It never ceases to amaze me how many fantastic flyfishing destinations exist so close to my Colorado home. A short two-hour flight from Houston had our group of six anglers touching down in Belize City, Central America. No jet lag here as Belize is in our very own Mountain Time Zone. Belize International Airport is a small, efficient and clean facility. Moments after stepping off our flights and into the summer heat, we were greeted by our host, guide and captain extraordinaire, Martin Mc Cord. After a short twenty-minute ride in our air-conditioned van, we unloaded our gear at the dock and met the English speaking crews of our two liveaboard boats.
After a long tenure as a top Belize River Lodge guide and liveaboard captain, Martin stepped down to build, by his own hands, the Meca. He named our floating home for his wife. This sturdy, forty-two foot mothership was built by a serious angler for use by like-minded individuals. The Meca is spacious, well designed and comfortable with two air-conditioned staterooms that each sleeps two anglers. A second guide serves as Martin's first mate. Carol, a wonderfully charming, Rubenesque Belizean woman, serves as the Meca's chef and turns out some truly fantastic meals. Four of our party settled in on the Meca while the remaining two members of our group boarded the smaller 32' vessel named the Seaduction.
While Martin also owns the Seaduction, this boat is crewed by a husband and wife team. Charles Westby serves as the boat's captain and also guides the two anglers aboard. His wife does all the cooking. Each night, in the lee of a remote island, our two ships anchored along side each other. We moored just out of the range of mosquitos. A steady breeze (and a little bug spray) kept the pesky critters at bay during the critical dusk and dawn hours. Both yachts towed specialized, light weight, 23' fly fishing friendly pangas equipped with large casting decks and poling platforms. These boats are easily poled over shallow flats. They provide two anglers with enough space to keep from stepping all over each other and they take significant blue water in stride. It is no wonder they are so widely used in this part of the world.
On day one, a leisurely two hour cruise from Belize City brought us to Long Key just as the sunlight began to fade. This was our first stop on our week long voyage around the islands and cayes of central Belize. This part of Belize is one of the best places in the world to pull off a coveted Grand Slam. Bonefish, permit, and tarpon all frequent the flats, channels, creeks and bays that surround the many mangrove islands of this part of Belize. But on this trip, our stated purpose was permit and permit only. Our goal, at least initially, was to suffer the failures and court the brain damage that comes from the dedicated pursuit of permit on a fly. How long our intentions would last was anyone's guess. Maybe the rum bottle could serve as our barometer. If the level went down too fast and a certain vacant look began to appear in our angler's bloodshot eyes, perhaps it would then be time to abandon the quest. But at least for today, our goals were lofty and our resolve firm. And why not... Martin is considered one of the top permit guides in Belize and he knows the haunts of the permit like he knows the lines of the Meca.
Martin's fishing program is designed for the hardcore angler. Each day, regardless of the weather, we were in the boats at 6:00 AM. Since a liveaboard yacht eliminates the long runs to the flats that one comes to expect from land-based lodges, we were almost always fishing shortly after leaving the Meca. The longest run we made during our week was 10 minutes! The morning fishing session concluded around 9:00 AM and then it was back to the mothership for a delicious breakfast. After an hour break, we were back in the pangas. This was the period of optimal light and generally our most productive time as seeing fish usually precedes hooking them. Lunch was served at 2:00 PM. A 2-hour nap followed and served to refresh our bodies and avoid the worst of the day's heat. At 4:00 PM, we would head back out for the evening session. Most days we fished until the full moon climbed high in the evening sky. You must see the shimmering, moonlit flanks of a jumping tarpon to really appreciate the advantages liveaboard trips have over land based lodges! By the time dinner was finished, it was nearly 10:00 PM and you were either nearly asleep at the table or heading off in a daze to your refrigerated sleeping quarters.
As the days wore blissfully on, "The Reality" began to sink in. "The Reality" is that very few anglers have the patience, perseverance and tolerance for the very limited success that is part and parcel of permit fishing. Our group had these qualities for sure, but when wind and rain ruled the first few days of our trip, we were forced to adapt (or visit that rum bottle a bit too often). Under these conditions, the prospect of seeing, let alone catching a permit, became so very remote that we set our sights on tarpon. In these conditions, that too was tough... but we hooked and landed several in the 60 to 70 pound class... perfect for a fly rod. While gigantic specimens are encountered in Belize throughout the year, our average fish was substantially bigger than a 'baby", yet smaller than a giant. Personally, you can keep those 100 pound plus tarpon. A 60 to 70 pound fish is an absolute blast on a 12 wt. and after the fight, you still have enough juice to step up and do it again.
It seems that when you're not looking for bonefish they are everywhere. While tarpon fishing, we saw plenty of schools of bones each day during low tide. They were small on average, 2 to 3 pounds, but provided a potential opportunity if the permit and tarpon fishing just got too tough to bear. By day three, our weather was improving and our thoughts slowly returned to the permit. We motored an hour south to an area called Sugar Bogue. This area was named for the barges that stored sugar for export and used Sugar Bogue for moorings during inclement weather. This area held promise for both permit and small tarpon. We concentrated our efforts on the beautiful flats just inside the barrier reef. The rough weather of the previous days seemed to have driven the permit off the flats and we had only a very few shots. Since the Sugar Bogue was not sweet to us, it was time to move on...
Martin had been saving the best for last! With our steadily improving weather, Martin wanted to get south to the Robinson Point area. The clear skies and warm weather brought our focus completely back to the pursuit of permit. Like all diehards, we poured ourselves diligently into the task. Robinson Point is prime permit habitat. Here, expansive turtle grass flats are covered by two to three feet of pure Caribbean water. For the shy permit, these flats are bordered by numerous cuts and channels that offer fish an easy escape route to deeper water. Since this was my first permit trip, I guess I shouldn't have been surprised to discover that all my store-bought permit flies were either too big, too heavy or the wrong color. Small nickel and dime-sized crab patterns in light olive or tan, sporting light bead chain eyes and weed guards, were the preferred pattern. Preferred at least by the guides and anglers! Whether the permit preferred them or not remained to be seen! On closer inspection, the lush beds of turtle grass hid the elusive permit's obvious menu entrees. Sweeping the turtle grass aside by hand, we discovered thousands, no millions, of tiny fingernail-sized crabs. Some crabs were sand colored, while others were olive and blended perfectly into the turtle grass. Our presentation technique ran contrary to the usual sagacity one hears from the world's "permit masters". Here, to let a heavy fly sink, sit and be stripped once, if at all, was the kiss of death. The flats surrounding Robinson Point were littered with small corals and to follow the conventional wisdom caused a retrieved fly to hit an almost immediate snag, so to speak. A measured slow descent of the fly, followed by a slow, crawling grass-top retrieve was the only way to stay in the game. Leaders that provided the best chance of not spooking permit were long (over 14 foot), and tapered to 12-pound fluorocarbon tippets.
When the tide was on the move, there were lots of permit around Robinson Point. Each day gave us plenty of good shots at some significant fish. Still, permit fishing is what it is... a long shot at best. Six anglers fishing two and a half days hooked only 3 permit and landed two. But we saw hundreds! There were numerous close calls and a few missed takes. For those who did not manage to connect, these near misses and heart stopping moments kept them totally dialed in the game... such is the world of the permit fisherman. If you want big numbers, don't permit fish. If you want to check your heart rate... definitely give it a try. Our fishing was tough, but we all knew that going into it. Even with difficult fishing and iffy weather, it was a great week! The controllable factors such as boats, guides, food and exceptional habitat all met our collective expectations. The usual wild cards of weather and fish simply are what they are. Our group had been fishing long enough to take all this comfortably in stride.
On a personal note, I want to thank the guys on our trip for bringing the resolve and commitment to try something as difficult as a dedicated permit trip. To catch a permit on a fly, your group must maintain its direction, enthusiasm and optimism, regardless of any uncontrollable circumstances you encounter. On these essential points, this group carried forward beautifully and totally succeeded. It would be my pleasure to fish with any of you again!
Written by: Todd Sabine