Grand Slam…Belize style – Issue 580 Sea Angler magazine

As a saltwater fly fishing guide I have been visiting Placencia, a small town at the end of a peninsular in the Stann Creek region of southern Belize for the past 8 years to help me sharpen up my skills for the coming summer season of salt water fly fishing for bass back in Wales (and to get some sun on my joints after the damp winters!).

The Barrier Reef (the second longest in the world) runs the length of mainland Belize some 25 miles out from the coastline. It is here between the mainland and the Reef that the numerous cayes and flats hold the fish that visiting fly fishermen pursue. If your visit is between April and May around the full moon phase then you will get the chance to dive with the whale sharks that are present during their migration up the coastline feeding on fish spawn.

Fly fishermen who visit the southern states of the USA, Cuba, Mexico, the Bahamas and down through Central America invariably go in search of a Grand Slam (tarpon, permit & bonefish) or a Super Slam which adds a snook to the list; all to be caught on the fly on the same day, or as some folk interpret, within a 24 hour period. On some of the bigger flats you can walk or be polled along by your guide on his panga (the fishing boat so popular all over Central America and the Caribbean) for over half a mile in just a foot or two of water, over a coral surface that has permit searching for crabs and shrimp that inhabit this moonlike subsurface. Looking out for the tell tale black fin tips of the permit whilst it buries its head into a coral searching for it prey is the first indicator, along with signs of the fish ‘pushing water’ in front of them as they move to a new location to feed. Whilst your guide is polling the boat from the stern you stand on the bow foredeck also looking for the fish. Working as a team looking for fish feeding or pushing water really helps focus you on the task.

As well as permit you will come across bonefish on these flats, sometimes a single or pair of larger fish, or a shoal of smaller fish around the 2lb mark which could number many hundreds. Trigger fish can also be seen feeding in the mangrove margins along with Jacks, all of which are in search of crab and shrimp ‘tasties’ that inhabit these coral flats.

So to be ready for whichever target you first sight, I always carry three fly rods with me and when you are searching these flats you should have two rods rigged with crab and shrimp patterns ready. I use a 7wt with a floating line for bonefish and a 9wt with a floating/sink tip for the permit. The choice of which pattern to tie on I always leave to my guide as he is on these flats week in week out and therefore gets to know what the fish are feeding on or have been taking recently. One of the favourite patterns of my regular guide Wayne Castellanos is the camo crab; the size of your thumb nail and weighted just enough to make the crab sink at a rate that does not appear unnatural to your prey. Whilst casting to a small shoal of permit that were swimming in the same area as a large shoal of bonefish near Water Caye, I let my crab sink and then discovered a small knot in my fly line lying on the floor of the boat.

After sorting the tangle I lifted the 9wt to start a retrieve and re-cast when suddenly a bonefish of about 3lb picked the crab up and took my fly line and about 40 yards of backing before I slowed it down – and that was on the 9wt rod! In deeper water away from the flats an intermediate line might suit rather than a sink tip, so again ensure you have all bases covered when it comes to line choice as well as your rod choice. I find the RIO ‘Tropical’ series of lines perfect, particularly the Outbound Short and the Bonefish Quickshooter. You may pay slightly more for the RIO lines but they will outlast the cheaper options and if looked after, they will last you for many more trips abroad.

Having had a bad experience a few years back when on the first day of my visit, I broke the tip section of my 7wt rod. I now ensure that all my fly rods have a spare tip section with them when I travel at home, over in Ireland or abroad. Tackle shops are not a common sight in Belize!

Around the cayes, lurking under the mangrove roots you will come across tarpon and snook intercepting bait fish. You will also encounter tarpon feeding off the ‘by-catch’ that the numerous pelicans spill from their bills. These fish will tend to be all around the lagoons, the trick being to cast your fly directly into the region where the pelicans are feeding. You will be fishing deeper water here invariably, so a slow sink/intermediate line will be the choice. Here I rig my 3rd rod, a 10wt as the fish will generally be a bigger size than the ‘baby’ tarpon we encounter around the lagoons closer to Placencia. The ‘gummy minnow’ style of lure are the closest you will get to imitating the bait fish on which the tarpon feed but again rely on your guide to advise what’s best.

On one occasion whilst fishing out on the Sapodilla Cayes marine reserve some 22 miles out from Placencia on the edge of the Barrier Reef  in the Gulf of Honduras, I caught bonefish wading out along the golden sandy beaches, to be followed by two permit (plus losing one of well over 25lbs). Wayne my guide said ‘well John its back to Monkey River for the tarpon next’ leaving us all afternoon to find and catch our prize. The boat ride back in takes around an hour, so it left me plenty of time to reflect on my chance to get my first ‘Grand Slam’. No pressure then!

On one of the many small cayes out around the Sapodilla marine reserve a gentleman from the US has spent the last few years constructing his dream holiday home. The buildings are completely covered /dressed with conch shells with a small pier covered with a roof the shape of a conch (see photograph below). An ideal location with some of the best bonefish flats in the area on your doorstep.

Monkey River has a village settlement on the mouth of the river and a ten minute ride up-stream is all it takes to get you to the wider areas where you start to see tarpon moving. Predominantly ‘baby’ tarpon up to around 25lb, the river is a nursery area for these juveniles before they mature and move out to the offshore lagoons. Whilst you stand on the bow of the panga waiting to make your shots at the tarpon, you may hear the sounds of the Howler monkeys calling in the trees to let others know where their territory is, plus if you are lucky you may catch sight of the beautiful toucans flying from tree to tree. The river is alive with birds sitting in the trees or mangroves, ranging from colourful parrots to egrets and smaller fish eaters, waiting their chance to pick a bait fish off the water’s surface.

On this occasion after hooking two tarpon and subsequently losing them during their airborne acrobatics, the tarpon just switched off. No sign of rolling fish and after an hour of ‘blind’ casting under the mangrove roots, my ‘Slam’ dream for another year had gone.

The beauty of using Placencia as your base is that  if, as often happens in the Caribbean sea, the wind picks up, which is the curse of the fly fisherman and sighting fish on the flats becomes difficult if not impossible, you have the option of fishing the rivers or lagoons along the coastline. There is one area near the lagoon at the back of Placencia which is a hidden land locked area of mangrove. Commercial developers have opened up channels to feed their shrimp farm enterprise now established on this reclaimed mangrove land and these channels run into the land locked lagoon inhabited with tarpon and snook, which I’m sure have never seen man or fly before. As the water covers a mud/silt bottom we pole along this backwater and provided you don’t spook your prey by overzealous casting, invariably you will hook up. Indeed on the first cast on the first day I fished it I hooked and landed a Ladyfish – the poor man’s tarpon I’m told. Another first for me! On this first day I also boated 6 tarpon to 20lb and lost countless others – not bad for a day when fishing the flats or lagoons around the cayes was a no go!

On days when the sun and wind have had the better of you on the water, to finish in mid afternoon is a bonus. After a quick shower back at my hotel, then a short 5 minute walk along the beach, I find myself in the heart of Placencia and heading to ‘Tutti Frutti’ the best ice cream shop ‘ever’ after a hot day afloat! You can sit here in the air conditioned shop eating your ice cream watching Placencia go about its business, and then as the sun starts to sink over the distant mountains it’s time for a Belikin or three (the local Belizean brew) in the Pickled Parrot or Yoli’s bar down on the waterfront.

There is plenty of accommodation in Placencia to suit every pocket. If you are travelling with your wife or partner who are non fishers, then one of the larger hotels facing the ocean side may suit. If you are on your own or just a group of fishermen then the more central hotel like the Paradise Resort might be a better option. The Paradise has its own jetty where your guide can collect you from and is central for access into the town, just a five minute walk away.

I visit anytime between January and May before it gets too hot and the hurricane season approaches. If you avoid Easter holiday time you will find that whilst out on the flats to see another boat or someone wading the flats is rare. As commercial development in the area increases, pressure on the fishery will also rise in the future, so if you are looking to get some warm water fishing in after the winter blues and to help you sharpen up prior to a summer in the UK chasing bass on the fly, I can thoroughly recommend a trip to this lovely area.

If you do decide to visit Belize or any of the other Central America countries for the first time, put some time into practice your casting/hauling before you travel, especially if your fly rods have been overwintering in a cupboard and not used since the previous summer. I put markers with distance figures on in the field and practice my switching from hauling a full fly line out to changing to a 10 o’clock at 30 feet or 3 o’clock at 60 feet rotation type of discipline so that when your guide gives you that shout ‘permit at 11 o’clock 50 feet’ you are ready to cast with the minimum amount of false casting to get that fly just in front of the fish. The more false casts you make the greater the chances are of the fish being spooked by the sun reflecting on the fly line.

It’s a long way to travel to spend the first few days of your trip learning to cast again!