CATCH OF THE DAY: Guide Lloyd Nunez holds a plump tarpon. Above, Lori Irwin casts for bonefish. Brian Irwin
Lloyd Nunez doesn't speak much. The 46-year-old man has work-hardened hands with spoon-shaped nails. The son of an offshore lobsterman who describes his upbringing as "very lucky," he's a quiet fly-fishing guide, gently directing his clients to the fish through hand gestures and near whispers. His approach is stealthy, which is logical considering we were searching for permit, tarpon and bonefish, three of the most skittish gamefish that live on the reefs off the coast of Belize.
Nunez literally grew up on the reef on South Water Cay, a 15-acre island 14 miles offshore from the coastal town of Hopkins. His home was a shack that's since been renovated to become part of a diving resort. Back then it, and the entire island, was without electricity or a sewage system. A cistern provided the only water. It was there that he learned how to fish.
South Water is part of the Great Barrier Reef and the surrounding protected marine preserve. The island pokes out of the second largest living reef in the world, rich with giant heads of coral and schools of vibrant reef fish. Our target species lay not there, but in the shallows and coves that tightly ring these islands as well those of Glover's Reef. Glover's sits 30 miles offshore. Beyond it, the water rolls out into the open ocean, not to be interrupted again for hundreds of miles.
TAKING THE BAIT: The author shows off a fat tarpon that took his fly off a cay on the barrier reef. Brian Irwin
On the coral "flats" around reef islands, in shin-deep water, bonefish thrive, fanning their tails out of the water as they feed on tiny, burrowing crustaceans. Even three-pound fish are a prize as they're lightning fast and notoriously easy to scare should your fly cast be off by more than a few inches.
Between the islands, similar flats hold the occasional permit, a fish that looks like a giant pierogi and is equally fearful of fishing lures. We'd also be searching for tarpon, a large chromatic fish that resembles a giant minnow and has a mouth the size of a small dustpan.
Lori Irwin casts for bonefish on Glover's Reef, Belize Brian Irwin
My wife and I stood on the shore as Nunez pulled ashore with his son, Alvin. We would fish from his panga, a traditional 23-foot-long open boat with a shovel nose and a 60-horsepower outboard on the stern. The motor was cloaked in a sun-bleached T-shirt to stave off scratches, keeping resale value optimal.
Money is tight in Hopkins. The mud streets are lined with simple plywood hovels topped with tin roofs. Dogs roam the streets. Few people own cars. Yet the atmosphere is categorically friendly, the native Garifuna people smiling and greeting passing visitors. The Garifuna are descendants of the Carib, Arawak and West African people. Lloyd Nunez and his family are Garifuna, so on the boat, when they do speak at all, it is usually in this native tongue.
KING OF THE FLATS
The first day was spent searching for fish near the islands of the barrier reef. At first slow, the fishing soon improved. By the third day we'd successfully exhausted the majority of the fishable water along this particular chain of isles on the barrier reef. We caught scores of bonefish - and two 50-pound tarpon.
The strong and stately tarpon is the king of the flats, patrolling for baitfish, taking my imitation in the process. They are revered for their aerial display, often jumping a dozen times and many feet high after being hooked. In fly-fishing circles, accounts of tarpon jumping into the boat are not unheard of, but instead ours came to the boatside after one-hour fights. We slid them back into the sea to fight another day, just as we did every fish we caught.
THE LOCAL FLEET: Two pangas idle on a dock at Laughing Bird Cay. Brian Irwin
The permit, arguably the planet's most prized saltwater gamefish, must have had lockjaw. They fully escaped me, despite three mornings of stalking their sword-shaped tails on the flats. We gave up and struck east to Glover's Reef in search of what Nunez referred to as "piles of bonefish." "You gonna catch 30," he assured me. "Maybe more."
The ride from Hopkins to Glover's takes 90 tooth-rattling minutes and brings you to the shores of an idyllic island dotted with pastel cabanas and coconut-shedding palm trees.
Glover's is an atoll, a ring of coral that surrounds over 100 square miles of shallow, turquoise water. The jagged eastern edge of the reef juts above the water's surface. The water to the west is deeper, but fades to skinny as it approaches the exposed reef of Glover's eastern border and the four islands that sit on its path. Here, where shallow water pins fish against exposed reef, bonefish, sometimes in schools of 100 or more, roam and feed.
We spent the morning pulling fish after fish from a large school that gathered near the docks, where the rangers from the Glover's Reef Marine Reserve enforce the regulations that ensure the reef's protection. Save for them, the atoll sat empty. A few boats dangled from their dock whippings. The islands were silent, their flora and flour-fine sand reminiscent of a Tahitian isle.
Moving onto the flats, we stood high on the nose of the panga, scanning for the perfectly-camouflaged bonefish, their shadows, ripples or tails. Alvin pushed the boat with a fiberglass pole. Lloyd pointed, sometimes pressing a soft phrase like "Fish, over there," from his sun-baked lips.
We left the boat on foot, wading across the turtle grass that carpets these flats in search of tailing, feeding bones. Nunez softly directed me to a pod of fish pressed up against a ridge of exposed coral. My heart pounded. I stripped line, loaded the rod and fired my fly into the middle of the batch. As if a land mine had been detonated beneath them, the school of fish erupted, dashing off toward deeper water.
Yet they didn't leave. Just under the surface the school calmed, hundreds of them eventually easing back onto the flat and into a cove bordered by coral and sand. Nunez shot me a rare, keen smile. "They're cornered," he said.
I once again crept toward the waving tails, fanned by now-serene and hungry fish. I dropped a fly just shy of the closest tail in the group. One gentle tug and nervous water exploded, sending the school into the deep water west of us. My fly reel screamed as line peeled from it and sliced briskly through the water.
After 10 minutes of tug-of-war the bonefish, a plump three pounds, glided to my shins. One pop of the hook and a few aerations of water through its gills and it slowly swam away to rest. "Uuguri gabunurutibu," Nunez said. I inquired: "What does that mean?" He shot me a toothy smile. "You're a lucky man."
Guides for Glover's are hard to come by, especially those who grew up near the reef and can find their way there without getting lost. Call Lloyd Nunez at 501-662-0873, [email protected]. From $350 per day.