I just got back from a week in Belize. While it was a spur of the moment trip (a friend had already paid for lodging and the guide service and gave me a last-minute invite), I had the opportunity to chase the big three (tarpon, permit, and bonefish) as well as barracuda and snook.
My friend had booked 4 days of fishing with Lori Ann Murphy‘s company (unsure if it is going by Reel Belize or Reel Women). Lori has fished with Tom Brokaw and Michael Keaton among others, and is a bit of a fly fishing celebrity. We spent the first day with Lori and her understudy, Jason, and the next three days with only Jason. Lori bubbled with enthusiasm and knowledge, and spending a day with her would build anyone’s confidence.
My buddy was new to fly fishing, and while he had formal training at a school in the Florida Keys, he had never thrown a fly to a fish. Our first day started with sun and light winds (perfect conditions), with my friend throwing a small weedless shrimp fly to tailing bonefish. The bones were tough – you had to land the fly practically on their head for them to see it. Jason poled the boat while Lori coached casting, the retrieve, and fish spotting. After an hour of throwing to the fish, my buddy finally connected with his first ever fly rod fish – a small banana-sized bonefish. Lori whooped out “Bony Baloney!!!” as the line came tight, and after a surprisingly strong fight, the fish was in hand.
Now it was my turn. With fish still tailing, I started plinking the same shrimp pattern around the tailers. After about 15 minutes of missing the mark by inches (and sometimes feet) my line went tight, and a small bonefish shot off the flat. After a few runs, I brought the fish to hand. Seeing my first bonefish up close, I was blown away. While they are silver, the back was a tiger-striped iridescent green, and the edges of the fins glowed a deep, electic blue in the water. A beautiful fish.
As my friend stepped back up to the bow, the fish were no longer on the flat. Without tailing fish, Jason poled up the slightly deeper channel by the side of the flat, and we blind cast into the darker water. This worked like a charm, and both my friend and I caught bonefish this way.
We left that flat, and went to another that looked promising. As before, we were on a sand flat interspersed with small mangrove clumps, but our shots this time were at cruising fish. We both managed to pick up another bonefish, with mine maxing out at about 14″, and still almost taking me into my backing.
After that, we heading out into deeper water, and Jason used his eagle-eyes to pick out a massive school (think dozens of bonefish) mudding. This scenario is one reason why Belize is such a great place to catch your first bonefish – you can blind cast successfully to large schools of juvenile bonefish. The muds look like slightly cloudier water, and they aren’t easy to spot.
For my buddy and I, we would boom out a cast (still on floating lines) and give the fly about 20 seconds to sink. At that point, we would strip the fly back to the boat. Using this technique, we boated another few bonefish.
With our last couple hours, we went wade fishing. More challenging than fishing from the panga (due to the challenge of sighting fish at a lower angle), I managed both a bonefish and a small barracuda. My friend had a shot at a pair of fish, but failed to get an eat.
With Lori gone, we were left in Jason’s hands. Jason is a third generation bonefish guide, and at 24, he’s a bit of a ball-buster. That said, he was a passionate guide and fly fisher, and did a great job putting us on fish and coaching us through each cast and retrieve.
Day 2 saw strong winds and lots of clouds, and our morning shots at tailing fish were not productive. With no sunlight, we couldn’t spot cruising fish either until they were within 20 feet of the panga. We kept trying, and wandered into a backcountry bay where Jason picked up a group of mudding fish (luckily for us). A few casts later both my buddy and I had a couple nice 14″ bonefish to show for our efforts.
Given the lack of fish available for sight casting and the lack of sun, we headed back out to the open water muds of the day before, and caught 30-40 fish (mostly bonefish, along with a few snapper and juvenile amberjack). At times it was a fish every cast, with the largest going around 12″ in length.
Heavy rains, thick clouds, and high winds. Not good.
We spent the morning looking for tarpon and snook in the mangrove creeks of southern Ambergris Caye without any success, outside a single follow from a small barracuda. We also went out into pounding waves and rain, and tried a few open water tarpon spots, again without any love. Three hours in and shivering from the cold, we called it a day.
Who knew Belize could get that miserable.
I once heard fly tier Dave Skok call permit a dishonest fish. It’s true.
With great weather in the forecast, we headed north in search of dishonest Belizean permit. After an hour ride, Jason set us up at what he called his “permit honey-hole”, anchoring off the sunken remains of a concrete house and coral patch reef. The spot did not disappoint: For the next five hours, we sight-cast to cruising permit in the 5lb to 20lb size class, going through two dozen fly changes and probably 100 casts.
The best moments:
- Up first, I cast a large mantis shrimp pattern to the lead permit in a pod of three. On my second strip, I came tight. I stripped again to set the hook…and the tension was gone. From the poling platform, Jason hollered, “He kissed the fly, mon! He kissed dat fly!” Dammit.
- My friend, casting a small light shrimp pattern, threw to a larger pod of about eight permit. Two fish turned toward his fly aggressively, and as they closed in, a tiny lane snapper darted out and ate it, and the permit turned away. Dammit.
- A school of about 20 (small) permit cruised to within 30 feet of the panga, and began rolling on the sea floor, flashing irridescent blue. I cast into them dozens of times, trying every retrieve I could think of. Being proper permit, they ignored everything I did. Dammit.
With our confidence eroded, we left the permit to chase bonefish nearby. At that point, it had become cloudy, and the wind had picked up to 20 knots. We spotted bonefish, but always right as the panga spooked them. We eventually anchored off a bar/restaurant (from which we purchased confidence-building Belikin beer), and where deep water swirled with a moderate current. Up first, I cast a small shrimp pattern out as far as I could, and after letting it sink for 30 seconds, stripped it back. On the second strip, I came tight to a nice bonefish, which immediately ran straight at the panga. The fish put on its afterburners as it went by, taking me into my first fifty feet of backing. I fought the fish back to the boat, and after getting fly line on the reel, it made a second run. More backing melted from the reel as a crowd of onlookers from the bar watched. After a few more minutes, I landed the fish.
It was a gorgeous, fat 3-4 lb bonefish, around 20″ long. After a few pictures, we slid the fish back into the water.
We tried for more bonefish in the same spot, but without success after a large barracuda moved into the area.
We ended the day back in the south of Ambergris Caye, throwing tarpon toads in the mangroves for snook and tarpon, and catching nothing.
Guideless, we took a resort-owned boat to a resort-owned private beach and spent the day casting to large cruising bonefish and barracuda. The weather was less than ideal initially, with clouds darkening the water each time we spotted a fish. We both managed a few shots to bonefish, but each fish spooked as soon as the fly hit the water.
We walked down the beach to an area of jagged limestone outcroppings, and my buddy proceeded to blind cast and hook a couple small barracuda.
I took over the fishing duties next, and spotted a two footer hanging in an eddy by shore. I throw a large clouser minnow to one side of the fish, and stripped the fly so that it angled away from him. The cuda lit up and exploded on the fly, and I fought him for the next two minutes before he jumped and threw the hook.
At 5PM the ferry-boat returned, and we left to return to the resort.
Snorkeling with our girlfriends. If you fish Belize, make sure you take at least a day to snorkel the reef. I’ve never seen anything like it. As this is a fishing blog, I won’t go into detail, but will say it was on par with the fly fishing.
The day we had to fly home, my friend and I woke up early to try for tarpon and snook at the resort lagoon and canals.
We did not see any fish rolling (though we had seen tarpon rolling the morning before), and while keeping an eye out for the big saltwater crocodiles that live there, we worked the shorelines with gurglers and a rabbit strip fly. When it was my turn at the rod, I hooked up to a small dark fish (maybe 14″) that threw the hook after a short fight. Once the sun got high, and the lack of clouds had us sweating, we tried one more spot in the corner of the bay, shaded by mangroves. On my first cast, I hooked up to a strong fish that ran out from shore and away from the mangroves (so lucky). I saw it was a large snook when it leapt from the water, shaking its head and pulling line from the reel.
Letting out whoops of joy, we landed the fish, and after a couple of photos, released it. Easily my personal best snook, it was around 28″ and 6-8 lb in weight.
A few hours later, we were flying away from Ambergris Caye over the emerald waters of Belize.