Part 2: Atop the Atoll
By Capt. Dave Lear — October 2001
The best places to fish were atop the atoll, where the water ranged from ankle deep to just above the knees. Beyond the jagged breakwater of dead coral heads, the water dropped to several hundred feet deep. It was somewhat eerie to be that shallow yet so close to the full force of the Caribbean. The sudden specter of a dozen tails and dorsal fins breaking the water's surface, telltale signs of feeding bonefish, took me back to reality--that is, if you can truly call a tropical paradise reality.
Belize is known for its bonefish, and the tremendous number of silver torpedoes is sure to please visiting anglers. Turneffe bones average three to four pounds, although I spotted several approaching double-digit stature. Yet, fun as they are, bonefish are rather blasé whenever permit and tarpon are in the vicinity.
After dinner one night I met Gabourel at the tackle shop to plan our strategy. Our ensuing dawn patrol had one objective: find tarpon. My weapons of choice were a 12-pound Penn spinning outfit and DOA Baitbuster plug. Our first stop resulted in a brief tangle with a horse-eye jack. At the next juncture I tossed the imitation mullet into the water and hadn't turned the reel handle six times before I felt the distinct thump of a strike. The baby tarpon tried to resist the light monofilament, but eventually we left him unharmed and sulking. Silver king fireworks before breakfast is an eye-opener I'd recommend to anyone.
Soon afterwards, Gabourel and I were back on the water in search of a slam. I released a bonefish on fly, which only spurred my thoughts of a flats trifecta--a tarpon, bonefish, and permit catch within the same day. Would it happen? Despite our best efforts, including numerous shots and even a couple of heart-stopping follows, several permit refused my crab-fly offerings. If you care to look up "spooky" in the dictionary, you'll find a photo of a permit. By day's end I was mildly disappointed, but my philosopher-guide put everything into perspective.
"The conditions have to be just right," Gabourel said. "Sometimes that will take five minutes to happen, sometimes an hour or more. But when it does, you'll be successful." Grimes had fared slightly better by at least hooking a permit, albeit briefly, but it wasn't much comfort. I sought solace in deeper water.
Unfortunately the conditions weren't exactly ideal as Cochran, Gabourel, and I left the dock the following morning aboard a 35-foot pilot boat. Blustery winds and choppy seas don't lend themselves to offshore exploring. We did entice several yellowtail snapper and jacks into our chum slick, but the big bluewater prizes wouldn't materialize.
"We've had guests who've really done well offshore," Cochran explained. "It's a nice diversion when you've caught all the bonefish you want. Jacks, mackerel, grouper, barracuda, and sharks are all common targets for fly and spin tackle. And once we determine the migration patterns, I really believe Turneffe Island Lodge is going to become the new bluewater fly-fishing mecca for sailfish, yellowfin tuna, and wahoo. There are world records just waiting to be broken within minutes of our dock."
World-class diving is also a quick boat ride away from Turneffe Island Lodge. Unless requested, dive guests won't do the same dive twice during a week-long stay, since the lodge utilizes more than 20 active sites. And because the maximum capacity is 10 divers, the setting is intimate.
"We operate on a very personable, one-on-one basis," Stone told me. "We especially cater to underwater photographers and videographers, and you'll see a wide variety of healthy coral formations as well as lots of marine life. When you come here, it's your reef, your flat, and your lodge."
After seeing a video recap of the dive possibilities, I was tempted to go snorkeling my last day on the island. Somehow angling pursuits won over. With the flats and reef crossed off my checklist, only the backcountry remained. As Gabourel expertly maneuvered the skiff into the quiet pools and slow-moving creeks, I tossed DOA shrimp lures at hefty snook languishing between the mangrove roots. But the wily linesides were too clever, so we ventured on in search of baitfish, or "sprat," as the locals called them.
Once Gabourel loaded his bucket with castnet sprat, I had a blast catching several barracuda on spinning gear. When I tossed the last live sprat into a deep hole, a hefty cubera snapper raced up from the bottom, only another barracuda beat him to the hook. Dancing around the skiff, I kept the line tight as the `cuda sounded. When the fish resurfaced across the channel, Gabourel and I looked on in amazement. Apparently the `cuda had spit the hook, and the cubera took advantage of his second chance, for I now had an eight-pound snapper on the end of my line instead of Mr. Snaggleteeth. Two fish on one bait equals big dividends--a memorable finish for me and a tasty dinner for my guide.
With the sun dipping low as we zipped back to the lodge, I couldn't help but smile. Blackbeard and his crew had rum and golden booty, but I'd found a modern day treasure--Turneffe Island Lodge and a silver slice of paradise.
Turneffe Island Lodge Phone: (800) 874-0118. Fax: (713) 313-4671. www.turneffelodge.com.
This article originally appeared in the January 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.