Redemption from the Bow of Shame

Oil up that casting arm and bring your A game—this is permit country.

[by Jerry Gibbs]

I had only self-reproach for missing those early gilded years in the late 1990s at Blue Horizon Lodge. Will Bauer—inventor of the eponymous mini crab fly and mantis shrimp—and native guide Lincoln Westby were responsible for the near herculean effort to create that storied Northeast Caye venue in southern Belize. They’d hauled in countless boatloads of sand and fill just to form buildable ground that wouldn’t flood at high tide, and their operation became the place for permit cognoscenti. With Will’s passing in spring of 2015, and with so many of the sport’s pioneers no longer alive or having dialed way back, it seemed the book had closed on a matchless chapter in permit-fishing history.

I’d heard of some budding new Belizean operations focused on permit, including one whose guide-training program would be headed by the old maestro himself, Lincoln Westby. But after a long winter, and finding most of the established permit destinations already booked, the need to fish sooner rather than later led me to a lesser-known fishery south of Ambergris Caye.

Traditionally considered more of a laid-back destination for chasing tarpon, Caye Caulker is the kind of place where one might fish for a day or two and then spend the rest of the trip kicked back in the sand. But my source claimed they were getting a lot of permit down there now, as well as bonefish. So we bought in, expecting nothing fancy, maybe a place like San Pedro on South Ambergris 20 years ago.

Call it eccentric, idiosyncratic, and funky in spades, Caye Caulker has been a stop on the barefoot Gringo Trail for years—a must-do on the itineraries of young travelers with the wherewithal or savvy to travel the world on the cheap. It is a sweet gumbo of multicultural melding that includes the ancestors of Mestizo refugees from the Yucatán Maya caste wars; stateside expats of both the entrepreneurial and Parrot Head bent; AfroCaribbean drummers; talented Mayan artists; Rastas young, old, and uncertain. There are coveys of postcollegiate ladies exploring their independence, clusters of indeterminate sybarites mulling waist deep in the swim-up Lazy Lizard bar sipping neon green Lizard Juice and Panty Rippers (the Belizean national cocktail) under the electric booming of Bob Marley wannabe reggae. Craft vendors, dive-tour operators, cafés, pubs, and a serious day spa border Front Street, the busy, packedsand artery that directs a flow of walkers, bicyclists, golf carts, and dogs. No cars. All that’s needed is a meditation center run by immigrant Nepalese beekeepers.

Upon our arrival, the fellow who swerves his bicycle around the golf cart taxi we’re attempting to unload is grinning wildly. He wears an intricately woven crown of palm fronds on his head and pumps his arm vertically, saying, “Fishing, fishing!”

Out of the happy throng at the north end of the Split, a narrow canal that divides five-mile-long Caulker in two, there is quiet. A light breeze dapples the Caribbean at the end of the dock a couple of casts away from the thatchedroof entranceway of the boutique Sea Dreams hotel, where we’ll headquarter. A couple of New England Yankees, Dave Beattie and I are grinning like the guy in the palm-frond hat. Maybe this will turn out to be a new tropical fishing Elysium. The sun is hot.

THE IN-ROOM GALLON JUG BRAND COFFEE WITH WHICH DAVE BUILDS HIS MAYAN DEATH BREW EACH MORNING IS GOOD STUFF, Balancing a cup of the hot potion at his lips, Dave rushes from the dock with a morning fish report: “Rolling tarpon, bonefish, snappers—within casting range!” he says. This follows the previous night’s dock-light sighting of yet more snappers and bonefish far bigger than normal for Belize. “Yard dogs,” says the hotel owner, Haywood Curry. “They get fed.”

There will be no fishing for dock pets, though. Guide Ken Coc, who is just now running his black-hulled, vaguely piratical-looking 23-foot Super Panga in an arc that ends with a whisper nudge against the dock, has other plans for us. Ken is a fair-skinned Mayan with a vague resemblance to Jim Cantore of the Weather Channel. Besides English, he speaks a handful of other languages, including the island lingua franca Creole. He is one intensely focused angler with incredible vision and the ability to get you stoked over any fish that might eat a fly, no matter its size. You want to be on your A game fishing with Ken, as much to please him as yourself, but of course after a long winter, neither Dave nor I were up to par. And so began our struggles on the panga’s bow of shame— and our eventual redemption.

Ken tells us that a week and a half earlier (naturally), there had been a surprise run of 80- to 100-pound tarpon. “Stupid fish,” he says. “The males looking for sex, you know, dripping milt, big P blinking on their foreheads. We caught them thirty, twenty feet from the boat.” He says that Haywood—who also guides and teaches fly technique—was wade fishing when one of those large fish glided in six feet away. “Haywood wants to show the student, so he casts and hooks up right there,” says Ken.

Only a few of the larger fish are still rolling, but on the right tackle we’ll have no complaint over the juniors of 15 to 30 pounds, maybe larger. Sometimes they’re easy, too, as are the bonefish. \But there’s to be no easing into this thing with Ken, because right out of the box we find permit, and there is wind, and Ken is giving rapid orders, beginning the first of what we’ll put down in the lexicon of “Kenisms” over the week. The permit are 150 feet away into the wind, and Ken is pleading, “Don’t cast!”

Well, yeah, we’re not the Rajeff brothers, for God’s sake. At 100 feet, Ken directs: “Get ready! Okay, start, farther, farther, farther . . . No good. Wait!”—as the false cast begins to collapse. With the shooting head quickly transitioning into skinny running line, there will not be any nonstop line aerialization of the length Ken wants.

We’ll eventually clue in on this “farther, farther” business and shoot when it feels right, before Ken says to do it because he will be giving the directive while we send the line away. But that will happen later; right now we are switching off in the bow, mutual technique falling apart in the wind and emotional tension. When it’s again time for me to step onto the bow, a brain worm begins playing from Shakespeare’s Henry V:

“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more . . .”

The worst is after 4 p.m., with the sun slanting low. A huge school of perhaps 60 permit appears, gliding in, and Ken casts off the anchor. It should be a downwind shot, but that would be into the sun’s glare, and even Ken has lost visual contact. So he poles a turn. “Gonna have one shot. Make it good,” he urges.

It is a cast directly into undiminished wind, and I fail. Dave leaves his unflattering mark on the place after me, and so it goes for the entire trip.

Evening recaps and wound-soothing are greatly aided here by one’s restaurant considerations. Caye Caulker fishing packages include generous breakfasts and on-board lunches. But you take to the village for the evening meal, a happy process because the island is graced by a bounty of restaurants whose already economical prices are pegged at $2 BZ to $1 US. The food is always good, and the venues offer a new surprise every night.

Cocktail hour, however, is always at the upper-deck Sea Dreams bar, captained by vivacious Ellie, who also builds an extraordinary conch ceviche. For those on the hotel’s fishing program, all the on-site Belikin beers and local distilled refreshments, such as the pleasant One Barrel rum, are included in your tariff. But with the following day’s fishing demands, it’s prudent to be mindful of the sort of overindulgence described in Robert Ruark’s Something of Value, wherein the young Peter McKenzie makes a “grievous error of matching gins with old soakers whose stomachs were lined with zinc and whose hobnailed livers had long since ceased trying to fight back.” We leave much of the night to the bohemians and sand worshippers.