A Bone Fishing Adventure on the Flats of Belize

Getting up close to a bonefish caught on a Crazy Charlie.
Getting up close to a bonefish caught on a Loopy Charlie. (Brian Grossenbacher/)

I was observing the water in front of an extended stretch of mangroves, making an attempt to not breathe by means of my nose. A giant raft of rotting grass extending several hundred yards offshore floated near our boat and had stained the water brown, turning the normally crystal-clear Caribbean into murky tea whereas giving off a stench that was pure sewer. This wasn’t the picturesque Belize that pulls scuba divers from round the globe.

A frigate hen circled overhead, straightforward to determine by its forked tail and broad wings. Like me, it was scanning the shallow water alongside the edge of the matted grass for fish. But whereas it was in search of a beak full of baitfish, I had something greater in mind.

“Over there, mon. Forty yards. One o’clock.”

Perched behind and above me on the platform that straddled the skiff’s outboard, guide Alton Jeffords was leaning into the push pole, making an attempt to move us to the place he’d just seen a tarpon roll. In his island accent, “forty” got here out as “fohr-tee.”

I checked the coils of line at my ft to ensure all was clear and began to forged. After three full days of fishing, I might tell my type was going to hell from the heavy 11-weight. If any of my former striper fishing buddies had seen me, I know they might have been merciless, taunting me that my years in Montana chasing “sissy bug-eating fish” with 5-weights had made me gentle. Given the stabs of ache in my shoulder and elbow, I’d in all probability agree.

I launched the bushy purple and black EP streamer into the wind, double-hauling for all I used to be value, and then aggressively stripped it again in—a rhythm I had now repeated numerous occasions beneath the intense Belizean solar.

Alton and the author on a flat looking for pods of tailing bones and permit.
Alton and the writer on a flat in search of pods of tailing bones and permit. (Chelsie Shults/)

After this forged, nevertheless, the fly line jerked arduous towards my hand, sending an electrical shock by means of my body quicker than my mind might even type the concept: tarpon.

I swept my rod low and to the aspect and hauled towards the line, but earlier than I might drive the point of the hook residence into the bony plates of the tarpon’s jaw, the line went slack. That unmistakable tug was the closest I’d come to hooking one but.

The encounter left me rattled, and if it weren’t for the silver-sided fish rolling in the brown water around us, some of which have been better than 100 pounds, I might have popped the prime on a bottle of Belikin beer to regroup.

Most of the line I had stripped in had spilled over the aspect of boat and, in the fog of the moment, as I went to tug it out of the water and coil it back on deck, I did what I typically do to unlock my arms—I tucked the rod underneath my arm and put the fly in my mouth, gripping the body of the streamer between my lips.

It was the sort of mistake you make only as soon as, like forgetting to put the drain plugs in your boat before backing down the ramp. The water on the fly tasted worse than the air smelled. I gagged and spit out the crap-flavored streamer. Alton and Chelsie Shults, my girlfriend and fishing associate, discovered this wildly amusing. I couldn’t get to the Belikin fast sufficient.

A just-released bonefish about to speed off to deeper water.
A just-released bonefish about to hurry off to deeper water. (Brian O’Keefe/)

The Migration

The center of July isn’t when most individuals take into consideration escaping to the tropics on vacation, but for those who’re an angler, it is amongst the greatest occasions to go to Turneffe Flats resort. Turneffe is known for its bonefish and permit. It has some resident tarpon, but come summer time, giant tarpon begin to migrate by way of (though where they’re coming from and the place they will is a thriller), making it one of these particular locations the place you will have a reliable shot at a slam—catching all three species on a fly in the similar day.

To succeed in the resort on the first day, Chelsie and I took an hour-and-a-half-long boat journey from Belize City. After crossing a stretch of open sea, we approached a low line of mangroves. Palmettos and mangroves outline the entirety of the Turneffe Atoll, which is shaped like a lopsided bowling pin roughly 30 miles lengthy and 10 miles across. Creeks, lagoons, cayes, and bogues break up the perimeter and create habitat for fish, birds, and saltwater crocs. We headed up one of the creeks into the nice Central Lagoon in the center of the bowling pin. Its protected water was as calm as a lake in the Catskills. Ultimately, we exited the other aspect, passing a small rowboat containing two local fishermen, and turned the corner to see an extended dock with a row of flats skiffs tied to the cleats, in addition to the foremost lodge and a number of other cabins alongside the seashore.

The resort proprietor, Craig Hayes, met us at the dock. Lean and wiry, with an outdoorsman’s weathered features, he founded Turneffe Flats back in 1985, however lately he spends extra time working to preserve the atoll than casting for fish. He spearheaded the effort to move Belize’s catch-and-release regulation for bonefish, and helped establish the atoll as a marine reserve again in 2012. He’s taken on unlawful improvement at Turneffe, despite the fact that the courtroom instances have pitted him towards wealthy and politically related landowners.
Truly, everyone who visits Turneffe Flats helps the cause, since Hayes donates a portion of his income to conservation efforts—greater than $600,000 up to now, he says.

That first night time, Chelsie and I have been handled to a light-weight present as lightning rolled forwards and backwards across the horizon to the east and south, flashing vibrant and illuminating a far-off formation of clouds. This went on for a pair of hours, but we never heard a single peal of thunder as a result of the noise was swallowed up by the distance and the wind. Just above the clouds, stars blazed. Venus shone uninteresting pink in the japanese sky, and Saturn lingered just off the horns of the crescent moon. Hermit crabs the measurement of softballs scuttled across the sand and made their means up and down the trunks of the palm timber that lined the seashore. We took it all in whereas sipping glasses of iced rum before delivering to our cabin.

The author is all smiles after bringing this chunky bonefish to hand.
The writer is all smiles after bringing this chunky bonefish handy. (Chelsie Shults/)

Coaching Day

We met Alton for the first time the subsequent morning. In his mid-30s, he grew up in Belize Metropolis however has spent the majority of his adult life round the atoll, working with marine researchers and as a fishing information. Together with his dreadlocks bundled up in a bandanna and a smile as broad as the Caribbean horizon, he seemed like a flats information out of central casting. We grabbed a couple of crab patterns and a handful of sparkly shrimp patterns, sizes 6 and 8, in inexperienced, pink, and pink, from the lodge’s small fly store and headed out in our small skiff. The three of us motored to the north finish of the atoll, passing a bottlenose dolphin and her calf, to a small secluded lagoon ringed by mangroves. It took a minute for my eyes to regulate, but I soon spotted bonefish in all places—tail ideas alongside the shore, dark shadows cruising over grass, flashes of silver in the deeper water by the boat as they rolled and fed.

At first, we have been stripping too quick, and the fish ignored our flies. However after Alton instructed us to sluggish it down, the bones wouldn’t lay off. It was almost unimaginable to not hook up. We took turns with our Eight-weight, one of Winston’s new Saltwater Air rods, preventing the 2- to Three-pounders, getting a feel for the strike and hookset. Like most bones this measurement, they might run exhausting at the least twice, and typically go three or four occasions, earlier than bulldogging in the deeper water until they ran out of steam and came alongside.

Searching for bones in the coral and grass.
Looking for bones in the coral and grass. (Brian O’Keefe/)

The attraction of bonefishing is straightforward to know. They’re stupidly robust for their measurement, they provide a terrific battle—especially the larger specimens—they usually reside in some of the most lovely habitat in the world. Whereas they can be a problem to catch, an excellent presentation with the proper fly will typically be rewarded with a take.

One knock on Belize is that the bones there are small compared to different locations. Once I stated that to Alton, he smiled. “Just you wait, mon.”

We acquired a sluggish begin the next day as thunderstorms rolled in. I watched from my cabin as other anglers waded the giant flat proper in entrance of the resort, casting to tailing bones. A 6-foot croc glided throughout the flat as properly. No one paid it any thoughts. In accordance with Alton and the relaxation of the guides, the crocs listed here are notably mellow and never hassle anyone.

As soon as we have been capable of get out, we headed south and stopped at each point the place darker, smelly water may yield allow, tarpon, or greater bones. This was my first publicity to the putrid grass mats that, regardless of their odor, shelter tons of baitfish, which, in flip, appeal to larger fish trying to feed. I caught one black jack and had a tarpon turn on my fly solely to refuse it before we moved on.

Skiffs lined up at Turneffe Flats.
Skiffs lined up at Turneffe Flats. (Kami Swingle/Two Fisted Coronary heart Productions/)

Massive Canine

We stopped the skiff by a bloom of milky-blue water, and I pulled out my 9-weight rigged with a crab and forged into the middle of it. On the second strip, I received a savage hit. The fish knocked the snot out of my EP crab—a fluffy brown and white pattern with bright-green-and-red eyes—and snapped it right off. I had no concept what it was, but knew the fish was huge. I threw another fly into the murky water and again lost it to a brutal take. The water had principally zero visibility, and never understanding if there was one thing toothy swimming around, I rerigged with a wire chief and tied a crab to that. That received me my first style of the huge bonefish Alton had promised. These 4- and 5-pounders couldn’t depart that crab alone. Each time: strip, strip, strip—slam!

Later, we rounded some extent that wasn’t removed from the reef break that separates the atoll from the depths of the Caribbean. “I’ve seen permit on this flat before,” Alton stated. The words have been barely out of his mouth once I spotted a trio of sickle-tailed permit—very giant permit—casually cruising at 12 o’clock off our bow.

“Like those?” I stated.

“Yeah, mon!” But earlier than I might forged, the three amigos disappeared onto the reef in entrance us.

A large bone about to be released.
A giant bone about to be launched. (Turneffe Flats/)

We stopped and waited and watched, after which we poled slowly across the flat and spotted them once more. I made a superb forged with the crab, they usually turned on it. I stored the strip sluggish and regular, they usually swam along with the fly like cats following a laser dot. Twenty-five ft from the boat, the fish peeled off towards the surf.

The adrenaline letdown was intense. It was like having an in depth encounter with an elk whereas bowhunting, or getting a very good comply with from a summer time steelhead as your fly skates across a tailout. That was the story with permit on this journey, although. Tons of close calls, however I couldn’t get them to eat.

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One gave me a few dozen good possibilities. On almost every forged, it followed my small brown Bitter for a pair of ft, drawing nearer and nearer. ­Finally, it came so shut I couldn’t forged to it anymore. We looked at one another for a number of seconds earlier than it darted off to deeper water.

Like the permit, the tarpon wouldn’t commit. Aside from the occasional comply with punctuated by a couple of heart-stopping grabs, they stayed out of attain. Their rejection didn’t actually hassle me although. The bonefish, all the time wanting to play, stored our spirits up. Plus, catching allow and tarpon on a fly is meant to be exhausting—that’s why we do it.

Shults watches Alton tie on another crab after a big fish snapped off her fly.
Shults watches Alton tie on one other crab after an enormous fish snapped off her fly. (John B. Snow/)

El Toro

Some journeys have moments that provide a freeze-frame picture that you simply flip again to repeatedly when reliving the power and temper of a spot.

For me, it was one stalk the place I was by myself on a broad flat in a few foot of water with the wind at my again—good casting circumstances. Sixty ft in front of me, I might see nervous dimpled water the place a large faculty of bonefish have been feeding. I laid my fly out, and when it landed, the water gave a shudder as the faculty momentarily startled. I started to strip and a fish peeled off, throwing a wake because it zeroed in on the small green crab pattern. It slammed the fly, and my strike drove the hook residence. The fish lit up and ran away from me on a diagonal. My reel sang as the huge fish took me into the backing. The bone reduce throughout the flat so quick that water climbed the fly line. I stored anticipating the run to stop, however the fish simply went and went, taking line and operating with the heart of a Spanish preventing bull.

I might really feel every bit of the fish’s vitality by means of the rod. It ran like that five occasions before I might convey it in. I cradled it in my hand, eliminated the fly, and held it whereas it revived. After letting it go, I stood nonetheless in the shin-deep water for a couple of minutes, letting the expertise wash over me.

In the tropics, the climate doesn’t change a lot from season to season, and out on the flats, the world takes on an particularly timeless high quality. The wind all the time blows, the mild tides move fish on and off the flats, and you may absorb the entire sky from one edge of the horizon to the different.

I wasn’t ready to go again to the boat but, or depart Turneffe for that matter, so I gathered my fly line and went in search of extra tails.