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Novice Fly Fishers in Belize

(Reprinted from Fly Fishing In Saltwaters magazine)


Written by: Bruce Goodman

The two tarpon were “laid-up” in about two-and-a-half-feet of water over a white marl bottom. They were just lying there, both 5 to 6 feet long, like a couple of logs suspended about a foot off the bottom. In the bow of the flats skiff was a novice flyfisherman with an eleven weight rod in his hand and lots of perspiration on his face. Only about 35 feet separated the fish and the fisherman. The wind was light and coming from behind the caster, an easy cast for any flyfisherman. However, this flyfisherman wasn’t “any” flyfisherman.

Until two days ago, the caster had never in his life caught a fish of any kind. He hadn’t even known what a fly rod was before his first casting lesson about 48 hours ago. Yesterday he had caught his first bonefish on a fly. Now he was in a position to attempt what many would consider the ultimate flyfishing experience. In the rear of the boat, his guide held the push pole. At his left shoulder his partner, an experienced saltwater flyfisherman, was marveling at this opportunity while secretly hoping that his friend could find a way to experience the thrill of watching that big fish open his maw and inhale that little fly Both men held their breath as the caster began his attempt to get the fly in front of the lead fish. The first cast falls short – the second, short and to the right. The fish don’t move; they seem determined to give the man every opportunity he needs.

Finally, on the fifth attempt, everything lines up just right and the fly drops about 18 inches in front of the lead tarpons nose. The body of the big fish tenses noticeably as it studies the fly. If that fly moves at all, the fish seems ready to attack it. Breathless, the fishermans partner barely whispers the instruction “strip, strip”! The fisherman replies, “I am,” but the fly remains motionless. A few seconds later, the fish move slowly away.

The light wind had been pushing the boat toward the fish. Our guide was afraid to stop it fearing that the light chop would slap the side of the boat and alert the tarpon. Maybe someone who had been in this situation before would have sensed what was happening and given the line a longer strip. Maybe. But our novice flycaster was only familiar with a short bonefish “strip.” He had no way of knowing that pulling eight inches of fly line through the guides on his rod could have created an explosion in the water. An explosion he would never forget. We were fishing just off the coast of Belize about ninety minutes by boat from Belize City, but only minutes from the 58 foot motor yacht that was our “floating home” for the trip. “We” consisted of four sales execs who had just completed the finest year in company history. To celebrate, we decided to pursue an adventure far from the norm – to use the mothership concept to fish and explore the waters of offshore Belize.

One member of our group was an experienced saltwater flyfisherman and, for years, we’d been hearing his descriptions of his previous mothership trips. Even though the rest of us didn’t know the difference between a broomstick and a fly rod, the lure of the unusual coupled with the exciting possibilities created by photos and video tapes convinced us to make the trip. We met in Houston for the two hour and twenty minute flight to Belize City. Our hosts met us at the airport and transported us and our baggage to the docks and our waiting mothership, the Cristina.

Our crew of three is captained by Charles. An articulate Belizian native in his early 40s, he grew up sailing and fishing on these beautiful waters (his father was in charge of maintaining lighthouses off the coast). Though affable, Charles is all business about maintaining the Cristina. The first mate, Pedro, is a man of wisdom after years of working the water. He is patient with the “rookies” he is hired to coach, and quick to laugh good-naturedly with them. Alex, who doubles as a do-it-all housekeeper and our private chef, makes sure the beds are made and the bathrooms cleaned while we are out attempting to make history on the flats. His principal job is to make sure we don’t go hungry. He succeeds without a problem and the quality exceeds our expectations. Trailing the Cristina by ropes are a pair of 23′ flats skiffs, from which we will pursue bonefish, permit, tarpon, snook, barracuda, jacks, etc. During our daily (and nightly) expeditions they are manned by Charles and Pedro. These two men are signed up to make this a week of fishing we will never forget.

One of us – noted for his propensity for seasickness – has no trouble at all. After a few days, all of us are beginning to feel that being on the boat is almost like being at home – except that we are being waited on every moment of the day. Our first night we anchor about 12 miles north of Belize City near a cluster of mangrove islands called Hicks Cays. The first day starts with flycasting lessons for the novices. Following training, we are released on the flats to practice our casting on bonefish. It’s not as easy as it appeared to get the fly in the path of a feeding fish. The water is shallow (6-12 inches) and the fish are easy to see. Often, they are very close. Even though we get dozens of “easy” shots at bonefish (and a few snook close to the mangroves), we head to the Cristina for a lunch break without any of the rookies enjoying their first success.

We were never more than five minutes from the big boat the entire morning so the ride to lunch is a short one. After some nourishment and cold drinks, we relax in the refreshing, air-conditioned cabin rekindling our spirits. That afternoon has two of our “trainees” score their first bonefish. It is exhilarating for them to experience the speed of the bonefish as it raced across the flat with the reel spinning and whirring. We head back to the Cristina during a spectacular orange sunset. Our day ends with a late dinner (Alex serves whenever we ask), as we swap the day’s stories.

The next day and a half we remain in the same area. More bonefish were taken and released. Barracuda were plentiful. A snook was pulled from the edges of the mangroves and Charles located a concentration of tarpon on a large flat. Our experienced caster had a “silver king” of about 70 pounds throw his fly after three spectacular leaps. Later, he boated and released one of about the same size following a grueling hour long battle. Our last morning in that area, a tarpon almost six feet long was caught and released by the same “lucky” flyfisherman.

During all this action we saw only one other fisherman. One of the advantages of fishing from a mothership is that it provides you the freedom to fish areas not accessible to land-based sportsmen. We could fish anywhere the mothership could take us. During our trip, Charles piloted the Cristina to some of the most remote and unspoiled areas of Belize.

Fish were plentiful and the giant tarpon a real bonus in the area we spent our first two-and-a-half days. We probably could have stayed in the same general vicinity with continued success. However, we had decided we wanted to experience different areas and fishing environments. Following lunch on our third day, we revved up the Cristina for a 2-hour voyage to the pristine Turneff Islands. We all enjoyed the time in different ways. A couple of us sat up top and chatted in the deep sea fishing chairs. (We also had the opportunity to fish the blue water if we’d wanted to spend the time). Sprawled out on the couch, another listens to music. The fourth member of our party peacefully read a book.

The Turneff Islands. These islands are on the short list of places most often mistaken for Paradise. Gorgeous, unspoiled coastline, largely uninhabited, this is our playground for the next couple of days. Everyone privately ponders a strategy to have a second home here.

The first evening in the Turneffs is memorable. We go night fishing for tarpon and jacks at a special place famous for the action “after hours.” The pitch black sky is illuminated by more stars than I have ever seen – an astronomers dream. But our attention is focused on what lurks below.

Night fishing is a unique experience. It’s totally captivating to hear the fish working the surface without being able to see them. We’re fishing with poppers so in addition to the feeding fish, we can hear the constant plop, plop as we retrieve them. One of our “rookies” hooks a tarpon and is spooled before he can slow it down. In a spirited two hour session, we pull in some healthy-sized jacks.

The mothership provides great night fishing opportunities because you are living in the area you fish. When we finally tire of casting into the blackness, the Cristina is just five minutes away, with dinner waiting. A great meal and a little poker with the crew (Pedro wins) caps off a great day. Time moves wonderfully slow on the water. The Cristina is large and comfortable and the waters calm enough that we sleep soundly the entire trip. Except for the cruise across open ocean to the Turneffs, we are in protected waters behind reef systems and small islands.

The following day, Charles leads us to more bonefish than I have seen the entire week. Within 20 minutes, my partner lands a huge bonefish that takes him on a wild chase between branches and under mangrove roots. The rod was even pulled out of the boat for an instant while line is untangled from around a mangrove shoot. A great battle. Later, I manage to pull in my personal record bonefish from a highly concentrated school. The day includes many bonefish, a few good shots at permit, stalking a school of tarpon for an hour, and wraps up with another night fishing session. Our guides really earn their tip this day. Other activities were available on our trip. With snorkeling equipment on board, we had planned to spend some time viewing the untouched water vistas along the second largest barrier reef in the world (the reef starts up the coast near Cancun, Mexico and extends south beyond Belize). We also had planned to do some exploring and beachcombing. However, captured by the excitement of sight fishing with a fly rod, we left the other options for another time.

The following day we make our way back to the U.S. True to form, the ship’s crew takes care of all the final details in returning us to Belize City to begin the trek back home. I succeed in lifting my finger for only two reasons the entire week: to cast a fly rod and to put food in my mouth. The ship’s crew wouldn’t have it any other way.

The mothership is a home on water that transports you to an exciting realm of fishing opportunities. Your backyard literally becomes the fishing grounds and your schedule is built around the opportunities. You can fish whenever and wherever you want (within the range of your particular mothership). You have the freedom to make virtually all the decisions, with counsel from an experienced captain. And, living on the water provides a relaxing environment to help you melt away the concerns of everyday life.

Motherships come in different sizes and comfort levels with accompanying price ranges. The Cristina is a luxurious 58′ Hatteras motor yacht and she is the “top of the line” as far as Belize motherships are concerned. There are other smaller, more economical motherships which provide a quality air-conditioned experience with a seasoned captain/guide in charge.

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