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At the end of March, my son and I flew to Belize City, Belize, to fish for tarpon in the Belize River for four days. Compared to many fishing adventures, this was an easy trip. We were actually able to make it to Belize City from our home in California with only one stop in Houston. Once there, it was a quick $35 cab ride from the airport to the hotel. At that point, our travels were done until we left for home.
I’d heard about the fishing in Belize City from a fanatical angler in my area. Following his advice, we stayed at a place called The Great House (Tel. 800-698-2915. Web: www.greathousebelize.com). This is a small, older, three-story, plantation-style hotel that is clean and well maintained. It has large rooms with wood floors, high ceilings and air conditioning that works. The baths are also large and clean. There is a restaurant on site, but we found it not as good a value as the several dining venues right next door at the Radisson Hotel.
Again following my friend’s advice, we booked with an independent local guide, Richard Young, Jr. (011-501-606-0678 – dialed from the US), who goes by the name, ‘Junior.’ He speaks perfect English, and he is a sociable and interesting fellow who is good company in a boat and great at spotting tarpon. He’s also something of a local entrepreneur with several pangas and a fish-wholesaling business. We really enjoyed our time with him.
Going fishing in the morning was a matter of walking a short distance to the wharf of the neighboring hotel, where Junior would await us in a 21-foot panga. We fished mainly downstream of the large highway bridge. This is around the mouth of the river, which is tidal at that point. The river is probably 300 to 400 feet wide and green in color with visibility down two or three feet. We also spent a little time on the flats at the mouth of the river. Tarpon were scarce there, but we did see a number of smaller bonefish which we ignored in favor of tarpon. It is probably worth noting that this same water is fished by anglers staying at Belize River Lodge further upstream.
Despite difficult, windy conditions with broken clouds on two of the four days, we saw lots of adult tarpon as they rolled, swirled and porpoised. Some surfaced as close as 20 feet from the boat. We didn’t see any fish at all that weighed under 80 pounds. Most weighed more than that. These fish were clearly active and moving, not laid up, and you had only seconds to get a cast to them before they disappeared. Given the wind and poor visibility, this was sometimes tough with a fly rod.
I fished with a variety of 11- and 12-weight rods with 3/0 Cockroaches, Black Deaths and yellow-white Deceiver flies all effective. I used a floating line exclusively, but next time I’ll take an intermediate sink-tip. I think getting the fly down deeper would have resulted in more hook-ups. My son used a medium-heavy spin rod with a white-red plug.
Any time you fish for adult tarpon you count hook-ups, not fish landed. We had several hook-ups per day for the four days we fished – probably 12 fish hooked in total. We brought two to the boat. One of them was my son’s first-ever tarpon. It took him 70 minutes to bring it to the boat. At the boat, I was able to measure it carefully. Using a standard calculation (girth in inches squared times length in inches divided by 800), I came up with a weight of 92 to 95 pounds. It was a memorable first tarpon! I then hooked several fish, only to lose them to bent hooks and broken backing, my fault, what else can I say?
On the third day, Junior spotted a tarpon close to the boat. I cast to it and immediately hooked up — with a small jack. Not the outcome I was hoping for. My son saw his opportunity, cast to the same tarpon and hooked it. On the second hook set, the fish flew into the air, straight into the boat, and crashed into my son, clearing him out of the boat and into the river like a Steeler’s linebacker.
After ascertaining that my son was OK, Junior and I then had to deal with a huge, fresh, strong fish that was crashing around in the panga. The fish flipped itself end-to-end at least once. Eventually, Junior was able to lip-gaff the tarpon and maneuver it over the side where it swam off, apparently none the worse for wear. My son ended up with a six-inch-diameter round bruise on his right hip and an experience he won’t forget. My gear, however, was not so lucky. We lost the rod that had hooked the tarpon and had three others broken. Two of my favorite Tibor reels looked like a truck had run over them.
By the way, after it was all over, I did land that small jack that was still hooked up. We all felt that it would have been more convenient if the jack had jumped in the boat instead of the tarpon. These large tarpon are clearly dangerous! You can see a video of the errant tarpon in the boat and its release at www.youtube.com/watch?v=obz0qFm29SM. By measuring the space the fish occupied when in the boat (72 inches), and by estimating its girth (42 inches), I think the fish weighed about 158 pounds.
Even without the tarpon in the boat, this was a memorable trip. The access was easy and the cost very reasonable – $400/day, plus tip for the guide and boat; $125/day for two at The Great House; plus meals and incidentals. The big tarpon are there and I’ll be going back. – Kenneth Spint.