Fishing Article

Casting About For a Getaway

Friday March 28, 2008

This article, reprinted with permission, was published on Sunday, January 27, 2008 at the Washington Post.

Barely 100 feet off a deserted, coconut-palm-studded beach in Belize, the professor was getting schooled.

"Strip! Strip!" ordered fishing guide Kachu Marin, crouched next to my friend Mike Traugott on the forward platform of the 23-foot panga. Mike began to strip in his fly line in short, deliberate tugs. Fifty feet from the skiff and three feet down in the greenish-blue water, the tiny fly inched forward erratically along the sandy bottom.

"Slow down!" Marin barked.

Mike, a professor at the University of Michigan, slowed his pulls but also unintentionally swept his rod to the side.

"Don't pull your rod sideways!" cried Marin, an exuberant teacher who delivered his fishing lessons in exclamation points. "You go sideways, you're screwed!"

Somewhere in the turquoise water, a bonefish hit the tiny Mylar-and-fur fly. Mike pulled his rod sideways. As quickly as it hit, the fish was gone.

"No! Don't be going no sideways!" Marin admonished. "That's why you lost the fish!"

Mike cast again. "A little short," Marin muttered under his breath. No matter. Strip! Strip! Slow down!

Another bonefish hit. Mike pulled the line straight back and deftly set the hook. A few minutes later, the spent bonefish was at the boat. Marin grabbed the leader and led the bone in increasingly tighter circles. Then, with a practiced move, he gracefully hoisted the silvery prize into the boat for a quick photo and live release.

"Good job, Mike! Good job, man!" Marin beamed as he handed Mike the fat-shouldered, three-pound bonefish, his diploma from Bonefish U. Eight feet behind us, standing in waist-deep water, Speedy the human anchor smiled as he held tight to the thick plastic rope tied to the panga, holding us in place against the light breeze.

Family Ties

Kachu Marin is one of 20 guides who fish out of El Pescador Lodge on Belize's Ambergris Caye. The resort is one of a growing number of high-end fishing lodges that cater to a particularly exotic type of fly angler: the growing international band of obsessive-compulsives who chase bonefish, tarpon and permit in tropical and semitropical locales around the world. Among these elite lodges, El Pescador is one of the few where an angler has a reasonable shot at achieving the holy grail of shallow-water fly-fishing: catching all three species in a single day.

The 36-room lodge was built in 1974 on a site hacked out of a mangrove swamp on the southern end of Ambergris Caye, an extension of the Yucatan Peninsula that lies 12 miles off the northeast coast of Belize.

Today, El Pescador is owned by Ali Gentry, 35, who operates it with her mother, Chris Gentry Spiro, and stepfather, Stephen Spiro. Gentry's husband, Alonzo Flota, a native of San Pedro (the caye's only substantial town), is the resident dive master. (The local diving is world-famous; the second-longest coral reef in the world lies less than a half-mile offshore.)

El Pescador has a decidedly family-friendly feel. Absent is the coarseness of some fishing lodges. Everyone eats at a common table at set times. While we were there, one dinner featured a feast of lobster and stone crab; another, a deftly executed paella. Amenities abound: How many fishing lodges offer the services of an on-call masseuse who actually gives real massages? The lodge also features what may be the world's only combination fly-fishing-shop-jewelry-store-art-gallery. Forbes Traveler recently named El Pescador one of the world's top 10 luxury eco-resorts, though hard-core adventure-seekers may find it too domesticated.

The Gentrys have been quick to exploit a rapidly developing trend in tourism: family adventure travel, particularly during the holiday season. "Instead of buying lots of gifts, more people now say, 'Let's go somewhere different where we can actually spend some time together,' " Chris Spiro said.

Fishing manager Bob Stevenson oversees the 20 fishing guides who work out of El Pescador, 15 of whom specialize in fly-fishing. Mike and I fished with three guides during our four days at El Pescador. All were exceptional.

Bad weather or bad luck can result in a fishless day, even in Belize. We were skunked on our second day when we chose to chase the famously uncooperative resident tarpon in howling winds and occasional drenching rains; seeing the fish is essential to this kind of fishing.

But more often, the fault lies with the angler. "Half the people who come to these places don't have the skills they need," Stevenson said. To remedy that, he conducts an evening casting clinic for anyone who wants a tutorial. (I did.)

Still, it's difficult not to catch something at El Pescador. Huge schools of smallish bonefish prowl the flats and eagerly charge a fly. "If you want to learn, this is a great environment. . . . I'll put them on juvenile or adolescent bonefish all day long," Stevenson said. "Will they catch a big bone? No. A permit? No. A tarpon? Probably not. They will catch fish."

El Pescador has hosted its share of bold-faced names who like to fish. Marin, our bonefishing mentor, has guided Robert De Niro and his son. ("De Niro read a book all day in the boat. His son fished," Marin said.) Basketball coach Bobby Knight and actor Liam Neeson have fished out of El Pescador. Author John Grisham has made several trips and stays in one of the lodge's adjacent luxury villas.

Grisham's only complaint: The villa's bookshelves were filled with books, but none by John Grisham. "He sent a boxload of his books down," Stevenson said.

Fish or Fowl

For those who want a break from the lodge, San Pedro is five minutes by water taxi. "It's hardly Manhattan," Spiro laughed. "But it offers great charm and fun little shops" that specialize in local crafts (Belize is known for its wood carving) as well as jewelry and art.

A Sunday afternoon in San Pedro provided a welcome break for Mike and me from the beer-fueled bonhomie of El Pescador. The narrow streets were clogged with bicycles, golf carts and a few cars and small trucks. A word of caution to pedestrians: Driving in San Pedro is on the honor system. I saw no traffic lights, and the few stop signs seemed to be viewed by the locals as advisory, at best.

El Pescador offers day excursions at extra cost for non-anglers or those seeking a day off the water. Among the more popular is a trip to the ruins at Altun Ha, once a major Mayan trading center. A 20-minute trip by boat takes visitors across the shallow flats that separate Ambergris Caye from the mainland, and then it's an hour up the river to the ruins. (Keep an eye out for crocodiles, parrots and the Jesus bird, a small waterfowl that uses its webbed feet to scamper across the water.) There's a stop at a wood-crafts center and lunch at a rain forest resort. Another popular day trip for non-anglers is cave tubing, in which visitors ride on inner tubes down a jungle river through five large caverns. The lodge also arranges day trips to the Belize Zoo, world-famous for its collection of more than 125 animals native to Belize and for its role as an animal sanctuary.

"You can be as adventurous as you wish," Spiro said. "You can do things every day that have nothing to do with angling. Then there is the obvious: Come to the Caribbean, sit in the sun, sip your rum drinks and read your book. That is a very popular activity."

Like Father, Like Son

After three days of overcast skies that made spotting fish difficult, gusting winds that blew down our casts and occasional torrential rains, our luck finally changed on our fourth and final day.

For anglers, the weather in Belize is all about trade-offs: In the winter high season, it's cooler and dry -- but windy, bad for flycasting. In the low season, which corresponds to hurricane season, it's hot, humid and less windy -- but expect it to rain hard, though usually briefly, on most days. We were there in early October, start of the transition between the low and high seasons when anything or everything can happen. On this day, the sun rose in a nearly cloudless sky. The wind had slackened but didn't disappear, moderating the temperature.

Marin welcomed us aboard his panga, a shallow-draft wood-and-fiberglass skiff favored by guides and commercial fishermen in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. This was the best omen of all: His 66-year-old father, Carlos, the dean of guides at El Pescador, had guided us on our first day and had taken us to a sweet spot along a mangrove shore, where Mike caught an acrobatic 15-pound tarpon, the catch of the trip. Fishing mojo runs in families; perhaps his son would work similar magic on our last day.

Marin gunned the outboard and ran 20 miles north up the coast to a long, rocky point that jutted out to nearly intersect the reef. His knowing eyes scanned the water as we slowly cruised parallel to the beach, 100 feet offshore.

He finally found what he was looking for: a school of hundreds of bonefish feeding along the shore, their silver sides occasionally glinting in the sun as they turned to eat.

We fished this single school for more than five hours, catching fish and sharpening our technique. By the end of the day, Mike and I were casting farther, stripping in our flies more slowly and not pulling the rod sideways (!) when a fish struck. Together we caught more than 40 bonefish ranging in size from barely a pound to perhaps five pounds, typical for Belize bones.

Speedy, a friend of Marin's, was our human anchor. Literally. For five hours Speedy stood in three feet of water and held the plastic rope attached to the panga, keeping us within casting distance of a huge school of fish. Sometimes Marin would tell him to walk a few feet one way or the other. Several times Mike and I asked if he could come into the boat, but Marin assured us that Speedy was fine, and of course Speedy agreed.

One unexpected bonus, caught just before we quit for the day: a permit, considered the most difficult of the "big three" inshore game fish to catch on a fly. The iridescent, pearl-white fish was no bigger than a salad plate. But it was my first permit, caught on a fly that I had tied myself in my basement back home.

"Good job, man!" Marin said, cradling the tiny fish in his hands. He extended his arms straight out toward the camera, a trick that makes fish appear larger in photos.

Size doesn't matter. I had finally graduated from Bonefish U.

Richard Morin, formerly director of polling for The Post, is a senior editor at the Pew Research Center in Washington.