out of The ru­ins

A PIL­GRIM­AGE TO THE AN­CIENT FISH­ING GROUNDS OF PUNTA PÁJAROS, HOME TO SOME OF THE BEST FLATS AC­TION IN THE WORLD

Outdoor Life - - CONTENTS - by brian grossen­bacher

Head south of the bor­der and back in time to the turf of an an­cient peo­ple, where the fish­ing is the stuff of leg­ends.

Mil­len­nia be­fore some bloke cast the first fly in Great Bri­tain, Mayans had built a mas­sive em­pire across Mex­ico’s Yu­catán Penin­sula. Their labors gave rise to a well-de­vel­oped trade sys­tem, com­plex re­li­gious prac­tices, and—like any re­spectable cul­ture—ex­cep­tional fish­ing.

One of their best spots was a place called Punta Pájaros, lo­cated on the south­east­ern coast. Pájaros doesn't look like an is­land on an at­las, but it might as well be. Pull up a map and you’ll (even­tu­ally) find a pock­marked penin­sula hemmed in by Caribbean beaches, salty in­lets, and im­pass­able man­grove swamps. The area is part of the 1.3-mil­lion-acre Sian Ka’an Bio­sphere Re­serve (imag­ine a trop­i­cal na­tional park dot­ted with an­cient ru­ins). The Mayans them­selves named it Sian Ka’an, which means “the ori­gin of the sky.”

If you know your his­tory, you’ll re­call that Mayans were one of sev­eral Me­soamer­i­can cul­tures fa­mous for con­duct­ing hu­man sac­ri­fices in a va­ri­ety of cre­ative ways.

“Sac­ri­fices were per­formed in the ru­ins right be­hind the lodge,” says pho­tog­ra­pher and an­gler Brian Grossen­bacher, who has fished Punta Pájaros for the past five years. “Ac­cord­ing to ar­chae­ol­o­gists, Mayans would raise the sacri­fi­cial vic­tims and drop them onto a pointed rock there, which would break their back. They’d cut out the heart, rush it to a stone statue, and place the still-beat­ing heart into a ves­sel or hole in its chest. The boat launch is called Sacri­fi­cio—that’s about 2 miles from the lodge.”

Per­haps those sac­ri­fices paid off be­cause the fish­ing grounds still thrive. Pájaros boasts healthy pop­u­la­tions of tar­pon, bone­fish, snook, and per­mit, which now at­tract the in­ter­est—and dol­lars—of in­ter­na­tional an­glers. For­mer lodge man­ager Johnny Pares calls it the world’s best per­mit fish­ery, though that wasn’t al­ways the case.

“Twenty to 30 years ago, there was a lot of com­mer­cial net­ting of th­ese game fish,” says Pares, who co-man­aged the Casa Blanca and Playa Blanca lodges with his wife from 2011 to 2017. “Now a lot of those com­mer­cial guys have turned into guides in the off­sea­son, and have cre­ated vig­i­lance in the area. Il­le­gal net­ting [and other vi­o­la­tions] are down sharply from what they were, and it’s cre­ated a bet­ter bone­fish fish­ery. All the flats fish are re­spond­ing.”

Since the two lodges opened in 1988 and 1997, those guides have grown into flats-fish­ing vir­tu­osos. The least-sea­soned guide, Jorge An­gulo, still has about two decades of ex­pe­ri­ence to his credit. An­gulo grew up in­land but se­cured a gar­den­ing job at Playa Blanca when his par­ents could no longer af­ford to send him to school. An older guide soon be­gan teach­ing An­gulo how to pole a boat, find fish, and cast a fly rod. Now in his 30s, An­gulo is al­ready some­thing of a lo­cal leg­end. He’s a chronic jokester and an ac­com­plished fly tier, and has guided clients to catch more than 2,000 per­mit. (If you’re not into per­mit fish­ing, take our word for it—that’s a big deal.) An­gulo even per­fected the most suc­cess­ful crab pat­tern for the area.

“Ev­ery­one who fishes there uses Jorge’s flies,” Grossen­bacher says, not­ing that other suc­cess­ful flies in­clude bait­fish and shrimp. “They’re a hot com­mod­ity. When he opens up his fly box at the be­gin­ning of the week, it’s quite a shuf­fling of cash and crab trans­ac­tions.”

An­gulo sells his flies at $20 a pop, and then helps clients catch fish on them. They pole through the shal­lows, sight-cast­ing with the wind and sun at their backs for bet­ter vis­i­bil­ity. Be­cause bone­fish and per­mit ar­rive with the tide and an en­tourage of other ocean life, an­i­mals like stingrays are usu­ally in­dica­tive of a hot spot. Snook, on the other hand, hang in the shel­ter of the man­groves, so the guides take ad­van­tage of their am­bush in­stincts by slam­ming push poles into the seafloor to mimic a ri­val robalo at­tack­ing bait­fish.

Pájaros is one of the best places on the planet to at­tempt a Su­per Grand Slam, which at­tracts hun­dreds of hope­fuls each year and re­quires catch­ing all four flats species in one day. But Grossen­bacher is less con­cerned about record books and prefers to en­joy Pájaros at his own pace with bud­dies Dan "Rooster" Leav­ens and Jimmy Kloote.

“My fa­vorite part of the trip is send­ing my cam­era gear back on the truck and walk­ing the beach, throw­ing pop­pers into the surf with Jimmy,” Grossen­bacher says. “We have caught barracuda, jacks, and tar­pon, but the fish­ing takes a back seat to the sto­ries.”

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