Bonefish, Tarpon and Snapper in the Heart of Maya Country
Mon September 24, 2007
I grabbed my hat firmly as we blasted around the corner from Congrejo Flats into one of the east-west running fingers near Ambergris Caye locally known as the Seven Channels. Gilberto Acosta, at the wheel of his 23-foot panga fishing boat, opened the throttle on the 50-horsepower outboard.
My eyes feasted on the surrounding beauty, a translucent world in shades of turquoise. As we approached stretches with a sandy bottom, the color transformed into an incredibly vivid viridian hue. My hypnotic gaze ended only when a small spray of water dampened my face, the coolness awakening me to the reality of Belize, a country with waters still largely innocent and majestic. T his chunk of Central America coastline off northern Belize pulsated with marine life. Every few hundred yards I witnessed colossal schools of bonefish zipping over the flats. For every turn we made through the red mangroves, a cloud of mullet would thrash about until the clamor muddied the water. I watched a leopard ray soar into the air as if aiming for the clouds; it splashed back to its watery world with a resounding belly smack. Overhead, great squadrons of eagle-eyed birds glided until making divebombing runs, and seldom did one leave with empty talons.
This chunk of Central America coastline off northern Belize pulsated with marine life. Every few hundred yards I witnessed colossal schools of bonefish zipping over the flats. For every turn we made through the red mangroves, a cloud of mullet would thrash about until the clamor muddied the water. I watched a leopard ray soar into the air as if aiming for the clouds; it splashed back to its watery world with a resounding belly smack. Overhead, great squadrons of eagle-eyed birds glided until making divebombing runs, and seldom did one leave with empty talons.
Winds gusted 15 to 25 knots typical during the spring dry season off Ambergris Caye. The thermometer seemed to stay in the low 80s each day, and though the stiff breeze made it a challenge to cast at times, any cursing came with the appreciation that the wind also suppressed insect activity, which during summer months can be problematic near the subtropical shorelines.
Pescador Resort, put me in the capable hands of Gilberto Acosta and Cesar, his 19-year-old son. Gilberto, a veteran of 27 years guiding Ambergris Caye and surrounding areas, also teaches fly fishing; Cesar guides too. I asked if we could all fish together, and father and son smiled simultaneously, making it clear that they wouldnt argue a bit over that idea.
Sardines and Silver Kings
Each morning we started with the ritual of catching live sardines for bait. Gilberto took this to a high art form with his weighted nylon cast net. Hed very smoothly launch the net, unfurling it with perfect pancakes many feet from the boat. One cast would deliver dozens of shimmering, shiny sardines, and the next might offer a half-dozen grunts or a small barracuda.
Once armed with a good supply of sardines, wed patrol the flats on the south end of Ambergris Caye, moving slowly through the Seven Channels. Gilberto knew just how to use the wind to our advantage, particularly when on the hunt for rolling tarpon. Boca Chica Pass, a channel about 100 feet wide leading from the Caribbean Sea to the leeward side of the island, proved to be a reliable ambush point. As baits massed on the south shore, wed see dozens of tarpon rolling, most in the 40- to 60- pound range.
On one such occasion, Cesar stood on the forward deck and back-casted a 12-weight fly outfit armed with a Black Death fly, a local favorite. On the fifth cast, he made two powerful strip strikes and shouted, Im hooked up, Im hooked up. With a teenage guide on one end of the line and a teenage tarpon on the other, the fish went ballistic.
Coming up half-bodied and mightily shaking its head, and then launching skyward repeatedly, the fly disengaged.
Cesar immediately returned the fly to the scene of the commotion, and amazingly another poon from the same school pounced on it. This skirmish as well ended in favor of the silver king, but so goes tarpon fishing. Even so, it left us all in a state of hyperventilation. Our hook-up ration soon improved, and we each released several fish before moving on to bonefish territory.
Gilberto said hed put us on a spot renowned for reliable action on gray ghosts. I quickly saw just what he meant. Under a sunny sky and a falling tide, we went toe to fin with numerous bonefish on light tackle. Since these fish average only between two and five pounds, we scaled down our tackle. Gilberto went with a 5-weight fly rod with success on both shrimp and crab patterns. My spin rig of a Penn 5500 reel and medium-action Rhino rod did just fine, and a curly tail chartreuse jig tipped with a dollop of shrimp turned out to be quite popular. We released bonefish after bonefish, and you couldnt have wiped the silly grins off our faces if you tried. I must say that Gilberto and Cesar really impressed me. Gilberto, a powerfully built fellow, can launch the fly as far as the eye can see even into the wind. Cesar delivered casts with a smooth and silky delivery, and he knew just how to tease fish into striking. Both of these fellows rate at the top as guides and anglers.
Beef on the Reef
My burning desire to complete a flats grand slam by adding a permit to catches of bonefish and tarpon didnt pan out, although due to no ones fault. Permit tend to avoid the deeper portions of flats where they like to roam when its windy, said Gilberto, shunning the lack of visibility for crustaceans and to prevent themselves from becoming prey to sharks. Instead, he suggested we move to the nearby reef for variety and rod-bending fun.
Belize is blessed with remarkable barrier reefs where fish thrive on the bountiful supply of baitfish and coral honeycombs. Gilberto ran to just east of Congrejo Caye, a few miles south of Ambergris Caye. We waited until the wind calmed down to about 10 knots and started trolling over the coral heads at about three knots. I used a nine-inch, redand- white Bomber Long A plug and Cesar offered up a bright-yellow, snub-nosed lure. At a depth of about 15 feet, the coral clusters appeared as dark blossoms and burnt fireplugs in the azure sea. It all looked mighty fishy, but no takers.
We switched gear and set anchor in about 12 feet of water at the west edge of the reef. With a bounty of sardines still alive and kicking in the bait well, we went with the real deal. I wielded a Penn 850SSM on a beefy rod with 30-pound monofilament line and a top shot of 80-pound fluorocarbon leader, tipped with a 3/0 circle hook sporting a lively sardine. A heavy egg sinker kept the bait hugging close to the bottom.
I struck pay-dirt almost instantly. Even with the drag cranked down pretty tight, it still sang as shrilly as an opera singer trying to break a glass. It felt like a jack of some kind, but I couldnt make out its shimmering glow for a good 15 minutes. As soon as the fish spotted the bottom of the panga, the 20-pound jack crevalle took off again, skillfully wrapping itself around our anchor chain in the process. Gilberto and I worked together to unravel the knot and keep the fish in play, and I soon brought the valiant fighter close enough so it could be leadered to the boat. Weve all experienced these feisty fighters in various settings, and the Belize version certainly wont disappoint you.
The action at this primo spot continued non-stop for over two hours. I even managed a reef slam. I hauled in a nice lane snapper, several gray snapper and kept a few of the bull dogs of the reef mutton snapper from returning to the honeycomb of the reefs and certain breakoffs. Gilberto said he loves snapper grilled whole over a direct flame and jacks smoked slowly over cracked coconut husks and wood embers. The big jacks also gobbled flies with a frenzied furor, busting on any fast-stripped pattern and getting into the backing in a hurry. Our fly gear consisted of two 12-weight rigs: a Sage rod with a Billy Pate reel holding about 200 yards of Dacron backing, 105 feet of Rio intermediate weight fly line and 80-pound fluorocarbon leader, and an Ugly Stick rod with a matching Pflueger Trion reel spooled with a few hundred yards of gelcoat backing, 105 feet of Orvis Wonderline and 100-pound fluorocarbon leader.
We kept the tackle on the heavier side for the snapper and jacks in order to get them to the boat faster. Doing so helped under-size fish regain the energy to escape the toothy reef critters always eager for a weakened target. Even so, some of the duels lasted up to 15 minutes due to the strength and stamina of these reef wrestlers. With plenty for dinner, we called it quits. And after so much pumping and winding all the tenacious jacks and sassy snapper this day, I didnt object at all as we ran back to El Pescador Lodge. The thought of a nice shoulder massage really filled my head.
And so it went each day we fished bonefish, tarpon, jacks, and always-willing snapper. I always feel my adrenaline starting to rise as I climb off the plane and plant my feet on Belizean soil. The variety of fishing is amazing due largely to the Belize Barrier Reef, a 185-mile reef line and three huge atolls that extend off the entire coast of the country. The longest such reef in the Western Hemisphere and second only to Australias Great Barrier Reef, the Caribbean Sea flushes the coral structures and outcroppings with nourishing currents.
Ive never visited without encountering plenty of tarpon and huge schools of bonefish, and most of the year you can expect permit as well. In the interior rivers, snook, tarpon and cubera snapper keep anglers busy, and deeper waters produce blue marlin, white marlin, wahoo, dorado and other deep-sea battlers. Giant black grouper weighing 60 pounds and more along the reef drop-offs can also put you and equipment to the test. While spring and summer months represent excellent fishing for most of these species, youll find good action and fewer boats on the water during the fall and winter.
This represented the third trip for my wife Mary and me. We really like the melting pot of Belize because it blends ancient Mayan culture with British colonialism and a funky Caribbean charm. Toss in some of the best fishing in the world, and you know why our fourth visit wont be long in coming.