Getting the Shot: The Bones and Permit of Casa Blanca.
I used to fish a lot. I even worked as a sport fishing captain and guided for a while on fly, some might say misguided. Slowly over time the rods were passed over in favor of the camera, my fly rods being the last to go. Since then it's all been about photographing the fish rather than catching them, picking more and more elusive and less frequently photographed subjects. I haven't caught a fish in years but the fly has never been far from what I do with the camera. My first inspiration was Harry Gray in Quepos Costa Rica in the early 90's. Harry's stories of teasing billfish to get within range on a fly stayed with me and lead to many of the photographic techniques I use today. The patience and poetry that the fly taught me, the sense of understanding, timing and control in a chaotic environment, I use every time I slip into the water with my camera. I still get goose bumps watching a master caster double haul a perfectly formed loop, flying into the wind like a jet fighter yet landing with the grace and elegance of a butterfly, inches from the nose of a tailing permit. Now the passion comes from capturing that same emotional feeling but using visuals.
When my good friend Allen Gant invited me to join him and Tom Williamson at their favorite bonefish lodge in a remote area of the Yucatan, I jumped at the opportunity. Hanging out with Allen and Tom in it’s self was worth the trip. There are always hours of interesting conversation, in the distinguished tones of these two southern gentlemen. The discussions are generally punctuated by the sweet smell of rare cigar smoke and the refined delights of delicate single malt Scotch. There is never a shortage of laughs. I also make no secret that Mexico is my favorite country in the world to shoot in. From the Baja to the Yucatan this country’s bio-diversity is staggering. Casa Blanca Lodge is situated in the Ascension Bay Biosphere not far from the Belizean border. It's an expanse of shallow flats and mangrove forests, dotted by coral sand islands and bordered by a massive fringing reef. Casa Blanca is legendary for its permit and bonefish population. The lodge is the epitome of casual remote island chic and caters very much to the fly fishing crowd with its low volume, low impact philosophy.
I wanted a permit and bonefish photo but, as usual, I didn't want to shoot any hooked fish. Nether of these species were going to come anywhere near me in the water; I knew that. I needed to shoot smart if I was going to get still shots of either of these two. I came up with the idea of a remotely triggered camera. The plan was to place the camera on a flat somewhere, bury some bait in the sand in front of it, stand back a few hundred yards and then trigger the shutter as the hunting fish found the bait. Easy, right? Technically there were problems right off the bat. Radio waves do not transmit underwater and I was not going to use a 100-foot piece of string or cable release to fire the shutter. I came up with an idea to use a radio transmitter receiver set up on the end of a "snorkel" sticking out of the water, connected via waterproof cable to the camera housing on the sand. I turned to Ryan Cannon at Reef Photo in Fort Lauderdale. He and his team custom wired my housing for the snorkel radio receiver. The next issue was camouflage, neither the bonefish or permit would come anywhere near a strange black blob underwater no matter how tasty the buried crab bait smelt. To solve that problem, I hit Walmart and left with a very large, industrial strength pair of ladies’ pantyhose and a ball of camouflage-colored knitting yarn. For hours I patiently threaded 5-inch pieces of the camo yarn through the pantyhose with a darning needle completing what looked like a ghillie suit that a sniper would wear to hide. Next I painted all the exposed pieces of equipment with a sandy camo color to match the sand on the flats. Voila! I had my undercover bone and permit cam
I met Augustine on the beach the first morning. He had his sun protecting Buff pulled over his face. The rest of his head was hidden behind sunglasses and an old ball cap that was impaled with an assortment of bone and permit flies. He was a large, imposing figure with a thick, black Tom Selleck mustache that poked through the fabric of the Buff making him look like a walrus. I finished my explanation of what I needed over the next six days. He just looked at me, mumbled a couple of sentences under his breath in Spanish, gave a few deep sighs and (I could even have sworn) rolled his eyes behind his sunglasses, before he pushed us off the white coral sand beach on the flats boat. He slowly climbed into the skiff but not before asking me if I was "loco". He was perfect. It was exactly the response I wanted. I knew right then I had the real deal!
That morning, as with every morning for the rest of the week, we left the lodge and weaved our way through the narrow, thick mangrove-lined arteries of the backwaters at high speed. Skimming the slick, calm surface of water, our mirrored image, flecked with white bow spray, followed us under overhanging branches that formed arches across the channels, around tight hairpin bends in the forest, past crocodiles and feeding osprey, near frigates and boobies, egrets and diving cormorants. The mangrove forests were pristine. Bursting out from the leafy back roads we emerged into expansive flats that seemed as vast as the open ocean but which, in most places, was not even a few feet deep. Some mornings were so calm there was almost no horizon; the blue color of the shallow water matching the hue of the sky.
The plan was to start with the most impossible shot of the two, the permit, then work bones in the afternoon. Augustine, still expressionless through his Buff, glasses, and cap set me up on the edge of a shallow sandy flat adjoining a small cay. We placed the camera along a "permit thoroughfare" and positioned the radio receiver's snorkel a few inches above the surface of the water. Augustine silently poled us 100 yards away and there we sat and sat and sat. I heard the loco word more than a few times that first morning until Augustine suddenly crouched down, whispered, and pointing east to the nervous water ripping along the glassy surface, in the shape of an arrowhead, headed in the general direction of the housing. The hand holding the trigger's transmitter started to shake; I was watching Augustine more than the fish. As nonchalant as he had seemed that morning, I could see the excitement even in his covered face. That fish missed the bait and wandered off in the opposite direction without getting into camera range. Regardless, Augustine suddenly “got it” and was now firmly on my side in trying to get this done.
By early afternoon, after not seeing another permit, we headed back towards the lodge. On a shallow sandy flat not far from the lodge was a school of bones running about four to six pounds. The guides generally avoided this group of fish because they had been cast at so many times by guests wading the area, that they could tell you the name of the fly, what hook size you were using, the name of the terminal knot, and probably who tied the fly. Although not worth working with the fly rod these guys were perfect for my remote camera. They would chill in a predictable loop passing every 10 or 15 minutes in a school of around 20 or 30 fish. I placed the camera on its "top hat" tripod, an equidistance from the surface a few inches above and the white pink coral sand below. The gin clear water reflected the surface ripples making expanding and collapsing shapes on the bottom. Alongside the big still housing I buried a GoPro camera, its lens barely sticking out above the sand. In front of the big camera's dome port I buried the remains of the morning's crabs we had used for bait. Took my trigger and joined Augustine 20 or 30 yards away. It wasn't long before a bone flying wide of the school smelled the crab and darted in only to run at the sight of the camera. A few more circled and bam they hit the bait! I fired the shutter with the motor drive on with a loud “clack, clack, clack” and they scattered like the edges of a Geisha’s unfolding paper fan, across the flat. The shutter slapping sound was going to be a problem overcome only by the addition of more crab. Over the next half an hour, with all the bait I had left and firing only single frames I got them used to the sound and snapped away getting shots that, before then, I had only dreamed of. In some images there were 10 or more bonefish looking into the dome port, perhaps at their own reflections like puppies waiting to be fed. In other shots I was able to capture the soft skirt of their mouths as they spread open sucking in the sand and discharging it out their gills until they found the crab they were looking for a few inches below the sand. I was even more stoked with the video, dozens of hungry bones working inches from the GoPro some even trying to suck on the lens of the tiny cameras. Augustine and I laughed and cheered as they came past round after round. Life was good!
The unpolluted night sky of Ascension Bay is breathtaking. Sitting on the deck outside my bungalow it was the stars, not the moon, which lit up the sky. I slept with the doors of my palm thatched casita wide open and the AC off, cooled by the constant brisk trade winds arriving from the southeast. Tropical thunderstorms, raised by the heat of the day, ignited in the distance in a celestial fireworks display second to none. I would wake up during the night, walk across the cool polished floor, onto the warm hardwood deck and sit in the swaying hammock just to watch the milky way blaze across the night sky to the sounds of the palm fronds and small crashing surf 100 feet away. I did not have an occasion to wear my shoes the entire week, loving the opportunity to be barefoot. My only pair of flip-flops was finally dragged away by foxes from the shallow footbath outside my front door where I had left them the first day. I followed the tiny paw prints that morning as far as I wanted not really caring about the shoes just hoping for a glimpse of their new owners. I have traveled to few places around the world and found such complete and utter peace.
The first blog in any series always seems to be the hardest and this one is no exception. You have only the first few lines to keep a reader hooked and invested i what you have to say. I thought about talking about the film or introducing the area but those subjects are well covered in other parts of this website. For ideas and inspiration I pulled up the story I wrote just after my first trip to Casa Blanca Lodge and the Sian Ka’an reserve in early 2012. Reading those words bought back all the incredible feelings and experiences I had on my first trip there. You can tell how excited I was seeing this place for the first time. That’s exactly where I need to start, at the beginning, at the point that started this huge undertaking. When I’m stressed and overwhelmed with the details of producing a film and it’s budget, it’s this first impression that reminds me of how I got here.
This blog was first written for 36 North within days after returning from Sian Ka’an on a trip to photograph Permit and bonefish free swimming.
The peace however was not what I was there for. We had bones in the bag but the permit stayed true to their elusive reputation and frustrated us. We had several near misses and lots of “almosts” with some big fat lipped fish. I got lots of pics of cute little boxfish eating my crabs. Augustine laughed every time I jumped up excited about the “permit” on the camera knowing full well they were just boxies. Sharks, tarpon, turtles, stingrays, eagle rays, plus lots of other species passed us as we waited. Augustine and I shared stories of his 28 years guiding on these flats, his family and his citrus orchards in northern Mexico, his true passion. You get to know someone very well spending a week sitting on a little boat in the middle of nowhere waiting for permit to do what you want. I like to think we became good friends. We had one near miss with a small school coming close but I fired the shutter too soon and ended up with a shot of their distant tails as they headed for the hills. The last day we went through the motions but I felt stumped. We both sort of counted out the final hours, poling around the lonely camera looking for something, any thing to change our luck.
With about two hours left on the last afternoon, Augustine climbed off his high polling platform, holstered the long poll and told me to get my gear put away and ready to run, he had an idea.
We ran for a few miles across the ocean flat where we had been working into a 20-foot deep area close to a few clumps of mangroves. The water was tea colored due to the discharging tannin carried out by the tide from the mangroves onto the flat. He told me there was a hole down there and that he knew the permit came here. From the surface I could make out the circular shape of the hole below, dark against the lighter colored hardpan bottom. It was about 20 or 30 yards across with a small-connected hole on the one side. I started my first free dive down. I hadn’t even made it to the the rim of the structure when from below its edge swam five or six giant Cubera snapper straight up to me stopping only a few feet away, staring at me with their bright yellow eyes. I continued on into the crater, probably made by the collapse of the roof of an ancient cave. As I settled on the gravelly bottom around 25’ down. Out from under the dark undercutting ledge emerged a school of 20 or so permit. They came straight for me, turning a few feet away then circling me faster and faster in ever tightening loops as I made my way back to the surface. I ripped the snorkel out of my mouth a screamed at Augustine. He just grinned as he was apt to do and I’m sure uttered a few “locos” for good measure. I spent the next hour photographing this school of permit making circuits in and out of the hole, above and below the ledge, in expanding and contracting numbers. I started free diving through the smaller of the two holes, which joined under the ledge. That allowed me to surprise them in the dark back recesses of the overhang. I even left my GoPro down there capturing some incredible footage of schooling permit, sometimes interwoven with tarpon and snappers. We had done it!
I packed and said my thank yous and goodbyes to Augustine, lodge manager Rita Adams, and the rest of her crew. I had to borrow a pair of shoes from Allen to get home, thanks to the foxes. I boarded my flight home with such an incredible feeling of peace and accomplishment. I had spent an incredible week in an incredible place with incredible friends. Mexico had produced the goods again!
Casa Blanca lodge is incredible, a place that has been distilled to the essence of what is needed and what is not, an almost Zen type luxury on this little piece of Caribbean paradise. We wanted for nothing that week, saw very few people, and ate fantastic food, but most of all had access to some incredible guides, fantastic environments, and some epic bonefish and permit. Allen and Tom headed off each morning after breakfast with their guide, Pato, and I with Augustine, my guide for the week. As with all my photography, this was not an effort by me alone. I always try to rely heavily on the expertise of someone who knows the fish like the back of his hand and knows where to find them. The thing I don't need from a boat captain or guide is BS. And my BS meter generally goes off like a smoke alarm the moment I finish explaining to them what I'm trying to do and I get something along the lines of "No problem" or "That's easy!"