We Were Very Lucky

We Were Very Lucky

Life Lessons Learned off Glover's Reef, Belize

  • By: Brian Irwin
  • Photography by: Brian Irwin

Click image for slideshow.

Lloyd Nunez is a quiet guide . THE 46-YEAR-OLD Garifuna man directs mostly by discreet hand gestures and forced whispers. He’s never been to New York, but wears a shirt that declares, “Brooklyn: Only the Strong Survive.” He has an enigmatic smile and rough, work-hardened hands. He’s guided for bonefish, tarpon and permit off the coast of central Belize for 22 years, and knows the coral isles that make up the Great Barrier and Glover’s reefs well. Because he was raised on them.

Nunez spent most of his youth on South Water Cay, 15 acres of coral with no running water or power (even today). South Water Cay is part of Belize’s Great Barrier Reef, the second largest in the world. The cay and its surrounding isles are skirted with shallow flats, often carpeted with turtle grass. Some have deep coves that hold pods of resident tarpon. And between them, in nondescript patches of ocean water, the reef rises to just under the surface. Here permit sometimes tail in world-class concentrations. This stretch of ocean offers one of the world’s best shots at a grand slam. And this past October, Nunez and his son, Alvin, guided me in search of one.
To the east of the barrier reef, 30 miles out, rests Glover’s Reef. By stringing together angling days on both reefs Nunez promised a bounty of chrome. A true atoll, Glover’s is a ring of coral that surrounds more than 160 square miles of shallow turquoise water. The water thins to skinny as it approaches the eastern edge of the reef, where a fin of jagged coral runs the length of the reef. It’s only exposed above water for a few miles, allowing it to generate four idyllic, remote islands that are decidedly Tahitian in character. Adjacent there are vast expanses of perfect flats teeming with tailing bones.
I stayed on the coast in Hopkins at a comfortable resort, which allowed early starts and plenty of rum punch. Lodging is scarce offshore, but the ride to the first reef takes a mere half hour (at least it does at the Nunez’ breakneck speed). The two own a panga, a rustic, 23-foot open boat with a shovel nose and a 60-horse outboard. Throttle wide open, my teeth chattered until we pulled onto the permit flats just as the tide was falling.
I spent the majority of the first morning trying to figure out what I was looking for. I’ve only fished permit twice; I’ve seen a total of two in my life. This day offered no more than a single blade slicing the surface as the fish that drove it fed on crabs. I dropped a crab pattern onto its plate. He sucked it up, got pricked and was off in a torrent. When the tide fell, the flats became vacant, and in a light drizzle we eased into a shallow cove where I came tight to a 50-pound tarpon. After several great jumps the fish came to hand and my skunk washed away with the rain.
South Water Cay’s flats provided a few bones during the afternoon and the following days, but the permit haunted my mind. I only had two more shots at permit that week, one of which I spiked on the head. A decisive pit sat in my stomach because of unfinished business on the flats. Of course I was fortunate to be fishing, yet I felt a bit unfulfilled—the permit hunter’s and grand slam seeker’s dilemma. I looked at my pricey reels and cameras, pondering the irony, when Nunez spoke a rare word.
“That house,” he said, pointing to a pastel cabana in one of South Water Cay’s diving resorts, “was my home.” For once, he elaborated. “I spent 16 years there. All we had were kerosene lamps and fish. My father was a fisherman. For lobster. He had 200 traps. We were very lucky.”
On the last day of our trip, we awoke to rain. The Doppler pattern showed low pressure and moisture east of us all the way to Cuba. When Nunez and Nunez showed up on the beach with their panga, Lloyd stated, “That’s all OK. Weather will turn. We go.”
It takes almost two hours to run from Hopkins to Glover’s, but as promised the weather cleared, leaving blue skies and a dying wind. Once there, we glided around Southwest, Middle, Long and Northeast cays. Bucolic shacks idled unoccupied; palms dropped coconuts on the beach, where they rolled to the edge of schools of bonefish. We exhausted the schools around two cays, casting from the boat into deeper water. Then, Alvin poled us slowly away from the sparsely inhabited island and onto the broad flats that abut the reef. The fish were, in a sense, pinned against this obstruction, piling up in thick numbers, schools so abundant that they ran into each other.
The flat that comprises the eastern part of Glover’s atoll extended to the horizon. Originally my plan was to come to Glover’s and explore without a guide. In the planning process, however, I realized that I was biting off a chunk of reef too big to chew. The atoll is massive, so that even with a kayak, for example, access would be limited to a small part of the reef. It’s a humbling place, one where it’s hard to wrap your head around the enormity. We waded in and out of bays and around mangrove sprigs, following the tails and the tremulous water that revealed schools on the move. As the day wore on I remained empty of a larger bone, or any bone for that matter, from this idyllic flat. I pecked at the edges of one tailing school for a half-hour before sending them off toward deeper water.
But they didn’t really flee. Instead they moved far into the flat and then back into a blind-ending cove, flanked by island on one side, reef ridge on the other. Nunez smiled and said, “They’re cornered.”
The tails shimmered toward us slowly. A few casts later and one blunt tug on the line, and my spool shrieked as line peeled toward the horizon.
It took me a solid 10 minutes to land the three-pounder. I shot a few photos—maybe too many. When I released the fish, after aerating its gills it swam with an unhealthy tilt. Nausea hit me as I realized I might have killed this animal. I retrieved it by its tail, nursed it a bit more and allowed it to snap free of my grip. I glanced at Nunez. He may have sensed my disappointment in not getting a grand slam and quietly said, “Even though you didn’t catch a permit, you’re lucky. He was strong. He’ll survive.”

The author with his ice-breaker tarpon.

Travel Details
Guides for Glover’s are hard to come by, especially those who grew up near the reef and can find their way there without getting lost. Call Lloyd Nunez at 501-662-0873; [email protected]
Staying in the authentic town of Hopkins is the best option. The lodging is comfortable, but more important this position puts you close to permit, tarpon and bonefish flats, which are not an option if you stay on Glover’s. The perfect fit is Belizean Dreams, 800-456-7150; www.belizeandreams.com