So you chose the Mexican Caribbean as the next item on your fishing bucket list (pun intended). May we begin by saying what a superb choice that is, given that the angling conditions are just about perfect this time of the year: the real brilliance of that statement being that it rings as true regardless of when you actually came across this post.
Reading this in front of your fireplace in mid-January, clutching your blanket while the worst snowstorm in years rages outside? There are dozens of small panga boats just off the warm shores of Playa del Carmen cheerfully reeling in an army of Marlin and Mahi Mahi at this very moment.
Found this article while browsing for additional ways to cool yourself off during an unprecedented August heat wave? Somebody’s just caught his first permit in what is quickly proving to be the fly-fishing experience of his life, wading in the translucent flats of Cozumel’s north.
In fact, so many game fish annually call the clear turquoise waters of the Riviera Maya district their home, you are very likely to find seasoned career captains swearing you can catch a Blue Marlin any day of the year, and more than one fishing charter is currently spicing up the deal by implementing a ‘no catch, no pay’ policy for their big game fishing trips.
Before we dig deeper into all of the various angling opportunities these places have to offer, it is important to address the rules and regulations you are going to have to abide by.
Fishing Permits, Bag Limits & Fishing Calendar
First and foremost, you’re going to need a fishing license if you plan on engaging in any offshore fishing activities.
Fishing from land, on the other hand, can be done without a permit, the only requirement being that you practice it at least 250 meters away from swimmers. It should be noted off the bat that if you are booking a fishing charter instead of operating the boat yourself, most of them do cover the licensing for you, and simply include it in the overall price (do, however, check with your captain to make sure that the licensing is taken care of). Otherwise, you can easily get a permit online in a matter of minutes, by visiting http://www.bestbajafishing.org/fishing-permits.php and filling out the form.
As far as the cost goes, the license will set you back about $8.40 for a day of fishing, $21 for a week, $31 for the whole month and $42 for a full year.
Only one rod per person is allowed in the water at the same time, without any restrictions regarding the replacement items. If you’re bottom fishing, up to four hooks on a single vertical line can be used.
Your daily bag limit is ten fish per person, but there’s a catch (get it? A catch). You can bag no more than 5 specimen of a single species, and only one sample of Marlin, Sailfish and Swordfish per day are allowed, which counts as half of your daily limit. Similarly, two specimens of Dorado, Tarpon, Shad, or Rooster Fish may be caught on a single day, amounting to half of the said ten-fish requirement. What this basically means is that, say, one Marlin and two Dorados, or one Sailfish and one Swordfish would count as your actual catch limit on any given day.
The good news is that no limits are set on practicing catch and release, as long as the fish leaves your boat in an acceptable survival condition. Keep in mind that, regardless of these rules, many captains do practice a strict ‘catch and release’ policy for all billfish.
Fishing Calendar for the Riviera Maya
Once the general grounds are covered, it’s about time we get close and personal with everything fish-related these three destinations have to offer. Starting with:
Playa del Carmen
This past decade marked the rapid transformation of Playa del Carmen from a sleepy fishing community to one of the top Mexican tourist destinations south of Cancun. The city is now a unique blend of ancient Mayan heritage and a bustling international residential population, seasoned with a dash of tropical paradise vibe. But on to the more important things: fish!
You’ll be happy to learn that Playa has been geographically blessed with ripe angling conditions in two major ways: first, the island of Cozumel is located just east of Playa’s shores, and the channel formed between the coast and the island creates what science refers to as a freaking game fish super highway. Second, the entire area is basically situated on the very edge of a large underwater valley, meaning that the ocean floor suddenly and substantially descends just a couple hundreds of meters from the coastline, bringing offshore fishing as close to the shore as you’ve ever had it.
And I’ve only just started with the good news. Sailfish and marlin are abundant off the shores of Playa as they migrate through the channel during the entire spring and summertime. The peak season is March to July, but if you’re the type of angler that appreciates a little peace and quiet with your fishing destination, come September, you can avoid the tourist mayhem and have the best of both worlds. Although these are undoubtedly the best times to go after billfish in Playa, keep in mind that most captains claim that there is a non-migratory, resident population of Sailfish in the area, and yes, that the Blue Marlin can be spotted on any day of the year. In fact, both White and Blue Marlin are regulars in these waters (peak season: March – July), which is exactly why this is the place often cherry-picked by those looking to score a so-called Grand Slam, achieved by catching a Sailfish, Blue and White Marlin, all in a single day: not a rare occurrence here by any chance (1st week of May is considered Grand Slam week around here: don’t tell anyone I told you). Most charter boats require you release any billfish caught, but there are several taxidermists in the area, should you decide you want a replica of your catch. And of course, bring your camera!
As far as somewhat smaller game fish species are concerned, there are plenty of Dorado, Barracuda, Wahoo, Snapper, Grouper, Jack Crevalle, Kingfish and much more, most of them willing to hit your bait year-round. All of these (especially Dorado) make for some of the most premium tasting fish in the world. Although it isn’t allowed to prepare and filet the fish right there on the charter boat, most restaurants in Playa would be more than happy to serve your catch to you (usually for about 7 bucks), along with a side dish of the best that the local cuisine has to offer. Be advised, however, that many of the local restaurants are closed by 5pm.
Types of fishing in Playa del Carmen
Due to the area being a hot spot for Sailfish, big game trolling is naturally what it’s all about in Playa. The best part? Thanks to that whole sitting-at-the-edge-of-a-valley thing, you start fishing in less than five minutes, and as close as half a mile offshore. Expect to see Sailfish, Blue and White Marlin, Dolphin Fish, Kingfish, Wahoo and Barracuda at the end of your line.
A full day private charter including lunch for up to 6 people (31ft boat) will cost $700-800, and $900-$1100 on larger boats(40-50ft) for up to 12 people. Half day trips are $450-$650 depending on boat size & equipment on-board. You can see what’s on offer, compare prices, and book your Playa charter online here.
More of a bottom fishing kind of guy? You can look forward to groupers and a variety of Snappers (Mutton Gray, Yellow Tail, Cubera). Still, most charters recommend a trolling/bottom fishing combos for a couple of reasons: one, if you’re a beginner angler or are vacationing with one, most tend to get bored with bottom fishing rather fast, so what the captain will usually do is troll your way out to the bottom fishing destination, and repeat the motion on your way back. Two, the sea does tend to get a bit rowdy every once in a while, making bottom fishing throughout the entire day a pretty uncomfortable experience on those occasions. Be sure to ask your captain for advice if you’re opting for this type of fishing.
Although jigging is not a traditional technique in Mexico by any standards, there are jigging opportunities in Playa to be found if you look hard enough. A couple of jigging tournaments are organized annually, aimed at promoting this type of fishing, and some charters offer to take you jigging for Amberjacks October through March (winter is optimal jigging time in Playa). Do, however, make sure to bring along your own jigging tackle, as most places don’t offer one. Also, you can thank the Barracudas in advance for losing some of your terminal tackle, so bring extra jigs as a rule of thumb.
As far as fly fishing and some light tackle action go, Playa del Carmen isn’t really flat abundant, which is why your best bet is finding a charter willing to take you a bit more to the south, since the Sian Ka’an Biosphere, Xcalak and the Chetumal Bay (60-90 minute ride) are lauded as prime fly fishing destinations. Some of the previous visitors also recommend you visit the quieter areas of the local Playa beaches early in the morning, and try your luck with a fly fishing rod, armed with spinners or plastic lures.
Finally, beach fishing is a possibility, although most recommend you err on the side of caution and take a 20-minute walk south of the hotel zone, where a couple of remote beaches are located, as most hotel owners will be less than ready to let you fish as soon as the first beachgoers arrive.
Located east of the shores of Playa del Carmen and staring back at the entire Yucatan Peninsula, Cozumel stands as Mexico’s largest Caribbean island. If for any reason you are worried about its fishing prospects, there are only two things you need to know – one, it is home to the largest reef system in the Americas, naturally vibrant with fish life, and two, almost its entire annual income is comprised of tourism, diving and charter fishing: and let’s just say the island is doing very well financially.
Similar to Playa, there are no lengthy travel times to your fishing destination: the shoreline disappears less than two miles from the pier, and other than being stunningly beautiful, the reefs double as a topographical barrier, keeping all of the game fish very close to home. As far as offshore fishing is concerned, the fish selection and the peak seasons mostly mirror Playa del Carmen, but there are exciting and unique opportunities for those of you looking to spend a day wading in the flats. To be more precise:
Trolling is understandably super popular, with Sailfish and Marlin acting as the primary targets, usually followed by Wahoo, Tuna, Dorado and others. If you’re not the one to worry about the size of the catch that much, bottom fishing offers a solid chance of going after Grouper, Snappers, Triggerfish, Amberjack, as well as various reef fish that populate the area. Drifting at the reefs will get you close to Motton and Yellowtail Snapper, Strawberry Grouper and Amberjack, their fighting abilities paralleled only by their sublime taste.
But all of this is only the interlude to Cozumel’s main dish, as fly fishing in the island’s northern flats is often considered one of the best experiences of its kind in all of the Caribbean. The three spacious lagoons are home to a yearly supply of Bonefish, but if you time it with the season, you can reasonably expect to find these shallow waters teeming with Permit (Peak season: March-September), Tarpon (these three of course, comprising the fly fishing Grand Slam), Snapper, Triggerfish, and you can even take a shot or two at a couple of baby Snook. Furthermore, there are several charter boats that will have no problem arranging an offshore fly fishing trip for you, where going against the likes of Marlin, Sailfish and Wahoo armed only with a fly fishing rod or light tackle rod is bound to make for quite a story back home.
Obviously, not much of an intro is needed for our third and final destination, which also happens to be the most popular tourist spot in all of the Caribbean, making Puerto Rico and the Bahamas look like quiet vacation alternatives in comparison. But does Cancun have what it takes to make the best of the world’s anglers happy as well? (Yes. Yes it does.)
Trolling and bottom fishing opportunities are just as good as anywhere else along the coast of the Yucatan peninsula, with all the usual suspects present: Sailfish, White and Blue Marlin, Mahi Mahi, Kingfish, Wahoo, Tuna, Grouper and Snapper have all gathered here, ready to put your rigs to the test. What sets Cancun apart from Cozumel and Playa is that you finally actually have to go to the fish instead of the other way round, with deep sea fishing usually being practiced between 15 and 35 miles from the shore.
As with Cozumel, when it comes to fly fishing and light tackle, Cancun does not disappoint. There are two fly fishing and light tackle areas to choose from: you can try your luck in the lagoons that make up what is commonly referred to as the Cancun Hotel Zone, or you can visit the less spoiled shallow waters of Isla Blanca, notorious for its Bone fishing prospects. The Hotel Zone is located at the Yucatan’s north eastern tip, and is comprised of three lagoons, the major one being the Nichupte lagoon, where you can fish for Tarpon and Snook throughout the year, with the summer months being optimal for Permit and Bone fishing. The Isla Bonita ‘suffers’ from lack of development compared to the rest of Cancun, so this would be your preferred location if you’re looking to get away from all the noise and the commotion. Not to mention that the locals genuinely claim that landing 10 fish in a day in the flats of Isla Bonita is anything but uncommon.
Got questions about fishing in the Riviera Maya?
Don’t know which rod to bring, where to buy lures in Cancun, where to fish for Tarpon… Don’t hesitate to ask! We’ve got a few local captains that will be glad to help you out.