Fishing trips foster first-day jitters. Questions flirt through the angler’s mind. Did I practice my fly casting enough? Will practice translate into quality casts while standing on the bow of the boat with catch-able fish in range? Will the guide calling “bonefish 40 feet” have the same foot size as me?
Tony Peveler and I were among 14 anglers from Ohio gathered at the Blue Bonefish in Ambergris Caye, Belize, for six days of flyfishing for bonefish, permit, and tarpon. As we stood on the dock looking into a bright yellow rising sun as it sparked flame points on gentle waves, we strained to hear the outboard motors powering the Panga, the boat of choice in Belize, towards the dock to pick up anglers for the first day of fishing. I wondered, when will our guide arrive, first… last… what will he be like? Patience was thin.
Our trip host from Mad River Outfitters, Jerry Darkes, had selected David as our first day guide. I had traveled to Belize to catch a permit on fly. Not an easy feat. My good friend and neighbor Tony Peveler was on his first flats adventure.
Jim, the owner of the Blue Bonefish, stood on the dock to manage distribution of prepared lunches and drinks to the guides as they arrived dockside. “Here comes David”, Jim indicated. Two young Belizeans were in the boat. David brought Richard, also known as “Spice”, who was an apprentice working through the Belizean guide program. We learned later that Spice was afraid of the written portion of the examination which was required to complete the program and obtain a guide’s license. Nonetheless, over the next two days Spice showed off three essential elements of great guiding; enthusiasm, great vision, and solid local knowledge of the flats and fish.
Introductions were made, permission to come aboard the Panga granted, and our gear consisting of eight and nine weight fly rods with reels loaded with matching lines was stowed. In a few words, we became clear on two parts of the plan. First, despite our intent to ask our guides what they thought would work best, they insisted we tell them what we wanted to catch. Leaving the first type of fish to be sought on any given fishing day up to the anglers is the Belizean custom. “I would like to catch a permit”, I said. Simple enough. We would be fishing for permit. While still at the dock, a second part of the day’s plan was discussed. David and Spice would be smoking but not as Marlboro men. The legal marijuana of Belize was the smoke of choice. “Would it be okay if we smoked”, they asked. Knowing that a disagreement with the guide while still at the dock is not a great way to kick off a fishing day, we voiced no objection. As it turned out, if they smoked a joint, we would not have known it by their performance. They were great fun.
Once the Panaga was on plane, we streaked towards Rosario Caye, a run of thirty minutes over water where every second we thought silently, why don’t we stop and fish here? The water was crystal clear and the lush turtle grass covered flats screamed FISH LIVE HERE!
A faint green edge appeared on the horizon as the outline of a mangrove island took shape. My eyes attempted to transform the three faint shapes in the foreground of Rosario’s into something, anything, other than fishing boats in “our spot”. No transformation. Two pangas with a guide and pair of anglers were poling the South side of the Island. As David came off plane he whispered, “Mario”, pointing to the Panga nearest the shoreline. Mario had two of the Blue Bonefish Ohio anglers, JD and his wife Shonda who we had met at dinner the evening before. They were fishing with spinning gear and live bait. Tony and I sensed our guides disappointment as they quietly discussed a revision to their fishing plan.
Sensing motion movement near the mangroves, we looked shore ward just in time to see JD and Shonda surrender the bow of the Panga to their guide. On his way forward Mario grabbed a spinning rod from Shonda’s hand and while stepping forward made a mighty heave with a live shrimp on a bait hook. The cast splashed down 10 feet in front of the visible wake of a school of permit swimming quickly down the edge of the mangroves lining the island edge.
A quick lift of the rod tip…fish on. Mario calmly handed the rod to Shonda. She was screaming with excitement and the permit did what all hooked permit do…. streaked across the shallow flat… bulldogged…looked for a crab pot or any other obstacle to rub the offending line against….ran towards the Panga and then away from the Panga. We could see the hooked fish slip momentarily on its side at the surface creating a flash of chromium reflected sunlight. Surrender, no. The fierce fighter righted itself and tore off again. Shonda’s shoulders slumped marking her anxiety.
As the battle wore on, David slowly poled our Panga towards the end of Rosarios heading to the far side of the caye away from the commotion of the fish fight. Only later that night did we learn over adult beverages that Shonda had landed a permit of 20 pounds…her first.
Tony and I redirected our attention to our task. Hunt for signs of permit. The windy day started to settle as the incoming tide slowed. The surface became slick calm creating the illusion of connected water and sky.
Suddenly, David whispered, “tails”.
Fifty yards distant a slowly weaving school of permit laid on the surface finned out. Tails and dorsal fins looked like birthday candles on a cake of still water. The guide slowly poled us closer in around 4 feet of water. The permit were motionless, perhaps sleeping, more likely staging to await the moving water of the next tide. “Tony, we need to wade, mon! Only way to have a shot! Wanna go?” “Hell yes” whispered Tony.
Gently, Tony and David slipped over the side of the Panga as Spice took the pole and gently stuck it in the sandy sea bottom holding the boat motionless. We watched an advanced permit lesson unfold as Tony approached his first cast at permit in his initial encounter with these dishonest fish. Dishonest? Yes, because even when the angler does everything right… see the fish… make a good cast… see the fly in the water.. make the fly look like a crab or shrimp…entice the fish to rush up and inspect the fly… all of it. More often than not, the permit will gleefully spurn the angler and slowly swim away. And as the finicky fish flees. it feels like the first time you had the courage to ask.a teenage girl for a date and she said firmly, no, which you heard as “why would a pimply faced boy like you think a girl like me would be seen with you in public”.
David, no more than 5’8″ tall, was standing chest deep in 4 feet of water as he held Tony’s trailing fly line out of the water over his head. Side by side, they inched closer to the school of fish lying motionless at the surface. The submerged broad bodies of the permit looked like brown streaks in the water adorned by above surface fins which sparkled with reflected sun. A cast… the fly splashed down short. The permit tails sunk imperceptibly. Tony gathered himself… a second cast…too long and the tails dipped lower by an inch. Tony’s body language of tensed shoulders and more rapid muscle movement predicted the results of the third cast as fly line slapped the water and the fly landed with a larger splash as it landed in the middle of the school. Fly casts betray a person with a try harder work ethic such as Tony. Bigger effort begets busted loops and collapsed fly line. The permit tails were like watching a sunset as a setting sun descends with no apparent movement.
The permit fins and tails disappeared like a wisp of smoke in a brisk sea breeze. The school of twenty fish simply vanished.
The learning curve was sharp for Tony as he waded with water up to his chest and the lesson harsh…tailing permit in slick calm water cannot be caught. This was classic permit fishing where the story rarely ends with a caught fish but always leaves a searing memory that wakes the angler up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night. Drinks anyone?