- By: Jim Klug
To combat the heat, I sipped a beer in a ramshackle bar next to the Belize City Municipal Airport, watching the blades of a rusty ceiling fan turn while waiting for an already-late flight south to Placencia. Across the room, a surly, bearded gent wearing motorcycle-cop Ray-Bans drank a bottle of Belikin. It wasn’t his first, judging by a line of empties on the table.
After tapping his watch with a bottle, he looked over and asked for the time. Then he finished his beer, stretched and headed out a side door. I ordered another beer and was halfway through it when a skinny Creole kid sporting a Michael Jordan jersey told me the plane to Placencia was loading.
I headed out on the tarmac, climbed through the side door of an old Cessna, and was surprised to see my bearded buddy with the Ray-Bans—strapped in the pilot’s seat, readying the plane for takeoff. It was the mid-1990s and my first trip to Belize. I was single, without children, a wide-eyed saltwater rookie eager to fish new waters, new species and taste true adventure. So, on that day more than a dozen years ago, ignoring the risk of death in flaming wreckage, I nestled into that cramped Cessna and began my great journey.
I fell in love with Belize on that first trip, and over the years I’ve returned to this small Central American country dozens of times. Through all these years, I’m now convinced that the country was founded with fly-fishers in mind; nowhere else in the Caribbean do anglers find so much great fishing jammed into such a small and manageable area.
Belize has changed since that first visit. These days, you won’t likely fly with a tipsy pilot, but you will find several great lodges with highly competent guides catering to serious anglers. And there’s still great adventure to be had, ranging from tarpon pushing the scale to 200 pounds to permit often cresting the 20-pound mark. As a bonus, some of the most consistent bonefishing on the planet is accessed in Belize. In fact, Belize offers, arguably, the greatest species diversity in the Caribbean. Bonefish, permit, tarpon, snook, jacks, snapper, barracuda and numerous other species inhabit these waters—large numbers of fish that draw hard-core, experienced and just-get-started-in-salt anglers alike.
When deciding where to fish in Belize, it helps to know which places offer exactly what you’re looking for, as well as where you’ll find the best fishing for specific species. Ignore the facts and, despite such great opportunity, you may head home with a sunburned neck and disappointment running through your veins. Here’s a look at Belize, from north to south with the accompanying angling options.
A SHORT 15-MINUTE FLIGHT FROM BELIZE CITY
places anglers in the funky beach town of San Pedro, which ranks as the most popular tourist destination in Belize. Anglers who leave behind the cruise ship day-trippers and intoxicated Texans wearing “Divers Do It Deeper” tank tops find some of the best fishing in Belize.
Offering the largest “classic-style” tarpon flats in the world outside South Florida, Ambergris is one of the few spots in the Caribbean where tarpon are sight-fished all year. In fact, the waters of northern Belize—specifically the “tarpon triangle” that encompasses the area between Ambergris and the mainland all the way south to Long Caye—easily rank among the world’s tarpon hotspots. Resident schools of tarpon (with fish ranging between 20 and 80 pounds) are found all year, roaming the area’s four- to eight-foot deep flats in waters that are usually crystal clear. Larger migratory tarpon, fish in the 100- to 200-pound range, arrive in late spring and early summer, a schedule similar to that of the Florida Keys.
Lately some people have dismissed the Ambergris area as too crowded and overfished. (I really love hearing this from some guy wearing a Key West visor.) My advice is to ignore that kind of talk. There are many die-hard, serious tarpon anglers who journey to Ambergris on a regular basis, experienced tarpon addicts who know how good the sight-fishing can be. When fishing with the right guide, I’ll put this area up against any tarpon fishery in the world. Every season, tarpon pushing 200 pounds are jumped and sometimes landed, and it’s likely only a matter of time before a new world-record fish is pulled from Ambergris waters.
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As with most areas of Belize, a guide is key when fishing Ambergris, as much for access as anything else. While there are some wadeable do-it-yourself flats in the area, most of the quality fishing is accessed via panga, a 23-foot skiff that’s become the workhorse watercraft in this part of the Caribbean. All tarpon fishing in northern Belize is conducted from these skiffs, and that craft is often used for permit and bonefish, too.
Realize there are some places in northern Belize where anglers can wade hard, sand bottoms while stalking bones and permit. So don’t be afraid to inform your guide if you prefer wading to fishing from a boat. With regard to angling diversity at Ambergris, it’s not uncommon to find snook in the mangroves, schools of small-to medium-size permit and large jacks on the flats, and snapper in the channels.
While there are numerous lodging, condo and timeshare options found throughout Ambergris (remember it’s only a couple of hours flight time from the United States) premiere accommodations are found at El Pescador Lodge, a first-rate fishing operation that’s been in business for more than 40 years. El Pescador is ideal for families, kids and couples, as well the 5 a.m. diehard angler types.
Wondering if Ambergris is the right place for you? Whether you’re serious about sight-fishing for tarpon, a beginner looking to catch a good number of bonefish on the fly or someone who needs a family destination or husband/wife trip where you can get in some great fishing, Ambergris should be high on your angling hit-list. As a kicker, San Pedro has the best bars, the best nightlife and the highest concentration of fun-loving female divers and Texas sorority girls in the Caribbean. Fish hard, play hard and maybe catch the largest tarpon of your life—that’s the appeal of Ambergris.
If you appreciate seclusion, privacy and a pristine fishing ecosystem, check out Turneffe Atoll, the largest atoll in the western hemisphere and one of the least-developed and least-visited areas of Belize. Bonefishing is the mainstay on Turneffe, and the atoll has miles of crystal-clear, wadeable flats. The atoll’s ocean-side flats are picturesque and, without question, home to the largest number of big bonefish found anywhere in Belize.
Here, anglers sight-fish to large schools of tailing two-to three-pound bonefish virtually any day of the year. Smaller schools of medium-sized bones are also common, and large “cruisers” in the six-to eight-pound range are found on a regular basis. Bonefishing on Turneffe is consistently good throughout the year and offers something for anglers of all experience levels. Novice saltwater anglers may expect to see hundreds of bonefish over the course of a week, while experienced bonefish addicts find plenty of challenge while casting to large fish in skinny water.
Turneffe Atoll is home to an interesting fishery phenomenon that, for some reason, has developed only recently and seems to get better each passing year. The interior waters of the atoll, on soft flats that border huge mangrove expanses, offer an exceptional population of “schoolie” permit, which range between five and 25 pounds. When these fish invade the turtle-grass flats all anglers, whether seasoned permit-pursuers or not, have a legitimate chance to hook a permit. Though some say that is not “classic” permit fishing, it’s a lot of fun and a great way to hook up a notoriously difficult and picky fish and, in many instances, send anglers home with the coveted grand-slam coup—a permit, bonefish and tarpon in a day.
The owners and guides at Turneffe Flats Lodge have mixed feelings about this type of permit fishing. On one hand, they prefer anglers to focus on the traditional “tailing-fish-in skinny-water” permit shots that the atoll offers. On the other hand, the mangrove permit fishing means that a lot of people who visit the area are catching permit and leaving happy.
Anglers looking for silver kings catch small, resident tarpon that inhabit the atoll’s creeks, channels and lagoons throughout the year. Fishing for larger, migratory tarpon begins in April and continues through mid-October. May through August is generally the best time for tarpon fishing on Turneffe, as this is the season when most of the migratory fish in the 70- to 200-pound range pass through. It’s also a timeframe that most U.S. anglers avoid, choosing instead to visit Belize when the snow flies at home. By hitting Belize during the summer months, anglers take advantage of excellent off-season lodge deals and find some giant, naïve tarpon to tangle with.
When fishing tarpon at Turneffe don’t expect classic sight-fishing situations. Instead, anglers cast moderate sinking lines and bright flies into deep cuts. Strikes are garnered under the surface. As with typical tarpon fishing, all hell breaks loose when those fish reach the surface.
It’s important to note that Craig Hayes, an American who owns Turneffe Flats Lodge, is one of the most active, forward-thinking conservationists in Belize. He’s been involved in the management of Belize fisheries for more than 25 years, and during that entire time he’s led the charge for progressive and protective fisheries policies—an uphill battle almost every step of the way. Joining him in the fray are Mike Huesner, who owns Belize River Lodge, and Ali Gentry at El Pescador Lodge. Their efforts finally paid off in fall 2008 when the Belizean government announced that all bonefish, tarpon and permit would be protected, throughout the country, with mandatory catch-and-release regulations. Belize becomes the first country in the Caribbean to enact this type of protection. Hats off to Hayes, Huesner and Gentry and all those who fought hard for the fish.
Permit are considered the Holy Grail of fly-fishing, perhaps the most highly prized gamefish in the world. They are wary, elusive and ultra-selective, which makes them the most difficult inshore saltwater fish to capture. For anglers looking to fish permit in classic skinny-water, tails-in-the-air, hard-sand and turtle-grass-flats situations, Placencia is the place to be.
While bonefish, tarpon and snook inhabit these waters, the primary reason you visit Placencia is for permit. Be warned, however: if you’re an angler who is impatient, easily bored or quick to anger, you should stick to northern Belize. If you want to focus on permit and learn the intricacies of these sickle-tailed sons-a-bitches from some of the best permit guides in the world, Placencia should top your angling hit list.
North of Placencia (closer to the Dangriga area) is the famous Blue Horizon Lodge, a rustic out-island operation that’s a favorite with serious permit anglers. It’s not a place to take non-fishing companions, but it is a great base of operations for fishing these waters from sunup to sundown.
A similar operation, located further south and closer to the town of Placencia, is Cabral’s Whipray Caye, a small, island-based fishing lodge owned and operated by Julian and Beverly Cabral.
Due to its prime location more than eight miles off the coast of Placencia, this lodge is perhaps best suited for those anglers whose enjoy long days on the water with the flexibility to fish the tides early and late in the day.
Accommodations on Whipray Caye are fairly rustic-basic cabins that overlook a small home flat. The small lodge features the famous Sea Urchin Bar, the best (and only) bar for miles around. Julian Cabral is a great guide and one of the most knowledgeable permit anglers in the region. (Just ask him, he’ll readily agree.) While some find him a bit cocky when it comes to permit fishing, he easily backs up that bravado with angling and guiding skills. When fishing with Cabral, it’s not uncommon to start the day before the sun comes up, leaving in the dark and arriving at a chosen flat at the first hint of daylight, an effort to take advantage of early tides. That’s a good tactic no matter where or who you are fishing with in the area or anywhere else in Belize for that matter.
In general, anglers who fish Placencia should expect to wade a good deal of the time, an option that makes this area unique.
Because far southern Belize has little tourism and is visited by few anglers, not many people are aware of the area’s phenomenal fishing. Bonefish, tarpon and snook are occasionally found in this part of Belize, but the draw at Punta Gorda is permit.
The waters of Punta Gorda boast more permit and more big permit than just about any place I’ve ever seen. In a single day on the area’s permit flats (when conditions are optimal), it is not unusual to see hundreds of permit, everything from big singles to large schools of five-to 15-pound fish. While these fish are by no means easy targets, anglers get plenty of shots, which increase the odds of landing a good fish.
For anglers seeking diversity, the outer reef islands (the Sapodilla Cayes) offer opportunities for bonefish and can be well worth the hour-plus run from the mainland. Relatively untouched and numerous, bonefish on the outer cayes average two-to three pounds, with six-to eight-pound fish occasionally found. In addition, the rivers and river mouths of the Punta Gorda region offer seasonal fishing for snook, large jacks, and tarpon that run anywhere from 10 to well over 100 pounds.
Regarding accommodations and guides in Punta Gorda, there is some great news to report. The Garbutt brothers—Scully, Eworth, Oliver and Dennis—opened a lodge at the mouth of Joe Taylor Creek in the town of Punta Gorda. The brothers are considered to be the finest permit guides in this part of Belize. The lodge is thoroughly fishing-focused, a place where permit anglers may base when fishing the southern waters. Three new cabins are now built over the water, with a multi-level main lodge and bar area serving as the operation’s epicenter.
After a dozen years spent fishing Belize and traveling throughout the country, I have as much respect for the area as the day I first visited, when I accepted a possible death wish and climbed aboard a Cessna with that rummy pilot.
Overall, Belize’s options for the big three—tarpon, bonefish and permit—are as good as those found anywhere in the world and they stand to get better with the country’s comprehensive catch-and-release regulations.
I make my living testing prime fishing waters and lodge operations around the world and I consider Belize to offer quintessential saltwater options. No matter if you desire lots of bonefish, a monster permit or big tarpon, you’ll find them here. As a bonus, Belize’s pristine and highly protected fishing grounds are quickly reached from the U.S.—you don’t need to ride an airplane for two days as you would when fishing Christmas Island, the Seychelles or Los Roques. If you need a quick getaway Belize is the place to be.
Jim Klug is the co-owner of Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures and the producer of Drift, a fly-fishing film currently touring the United States. Klug lives in Bozeman, Montana.