Variety is the very spice of life,” said William Cowper way back in the 18th century. So far as we know he wasn’t speaking about fly-fishing, but he might as well have been. It’s not as if a week on the flats seeking bonefish or permit could ever be boring. Same for a week of fishing for snook in the mangroves or casting for tarpon in a jungle river. But what if you could do all those things in a single week? Now that’s what I call variety!
And that’s exactly what you can do in Belize, a tiny but diverse country tucked just below Mexico on the Yucatan peninsula. Fly-fishermen will find endless opportunities here, each worthy of several days of exploration. Some of Belize’s destinations are better known for tarpon, others for bonefish; and of course southern Belize ranks among the world’s best bets for the elusive permit.
No matter which region you fish, Belize offers numerous lodges that cater specifically to fly-fishermen, along with some outstanding mothership-based operations that let visitors sample the fishing from any number of the country’s locations.
The options in Belize are indeed numerous, as you’ll see in these pages:
A RIVER RUNS BY IT
Belize River Lodge
By R.P. Van Gytenbeek
As we approached the Belize River Lodge for the first time, I experienced one of those weird “I’ve-been-here-before” feelings. The lawns, landscaping and lodge buildings framed against a backdrop of greenery resembled lodges I’ve seen in Maine, the Adirondacks or northern Michigan.
I mentioned this impression to owner Mike Hausner. He smiled and asked if the name Vic Barothy meant anything to me. “Yes,” I told him. “I believe my father fished at Barothy’s camp in Cuba Isle of Pines, wasn’t it? before Castro claimed the camp as his own? And wasn’t Barothy originally from Michigan?”
Mike’s expression told me I’d get at least a passing grade in fly-fishing history. He then proceeded to fill in the gaps of a story that told how Barothy made it from a youngster guiding on the Pere Marquette River in Michigan to a camp owner in the Florida Keys and Cuba, and eventually in Belize.
In the process, Barothy’s successful ventures included what may have been the first-ever “mothership” operation eight houseboats accommodating his Cuban guests and guides, with flats skiffs in tow. That’s the technique he brought to Belize (then British Honduras) in 1960. While he was away, Castro confiscated his camp at the Isle of Pines, forcing Barothy to begin all over again. He built a new establishment on the Belize River, along with a remote camp 30 miles upstream and another on Turneffe Island (the former was later abandoned; the latter is now known as Turneffe Island Lodge).
Continuing Barothy’s heritage, the Belize River Lodge still operates three motherships the 58-foot Hatteras Christina, the 52-foot Chris Craft Blue Yonder and a 40-foot Santa Barbara. We had the luxury of spending several days aboard the Christina, chasing tarpon, snook and bonefish along the outer cays surrounding Belize City, and found the combination of isolation, luxurious accommodations and the ability to set our own schedule exhilarating.
Despite its excellent mothership-based excursions, Belize River Lodge’s claim to fame is its proximity to vast clear-water flats, lush jungle rivers and the plentiful tarpon that inhabit both. Since recent floods left the flats too turbid to fish, we left to explore the upper reaches of the tidal rivers amid a bright blue sky. Signs of urban civilization quickly gave way to jungle and the occasional clearing of an isolated ranch. After a while even the ranches disappeared, and there was nothing but thick vegetation on either side.
Along the way we made frequent stops to view the wonderful diversity of fauna and flora caymans and crocodiles, enormous iguanas, troops of howler monkeys and more birds, flowers, trees and vines than one could catalog in a month. Finally we found clear water and almost immediately rounded a bend to find my daughter Kate and her Aussie-born husband, Randall, hooked to a tarpon ahead of us. After dropping anchor just downstream, we soon had one on, too.
The rest of the day was spent leapfrogging upstream, one skiff past the other. The action wasn’t fast, but usually whenever we found a fish rolling, we could entice a strike. Catchable tarpon ran anywhere from 5 to 40 pounds.
We returned to the same tributary the next morning and by lunchtime had moved upstream to an area of open grassland and knolls reminiscent of the Everglades’ Sea of Grass. The far side of the river was shaded and dark, and the sight of an occasional fin and bubble told us that tarpon were there but not feeding.
Soon a splash here and a roll there indicated it was time to put lunch away and get serious. In the time it took us to recover from watching a swarm of killer bees pass 20 feet over our heads “We don’t see those very often,” the guides assured us the river had come alive. Seemingly every cast produced a strike, and at one point I actually hooked and lost three fish on one cast. My wife, Elizabeth, shot film until I convinced her to take the other rod and join in the fun. For the next two hours, one or both of us worked hard against a bent rod.
Finally the fish decided they’d done enough to entertain us and moved on, but by then we were well-satisfied. By the time we made it back to the dock, the moon was up, ending a perfect day. We decided to end the week on the same note, spending our last remaining hours before heading to the airport on the flats outside Belize City. There we had a fine morning with bonefish and a difficult time with snook.
During our week we had fished with “mother,” explored a jungle river, waded the flats for bonefish, chased snook in the mangroves and received a history lesson from Mike Hausner. And that’s just about all the variety or spice anyone could wish for in a single week.
The Mothership Experience
By David Ritchie
What the f*#% are we doing out here?” Terry Friedrich asked no one in particular, as 30-knot winds buffeted the 23-foot Meca 2 skiff in near total darkness. Wave after wave crashed against the transom of the anchored boat, sending salty spray high over the outboard and drenching us thoroughly in the process. Under the hood of his blue poncho, the bright white teeth of our amused guide, Dean Myers, shone like stars.
Why were we out there, you ask? Because our host, Don Muelrath of Belize Fishing Adventures, promised that our sacrifice would almost certainly be rewarded with the sight of a 100-pound tarpon at the end of a fly line.
Belize has a resident population of tarpon that makes for reliable sport on the country’s shallow-water flats when weather conditions allow sight fishing. However, the wind hadn’t dipped below 20 knots since our arrival, so it didn’t seem likely that we’d get to enjoy that style of fishing. Muelrath assured us we had another option. Every night, he said, big tarpon fed in the channel on the north end of Hick’s Cay within an hour or two after sundown. Dredging, it seemed, would be our only chance at the silver king.
So in the cold, salt mist I endured the elements and withheld my skepticism, picking my spots to step up onto the slippery platform and cast my fast-sinking line in the only direction I could, given the high winds. A hundred yards to starboard, Muelrath and first-time saltwater fly-rodder Ed Farver of Napa, California, were doing the same aboard Meca 1 with Capt. Martin McCord.
Just as I was about to give up and pass the platform to Friedrich, the strike came. Line began peeling off the reel, but it stopped too soon. My attempts to lift still met with heavy resistance, but the tap-tap-tap on the rod gave it away. “Feels like a jack,” I said, and Myers sat back down to wait out this “trash” fish. As the fish surfaced though, Friedrich’s flashlight caught the silvery side, and I knew at once it was no ordinary jack.
“Permit,” I yelled, and Myers bounded to life, smile bigger than ever, leading me to wonder why it is that certain species of fish receive so much more notoriety than others even when they have so many similarities. I didn’t have long to ponder such deep thoughts, however, as Myers brought the 10-pound fish to the side of the boat for photos. My first trip to Belize was just under way, and I had already caught my first permit on fly. The fact that I did it blind-casting … at night … with a tarpon fly … was beside the point.
It didn’t take long for our colleagues on the Meca 1 to top our catch, and they didn’t need a VHF to tell us what they had. The sounds of a giant tarpon were unmistakable a screaming reel, shouting anglers and the deep sploosh of an airborne fish re-entering the water. Farver, who had never before caught anything bigger than a brown trout on fly, struggled against the 90-pound fish but eventually got him to boat-side.
And so it went every night. Without fail, about an hour after sundown the drags would start singing, and the tarpon would start jumping. Some were big and some were small, and we lost many more than we released, but the action was as predictable as a big-tarpon bite can be. And that, believe it or not, was just the icing on the cake in this incredible fishery, where mothership operations put you in position to explore new grounds every day, targeting the Big Three in a variety of prime fishing habitat.
A Tough Schedule
During our week aboard the 45-foot Meca, Friedrich and I spent most of our time following a delightful, but exhausting, schedule. Awake to coffee at 6 a.m. Fish nearby bonefish flats until 8:30 and return for breakfast. Fish the far reaches of Hick’s Cay lagoons for bonefish until noon and return for lunch. Fish mangrove-lined canals and coves, looking for snook or baby tarpon until the tide turns in late afternoon, and then return to the bonefish flats for the late-evening bite. Then as the sun settled on the horizon, it was time to anchor in the channel and pick up our tarpon rods. Around 10 p.m. we’d finally head in for a late dinner prepared by Carlos, our excellent on-board chef.
On the Meca 1, Muelrath and Farver followed a similarly hectic schedule, though they preferred spending their day looking for tarpon on the white-sand flats of “Miami Beach” or casting for snook, baby tarpon and several varieties of snapper along the deep mangrove shorelines.
That kind of schedule makes for long days, but for most fly-fishermen it’s heaven on earth. Certainly that’s the case for bonefish addicts. Like its tarpon fishery, Belize’s bonefish population is robust, to say the least. There were, of course, spells when the bones seemed to disappear from the flats entirely, but we usually didn’t have to wait long between opportunities. Countless times, in fact, I would turn and gaze all around the boat and spot wakes or tails in almost any direction. In most cases, the biggest challenge was finding a fish downwind.
Belize’s bonefish generally aren’t big. While we spotted a few that likely fell in the 6- to 8-pound range, most of these bones were no more than 3 pounds. You’ll want nothing heavier than a 6-, 7- or 8-weight for these fish in reasonable conditions.
Also, the flats surrounding the outer cays of northern Belize are extremely soft and impossible to wade. That means you can target fish only in waters that are accessible by a 23-foot skiff. These skiffs feature surprisingly shallow drafts, but many times we still found ourselves out of reach of large concentrations of fish because we simply couldn’t get there from here.
Most flats here are covered by thick, lush turtlegrass. Forget weighted flies or even standard Crazy Charlies unless you tie them with a stout weed guard. We started with Charlies early in the trip and caught a few fish with them, but no matter how fast the retrieve or strong the fly’s wing, we couldn’t keep them out of the grass. Switching to eyeless Gotchas in pink, pearl and tan provided a much higher fish-to-weed ratio.
After we had our fill of bonefish by day and tarpon by night, we pulled anchor and headed south toward Belize’s permit-rich waters, starting at Robinson’s Point. Though only about 20 miles and a 2 1/2-hour steam from our anchorage in Hick’s Cay, the topography here stands in stark contrast to the soft-bottomed, mangrove-lined flats to the north. In central and southern Belize hard coral lines the ocean bottom, and the primary land structures are tiny sand-beach islands with a few palm trees thrown in to provide a postcardworthy surrounding.
These are open-water flats, so high winds make sight fishing difficult. That, combined with the ultraspooky nature of permit and the sharp coral-lined bottom, can lead to a difficult day of permit fishing under anything less than ideal conditions, which we never came close to. Still, in only four hours of fishing these wind-swept flats, Friedrich and I saw more than 20 permit. Rarely, however, did we see them in time to make a reasonable presentation. Friedrich managed two good casts to approaching fish, but received only a snubbed nose as a response.
Pros and Cons
As we made the slow voyage back toward Belize City for our pending departure, I contemplated the pros and cons of the whole mothership approach to fishing this wonderful country. The pros flooded into my mind. I struggled to find cons.
Set your own fishing hours. Target your choice of species. Eat excellent food. Share a boat with guides who are both knowledgeable and a pleasure to fish with. Sleep in air-conditioned staterooms. Tell fishing lies around a cozy table amid a fresh sea breeze. No long runs. No hitting at bugs. No other boats around to see your errors.
On the negative side, I can only nitpick about the lack of rod storage in the skiffs (McCord assured me this would soon be rectified) and the slippery steps aboard Meca that proved dangerous for hurried anglers with wet feet (me). Other than that, I had only three complaints: wind, wind and more wind.
Yet by the end of the trip, even the wind had turned into a positive of sorts because of the confidence it produced. “If you can catch a bonefish in this $&#*,” Friedrich said more than once, “you can catch one anywhere.”
OFF THE DEEP END**
By Capt. Brian Horsley
During the past five years my wife, Sarah, and I have learned much about how to fly-fish over nearshore wrecks along the mid-Atlantic coast. Last September we were invited to put our deepwater skills to use at Turneffe Island Lodge. The owners hoped to expand their fly-fishing offerings beyond the excellent flats opportunities for bonefish and permit by developing a deepwater fly fishery.
We made our first attempts at a spot called the Elbow, a massive point in the reef where the water drops from ankle deep to several hundred feet. This section of the atoll has resident schools of permit, horse-eyed jacks, blue runners, yellow jacks, ceros and snappers. At certain times, serious pelagic species such as tuna, wahoo and king mackerel move in to feed.
Not knowing what to expect, we were heavily gunned with 10- to 12-weight rods and sinking lines from 325 to 625 grains. We also had a huge selection of flies everything from Lefty’s Deceivers to Crease flies. In preparation for our visit, Turneffe Island Lodge had netted loads of sprats, a type of pilchard, and had ground and frozen them into chum blocks. The 25-foot converted dive boat proved perfect for our chumming operation: Three fly anglers each worked fly lines with different sink rates, which allowed us to discover a pattern of which species liked which fly line. The fastest sinking fly lines with big Half and Halfs found horse-eyed jacks, yellow jacks, blue runners and some of the bigger snappers. Intermediate fly lines and small Clouser Deep Minnow and Popovics Deep Candy flies scored heavily on cero, smaller king mackerel and barracuda.
When the water had just a hint of color and the current was strong, chumming with ground sprats called up hordes of swarming yellowtail snapper. Small poppers and blue-and-white Clousers fished on 7- and 8-weights worked well, but sometime during this bite Sarah switched to a Popovics Deep Candy tied in blue. The results were stunning. Every cast produced a hookup, with a following swarm of fish eagerly waiting for a dropped fly.
We also tried various live chumming techniques we picked up from Robert Trosset, a Key West master live-chum guide. Trosset told us that he believed the live chum was important to get the fish fired up. But, he said, even when live chumming you still need to maintain a frozen chum slick to bring and keep fish in the area. His techniques worked marvelously. The little schools of live sprats that hovered near our boat for safety fired up the ceros, kings, jacks, little tunnies and skipjack.
Live chum was easy to collect but harder to keep alive because the boat contained no portable aeration system for the livewell. Fortunately, we were always just a short boat ride away from more bait.
One of our favorite activities during the week was a predawn fishery for large kingfish that Eddie G., our primary guide, had told us about early in the trip. He described how the bigger king mackerel moved up from the depths just before sunrise and fed briefly without being attacked by other predators. We decided to forego sleep and be at the Elbow before sunrise. Our plan was to pull teasers with trolling gear and wait for a skyrocket. After two mornings of teaser attacks and slashed flies, the plan came together when a mackerel blitzed a teaser and then launched itself like a skipping stone with Sarah’s fly in its mouth.
After breaking the ice, we found the king action predictable. When the kings showed on the teaser, Eddie pulled the boat out of gear, and we cast our flies in the direction of the teasers. The strikes were immediate and spectacular. The flies that worked best were big double-hooked Deceivers and large poppers. We were most successful using 10- to 12-weight fly rods, wire bite tippets and intermediate fly lines. We saw some amazing strikes from big smoker kings, but landed fish only in the 15- to 20-pound range.
We were quite happy with the deepwater discoveries we made in Belize. One of the best aspects of our fishing was that it did not require a lot of additional equipment beyond what flats anglers would already be bringing along. To keep your nearshore options open, simply include an intermediate line for your bonefish rod and a fast-sinking line in the neighborhood of 450 grains for your permit rod. That, along with some sort of wire bite tippet and a collection of blue-and-white flies, will get you hooked up to just about anything that swims here.
OF PANCAKE FLATS AND PERMIT**
By Will Rice
Lincoln silently poled the boat through a narrow slot in the mangroves. Out of the wind, the lagoon was flat as molten pewter. On the far side of the lagoon, a tarpon rolled, then another. Another tarpon, maybe 30 pounds, rolled alongside the boat. It had the makings of a fisherman’s paradise, but we were just killing time, waiting for the tide to change so we could get back to the real business at hand trying to catch a permit.
We were in southern Belize, perhaps the best permit grounds in the world, and even rolling tarpon were not enough to keep us from visualizing that black sickle tail waving in the air. Permit fishing is the domain of the truly obsessed. A lot of very good fishermen, several of my friends among them, have put in weeks of fishing without landing a fish. I have spooked them, lined them, lost them in the coral and even committed the unforgivable sin of having a knot come undone. Not that mistakes are required permit are notorious for their refusals. But no other fish gets my adrenaline up like a big permit, and southern Belize is my favorite place to find them.
The permit flats begin north of Dangriga and continue south to Placentia. They lie about 10 miles offshore, between the world’s second longest barrier reef and a low smudge of mangrove cays that mark the edge of the inner ship’s channel. Belize has few of the broad, gently sloping sand flats characteristic of the Yucatan or the Florida Keys. Instead, a maze of pancake flats rises up from deep water like miniature atolls, complete with a surrounding reef of line-entangling coral. These flats may range in size from an acre or two to long sweeping curves a mile or more in length. The maritime chart warns of “badlands,” “foul ground” and “numerous patch reefs.”
At high tide the water on the flats is only thigh deep, but the permit move up on them to feed on the crabs and shrimp that live in these shallows. The bottom is hard and comprised of rubble, soft corals, sponges and enough other critters to create a vibrant ecosystem. Nurse sharks, spotted eagle rays and boxfish share the flats with permit. Because of the terrain, fishing for permit in Belize differs significantly from the techniques used in the Keys or the Yucatan. Fish on the flats are usually feeding, although they can still be flighty. The permit drop off the flats at low tide, so you fish by the tides, not the clock. Most are resident fish that frequent the same flats every day, and the better guides rest them enough to ensure the fish maintain that routine.
Because the flats are small, the fish can often be seen from the boat and then stalked on foot (be sure to bring hard-soled flats booties). This has two major advantages; first, you can tailor an approach that avoids casting into the ever-present wind, and second, you can get closer to the fish without spooking them. In these conditions accuracy is much more important than distance (although a long caster will definitely get more shots over the course of a week’s fishing). On the sandy flats of the Yucatan, the usual technique is to lead the fish and let the fly sit motionless on the bottom for the fish to find. That doesn’t work on the rough coral bottoms of Belize, where the fly usually ends up hidden by a sponge or fan coral. The most successful method is to delicately drop the fly in front of the fish’s nose and hope that he notices it diving for the bottom. Crab patterns that dive in a realistic fashion, like the Bauer Crab or Merkin, are particularly productive in this type of fishing. Mantis shrimp patterns, fished with short strips, have also proven effective.
Fighting the fish is more of a problem in Belize than other locations. A hooked fish will run off the flat, and it is essential to keep the line high enough out of the water to avoid wrapping the omnipresent coral heads (always carry a spare line). Once the fish is in deep water, the trick is to get back in the boat and try to keep the fish from running back up through the coral a second time. When there are two anglers, one will go with the guide to stalk the fish, while his partner follows, pulling the boat.
You have three fishing options in the area. Placentxia is a small tourist-oriented village with a variety of pleasant accommodations and experienced guides. A number of other activities are available here, including snorkeling, kayaking and jungle tours. Dangriga, at the northern edge of the permit grounds, is an intimidating town, but it has several lodges, including some very comfortable resorts in the surrounding area. For the dedicated permit fanatic, Lincoln Westby’s lodge, Blue Horizon, provides a comfortable but rustic home on Northeast Cay, right in the heart of the best fishing.
By Randall Bryett
Just about anywhere in the nation of Belize, it seems, you could easily target a grand slam of bonefish, permit and tarpon. However, various regions within the country are better than others for producing both quantity and quality of those three species. Most anglers agree that for big tarpon on the flats, Ambergris Caye is the place to start.
Just a short plane ride away from Belize City, Ambergris Caye houses two excellent lodges that cater specifically to fly-fishermen. The lodges are within a two-minute boat ride from each other, and the guides that serve both work basically the same stretches of water.
The most productive is an area known as Savannah Flats, a shallow lagoon of open expanses of water rimmed in the distance by numerous small cays. Famous for big tarpon, these flats are the reason most fishermen come to Ambergris. However, they are but a small portion of the total area available to visiting anglers. Deer Cay in the north, Long Key down south and the mainland in the west would be considered the extremes for a day’s fishing here. In this vast area, anglers can target tarpon, bonefish, permit, barracuda and more aboard pangalike fishing boats. The good ones are set up nicely for fly-fishing, and all have various custom touches that reflect the personality of their owner.
Our first stop in Ambergris was picturesque Journey’s End Resort. This is a magical spot, resplendent with a beautiful beach, waving palms and attentive staff who encourage you to do two things: relax and go barefoot. The grounds are swept immaculately each day to make that second request a pleasure. Both cabins and rooms at the resort are clean and comfortable, and the large pool and Jacuzzi are a wonderful treat after a long day on the flats. For those die-hard fishermen who are not sated by seven hours with the guides, the resort’s lagoon provides opportunities for bonefish, snook and small tarpon only steps from your room. Orvis recently endorsed Journey’s End, presenting it as a one-stop fishing and expedition adventure resort.
“Adventure” proved a good adjective to describe our fishing there, which began when our guide Ricardo pulled up in his panga and walked up the jetty in the pouring rain a recurring theme during our visit. Weather kept us off the Savannah Flats during our week and dictated that we target small tarpon, permit and barracuda in close to the mangrove-lined islands. We had our chances but were generally unsuccessful. To keep ourselves in practice, we spent the afternoons chasing bonefish in the shallow back lagoon of Ambergris, which proved a more reliable endeavor.
Next stop on our tour of Ambergris Caye was El Pescador Lodge, only a two-minute transfer away by boat. This place is steeped in history and serves as a fisherman’s home away from home. Down to the rod racks in your room, a stay here is focused only on piscatorial pursuits. Sure, Belizian ecotouring, diving and exploring are all at your disposal in this lodge, but most people who visit El Pescador are exactly the translation of the lodge’s name: the fisherman. Our guides were some of the best known in all of Belize, and they were eager to seek out whatever species we desired even in the pouring rain.