Saltwater fly fishing has made its debut pretty late in my current fly fishing career. I never visited a beach until I was 26. Once I did, I realized that I probably needed to try it out with a fly rod. My wife, my girls, and I made several spring break trips to Port Aransas, TX where I tried fly fishing the surf a few times with minimal success. I tried fishing the jetty as well and ended up hooking my sunglasses off the top of my head and throwing them in the channel. I managed to tangle one needlefish up in a fly with a long tail that day. A successful day in the salt was something that eluded me.
Fast forward to 2020. I entered a raffle through On the Fly Outfitters in Brunswick, GA for a beautiful G.Loomis 11wt NRX+ rod combo with a Hatch 9-plus reel, Scientific Anglers Tropical Titan line, a Cliff Bugger Beast Fly box, and a few tarpon flies. If you are ever in Georgia and need to stock up on fly fishing gear or want to set up a falconry hunt check these guys out! Adam Hein of On the Fly Outfitters and his father Steve have been through Olney a couple of times on cross country falconry hunt treks and it is truly amazing to watch a falconer and their bird work together to make a harvest. To finish off 2020 on a good note I won the raffle!
After receiving the rod package in the mail, I immediately started looking for a place to throw some flies at tarpon. Ever since I started looking into saltwater fly fishing tarpon have been one of my top targets. I decided that Florida might be the best bet given the still recovering travel scene. I mentioned that to my wife, Hannah, and she made it clear she did not want to go to Florida again right now. So after a few more days looking and a call to the Orvis Adventures service, Hutch Hutchinson pointed me in the direction of Belize. I presented that idea to Hannah. I had barely finished the sentence when Hannah said "Okay!". Now I'm not the one in our house that is known for setting up trips usually but within a week Hutch and I had us booked for a 5-night, 4-day stay at Thatch Caye off the coast of Belize with 3 days of guided fly fishing through Blue Horizon Fly Fishing.
Once we had the trip booked and passports renewed, I began to look through the fly fishing supplies recommended for our fishing trips. I apparently took to heart the following quote:
“Every day is a new day. It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact. Then when luck comes you are ready.”
― Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
I had the rods needed for the trip. I took an 8wt Orvis Helios 3D, 9wt Redington Path, and of course, the 11wt G. Loomis. I bought several spools of Mason Rock Hard monofilament and FluoroXtreme leader material and proceeded to tie 8-10 tapered leaders each for bonefish, permit, and tarpon based on advice from around the internet. I'll include the recipes for those at the end of this blog to spare you the boredom if you're not into that. I also spent a small fortune on flies. My thinking was, "I'm going to be on an island, where there is no fly shop, my guide might have been busy and could be running short on flies, what if I'm not prepared and a record fish presents itself?!". So I got with On the Fly Outfitters again as well as Guide Flies and Caddis Fly Shop filled the Cliff Bugger Beast box to the brim with all manner of tarpon toads, deceivers, EP baitfish, flexo crabs, bonefish bitters, mantis shrimp patterns, crazy Charlies, you name it, I probably had at least one in the box. I even bought some needlefish flies and wire leaders in case I had a shot at a barracuda on the fly. I had never flown with fly fishing gear before this trip either so I purchased an Orvis Carry-it-all bag to tote all of this madness around in. In hindsight my fishing bag and fly box probably resembled that of someone heading to Belize for a month of fly fishing. I practiced casting, strip setting, telling myself to strip set, making pacts with myself to not trout set, and got Hannah to practice some as well.
One month before the trip Hannah and I were talking and she decided that 3 days of fishing was going to be too intense for her and she wanted to switch one day to a snorkel trip. I drug my feet about it but decided to go ahead and do the snorkel with her. My initial thoughts on that were something along the lines of "who would want to swim around breathing through a straw rather than fly fish?". More on that later.
We counted down the days, kissed our babies goodbye, and left for DFW on June 1st. We boarded our flight June 2 and landed in Belize City free of hassle. Now, please, whatever you do, do not judge Belize on your arrival to the airport customs and immigration reception. I get it. They are dealing with tourists in the least glamorous capacity possible. But we had no direction, very little conversation, and nothing near service with a smile or even a smirk until we got to the terminal. A Thatch Caye representative met us and identified us by our purple wristbands and walked us to our terminal at which point Hannah realized we were flying to Dangriga, Belize in a single engine airplane. An ice cold Belikin from the airport stand alleviated a few of the nerves associated with that realization.
A few minutes earlier than scheduled we were led to our plane with Maya Air for a 15 minute flight to Dangriga. We began a descent much sooner than 15 minutes at which point there was a sigh of relief from the seat next to me and from a young lady up front. It turned out we just needed to stop off at Belize City municipal airport to pick up one more passenger so up again we went! Flying over Belize is an interesting view. I saw some manatees near the surface of a coastal river, we saw several smoke plumes from fires controlled or not, the salt marsh areas of the coast quickly give way to rolling hills which then rise into mountains back to the south and west for a beautiful, lush backdrop. The other side of the plane had the truly amazing view. The colors of the Caribbean waters is not something that this small town Texas boy is used to. Turquoise, white, blue, deep blue, and more and it changes every time a small Caye pops up in the water.
Upon landing in Dangriga we were seated in the Muy'Ono transport van and taken to the Pelican Bay Resort down the street to wait while a few more Thatch Caye guests arrived. Unfortunately, they were closed for deep cleaning so we didn't get to have a drink but our bus driver made a special trip to bring us a bottle of water and we didn't have the worst view either. Once the 6 other guests arrived we all loaded up and headed to the boat.
Now, Thatch Caye is an all inclusive type resort but not in the sense that it is an expansive multinational corporation run resort. When you get on the boat the first thing they tell you is, relax and take your mask off (Belize still strongly enforces a mask mandate and testing prior to arrival if you have not received the Covid Vaccine) then they ask if you want a beer, Belikin, of course. If there is one thing I have noticed between the two Central American countries I have visited its that they brew at least a couple of really good beers that fit the climate. The boat ride from the mainland to Thatch Caye is about 25-30 minutes and you get to cruise over that turquoise water that was so enticing from the plane. Pulling up to the island you are greeted by the resort manager Leslie and/or his wife and in our case Jerome who is on the waitstaff but is a jack of all guest service trades. On the tray was a watermelon puree with a shot of coconut rum on the side and a basket with cool rags. We were then taken to our room and a porter transported our luggage there as well. Our first two nights were spent in one of the ocean front cabana rooms below the penthouse cabana. It was a perfectly sized room with a sliding door that opened to a porch overlooking the water. Of the two rooms we stayed in we preferred this one. There was even a fly rod rack on the wall of the porch!
Meal time at Thatch follows a pretty regular schedule of breakfast at 7:00am (unless you are heading out on a fishing trip), Lunch at 12:00pm, happy hour and snacks at 4:30pm, and dinner at 7:00pm. We took part in happy hour and when I say that Miguel and Kamal will take care of you on drinks, I'm not kidding. I would order a beer and sit for 30 seconds or so longer to converse with someone at the bar and when I turned around there would almost certainly be a shot sitting by my beer. Being a glutton for punishment and not wanting to be rude I didn't waste any of them! Supper the first night was a delightful traditional Belizean dish called hudut which was a coconut broth with stewed vegetables, lobster and conch, and a plantain mash. Desert was out of this world! Simply a stewed quarter of a small pumpkin then carmelized with some sugar and cinammon and vanilla ice cream. The chef Eliza was nothing short of amazing the entire time we were there!
Fishing Day 1, Trout Sets and an Adventure at Sea
Morning would come early and our guide Blake let us know that we would meet at around 6:30am. Thinking I would have a hard time getting up that early after traveling and being served by Miguel we went to bed pretty early.
Turns out in Belize it is difficult for me to sleep past about 5:00am. The sun rises at about that time and I woke up between 4:30am and 5:00am every day! So 5:00am rolled around and I was up and getting ready to fish. I had rigged my rods with the reels, lines, and leaders the night before so we got dressed, grabbed the gear and headed to the main lodge. We had a great breakfast and let the kitchen know what beverages we wanted on the boat (we recommend the orange juice......and Belikin). Blake Leslie is the son of Bruce Leslie a famous permit guide. Blake was a blast. As I told him later, he reminded me much of one of my good friends growing up. No sooner than we headed out did we stop at a flat and pole for a bit. It was probably only 6:45-7:00am at this point. Let me explain, I am not the best big water fly fisherman on a good day. To say that looking around this expanse of water with scattered land was intimidating is a massive understatement. The only permit I've ever seen are on social media while victorious fisherman are gripping and grinning. When Blake explained that I'm looking for a black steak knife sticking up out of the water, I quickly realized this was going to be nothing like the Brazos river anymore. A black steak knife sticking up out of the OCEAN......right. Going back to that Hemingway quote when Blake opened my fly box he simply said, "Holy S***!, dude". Low and behold those steak knives showed up at this first flat. A small pack of 4-5 permit tailing to the south of the boat. Blake and I hopped out of the boat and waded to a good casting position upwind of the permit while Hannah held the boat and took a few pictures. I cast about 3 times and the fly fell short. Blake was encouraging and made it clear that I was doing a pretty crappy job of getting the fly to the fish. His motto was spook 'em or hook 'em. Finally, I got my crap together and landed the flexo crab about a foot in front of the tailing permit. The sky was blue, the water was clear, the turtle grass was swaying gently with the waves. Blake instructed me to start stripping in slow long strips. As I did, the pack of permit took notice and activated their tails to keep just behind the fly. Then a bump. (Refer to paragraph 6 or so to refresh what I told myself about strip setting). When I felt the bump, I trout set.
I. Trout. SET.
The pack of permit flushed. The one that had bumped my fly left free of any binding lines and I said choice words along with Blake's honest assessment of my incompetence in strip setting. I broke the pact I had made with myself. It was a textbook tailing permit situation. They followed, they bumped, and according to Blake had I not trout set I would very likely have gotten a permit on my first EVER shot.
Back to the boat. Feeling dejected at my inability to overcome my roots as a trout/bluegill/pond bass fly fisherman I became determined to not trout set again. Throughout the rest of the day Blake put me on 1 more permit shot as well as casting to some bonefish schools before lunch. The bonefish were few and far between which was news to me. Apparently, following a hurricane and also gill netting, bonefish populations have plummeted in the area but a new Belizean ban on gill netting holds hope that bonefish will make a comeback and once again populate most of the flats. The schools of bonefish we cast to would have gone unnoticed by me had we not had a guide. The schools simply looked like another patch of turtle grass or a murky area where a fish had just rooted around for crabs and shrimp. You had to have a trained eye, and watch carefully for a flash or two. When you saw those flashes you could suddenly see the school of hundreds swimming in unison spreading one direction and then in an instant moving the opposite direction.
After lunch Blake took us farther north of Thatch, he said, farther north than most of their guides go. But he had been on permit up there and I trusted him. Sure enough, we got on 3 more shots that afternoon, one of which I spotted all by myself. It was 1:30pm by that time and we began to motor back towards Thatch with the intention of fishing the flats on the way. The tide would be coming back in some by then and might afford us a few more shots. About 9 miles from Thatch with the empty island we had just fished behind us a few thousand yards, the waves breaking over the reef to the East, the mountains rising on the mainland several miles to the West, and just a couple of trees on the horizon to the South, Blake's motor suddenly lost power. Now, if you know the dynamic that is our marriage, you know that at this point Hannah has a lot to say, a lot to ask and is thinking 20,000 different thoughts. I am asking Blake what I can do to help and thinking sarcastically, "what a horrible place to lose power". Blue water, lake size waves, still plenty of beer in the cooler, and plenty of daylight left to resolve the issue at hand. Did I mention we had no cell service either? Blake calmly albeit frustrated, figured out quickly that his forward gears in the foot of the motor were gone but we still had reverse. So on to Thatch Caye we progressed at about a mile an hour, square stern battling the waves and the bilge doing its job every so often. When we reached the nearest island, we flagged down a local fisherman and for a small fee and some gas he agreed to tow us to Thatch. About half way there we were able to get through to Thatch and they sent a boat to intercept us and we made it home at around 3:30pm. Sun beaten and fresh off of a Caribbean adventure we naturally went to the Starfish bar for happy hour and snacks and then to our room for a shower. I felt terrible for Blake. Motorized boat ownership is new to me this year but I am well aware that outboards are fickle and at some point or another will deal you a crap hand. Knowing full well that this is likely to happen to me at some point on the Brazos I took it all in stride and was content with the 5 shots at permit and time spent casting to bonefish.
Fishing Day 2, Will Flat
Fast forward to day 2 of fishing, at breakfast we were able to meet the 80 year old, legendary, Lincoln Westby. This man is 80 years old and poled two clients from the Carolinas around from 6:30am until 3:00pm. We didn't have the opportunity to visit with him for very long but he's one of those men that you can tell has seen just about all a man can see in his home territory and then some. Full of wit and humor to boot. We finished breakfast and our guide this day was Marton Valentine who is another young guide trained by Lincoln Westby himself. We set out and found the permit a bit more difficult to locate. We headed further south and hit some of the coral flats near the barrier reef. It was here that the variation of colors was really prevalent. We ended up finding a couple of packs of permit both tailing close to low tide. We got a good follow from one group and were able to switch flies and try again with them. They moved off into the deep blue water and so did we.
We approached another flat that had a recently developed stand of mangroves beside it. On the south east side a bank of broken up coral and sand broke the waves coming off of the coral below. In the turtle grass to the northwest Marton spotted a small group of permit AND a few bonefish to boot. Mind you this is low tide still and at around 10:00am not the ideal situation for permit at all. A few casts and these fish all headed to deeper water as well. We climbed back in to the DoriB and had not moved very far along the wave break when Marton got excited about a large group of permit he spotted. They were cruising between the sand bar and the coral further out, and headed right for us. We hopped out in a hurry and I was able to make a few casts with a few serious follows. All the while, we were walking along the sand bar to stay out in front of the fish. Marton then ran back to the boat grabbed a new fly and switched it while we attempted to stay up with the fish. We had the new fly attached and got in position. We had lost sight of the fish. Marton was visibly a little disappointed that this shot didn't work out and I was thinking my incompetence as a saltwater fly fisherman probably had something to do with it. So, we began our walk back to the boat. Suddenly, Marton grabbed my arm and said, "NO! NO! right here coming towards us at 11 o'clock! Back up! Back up! Do you see them!? Put it right in front of them!" I made the cast with an HD Camo Crab from Guide Flies. I let it sink for just a moment. Marton said, "strip it slow and easy". 4-5 permit followed to within about 20-25 feet. It was all in slow motion at that point. While I was at one with the task at hand still, a thousand thoughts went through my mind: Would I strip set? Would they even take the fly? How could anyone not enjoy this kind of fishing? Is this place even real? How did I get here in the first place? Why are permit so damned hard to catch? And then..... One fish left the ranks to investigate further. His head and mouth angled down to feeding position. I felt a bump on the line. Marton yelled, "SET IT!!" I strip set like I knew what I was doing! The hook sank well into the lip of the curious permit. All of a sudden the line was taut and Marton was sprinting through knee deep water yelling orders, some in English, some in Creole, none of which were registering with me as I felt this fish pulling like no other fish I'd caught before. The permit was taking line off of the reel now and heading straight out for the coral. Marton's reason for running to the boat was to head the permit off and land it before it could wrap the line on any coral and break off. Hannah was running for the boat, Marton was running for the boat and yelling for me to fight the fish back and away from the coral, and I was stuck. Stuck in the beauty of the place, stuck in the power of the fish, stuck in the work it takes to get one permit to hand, stuck in the adrenaline and what I can only assume was the dopamine rush that I had gotten from hooking this fish. As I walked backward and towards the boat I began to catch glimpses of the permit I'd hooked. It wasn't a large one by any means but pulled hard. In holding my rod high over head and keeping the fish elevated I hoped to keep it out of the coral and the fish tired quickly. When I brought the fish close once I noticed that another permit was still following mine as if he might get a bite of whatever his friend had, much the same as spotted bass will do back home on the Brazos. We ended up not needing the boat. The fish tired as I neared where we beached the boat. As I brought it in closer Marton waded out and after a couple of short runs by the fish, he grabbed the permit by the tail ending the fight. I traveled to Belize with tarpon on my mind. I was now obsessed with hunting permit. After releasing the fish, Hannah said she thought I might cry and I can't really argue with her on that point!
While we were departing the flat, Hannah asked if it had a name. At this point I began to wonder if Marton was just really playing this up (Haha!) or if it was pure coincidence but the flat I caught my first permit on was aptly named "Will Flat". According to Marton, some other fly fishing nut named Will caught 4 permit in one day at the same spot.
Hannah had graciously bowed out of casting much after she realized how precious the shots were for permit. She's a great fishing buddy! But now that I had landed a permit on my second day EVER of saltwater flats fishing I told her to get in the front of the boat. She and Marton worked on her casting just a bit to get her back in the rhythm of the double haul cast. With the practice she had with me and a few more tips from Marton, Hannah was slinging the 9wt out there like an old pro. It's not uncommon on trips to the mountains to find Hannah in the middle of a stream, fly rod in her hand, sunflower seeds in her cheek, and whistling a tune.
Marton was sure we had a good shot at a grand slam for the day since we landed the permit at 10:15 am. We saw some big Jack Crevalle breaking up a baitfish school over some deeper water and trolled for them briefly with no luck. We then headed to Saltwater Caye for a lunch break. Fried chicken wings and coconut rice with veggies hit the spot and hannah entertained herself casting to a couple of good sized bonefish off of the beach and almost had one!
We finished lunch and cruised to the North end of Saltwater Caye to try the bonefish school again and Hannah likely could have hooked one but instead the ate all of the buggy parts off of an Avalon shrimp fly and left her with not much more than a hook. We gave up there and hit one more school with no luck.
By now it was 1:30-2:00pm and the tide would be rolling back in. Marton motored us out to one of the channels near Tobacco Caye to try for a tarpon. We anchored off and fed a purple EP baitfish out on Marton's sinking line to strip back against the current. We saw a couple of good sized tarpon roll on the surface but it was pretty slow. I noticed to the south about 30 yards some baitfish breaking the surface and no sooner than I could point at them there was an explosion of 4-6 foot long silver projectiles shooting into the air and belly flopping back down into the the blue water. Marton got super amped up and told me to pull the line in and cast over to them. Unfortunately, the method we were using required the line to be fed out all the way to the backing and I couldn't get the line stripped in quickly enough to make a cast before they had moved well out of reach. a few more casts with a gummy minnow fly and we were at the end of our fishing day.
To Wrap Up
No grand slam, no bonefish, no tarpon. That permit fishing, though! Blake and Marton may be the young guides on the roster at Blue Horizon but man they know how to get you addicted to fishing the flats. Being able to go to Belize with no real saltwater experience, fly fish for two days, and land a permit was as satisfying to me on this trip as getting a grand slam. The staff at Thatch Caye are top notch and made the stay as much like being at home away from home as is possible. The overwater bungalow is a neat room to stay in and affords beautiful views of the water. The food was spectacular from the main courses to the fresh fish dishes that were provided by guests after their fishing charters off the reef. We snorkeled (which was amazing after all my complaining) with Alben and had the boat to and the snorkel tour to ourselves. We both got massages from Hazel on Serenity Point and melted into the scenery. The only complaints were a faulty hook on our hammock that shockingly (yet comically) sent us down hard on the deck of our bungalow in the dark, the fact that we weren't staying longer, and our kids weren't there.
So thank you Orvis Adventures, Thatch Caye, Blue Horizon, Hutch, Blake, Marton, Miguel, Kamal, Eliza (I'm going to have you start shipping me one key lime pie a month), Mom and Dad for babysitting, everyone on the Thatch Caye staff, On the Fly Outfitters, Guide Flies, Caddis Fly Shop, and so many others for your help in making this trip an unforgettable one!
- Bonefish: 6ft 40lb mono butt section with a perfection loop to attach to the line, blood knotted to 3ft 25lb mono, blood knotted to 1.5ft 20lb fluoro, blood knotted to ~2ft 16lb fluoro.
-Permit: 3ft 40lb mono with perfection look to attach to the line, blood knotted to 2 ft of 30lb mono, blood knotted to 1.5 ft of 25lb mono, blood knotted to 1.5 ft of mono, blood knotted to 2 ft of fluoro.
-Tarpon: I tied a couple of different weights in this but the general formula I followed was (all sections were mono): 6ft of 60lb mono with a perfection loop to attach to the line, blood knot to 4 ft of 40 lb, improved blood knot to 1.5 ft of 16-20lb class tippet, and then another improved blood knot to about 1ft of bite tippet at 50-60lb.
Things I'll do differently next time:
On a future trip to the flats in Belize, I would likely leave the 8wt rod at home and make do with a 9wt for both bonefish and permit and then a 11 or 12wt for the tarpon. The 8wt was somewhat difficult to cast in the Caribbean wind and slightly larger waves than I am accustomed. Perhaps I could have adjusted my leader and fly selection some to mitigate this but the 9wt worked well casting to both permit and bonefish. The permit leader I tied was more than sufficient for the permit I caught and I'll use that formula again. In hindsight when I was tarpon fishing I should have gone ahead and rigged my G. Loomis up with a tarpon fly in preparation for a surface feed like we witnessed. I could have handed Marton's rod off to him or Hannah and picked mine up and gotten a cast off fairly quickly if I had been thinking. However, since it had a floating line and we were fishing deep I didn't bother to even tie a fly on it. Lastly, I'll plan to fish a couple of more days during our next stay. As the quote from Hemingway said, being exact when luck comes along is the way I chose and I was not without any flies, leaders, tippet, rods, reels, or line that I might have needed save the sinking line on the tarpon rod.
Oh, and I won't trout set..... I think.