Big Fun in Small Packages
Wed July 05, 2000
"I'm definitely not believing this! This is nuts!" My good friend and fishing partner Kent, exclaimed as a rambunctious Belize permit melted the line off the reel deep into the backing. This permit was trying desperately to stay in formation with the rest of the school we had been tracking for several minutes. Shortly, our guide Thomas Paz, deftly tailed this rather smallish trachinotus falcatus over the rail, removed the fly, and had him back in the crystal clear water and totally revived in a matter of seconds.
Kent Kilborn, and I were in the last hour, on the last day of an absolutely marvelous fly fishing adventure to Ambergris Caye, Belize. We had a number of shots at permit throughout the week, but until now had come up empty. We also spent one entire day on Ambergris' famous Savannah Flat in pursuit of resident and migratory tarpon, but saw only three, had shots at two and had no bites. Soon after our trip, we heard the tarpon showed up in legions! But that's why they call it fishing, not catching. Anyway, we caught a ton of bonefish and finally on the last day, two permit!
We knew from firsthand . . . ah, reading, that permit needed to be enticed with some sort of crab pattern or maybe the occasional Clouser. In fact in only forty years of fly fishing I had actually landed one in Honduras on a Jan Issley rag crab pattern a few years ago. For a week now, offerings of crab patterns to these Belize residents produced permit behaviors from blank refusals to abject terror. More on that later.
It had been a week since we met on the dock in front of El Pescador Lodge near San Pedro, Belize. He had flown in from California, I from Florida's panhandle.
"How was your flight?" Kent asked.
"Don't know. Slept the whole way down. Too excited to sleep last night. Good to see you."
It was getting on toward late afternoon of our travel day. We made our way to what was to turn out to be an afternoon ritual, hot hors d'oeuvres and cold Belikin beer. We met the other guests, enjoyed a tasty seafood dinner, and scurried up to our rooms to prepare equipment for the next morning and try to get a little rest.
Kent was a beginner to the saltwater flats. Nonetheless, he is a natural athlete (varsity tennis in college and a low golf handicap today) and has been fly fishing for more than thirty years. He has tossed flies at salmon and trout, lots of them, and BIG ones, all over the American west. He's fly fished Alaska, so real big creatures going crazy on the other end of real big fly outfits are not exactly new to him. Even so, it was the third day of our trip before Kent was regularly SEEING the fish, CASTING to the fish, and HOOKING the fish. And to be that adept after only three days may indeed be a new world record.
Seeing the fish
The saltwater flats game is all about seeing the fish. It's a real challenge to learn what to look for and how to look. Even after you have seen several fish over several different bottoms it is seldom easy. And the numbers of bonefish around Ambergris Caye give you a lot of practice. Bonefish (to a slightly less degree, permit) have a mirror-like finish that reflects the surrounding environment. The first thing I usually see of a permit, besides the puff of marl where it used to be, is the black dorsal or black forked tail. With permit and bonefish, often you see the shadow before the fish. Sometimes the water surface tips you with "shaky water" or "nervous water," or a wake or push. Other times bonefish look like moving green wine bottles. If you're real lucky, you may find "tailing" fish, the classic gossamer tails out of the water reflecting light and the telltale "slurping" noises as those tails break the surface. Needless to say, a good pair of quality polarized glasses are an absolute must. Spend as much as you can on them, a hundred bucks is not too much. Take a backup pair.
Though we spent a good deal of our time wading the flats, we also spent some time poling around looking for singles and doubles and looking for "muds." The guides of El Pescador are real pros at these techniques. And since Belizian bones are noted for numbers more than individual size, the latter technique is very popular. A school of a hundred bonefish can quickly cloud up nearly an acre of normally gin clear water. These huge schools often break up into squadrons of ten to twenty fish. If you find a large school of mudding bones, you may pole out ahead of them, stake out and catch several out of the group. In that case you're looking for flashes in the mud, or other fast glimpses of moving fish. You're usually making relatively short quick casts. We had a number of occasions when both anglers had bonefish screaming line off our reels at the same time. That's pretty rare, and can be, let's say, very interesting.
Casting to the fish
While you don't really have to cast a hundred feet (though most guides would love you for it), you probably do have to cast forty or fifty with only one or two falsecasts. If you can't do that, practice until you can. Since almost all saltwater flats are pretty windy most of the time, you must learn to love the wind. Call it a part of the experience. If it's really windy, you can usually get closer to the fish. Learn to throw as tight a loop as you can. Maybe take a lesson at your local flyshop. Practice casting into the wind. You really need to place your fly so it looks like it's trying to get away from the fish. Even very small things moving toward most flats residents, look unnatural and are likely to spook them.
Hook the fish
I've tried about every way to screw up after the fish eats. A nice subtle classic trout "lift" just doesn't work very well and usually moves the fly out of the strike zone. A hard bass style strike usually has the same effect, with the added spectacular explosion of rapidly fleeing fish. Anything you do with your rod hand is probably a mistake. My advice? Just keep stripping. You might even give a slightly more enthusiastic strip when you actually feel the fish. Then use your non-rod hand to help clear the line. Even small bones like most in Belize, can run off almost all your flyline, and a two or three pounder may get into your backing on his first go. After you're "on the reel" a high rod tip can help you stay clear of mangrove shoots and the like.
Very common patterns worked just fine on these Central American bonefish. Anything with a little orange (egg sac) seemed to be preferred. The spawning Gotcha, Bone-crushers, and sparse (no hair, just flash material) Charlies all worked in size six and eight. For mudding bones the number six Jan Issley Yucatan Special in tan worked well.
Our very last day we fished an area southwest of the lodge that guide Thomas called the "Lagoons." This area had huge flats; most of them almost completely surrounded by forests of mangroves. As the tide dropped and the sun burned strong from a very clear sky, the bones got spookier and spookier. I had retreated to a 16-foot leader tipped with eight-pound fluorocarbon and a very sparse number six Crystal Charlie. We caught quite a number of bones that day. Finally Thomas announced we'd better leave or there wouldn't have enough water to get off the flat. He also said he knew a flat on the way home that sometimes held schools of permit. I knew he was just saying that to ease that slightly empty feeling you always get on the last flat of the last day.
But he did stop on the way home and almost immediately a healthy school of permit showed up. They all ignored several "perfect" presentations of the obligatory, now small, crab pattern. But they didn't spook . . . until I tied on a chartreuse and white Clouser and shot that over their heads.
"I never saw so many permit go in so many directions, so fast!" said Kent, "Those guys blew up before that Clouser even hit the water."
"Yup lined them, but wasn't it exciting?"
After that fun encounter, it really was time to go on home. I reluctantly stepped down from the front platform and started winding in flyline. Then, talk about luck.
"Senor Hugh, don't sit down yet. Look out there at about ten o'clock."
Another school pushed up on this flat. Thomas had been telling us all every day that a person had caught a permit on a small Charlie here in this area. After all those permit doing their "permit thing" with traditional permit flies, finally the light came on! His English and our Spanish, though English is the primary language in Belize, left us thinking "a person," when in fact he meant PEOPLE. "People catch permit all the time around here on small bonefish flies!"
A person could be an accident, people means a pattern. Down went the ten weight. Up came the eight, with the sixteen foot eight pound tippet and number six Crystal Charlie. On about the third cast to this second school, the four pounder described earlier, fast to the sparse Crystal Charley ripped left, right and deep. We even took another one, of about three pounds a few minutes later! Two permit in the last hour of our last day in Belize! Though small they were both certainly big fun!
"Doesn't get much better than this," Kent allowed, as the combination of these events, a little sea breeze, a cold Belikin, and Thomas' panga boat coming out on plane made the ride back to El Pescador most enjoyable. ~ Hugh
The author is a retired Air Force colonel with medals from missions over Viet Nam and DESERT STORM. He now lives in the Florida panhandle, ties flies, writes a little and flyfishes when he can.