Written by: Michael “Misha” Gill
I think I’m the Benjamin Button of flats fishing. It’s like I started at the end and regressed over the course of the day. I mean, who goes flats fishing for the first time and catches a permit?
I had the opportunity for one day of Belizeian flats fishing over New Year’s on a vacation with my wife, Brooke, celebrating the completion of her MBA curriculum. I went to Placencia, in the southern end of the country, about halfway between Dangriga and Punta Gorda and just a 35-minute puddle jump from Belize City. The coast line you fly over is littered with swampland, mangrove marshes that provide superior habitat for juvenile game fish. In Placenica, the cayes offer some world-class permit fishing.
Belize had been on my mind because through Orvis and Tidal Potomac Fly Rodders I know lots of people who have traveled there to fish. Even though I explicitly oriented the trip toward activities other than fishing (scuba diving, visiting ruins, bird watching), I was still able to take a day to try my hand at flats fishing for the first time while Brooke was getting SCUBA certified.
As is normal when it comes to destination fishing, circumstances really had to come together in a serendipitous way to yield success. My first bit of luck was the weather. This year, Belize’s wet season was mostly dry. This winter, the start of the perennial dry season, has been wet due to El Nino. Although there were showers in the forecast almost every day we were in Belize, the wind was most problematic – it ended up preventing us from scuba diving on either of the last two days we were in Placencia. Having booked my day of fishing during the busy tourist season three months in advance, I depended on luck, rather than flexibility, to provide good conditions. Fortune smiled on me, and I had the calmest day for seven days on either side of my booking – about 5 to 10 mph winds all day. The tides were also perfect.
My guide, Jason Westby, and I got the day started by focusing on tarpon. After a 35-minute ride out to Tarpon Caye, where we didn’t see much, we moved on to another caye that offered a protected lagoon behind a mangrove peninsula. We found tarpon rolling on the lee side of the peninsula, and fished to them for 45 minutes, somewhat unsuccessfully. I may have had a tarpon bite, but I was blind-fishing so there’s no way to tell.
Before we left, Jason told me to cast toward a bare, circular patch in the lagoon. I put my chartreuse Clouser on the far side of the patch and began stripping it back medium-aggressively. Around the middle of the patch, an unexpected silver outline honed in on my fly and hit it. The hook didn’t find purchase, so I picked it up. One backcast, and I launched the fly back to the far side of the patch. This time, I retrieved it a bit slower, and miraculously the outline appeared behind my fly again. Jason cued me perfectly, and I strip set. I wish I had turned on my Go Pro before making that second cast, but alas, I turned it on midway through the fight.
The fish took off on a strong run, and I fed the slack through the guides and got the fish on the reel. My next reaction was to tighten the drag probably more than I should have. If the fish had been bigger, I might have lost it. The drag – set to almost 50 lbs – turned the fish pretty quickly. The fish came back over the bare patch and almost accidentally became briefly airborne. This is a sure sign that I had the drag set too tight. The fish was probably just bee-lining away and got clotheslined by the tension, bringing it head over heels out of the water. Just after it “jumped,” I had the presence of mind to turn on my Go Pro, and I caught another two runs before Jason netted the fish.
It was a smallish permit of about 5 or 6 pounds, but it was like being struck by lightning. I couldn’t believe I had caught a permit my first time flats fishing, and on a fly I had tied! I couldn’t stop talking about it for the rest of the trip to any unfortunate stranger who happened to inquire. My day was officially made, but the first thing Jason said after we let it go was, “Now we go for the Grand Slam!”
We were near a spot where Jason had seen a large school of bonefish several days prior, so we headed over there. Still using the clouser, and fishing an algae-bottomed flat, we saw a few bones and I managed a hookup, but the fish twisted free of the hook boat-side.
We moved to a different caye to chase tarpon again. This time we could see the tarpon cruising around and busting up schools of bait in the shallows. I got multiple shots at singles and pairs, but couldn’t convince any of them to eat, despite lots of opportunities and follows and fly changes. Floating algae junked up my fly at some point on every cast. No doubt it cost me fish. No doubt that’s why they were there.
And then around midday it was time for more permit fishing. The next flat Jason took me to was off a caye where Jason hosts for a lodge, really just a huddle of cabanas. He poled us along the shoreline up to the shallow point extending from one side of the caye, and just when we were crossing into the flat I got a shot at another permit. We spotted it through the glare from about 60 feet away, and I got a shot when it swam toward us from 11 o’clock over a bare patch. I led the fish by 6 or 8 feet, and the green crab pattern sank slowly down to the fish’s level in the moderately deep water. The fish came up and hesitated around my fly, but lacking instruction from Jason, I ignored the tingle in my spine and did nothing. Then the fish spooked. Later, when we inspected the fly, we decided the fish must have eaten because the hard body of the crab had rotated on the hook shank. Check out the picture above for an artist’s rendition of the fish’s approach. My new mantra is “Bare spots bring bites.”
Slightly singed by my missed permit, we stayed positive and moved again. The next flat we hit was a 300 yard long, C-shaped reef with only a tiny bit of land exposed to the salt air. There were permit on this flat too. I got another shot at a permit approaching us from 12 o’clock, and I led the fish by at least 10 feet. But as soon as my fly hit the water, the fish spooked.
Shortly thereafter came the most exciting shot of the day. At the farthest upwind side of the reef, some reef rocks poked out of the water and created small waves. The waves created a slick about 15 feet long. This time we saw the fins from a school of permit, and Jason said there were 10 of them. Spoiled for choice, I just cast in the vicinity of the fish. I got good shots, but again lacking direction from Jason, this time I did my own thing. I felt like I was just managing slack, but my strips were too long and moved the fly more than realistically would ever happen underwater. Regardless of fault, I got multiple shots, although none of those charging bites one hopes for, before the school spooked.
We moved on to three more flats before I was done permit fishing. Each flat we visited had permit on it, much to Jason’s credit. However, my skills, or my focus, or both waned, and my last shot at a permit ended with a bit of a gaffe. My cast came up short because of a knot in the slack that ran into the guide. I tried to untangle it, but not in time to get a shot on this last permit. So, to catalogue my opportunities chronologically, they went hookup – missed bite – multiple target opportunity – sightings with little to no opportunity – screwup. Truly, I am the Benjamin Button of flats fishing.
After I told her in broad strokes about the trip, my cousin Lacy asked the following: “All that sounds awesome. But what’s so special about a permit? Did you eat it?” My reply was, “Well, you fish for them by sight when they come up into the shallows to feed. They are normally a deep-water fish, so when they come into the shallows their senses are on overdrive. Their fins stick out of the water when they feed. They are insanely spooky, and have great eyesight, so they require great stealth and deception. They are incredibly, maddeningly, finicky. Maybe one in 50 shots gets an eat. Conditions have to be right, of course, too.”
Now that I’ve done it in real life, I can say that kind of stuff.