Fly Fishing Beyond Superlatives: From a Flats Slam to endless schools of bonefish, Belize is the best
PLACENCIA — Everyone now knows Belize to be among the best and easiest to get to destinations for affordable vacation homes, incredible warm blue water, sea breeze and palm trees…and for sucking down a rum punch while getting your toes in the sand. It’s also booming now for boating and adventure tourism.
But the fact that it’s pretty close to heaven was established a lo-o-o-o-ong time ago by divers and fly fishermen, who figured out that all that pretty blue water is good for a whole lot more than staring at with wondering eyes.
Most saltwater flyfishers are aware that Belize is bar-none and by far the world’s best shot at a “flats slam,” a hat trick of catching a tarpon, bonefish, and permit in one day on the fly. Many places have good action for tarpon, or bonefish, or snook or permit. Belize is unique in that it has superlative quantities of all four.
But what ultimately makes Belize stand out is the rarest, most challenging ghost of the flats and the ultimate saltwater trophy: the big long-finned reel-busting bruisers known as permit. Belize is widely regarded as having the highest concentrations of large permit in the world.
To give you an idea, I spent five months in the Florida Keys in the late ’90s, living and working but mostly fishing. The Keys are famed for flats fishing, and the very first time out, to my utter shock, I ran right into a big permit while wading the flats alone. An enormous, spooky, solo fish that ghosted away as soon as I pitched my crab pattern its way. This is not going to be as hard as they say, I thought to myself.
The fish disappeared like smoke into a night breeze. And that was it. In four more months, that is the ONLY permit I saw in dozens upon dozens of expeditions in the Keys.
Fast forward four years, to the Stann Creek District in Central Belize. Up with the sun on a clear beautiful morning, we head out with a guide and run only 10 minutes in the boat. The guide turns the skiff around an island point, kills the motor and points to the shoreline. In the dawn light, there are two groups of ripples in the water, and as he poles us closer, my stomach starts to knot up. The ripples take shape and start moving around and I know it can be only one thing, exactly what my eyes are telling me it is: two schools of five or more permit…and they are big, big, fish.
To anglers, this is what is known as nirvana. Belize is super-famous for incredible diving, vacationing, island hopping, and general tropical paradise stuff…but those are all things that you can in fact find elsewhere. Maybe not as great as Belize, or all in one place like Belize, but you can in fact find them elsewhere on this wonderful watery planet of ours.
But there is simply nowhere on earth where you are going to see permit like that.
An hour after that initiation ritual, we headed out to a reef in Belize where the flats meet slightly deeper water and we started to wade along a ridgeline of coral as the tide rushes over it. We have to wade, my guide says, “because there are too many fish to use the boat.”
But I soon see he is right, as we encounter school after school of permit shifting back and forth across the reef, their tails sparkling like sword tips in the sun sticking up to six inches out of the water as they root around the bottom for crustaceans. If you were poling along in a boat, you would be bumping into fish right and left and scaring them: wading gives you a much lower profile in the water.
In several surreal instances, I witness the most elusive trophy of the flats actually competing to eat my fly! In one unforgettable moment, I am unable to breathe as two cookie-sheet-sized permit race each other to chomp at my crab pattern right as it reaches my rod tip.
Despite the hype, and the fact that I’m a lifelong obsessed angler, I was still unprepared for what I would experience. Most anglers I know personally came back from Belize with photos of small permit, dinner-plate sized fish they scored while chasing bonefish or other species. I thought permit in Belize were numerous but small, like the big schools of small bonefish that frequent the northern islands.
The reason for my friends’ smaller fish is simple. They had mostly fished out of Ambergris and other islands while on vacation, and therein lies the difference. The central part of Belize is another ballgame entirely-the permit run as big as they do anywhere in the world. It’s a habitat and forage issue quotient that creates the size, and it is probably also tied to fishing pressure, too. Unlike tarpon and bonefish, permit are fabulous eating, so people who aren’t high-minded fly fisher types are eager to take them home.
Seeing isn’t always catching, even in Belize, as I would find out the next day. Permit are permit, and almost always a challenge, even when abundant. The next day, we saw nearly equal numbers of fish and had thrilling stalk after stalk but instead of fighting over my fly, they just won’t bite. They are big brutally strong fish on a fly rod, with a body built for leverage, and catching more than a few a day will wear a flyrodder out. My rod arm was still stiff from the day before-the only other time I’ve had that most pleasant of unpleasantries is fishing a sockeye run in Alaska, where the river had more fish than water.
On that second day-and this is not a typo-I saw as many as 80-plus permit finning along a shallow stretch of reef in the morning sun, fins glimmering in schools of two to ten fish in water just a few feet deep.
I thought back to the one fish I saw in six months of fishing the Keys, and giggled. This little country has an awful lot of magic swirling around in it, I thought to myself.
No, there is not another place in the world where this is possible…at least it has not been discovered yet.