Fly fishing at Turneffe Flats
If catching a permit on a fly was easy, it wouldn't have the same allure. If it was possible to catch a permit at will, it would be treated more like catching a mountain whitefish. And let's face it... no one really likes to catch a 'whitey' and no self respecting angler would share photos of the whitefish they caught. Instead, the only time you're likely to see a picture of an angler holding a whitefish up for the camera is when the class clown has nothing better to do. But you're not interested in whitefish are you?
I sit at my desk and dream of wading knee deep in warm salty water, sea lice biting my legs, as I scan white sand flats as far as I can in the hopes of seeing a black tail. And when I finally see that tail break the surface of the water, my mouth instantly goes dry. My heart beat surges. My hands begin to shake, and I second guess my casting distance.
It's this exact feeling that makes me (and so many other anglers) want more time on the flats looking for permit.
Then I'm reminded and humbled by the moment permit fishing turned from recreation to devotion. It happen a few years back during a hosted trip to Turneffe Flats. My wife and I were accompanied by a few of our friends, one couple in particular had traveled with us to other locations in Belize, to Mexico, and to Russia. It was this particular couple that opened my eyes.
Together, we traveled from Belize city, an hour and half across the blue to Turneffe Atoll. Expectations were high and our excitement was contagious. The boat was filled with other guests who had equally high expectations of great fish, diving, or snorkeling. The journey to Turneffe Flats is an exciting one, that can be broken into thirds. The first third is cake, smooth ‘sailing’ from mainland, across the bay and through the Drowned Cayes, and finally across the Meso-American reef. This is point in the trip that things can get interesting. Once the boat has crossed the bar of the reef the ocean depth jumps from 30-40 feet deep to over 2000 feet deep. The open ocean is a deep tropical blue, and this particular day the wind was down and so were the waves. We lucked out. It was a clear day, the atoll could be seen shortly after we crossed the reef. For the next 30 minutes, Captain Daniel, navigated the boat towards a break in the reed that guards the atoll. The final third of the trip begins as the boat returns to the shallow waters of the atoll. Full steam ahead Daniel charges over the reef and into the mangrove lined channel. At one point the channel narrows and shallows to a depth/width just big enough for the 52 foot boat to travel through. The home stretch… across the inner lagoon, to the east side of the atoll and Turneffe Flats Lodge.
We arrive the lodge as the sun was setting and were welcomed with a rum punch and a short orientation about the schedule, the self serve honor bar, the wifi, the food, and the gift shop. We settled into the luxurious accommodations and enjoyed a wonderful meal of fresh fish and socializing with the staff and owners. The day of travel and excitement of what tomorrow held, lured us back to our rooms to prepare our gear and ensure we had plenty of rest.
As the sun rose, I couldn't help myself. I wondered the 'Home Flat' and stumbled upon permit a short distance from our cabana... someone pinch me - am I still day dreaming? What would become a theme for the week, the permit came close to inspect my fly, only to stop short and vacate the flat. I watched the distinct V-wake as it vanished into the deep edge of the flat, hoping the entire time the fish would stop and return to feeding.
After breakfast of bacon and eggs, we sat in on the fishing orientation. The lodge’s fishing manager did an excellent job of covering the high points of fishing for each species on the atoll. He covered gear needs, basic ‘how to’, and gave insight on working successfully with our assigned guides.
We were introduced to our guide, Mark Hyde, who is one of the best fishing guides I've ever fished with. He's passionate, articulate, and patient. Plus, he knows Turneffe Atoll as well as any one - as he should. He's the son of Eddie Hyde, one of the original fly fishing guides in the entire country of Belize. Guiding runs in Mark's family. Not only is his father a guide, but his cousin, uncle, and nephew.
Quickly Mark was able to see that both my wife and I have years of experience on the flats. Once Kristin hooked her first bonefish, mere minutes onto the first flat, Mark waved me over and said 'We need to go fish for permit... you guys can fish'.
Off we went to the North West side of the atoll. A place that Mark shared few if any other guides fish. It sounded like a secret spot and I liked the sound of that. When we arrived, a school of permit graced us with their appearance. I placed the fly accurately close enough to the school and turned the lead fish. My line went tight, I stripped again, then the line went loose and the school rushed for deeper water. Damn it!!
After a few more hours of unsuccessful hunting for more permit, we decided to return to the east side of the atoll and stick a few bonefish. We experienced quite productive fishing for bonefish that afternoon. Honestly, I can’t remember have such great bonefishing anywhere in Belize. Belize is known for having modest sizes bonefish, but the bonefish on Turneffe, are not the typical Belizean bonefish, they are rarely under 2 pounds and we had shots at numerous fish over 5 pounds.
Upon return to the Turneffe Flats and connecting with our friends about their day, we were excited to learn their boat had landed a permit. They had found a large school in the lagoon, a short drive from the lodge, that they casted to most of the day. They tried many different flies and had a few follows, but no eats. As the tides shifted, they reported the school moved closer to the mangroves and seemed to be feeding. Their guide was very excited when the school changed their behavior. Finally, in the late afternoon, a fish took the fly.
I remember feeling even more excited about the possibility for the following day.
Again, I rose with the sun, eager to make some casts on the Home Flat. But, I did not cross paths with a permit this morning, but the bonefish schools where numerous and hungry.
After a quick breakfast, my wife and I met with Mark for another day of fishing. He suggested running south to his favor permit flats, the Elbow Flat.
Once there, we found a small school and a few large singles. Kristin (my wife) and I took turns putting flies - EP crabs, ragheads, Bauer's, Gotcha's (one of Mark's favorite permit flies), mantis shrimp, etc - in front of fish. Each time, with the same result - Rejection.
Finally, it was my turn up front again, and I decided to try the fly that our friend caught her permit on the day prior - an avalon fly. I cast to a school, strip, strip, 'He's on it', strip, line goes tight, then loose. Again the school zooms off. What the F**K!!!
Mark didn't have any words of advice. He shared it all looked good from his vantage point on the polling platform.
Again we arrived back at the lodge, this time I was feeling a bit low... how did that fish miss the hook? And again, our friends boated a permit. While I was excited for them, my envy was growing.
The next day we split time between fishing for bonefish and permit. While wading the bonefish flats, a school of permit neared me. A quick fly change and I was able to place a crab on the intercept path of the school. Strip, Strip, Strip, they're on it, strip, line goes tight, the water explodes, the fish head for the channels, and my fly is not going with them. That's the third time!!!
I met back up with Kristin and Mark as they returned to the skiff. They shared stories of lots of big bonefish on the end of Kristin's line... with photos to prove it. I shared that I had yet another short strike on permit.
We moved to another flat. As Mark took Kristin to find some bones, he pointed me to the reef with instructions that permit will sometime be on the deep side. "Sweet" I thought to myself. Here's another interesting opportunity to catch a permit. Surely, the odds have to be turning in my favor.
There was school of permit feeding in the crashing waves, almost exactly where Mark had pointed. I was liking my chances as I observed these fish feeding aggressively. A few fly changes and I tied on the avalon again. On the first presentation, a fish moved to inspect the fly. It tipped up, the line tightened, I stripped to set, and nothing. That fished spooked and the school followed. My shoulders slumped. My eyes looked down. My mind began to race as I questioned everything I knew about flats fishing.
It was a long ride home that day, and I was already dreading having to recount the day's fishing. I had nothing to show for my efforts except disappointment, and was really not wanting to hear that our friends had found success again.
Sure enough, they did land another permit. This story wasn't to be believed if they didn't have photos to prove it. Evidently, they had been anchored on a flat they had just waded for bonefish, and while they were eating lunch, their guide spotted a permit swimming toward the boat. Our friend Lee Ann said she put down her lunch and scrambled to get her rod, and free the fly. By the time this had transpired the fish had seen the boat, and was starting to move off. Lee Ann made a blind cast over the shoulder, behind her. They total length of the cast was less than 20 feet. The fly hit. The permit turned and gobbled it.
Now if I could just get some of that luck.
Luck didn't find me the first trip to Turneffe Flats. I managed to short strike three more permit, for a grand total of seven permits eats, without no hook ups. And I thought I was good at this game.
Luck did find Lee Ann's husband Herb. On the final day of fishing, their guide, Dion Young, took them into the lagoon to look for the large schools of permit that live there. They found a healthy school and Herb made many casts. The majority fell a few feet short. But then, he made a cast with all of his might. It landed hard with a splat in the middle of the school. The guide cringed. Herb checked his line to find it wrapped around his feet. So he cleared it. All the while, the fly was in the water sinking. Finally, ready to fish, he gave it a long slow strip. It only took one. The line rocketed off the reel and across the flats as a fifteen pound permit boldly swam off with his fly.
One year later, I was hired as the fishing manager at Turneffe Flats. It was long held dream to live and work in abroad, especially in Belize. As the manager, I was able to spend more time fishing. I fished nearly every day on the Home Flat. Even when the conditions or tides were less than ideal, I spent my break hours wading and learning the home flat. The Home Flat gave me little secrets each day I dedicated myself to listening. By the time my tour of duty was complete at Turneffe Flats, I knew where the bonefish schools preferred to feed. I knew where to watch out for crocodiles and grew comfortable with stingrays swimming frighteningly close to me. Most importantly, I learned where to be for the best opportunity to present a fly to a permit… and even landed one!
Oh yeah, I learned that our travel mates, Lee Ann and Herb held the lodge record for that year, hooking and landing more permit in a week than anyone else. They total eight fish to the boat in six days of fishing.