Day 4: The platform at the bow of the boat has become a dance floor and my casts are honed and polished, perhaps like a baseball pitcher in mid-game stride: dialed in and dealing.
Near highest tide, late morning, a trio of fish round the point, cruising a now familiar avenue that routes them up onto the flats for finicky, frenetic lunchtime eating. They are shouldery permit, double digit fish with the black sickles of their tails sometimes shivering above the water’s surface as they come up into the shallow water and gain full show over white coral sands. The cast lands squarely ahead of their path and a hushed “Sweet!” from captain Oliver. The crab flutters down to rest before a short, slow strip to imitate fleeing prey. The fish swim unbothered onwards and a second strike to the trio is met again with no interest. Day four plays out with Oliver’s gentle admonition, “It’s crunch time, mon.” Let’s get a fish. Later that night Oliver would replay the scenario to his brother: spot-on casts to refractory fish. And I would joke “the best we can do is make the best cast to them because they probably won’t eat it anyhow.”
In my mind, I script out the proud honor of five days in southern Belize and no fish to show for it. The first day jitters, out-of-practice fish spotting, leading to a shot at an unseen fish, guided only by Oliver’s “Eleven o’clock sixty feet. Just cast!” followed by “Perfect! Streep, streep” and ending with a tail, grab and a tippet breaking like thread – some unseen knick in the line ended the game on day one before it was even started. Later there would be the follows and Oliver’s reassuring “Sweet, mon! This is it! Streep…. he’s on it…” only to turn away uninterested, or spooked- jumbo fish grubbing headlong into turtle grass, tails glistening in the sun, that spook at the flash of line in air, or the sweep of arm as a long backcast loads up for a precision delivery to the boil of a fish long gone.
Dinners pass with small time chit chat and feeble attempts at comparing life in this small town with life in my own small town. The fishing is measured up against winter steelhead fly fishing where success is celebrated one hard-earned fish at a time and fishless days are part of the deal. Despite the lack of fish, adverse weather, and a string of frustrations, we can’t wait to get up and do it all over again. Tempering the challenge is a succession of fresh grilled snook, fried conch, plantains and shrimp filling our bellies at night while cool melon and salsa infused burritos beckon afternoon naps. But we press on through the days, each day bringing up a fish-friendly high tide late morning followed by intense afternoon winds that demand everything from simply staying afoot on the bow of the boat to unloading long shots headfirst into the wind at fish quickly seen in the trough of the wind-driven waves ripping across the flats.
This is all-consuming fishing. Fish seem to appear when thoughts drift to what might be happening back home, or whether my handkerchief is adequately covering the back of my neck in the hot afternoon sun. And, so the hours pass intently staring across the coral flats, studying textures, guessing depths, discerning shapes and sometimes catching the fleeting glimpse of permit only after it is too late and the boat it too close for a decent shot. There is no time for replaying the past or scripting the future. Everything is happening right now and the applicable universe encompasses a radius of approximately 100 feet off the front half of the boat. Add a little wind and everything moves and enchants, like the call of siren diverting us from the empty gaze we strive for. You either see it or you don’t. There is no time for study here.
Early afternoon day 2: A robust permit pushing 20 pounds works diligently around a large head of coral, it’s shuddering tail visible from far off – one of the few times to get set up, size up and contemplate the cast. Better yet, it works a small area around the coral and there’s even a moment to breathe as Oliver poles the boat into casting range.
“Sweet mon!” The cast lands to the side with a small “plop,” catching the fish’s attention immediately, as the crab lands on bottom the fish tips down and inhales the crab fly. I pull the line taught to drive the hook home just as the fish turns and heads around the backside of the coral, breaking the line like a spider web. Game over.
Day 3 dawns to thunderstorms and heavy rain and we head out under dark skies and flat, glassy waters as the rain tails off to the east. Under the slate grey skies, underwater visibility is tough and we look far across the flats hoping for tails to give away the presence of fish. Finally, by early afternoon, the clouds give way to the great aquarium that sunshine and windless conditions allow for. Fish are now easily spooked as we can see them at great distances underwater, but so, too can they see us – a few follows and many more spooked. The fishless trip begins to script itself out after day 3. How would I pitch this to friends? I knew I had the fortitude to laugh about it and not be deterred, but would they understand? Would they really get that this was only partly about catching fish? Would they understand the presence, focus and tenacity this requires? Worse yet, would they understand this really is how some people choose to unwind and relax? I begin to second guess the whole thing as the boat glides over a pair of fish happily grazing over knee-deep flats, me missing them entirely in my moment of day dreaming delerium. It’s uncanny how these fish can appear when you’re momentarily somewhere else.
Day 5 comes around as routine and rehearsed. I’ve gotten a sense of the flats, how the fish are moving across them, where they come from, and where to focus my gaze. We quickly bounce between a half dozen flats seemingly empty of fish, but early on a tide that will come mid-afternoon now. By late morning, a well rehearsed routine between guide and angler, spotting and casting has shown a dime-sized crab fly to five uninterested permit. Oh sure, maybe there was a brief moment of interest, but at this point, it was all meaningless: nothing to the boat. Oliver reminds me half serious “It’s the eleventh hour, mon,” and, after a long pause, “no pressure though.”
At 11:30 we round the point to begin the pole down a long narrow and now familiar windward flat. The afternoon breeze is beginning its routine and within an hour the ante will kick up several notches as wind, sun angle and footing will combine mental challenge with physical rigor for a final, demanding afternoon. As we round the point the tails are there. A group of small permit feeds aggressively up the flat, heading towards the boat. They move quickly and there will be time for only one cast before they see the boat and bolt. The crab lands short but online and the fish approach rapidly. Whether they see the boat first or the crab will be a toss-up. I crouch low on the bow as I slowly strip the fly. I see one of the fish pounce ahead, tip, tail and grab the crab. FISH ON!
Five days and one hard-earned fish.