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The Northern Belize Grand-Slam Scenario
Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker serve up some incredible salty options.
By Jess McGlothlin

Weaving through the mangrove channels is an experience. Tarpon are often heard “popping” back in the mangrove islands, and seasoned guides will know where to post up and wait for them to come out into open water where a cast is possible. Compared to the sweeping flats located nearby, the mangroves offer a compelling change of scenery.

Imagine hundreds of square miles of pristine saltwater flats, stretching as far as your eye can see, to where the horizon of water blurs into the hazy Caribbean sky. Aquatic habitat ranging from dense mangrove alleys to wide-open, savannah-like white sand flats, to reef-edge rollers… all within reach of the region’s preferred vessel: a simple panga.

Whether you’re a frequent flyer or once-a-decade bucket list traveler, you’ve likely daydreamed of such a location. Not far from the United States, Belize’s wide-open spaces taunt anglers with their promise of permit, tarpon, bonefish, snook, and more. The shallow inshore flats lining this Central American country are home to some of the most prolific saltwater sportfishing in the world. And the northern part of the country, near the tourist-friendly islands of Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker, draw fly-fishers from around the globe. Anglers fishing this area can expect to encounter a variety of water, ranging from the mangrove alleys of Bacalar Chico National Park and Marine Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the Mexico/Belize border, to the wide-open, stellar white sand flats off Long Caye, nearly a two-hour panga run south from Bacalar Chico.

Seasoned saltwater anglers and first-timers alike come to these islands and try their hand at connecting with a grand slam. And this portion of Belize is one of the best places in the world to do just that.

For trout anglers coming from the land of size-18 Griffith’s Gnats, saltwater flies present an entirely new world. Stock your box with the classics before heading to the Caribbean, but don’t be afraid to cook up some recipes of your own. This creature, tied by the author, brought in more than its fair share of bonefish and a permit one week. Think of saltwater flies like arts and crafts for adults.

Bonefish: the saltwater angler’s gateway drug. Offering quick, heart-pumping runs, bonefish are often overlooked for their larger brethren: tarpon and permit. But bones are well worth the effort to pursue, and give anglers of all skill levels a fun fight. These fish are found on Belize’s flats in schools of varying sizes, and are a great way to shake off the “travel lag” and get your head into the game.

Depending on the day and the prevailing wind and weather patterns, water conditions can range from crystal-clear to aquamarine to downright sandy-silty. Regardless of the water, the fish are still around, and it’s worth packing along rain gear and heading out anyway. As with all fishing, getting out in various conditions tends to pay off.

There are plenty of fish around Abergris so it pays to have all eyes focussed on the water. A guide on the stern and a buddy in the center definitely helps an angler spot fish and react to a strike.

Anglers fishing Belize experience the quintessential Caribbean scenes. It’s the perfect location to bring your camera along and take images while your fishing buddy is on the bow. Other than sportfish, birds, dolphins, and other aquatic wildlife is bountiful, should you care to take your eyes off the water.

Fish will be fish, and channels will forever be places we seek our aquatic friends. Lined with small mangrove islands, these channels are a favored location for guides to search for tarpon, and thanks to the many channels side-by-side, it’s possible for several guides to fish the area and still have it feel private.

Much of Belize’s appeal is the vast variety of flats available nearby. Most lodges fish locations within panga runs of 20 minutes to an hour-and-a-half, and options abound for those who prefer to not make long runs in the boat. It’s very possible to fish the mangroves in the morning and then kick out to the wide-open flats in the afternoon.

The elusive permit can be found in healthy numbers in Belize. From large schools to singles, these fish hold true to permit behavior around the world: they’re difficult. Some days they “come to play” and on others, anglers can present a dozen flies—perfectly—to no avail.

Northern Belize is home to a healthy population of resident tarpon, ranging from juveniles hanging in the mangroves to larger 80-pound or even larger fish. While larger, migratory fish can be found from mid-April to October, more or less, sometimes the big girls can be caught in the off-months, as this 100-pounder, caught on a rainy January morning, proved with aplomb.

As with all fishing, good things come to those who rise early. Anglers seeking large, migratory tarpon wake as early as 0430h, heading out in darkness to be in position when first light hits the water. Early mornings in the tropics are special; humidity hangs heavy on the horizon, often giving the sun its own set of filters as it rises into the sky.

Jess McGlothlin
For more than fifteen years, photographer and writer Jess McGlothlin has worked in the fly-fishing industry in several countries. Her work has taken her around the globe, leading her to chase fish on six continents, and she still somehow enjoys airports. See more jessmcglothlin.com