Destinations: Caribbean/Belize

My experiences in Belize -

 

As a fly fisher interested in saltwater, I had an opportunity to go to Belize in May or June of 1984. The trip was organized by George Anderson, owner of Yellowstone Anglers. I went with Mike Lawson who I had been friends with since he opened Henry's Fork Anglers in 1976, at the time had never been to Belize and had not done much fishing in saltwater. Mike and George were good friends and both of them were kids at heart so I looked forward to both the fishing and stories I had never heard...I was not disappointed.

Mike and I met in Houston and flew together to Belize City and from there on to Ambergris Caye. We would be staying at El Pescador Lodge in what was then one of the very few fly fishing lodges in Belize. The only other one I was aware of was Turneffe Flats Lodge and I am not even sure it was even operational that year.  El Pescador was owned then by the original founders, Juergen and Kathleen Krueger. The opened the lodge in 1974 and may have been the first real fly fishing lodge in all of Belize. All that was there then was the main lodge building and a boat dock. Since then, many improvements and buildings have been added. Our group of 6-8 filled the whole place up. I could maybe write a book about the 5-6 days we fished there and will probably have a few stories elsewhere on this site. We had good weather, good fishing and it was one of the very best experiences I have ever had as a fly fisher.

In our time at El Pescador, we caught good numbers of fish...mostly bonefish which was a primary focus of our trip. There were also a few tarpon, mostly baby tarpon caught in close to the mangroves. I think a few permit were caught by others in the group. We had generally good weather so we were out all day every day for 5 days. There were also numerous other species caught that I cannot name but I do recall that our guide called one of them a "grunt". Mike and I were looking for baby tarpon one day back in some smallish openings in the mangroves. Mike was in the front of the boat and made a nice cast to a fishy looking area maybe 20 yards away and almost immediately he had a take. He made an energetic set and I heard a pop. I looked up and the top 6" of his fly rod was starting to slide down his fly line towards the fish. He had an astonished look on his face but continued the fight. What we first thought was a baby tarpon ended up being a "grunt"...all of 10" in length and it weighed all of 1/2 lb. What was most interesting to me was that Mike had been either given or loaned several brand new Fenwick "World Class" fly rods to evaluate during the trip. At the time, Fenwick was a pretty big player in the fly rod market. That evening, there was a good deal of joking about the monster fish that had broken the rod. I think it was determined by the two pros in the group to have probably been a nick or similar issue that had caused the break. Hey, entertainment is where you find it!

When our time at El Pescador ended, Mike Lawson and I had, prior to the trip, planned to extend our Belize trip by spending 4 days in Placentia in southern Belize.  Mike had been told about Placentia by Brian O'Keefe who was a guy who was, and still is what you can call a pioneer in fly fishing adventure travel. Brian tends to seek out places that have never been fished with a fly rod and that was the case with Placentia. There is a great podcast available on Midcurrent.com with Brian telling stories of his many adventures with a fly rod.

 

As this trip was so early and before Belize became the popular destination it is today, there were no lodges or hotels, no experienced fly fishing guides...not much of anything there but a small fishing village. The guide we had arranged was also recommended by Brian. He was a local fisherman with the most uncomfortable boat I have ever been in. It was a flat bottomed jon boat, about 18' in length with no padded seats or anywhere to get out of the sun. Our lodging was "the motel", as I recall, it was just 2-3 poorly furnished rooms in the back of a small building. We ate all of our meals in a very small restaurant (maybe 6 tables) that was owned by our guide's relative who was also the village "postmaster" They actually had to open the restaurant early every morning so we could get breakfast as there was no other place to eat in town. We put some miles on that boat and it took a week after I got home to be sure I had not broken my butt. We spent a day going up the Monkey River for baby tarpon and besides my butt, we were nearly eaten alive by "noseeums". The bug spray was only slightly effective and I forgot to put it on my ankles (I had long pants but no socks) and they were absolutely raw by the end of the day...I am not sure whether it was from me scratching or the bugs literally eating pieces of me. We caught some very acrobatic baby tarpon so it was still a good day.

For me, the most memorable day was a trip to "Tarpon" Caye. I am not sure that was its real name or something the guide made up. There is a real Tarpon Caye in that general area and there is now a lodge on it. It was very small but with a lagoon maybe 100 yards across and surrounded by mangroves. It did not take long to see tarpon rolling and we were able to "jump" several and bring a few to the boat for release. A good...very good day, except for the boat ride back to Placentia. A moderate wind had come up and there was a good swell and that flat bottomed boat bucked with every swell...the boat would jump up and slap back down with each swell...just miserable. 

Although we had cast to permit while at El Pescador, I had hooked nothing...numerous follows right up to my rod tip...but no takes. I do not recall if Mike had caught a permit but I do not think so. Anyway, we decided to dedicate a day to getting a permit. It did not take too long before we saw some permit on a flat and jumped out to wade fish. I was fishing a smallish crab pattern and was casting pretty well...I was full of anticipation as I had never caught a permit. In just a few casts, I spotted a permit right on my fly...I striped...he followed...I striped...he followed until my fly was stopped by the top guide on mt rod. All those high expectations and the anticipation gradually faded to frustration over the course of the morning. I had 8-10 permit follows, I changed my striping technique several ties, changed flies a couple of times and I was ultimately rewarded with...nothing.

When we took a lunch break, Mike and the guide were talking about a few other spots to go for permit. Once the boat was on the move, I realized that my frustration had gotten the best of me and I needed a change. When we got to the area the guide said was good, there were numerous very small bare coral "islands". We had seen quite a few small black tipped reef sharks so I decided to go shark fishing and leave the permit to Mike and the guide. I quickly caught a couple of small reef fish and using a small rope I found in the boat and a short stick I found on the island staked the fish in just a foot or so of water after making a couple of slices in its side and belly. I changed to a much larger fly and a short length of wire as the leader. By the time I made those changes, there were 3-4 sharks starting to move in and I started casting. 

I remember looking around at one point and realizing that I could not see Mike and the guide and boat anywhere. I could see for what seemed like forever as there was little to block my view for well over a mile or two. It is interesting what thoughts start invading your brain sometimes...As I said, this was a small "island" just 50' or so at its widest place and all but a tiny place near the center was a foot or so under water. I was a little spooky to think about but it did not last long as I soon hooked a shark and released it. This was followed by steady shark action until Mike and the guide showed up to "rescue" me.

The rest of the trip was good. I think I mentioned that Mike and George had a good sense of humor. When I got back home in California and was unpacking, I found two live lizards in my rod bag. Not sure how they got there but my wife's good humor was tested for a couple of minutes while I hunted down one of the lizards.