The winter months aren’t usually what people think of when good fishing is the topic of discussion, at least in our part of the world. There just aren't that many great fishing opportunities in the early part of the year off the Carolina coast that we call home. The waters are cold, and the fish are typically a little more sluggish and shy than they will be come springtime. Simply waiting on the waters to warm up and the bites to start again would be the normal thing to do. Perhaps working on the old Bronco in the garage would be a good use of our time. However, we are fishermen. It is difficult to just shut down that urge to go and wet a line somewhere, anywhere.
Come mid-January, the itch was getting to be too much to bear, so the schemes started flowing one night, in conjunction with the bourbon. Cuba has always been on the “must fish” list for us, but the timing just wasn’t quite right. We’ll keep that trip in our back pocket for a later date. The Dominican Republic is also high on our list, but again, bad timing. So, like any fisherman might do in the doldrums of fishing withdrawal, to Instagram we went in search of inspiration. It was there that we stumbled across our winter’s salvation: A boat we know that runs out of Florida was cutting its way across the Gulf. We couldn't get the email out of our fingers fast enough.
It did not take long for a plan to begin to take shape. Our friends aboard the Grand Slam, a 50-foot Forbes, were heading to Isla Mujeres just off the coast of Cancun, Mexico, for six weeks of chasing sailfish and tequila. We’ll talk more about the tequila later, but the sailfishing was absolutely something we wanted to do. We quickly peeked at the calendar and saw some potential free dates in early February. After a quick confirmation with the wives (because we are upstanding and respectable gentlemen), the plane tickets were being booked.
The anticipation was building in the weeks leading up to our trip. The reports from the boys aboard the Grand Slam were good — some big days were being had out on the water, and we could not have been more excited to go join them. We’d labeled this excursion as a good time to do some product testing on some of our new fishing-specific garments and gear, so we needed to assemble a decent-sized crew. It wasn’t too difficult to talk a few buddies into going with us. As we boarded our flight in Charlotte to take the quick 2.5-hour flight to Cancun, we were already on the boat in our minds.
It is just quick cab ride from the airport in Cancun to the port where we were to take the ferry over to Isla, but not so quick that we couldn't ask our driver to stop along the way for us to pick up some cerveza fria. As we sat at the dock awaiting our ferry and drinking beer in the 85-degree sunshine, we knew we’d made a good call on getting away for a few days. It was like stepping into summer, which was a welcome change from the grey and wet of February in North Carolina.
As we stepped off the ferry and onto our island home for the next three days, one thing was quickly apparent: This place was busting at the seams with color and character. The streets are narrow and filled with people showcasing their wares and inviting you into their shops and restaurants. It was a vibrant scene, and we felt like we fit right into the commotion. We checked into our condos and did what anyone should do the minute you get settled into your beachfront accommodations — we went to the beachfront bar. As we sat with our feet in the sand, cold beer in our hands (apologies to Zac Brown) and eyes on the setting sun, we began to muster up some hunger. Just about that time, our friends on the boat texted us that they were just getting back to the dock and had kept a wahoo and blackfin tuna to cook for that night’s dinner. We made the half-mile walk across the island and down the main street toward the dock and got there just as the boys were giving the freshly filleted fish to the cooks at the Bally-Hoo Restaurant and Bar. As we waited for our table to clear, we gave the “we’re pumped to be here” high fives to our buddies Captain Dave and Skyler, both of whom were decidedly more tan than we were after having been there for almost a month already.
Dinner was incredible. There was no shortage of cold beer, guacamole or fresh fish. Should you ever get to dine at the Bally-Hoo in Isla, we’d recommend the ceviche with all our collective urging. In fact, there may have been a joke cracked since returning home about being willing to DRIVE back to eat it again. (According to Google, that would be a 55-hour drive, and then a 2-hour kayak paddle from the office, just FYI.) We stuffed ourselves to the brim with food and drink that night, then made the colorful walk through the party that was the street back to our beds. The next morning would come early, and that meant it was time to fish.
We pulled away from the dock shortly before sunrise and started the 50-mile run to the fishing grounds. It was a bit rough that first morning, and more than one of us started to feel a bit sick. One of our photographer friends was hit hardest and was leaning over the rail only an hour into the trip. We had a few laughs at his expense, but the truth is, we’d all been there before, and it’s the worst. Credit to him, though, he toughed it out as best he could and still managed to take some great images despite looking pretty green all day long. We rigged the baits and set up the dredges as we finished the run out to our marks. Captain Dave pulled the engines back to a troll, and we got the outriggers in place and tossed the gear over the side. We were fishing for sails in Isla.
It didn't take long to get our first hookup. The long left line snapped out of its clasp high on the outrigger, sending the mate Skyler running across the deck to grab the rod from the rod holder. A few quick seconds later, and we all saw what we’d come here to see — a sailfish broke the surface some 100 yards behind the boat and danced across the waves, its bright blue fin shining in the sun. The rod was passed to our friend George, who made quick work of the line out, and we grabbed our first leader of the trip. Caught fish #1, and we were on the board!
The rest of the day went much the same as we caught a steady stream of fish throughout the afternoon. The highlight, however, was certainly just before we were going to pick up our gear. We’d gone an hour or so without a hookup, and we thought the bite might be done for the day when Captain Dave called from the bridge, “Sail on the right dredge!” Skyler grabbed the pitch bait from the bucket and free-lined it back just off the dredge. We got an eat, just like we would have drawn it up. Skyler barely had time to pass that rod to someone before the long right line got hit. We were doubled up, which would have been a great time had it ended there, but just as we were hollering about the double, the long left broke loose and sent the deck into a frenzy. We were tripled up on sails! That is what you go fishing in Isla to experience.
It was a wild next few minutes as the guys hauled in the dredges and cleared each other’s lines, ducking under and passing rods over to avoid a tangle as the three fish were all bunched up. Captain Dave backed down hard on the closest sail, and he put on quite the show right next to the boat. Skyler wired the fish and cut him loose, and it was on to the other two. Our friend Jordan worked the reel on the next-closest fish, who ran straight at the boat, and just like that we wired another. The triple was completed shortly thereafter as we chased down Drew’s fish and got him leadered. We celebrated in appropriate fashion after having taken part in a sail triple — we all cracked cold beers and immediately began to reminisce about how wild those few minutes were. We were 13/15 at that point in the day on the Grand Slam and decided to call it good there. We pulled in the gear and made our way back to port.
That evening, we got a table on the beach at Miramar Restaurant, known on the island for its fresh rock lobster. Most of us chose the lobster fajitas, but our friend Scott opted for the full experience. After a quick translation on size, Scott ordered a 2 kilo lobster — that is 4.4 lbs, for the folks back home. When his plate arrived, it was something to witness, easily the largest lobster tail any of us had ever seen. We sat at the table and relived the day on the water, finishing our fine meal around 10 p.m. We were pretty worn out from the day, but Skyler, the first mate and youngest of the crew, would not let the group go to bed without going by a bar he knew that served scorpion tequila shots.
Yes, it is exactly what you think it is — scorpions in the bottom of a huge tequila bottle. The bartender cut the stinger off the tail and doused each critter in a bit of Tabasco. The order of operations was to be pincers first and down the hatch, after quite a bit of chewing, followed by what any reasonable human could only describe as being “two full gulps of Tequila” in what was the most serious shot glass we’d ever seen. The rest of the night, we’d rather not discuss.
The next morning, we begrudgingly drug ourselves out of bed and toward the dock for another day on the water. The ocean was much more agreeable on day two, with no seasickness to be had by anyone aboard. Unfortunately, the fishing was not as good as the previous day, as we went 3/8 on sailfish. It was hard to not be disappointed, as we all had unspoken hopes that day two would be just as good, if not better, than day one. However, a quick check of perspective to remember that we were on vacation and a swift crack of yet another Dos Equis, and we were once again in high spirits as we headed back to the dock to close out our fishing.
That night, we ate at another beachfront restaurant, this one known for its fried whole hogfish. There were 10 of us at the table that night, and the order was easy — all 10 of us ordered the hogfish. Yet again, dinner was incredible, and we all remarked at how good the fish was. That is one thing we can say for sure — if you go to Isla and don't eat well, it’s your own fault. There was plenty of great food to be found during our stay.
That night, we walked about town, hitting a few more local spots before calling it an evening. We sauntered back to our lodgings and all took a well-earned rest. Our trip would draw to a close the next day, and we all gathered for breakfast before heading back to the airport. The coffee seemed extra tasty that morning, perhaps because we knew it would be the last cup we would have in Mexico for some time. We made a lot of great memories on that trip. We had a blast on the boat, put some of our new garments through a few days of fishing and got some great images for our social media feeds. As we boarded our flights back to the States, we couldn't help but think about doing it all over again next year!
A special thank you to Captain Dave and Skyler from the Grand Slam for having us aboard. We hope to share some good times with you gents again soon!