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Permit Heaven: A first-timer's flats fishing trip

Morgan Barbeau

View of the Xflats Lodge from the dock. Photo: Mac Elliott (@macelliottmedia)

This past October I had the opportunity to travel to Xcalak, Mexico, with 15 talented female anglers from across the country to chase permit, tarpon, and bonefish on a fly rod. A year ago, the idea of embarking on an adventure like this would have seemed laughable to me, so when Kenzie (@womenontherivercollective) extended the invitation to the Xflats in the spring of 2023, I felt woefully unqualified for such an ambitious excursion. Surely she had mistaken me for someone else. I was still new to the sport, had only targeted trout on the fly rod, and didn’t even know how to overhand cast yet. So to be invited on this trip with a bunch of women with incredible rapport in the industry felt like a joke. But at that point, I’d also just been abruptly laid off from my job of 10 years. In the midst of contemplating my next steps and nurturing my newfound passion for fly fishing, the invitation felt like a cosmic sign urging me to embrace opportunities presented and say yes to the unknown. So, despite all my instincts telling me no, I told Kenzie to count me in. 

Apprehensive about signing up for an adventure seemingly beyond my capabilities – a potential one-way ticket to making a complete fool of myself – I dedicated much of that summer to honing my skills. In an empty field, I practiced the indispensable double haul cast, enduring the occasional self-inflicted thwap of a (thankfully) hookless streamer on the back of my head. I perfected my strip sets by hucking streamers at unsuspecting trout. Targeting carp provided excellent sight-fishing and accuracy practice. I practiced tying loop knots on thick tippet in the evenings. I delved into everything I could find about the saltwater species that would hopefully feel the tug of my line, evolving into a Lefty Kreh fan in the process. This was a totally different ballgame I was about to play, but there was really no backing out, so I was ready to go full send. 

As the summer faded into fall and October loomed on the horizon, I was feeling a bit more confident but still wanted to keep my expectations for the trip in check. My double haul was improving (when the wind was in my favor), I managed to piece together a nice quiver of Douglas fly rods (8, 9, and 10wt Sky and Sky Gs) and reels fit for the challenges of saltwater (all thanks to my partner, Tanner, and the Douglas Outdoors team), and I even tried my hand at tying a few shrimp patterns for the trip (although I once again have Tanner to thank for tying up a massive selection of beautiful flies for me to use). I decided that if I caught any fish on this saltwater maiden voyage, it would be a win. I didn’t want to put pressure on the trip. I wanted to enjoy being in a tropical paradise, enjoy connecting with the women on this trip, and if I caught fish, that would just be icing on an already awesome cake. 

Fast forward to travel day. Everyone was asked to arrive in Cancun the night prior to shuttling to Xcalak, about a 5 hour drive south. After a restless night’s sleep at the airport hotel, the group met in the lobby to board the shuttles. The heap of Patagonia bags, waterproof backpacks, and rod cases adorned with stickers touting past fishing excursions was enough to spike my anxiety, but the welcoming energy and excited smiles of all the women I was about to spend the week with quickly assuaged my nerves. We piled into the shuttles after playing some luggage tetris, and eventually arrived at the lodge by dark. We got a quick rundown of the digs, ate some dinner, and went to bed knowing we had an early start the next day. 

Xcalak is a small fishing village about 300 miles south of Cancun. Photo: Mac Elliott (@macelliottmedia)

The energy was absolutely electric the first morning. Everyone was up drinking coffee, assembling rods, blasting pump up music (if Eminem at 7am won’t wake you up, I don’t know what will), and pangas were getting loaded up with beers and gear (you know, the essentials). A quick pep talk on the dock from lodge owner, Jesse, and our hostess, Kenzie, high fives all around, and we were on our way for day one. 

I quickly discovered that saltwater fishing was a realm apart from any of my prior experiences. You’re not just blind casting into the ocean, hoping for a bite. Rather, the boat is poled around slowly, everyone on board is scanning the water for signs of life, truly hunting for these elusive fish. My first stint at the bow was a lesson in patience. Standing there for about 45 minutes in the oppressive heat, we finally spotted two sizable bonefish within casting range. It was my moment, but with only seconds to spare, I botched the perfect cast, landing the fly right on top of them. In an instant, they vanished. The rush of the moment left me visibly shaking, and my guide kindly advised me, through laughter, to “Relaaax, please.” Little did I know, I’d be repeating this mantra throughout the week to myself, even with different guides. 

Fortunately, I had a redemption opportunity when we found another school of bones a few minutes later. This time, I took an extra moment for a deep breath, cast my fly at the target, gave it a couple short strips, and suddenly I felt tension on the rod and heard my line drawing off my reel at a rapid speed. It was a whirlwind of excitement, and feeling the raw power of the fish was nothing short of euphoric. Catching a bonefish on the very first day of my inaugural saltwater trip felt unreal. The experience left me with an irremovable smile on my face, but surely I shouldn’t expect this to be a daily occurrence. 

My first bonefish of the trip. Not stoked at all. Photo: Mac Elliott (@macelliottmedia)

Day two was pretty overcast, making it really difficult to see permit and bonefish, so most everyone turned their focus to rolling tarpon. We got the chance to jump some juveniles, but the fishing was slow overall, and the group came back from the day feeling a bit defeated. To lift the spirits and shake the funk, Kenzie decided to run us through a group activity where she asked us all to write down our fears and self limiting beliefs on scraps of paper, fold them up, and put them in a pot. To be honest, I didn’t really know what to write, because again, I felt any catch was a triumph. I had landed a bone and a baby tarpon at that point, so obviously more fish would be amazing, but I was also satisfied. 

The more I pondered it though, I realized that I did actually have one incredibly self limiting thought: I had zero intention or desire to target permit. I know that sounds absolutely crazy, fishing in “permit heaven,” as the Xflats boasts itself to be, but in my mind, attempting to hook one seemed out of my league. To many anglers, permit are seen as the holy grail of species to catch on a fly rod. Elusive, picky, and with an extraordinary sense of smell, permit have managed to elude many seasoned anglers who have dedicated themselves to the pursuit. Even with the most perfect, calculated presentation, a permit may still turn down your fly and leave you heartbroken. So with that in mind, why on earth would I take a shot at a permit on my first saltwater trip, when my boat partner is probably much more qualified to do so? Despite my lingering doubt, I took a paper scrap and wrote, “Just because it’s your first time, doesn’t mean you don’t get the shot.” Kenzie then set the paper fears ablaze. It marked a powerful moment of collective release and a willingness to challenge our self-imposed limitations.

Overcast conditions aren't conducive to great sight fishing. Photo: Mac Elliott (@macelliottmedia)

Day three promised a perfect forecast: hot, sunny, and not too windy. I found myself paired with Kristin, a fellow Coloradan, and she promptly suggested that we go for permit given the conditions. I reluctantly agreed and told her she should go first. Our guides navigated us north along the ocean side, and within the first 30 minutes, Kristin had hooked into a beautiful permit. She landed it and of course celebration immediately ensued. Now the pressure was squarely on me. 

Kristin, of course in high spirits, declared that I would now be on the bow until I got a permit, which I laughingly told her meant that she wouldn’t be casting for the rest of the day. I stood on the front of the boat for the next three hours, scanning the water tirelessly, without seeing a single fish. Feeling beat down, we broke for lunch to chill out and reset. 

Post-lunch, our guides opted to change tactics, steering us to the bay side of Xcalak to see if we’d have better luck finding fish. Feeling pretty guilty about hogging the bow all morning, I urged Kristin to take her turn. Of course, within minutes, we roll up on a huge school of feeding permit. Kristin tries to get a couple casts off, but she’s going straight into the wind and having a tough go at it, so our head guide, Alan, suggests wading for a better angle. They get out of the panga, walk a hundred feet or so, throw a few casts out and eventually Kristin hooks one. While genuinely happy for her success, of course I’m touched with a tinge of frustration as well. 

As I watched Kristin battle her fish, our other guide, Kevin, says he thinks the school is still near, and tells me to get up on the bow with my 9wt while he readjusts the panga. I can see dark shadows in the water, but they’re moving fast and seem spooked. A moment later he tells me to cast 40 feet, 10 o’ clock. I take a deep breath, repeat my comforting mantra, “relaaax, please,” and cast my fleeing crab out where instructed. I let it sink for a moment, gave it one long, slow strip, and suddenly the unmistakable tension and buzz of the reel signaled success. I could not believe it. I was doing my very best to stay composed but I could feel myself shaking with excitement as the permit took a couple runs. 

Adding a touch of stress to the moment, Kristin and Alan had the net, meaning Kevin and I needed to land mine without one. It was no problem though. I got the permit close enough for Kevin to carefully grab my line and tail the fish. Shortly after, Kristin had landed hers and we had officially doubled up on freaking permit. 

Vocabulary falls short of accurately capturing the feeling of this moment. I’ve never experienced anything like it. It felt like the world stopped turning for a second, and all that mattered was that I be present in this extraordinarily rare moment that the universe decided to give us. The culmination of all the practice, preparation, and studying I had done before the trip flashed through my mind and then dropped me into this singular point in time. There was so much cheering, hugging, and celebration. To catch a permit is absolutely euphoric, but to experience it simultaneously with your fishing partner transcends into pure magic. I now know for a fact that my life will be dedicated to seeking more opportunities to relive that feeling because, unequivocally, there’s nothing better. 

Permit double-up

By the end of the week, our girl crew had collectively landed 12 permit, as well as countless bonefish, a few tarpon, jacks, pompano, and an array of other species. And somehow, I was now part of this family of badass lady anglers. All the self doubt, anxiety, and fear of failure that lingered before had now washed away, and instead, I had newfound confidence and relentless anticipation of my next saltwater adventure. 

In the end, what began as an uncertain leap into the unknown unfolded into a week of exhilarating challenges, shared victories, tons of laughter, and new bonds with an incredible group of anglers that redefined the boundaries of what’s possible for us to achieve together. The journey illuminated the simple truth that sometimes, you need to get out of your own way, step out of your comfort zone, say yes, and just see what happens. After all, the worst that might happen is you still have an amazing vacation in a tropical paradise. Hard to be mad about that.

Photo: Mac Elliott (@macelliottmedia)

The guides will never hesitate to celebrate success with you. Photo: Mac Elliott (@macelliottmedia)

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