For live and premium content, sign up for our email newsletter and we'll send reports directly to your inbox
Now, here is a quandary. How do you draw an accurate picture of a place that has a limited (but apparently recovering) fishery but nonetheless bestowed a fly-caught Grand Slam on you? Deepening the quandary is the certainty on this writer’s part that some people are going to love the place while others are not. Hmmm….
Let’s start at the beginning. The place I’m talking about is Costa de Cocos (*), a dive-cum-fishing lodge in the far-south Mexican village of Xcalak (pronounced Ish-ca-lak). The village itself was first mentioned in these pages by Alaska subscriber Eruk Williamson, who visited the area last winter and fished around a bit on his own (See February 1998 issue, pages 1-3). We followed that up with a brief report on Costa de Cocos in the March 1998 issue.
What excited us about the place is its location on the very tip of a remote peninsula jutting down toward Belize’s Ambergris Cay. Out front, we were told, are miles of reef-protected shoreline where bonefish and permit tail. Back the other way (west) is Chetumal Bay – a larger, richer body of water than Ascension Bay, which currently supports something like five different flats fishing operations, including Casa Blanca, SeaClusion and Boca Paila. Costa de Cocos, as the only fishing operation in this entire area, just had to have spectacular fishing on tap.
The monkey wrench in all this, I’m saddened to report, is netting. Up until two years ago, when the Mexican government apparently clamped down hard, the waters around Costa de Cocos had no protection. Derelict fish traps still litter the shoreline and the fishery itself has all the earmarks of a battered resource on the way back. The pattern is a familiar one around the Third World today – namely, the more remote a water is, the more likely it is to be devastated by uncontrolled netting. It’s only when eco-tourism dollars start to flow, or when a plan is created to get them flowing, that the nets get torn out.
I’ll have more to say about the Mexican government’s ambitious plans for the Chetumal Bay area in a moment. First, though, exactly what kind of fishery does Costa de Cocos have right now and is it worth the travel time it currently requires to get there? Mark Cowan, the New Mexico fishing guide and real estate developer who put this fishery on the map, will dispute this, but I found the bonefishery somewhat limited. Yes, there are big fish around (in the five-plus-pound category) and there are a couple of "hothouse" areas where you can play with large numbers of smaller fish. Generally, though, there simply aren’t large numbers of fish. Cowan says bonefish numbers go up in the fall, and that may well be true, but during my trip last month, a typical bonefish outing was characterized by long periods of inaction. It was not unusual to spend 20 minutes or more peering vainly into the crystal-clear water seeking out the shape of a bonefish on the bottom. The problem wasn’t high wind either, because we had two almost windless days when you could see anything that moved.
The permit situation is brighter – or at least it was during my trip. On both of the days we focused on permit, I had shots at fish ranging in size from about five pounds up to around 30 pounds. The fish I finally connected on to get my Grand Slam of tarpon, bonefish and permit in a single day weighed about 11 pounds. It will take several seasons to determine whether the permit fishing is indeed as good here as it seems, but right now I give it a tentative nod, with the caveat that Cowan says permit numbers go down in the fall.
That leaves tarpon. As a south Floridian, accustomed to catching these fish, my experience with them was quite disappointing. The largest fish I saw weighed roughly 15 pounds. The one I caught to complete my Grand Slam barely tipped the scale at 10 pounds. Though larger fish have been taken here (upwards of 80 pounds), and there is an occasional opportunity to target some real behemoths out front in a hole in the reef, I do not think there is a reliable fishery right now for anything but baby tarpon at Costa de Cocos.
Lest all of the above seem too grim, let me hasten to add that the composite fishing experience is very satisfying. There are so many different kinds of water to fish, including mangrove-y backwaters reminiscent of the Everglades backcountry, that each day is an adventure. I particularly enjoyed crossing over into Bacalar Chico National Park in Belize and fly casting for snook. Costa de Cocos has permission to do that and regulatory changes are being made now to formalize the permission. I managed to land a couple of snook on the Belize side of the border and I lost a real bruiser in the bushes. Also in the lodge’s favor is the fact that a far-from-expert fly angler like myself was able to take a Grand Slam on the fly. And get this – one of the anglers who immediately preceded me, a guide friend of Mark Cowan, also got a Grand Slam on the fly. That’s back-to-back Grand Slams!
Obviously, there are enough fish around Costa de Cocos to make a trip here very worthwhile, especially to the well-traveled angler who wants to try something new and challenging. And therein lies the core of my assessment of the fishery at Costa de Cocos: It is not right for beginning saltwater anglers or for the number-counters of the world, who insist on a daily take that reaches into double digits. Costa de Cocos is for the saltwater fly fisherman who has been to The Bahamas, maybe Casa Blanca and Los Roques or Christmas Island, and now wants to push the envelope a bit in different directions.
Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed the entire Costa de Cocos experience. The food was good, the thatched-roof rondavel-shaped rooms were comfortable and host/owner David Randall a pleasure to be around. He has an infectious, good-natured laugh that envelops the dinner table at night, leaving everyone in good spirits. The sea breeze that blows across your bed at night is simply exquisite and so are the chachalacas (delightfully noisy birds about the size of pheasants) that wake you up in the morning with their cacophonous squawks. A story that made the rounds while I was there speaks volumes about the remote outpost "feel" of Costa de Cocos. Seems there was a litter of kittens underneath Mark Cowan’s room and one night a boa constrictor stole in and squeezed one to death before swallowing it whole. I’m not sure this really happened, but it could have, given the proximity of the Yucatan jungle out back.
As for the fishing boats at Costa de Cocos, they are wonderfully offbeat. The huge 20-foot craft were created by the El Pescador company in Texas for redfishing in the Laguna Madre. They are eight feet wide, weigh as much as a small elephant and take two people to pole. They scoot right along with 65-horsepower engines, however, and don’t break your back in waves or get you overly wet. The boats actually work surprisingly well as flats fishing craft, their only drawback being the size of the casting platform up front. It’s too small to pile your fly line on, and your muscles tend to cramp after a while because there is no room to move around.
Both of the guides at Costa de Cocos (yes, there are only two, so there is no backup right now if one gets sick) know the local waters and they have been drilled hard by Mark Cowan. They know how to position the boat for a fly fisherman and they are learning how to rig leaders, etc. The better of the two appears to be "Nato." He works extremely hard and knows enough English to get by. The other guide, "Mencho," speaks fluent English but has had much less experience as a guide. The remarkable thing about both men and their poling assistants is their readiness to work long hours. The typical fishing day at Costa de Cocos begins around 8 a.m. and runs until 5 or 6 p.m. That’s steady fishing time, too, with lunch eaten as you run from one flat to another. If a steady stream of clients starts going to Costa de Cocos, the grind will surely be too much for the guides, but right now they will fish your arm off up to 10 hours a day.
All of that leaves the access problem, which has to be this lodge’s biggest problem. A new airport has been built in Xcalak, but no airline has flights into the village yet, and air charters simply aren’t affordable or even available on a reliable basis. That means the only way to reach Costa de Cocos is by rental car or shuttle van from Cancun. The trip takes roughly five and a half hours and it is exhausting, especially if you have had to make one or more airline connections that day to get to Cancun. Randall says air service may be available as soon as this November. For the lodge’s sake, I hope so.
To be sure, there is a downside to the initiation of air service into Xcalak. Inevitably, the area is going to lose its backwater flavor soon. Already, a major highway into Xcalak is under construction, with wide beach access roads already hacked into the jungle. Property values have climbed so dramatically villagers are selling out and moving across the bay to the city of Chetumal. The increasing quietness of the village (the population has indeed fallen) is surely the stillness before a storm of development. There is the smell of Hilton and Marriot in the air.
And that brings me back to my observation about ecotourism dollars. Clearly, a plan to get them flowing into Xcalak has been created and that is why the fishing here is improving. How quickly will fish populations rebound and just how good will the fishing get here? Those are tough questions that pose a quandary for the travelling angler. Where on the curve of development (infrastructure as well as fishery) will this lodge be right for you? Personally, I had a ball just the way the place is right now – bumpy road, boa constrictors and all. And, of course, there was also that small matter of catching a Grand Slam on the fly! – Don Causey.
*Costa de Cocos, through Los Rios Anglers, New Mexico. Or write to Pescador Solitario. A week-long trip here, Saturday to Saturday, is $1,950. That includes seven nights lodging at Costa de Cocos, all meals and guided fishing, two to a boat. Not included is the cost of getting to the lodge from Cancun either by rental car or shuttle van. The latter costs $400 round trip and can accommodate up to four people. Right now, the lodge plans to limit its season to the November/December and May through July periods.