Fishing Trip to Belize Became More Than a Visit to Paradise
by: James Prosek
My friend Barry and I landed in Belize on Cinco de Mayo, the Mexican holiday on May 5, and were greeted on the other side of customs with a rum punch courtesy of the Jets Bar and its small Mexican bartender. In Belize City, we took a small plane, which stopped in Dangriga and Placencia on the way to the southern village of Punta Gorda, where we jumped in a boat with a man named Bradley Rinehart and traveled 40 miles to a small camp on Punta Negra, or Black Point.
On the way I drank about four Belican beers (a local brew that goes down faster than most because they are 10 ounces, not 12), which did wonders to alter my reality. Had we really flown from New York that morning?
Bradley, who comes from New Hampshire, ran the fishing camp on Black Point. He had lived in Belize for nearly 10 years and his reality had long been transformed by the tropical air. He described himself as a castaway, and lived a kind of Robinson Crusoe existence at the camp. Power came mostly from solar panels; there was a substantial kitchen garden; and the drinking water was collected rain.
We pulled up to a small mangrove cay, white with guano, to show me the frigate birds that had made it their rookery.
"They were a source of protein in the past," Bradley said of the birds' former place on the menu.
But things had changed in this small Central American country south of the Yucatán. Many locals had hung up their gill nets and guns to become protectors of the environment. They have come to realize that the resource is more valuable if kept alive.
The first night on Black Point a jaguar walked behind camp and left its tracks on the sand beside the sea. "He likes to walk along the beach, but he's been shy since we started up the generator," Bradley said.
In the morning, we remembered the reason we had come here: to fly-fish for the elusive permit on the turquoise flats. I soon learned, though, that there were many other activities that could possibly take priority in my too-brief four-day stay.
A small, sparsely populated country, Belize has a great deal of untouched wilderness. The camp was near the southern end of the second-largest barrier reef in the world and around the point was the Monkey River, where you could see howler monkeys and beautiful birds from nesting oropendula to toucan. You could also, if you choose, fish with hand lines from dugout canoes for large mutton snapper, and on the full moon in May dive with whale sharks (the world's largest fish), which come to the surface to feed on the eggs of spawning snapper.
Besides the camp on Black Point, Bradley also operated an outpost on a tiny cay 16 miles into the Atlantic. It was called Seal Cay, because it was small and round like a stamp or seal. Our first morning, we made the trip to Seal Cay and stayed. I was surprised how small it was, a pile of bleached coral and conch shells only large enough for about two dozen trees, mostly coconut palms and red mangrove.
The flat beside the cay was an ideal habitat for permit, which we could see feeding during the mornings we stayed there, their noses searching for crabs in the sand, their tails visible above water - like thin black sails. The tailing permit has been the catalyst of more than one fly-fishing obsession. Certain maniac fly fishers will cast to thousands of elusive permit before hooking one.
The first afternoon, we went out to other cays and their adjacent flats, where I had my first shot at a school of tailing permit. Much as I would like to think of myself as an accomplished angler, the sight of these fish with their tails in the air befuddled me. On the first cast, I hooked my thigh and drew blood (it was the wind's fault, of course), then the guide told me to get into the shallow water and stalk the fish by wading, at which point I wrapped the line around my feet and fell overboard with a big splash.
The greatest pleasure of any fishing trip, especially when the fish get the better of you, is when you meet wonderful people. I learned a great deal about the area from my guide Eloy, a native of Monkey River village on the mouth of the Monkey River. He gave me a brief history of the Belize fishery.
"When I started fishing, man, all we had was handlines," Eloy said. "We called it cotton line. As a kid we caught snook to 30 pounds all the time, and one day when the snappers were spawning my friend and I caught 140, averaging 10 pounds. I didn't know what a fishing rod was. The first fly-fishing rod I saw was in 1980. I saw this man in a boat up the Monkey River with his line up in the air. I thought, I want to do that thing with the line up in the air.
"We made flies with egret feathers. Man, those things were killer for snook. The Guatemalans introduced gill nets in southern Belize in 1970. They started using gill nets in Monkey River and Punta Negra. Ten years later, they had at least half the fish dead."
Eloy grew up hunting in the forest for jaguar, peccary, jaguarundi and whatever else he could shoot. He hunted mostly at night and on several occasions was nearly bitten by fatal fer-de-lance snakes. He fished in the sea for snapper, lobster and conch. He and his friends kept everything they could get and killed it to eat or sell.
Now, Eloy is one of the greatest proponents of preserving the native fish and fauna and works closely with the Nature Conservancy to educate people to support the wildlife and become ecotourist guides.
"You got to protect the resource, man," he said. "It's all we got."
In the evening, we drank fresh coconut water with gin. Then, when it was dark and the wind was down, Eloy began his stories of the 70-minute nightmare of Hurricane Iris in October 2001. It is worth the trip merely to hear his story.
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