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Fred Schmitz, a longtime subscriber and frequent reporter for The Angling Report, has kept us in the loop with regard to much of the activity in Belize and elsewhere, for which we are thankful. Here is another of his insightful reports on Turneffe Atoll.
I just returned from a week at Turneffe Flats resort in Belize. My last visit there was six years ago, but some of you will remember last year, when I reviewed the other fishing resort on Turneffe Atoll (Turneffe Islands Resort) for The Angling Report Back in 2017. Even though I’ve been away for six years, seeing Craig and Karen Hayes again was great.
It’s nice to be at a place where the owners are involved on a daily basis. You can look at the pictures in the lobby area and in books that depict the history and development of the resort. You can see the effort they invested, moving lobster traps and building houses, and you begin to understand what makes this resort so special. This is their paradise, and they are willing to share it with us.
Craig helped set up the Turneffe Atoll Trust to protect this valuable reef environment. Their mission statement says, “Our Mission at Turneffe Atoll Trust, is to drive conservation efforts at Turneffe Atoll leading to sustainable environmental, social and economic benefits for Turneffe and Belize and serving as a model for similar coastal marine environments throughout the world.”
On this trip, Craig and I spent a few evenings discussing the efforts they have undertaken to help insure the Belizean government enforces the rules that all interested parties have agreed to, but it sounded like there have been some instances of back-dealings and blind eyes turned to some development. Turneffe Atoll Trust has even turned to prosecuting these corrupted officials, stating, “As part of our Conservation Oversight Program, in late 2015 we addressed a destructive development approved in the Northern Bogue area of Turneffe which is in direct opposition to the guidelines of the Turneffe Atoll Marine Reserve and the laws of Belize. Before it could be stopped, developers deforested five acres of mangroves and then dredged a swampy area in the middle of the property to fill this low-lying land with mud. Turneffe Atoll Trust sued the developers as well as the Department of Environment, the Fisheries Department, and the Department of Environment, arguing that several laws and policies of the Marine Reserve had been violated. As a result of TAT’s efforts, this development has been shut down since February and we are very optimistic about the outcome of the lawsuit.
Now, with a dedicated watchdog protecting the Belizean flats, there is a great improvement, and you often see the government stopping barges and boats to make sure they are not violating the rules. This is all new and wonderful to see; it is key to the future for Turneffe.
Craig and Karen really need to be congratulated for this undertaking, and if you ever want to see a study in a worthwhile environmental cause, Turneffe Atoll Trust is it. Places like this are too special to put at risk with shortsighted development activity. You can learn more at http://www.turneffeatoll.org/
Now, more about my experience at Turneffe Flats Resort:
I’m sure we’ve all been on trips that take multiple flights, taxis, and boats to get to the final destination. The stress and aggravation caused by a complex itinerary cannot be underestimated. I have enough to worry about, will my double-haul be sharp this trip? Did I tie the right leaders? Bring the right flies, shoes . . . come on, this stuff gets complex after a while, not to mention costly.
The thing I really like about Turneffe Flats is you just have to get yourself to the Belize airport and get a beer. They’ll have a van there to pick you up and bring you to their very comfortable large boat with a talented captain and happy English-speaking crew. That’s it. Just sit back, relax, and enjoy the boat ride to the resort.
I always travel with my rods and reels, and they take care of the luggage from the airport all the way to the room. After you’ve had a welcome cocktail, you’ll have the chance to meet some of the other guests—which is always very interesting, as those of us who pursue this lifestyle are a rather interesting bunch.
Their fly shop has rental equipment as well as flies and leaders, so even if you do forget to bring the right leader they can help you out. Again, less stress. All meals are served family style and are always delicious. They serve tasty Belizean specials in addition to delicious fresh fish. They always have a wine paired with the meal, and I find that selection to be quite to my liking. And even though I hale from the land of spectacular BBQ, the Belizean version is awesome—skip the wine and knock down a few Beklins after a day of hard fishing, you deserve it.
I’ve shared a boat with a number of different people in my life, and I rather enjoy it, as it’s an opportunity to talk about individual experiences. This year, I went as a single and was paired with a gentleman from California. We both were targeting permit and had quite a few shots every day. We shared some great stories, a few beers, and showed each other a couple of different knots. He had fished San Diego quite a bit, so when he hooked into a nice tarpon his skill in handling a large fish was quite evident.
The standard routine was to meet the guide at the boat at about 7:30 and fish to about 4, head to the dock, and either chill or try our luck in front of the resort. We always took lunch on the boat with us, and it allowed us the freedom to wander the island, but if you wanted to come back to the lodge they could facilitate a sit-down lunch. Turneffe Flats is in the center of the atoll, which makes travel easier and shorter.
Once, we were having lunch in a wide lagoon that the guide knew tarpon would frequent. Sure enough, about halfway through lunch we heard a roll and saw some bubbles and we knew the game was on. The guide liked my Enrico Puglisi fly called the “Peanut Butter,” which is a weird name for a fly that is purple and black, but nonetheless, we tied it on and my buddy gave it a few casts with an intermediate line on his 12-weight Sage xi2.
About the fifth or sixth cast, as he was retrieving the fly, we saw a 125-pound tarpon (guide’s guess) hit the fly sideways. It looked like I was watching a 75-inch flat panel television image of a giant tarpon taking a fly. He was just below the surface, about 25 feet from the boat, and must have passed the fly and turned to hit it running perpendicular to the line. It’s an image forever burned into the back of my skull.
The fight went on for about 45 minutes, and we thought we were ready to bring the tarpon to the boat. The guide had his boots on by now and I had the camera in hand. All of a sudden, it turned sideways and spit the hook. The look on my friend’s face was also quite unforgettable. He sat quietly for a while with his head slumped, muscles aching, mouth dry.
A few years ago, I hooked into my first big tarpon while in Holbox, Mexico, with Sand Flea, and I had the same look on my face. My good friend, Rod King of the Bozeman Angler, had landed a beauty and I thought I was next. I explained to my new friend what I call the “circle of tarpon fishing.” It begins when you lose you first trophy tarpon. I explained that in his quest, he’ll most likely run across words written by tarpon sage Andy Mill and the discussion about fighting tarpon and landing tarpon. It will consume you for years, your wisdom will grow, and you will evolve. Someday he will close that circle with the glory picture that I achieved six years ago at Turneffe Flats. Until then, there will be quite a bit of introspective analysis. In the final analysis, though, he did everything correctly, it’s just tarpon fishing.
He wanted me to take the rod and land one. I passed, remembering the large bruises under my belt area for weeks. My circle was closed now; one monster tarpon was enough for me.
On the next morning, we blasted out from the dock full of piss and vinegar in pursuit of permit. We came upon an island where we could see some permit activity. They were just milling about in deeper water and didn’t really seem to be interested in eating. We ran through the crab inventory and decided it was time to move on. It was then that we realized there was a single dolphin that had a permit in its mouth and, as dolphins will do, it was playing with it, releasing and catching the poor trophy over and over again.
It quickly became apparent why the other fish weren’t interested in eating. Their brother/uncle/cousin had been taken away by a “monster,” and at this point, a quick death probably looked like an upgrade from his current round of torture.
I learned many years ago in the Florida Keys that when you see a dolphin in your fish ground you’re better off just rolling in the reels and heading out, they’re quite the apex predator.
For me, the highlight of the trip was catching some nice permit. My successful shots were always to two or three fish cruising the beach side. I’ve learned to be very quick with the fly because these guys tend to move swiftly, so having the ability to get the fly out there fast is important.
In the end, I hooked a few permit, a bunch of bonefish, Jacks, yellow tails, and even a few needlefish. I highly recommend the trip. It’s a very special location.—Fred Schmitz
Postscript: Fred listed the cost of his trip to about $4,500 including tip.