Tarpon Trippin in Maya Country
Published by:Florida Sportsman Wed January 12, 2000
Belize: Florida Style Flats
Belize offers Florida style flats fishing and more than a few surprises.
Chucka, chucka, chucka, thud, slap.
We were motoring through a tiny cut in the mangroves. In reverse.
I leaned forward in my seat to watch the long white panga glance off the stilt-like prop roots. Each turn drew a sun-speckled green curtain shut in front of us, concealing our wake and giving the weird sensation of land travel. Pancho's 40-horse outboard was pulling, and the swamp seemed to be pushing.
Tiffany, my wife, held one hand overhead to fend off the dangly mangroves; with the other she slapped at mosquitoes with a vengeance.
In a wash of sunlight and triumphant flurry of slaps we popped Out of the woods into another lagoon, this one deeper than the first but a little smaller.
Roseate spoonbills settled on a mud bar, where they began whisking their broad, flat bills through the shallow water in pursuit of food, going back and forth like gaudily dressed beachgoers hunting seashells or lost car keys. I noticed the whole lagoon was rippling with schools of bonefish on the move.
We were only a few miles from the T- shirt and doodad shops of touristy San Pedro Town, but at the moment we seemed to be in the middle of nowhere my favorite place of all.
The fish were cooperative, almost ridiculously so. Tiff got a few on a yellow jig and piece of hermit crab- I caught some with a brown Clouser Minnow fly. They were small bones-" Boni-maronis," Pancho called them jokingly-1- to 3- pounders that flashed and disappeared when we released them.
Our guide backed us into yet another pond, this one rusty with decaying mangrove leaves. Bonefish schools morphed into pods of baby tarpon, catching us off guard. I danced one to boatside on straight 8-pound tippet and a pink Crazy Charlie. Pancho held it up for a moment like a hunting knife, a sliver compared to the hundred-pounders we hoped to encounter on the outside flats.
Later, Tiff expertly dropped her jig in front of a shadow that pounced like no bonefish. Her rod arched and her reel whined, yielding 8-pound line in fast bursts. The fish charged for the safety of the mangroves, but at the last second changed direction - and ran back toward the boat, where it wallowed before regaining steam. I saw vivid pink, and an unmistakable black spot. That evening we would share fried mutton snapper fingers and plenty of stories with our new friends at El Pescador Lodge on Ambergris Caye.
Like other visitors to this island off he coast of Belize. we had our minds set on sight casting to big tarpon in crystal-clear water. After that morning with Pancho, our hearts were set on the rugged beauty of the lagoons. The lacework of waterways reflects the enigma that is Belize. You look at something, like a wall of mangroves, or a school of bonefish, and suddenly it is transformed before your eyes.
Our 20-minute connecting flight from Belize City, on the coast, to Ambergris Cave had taken us across some incredible water-a vivid, blue and green marbling of flats and channels. Here and there were streaks of mud stirred up by prowling bonefish schools. We had been told by Logan Gentry, new owner of the 30 year-old El Pescador property, to expect small bones. possibly permit, and almost definitely some whopper tarpon. Of all the fisheries in Belize-probably all the Caribbean, for that matter-Ambergris is most notable for sight casting to tarpon.
June through September is when migratory tarpon pushing the triple digit weight class show on the flats. Baby tarpon and midsize fish to 70 pounds hang around all year. Much of the fishing takes place near Congrejos Caye, about a 20 minute panga ride from the lodge. There's a broad sweep of 2 to 6-foot depths over light sand and turtlegrass; looks like the Florida Keys oceanside, but without all the skiffs. Fish rise out of the sapphire depths around the southern tip of Ambergris, and cruise with the tide across the clear flats. Other spots offer various setups. An area known as Savannah can be especially productive.
Guides either stake out or pole the long, slender panga craft in search of tarpon. They know to harness the never ending Caribbean breeze, positioning anglers for downwind casts as often as possible. Some, evidently, have also earned their stripes as exceptional casters and teachers.
Pancho was a trip. Each morning when the sun rose overhead, our guide would unscrew the cap of a jug and bellow "It's time to get dronk!" Then he would take a long swig and confide in us that it had been years since he'd touched the tequila. Only water now.
Pancho was always kidding around like that, but when he stepped to the bow of his 23 foot panga to help Tiffany with her double-haul, he got real serious. To keep up with fishing trends his customers brought down from the states, Francisco Gutierrez (that's his real name, taught himself fly casting in 20-knot trade winds. His casting was beautiful-no wasted movement, just pure style. And power. He unfurled 100 feet of intermediate sink line on one of my low-modulus, "expendable" travel rods as if he were tossing a paper airplane across a room.
We put in several hours at Congrejos, waiting for tarpon to show. Alas, the Miami midsummer funk had followed us to Ambergris. A few parties hooked fish, we got flies to only two, and neither showed interest.
Each night, a full moon painted shadows of palm trees on the beach out front of El Pescador. I wondered about the nocturnal feeding behavior of tarpon around full moon periods, an event which some say precludes daylight foraging. On the other hand, there were obviously some hungry fish around. Biggest of the week was an 80-pounder that Matt Bohn, of Delray Beach, landed outside the reef on a trolled plug. His girlfriend, Sheri, caught the action on a digital camera. That evening we and other guests gathered in the bar to hoot and holler at a five-foot tarpon jumping on a three-inch screen.
Tarpon opportunities indeed come in all shapes and sizes. Our shot would come at a little mangrove corner of the Boca Chica River, where I put a 5-pounder in the air on a yellow-and-red Sea-Ducer. The fish rocketed from the shadows to take my fly, then launched into a series of cartwheels before settling down to be released.
Though we missed the big tarpon on the flats, our guide revealed a presentation trick that I found interesting. According to Pancho, the biggest mistake Florida anglers make with Belize tarpon is leading the fish too far. There's not much tidal current on these flats, and the fish tend to wander rather than groove in straight lines. In the time it would take a lollygagging tarpon to cover 30 feet of lead, the fish may turn completely around. Hit 'em on the head, seems to be the rule; they aren't shy about eating. Usually.
You can forget about long casts to bonefish, for that matter. Accustomed to 70 foot shots at finicky Florida bones, I found myself asking Pancho to hang back from the schools in the lagoons. I got the jitters when he'd move to within three rod lengths-that is until I realized the fish were perfectly comfortable with the whole situation. A beginning fly fisherman can really have a ball on Ambergris. The fishing is year-round dependable, and you can literally catch 'em one right after the other. Smaller patterns, No. 4s, 6s and 8s, seem best, matched to a 6 to 8-weight outfit. Much of the fishing is on clean bottom, where Clousers and Crazy Charlies in browns, pinks and tans excel. Over grassbeds, where the fish tail a little more,
I cleaned up with a weedless Kwan Fly, which is basically a small Merkin with an upturned Craft Fur tail that kicks like a shrimp.
For deeper lagoon pools, bring some epoxies that sink quickly-or a light spinning outfit with some skimmer jigs. Pancho, ever the showoff, caught the biggest bonefish of our trip during lunch break - a 4-pounder. That's considered large for the area, though the occasional fish may top 8 pounds.
Permit also roam these flats, and are perhaps the most challenging target. Ambergris fish tend to run in the 5- to 10 pound range, smaller than those in southern Belize. Spring may be the best time to chase them-and chase you will, as the speedy fish seem constantly on the go. Rounding out a colorful cast of shallow-water species are jack crevalle, barracuda, several kinds of snappers, and roving gangs of tough little horse-eye jacks that have a way of outrunning tarpon to your fly.
Tiffany and I decided that no trip to Belize would be complete without a tour of the countryside. The aerial view from Belize City and Ambergris is as deceptive as Pancho's wild ride through the lagoons the expansive, flat coastline belies an amazing array of ecosystems and cultural treasures. in the interior. Nature preserves-sortie government, some privately held-comprise more than one-fifth of the land. Much of the rest is de facto preserve. The backcountry is remote, densely wooded, mountainous, and little explored. Five kinds of wildcats roam the jungle: jaguar, puma, ocelot, jaguarundi and margay. There are howler and spider monkeys, tapirs (picture a manatee with legs), and peccaries (imagine a bristly, 200 pound pig that smells like an armpit-then imagine three dozen rooting around in the mud). One of our guides told a harrowing story about encountering a pack of peccary on a hunting trip. The fiercely territorial animals make an ominous click-click as they sharpen their tusks; when you -hear that sound, best look for higher ground. Rifle-toting Elvin had been hoping to bring home some game, but the wiles of the jungle turned the tables on him. He and two friends spent an hour in a tree, dangling above a horde of angry, tusk-gnashing peccaries.
Before venturing to the coast for our declared purpose of light-tackle fishing, we spun off for a ramble with Elvin. The Western Highway out of Belize City took us through swampy mangrove terrain, palmetto flatlands, fields of towering cohune palms, and finally deep into the rolling forests of the Cayo District.
Along the way, we passed a Lebanese restaurant, a Taiwanese community, Amish, farmers in horse-drawn carts, the Vietnam Bar, all symbols of the richness of culture that flourishes in this peaceful, democratic nation. Our destination was appropriately incongruous-the five-star Blancaneux Lodge owned by U.S. filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola. Philippine-inspired villas sit in the shadowy Mountain Pine Ridge preserve, 300 square miles of pine, scrub palmetto and fern that looks for everything in the world like Florida's Ocala National Forest. A few days at Blancaneux are pleasantly disorienting. Breakfast included fresh fruit grown on the premises; cocktail hour took place under ceiling fans from the set of Coppola's Apocalypse Now; for dinner, we ordered pizza cooked in an Italian wood-fired oven.
On the western downslope of the Pine Ridge is the Macal River, a cool, inviting stream (snook down river, only small cichlids here) that rushes over a bed of granite. Like a zipper in the earth's crust, the Macal neatly divides pine and hardwood tropical forest. On one side. it's Georgia red clay and scraggly pine, on the other, it's fertile limestone soil and verdant jungle, with mahogany, ceiba. gumbo-limbo and other deciduous trees. Across a low concrete bridge lies Maya country, and the dusty road to the thousand-year old ruins of Caracol, perhaps the most significant Mayan site in Belize. It is estimated that at one time over 300,000 souls may have lived in and around the great city of Caracol. That's more than the entire country today. Caracol's once proud temples and residences have long since been swallowed by jungle. Each year, researchers from the University of Central Florida come to pick away at thick mats of dirt and foliage in an effort to decipher the secrets of the Maya. On a tour, Tiffany and I scrambled breathless to the top of Caana, which means Sky Place. Atop this massive temple, at 165 feet, still the highest man-made structure in Belize, we looked westward all the way to Guatemala.
Then, turning east, we strained for a glimpse of the Caribbean. We couldn't see it, but out there in the cloud-studded distance were the shimmering tarpon flats of Ambergris Caye, as well as literally hundreds of other islands, all offering their own distinctive brand of angling.
It amazed us to think of how much is crammed into this country. From mangrove ponds to mountaintops, boni-maronis to giant tarpon, Belize seems to me to have a little of everything.
A backward ride through the mangroves, left, revealed a lagoon complex brimming with bonefish. Local guide Pancho, below, releases- one of many fish caught in the tannin-stained water
El Pescador Lodge on Ambergris Caye, above. Belize has everything from tarpon fishing, opposite, to mountain adventure, opposite left.
A Look at Belize
Just south of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, Belize, Belize comprises 8,866 square miles (one seventh the size of Florida), yet holds incredible angling potential. There is a growing number of lodges and guide operations plying the outlying cayes (pronounced keys) and coastal rivers. You can sight fish the flats for bones and tarpon. plug the rivers for snook and snapper, or troll the Caribbean for marlin and sailfish. Recent improvements in fisheries management, such as catch-and-release-only status for bonefish, permit and tarpon, ensure a lasting resource. And, for a young nation fueled by tourism dollars, Belize has managed to avoid high-rise excesses. There is development, to be sure, but it seems to be on an even keel.
El Pescador Lodge on Ambergris Caye has been catering to fly and light-tackle fishermen for nearly 30 years. Buffet-style meals, afternoon snack time at the bar, and a new swimming pool offer plenty of opportunities to talk story with fishing buddies. Air-conditioned rooms are available on request. Dive charters are also available-Ambergris is world-famous for its coral reefs.
As with many outfits in Belize, El Pescador and Blancaneux can arrange transportation to and from the main airport in Belize City. American Airlines, TACA, and Continental all fly into Belize. All you need to travel is a passport and some fishing tackle. El Pescador can send you a list of preferred fly patterns and lures. English is the primary language (Belize was under British rule until 1973); U.S. dollars, as well as credit cards, are accepted in most places.
A tasty mutton snapper surprised this shallow water caster. Belize offers some impressive views: atop an ancient Mayan temple, right; and out front of a cozy woodland lodge, far right.