Turneffe Flats Lodge

Turneffe Flats Lodge

Tropical saltwater angling in Belize, any time of year

  • By: Paul Guernsey
There were plenty of empty seats on my flight to Belize City, and for good reason: This was the middle of July, and not the time of year tourists usually think of vacationing in the tropics--and that was precisely why I was headed there. With fewer and fewer new fly-fishing destinations left to "discover," we angling writers have to seek out new angles on the known fisheries, and fishing in a hot country at the hottest time of the year certainly presents an offbeat perspective. But is this actually something a responsible writer can reasonably recommend? As it turned out, it is.

For one thing, this close to the equator seasons are a lot more similar to one another than they are father north. So, while July is indeed hotter in Belize than are either January or February, it's not that much hotter; certainly it's not hot enough to discourage an angler from taking advantage of a fishing opportunity that he wouldn't get at another time of year. And there was such an opportunity awaiting me: It is during the summer months that the big tarpon move into the saltwater channels in and around Turneffe Atoll, a palm-tree-and-coral-flats paradise about 30 miles off the coast of the Belizean mainland. Along with the seasonal tarpon fishing, Turneffe Atoll offers some of the world's best permit angling, as well as schools of bonefish that tend to compensate in numbers for what they lack in size.

During this trip, my friend, Ben Mintz, and I stayed at Turneffe Flats Lodge. Turneffe Flats, owned and operated by Craig and Karen Hayes, is one of the most well-known, well-respected and well-run fishing lodges in the entire country of Belize. In fact, over the years FR&R has written about the place several times--though until now we've never covered the much-neglected mid-summer angling.

Now, to cut to the chase: No, neither Ben nor I caught a tarpon, though we spent longish parts of every day heaving sinking-head lines off the tips of our 12-weights and into deep channels where we saw the occasional tarpon breaking the surface. It was one of those cases where, according to the calendar, plenty of fish should have been around; they just weren't--undoubtedly because fish can't read a calendar.

I need to point out here that after a certain amount of time--an hour and a half, perhaps--blind fishing with a tarpon rod and a sinking-head line becomes about as much fun as a trip to the chiropractor. Fortunately, there were several other games in town, and both of them were good ones. For example, we had one morning of permit fishing that was absolutely wonderful despite the fact that neither Ben nor I hooked one.

And why was that wonderful? Well, because it was some of the most exciting fishing I've ever had: For several unbroken hours, as our skilled young guide, Mark Hyde, poled us along the edges of the mangroves, we were periodically surrounded by permit feeding in the mud, their tail fins slicing the water like thin, black blades. Ben and I took turns on the casting deck trying to get them to eat one or another of our crab flies. Heartbreaking refusal after heartbreaking refusal made it all the more difficult for either of us to step out of the batter's box when our time was up and it was the other guy's turn at the plate. From time to time the school would vanish, leaving us in despair. Then Mark would find them again, and hope would spring anew. Finally, just before lunchtime, they went away for good.

We never found those permit again during the rest of the trip--but we did find plenty of bonefish to make up for them. Mark poled us onto flats too soft to wade, and we caught bonefish both by sight-casting and by blind-fishing. But by far my favorite times during our week at Turneffe Flats were when we left the boat and stalked bonefish on foot across the picturesque coral flats that surround the lodge. I especially loved being off by myself, finding my own fish without the benefit of Mark's experienced eyes and switching my way through a box of shrimp flies until I finally found one that worked. Though I undoubtedly caught fewer fish than I would have with the guide standing at my elbow, the bones I did hook gave me a terrific feeling of accomplishment.

Mark is far from being the only great guide at Turneffe Flats. In fact, one of the things this lodge is famous for is its all-star guiding staff, which includes the famous Pops Cabral, namesake of a number of effective bonefish flies. Turneffe Flats is also known for fine food, both Belizean and American, and I can testify that this culinary reputation is richly deserved. The dining room and bar in the main lodge building is the perfect place to gather after a day's fishing, and the beachside cabanas are air-conditioned and immaculate.

I'd visit Turneffe Flats again in a heartbeat--even if it were in the middle of August. But I'd sure like to try a little bonefish and permit action in February, too.

For further information on Turneffe Flats Lodge, call 888-512-8812; or visit turneffeflats.com