Tarponators of Belize
Story & photos by Barnaby Conrad III
“Permit,” said Mambo. “Three o’clock.”
We stood on a coral flat ten miles off the coast of Belize, staring into the shallow water. The guide’s dark hand pointed to the glassy surf caressing the edge of the flat. “Twenty pound,” said the guide. “Nice fish. Forty yards. Left of that dark coral patch.”
I nervously stripped line off my eight-weight rod and crouched in the knee-deep water. “Still don’t see him.”
Sharp-eyed Mambo was just ten feet back, holding the bow of the skiff. We’d seen two schools and three pairs of permit that day, taken good shots at all of them, but no fish had gone for the fly.
“He’s coming at you now. Thirty yards.”
I’d been up since five and the blinding sun had cooked my vision. Then the big fish’s tail fin flashed in the sun. The black V of his tail poked through the surface as he tipped down, searching for real crabs on the crunchy bone-colored bottom. “I see him.”
“Put the crab right on his head,” said Mambo.
Just one nervous, wobbly false cast and the crab-shaped fly dropped on the target, but at the last second the permit’s shadowy profile veered left. He’d missed my offering.
I humbly flicked my green-backed crab fly just a foot from his nose.
“He’s going to take it,” whispered Mambo.
Instead the fish turned away casually, like an overfed guest at a cocktail party and drifted into the deeper surf.
It had been like this all week: good shots at permit every day, but no luck. My five fishing buddies and I agreed that this area, just east of Placencia, Belize, was one of the most prolific permit fisheries in the world. A number of records had been caught here and the fish were everywhere. But they weren’t picking up our flies.
Except one: Dick, the neophyte in our group, a trout fishing restaurateur from San Francisco who had never fished saltwater flats, somehow managed to land a twelve-pounder on the first day. This had augured well, but four days into this trip nobody, not even our best fisherman, Joe, who had caught over sixty permit in his lifetime, could hook one of the silver ghosts.
“That fish is back,” said Mambo touching my elbow. “See his tail? Cast again.”
Now my heart was pumping. The permit’s fin was slowly coming right at me, twenty yards away. Even as my moving rod caught the sun’s harsh glare, the fish also saw the flash, spooked, and vanished. Mambo let out a sigh. “He’s gone.”
At sunset we made the short run back to Robert’s Caye, a one-acre man-made island ten miles off the coast of Belize. With its four cottages on stilts and fledgling palm trees, it looks like a bonsai-ed version of Gilligan’s Island. I thanked Mambo for the fine day, dropped my reels in a bucket of fresh water, and went in to take a cold shower; no hot water out here on the island. No obligation to shave. We had the island to ourselves.
Then I trudged over to the bar and Benjie the manager poured me a glass of One Barrel Rum—the local brand—with tonic and a lime. “Put another inch of rum in there, please.” My ears and neck were vengefully sunburnt. I didn’t dwell on my failures as a fisherman, which is to say, as a man trying to conjure finned glory with prayer and a nine-foot graphite wand. In spite of the lack of fish, I was enjoying myself immensely. I was sharing the unspoiled bounty of Belize with five Bay Area friends who I’d fished with a half-dozen times before, from Oregon to the Yucatan. A wine maker, two restauranteurs, an architect, and a real estate broker who had once owned a fishing lodge in the Yucatan. The common thread was fishing, but all of us were into jazz, serious fiction, and humor, which meant that rum-fueled blarney filled our evenings. All we did out here on this island was fish, drink rum, and tell stories. “…And that, my friends, is why I gave up the lovely French countess in her rundown château to fish for peacock bass in the Amazon.” There was no Wi-Fi or cell phone connection out here. Only six strangers interrupted our week on the island. One day, we came back at lunch to find four large black men in sunglasses sitting around the bar. They were tax collectors, just checking on things over a beer, making sure there were no illegal Hondurans working off the books. Then a honeymoon couple from the mainland stopped by for a drink and we drove them off with our grizzled looks and oddly personal jokes. Only catching fish would civilize us, it seemed.
The other boats motored in that evening and soon my fishing gang bellied up to the bar. Though there is always a jocular competitiveness in our group, there was no schadenfreude and I hoped that at least one of my friends had caught something. Sadly, no immodest grins showed on their sunburnt faces; permit can be fickle and cruel. Rum flowed, easing aching legs or strained casting arms. There was fish chatter. Last week there was a full moon, a time of heavy feeding. Were the fish now on a diet? The conscientious guides had roused us early to the flats and changed flies constantly: slow-sinking light-brown crab fly on a shallow flat, then smaller but heavier green-bodied fly with brass eyes in the deep, and so forth. Joe had even kidnapped small live crabs and used them as models to tie a new fly pattern. Nothing worked. We had collectively encountered hundreds of permit and no one except Dick, our beginner, had landed one. Words liked “jinxed” surfaced in conversation. It was all the more surreal, because last year—in a different tide and moon cycle—we’d done very well in these same waters.
Mambo joined us for a drink at the table, but chastely nursed a Coke. “In training,” he said, his grin displaying the six or seven teeth still left in his 50-ish mouth. I asked him about barracuda; we’d spotted plenty on the flats. “I seen barracuda eight feet long slash a permit in half.” Years before, he said, one of his cousin’s caught and cooked a barracuda that was infected with that weird disease carried by certain fish which eat contaminated coral. His cousin’s hair fell out and he sustained brain damage. “I only ate a little,” said Mambo, “so I just got a little sick.” Perhaps that explained the teeth and the goatee and hair that made him look a bit like John The Baptist. But Mambo was full of stories of fishing and the sea.
There were also cautionary tales. “You don’t want to pick up plastic-wrapped packages floating in the mangroves, “said Mambo. “Might be the white grouper.”
“Lost bag of drugs. Guy I knew found one and pretty soon he had a new truck. Later he had some visitors to his house and they took the truck. He had to leave town for three years. No, you don’t want to mess with the white grouper.”
“Mambo, I’ve been doing some thinking, “said Doug. “I need to catch a fish. It’s time to switch from permit to tarpon. What do you think?”
“I understand a man’s need to catch a fish, Dougie Fresh.” Sometime earlier in the week, Doug had taken on this rap singer’s nomicker as a nickname, much to the amusement of the guides. “Tarpon could be good tomorrow morning around five o’clock,” said Mambo, who’s real name was Alfred.
“Run sixty to hundred pound. Sometimes bigger. You have Bimini twist leaders?”
Okay, mon. Bring your twelve-weight rod, gummy minnow fly and cockroach fly.”
“Let’s rip some lips, Mambo.”
“We’ll surely be doing that, Dougie Fresh.”
That night I lay in bed reading a guidebook to Belize rather than Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. The guidebook seemed sexier, or at least the idea of Belize did. Located between Mexico and Guatemala, it is the size of New Jersey with a population of just 300,000; happily its rain forests and empty beaches sport no turnpikes or industrial waste dumps. The jungles hold shy jaguars and gaudy toucans while crocodiles and manatees claim the rivers. Formerly known as British Honduras. the country’s official language is English. The towns are small and the people are folksy and friendly. While tourism is growing, and new condo developments spring from the coastal jungle, Belize is still a far cry from the crowded beaches of jaded Cancun. It is the heart of the Mayan world, with ancient sites like Caracol, Tikal, and dozens of others lie within three hours’ drive of Placencia.
But the hardcore tarpon or permit fisherman wants to be out here on Robert’s Caye, in the middle of the fishing grounds. This tiny island is owned by The Inn at Robert’s Grove (www.robertsgrove.com), a laid-back resort in Placencia. While Belize does offer some luxurious boutique hotels my island cabin was a clean shack with a cold water shower and a deck overlooking the water. To me it was grand. Why? Because our tiny island was surrounded by turquoise water filled with sunbleached conch shells and bait-chasing jacks. While roaming the nearby flats on foot, we saw spotted eagle rays and sand sharks. Overhead the ospreys and frigate birds glided through the blue sky as they had for millions of years. Everything in the water air or water was catching fish, except us. We had caught many fish here before and we would do it again, if not this year then next. In any case, only the prospect of fishing makes waking up at dawn a pleasure.
The next morning the two tarpon fishermen in our group, Doug and I, put down our coffee cups at four-thirty a.m. and stepped into Mambo’s skiff. Ten minutes later, we chugged quietly into the lagoon of a nearby island. Mambo shut off the engine and dropped anchor. The rising sun silhouetted the squawking pelicans nesting in the mangrove branches. Millions of baitfish spilled in from the channel; the pelicans suddenly flapped from their perches and dive-bombed them. Tarpon rolled on the surface, snarfing up the baitfish. Doug was on deck first, stripping off line. He began to cast. You could hear the heavy twelve-weight line whistle through the air as he laid out forty yards and let the fly sink. “How fast should I retrieve it?” he asked.
Mambo replied, “Medium but inspirationally.”
On the second cast Doug suddenly grunted, “I got him.”
Line screeched off his reel as a five-foot long, sixty-pound silver and gold tarpon exploded ten feet into the air above the lagoon, scattering pelicans and leaping baitfish. It was like watching a Nike missile break-dancing on crack. Shaking his bulldog jaws and rattling his gill plates the tarpon flashed his stuff in the rays of the rising sun. Eight, nine gyrating leaps and many runs used up a half-hour of our lives in grand fashion. Finally, the fish came into the boat, posed for a bragadocious photo with his grinning middle-aged dancing partner, and was released.
That evening it was my turn. Just as the sun was setting behind nearby Moho Island, I hooked a big tarpon in the lagoon. The fish jumped six times and ran to deep water. “How big?” I asked.
“Maybe eighty pound.” For thirty-three minutes that tarpon burned the tendons of my forearm as the rod bowed. “He’s almost in,” said Mambo. “Two, three minutes more.” Then the line went limp. I reeled in to find he’d bent the hook. Elvis had left the lagoon.
Back at Robert’s Caye I ordered a rum and tonic and a bag of ice for my sore arm. I wasn’t sad about the tarpon. It had been a great fight and the fish would have been released anyway. My fishing cronies arrived sunburned and parched from a long day on the bright water. All of them had taken shots at good fish, but only one digital camera bore an image of a captured permit. Yet all of these guys looked younger and happier than when they arrived a week ago. Belize had done wonders for us. “Hey, Tarponator, what’s wrong with your arm? Been hoisting the rum bottle too much?” Soon they were making plans for next year’s trip.
SIDEBAR: WHERE TO STAY
Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures (www.yellowdogflyfishing.com, (406) 585-8667) based in Bozeman offers an all-inclusive package for Robert’s Caye for approximately $3,700 per person. This is hardcore fishing, from dawn to dusk with a break for lunch and a siesta. The food is simple (bring your own wine), but the local guides are dedicated, charming and know their business. Yellow Dog also offers other Belizean fishing adventures. El Pescador (www.elpescador.com) on Ambergis Caye has fishing packages for $3000 per angler. Just a fifteen-minute plane ride from Belize City, the island’s flats are superb for sight-fishing tarpon, which run 20 to 200 pounds. Turneffe Island Atoll—30 miles from the mainland— is home to Turneffe Flats Lodge (www.tflats.com) which offers packages at $3500-$4000 per person depending on the time of year. This is an excellent spot to score a Grand Slam of tarpon, permit and bonefish. In the Punta Gorda region Machaca Hill (www.machacahill.com) offers 12 thatched cabanas nestled in the jungle overlooking the Rio Grande River. This is a prime permit fishery, but the lodge also caters to eco-tourism. (Fishing packages for $3,000 per week.) For a vacation that mixes occasional fishing with relaxing on the beach, try Francis Ford Coppola’s luxurious Turtle Inn (www.blacaneaux.com), a favorite with honeymooners. The film legend also owns two other lodges in the mountains which are convenient for visiting Mayan ruins. The Lodge at Chaa Creek (www.chaacreek.com) on 365 acres of private nature preserve is a rustic getaway for river canoeing and riding horseback through the jungle.
Barnaby Conrad III, a former Editor-at-Large at Forbes Life, has written ten books of non-fiction including Absinthe: History in a Bottle (1988), The Martini (1995), and The Cigar (1996). After living in Paris for five years, he wrote an acclaimed on-the-road memoir Ghost Hunting In Montana (1994), followed by PAN AM: An Aviation Legend (2000), which was reprinted in 2013. Born in San Francisco, Mr. Conrad graduated with a B.A. in Fine Arts from Yale University. He was a founding editor of Art World newspaper in New York, served as senior editor of Horizon, and has written monographs on many twentieth century artists. His articles have appeared in Town & Country, GQ, Forbes, Sports Illustrated, London Sunday Times, and Smithsonian. An avid skier, scuba diver, bicyclist, museum-goer, and fly fisherman, he is a member of the Anglers Club of New York. He and his family live on a farm near Accomac, Virginia.