GET A GRIP: Photographer Dale Spartas with a Turneffe permit.
The skinny on Turneffe
Where: Turneffe Flats Lodge (below) is a modern operation that can accommodate 14 anglers in oceanfront cottages. Weeklong packages include all meals and six days of guided fishing. For information, visit www.tflats.com.
How: Daily flights serve Belize City from a number of major airports in the U.S. From there, it's a 90-minute ride aboard the lodge's 42-foot custom dive boat to the atoll.
When: Flats fishing for permit and bonefish is consistent year-round. There are a few resident tarpon in the lagoon, but the migratory fish show up in the middle of May and hang around until mid-September. Summer is grand slam time.
To pursue a grand slam is a form of romantic quest. To expect success is a species of lunacy, the delusion of young boys and madmen, of the preposterously naive and the hopelessly damaged. And they deserve the punishment they usually get. I've never heard a single slam story, triumphant or tragic, that didn't hinge on some improbable quirk or unrepeatable accident, some fluky stroke of fortune, good or bad. You can plan for the slam, but you can't plan on it.
In just this spirit of sober detachment, I purged any thoughts of a three-bagger, booked a flight south and resolved to be realistic. Hence my objective: to catch a really big permit on a fly, which, I congratulated myself, is only the second most reckless expectation in flats fishing. And hence my destination: Turneffe Atoll.
Mention Turneffe to any flats junkie, and you'd better look for a comfortable chair. You'll be there a while, listening to tales of bonefishlots of them, even in a region famous for bones. What's more revealing, though, is what doesn't get talked about muchpermitbig crab-crushing, sickle-tailed slabs, skittish as greyhounds and twice as fast. They're here, but no one's in any hurry to broadcast the news. They are also why I'm here, stepping off a boat 35 miles east of Belize City with hope in my soul and a serious case of the crabs: Merkins, Ragheads, McCrabs, Flats Crabs, Turneffe Crabs. I've got three fly boxes full of them for what is to be a six-day prowl for permit. Or so I believe.
It is always a crapshoot. While Turneffe is arguably the best place in the Caribbean to take big permit on a fly, it's a lot like saying that a blackjack table is the best place to beat the house in Vegas. The odds don't favor you in either case, but they're as good as you're going to get. You can spend a week making textbook-perfect plays and still walk away totally hosed.
Twelve hours after I arrive, I am the hood ornament on a 16-foot Dolphin Super Skiff Pro running at half throttle 100 yards from the mangroves. My guide, Pops, scans the flats for signs of fish, though we seem to be running too fast and far out to spot much. Not one to tell a man his business, I hint discreetly at this point.
"If he's there, we see him. A tail. The shaky water. A fish that shows himself, the permit is," Pops says in a curious and, as I would come to learn, customary reversed syntax. It's like fishing with Yoda and for some reason fills me with confidence. But in two hours, show the permit does not, and we head to the reef.
ONE DOWN: Leeson hoists his first permitand his first step toward the grand slam.
Photo: Ted Leeson
No Problem Atoll
Turneffe is the largest atoll in the Caribbean, an oval necklace of mangrove-covered coral islands 30 miles long and ten miles wide surrounding a shallow, central lagoon broken with cuts and creeks that communicate with the encircling reef and the deep water beyond. An exposed coral rim just offshore to the east creates a 30-mile strip of wadeable, hard-bottom shallows of coral, sand and turtle grass. Under a midday sun, these flats flash like gemsa translucent mosaic of turquoise, aquamarine, opal, jade, lapis and tiger-eye that glows as though lit from within. All in all, there are some 250 square miles of fishable opportunity here. This, I decide later, is the water I hope to go to when I die.
One of the reasons is bonefish. When we reach the flats, they are everywhere. I don't spot them at first because I refuse to believe that what I'm seeing are actually bonefishwave after wave of them, schools of 20, 50, 100 fish, rippling through the shin-deep water, coming straight at me. Pops, I sense, wants to size up the eyes (poor) and the casting arm (so-so) on which our hopes for the week rest. We get out and wade, and I'm into a fish from the get-go. The bonefish steams down the flat and veers around a coral head. To clear the line, I lift the rod high and break into an awkward, sideways run, like Charlie Chaplin with his necktie caught in the door of a moving bus. At last it comes to hand, a regulation Turneffe bonefish, about three pounds of pure speed. The action holds up until Pops and I punch out late in the afternoon. The audition ends. Whatever conclusions Pops has drawn he keeps to himself as we head to the lodge for lunch.
Pops is Winston "Pops" Cabral, a barrel-chested veteran with a big, easy laugh and fireplug arms from 30 years on the pushpolethe last 20 at Turneffe Flats Lodge, headquarters for my trip. He is also a legend in Belize guiding, instrumental in developing some of the area's most effective fly patterns, and a study in the kind of volatile intensity that quivers beneath the skin of a Zen-like calma sort of Creole Phil Jackson. I'd heard of him years back, and to share his boat augers well.
Pops is not so lucky. A fishing writer on assignment automatically generates his own atmosphere, a noxious cloud of ill fortune. The next day, right on schedule, the weather begins to fall apart and the fishing with it, despite an auspicious start. Tim, a Houston patent attorney and irredeemable permit-head, walks the ocean flats outside his cottage before breakfast and pins a 15-pounder on his first cast. But inside the lodge, a weather station downloads bad news into a laptop, charting a berserk barometer and shifting winds that turn the fish edgy and restless. Even the bonefish get squirrelly, and we manage only a handful that afternoon. Looking up, weighing a moody sky, Pops proclaims, "She gonna be a beast tomorrow."
SILVER METTLE: Leeson's first tarpon was step two in his slam.
Photo: Ted Leeson
Storm Before the Slam
Overnight, a tropical wave raises a wall of clouds to the east, flat as an anvil on top, bringing swirly 25-knot winds and a low, lead-gray ceiling. Our morning patrol of the permit flats is looking bleak, when Pops suddenly swings a wide shoreward arc, cuts the engine and pulls the pole from its chocks. In the lee of a little point, three tails wave in the air, black crescents that stand out against the silver chop like tuxedos in a biker bar. Even I can see them. I prick a fish on the first cast, but it's off in an instant. The permit regroup, nervously milling about. I change crab patterns. Two more shots and I'm connected. It's a small fish, normally abundant in the lagoon but practically a miracle today, and a few minutes later, I've got him by the tail, shiny as a hubcap with enormous obsidian eyes. I turn it loose, ready for more when, to my astonishment, we leave the only permit we've seen in days.
Twenty minutes later, anchored in a creek through the mangroves, I'm double-hauling an 11-weight intermediate sinking line attached to a Cockroach, a tarpon fly the size and shape of a small feather duster. On my second cast to a tasty little channel, the fly stops dead on the retrieve.
"Hit him!" Pops yells.
I heave with my line hand, and a tarpon erupts from the water like it was fired from a submarine. It isn't big, but muscular and acrobatic, logging enough air time for a pilot's license. I've read about tarpon for decades, but this is my first real shot at them, and the fish lives up to its billing. Moments later, Pops gets a glove on the leader and releases one pissed-off 30-pounder. Then he pronounces the words we are both thinking but I'm too superstitious to say.
"Gran' slam." Glancing at his watch, Pops adds, "Before lunch."
In an instant, he's goosing the engine wide open, screaming across the lagoon through kidney-pounding swells and squally weather and on to the reef outside.
The bonefish is a foregone conclusion, a two-cast gimme. And suddenly, it's done. Just that fastthree hours and seven casts into the morningI have my first grand slam. Ordinarily imperturbable, Pops can't hide his pleasure. He's riding a streak. I am his third slam in as many weeks. That the fish are not large must be measured against the imposing facts of a middling angler on the sourest weather day of the slowest fishing week in months. Sitting on the deck, sporting the moronic grin of a talk-show host, I'm thinking how crap like this never happens to me, and I bask for a while in the penumbral glow of my first hat trick. Then I announce to Pops I'm ready for another.
SLAM BAM!:The bonefish that sealed the deal.
Photo: Ted Leeson
The mere thought of it is enough to seal the deal, and the next morning the uncertain weather collects itself, pauses for a few hours, then swirls right down the crapper. A steady north wind drives the permit off the flats into deep water, and with them any prospects of a second slam.
Pops proposes a tactical adjustment. We will target tarponnot just any fish, but the overscaled, triple-digit variety that he refers to only as "the big dog." A thousand casts, a few days, and a couple of legitimate shots later, all I can claim is a painfully inflamed rotator cuff.
But it's impossible to feel let down or disappointed when you've already been luckier than you deserve. Sometimes fortune smiles on children and fools, and with my first grand slam safely in the books, I really don't care much which category I fit into.
Get in Gear
What to Bring
Bonefish: Turneffe bonefish range from three to five pounds, with some brutes in the mix. An eight-weight fly rod is ideal. Reels should be spooled with a weight-forward floating line and at least 150 yards of 20-pound backing. The best bonefish patterns tend to be small and lightly weighted, such as Pop's Bonefish Bitters, Gotchas, Crazy Charlies and No. 6 to 8 crab patterns. Spinning gear should include a seven- to eight-foot rod and reel with 250 yards of eight- to ten-pound line. Bonefish will take various colors of 1/8- to 1/16-ounce jigheads tipped with bait, usually conch.
Permit: There are plenty of permit in the ten- to 20-pound range, and you may get shots at fish in the 40-pound class. Standard gear is a nine- or ten-weight rod and a reel loaded with weight-forward floating line with at least 200 yards of 20-pound backing. Nine- to 12-foot leaders help turn over larger crab flies like McCrab, Merkin and Raghead (No. 2 and 1/0). Spin fishermen should bring seven- to eight-foot rods and reels holding 250 to 300 yards of 12- to 15-pound line. Jig heads (1/8 ounce) tipped with bait are effective, as are some of the heavier, more castable permit flies.
Tarpon: Most tarpon go 60 to 90 pounds, though the "big dogs" run to 150 pounds. An 11- or 12-weight rod with a slow-sinking line and a reel holding 200 yards of 30-pound backing will do the job. Leaders with 16- to 20-pound tippets and 60- to 100-pound shock tippets are most commonly used. Cockroaches, Apte-style tarpon flies and 3/0 to 4/0 Deceiver patterns are good choices. For spinning tackle, come equipped with a six- to seven-foot rod and a reel with 300 yards of 15- to 20-pound line. Sixty- to 80-pound shock tippets are necessary. MirrOlures (65Ms and 38Ms) and Rapalas (CD 14s) work well.
Fly Photographs: Courtesy of Umpqua Feather Merchants