By BRYCE MCLEAN
There are few things in this world as beautiful as 100 bonefish feeding 60 feet off the front of a panga boat or over 80 permit racing straight at you with only a few seconds to lay down a cast.
We got to witness both of these moments while fishing down in Belize last week.
The real reason we were there (supposedly) was to watch my older brother get married, which was probably the only thing more beautiful than the fish filled flats we found ourselves staring through for what seemed like an eternity, even though it was just for one day. We had our fair share of family events during the week, so we had to pick our fishing days wisely. In the end, we got far more than our money’s worth.
Our day started out at a very gentlemanly hour (8 am), which was nice considering that rum seems to flow from everything in Belize, including the hotel faucets. There were four of us setting out that day with two local guides. One boat would settle for hammering bonefish all day, while the boat I was in set out in search of permit.
Our first goal however, was to land a fish of any kind. As we mentioned in our pre-Belize blog, we have somehow never been able to land any type of saltwater fish on a fly rod, despite numerous efforts. So that being said, our guide found the nearest flat filled with bonefish, and we commenced throwing terrible casts as though we had never fished before.
Bonefish, tarpon, and especially permit have a unique way of turning even the most focused anglers’ brains into something that better resembles a bowl of tapioca. The rod just never seems to load like it does while you’re on a Montana river.
So, after a few completely botched attempts we calmed down, and before we knew it we were watching our lines fly off of our reels at a rate of speed that no two-pound fish should ever be able to achieve.
The first fish was a reasonable two or three pounds, which is not big in bonefishing terms, but it was probably the greatest fishing moment of my entire life. I wanted to cheer as loudly as I possibly could when we landed the fish, but I knew that the guide might actually open hand slap me across the face if I did, so I was forced to settle for a really heavy bro down with my dad.
Turns out, while on the flats if you say anything beyond basically a whisper, you risk every fish on the flat hearing you and racing off the spot never to return.
In Belize, after an angler catches a few bonefish the guides start to hint that it might be time to step it up a little. They all want to fish for permit, and they want to do it pretty much all of the time. This was ok with us, so we set out to a spot our guide assured us would have a bunch of fish. He was not lying.
We ended up fishing for permit in a little different way than most think of when imagining a day of permit fishing. We left the flats, and fished out around coral heads in about 20 feet of water. The idea is that schools of permit hide amongst the coral, and then come to the surface to feed. Why they do this I have no idea, but it was an awe-inspiring sight.
All of a sudden, out of what seemed like thin air, I was staring at my Dad doing his best to cast to a school of permit that had to be pushing 100 fish deep. Some of the fish were definitely going to reach the 30 pound mark, which would have had us battling for at least 45 minutes to land the fish. After flailing around for a few cast attempts, my dad could only stare as the fish got too close to the boat (about ten feet away), and slowly veered away while showing off their incredible silver sides and giant human like eyes. After this failed attempt, it was my turn.
I stepped up on the casting deck thinking one and only one thing: Whatever happens, let the fucking rod load.
I had just about enough time to get my buff over my face when I spotted two monsters about 90 feet out straight off the front of the boat, and they were headed straight at me. After a couple of false casts I managed to somehow lay one down right in front of a permit that the guide claimed was at least 25 pounds.
This is when I got my first taste of why permit have an amazing ability to drive people completely nuts. The fish spotted my crab pattern, positioned himself about three feet behind it, and followed it at least 40 feet before deciding that it just wasn’t my time yet. Amazingly this wasn’t the closest I would get.
About a half hour later, while still fishing the same spot, I had another follow. This time the fish’s back came out of the water as he charged the fly hard, and took. During this moment the entire boat fell silent as though even breathing wrong would cause the fish to disappear, and maybe we were right. As I stripped for what seemed like the last time before I would surely come tight to the fish, I felt nothing. I stripped again, and still nothing. Then the fish saw the boat, and was gone.
There is still no explanation as to why the fish was not on the end of the line, and even the guide was at a loss for words. That is, unless the word began with the letter “F”.
The only way I can explain the fish missing my fly is that he came to his senses at the last millisecond, or that I had just not yet earned the right to hook him. No angler should catch a permit on their first day trying, and I’m no different. Luckily, that night we had plenty of rum, and a jaw dropping Belize sunset to help us reflect upon an incredible experience.
Take it from us, go to Belize with a fly rod. There is no place like it.
Fishing for more tales from the river? Check out Matt and Bryce’s other posts: Spring Flyfishing Highlights and the Pursuit of a Dream, Zen and the Art of Not Fishing At All, and How to Escape the Boat Hatch, or visit the Fish It archive.
Be sure to visit the Make it Missoula fishing page.
Bryce McLean- I was born and raised in Montana as part of a family where every member knows how to cast a fly rod. I grew up about ten minutes from the banks of the Bitterroot River, and have had the distinct privilege of fishing it pretty much my entire life. I’m 25 years old, and am lucky enough to be going in to my 3rd season guiding the Bitterroot, the Blackfoot, the Missouri, and the Clark Fork. I’m also the co-founder of www.bigskytrouting.com which is a new website for those who just flat out love the sport of fly fishing. I’ve fished all over Montana, and a few other places across the world, and there is pretty much nothing else I would rather do.