Pike on steroids. Usually we don't target Cuda but treat them as an ancillary catch as they roam the flats and pop up all over the place. You will see Cuda everyday on the flats here. A good strategy in each boat is to have a rod rigged up and ready to go. If one angler is on the casting deck ready for another species, the angler waiting should have a Cuda rod ready to go at a seconds notice. They are something that we catch opportunistically.
Average Cuda are 3' long, and big ones are about 5 feet long! They attack Poppers, Needlefish, Gurglers, and other large baitfish. Sometimes it takes several casts with super fast stripping to entice them, but once they attack. HANG ON! It can be violent. They run, jump, and slash like you wouldn't believe. Wire leaders, 10 weight rods, and big flies are the trick. They have teeth like you wouldn't believe which requires a wire leader.
Tips for Catching Barracuda on Flies:
- Be the "Clean-up Batter" - If your buddy is on the casting deck, be ready with your Cuda rod AT ALL TIMES if you really want to get one. They don't tolerate the boat very well so you may only have a few seconds to get that fly in front of it.
- Strip FAST and don't stop unless the guide tells you to.
- Get out of the boat. If you are physically able to get out of the boat fast, and stalk the fish on foot this really helps. You can always get back into the boat to land it for safety from those nasty teeth. The guides won't usually suggest this so you may need to force your hand. I do.
- Strip strip strip. Don't stop until you have it hooked up and KEEP YOUR TIP DOWN. Do not lift that rod tip until you have that fish on on on. They will hit the fly several times attempting to wound and shred their prey. If you are fishing me or Steve Joyce we will whack you in the head if you lift your rod tip and take it away from them.
- Change flies! If a Cuda doesn't take my fly after 3 attempts yet hangs out. I change immediately to a Popper from a Needlefish or vice versa.
- Bring a glove, handling your own catch is a right of passage.
Snook Fishing in Ascension Bay
These are really cool fish! The creatures of the Mangroves? Snook tend to hide up under the Mangroves only wandering out a fin at a time! It is a fun casting game trying to get your fly up under the Mangroves just right. They eat baitfish and you can think of them like largemouth Bass and attack flies hard once they decide to hit! The primary flies we like are un-weighted Deceivers. Most Snook are about 5-10 pounds, although one of us did hook one closer to 20 pounds last year! The world record is 53 pounds, and you will see photos at the lodge in Ascension of Snook over 30 pounds! 8 weight rods with 40 pound shock tippet is the right setup. Similar to Tarpon, you can use the same rod, leader, and even fly (in a pinch) for both Tarpon and Snook. The Snook however do seem to be more tippet shy and I have found 40# to generate more strikes.
General Tips for Snook Fishing in Ascension Bay
- Look for alleys or gaps that allow you to shoot your fly under the Mangroves, this allows you to "get ahead" of a slow cruising Snook that is inside the canopy.
- Don't hang up in the brush unless you want to get pushed out of the boat by your partner.
- Ask the guide about tides, if its a low tide this can be INCREDIBLE Snook fishing! High tides are usually bad for Snook because they go up inside the brush.
- Look for parts of the fish when we are fishing the brush.
- Learn to "skip cast". Practice in advance. Those who learn this will put more Snook in the boat.
- Be a robot for the guide, "strip, STOP, strip, strip, strip... STOP". These guys know these fish and can actually read the body language of the Snook.
Jack Crevalle in Ascension Bay
Leader Required: Any of your leaders will work, chances are whatever rod you have in your hand when the Jacks show up is what you will be casting.
Recommended Rods: 8 Weight Fast Action, would be the most idea.
Recommended Lines: Any Floating Grand Slam Taper
Recommended Flies: Baitfish in the 1/0 - 3/0 range are best if you have the opportunity to switch up flies.
Jacks are like freaking hornets, they swarm across the flats like a squadron! They are very fast and the big Jacks will be up to about 25 pounds and are among the hardest pulling fish in the world. Lefty Kreh says in his book on Saltwater Fly Fishing that they may be the hardest fighting fish in the flats.
We don't catch a ton of Jacks but they are there and you will get some shots in a week at Ascension. Get in a school and you will never forget it! Jacks roam the flats wandering in from the shoal once in a while. They are a fast cruiser and very aggressive feeders. They take a variety of flies willingly and when the conditions are windy and the water has poor visibility some guides will take you to the shoal and blind cast for Jacks with Clouser Minnows and/or Poppers. Jacks fight well and average 5-10 pounds most of the time, but we have had guests catch Jacks closer to 20 pounds. An incredible fighter! Jacks are VERY strong. A standard 0X Fluorocarbon Tippet is perfect for Jacks, the same leader and setup you use for Permit will work for Jacks and as long as the fly gets close they will eat a crab pattern most of the time in the flats. On the shoals, bigger flies like baitfish and poppers are required to get their attention since you are blind casting.
General Tips for Jacks
- Be quick, you won't have time for a bunch of fancy casting.
- Casts will range from 15' to 80'. Practice your casting because you may have to track down some fast movers.
- I personally prefer to cast when the fish are out as far as possible because they might follow for up to 30' smacking your fly and trying to disorient it like they do real prey.
- Fast strips are typically best.
- On a cloudy day, ask the guide to take you to a "blue hole" to blind cast. You'll catch lots of small Jacks and you can do it on Poppers which is great fun.