For years, I have been eyeballing satellite images of the many cays in southern Belize. I finally surrendered to the urge to explore them and spent a week this past August at Tarpon Caye Lodge, an operation that specializes in permit fishing. Was this a mistake? I am not a permit fanatic; given my penchant for steady action, I may even be at the other end of the spectrum. Can a place like Tarpon Caye Lodge keep your average, ordinary fly fisherman happy on his yearly saltwater pilgrimage?
Tarpon Caye Lodge sits on one of many postcard-worthy cays off the southern coast of Belize. It is about an hour boat ride from the town of Placencia and just a few miles shy of the second longest barrier reef system in the world. It has its own permit flat running off one end, a tarpon channel on the other, and a lagoon that holds a plethora of fishing opportunities – including bonefish – in the middle. There are literally hundreds of productive spots within an hour’s boat ride. And most of those spots make you feel like you walked onto the pages of a Christmas gift calendar that feature tropical islands.
The daily fishing schedule was blissfully long and tide-dependent. I was in the boat with my guide, Max, by 5:30 AM. We would chase permit over the high tide and head back for breakfast by 10:30 AM.
After a mid-day break of a couple hours, we usually started the afternoon session by targeting other species. However, we would switch over to permit as the tide started to peak. We made our way back to the lodge around 6:15 PM as darkness fell.
For the most part, permit are a deep water fish that come up on shallow flats to feed. If you look look at a satellite view of southern Belize, you will notice a bunch of skinny, light-colored ridges. These are the shallows areas – or flats – where the local permit forage. Around Tarpon Caye Lodge, an abundance of deep water is interlaced with these long, narrow flats. So permit cruising deep water have multiple opportunities to intercept flats and start munching on crabs and shrimp.
The permit flats near Tarpon Caye Lodge are different from mangrove-lined bonefish flats. They generally pop out of the middle of nowhere as the boat skims across open water. Many of them stretch for hundreds of yards, and some have multiple branches. Most consist of dark, hard coral, but a few have light, sandy bottoms peppered with turtle grass. Some flats were less than 5 minutes from the lodge and we never ran more than 20 minutes between flats.
Max preferred to pole the boat along a flat until fish were spotted. If there was time, we would hop out and wade; generally, a moderate chop would disguise our approach and let us get within 50 feet. In a big wind that made poling difficult, Max would pull the boat, and we would cover a flat by wading.
Max usually had me throwing small crabs in green or tan with lead eyes or tan shrimp patterns with brass eyes. Sometimes, in skinnier water, the crabs had brass eyes and the shrimp had bean chain eyes. Crabs were crawled slowly along the bottom and shrimp were swum more briskly through the middle of the water column. The length of the leader was about 13 feet.
We had 9 or 10 fish sightings per day. An angler who saw the fish as well as the guide, and was able to put the fly exactly where the guide wanted with his first cast, would have presented an “eatable” fly to 7 or 8 of those fish. I managed to present an “eatable” fly to 5 or 6 of the fish we saw each day.
Most of the fish sighted were tailing and they were usually in schools that ranged from a few to over a dozen fish. The average size of the fish was 6 or 8 pounds, with a few going 10 or 12.
I had 3 strikes over the course of the week – on days 3, 4 and 6. I popped the 16 pound tippet the first couple times, pinching the line too forcefully against the cork grip after the strip set. What you can get away with on a 3 or 4 pound bonefish will lead to disastrous results when an 8 pound permit is involved!
Slack line caused the last dropped fish. (At this point, the tippet had been increased to 25 pounds.) Don’t learn the hard way like I did: If the rod tip is a mere foot off the water, 1 foot of line falls straight down before hitting the water and running out to the fly. That amounts to 1 foot of slack that has to be pulled out by the strip set, and the fish will not be hooked. Keep the rod tip down!
Casting Accuracy/Fish Spookiness:
The schooling tendency of the permit effectively increased the size of the target they offered; “bathtub” accuracy, as opposed to “dinner plate” accuracy, was often good enough. That being said, I am sure that flawless casting accuracy would have improved results.
The downside of a school was that a perfect cast to one tailer could line several unseen fish and send the entire bunch screaming off the flat.
Often, a school would be so intent on feeding that several casts were possible if the initial attempt was not in a good position and the recasts were made carefully.
Naturally, some fish would spook at the mere flash of the line overhead, or melt away because they sensed the boat, and so on… These are permit we are discussing!
Surfer Dudes. These were singles or doubles found where strong wind pushed waves over the skinniest water on a flat. As a wave trough rolled past, the entire flank of the fish would be exposed. The rough water meant a close approach was possible.
Boys-in-the-Bubble. These were two permit that had created quite a large mud of milky water. The combination of brilliant sunshine and opaque water somehow made these permit almost perfectly visible beneath the surface.
Buddies. These schools fed intensely and moved quite slowly. The boat could move parallel to them, allowing cast after cast.
Fashion Models. This school was found clumped on a sandy flat early in the morning when it was dead calm. We could see their tails and dorsal fins spiking through the water from hundreds of yards. It was like they were begging to grace the pages of Fly Fisherman magazine.
Offensive Linemen. These were large gangs that bore down on me head on! I simply dropped the cast a little bit short let the fish swarm all around it. Under the guidance of Max, I would bump the fly toward me and keep it in the thick of the fish as they got closer and closer. Eventually, they would be only a few feet off my rod tip and we would stand stone still. Once, I couldn’t take it any longer, I flipped off a roll cast as the permit started to veer around us. Huge mistake! All those permit exploded off the flat. Another time, I stood like a mannequin and watched the permit detour around us. However, before Max and I could resume the stalk, the permit almost ran into our anchored boat and spooked.
Besides permit, there were a lot of viable targets – jacks, snappers, bonefish, bonito, and tarpon. The snorkeling and unguided kayak fishing was also a blast. Look for a future article that talks about all these things.
The weather over the course of my week at Tarpon Caye was hugely variable. Sometimes, conditions were ideal for fish spotting – calm winds and cloudless skies. For the most part, the wind was persistent and clouds were everywhere. We definitely waited out a few squalls.
A 9 weight was my standard tool for permit. However, when it got really windy, a 10 weight rod and a Rio Outbound Short were great for maintaining casting control. Choppy water hid this outfit’s lack of delicacy.
My guide, Max, deserves all the credit. He knew where the fish lived and could spot them from a long ways off. He was also incredibly adept at getting the boat positioned for the absolute best possible shot.
You do not have to be an expert angler to have fun at Tarpon Caye Lodge. How do you feel about huge shots of adrenaline? Your heart pounding somewhere between your throat and behind your eyeballs? Forgetting to breath for a couple minutes? I experienced all those things several times a day at Tarpon Caye. Thanks for reading and look out for a future post about other fishing opportunities in this area.