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April 03, 2008

Return to Isla

Good fishing and quiet living make Isla Mujeres a top sailfish destination

Less than 40 years ago, Isla Mujeres, the picturesque island off Cancún, Mexico, was not much more than a sliver of sand and rock with more palm trees than people. These days the island is all grown up - there's power on the docks, classy restaurants in town, an aquarium, shopping and everything else a vacationing gringo could want. But in many ways, Isla remains tied to its roots. The laid-back atmosphere suits fishermen just fine, and you don't need anything fancier than a pair of sandals and a Hawaiian shirt to hit the town.

"A lot of guys wanted to go to Cancún so they could get Kentucky Fried Chicken and what not, but I didn't even eat that crap at home! We were more like island guys, those of us who stayed in Isla," says Capt. Gary Stuve, one of the first captains to start fishing the area in the 1970s. "We sort of developed this clique - there was a group that came every year from Texas, then our group from Florida. You'd see the same guys every season. Each night was like a big dock party. One boat would make steaks or fish; another boat would make some vegetables, and you'd just go from boat to boat with your plate. It was great."
 
As word of the springtime sailfish action spread, boats flocked to the island, bringing anglers and much appreciated tourist dollars. Over time, the fishery expanded and boats started showing up earlier in the year. Crews happened upon huge populations of sailfish balling bait in January and February some 20 to 40 miles north of the island. Boats started tallying incredible numbers, with some catching more than a 100 sails in a single day. This kind of action brought more boats, and the island continued to develop.

Where It All Began
The first group of American anglers to discover Isla Mujeres came from Texas. Stewart Campbell, a well-known blue marlin fisherman from Houston, had roomed with Guillermo Freitag white attending the University of Texas. Freitag's family lived in Mexico and owned the Jose Cuervo brand of tequila. As an avid diver, Freitag spent time exploring various areas of Mexico. On an early visit to Isla, he befriended Enrique Lima, a local, whose father, Jose de Jesus Lima, worked as the minister of tourism and was trying to develop Cancún and Isla as tourist destinations. Freitag told Campbell of Isla's diverse and untapped fishery, namely the billfish action just a few miles off the coast. 
 
"My brothers and I would fish north of the island on a 56-foot steel-hulled boat called Tatich," Lima says. "We knew the sails were here. We'd start seeing them the last week of March, and the fishing would last through May. At the end of May we'd see blue and white marlin as well. We'd see all three species - it became a great place and time to catch a grand slam."
 
Always in search of new blue marlin grounds, Campbell looked at a chart of the area with his longtime friend and legendary Texas angler Walter Fondren. The pair decided that the island could very well be home to the big blues they sought. So, they decided to fly down and explore. At the time, Cozumel Island to the south was already flourishing as a sailfish destination.
 
"Walter and I were trying to learn offshore fishing and were looking at how the straits and current run off Isla Mujeres," Campbell says. "We went down looking for blue marlin. At that time, to get to Isla from Houston we had to go to New Orleans and from there to Cozumel. We'd overnight in Cozumel and fly into Isla on a small plane." In those days Cancún was little more than a beach - no international airport existed, and the ferry over to Isla could only carry one car.
 
The Texans arrived in 1971 when very few cars existed on the island. At the time the Lima family owned the island's largest hotel, an 80-room Sheraton, which opened in 1964.
 
"It was an idyllic place," Fondren recalls. "There weren't any resorts on the island back then like you'd find in the States. We'd eat in town at the local restaurants. It was a fun experience."
 
Although the big blues didn't surface, they did find a burgeoning sailfishery, and Fondren decided to bring down his own boat the following season, a 38 Hatteras named Tsunami. With a cockpit full of fuel drums, and even more fuel stored in removable tanks in the engine room, Fondren's crew departed Port O'Connor for Mexico. Navigating with just a compass and charts, they hugged the Mexican coastline rather than cruising across the Gulf's deepwater canyons. 
 
"We tied up at the Navy dock that first year," Fondren says. "It was the only place to dock. Enrique had some property in town, and we decided to build a dock for the next season. It worked out pretty well."
 
"That's when the adventure started," Lima says. "The dock then was 30 meters long with enough space for four boats per side." 
 
Enrique's Dock, as it came to be called, served as the epicenter for the visiting boats and fishermen, a service it still provides today.