Plush El Pescador lodge is headquarters for catching tarpon, bonefish, permit
Sunday, April 06, 2008
The Oregonian

Barely 100 feet off a deserted, coconut-palm-studded beach in Belize, the professor was getting schooled.

"Strip! Strip!" ordered fishing guide Kachu Marin, crouched next to my friend Mike Traugott on the forward platform of the 23-foot panga. Mike began to strip in his fly line in short, deliberate tugs. Fifty feet from the skiff and three feet down in the greenish-blue water, the tiny fly inched forward erratically along the sandy bottom.

"Slow down!" Marin barked.

Mike, a professor at the University of Michigan, slowed his pulls but also unintentionally swept his rod to the side.

"Don't pull your rod sideways!" cried Marin, an exuberant teacher who delivered his fishing lessons in exclamation points.

Somewhere in the turquoise water, a bonefish hit the tiny Mylar-and-fur fly. Mike pulled his rod sideways. As quickly as it hit, the fish was gone.

"No! Don't be going no sideways!" Marin admonished. "That's why you lost the fish!"

Mike cast again. "A little short," Marin muttered under his breath. No matter. Strip! Strip! Slow down!

Another bonefish hit. Mike pulled the line straight back and deftly set the hook. A few minutes later, the spent bonefish was at the boat. Marin grabbed the leader and led the bone in increasingly tighter circles. Then, with a practiced move, he gracefully hoisted the silvery prize into the boat for a quick photo and live release.

"Good job, Mike! Good job, man!" Marin beamed as he handed Mike the fat-shouldered, three-pound bonefish, his diploma from Bonefish U. Three game fish in day

Kachu Marin is one of 20 guides who fish out of El Pescador Lodge on Belize's Ambergris Caye. The resort is one of a growing number of high-end fishing lodges that cater to a particularly exotic type of fly angler: the international band of obsessive-compulsives who chase bonefish, tarpon and permit in tropical and semitropical locales worldwide. Among these elite lodges, El Pescador is one of the few where an angler has a reasonable shot at achieving the holy grail of shallow-water fly-fishing: catching all three species in a single day.

The 36-room lodge was built in 1974 on a site hacked out of a mangrove swamp on the southern end of Ambergris Caye, an extension of the Yucatan Peninsula 12 miles off the northeast coast of Belize.

Today, El Pescador is owned by Ali Gentry, 35, who operates it with her mother, Chris Gentry Spiro, and stepfather, Stephen Spiro. Gentry's husband, Alonzo Flota, a native of San Pedro (the caye's only substantial town), is the resident dive master. (The local diving is world-famous; the second-longest coral reef in the world lies less than a half-mile offshore.)

El Pescador has a decidedly family-friendly feel. Absent is the coarseness of some fishing lodges. Everyone eats at a common table at set times. While we were there, one dinner featured a feast of lobster and stone crab; another, a deftly executed paella.

Amenities abound: How many fishing lodges offer the services of an on-call masseuse? Forbes Traveler recently named El Pescador one of the world's top 10 luxury eco-resorts, though hard-core adventure-seekers may find it too domesticated.

The Gentrys have been quick to exploit a tourism trend: family adventure travel, particularly during the holiday season. "Instead of buying lots of gifts, more people now say, 'Let's go somewhere different where we can actually spend some time together,' " Chris Spiro said.

Fishing manager Bob Stevenson oversees the 20 fishing guides who work out of El Pescador, 15 of whom specialize in fly-fishing. Mike and I fished with three guides during our four days at El Pescador. All were exceptional.

Bad weather or bad luck can result in a fishless day, even in Belize. We were skunked on our second day, when we chose to chase the famously uncooperative resident tarpon in howling winds and occasional drenching rains; seeing the fish is essential to this kind of fishing.

More often the fault rests with the angler. "Half the people who come to these places don't have the skills they need," said Stevenson, who conducts an evening casting clinic for anyone who wants a tutorial.

Still, it's difficult not to catch something at El Pescador. Huge schools of smallish bonefish prowl the flats and eagerly charge a fly.

Charming village,

Mayan ruins For those who want a break from the lodge, San Pedro is five minutes by water taxi. "It's hardly Manhattan," Spiro said, laughing. "But it offers great charm and fun little shops" that specialize in local crafts (Belize is known for its wood carving), as well as jewelry and art.

A Sunday afternoon in San Pedro provided a welcome break for Mike and me from the beer-fueled bonhomie of El Pescador. The narrow streets were clogged with bicycles, golf carts and a few cars and small trucks.

El Pescador offers day excursions at extra cost for non-anglers or those seeking a day off the water. Among the more popular is a trip to the ruins at Altun Ha, once a major Mayan trading center. A 20-minute trip by boat takes visitors across the shallow flats that separate Ambergris Caye from the mainland, and then it's an hour up the river to the ruins.

Another popular day trip for non-anglers is cave tubing, in which visitors ride on inner tubes down a jungle river through five large caverns. The lodge also arranges day trips to the Belize Zoo.

"You can be as adventurous as you wish," Spiro said. "You can do things every day that have nothing to do with angling. Then there is the obvious: Come to the Caribbean, sit in the sun, sip your rum drinks and read your book. That is a very popular activity." Tricky winds

After three days of overcast skies that made spotting fish difficult, gusting winds that blew down our casts and occasional torrential rains, our luck finally changed on our fourth and final day.

For anglers, the weather in Belize is all about trade-offs: In the winter high season, it's cooler and dry -- but windy, bad for flycasting. In the low season, which corresponds to hurricane season, it's hot, humid and less windy -- but most days it rains hard, though usually briefly. We were there in early October, start of the transition between the low and high seasons, when anything or everything can happen. On this day, the sun rose in a nearly cloudless sky. The wind had slackened but didn't disappear, moderating the temperature.

Marin welcomed us aboard his panga, a shallow-draft wood-and-fiberglass skiff favored by guides and commercial fishermen in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. This was the best omen of all: His father, Carlos, 66, the dean of guides at El Pescador, on our first day had taken us to a sweet spot along a mangrove shore, where Mike caught an acrobatic 15-pound tarpon, the catch of the trip. Fishing mojo runs in families; perhaps his son would work similar magic on our last day.

Marin gunned the outboard and ran 20 miles north up the coast to a long, rocky point that jutted out to nearly intersect the reef. His knowing eyes scanned the water as we slowly cruised parallel to the beach, 100 feet offshore.

He finally found what he was looking for: a school of hundreds of bonefish feeding along the shore, their silver sides occasionally glinting in the sun as they turned to eat. We fished this single school for more than five hours, together catching more than 40 bonefish ranging in size from barely a pound to perhaps 5 pounds.

Speedy, a friend of Marin's, was our human anchor. Literally. For five hours Speedy stood in three feet of water and held the plastic rope attached to the panga, keeping us within casting distance.

One unexpected bonus, caught just before we quit for the day: a permit, also known as pompano, considered the most difficult of the "big three" inshore game fish to catch on a fly. The iridescent, pearl-white fish was no bigger than a salad plate. But it was my first permit, caught on a fly that I had tied myself in my basement back home.

"Good job, man!" Marin said, cradling the tiny fish in his hands. He extended his arms straight out toward the camera, a trick that makes fish appear larger in photos.

Size doesn't matter. I had finally graduated from Bonefish U.