The Healing Waters of Belize
Bonefishing with Project Healing Waters
- By: Ceamus McDermott
Guys in my line of work never get “lost.” So let’s just say I was disoriented. Away from home, down in Alabama driving on a road that was decidedly “off the beaten path” looking for a house that the Army said was there, but that I really didn’t think existed. As disoriented as I was driving, the last thing I needed was a phone call…when of course my phone started ringing. My night and my luck was about to change a bit when I saw it was Dave from Project Healing Waters.
Growing up in New England, you don’t hear too much about bonefish. Maybe on a snowy Sunday morning you might watch an older episode of the Walkers Caye Chronicles, but more often striped bass, bluefish, tuna and swordfish took center stage in the salt. The turquoise waters of the Caribbean bonefish flats were something that most of us only saw on TV or in magazines…yet here was Dave on the phone with an amazing opportunity, bonefishing in Belize.
I was introduced to Project Healing Waters in February 2008 while recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center from a blast injury to my hand that I suffered while deployed to Afghanistan. Although a fly-fisherman since a teenager, casting a fly rod was one of the last things on my mind at the hospital.
An amputated finger and nerve damage to my hand had me hoping just to be able to recover enough to stay in the service and lead a normal life again. At the insistence of a fellow wounded warrior, I started attending the weekly PHW meetings and found that holding and casting a fly rod not only helped to restore the grip strength and range of motion in my hand and wrist; but was much more enjoyable than the Occupational Therapy clinic. I guess some would say that I was ‘hooked,’ and I was.
More than being physically therapeutic, PHW rekindled a passion for the simplicity of fly-fishing I had held as a youth. The peace and the quiet on the water let you mentally decompress the stresses of recovery. The beauty of the outdoors replaces the imagery of the battlefield. It is a very true saying that “Trout don’t live in ugly places”—the same holds true for bonefish, as I was about to discover.
The weeks after Dave’s phone call were busy. The trip to Belize had been very generously donated to PHW at the last minute by Alex and Amy Gray, and as soon as I returned home I began sorting my gear and reading up on bonefishing.
The week before the trip was spent online looking up bonefish flies and tying as many as I could with a vise PHW had donated to me. I tied about two-dozen flies hoping to have enough that my fishing partner on the trip Mr. Russell Doughty and I could use. Russ is a Vietnam veteran from Missouri who not only is a volunteer with PHW; but is a wounded combat veteran as well. Russ and I introduced ourselves via e-mail and began a friendship that will last both of our lives.
I rendezvoused with Russ at the ticket counter at Dallas Fort Worth Airport. He was pretty easy to pick out of the crowd, proudly wearing his Vietnam Combat Infantry Badge ballcap. The conversation on the flight flowed back and forth from family, the service, fishing, PHW and finally to our shared excitement for the coming days fishing.
The flight from Dallas to Belize was short, flying over the jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula. Circling in toward the Belize airport, we caught our first true views of the Belize barrier reef and the green cayes that dotted the ocean.
We boarded the Tropic Air flight for the 20-minute trip to Ambergris Caye shortly before sunset, and watched as the skies over Belize melted into pink and purple hues as the sun set to the west. Landing in San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, we gathered our bags and rods and hopped in a waiting taxi for the drive around the corner to the water taxi. The seas were calm cruising over the black water, with anticipation building as we turned in towards the dock.
We were met dockside by Bob (our fishing host) and Steve (the general manager) who greeted us with heartfelt smiles and a friendly handshake to the El Pescador Lodge. We were finally there!
Our room at the lodge was clean and comfortable and we quickly settled in before dinner. Meals at the lodge are served family-style, with all guests seated together to enjoy the meal and share the day’s fishing successes. The meal was excellent as were all the meals prepared by the lodge staff. We sat with Bob, who gave us an overview of the trips activities and time schedules. After the days travels we both slept soundly with dreams of rising trout replaced with visions of bonefish tailing on the flats.
Waking on our first morning, views of white sand, palm trees, and the clear blue waters of the Caribbean beyond welcomed us through the door. Fly rods in tow we assembled on the dock to meet our guide for the trip. Bob had paired us up with Carlos, his most veteran guide, and a wealth of knowledge both on where to find the fish, and how to catch them.
The boat trip to the fishing grounds each day took about 30 to 35 minutes on Carlos’s boat motoring down the length of southern Ambergris Caye to the smaller Cangrejo Caye (Crab Key). Cangrejo provided calmer water and better protection from the tropical winds brought on by a lingering cold front in the area.
The sights each day were incredible! The water was crystal clear. The Belize barrier reef visible in the distance as a white line of surf the only differentiation between where the turquoise waters ended and sky began.
The first fish came by luck much more than skill. The fish was small, not much more than 10 inches, but to me none of that mattered. It was a bonefish, not on TV or in a magazine, but bending the tip of my 8-weight on a short run. Personally, I would’ve enjoyed the remainder of the trip if that was the only Bonefish I caught; fortunately for Russ and I that was not the case.
The first day fishing was a learning experience. Carlos gave me a few pointers to help with my double-haul casting, and how I should present the fly to the fish. With two of us in the boat, Russ and I took turns casting, I’d catch two then it was Russ’ turn to catch a few. Our little fishing rotation worked out well for the entire trip, one guy fishing while the other relaxed, grabbed a bite to eat, a glass of Russ’s favorite limeade, or taking photos. We both landed more than a half-dozen bonefish on the first day, the largest being a 4 ½ pound torpedo that I landed on a fly Russ tied.
The flats and coves of the cayes are an amazing place to nature watch. Eagle rays, spotted rays, nurse sharks, reef sharks, barracuda, dolphins, flying fish, osprey, pelicans, cormorants, the list could go on and on. Viewing the abundant wildlife was great if it was your turn to relax and rest your casting arm, though not so great standing on the bow casting platform watching a ’cuda spook off all the fish. We left the shelter of Cangrejo Caye around 2:30 for the boat trip back to the lodge. It had been a fantastic start to the trip.
Bob was there to greet us with his customary smile as we pulled up to El Pescador’s dock. We shuffled our gear to our room and took a few minutes to let it fully sink in that we were in fly-fishing in Belize. Shortly before dinner that evening, Bob gave both Russ and I some one-on-one casting instruction out on the dock. The dock at El Pescador had been specifically build with an instructors casting platform at the end of an offshoot from the main dock. Without much effort Russ was throwing 60 to 70 feet of line, casting from the dock all the way to the beach. Bob’s experience and pointers to me would prove to help improve my casting each day.
The dinner table conversations that night swirled from fishing to reading, from family to outright humor. We adjourned to the lounge after dinner for a celebratory 1st Bonefish Drink, a native Belize Belikin beer for me, and a homemade from scratch El Pescador Limeade for Russ. It is probably a very good thing that Russ didn’t realized his passionate thirst for the home made El Pescador Limeade until now. If discovered as a youth, I’m convinced that the enamel on his teeth would have been gone decades ago.
In the morning, Russ was up and out a few minutes before I shook off the morning cobwebs. The sunrise was just cresting the eastern horizon as I slipped into the dining room for a cup of coffee and a breakfast of fresh fruit, eggs and pancakes. Carlos was waiting patiently for us at the dock and as we stowed our fly rods onboard, and we discussed the plan for the days fishing.
A cold front was still holding in the area and the winds (blowing from the northeast) were driving the fish off the flats and into deeper water. Carlos brought us to the leeward side of Cangrejo Caye, to a deep clear spot of muddy sand surrounded by turtle grass. When the sun was shining the silver flashes of bonefish feeding in the depths could be seen and casted to.
The weighted Gotchas that I tied the night before came in handy, quickly sinking deep down to the bottom and after a few short minutes Russ had a sliver torpedo running against the drag after the hook set. We fished most of the morning on that same small stretch of water, each of us having good luck with bent rods and tight lines all morning. Around lunch we took a bit of a break to head into the “cricks” in search of a tarpon or two. The “cricks” within the mangrove-root system that made up Cangrejo Caye were basically very narrow channels of slow water where baitfish thrived. Schools of sardines by the tens of thousands passed by the boat as shimmering clouds in the water. Baby barracuda sat motionless waiting in ambush beneath the submerged roots as cormorants sat in the sunshine of the canopy above.
Unfortunately our luck with spotting tarpon was not as good as our luck with the bones. Feeling a bit hungry we dug into the lunch cooler provided by the lodge. To our surprise though, we had picked up the wrong cooler from the dock that morning. Rummaging through the sandwiches we found some homemade salsa and chips to snack on, but no Limeade for Russ. The salsa was excellent but we were both puzzled by a special ingredient neither of us could identify. Carlos informed us that the ingredient was conch, and the conch salsa was known locally as “ceviche.”
We moved out of the crick and out into some open water still hoping for a passing tarpon or any of the decent-size snook we had seen. The wind and sun were conspiring against us for a while after lunch. Even with polarizing lenses, the glare off the ocean obstructed sight fishing. We finished the afternoon casting weighted flies into some deeper water and netted another handful of Bones apiece. The second days fishing had been even better than the first, and as it sunk in that the trip was already half over, we were both smiling at the thought that we still had half the trip still to fish.
Back at the lodge, I invested myself in tying. Most of the fish caught on the first day, and all of the fish we had caught on the second day were caught on flies Russ or I had tied. I set up my vice at the fly tying desk in the lodge and over hors d’oeuvres prior to dinner I tied up another half-dozen Christmas Island Specials and a half-dozen Pink/Tan Gotchas.
I have always derived a special degree of satisfaction from catching fish on flies I have personally tied, and it’s a nice feeling to be able to give someone else a fly and have it be successful for them. After another scrumptious dinner prepared by Chris and the staff, I drifted back to the lounge to finish a bit of tying and enjoy a cigar. Belize has no trade restrictions with Cuba, and the Havana Cohiba was very smooth. Nights at the lodge were simply relaxing. Stories of the days fishing, fresh squeezed fruit juices, some local rum if you so chose to imbibe, and Jimmy Buffet on the radio.
I awoke to a sky on fire, the sun burning yellow and orange through the low clouds on the horizon. Palm trees silhouetted in black against the contrasting white sand and grey blues of the ocean at dawn. It was going to be a good day.
Antonio, El Pescador’s bartender, had personally made and delivered to the dock a thermos of Limeade for Russ, which I promptly hid beneath a towel. The skies were still overcast as Carlos reversed the engines and pulled us away from the dock. Revisiting the deep sandy mud flat from the day before, we both tied on weighted Christmas Island Specials; within an hour we had already landed a half-dozen healthy bonefish.
After another hour basking in the summer sun casting to silver flashes and packs of green shadows, we broke for lunch, and Carlos cruised slowly around the southern inlets of the caye hoping to put us in a position to spot cast to some larger fish. Russ was up on the casting bow “blind” fishing the water when his line grew taught, but the reel didn’t sing the song of a running bonefish. It didn’t buzz the tune of the explosive leap of a tarpon, or the scream of a permit digging into your backing. In fact, the reel didn’t make much noise at all.
Carlos just smiled from the back of the boat. Bonefish spend their days cruising the sand and mud flats looking for shrimp and small crabs. Russ had been unknowingly casting into a large patch of turtle grass where a hungry red snapper had decided that his fly looked good enough to eat. Sometimes the fishing gods throw you a curveball.
For us, the fishing gods threw us two curveballs in a row. The dream of a fly fisher in Belize is catching a “Grand Slam.” That is, landing a bonefish, permit and tarpon, preferably all in the same day. My Grand Slam was slightly less glamorous. Shortly after Russ’ red snapper, I caught a nice yellow snapper (or mutton snapper). Several minutes later I had another fish on, who initially started to run. I saw the silver flash of the fish as it shook against the drag. Could it be a baby permit? Could I be that lucky? We hadn’t seen a single permit during the trip. Alas, it wasn’t a permit, it was only a yellowtail, a cousin of the mackerel, but I had my first Belize Grand Slam.
We continued to work different sections of the southern flats of Cangrejo Caye through the early afternoon with some success. Russ spotted, casted to, hooked, played, and landed a beautiful 3 to 3½ pound bonefish in nearly textbook fashion. On the opposite end of the spectrum somehow I managed to foul hook a 3-inch sardine. As was said before, the fishing gods were throwing plenty of curves to us. The winds shifted yet again in the afternoon, and we found ourselves cruising back to our by now familiar deepwater sandy mud flat. As was the case earlier in the morning weighted Christmas Island Specials began to produce plentiful 1 to 2 pound bones. The fishing was great, and the conversations enjoyable. All in all another fantastic day on the water.
The seas were up as we sailed back to the lodge. The white line of waves crashing against the barrier reef more pronounced than ever. As usual Bob was waiting on the dock, where the charade of my Grand Slam lasted about eight seconds before the smiles revealed the species involved. Russ and I had caught well over a dozen bonefish apiece throughout the day, yet hadn’t had any luck with the other true grand slam species. We agreed that on our last day we would spend some time shooting for a tarpon.
I set up my vise on the tiers desk in the lounge again that night, more for amusement than for turning out flies for the next days fishing. With the same thought process from the movie A Field of Dreams that “if you build it they will come,” I began to tie a spun ram’s wool crab. I didn’t follow any particular pattern, I was just having fun. I am by no means an expert tier, but as I slowly trimmed the wool into shape after dinner, a reasonably good-looking crab began to appear. The fly was tied, now it was the permit’s turn to show up on the flats.
The weather had improved overnight, the skies shining bright and blue, and winds calmly blowing towards shore. We bypassed the deep sandy mud flat “Honey Hole” that had produced such nice numbers the past few days, and headed straight for a narrow overgrown mangrove crick.
Russ situated himself on the bow casting platform with a 9-foot, 9-weight Orvis Zero Gravity fly rod that Bob had let us borrow in case we had a shot at bigger fish. Russ tied on a Black Death tarpon fly he tied back home in Missouri while Carlos poled the boat into the crick. Once again, Carlos had found the fish!
Hovering in about two feet of water was a tarpon, but a very spooky tarpon who shot off like a rocket at the sound of an errant noise from the boat. Slowly and quietly Carlos managed to pole the boat further into the crick. Russ had several good casting shots at some nice tarpon, but the fish just weren’t taking the bait. The crick began to close in so tight that casting became difficult. Happy to have even had the opportunity of seeing a tarpon we made our way back out of the crick.
Carlos thought we would explore a bit in search of some bigger fish for our last day on the boat. He got us on a split school of Bonefish feeding between two banks of turtle grass over a sandy bottom. Russ and I were both successful in presenting long distance casts to the spooky fish and landed a couple of nice bones. The current in the area we were fishing was slowly drifting us off the flat. Carlos had just started to climb down off of the spotting tower to reposition the boat when he said the one word I had been hoping to hear “permit.” In the 30 seconds it took me to switch places with Russ on the bow, the fish were gone. None of us were sure what had caused the fish to spook so quickly. I would have truly enjoyed getting to throw at least one cast at them. I do know one thing, the fishing gods accepted my ram’s wool crab fly offering and the permit came. If I ever end up fly-fishing in Belize again I’ll be tying a token permit and tarpon fly each night.
Looking to simply catch a few more fish before the day was over, we asked Carlos to bring us once again to the Honey Hole. The bones were deep again, but were actively feeding, and we commenced to actively catching them once again. The end of the day arrived much too quickly for either of our liking as we reeled in our final casts at Cangrejo Caye. As is so often the case neither of us wanted to return to the lodge. Somewhat reluctant but with beaming smiles the fly rods were secured, and fly boxes closed for the boat ride back to El Pescador. The water was a deep rich aqua marine blue as the bow cut a foaming wake towards the lodge.
Bob helped us unload the boat for the last time. Carlos had been a great guide, friendly and knowledgeable, and always on the fish. We paid him a well-deserved and grateful tip and wished him well as he left the dock for home. We rinsed the salt from the rods and out of the reels at the end of the dock and carried our gear back to the room. I freshened up with a dip in the pool and enjoyed a cold Belikin beer before dinner.
At dinner that night we were briefly and graciously placed in the spotlight as Bob presented us with bonefish pins in recognition of catching our first Belize bonefish at El Pescador. The pins are just pins, but the experiences, new friends, fun and memories they represent are priceless.
The next morning, with the boats and guides sailing for the fishing grounds, Russ and I did what anyone in our position would do, grabbed our fly rods and sought put a line in the water. We had hoped to explore the lagoon behind the lodge, but the limitation of time found us walking down the beach in search of promising water. Instead of finding ideal water in and amongst the docks of the resorts lining the shores of Ambergris Caye, we agreed that a dry fly line has never caught a fish. Casting for the pure enjoyment of a tight loop we fished a mixed patch of turtle grass and muddy sand. Enjoying the morning sun Russ promptly was teaching a curious passerby the rhythm of fly-casting.
As luck would have it, red snapper were actively feeding within the turtle grass. Though small in size, the fish which bend my fly rod were a pleasant site and an enjoyable way to spend my last few hours waist deep in Belize waters.
Returning back to the lodge, I finally faced the fact that the trip was nearing its end. Breaking down my fly rod and packing it away into the travel tube was bittersweet. I hated to see the trip end, but felt privileged to have simply had the opportunity. Russ met me at the dock and walked with me to the same water taxi that had delivered us to the lodge five days prior. I will remember Russ, Bob, Belize and the El Pescador Lodge the rest of my life. Slowly slipping away from the dock I gave Russ a wave of the hand. Not a wave goodbye, but a gesture of until we meet again.
Though injured on my last deployment, I find myself presently preparing myself physically and mentally to re-deploy back overseas this spring. My physical recovery and rehabilitation has been remarkable. More importantly though, mentally I have been recharged. I face and endure tremendous levels of stress in the service, and it has been the complete absence of stress while fishing that has soothed the nerves rubbed raw by conflict. Rifle ballistics replaced by roll casts to mend a dry fly drift, IEDs tamed by the sight of trout sipping midges, RPGs forgotten by the sound of the drag clicking on a bonefish’ first searing run.
Project Healing Waters has provided me with abundant and unique situations to regain a sense of balance and calm. At some point every day I wish that I hadn’t been injured, yet the camaraderie and friendships I have gained though PHW are irreplaceable.
Go to projecthealingwaters.org.