Two days before I arrived at the Belize River Lodge, there was a jaguar on the grounds. Muscles rippling under its sleek, spotted fur, the big cat strolled through a stand of mango trees, past the two-storey guesthouse, and then slipped into the dense jungle behind the property. Pretty wild. But that’s not all: this happened literally 10 minutes away from Belize City’s Philip S.W. Goldson International Airport. So when I tell you that Belize is a remarkable place, and I had a one-of-a-kind fishing adventure, that’s the starting point. It was a week of incredible sights, bucket-list goals and challenging myself as an angler. Here are some of my lingering impressions, and what you’ll need to know if you go. Or perhaps I should say, when you go.
A Tropical Paradise
The tiny nation of Belize is a 300-kilometre-long strip of tropical paradise on the Caribbean Sea, just south of Mexico. With the lowest population density in Central America, the country still has large tracts of undeveloped land, with rich, diverse ecosystems. And it’s keen to maintain that diversity, with over a third of its land—and 13 per cent of its territorial waters, including the longest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere—under some form of official protection. And the people are just as diverse, blending Mestizo, Mayan, Caribbean, Creole and western European cultures. Just be sure to brush up on your language skills—unless you speak English, that is. Because that’s the official language of Belize which, until 1973, was known British Honduras.
Fishing the Flats
Inside that incredible barrier reef, which runs the entire length of the country, are vast ocean flats, home to the elite Caribbean “grand slam” species of tarpon, permit and bonefish, plus equally exciting gamefish like snook, barracuda, snappers and jacks. This bounty, plus the country’s reputation for being friendly and affordable, have made Belize a top saltwater fishing destination, especially for fly anglers. In addition, the mouth of the Belize Olde River, just downstream from Belize River Lodge (or BRL for short), is arguably the country’s best spot for 100-pound-plus tarpon. Three-quarters of the lodge’s guests are, like me, fly anglers, but spin anglers are also welcome. Fishing is from 23-foot fibreglass pangas (above), which make very stable casting platforms. Sight fishing for the elite species is technically challenging, but any angler with intermediate skills and a willingness to learn can do it. And with such varied opportunities, it’s a great fishery for saltwater novices.
Pedro Ayuso Aldana
I’ve met some memorable characters on fishing trips, but no one quite like my Belizean Creole fishing guide, Pedro Ayuso Aldana (above). Compactly built, with a broad smile and the kind of barrel chest you get from decades of poling a panga, the 60ish Pedro freely shared his immense knowledge of the local waters, along with his philosophies on life, love and the universe.
I have immense affection for Pedro, who was a very good flats guide. But because he really, really wanted me to catch fish, he could also be kind of intense. Pedro was relentless in his coaching, but also genuine with his praise. Several times I wanted to conk him with his push pole, but many more times I wanted to hug him.
The Mangrove Manoeuvre
Before my trip, I practised making quick, reasonably accurate 30 to 50 foot casts—just what you need for sight fishing. But my first day brought unusually strong winds, muddying the ocean flats, and making sight fishing difficult for the next few days. But all was not lost. The flats are dotted with islands, which hide numerous sheltered channels and lagoons, so we retreated there to “fish the mangroves” for baby tarpon (weighing up to 40 pounds), snook, snappers and ’cuda.
Sometimes the fish cruise in the open, but more often they lurk among the tangled, stilt-like roots of the mangrove trees, which thickly blanket the shoreline. Fish will dart out to strike a fly, but only if it’s within inches of the roots. So you target any likely looking pockets, with short, low, pinpoint casts—nothing like what I practised. Heck, I didn’t even know this technique (shown above) existed. But after 10 minutes, I knew it was hard. Cast too short and you’re out of the strike zone; too long or too high, and you’re hung up in thick brush. By mid-morning, Pedro had already said: “Please sir, not into de trees” about 20 times. To clear up any misunderstanding, I bluntly replied that I understood fish lived in the water—I just couldn’t seem to land the fly there.
Fortunately Phil Shook (above), my compadre on this trip, and an expert saltwater fly angler, showed me a technique for creeping the fly up to the roots. You cast short, and then quickly pick up the fly line, let out a few inches and drop it again, two, three or four times, until you reach the edge of the cover. In addition, the repeated light splashes of the fly line on the water sound like excited baitfish, and can actually pique the fish’s interest. Then Pedro, sensing I might be fixable, showed me how to tilt my casting plane, and crisply fire the fly directly down, into the pocket. Four days later, when Pedro said my casting was “now quite acceptable,” I almost teared up.
The Extraordinary Hour
Confidence somewhat restored after landing some small barracuda and mangrove snappers, I was on the bow casting deck as we poled into a sheltered bay. Pedro immediately spotted a small group of bonefish, and Phil handed me a fresh rod, already rigged with a floating line and a size 8 shrimp fly. I glimpsed the fish, and then lost them, but cast anyway. I hopped the fly twice, then saw a flicker of movement as a bonefish diverted toward it, and the line went tight. After a saucy fight that had my drag singing, I landed a two-pound bonefish (above). While far from a trophy, it was still my personal best. Pedro even complimented my composure.
And then, just 50 minutes later, one of my lifelong angling dreams came true. Unlike most tropical gamefish, tarpon are easy to spot. Even the small ones have a distinctively deep body, with silver, twoonie-sized scales. The first one we saw was cruising a tiny lagoon, and barely 25 feet away when I wildly cast my purple-and-black Peanut Butter fly at it. Pedro let out a soft, pained “Ooooooo,” and Phil cheerily advised: “Scotty, they don’t eat with their tails.”
But the tarpon didn’t spook, and I made another, better cast. Opening its bucket of a mouth, the fish casually slurped in the fly, and I strip-set the hook like I was starting a lawn mower. I didn’t realize how big the fish was until it went airborne, which it did exactly one second later. And then it jumped again and again—six times in all. The rest is a blur, but I remember pulling one way, then the other to apply pressure as the fish careened madly around the lagoon, and wondering what we’d do if it jumped right into the jungle.
And then it was in my hands (above): 42 inches of pure muscle, glimmering in the tropical sun. It was my first ever tarpon, and as I cradled it on the deck, shaking and sweating, I swore it wouldn’t be my last.
At the Rip
Saltwater fishing often follows a fiendishly addictive pattern psychologists call “intermittent reinforcement.” It’s like playing a slot machine, where a taste of success keeps you going in hopes of a big payout. After several days of intermittent rewards, we got our payout at “the rip”—a gap between two islands, where the outgoing tide created a brisk current.
Pedro anchored the panga and for an hour, Phil and I lobbed flies into the clear, sluicing water, catching a fish on almost every cast: horse-eye jacks (above), ‘cudas (below), blue runners and more.
They weren’t big, but they were strong enough put a bend in my saltwater rod. It was pure fun, like catching a mess of rock bass as a kid. While pulling in one especially frisky jack, I was thinking about taking a break to dangle my feet in the water, when the struggling fish was engulfed by a massive barracuda, easily four feet long. The beast stayed on the line for 15 or 20 seconds, then sliced through my 40-pound wire leader. And I kept my feet in the boat.
Calling All Snook
Later that afternoon, Pedro somehow spied half a dozen snook, far back amongst unusually tall mangrove roots. Long and slim, with a striking black stripe, snook are pugnacious fighters. Snook fishing is hand-to-hand jungle combat, as you frantically try to drag the fish into the open, before it hopelessly tangles you in the mangroves. These were the first ones we’d encountered (and the first I’d ever seen), so Phil and Pedro were keen to try for them.
But the snook were too far back to be tempted by even the most tantalizing fly. So Pedro called them out. He repeatedly splashed the tip of his push pole, mimicking a school of feeding baitfish. And, bless their hungry little hearts, the snook emerged for a looksee. Proving that even a master caster can sometimes blow it, Phil sailed his fly into the shrubbery—three or four times—and the snook returned to their cover. So Pedro called them out again. Twice, fish feinted at Phil’s black-and-red Peanut Butter fly, but turned away. Pedro called them out yet again, and after a short, chaotic tussle, Phil landed a sparkling 18-incher (above left). Then I got on the casting deck, Pedro commenced splashing, and I landed my first ever snook (above, right). It was just that kind of trip, in that kind of place. And I can’t wait to go back.
In his travels, associate editor Scott Gardner has now caught 45 species of saltwater fish.
The Belize River Lodge
Boasting historic mahogany buildings in a lush jungle setting, BRL is the first fishing lodge built in Belize, and has been operating continuously since 1961. Along with world-class fishing, packages include food and lodging, and the hospitality is exceptional, as is the Belizean-Creole food. The lodge also offers customized eco-tours for those wanting to see more of Belize. And getting there is easy, with WestJet offering direct flights to Belize City from several Canadian cities.