Go to Turneffe Flats, spend your time chasing weird species and come home happy.
- By: Larry Kenney
In a rare stroke of luck, or something, the occupants of the middle and window seats next to me on the plane to Houston, from where Pat Dunlap and I would jump to a flight to Belize City, weren’t a fat guy and an anxious mother with a screaming infant. Instead, our neighbors were two 20-something cocktail waitresses who each worked their way through four Screwdrivers before we touched down.
“We’re going to the Bahamas to party,” said the blonde in the tank top, after drink number one. “Where you headed?”
“Belize,” I replied. “For the fishing.”
“Way cool,” she said. “What’s Belize?”
“A little country just south of the Yucatan. Used to be British Honduras.”
“I’ve heard of Honduras,” said the brunette in the You May Not Be The First, But You Could Be Next t-shirt. “It’s like, all jungley. Are there fish in the jungle?”
“I don’t think so. Anyway, we’ll be out on an island off the coast, fly-fishing.”
“Awesome,” said the blonde, as she twisted the top off another mini-bottle of vodka and added it to her existing drink. “Fly-fishing’s the bomb. My own father does it, too.” I heard Pat, in the row behind me, chuckling.
The glamour species in the nearshore waters of the Turneffe Atoll off the coast of Belize are of course permit, tarpon and bonefish. And Turneffe Flats Resort is a short boat ride from the best water. The atoll also has a population of resident tarpon, and Turneffe fly-rodders take as many permit—those fickle, sickle-tailed speedsters and the pinnacle of saltwater success for many—as anywhere in the world.
But when I was there, the tarpon were few and far between, and Pat and I had agreed that chasing frequently uncooperative permit was for another trip. As for bonefish, while we certainly wouldn’t try to avoid them, we were looking for something different. Fortunately, Turneffe Flats Resort owner Craig Hayes agreed that there was more to the fishing than the holy three, and suggested we target barracuda, snook and the wide variety of jack and snapper species found around the atoll.
On our first morning, Pat looked out the door of our cabin and groaned. The sky was gray, the palm trees were leaning at an angle and the water was a chop of whitecaps. “Bring your woolies?” he asked.
With a few exceptions, the barometer and the winds played us for fools for the next couple of days and fishing was lousy. No fault of the lodge, which fed, boozed and slept us admirably. Still, wearing a full suit of rain pants and jacket isn’t how most of us picture dressing for the flats. Fortunately, somewhere just after lunch on day three, the wind died, the clouds stopped looking like racing stripes and we found ourselves in the middle of a blue sky, turquoise water and the fishing we’d come for.
Snook have long been a romance fish for me, beautiful predators that live in gorgeous places and take flies aggressively. I’d not fished for them on other Belize trips because tarpon or bonefishing had taken precedence. This time would be different. We’d look for them. Fabian, who’d guided the area for almost 30 years, had a number of areas where he thought we’d have multiple good shots.
The snook Fabian found for us either lay concealed in or along the edge of the mangroves, or cruised slowly over sandy bottoms just off the mangroves where even my aging eyes could pick them up. They were there, but they weren’t easy.
Frustrated with casting wind-resistant poppers accurately, I switched, with Fabian’s blessing, to a slim size 1/0 Deceiver. The next shot was at a fish moving right to left about 15 feet out from the mangroves in two feet of water and only 40 feet away: a classic shot for a right-handed caster. I put the fly ahead and just off to the fish’s left and got his attention right away. Then he followed, and followed and followed some more. I was running out of retrieve.
“Stop the fly for a second or two, then move it again,” advised Fabian. I did, and the snook stayed under it like he was trying to see whether it was tied correctly and turned and swam off, slowly at first, then faster as I bounced a Hail Mary cast off its head. “My turn,” said Pat.
Fortunately, the next fish were more cooperative. Nothing much over five pounds, but challenging and big enough to satisfy our snook jones.
We found good-size barracuda outside the barrier reef and inside on the flats—and inside was the place to be to sight-cast to them. With Fabian poling and spotting fish, we had shots at singles and at the occasional double, to which we tossed both conventional flies and poppers rigged on wire bite tippet.
I’d like to report that we hooked most of the fish to which we cast, but that was far from the case. We had lots of follows and almost as many refusals, but the few solid takers made the time spent worthwhile: three-foot-long silver missiles that took off and cartwheeled into the air against a luminous blue sky. It’s as visually exciting as anything I’ve done with a fly rod.
The same flats that held barracuda generally held bonefish, and, as I mentioned, we didn’t go out of our way to avoid them. We’d fish an occasional mud, but for the most part worked large schools feeding in skinny water.
Why jacks of various species don’t get more attention from fly rodders is a mystery to me. They’re found in good numbers across the globe, are aggressive to the fly and hard-fighters.
We concentrated on jacks the last day, and I thought I’d finally hooked a big one late in the afternoon. There was no stopping this fish and I watched first as 120 feet of running line, then an equal amount of pink GSP backing, peeled off the reel. “Runs like a permit.” said Fabian. That’d be a treat, I thought.
I leaned on the fish and got the backing and some of the running line back on the reel, at which point I was able to put some sideways pressure on the fish. But 10 minutes of low rod work later and I still hadn’t seen color.
Pat, ever the supportive, nurturing type, had taken some pictures and was now looking at his watch. Another five minutes and I could see a vague, yellowish shape in the green water below the skiff. But it was unmovable, or mostly so. And then things became clearer.
It was a jack crevalle, maybe 15 pounds, hooked solidly in the belly. Fabian looked disappointed, but Pat’s comment, after he’d finished laughing, was expected.
“My turn,” he said.
And then it was time to head for a Screwdriver.
Larry Kenney is a freelance writer and rod-builder. For more about Belize, go to www.flyrodreel.com Travel section.