When I booked a week at Turneffe Flats for the end of May, I did it for one reason: Variety. Summer in Belize means spending a full day on the water and having dozens of shots at everything that swims. Tarpon, permit, and bonefish, all available on most every stage of tide and time of day. It sounded like heaven to me, and it was.
A couple weeks removed from my trip, I have decided that rather than summarizing each day (which all blur together in my memory), I would write about each of the major species I encountered on Turneffe. I spent hours chasing each of the big three (tarpon, bonefish, and permit), and with that comes a treasure trove of stories I have collected, most ending with a blown cast or spooked fish. But in a few cases, I succeeded, and in some others, failed spectacularly. Those are the stories I want to tell.
We cut the motor as the dolphin skiff floated into water only inches deep. We had arrived at a long flat on the south-eastern side of Turneffe Atoll with a singular plan: Strap on our wading boots, and cover a mile of rubble and turtle grass in search of bonefish.
As we hopped into the lukewarm water of the flat, our guide pointed out toward a distant ridge of exposed, dead coral. Twinkling, glittering, flashing pin-points of white light danced there in the lee of the rubble. Bonefish. Dorsal fins and tails out of the water, each movement of the fish caught the Caribbean sun and reflected it toward the three of us.
We waded out toward the rubble ridge, climbing onto the exposed coral. The wind blew steadily out of the east, and out goal was to hide among the coral and use the wind to lay out long, gentle casts to the finning school. The water within the rubble was alive with small snappers, crabs, and minnows, scattering with each new step.
I never made it to the large school of bonefish we spotted from the boat. A smaller school of bonefish appeared from the ether, tails and dorsal fins swaying in wind like tiny sailboats. I crouched, creeping off the exposed coral until I was standing in a few inches of water. The fins continued swaying, and the water at my feet was cool: Caribbean water that was sweeping over the coral with each new wave.
My first cast landed short. I stripped in the fly quickly and steadily, and delivered another cast. The shot was poor, and my fly line landed too close to the edge of school. The fish exploded in a sudden, synchronized splash, and I cursed quietly into the breeze. The fish settled again, dancing fins and tails, and I stripped in my fly.
I needed to make a better cast, keeping the end of the fly line away from the school, and drop my small fly into the center. Still crouched, I cast again, shooting the fly line out 60 feet. The leader unrolled, and the fly landed with a plop between the dozens of flashing sails.
A startled ripple reverberated through the school, but not the shockwave from my earlier cast. The fly sank down among the fish, and I did not move it. The waves crashed onto the coral, the cool water pulsing by my feet, and I continued to crouch motionless.
After a minute of waiting, I made my first strip: A gentle, slow tug of the line that moved the fly a half inch. Nothing. Another slow strip, moving the fly a half inch. Nothing. I waited.
The fly line began to straighten, slowly at first. I made a third, slow and firm strip. The line grew suddenly heavy as I felt the fish, and the fish felt me. The placid water exploded into a froth, the entire school fleeing out into the turtle grass flat. The fly line shot between my fingers and through the guides, the line cleaving the surface of the water with a loud rip. It was a good bonefish.
I thrust my rod skyward, the leader somewhat protected now from the sharp and scattered coral, and chased after the fish in a splashing sprint. The handle of my fly reel whipped through the air, the drag ringing out across the flat. I fought the fish up and down the flat, through scattered coral and debris, and once as the fish attempted to crest the coral rubble ridge in a desperate sprint. The hook held, the leader (though nicked) was intact, and after a few minutes of work, a beautiful emerald and silver bonefish came to hand.
I held the fish, a firm and muscular animal, in my hand, marveling at the electric blue of its fins and the turtle grass camouflage of its back. The fish gulped water, exhausted from the fight, and I slipped the tiny fly from its lip. I slipped my hand back to the animal’s tail, and held it loosely. It began to kick its tail, its body writhing side to side, and I released it. It swam away slowly and calmly towards the turtle grass of the inner flat and within seconds was gone, hidden by the glare of the Belizean sun.
We caught many more bonefish that day, but the smile on my face from that first bonefish never faded.