Last week we were in Belize fly fishing, diving, snorkeling and enjoying life in Placencia. Home to some of the best flats fishing in the Caribbean, Placencia has long been known as a dream destination for fly anglers to chase a grand slam. It’s much more than a simple one trick pony however as Belize is of course home to the world’s second longest barrier reef and waves its flag over 400 islands and cayes. Belize’s incredible bounty of marine life and warm, crystal clear water also makes it a great spot for reef fishing and bottom fishing too.
In addition to fly fishing last week I also spent one day doing offshore & reef fishing along the Mesoamerican Reef. In northern Belize near Ambergris Caye the reef is less than a mile from shore, but from Placencia it’s a 19 mile run on generally calm waters. I was joined again by my trusty captain Martin, who brought along his nephew Darryl since we’d be doing offshore fishing on their bigger 31’ Cape Horn. This beautiful center console boat features full boat combing, full marine electronics, live well, fish coffin, outriggers, twin Yamaha 250 HP engines and top of the line Penn conventional and spinning gear. Our plan for the day was simple – run out to an island, catch live bait, troll for wahoo & marlin outside the reef and then go bottom fishing to catch something for dinner. Being the fly fishing junkie that he is Martin told me to bring my 8 wt. Reddington fly rod because when fishing in Belize you have no idea what situations will arise. On the dock owner of the lodge, Mike Huxel, told me that we need to catch dinner for about 12 guests that he was hosting that night. Uhh OK, easy….
We left the dock at 7 AM and soon after were 18 miles offshore at Ranguana Caye, which Martin had been telling me all week was home to the biggest bonefish in Belize. While he positioned the boat for Darryl to toss the cast net into thick schools of sardines I was on the bow of the Cape Horn fly fishing for bonefish. That alone was quite a sight, all the while big breakers were crashing over the reef just a couple hundred yards away. I couldn’t fool any of the big bones with my fly and our live well was full of sardines so I brought in my line, secured the fly rod, and we jetted out past the breakers into the deep blue. Just like that the water plunged from under 50 ft. deep and being able to see the sandy bottom to 600-800 feet deep on the outside of the reef wall. I haven’t fished the entire world – yet – but I’m sure there are not many places where you can fly fish for bonefish and troll for marlin within a mile of each other.
After an hour or so of trolling plastics we were without any hits from wahoo or marlin, but we did find a big school of seagulls and black birds working the surface hard so we changed our big Yo-Zuri lures for smaller plastic squids and proceeded to make close passes to the bait ball. It didn’t take long before the first reel screamed – blackfin tuna! Small but delicious, this was a great start to our day to be able to fill our cooler with these guys. There were too many hook ups to count, including two triples, and we managed to put ten in the boat before they got spooked and headed for deeper water. With the offshore bite all but dead Martin made the call to stop trolling and get close to the reef so we could toss our live sardines out in hopes of catching dinner.
Farther up the reef Martin had a few ‘honey-holes’ he wanted to try, so on the very backside of the reef he’d look for the white circles of a sandy bottom and position the boat accordingly. Rigged with a simple J-hook and a live sardine we each cast our lines and waited for the game fish to come for us. The first few bites were garbage fish, a few needle fish and a huge remora which is something I’ve rarely seen free swimming and feeding like this. It was whale shark season in Belize however so I guess if you have big sharks you’ll have big remoras! It didn’t take long for us to get into the fish we wanted – a fat king mackerel, snappers, and a nice yellow jack. I’d never caught a yellow jack before, only jack crevalle, horse-eye jack, and blue-fin trevally, so it’s always fun to catch a new species and Martin assured me it’s the best tasting fish we had on the boat so far.
After a couple hours there the needlefish were on to us and taking all our bait so we picked up the lines and headed farther north towards the famed Gladden Split. This natural break in the Mesoamerican Reef is one of the world’s best spots for whale shark viewing as every April through June the mutton snapper come here to spawn on the full moon and the sharks follow close behind them. It was quite a sight today as there were about 20 local fishing boats, all of them identical 23’ pangas, anchored and lined up outside the reef fishing for snapper – most of them with just hand lines. We racked our spinning reels and started fishing the big Penn 30Ws as we started bottom fishing in about 200-300 ft. of water. Rigged with heavy weight, three hooks, and store bought squid we dropped down and waited for the tug. There were lots of little bites that picked our hooks clean a few times, but then I finally felt the tug I was waiting for. My rod bent, I jerked upwards to set the hook, and then the wrestling match began. By the way it was fighting, or should I say wasn’t fighting, I knew it wasn’t an amberjack but I could tell it was big by the weight of it and the slow pulls downward as the fish tried to swim back to the bottom. It wasn’t going to happen to me, and soon enough I boated a huge 25 lb. yellow grouper – Martin said it’s one of the biggest he’s ever seen! With the grouper, our seven tunas, yellow jack, snappers, and kingfish we were ready to head home.
Before we headed back to Placencia there was one last moment of excitement as one of commercial anglers excitedly put his hand on his head and starting making a swimming motion as if to indicate a big fish, so we immediately all thought ‘Whale Shark!’ We zoomed over to try and catch a glimpse of it before the dive boats got there, but it turns out he was trying to signal that there was a sailfish on, not a whale shark sighting. Just feet from the outside of the reef a nice Atlantic sailfish took one of their live sardines, the same ones we were catching jacks & snapper on, and was giving the surprised angler and his captain the fight of a life. To add to the excitement the dive boats did indeed see all this commotion so they zipped over and started looking for a whale shark – and then one actually appeared! It was impeccable timing by the shark to surface right near our boat, the dive boats, and the boat that was hooked up to the sailfish. The dive boats were trying to maneuver themselves in a position to let all their well-paying foreign divers jump in with the shark and couldn’t care less about a small 23’ panga that had a sailfish on the line – if they even knew it was there! The panga was trying to get out of the way and drag the sailfish away from the whale shark meanwhile Martin was screaming at the dive boat captains that they were going to run over this poor sailfish if they weren’t careful. During all this chaos I grabbed my dive mask and GoPro and was ready to jump in as soon as Martin gave me the green light. Not surprisingly, the whale shark got scared off by all the craziness and quickly swam away so I never had a chance to swim with it or get it on video. Luckily the line wasn’t cut and the small panga had the sailfish on board they took a few pics and slowly revived it until it was ready to swim away. We headed home with a boat full of fish, a good story to tell, and an appetite knowing that we had just caught one heckuva dinner for everyone.