Fly fishing in Belize
Belize is well known for the famous flats fishing opportunities from its northern border with Mexico to the south border with Guatemala. The most noted of these flats fisheries is found on Ambergris Caye, Turneffe Atoll, the inshore waters near Placencia and Punta Gorda. Belize is a nation on the eastern coast of Central America, with Caribbean Sea shorelines to the east and dense jungle to the west. Offshore, the massive Belize Barrier Reef, dotted with hundreds of low-lying islands called cayes, hosts rich marine life. Belize’s jungle areas are home to Mayan ruins like Caracol, renowned for its towering pyramid; lagoon-side Lamanai; and Altun Ha, just outside Belize City.
Belize is an English-speaking country is located in Northern Central America - with daily direct flights from Miami, Dallas, Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Newark, and Charlotte. It is home to UNESCO’s World Heritage Site the Barrier Reef – the largest in the Western Hemisphere and home to impressive scuba diving, snorkeling, and sport fishing.
Bonefish are the most readily available game fish for fly anglers and there is no preferred season for catching bonefish. They can be stalked on the flats year round, but the best time to fish for them is from March through November. Like all saltwater game species, tide, moon, and weather can affect their willingness to eat a fly. Bonefish habitat varies from deep soft bottom lagoons to hard shallow coral flats. Bonefish near the mainland shores and lagoons, as well as those found near the cayes inside the reef, tend to range in size from about 6 inches to a few pounds. While there are ‘trophy’ bonefish to be caught, it is rare to see a fish over 4 pounds.
There are three atolls in Belize, the largest one, Turneffe Atoll offers anglers the best bonefishing in Belize. These bonefish are generally larger, averaging 3 pounds and growing to over 10 pounds. You will be likely to see large school tailing the in the shallow flats at Turneffe. And keep your eyes peeled for large singles.
In 2007, Fly Fishing in Saltwater magazine named Belize as one of the 10 best permit destinations in the world. For many anglers, seasoned and novice, the elusive permit is a ‘bucket list’ fish, that many dedicated anglers have been known to spend years in search of their first fish. It is a safe bet that more ‘first permit’ have been caught in the waters of Belize than anywhere else in the Caribbean. They are present throughout the year, but they are even more affected by tides, moon, and weather. They really don’t like unsettled weather. The ‘north fronts’ that ensue from late November to early March are known to put the permit bite off. The more consistent wind and weather of April to October is the best bet for have the best opportunities to see and catch a permit.
Permit can be found as singles, in small schools, and in large schools. The bigger fish tend to be solo or paired, with the smaller fish finding safety as a school. The ‘tailing permit’ is a sight to be seen, and I guarantee your heart will let you know how excited you are to see fish feeding in shallow water.
Like bonefish, permit can be found from north to south in Belize, with the most productive waters being on Turneffe Atoll, on the flats near Placencia, and the pancake flats near Punta Gorda. Turneffe has both traditional flats fishing for permit, which can be done on foot or on the bow of the boat, and it has a lagoon fishery. The lagoon fishery is the best place for anglers to catch their first permit. The flats near Placencia offer the greatest opportunity to see permit feeding on shallow flats - ‘Tailing’. The most productive way to fish for these fish is on foot. Punta Gorda (PG) is known as the Permit Capital of Belize. Here, you’ll have shots at singles, doubles, and schools of varying sizes.
Tarpon fishing is somewhat seasonal, especially for the large migratory fish, but there are plenty of tarpon that can be found year round. Tarpon inhabit the rivers, creeks, channels and lagoons of the northern cayes and the mainland from north to south. Juvenile tarpon range in size from a few pounds to about 50 pounds. The migratory fish can boast over 180 pounds.
Tarpon numbers begin to increase in April and May and drop off a little in September or October.
The best tarpon months are June, July, and August. Tarpon are regarded by some anglers as perhaps the ultimate challenge of saltwater fly-fishing. Their hard bony mouths make setting the hook one of the greatest challenges to landing these prehistoric fish. It is not uncommon to ‘jump’ numerous fish before finally landing one. The good news is that they are often aggressive to eat a fly.
Another favorite sport fish, the snook, can be found in the small mangrove creeks around the country’s several atolls. Barracuda are a popular as well, and are too often overlooked by sport anglers. They can be very aggressive to the fly and will run and jump in a destructive manner. There are really good numbers of snapper, grouper, and jacks, though they are more difficult to catch on a fly because of the depth the inhabit or the speed at which they swim.
Catch and Release
In 2009, country wide legislation was signed protecting the ‘Grand Slam’ species from being harvested. Bonefish, Permit, and Tarpon are mandatory catch and release fishing only. Gill nets have also been limited or outlawed in much of Belize, reducing the bycatch of the Grand Slam species. Since the legislation was enacted, the populations of these three fish has increased dramatically. Not only has the quantity increase, the size has increased too. Countrywide, guides echo the sentiment of seeing and catching more big fish that before mandatory catch and release.
Temperatures throughout the year range from 70-95 degrees (average 84). Water temperatures average 78-80 degrees in the winter and 83 degrees in the summer. A comfortable south easterly trade wind blows throughout most of the year. June begins the “rainy season” in Belize but this is primarily to the mainland and has little effect on the offshore atolls, like Turneffe Atoll. Fall weather is generally wonderful with pleasant temperatures and mild winds; however, the weather can occasionally be dominated by “north fronts'” or cold fronts. December to early March can be dominated by those dreaded north fronts.
Travel in Belize is commonly done via airplane or boat. There are hourly flights from Belize City to the outer cayes, central, and southern cities. Two operators, Maya Air and Tropic Air use 14 passenger, Cessna 208 Caravan aircrafts. These are fun way to see the country from the air. You may also choose to take water taxis. The northern cayes are the most user friendly for the water taxis, because the are short boat ride from island to island to mainland.
Southern Belize is well known as one of the top fisheries for permit anywhere in the Caribbean. The southern town of Punta Gorda is nearly as far south as you can get. On a clear evening, you can see the mountains of Honduras on the southern horizon. To the north many square miles of pancake flats and mangrove islands pepper the Port of Honduras Marine Reserve. And thousands of permit come onto the those flats at high tide to feed. When they are not on pancake flats, the lagoon to the far north is an excellent choice.
PG (as Punta Gorda is known) and it's fisheries to the north are fished and guided daily by the famous Garbutt family. A family of commercial anglers turned catch and release advocates. Many years ago they recognized that harvesting fish everyday for weeks, months, and years would have negatives effects to the fishery and their quality of life. So when they were introduced to catch and release fly fishing as a commercial/career opportunity, they embraced the opportunity and helped create the Marine Reserve. Since that moment over 2 decades ago, Scully, Oliver, Eworth, and Dennis, developed a knowledge of permit. The know where they will be and what they will eat. Many thousands of permit have been brought to the boat. Some permit have been tagged in an effort to research the fishery and help preserve it for years to come.
While fishing in PG, you can expect to see many schools of 6-10 pound permit on the pancake flats. A few larger singles will also show themselves. If the fish are not on the outer pancake flats, they are likely to be found in the northern lagoon. In the lagoon anglers will have shots at singles, doubles, and small schools. The bottom in the lagoon is commonly a soft mud bottom, with little to snag a fly on. This is aspect makes it a great choice for permit anglers of all abilities. When the conditions are just right, the stars align, and the permit react, anglers can expect to see some of the biggest permit in the Caribbean feeding near the outlet of the lagoon.
There are two lodging options in PG, Copal Tree Lodge and Garbutt's Marine. When you stay at Copal Tree there will be sacrifice on comfort, meals, or hospitality. The experience at Garbutt's Marine is rustic, but there is absolutely no sacrifice on meals, hospitality, and fun.
Ask a dedicated permit angler where the best place to catch a permit is, and you will likely hear 'Belize'. The country is held high the permit fishing world for its famous permit fishing flats. From the pancake flats of southern Belize to the northern border stretching into Chetumal Bay, Belize is home to thousands of permit. Every year hundreds of permit are caught in Belize, and a strong argument can be made that more permit are caught on Turneffe Atoll than anywhere else in Belize.
Located 30 miles off the coast of Belize, the atoll is its own ecosystem of reefs, channels, mangroves island, and lagoons. It is the perfect habit for all ages of permit. The remote location and the vastness of the atoll are crucial to the productivity of the fishery. Ranging 30 miles north to south and 10 miles east to west there are many square miles of fishable water.
The permit fishing on Turneffe Atoll is best broken into two styles. The traditional 'spot and stalk' style and the unique lagoon fishery. As the name suggests, the spot and stalk style mostly done from the front of the boat (or while wading the shallow flats). Once you and your guide identify a feeding, cruising, or laid up permit, you'll make a cast to intercept the fish with your fly. A good eye and a quick accurate cast are critical to catching a permit. This adds a level of difficulty to the style, but increases the specialty of success. For this reason, many seasoned anglers who fly fish for permit prefer this method.
A curious and unique fishery exists only in the lagoon at Turneffe Atoll. It is unique because of the style of hunting, and because of the opportunity. In the lagoon, large school of 50+ fish on all sizes cruise and feed in deeper turtle grass flats. Our guide will hunt for the school with the boat under power, sitting on the polling platform and steering with his feet. Once a school is spotted, he will out maneuver the school, kill the engine, and move the boat into position for a cast. Curiously unique to this location, the permit are careless of the boat and will allow the guide to push the boat close to the school. The need to place a long distance cast is uncommon in the lagoon. Unwary, the school will hold and feed longer than schools of permit elsewhere. Anglers can typically get multiple shot at the same school before it spooks. When it does spook, it won't go far before settling back into a feeding pattern. This gives anglers opportunity to try different flies, different retrieving rhythms, and sometimes catch more than one permit from the same school. More first time permit anglers have landed their first permit in the lagoons of Turneffe Atoll than anywhere else in Belize.
Turneffe Flats Lodge is one of the oldest fishing lodges in Belize. It opened the doors in the early 80's and has been fulfilling first permit dreams ever since. The guides at Turneffe Flats are the most experienced on the atoll (and in Belize). The lodge is surprisingly luxurious, especially for the remote location. And, it just happens to be the closest lodge to the lagoon fishery. A short 10-15 minutes skiff ride will put you in the heart of the prime permit flats in the Turneffe lagoon.
There are many choices for resorts and lodge throughout Belize. Some are fancy, some are perfect for the budget minded traveling angler. We’ve been to most of the famous lodges from the North end to the South end of Belize. Just because these are our favorite locals, doesn’t mean we won’t recommend other locations/fisheries.
For information, and specific details about fishing the entire country of Belize, please contact us via email or give us a call at 406-522-9854.
About the Author
Damien Nurre is our resident saltwater fly fishing consultant. Damien splits his time between Bozeman and Belize and manages the fly fishing operations for multiple lodges within Belize.