Permanently in Paradise: Fly Fishing the Caribbean

(Originally published in the March/April 2005 issue of South Florida Sport Fishing)

Ian silhouette

Waves broke over the nearby reef as the cool current glided past my ankles. The tide was moving at a steady clip now. Upwards of a hundred silver tails flashed lazily in the distance. The huge school of bonefish fed right into the mouth of the rushing current as they crept ever closer.

A noticeably larger, solitary tail waggled thirty feet out from the tightly packed gang of smaller nephews and nieces. Its entire dorsal fin broke the surface as it slithered over the coral. I stripped more fly line off my reel to be sure I had enough for the cast. The wind was at my back and the fifty foot throw was almost too easy. The small #10 fly dropped indiscernibly to the water.

Fly Fishing for Bonefish

I began as series of short, staccato strips. Gliding with a sense of purpose, the bonefish approached the fly, dipped its head, and met me with resistance. With a thrash and a boil I was off to the races.

Fly line sizzled from the arched rod tip as the biggest bonefish of my life whizzed through exposed coral heads. I made three swift strides but it was too late. The fight was over just as quick as it began. It was the best bonefish of my life, but no worries. The rest of the school and now the slender black tail of a sole permit were in reach directly in front of me. Business as usual on the Turneffe Atoll off the coast of Belize.

I made the trip to Turneffe Flats, an all inclusive lodge on the Turneffe Atoll, in November 2004 with my wife Charity and one other couple, Steve and Rose Ellison of Homestead, Florida. The lodge can accomodate a maximum of twenty guests with twelve full time anglers on any given week, but we had the entire facility to ourselves since it was the middle of the slow season. Even during the busiest times, seclusion on the flats is a given here.

Morning Run

The next morning our experienced guide Dubs briefed us on the game plan. The rising tide and excellent light would make the day’s conditions perfect for our main quarry, elusive permit. We loaded one of the Dolphin Skiffs and ran south to a lush expanse inside the reef. We both scanned the water as Dubs poled the boat. I excitedly pointed to a large school of bonefish near the reef. The calm guide nonchalantly nodded. “Ya mahn…. dey’ll be dere all day.”

The permit fishery is so reliable at Turneffe that resident guides reluctantly spend any time on bonefish unless specifically requested. Bonefish are considered Plan B for when conditions make permit fishing tough. The lush flats at Turneffe are so fertile I wasn’t surprised to hear bonefish are present during every phase of the tide, including slack.

As an avid fly fisher, I came to Turneffe Flats prepared. Dubs scanned my box but didn’t see what he was looking for. I pointed out Merkins in sizes #2 and #4 but he just winced and giggled they might work. Instead he insisted I tie on the #1/0 brown and tan striped Merkin he displayed in the palm of his hand.

I took the guide’s recommendation and also went with a 14′ leader topped off by a 16# tippet. My 10 weight had come through with flying colors on many tarpon in the past, but I was skeptical as to whether a rod with this much backbone was really necessary. Dubs quickly instructed me that permit prowling these waters are mean and if I tried to stop them on their first run, they would pop my 16 in a heartbeat.

By late morning, Charity and I had already lost track of how many permit we had shots at. True to form, the majority inspected the fly but refused to eat our presentations. Fish after fish ignored even perfect casts. Nevertheless, there was no denying the numbers were here. Dubs shrugged “Dat’s permit fishin’, mahn! I’ll hook you up. You’ll see.”

Ian Rutter and a permit

Minutes later the insistent guide poled us within casting range of a marvelous school of tailing bonefish numbering well over a hundred. We out our heavy rods away and Charity and I took turns releasing 2 – 3 pound bones that showed no hesitation toward Crazy Charlies. Charity did a great job landing a beauty close to five pounds that exposed her backing on three different runs.

Still reveling in the moment of release, Dubs could be heard mumbling something about permit pushing water. Just out of reach a large wake was readily evident and it was heading our way. We needed no direction since the fish were tracking right into sandy hole on the grassy flat directly off the bow. The fly had barely settled when five or six of the shimmering fish turned and rushed the fly. The line stretched tight and just like that I was finally hooked up to my first permit.

Relatively small compared to the huge fish we had seen earlier that morning, the eight pound fish easily cleared backing before succumbing to the drawn out battle. By the end of the week we had learned to respect the permit’s power.

At dinner later that evening we heard how our traveling companion Steve had cast a fly into a small school of large bones. The fly sank to the bottom when a fish picked it up. Steve thought he hooked a world record bonefish when 200 yards of backing smoked off his fly reel. On the second run his drag gave out and he was forced to control the fish by palming the spool. After an intense battle, the world record bonefish turned out to be a permit that pushed the 30 pound mark.

Ian Rutter & Guide

Over the course of the first few days we had all cast to so many groups of fish there was no way to keep track. Anyone who believes permit are solitary fish would be more than impressed by the number of large schools that prowl these flats, though our guide went out of his way to inform us several time he was disappointed we didn’t find any big schools. You know, the big packs with over 100 fish.

On the following day Charity and I decided bonefish would be our primary target. Several tennis court sized schools of small fish loitered on the flat only a few yards from where the waves were crashing on the reef. Dubs, true to his nature, led us to more challenging fish. The bigger bonefish preferred to feed by themselves. We found these bigger singles in the 6-8 pound class to be more skittish than permit, but far more aggressive to the fly. Along with landing a few larger fish, I couldn’t help dropping a few casts on the edge of the vast schools where I picked off a few smaller ones. It took little for Dubs to convince us that Turneffe Flats is the perfect place for novice fly casters to catch bonefish, learning the finer points of the art all the while.

Turneffe Atoll

In spite of its remote location, traveling to Turneffe Flats is exceptionally easy. Direct flights to Belize City are available from Miami, Houston, Dallas, Charlotte, and Newark. A lodge representative will meet you at the airport, load your luggage, and transport you to a nearby marina where you will depart for the lodge. The ride over is on a 48′ jet-driven cruiser and takes around 90 minutes. Fishing packages typically run Saturday to Saturday. Non-angling guests are welcome and full SCUBA packages are offered. Unlike other Central American countries, English is the official language of Belize. Everyone from airport employees to your guide will be easy to communicate with.

Turneffe Flats provides spacious, air conditioned guest rooms located directly on the beach with panoramic views of the coral reef. All rooms are furnished with queen size beds and each has a private bath with duel sinks and a shower. Quality fly tackle may be rented, but you should bring any spinning tackle you wish to use. Hard soled flats boots are a necessity and can also be rented if necessary. Bugs aren’t much of consideration on the flats, but long pants and repellant will probably come in handy if you plan to fish in the mangroves.

Charity Rutter and a bonefish

Air temperatures throughout the year range from 75 – 95 degrees with an average of 84. Water temperature averages 79 degrees in the winter and 83 degrees in the summer. A comfortable southeasterly trade wind puffs thoughout much of the year, but tends to pick up a bit in March and April. June is the rainy season in Belize, but this relates primarily to the mainland rainforest and means little to the offshore islands.

As the largest and most biologically diverse atoll in the Caribbean, Turneffe Atoll is one of the most productive and sensitive marine ecosystems in the Western Hemisphere. Through 1% For the Planet, Turneffe Flats commits 1% of their revenue to organizations promoting conservation and sustainability of coastal marine habitats.

A big bonefish