Epic Isla

I remember being in the kitchen at my parents’ place in my South Carolina hometown when I got the text last October. “Clear your schedule for the week of February 6th, we’re going to Isla Mujeres to catch some sailfish.” I don’t think I really asked any questions once I received that text. I didn’t need to.

As an avid fisherman, to say I was stoked would be a grave understatement. I’ve fished my whole life but had only ever heard stories of the sailfish down in Mexico in February. Stories of epic days with 40+ sails being caught quickly consumed my mind. I didn’t know much about sailfish — or really any billfish, if I’m being honest — but I knew I had sails on my bucket list, and there was a pretty darn good chance that I’d be crossing them off after this trip. The majority of the fishing that I do is all inshore, and this experience in one of the premier fishing locations in the world was about to blow my mind. Even though the trip was months away, I was looking past duck season and the holidays for the week to get my passport punched and roll south for some of the best sail fishing in the world. 

We would be fishing a badass rig called the Grand Slam out of New Smyrna Beach, Florida. Every year, the Grand Slam is sailed down to Isla for the sailfish season before it heads back to United States waters to fish the spring and summer tournaments and run charters. She is a 53-foot, custom-made Forbes with a single screw. She is lightweight and efficient, and based on the stories we’d heard before we left, she had already had a hell of a season by the time we were even packing our bags to leave.

Thanksgiving came and went, and winter set in. Before I knew it, I was on one of my annual December duck season runs out in Arkansas. Just about the time my hunting season was winding down and I was beginning to curse the cold weather, the thought of 80 degrees, tail-walking sailfish and ice cold cervezas would come over me and give me that extra push. The February Isla trip was the light at the end of the dark winter tunnel, and with each passing day, my anticipation built.

Finally, February came, and it was time to pack. Digging through my closet past the insulated layers of clothing, jackets and long-sleeve wintertime attire, I found the warm-weather clothes that should had been stashed away for at least another few months. I didn’t mind leaving behind the 30-degree temperatures to go bake in the Mexican sun for a few days, and I smiled as I stuffed my suitcase with board shorts and flip-flops.

Aside from a few delays and some stressful flight changes, the guys I was meeting were all ready and waiting at our gate in the Charlotte airport. I’d be flying down with two buddies who were just as eager and excited about the trip as I was. Between the three of us, no one had ever been to Isla before. I’d say we had an idea of what we were getting into, but there’s no way to fully understand Isla unless you’ve been there for yourself. Typically on a trip like this, it would be standard operating procedure to kick our travels off with an airport beer, but we were pressed for time. The 3.5-hour flight from Charlotte to Cancun would be short enough — and besides, they serve beer on the plane.

When we landed in Mexico and stepped onto the runway, it was like the door to an oven had been opened. The tropical heat and sun made me instantly forget the weather I was used to back home, and I quickly ditched my hoodie and stashed it away in my luggage. We shuffled through customs and finally made it out to the taxi area, where we piled into an old van. To be honest, we weren’t really sure where we were, what our driver was saying or exactly how long it would take us to get where we were going. We stumbled through a conversation about needing a ride to the ferry and, with a questionable affirmative nod from our driver, we were off. One of my compadres managed to piece together enough broken Spanish to get our driver to pitch into the next store so we could pick up some cold ones for the rest of the taxi ride. We had made it to Mexico. With a quick toast in the back of a van, we cracked those ice-cold Modelos and surveyed the outskirts of Cancun from the window on our way to the ferry. We were here to fish and have a damn good time. We were well on our way to doing both.

After we arrived at the port, we hopped on the ferry that would carry us over from Cancun to the island of Isla Mujeres. It was a quick ride of about 20 minutes, and the 100-foot boat seemed to glide over the crystal blue Mexican waters. Upon arriving at the dock and collecting our luggage, we rolled our gear through the port and stumbled out onto the streets of Isla Mujeres. Isla is hard to describe. It’s crazy, bustling and congested, but authentic in its own right. It is definitely a “tourist” area, but it is still very much Mexico. Mopeds and small cars zipped by in the streets, and storefronts poured right out into the walkways. Loud music, smells and sights are all I remember of my first impression. After hailing another cab, we finally arrived at our hotel on the beach and met up with the rest of our party, who had arrived earlier that afternoon.

We caught sunset on the beach at the hotel and then headed over to the docks to meet up with the Grand Slam crew to make some dinner plans and get the lowdown on our fishing schedule for the next morning. The guys we were fishing with had caught some tuna and wahoo that day, and the restaurant at the marina cooked it up for us for dinner. We sat and hammered out the fishing agenda for the morning over drinks and dinner. After we’d all had more than our fill of fresh Mexican food and drink, someone convinced us to stop by one bar before we hit the bunks for the night. For the most part, we called it quits and got in bed at a reasonable time. We were excited — it was almost time to finally fish.

The next morning, we arrived at the dock and were met with the low rumble of the diesel engine and the faint colors of the sunrise starting to break the sky. We pushed out of the slip at 7 a.m. sharp and started our 2-hour trek to the north, where the fishing had been best the past few days. The first mate, Skyler, shuffled around the cockpit rigging baits and making sure rods and tackle were squared away. His perfectly timed steps with the rocking of the boat underway in 3- to 4-foot swells made it clear that this wasn’t his first rodeo. The rest of us sort of fell around the cockpit until we got where we needed to be. I stuck tight to my post watching the sun come up over the ocean off the back of the boat for the duration of the morning run. The seas in Mexico are typically rougher than what we are used to back home, and some didn’t fare as well. One of our crew had already succumbed to seasickness during the ride out, and we all felt for him, but there wasn’t anything we could do to help. He had a long day ahead, and we hoped for his sake that the ocean would calm down. It never did.

After nearly 2 hours, the captain pulled back on the throttle, and the boat hummed down to trolling speed. With a quick yell down from the tower back to Skyler, it was on. The seasoned mate switched into fishing mode instantly, and in a matter of seconds, the teasers, dredge and lines had been set out. We were fishing.

The morning seemed fairly slow, although I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect. Aside from some anticlimactic excitement from a school of big Jack Crevalle, we had trolled for a while with no bites. As trolling seems to usually go, the moments of chaos typically jar you out of a daydream or bring your mind back from somewhere else. I would say that is how our first round of sailfish bites came, because I can hardly recall any details leading up to the first encounter. The captain screamed down from the bridge that he’d seen a fish come up in the right teaser. When I looked, I saw the black beak and sail of a fish that I’d never laid eyes on before swimming and slashing at the squid chain. The image of the dark fish in that clear blue water is forever engrained in my mind — I can still close my eyes and see it. I think I stood there stunned in my inexperience and watched Skyler quickly pull in the teaser and drop a bait back to the fired-up fish. Without hesitation, the fish ate it and was hooked up and airborne. Screams and cheers came from the cockpit at the sight of the fish launching through the air, running line off the reel and putting on a show. Before Skyler even had time to pass the rod to an angler, the long line got knocked down and another sail was on, angrily jumping and thrashing through the ocean. It was absolute chaos. We were grabbing rods, reeling in teasers, getting the dredge pulled in and out of the way, and trying to help the mate manage things in the back of the boat. We were able to keep all the lines clear, and we landed both of those sails. After more shouts, celebratory cold beers and lots of high fives, we got the lines back out in the water.

The bite got even better as we headed into the afternoon, and a quick lunch of nuked hotdogs and cold Dos Equis seemed to give the whole crew a bit of a second wind. The busy afternoon flew by, and we leadered fish after fish. The day continued to pick up, and in all honesty, I don’t remember many of the details. That kind of fishing can be such a sensory overload; maybe that’s why it all runs together for me. The fish were fired up and all over our teasers. I remember the glimpses of seeing groups of sailfish on the chain or slashing at the shimmering dredge a few feet beneath the water. I remember the cheers and celebrations each time one of the crew had caught one and had the beautiful fish swimming boatside. We released fish after fish; we even had a triple on sails at one point. It was the kind of day you dream of. It was the exact day I had dreamed of months ago when I got the initial text about coming to Isla. Watching it all unfold right in front of me was an incredible experience.

Day 1 abruptly ended after we had released our last fish of the day. At 3 p.m., the captain wasted no time in punching down the throttle as soon as the sailfish swam away and the teasers and dredge were jerked into the boat. Skyler switched gears and began tidying up the rods, making sure all the lines were in and rods secured. The 2-hour ride home didn’t seem so long after an unforgettable day on the water. We reviewed photos, recalled our favorite moments, and got off our feet and into the air-conditioned salon of the Grand Slam. What a damn day.

The second morning began much like the first as we arose early and guzzled bottles of water in an attempt to shake off our lingering headaches from the previous night’s celebrations. We all had pretty high expectations for our second day of fishing. This was our last day on the water, and after what we had seen on day 1, it had potential to be our best. The same 2-hour ride out to the fishing grounds awaited us that morning, and some of the guys caught up on their sleep inside the boat. This day was much calmer, and we were all in great spirits. Our fallen-seasick brother from day 1 was as chipper as ever, ready to take on the day with a Dramamine-induced boost of confidence. After catching so many fish the first day, we were able to learn a lot more about operating in the cockpit so that we could help Skyler out more with managing lines and hooking fish. Once we’d finally made it out, the captain gave us the go-ahead to get the lines in the water, and the fishing began. 

The newly-educated crew jumped into gear, one man sending back the teasers and another dropping the dredge. On this day, we felt like a well-oiled machine, and we were ready to rock. Within 20 minutes, we had our first sailfish bite. One of our anglers, Jordan, dumped the reel and let the sail eat before winding down and setting the hook on the fish. The line came tight and the rod doubled over just as the fish began to storm across the top of the water, viciously trying to throw the hook. In my mind, things were lining up just as they should, and day 2 was going to blow our first day out of the water. We kept the other lines in as Jordan battled the sailfish for a few minutes. After a short fight and 25 minutes into the morning, we were already on the board with our first fish. After this jump start to our morning, we noticed things slowly start to drop off. It just wasn’t happening quite like we thought it would. Strangely enough, the bite had changed literally overnight. After this first sail, the action slowed down significantly, and we pulled baits around for what seemed like hours without even raising a fish behind the boat. Other boats that we heard chattering on the VHF were having similar experiences, as well. Bites were short, and fish weren’t rising into the teasers quite like the day before. We picked away at the sails slowly for the duration of the day and still managed to catch a handful. Even though we were somewhat disappointed that we hadn’t had a banner day, it didn’t matter, and no one was complaining.

As we reeled the lines in that afternoon and turned back to the mainland for the run back, we gathered in the cockpit for a few photos and one last toast to one of the most memorable fishing trips any of us had ever taken. We were in Mexico on the trip of a lifetime. Regardless of the amount of fish we caught or didn’t catch, the entire trip was an adventure. After we had gotten back to the dock and cleaned things up, we recollected some of the highlights at our last dinner by the ocean and unanimously decided that our time in Isla was far too short.

As we climbed aboard our U.S.-bound plane that next morning, exhausted from the past few days, we knew without question that we would be back. I have never been to a place quite like Isla Mujeres — in fact, I doubt that one even exists. One thing I do know is that next time I get that text or call inviting me to Isla, I will be just as ecstatic to go back as I was to make the first trip.

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