Last week we were fly fishing in Belize at my favorite beach, Placencia. Famous for its 16-mile long peninsula, Placencia is the second most popular beach town in Belize after San Pedro on Ambergris Caye. The snaking peninsula, merely a few yards across at its skinniest point, is actually comprised of three towns (Maya Beach and Sienne Bight being the other two), but as tourism in this area continues to grow the whole thing is generally referred to as Placencia. The town itself is located right at the end of the peninsula and features a very welcoming atmosphere with its famous sidewalk, lots of great restaurants, and of course plenty of good bars serving cold Belikin beer and local rum – we are talking about Belize after all!
While far less developed and touristy than its counterpart San Pedro in the north, Placencia still clings to its roots as a laid back fishing town full of friendly locals. The gorgeous white sand beaches, easy access to marine national parks for amazing snorkeling and diving, the Mesoamerican Reef just 30 minutes away and proximity to one of the world’s best whale shark viewing sites – the Gladden Split – it’s no wonder Placencia has seen tremendous growth in the past 15 years. The fact it’s located on a skinny peninsula and land is limited is probably a good thing otherwise this place has everything needed to make developers and hoteliers salivate. We were here to fly fish however, and Placencia also happens to be one of the best fly fishing destinations in the Caribbean. Geographically blessed with literally miles and miles of saltwater flats Placencia is home to some of the best permit fishing in the entire world. The hundreds of cayes, including the aptly named Tarpon Caye, are home to huge school of bonefish and resident tarpon making the Grand Slam a very real possibility for the skilled and fortunate angler.
Our first day of flats fishing didn’t work out too well for us however, as is often the case in Belize – and anywhere in the Caribbean for that matter – the weather was unpredictable and changed by the hour. We woke up to strong winds, white caps, and gray skies so we were almost literally blown off the flats by the back end of a 3-day storm so we made lemonade out of our lemons and decided to fish the lagoon side of the peninsula. First we took our 23 ft. skiff south to the popular Monkey River to fish for tarpon and snook. With the recent rains our guide, Martin, had hopes that the river fishing might be productive as the first rains of the year tend to blow out a lot of garbage and with it the bait fish and shrimp that tarpon and snook love to feed on. We saw a couple tarpon roll but couldn’t get any bites, but we didn’t manage to land one small snook in a tiny creek along the river. After a few hours there we ran back to the lagoon side of Placencia and fished a seemingly endless mangrove coastline and crawled up a few small rivers along the way. At this point we were hoping for anything – jacks, snapper, tarpon, snook, even barracuda, but could only manage one more snook to end our day. Our flats fishing day turned out to be a snook fishing day in rivers and lagoons, but there are worse things than fly fishing for snook in Belize.
Fortunately the next day the storm had moved along enough to allow us to get out on fishing on the flats like we had been dreaming of for months. Martin was a rearing to go as we were, this guy eats, sleeps and breaths permit fishing. He was ready for us at 6:00 AM as promised, he’s not the kind of guy who is going to miss prime permit fishing conditions for a few extra hours of sleep. His brother Erwin, also a fantastic captain himself, chided him with his best Marvin impersonation “You wanna catch permit, you gotta be on time!” Martin explained that with the high tide being around noon the prime permit bite would be at about 10 AM to 1 PM so we had a few hours to kill before we hit the flats. We headed straight to Tarpon Caye to fish for, well tarpon of course! I’ve done plenty of tarpon fishing in Costa Rica during my time here, but most of that is deep water fishing with heavy spinning gear for BIG tarpon. What makes Belize such an amazing spot for tarpon fishing is that more often than not you are sight casting to your fish. As we poled into the lagoon at Tarpon Caye we immediately saw four of silver kings swimming in about three feet of crystal clear water. I didn’t even bother casting my fly for a minute or two, I was just enjoying being able to look a free swimming tarpon in the eye for the first time! That moment quickly passed and I regained my focus of trying to catch one on the fly, but they weren’t interested in anything we threw at them – clousers, cockroaches, or gummies. They seemed quite content, and full, on the thousands of sardines they were herding along the mangroves so we let them be and moved on to the main event – permit!
Nearby Martin took us to one of the longest flats I’ve ever fished, easily three quarters of a mile long. We anchored, put on our booties and off we went to stalk the elusive permit. The conditions were near perfect, it was sunny so we could see shadows below the surface and there was more than enough wind to keep a chop on the surface so that the notoriously spooky permit wouldn’t have such an easy time spotting us. About ten minutes into our walk Martin pointed out a large, long green body slowly cruising towards us. He guessed it was a shark but as it got closer he determined it was just a really big barracuda. Once I finally saw what he was looking at I asked how common it was to see fish that big up on the flats and he said it happens, but it’s not normal. Just then he grabbed my left shoulder hard and said “Permit! Don’t Move!” As instructed I froze where I was standing, although it was probably more instinctive because I knew he was either really excited or scared about something, and then I saw it – there was a big permit between us and the barracuda just ten feet from us and getting closer. I whispered to Martin if I should cast, he said not yet, so I remained frozen watching this fly angler’s dream swim just a few feet from where I was planted. Turns out this permit wasn’t stopping to feed, he continued on his way quickly enough and headed for deeper water. We put two and two together and figured out what the big barracuda was doing up there, he was hunting the same permit we were!
We kept making our way down the flats and finally saw the beautiful sight every saltwater fly angler wants to see, a tailing permit. With a near 20-knot cross wind it wasn’t the easiest casting conditions, but if you are waiting for a perfectly calm day with hungry fish you’ll spend more time at home thinking about fishing than actually on the water. We could see this fishing moving from right to left so Martin told me to lead it by five feet so I double hauled as hard as I could and tried to play the wind but severely underestimated it. My merkin crab landed about six feet behind the fish, it never saw it, I cursed myself. Martin encouraged, “Pick it up, go again!”, so I stripped in my line, double hauled a few false casts, and let go another cast. This one was closer, but still three feet behind it once the wind took its toll. “Go again, he didn’t see it!” Martin said. I tried again, this time giving the wind too much credit and my fly line landed right over the permit – a big no-no. Unbelievably it didn’t get scared and swim off, it actually swam towards us! The fish ended up swimming within six feet of us on his way up the flats so it was too close to cast to a fourth time, how many times is that an issue when permit fishing? We were only twenty minutes into our walk and we had two permit within ten feet of us so I couldn’t help but feel awestruck, excited, and admittedly confused. Everything I have experienced, saw, and was told on my previous fly fishing trips to Belize is that these permit are amazingly easy to spook – splat your fly too loud, cast too close, or make too many false casts and they’ll see you and be long gone before you have a second (or even a first) chance. I stopped to ask Martin “What was that all about? I had no idea you could get that close to permit.” He replied “Oh ya mon. Deez fish, you get right up to dem some days.” I guess today was that day.
It wasn’t long after that we saw a pair of tailing permits, and this time I made the perfect cast. My heart was pumping as Martin reminded me to go slow when stripping my crab so I stripped and waited for the tug of a permit bite. Nothing happened so Martin told me to go again, the fish were still there. Another great cast, this time he told me to wait before moving the crab again. “OK Go!” he shouted so I began to strip. I could see BOTH of them turn skinny to me and start to follow my fly. ‘This is it…’ I allowed myself to think as I slowly stripped the crab. Then as quickly as they turned and followed my crab they lost interest and went off the flats and Martin, with a hint of exasperation in his voice, says “Ahh mon, you shoulda stripped quicker when dey both were afta it, den dey fight over it and try to eat it before de odda one does.” I didn’t feel too bad about that blunder, I’ve rarely had one permit follow my crab much less two at the same time, but now I know for the next pair!
We reached the end of the flats and turned around to walk it back to the boat. We quickly found a group of five moving the same direction we were, but they were moving fast. They’d swim and we’d walk, they’d stop to feed and I’d try to land my fly close to them, this time nearly into the 20-knot wind. Too many times to count Martin said “Short! Pick up go again!” This wind was as frustrating as these quick moving fish, but at the same time I wasn’t going to complain because how many people get the chance to walk alongside five permit for what was probably 5-10 minutes straight? We made our way down the flats, each cast getting closer and closer to our anchored boat where we started so I knew I was running out of time. Two of the permit split off and went on one side of the flat, too far to cast to, but the other three were still in play. I made my cast, it wasn’t great but good enough, I was determined that I wasn’t going to let a weak cast be the reason I didn’t get a permit this year. I began to strip, slowly, I knew my crab was in a great spot for the direction they were heading. Strip, wait, strip, wait. Just then the biggest of the three turned skinny to me and started to follow my crab. My head was racing – ‘Ok this time should I go slow like he said or fast? This is a BIG permit, I hope my 8 wt can handle this. If he takes then and runs I hope I can get all the slack line reeled in without a knot .’ Martin was hunched over with excitement watching this play out, I was sure this was finally my moment, and then the permit turned sideways and I saw his big flat body swim away and leave the flats for good. Amazing, exhilarating, frustrating and exciting and we didn’t get a single bite – that’s permit fishing for you!
The tide began to run out so the permit left the flats for deeper water and we followed suit. After eating lunch Martin took us to another small protected caye to try and get my fiancé Theresa to catch her first bonefish. Using spinning gear and a piece of fresh conch for bait, it didn’t take long for a small bonefish to starting making the reel scream and he peeled off braided line with ease. Next we went to another island under development as Martin said the deep marina they were building is home to tarpon and jacks. I was back on the bow fly fishing with a black and green clouser and after just two or three casts had a nice tug on the line. We were in deeper water so I couldn’t see who took my fly, but the way it was running on my fly reel and shaking its head I was guessing it was a jack. After a short fight I had it near the boat – bonefish! This was easily my biggest bonefish ever landed, a nice three pounder, which is good sized for Belize.
This was easily one of my favorite days fly fishing in Belize despite the fact we only landed a few fish. We stared eye to eye with countless 50+ lb tarpon, we had numerous shots at tailing permit on the flats, and we each landed bonefish –including her first and my biggest. If you don’t catch a grand slam the next best thing has to be getting casts in to at least attempt one, and in Belize that’s an easy thing to.