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Spouse Booking Your Trip? What Could Go Wrong?
Giving up logistical control to a fledgling fly-fisher wasn’t the easiest thing for this seasoned angler to do.
By Z. Kent Sullivan

Photo By: Arian Stevens

My wife is particularly fond of birthdays and surprises. As a result, she asked me to block out my work calendar for a week in late November 2021. I soon got wind that she was planning a fly-fishing adventure at some far-off destination, and when I saw our savings account suddenly flatten, I knew she’d pulled the trigger

While I was certainly grateful for that consideration and effort, I had no small amount of trepidation. My wife’s taunting didn’t help: she asked whether I had ever fished Iceland or Portugal. Whether one of these locales was our destination, or whether my wife was simply trying to bolster my anticipation and anxiety, I could not tell. However, based on trial and error, I knew first-hand what could go wrong on such trips. The mention of possibly fishing Iceland in November (what!) made me extremely nervous.

Over the course of 30 years I have become extremely finicky in my likes and dislikes when it comes to worldwide fly-fishing adventures. I am also someone who expends a great deal of time and effort researching locations, trip timing, and addressing logistics. In fact, I can’t think of a single major fly-fishing trip, either on my own or with friends, when I wasn’t planning every single detail of the adventure and making the final call.

However, in this instance, all these incredibly important details were undertaken by my wife, who had never even stayed at a fishing lodge. Further, she was not planning the trip many months, or even a year, in advance, which is the wise thing to do. Instead, she’d only started her research in mid-October. Further, while November is prime time to travel to warmer climates from our home in Alaska, it is far from primetime when it comes to most warmwater fly-fishing destinations. It’s not when the tarpon are migrating. It’s also the start of a period of relatively poor weather in the tropics, when it can be very difficult to consistently find bonefish and permit on the flats. What could go wrong? I laughed.

Fortunately, my fears were unfounded. Our destination turned out to be Turneffe Flats Lodge, which is just a short 1.5 hour boat ride from Belize City, Belize. It’s located on Turneffe Atoll and since its opening in 1981 has been operated by Craig and Karen Hayes, and is one of the best-known fly-fishing and diving lodges in Belize.

Still, I was apprehensive about the fishing. I had a lot of experience fishing Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula (located a mere 150 miles to the north). While that area offered some great tarpon and halfway decent permit fishing, I was not overly impressed with the bonefishing. The bonefish seemed scarce and small.

I shouldn’t have worried. Turneffe Flats greatly exceeded my expectations. The bonefish were numerous, sizable and on the bite. We caught them in a variety of locations and conditions. We found fish in huge 500-to 1,000-fish schools that could be easily approached in the lodge’s 16-foot Dolphin Super Skiffs. These schooled-up bones offered excellent opportunities for my wife to make short casts at eager fish and take on several bones on light fly gear.

There were plenty of other opportunities for bonefish. These included targeting fish on the flats and wading super shallow water for tailing fish. While I had experienced lots of wading for bonefish, I don’t think I have ever waded for bonefish more than I did on this trip. This is not a destination with only a handful of locations where bonefish can easily be cast to while wading. Instead, in the 33-mile length of the atoll, there are innumerable locations where the bonefish can easily be targeted while wading. And overall, Turneffe is not a location where there are simply one or two prime flats to catch bonefish. Instead, the bonefish seemed to be everywhere and they were relatively eager to bite. In addition, these bonefish had some size. Fish in the 2-to 4-pound range were common. And I heard reports of much larger fish.

I also had low expectations when it came to the permit fishing. For some reason, I expected them to be few and far between and possibly small in size. But again, I was pleasantly surprised. Despite not targeting permit I had numerous good shots at them and managed to land a very respectable fish.

The tarpon and snook were a bit of a disappointment. I didn’t see any on the trip, although most of our fellow anglers did. But again, November is the wrong time for migratory tarpon. For those, you need to visit Turneffe in late spring and summer; we heard reports of a 185-pound ‘poon being landed by a lodge guest in August.

During our trip I spent considerable time trying for triggerfish. They are often found in very shallow locations adjacent to coral reefs. Because Turneffe is an atoll surrounded by coral, it presents prime opportunities for triggers. Like permit, they are extremely skittish and can be difficult to catch. In fact, Triggers act like permit when they see a fly. We would often see a half-dozen tails out of the water at a time. Because triggerfish are darkish in color, they can be much easier to see and track than permit. While I’d caught them before, I had never really targeted triggerfish like we did at Turneffe and I was fortunate to catch several.

I also spent some time looking for parrotfish. Many of the guides claimed that parrotfish could not be caught on a fly. Our guide, Daniel Bennett, said that he had only seen three or four landed on a fly. The problem, he said, is that parrotfish feed on coral. They bite the hard, calcium carbonate skeleton of coral, and also eat the soft-bodied organisms (polyps) that cover coral. As such, it is difficult to entice them to take a traditional fly. He said that a very bright orange fly, such as a Bonefish Bitters, can work at times.

We saw lots of tailing parrotfish ranging between 10 and 40 pounds each day. One evening I quickly tied up some coral-esque patterns and tried my luck the following day. While I got some very good follows, I never hooked up.

We also found some large and grabby barracuda at Turneffe. I am not a real purest when it comes to fly fishing and am not above trolling a fly. And I’m glad I did—I hooked and landed a barracuda that weighed about 20 pounds, ranking as one of the largest I’ve caught.

One of the other reasons our trip was a success was due to the knowledge and experience of our guide, Daniel. Daniel has nearly 30 years of guiding experience, including over 15 years with Turneffe Flats. I am difficult to impress when it comes to fishing guides. Having been a guide myself, I know how much of a challenge the job can be. But I also know what is and isn’t appropriate when serving as a guide. For instance, there is nothing more annoying than a guide who wishes to save on the lodge’s gas by not traveling to far-off reaches where the fish are actually located. Or guides who are all too quick to call it a day right when you have just gotten into biting fish.

Unlike any other guides I have fished with, Daniel was without fault. We traveled from one end of the atoll to the other. He was constantly putting us into fish. He was open to using flies of my own creation. And he suggested how I might improve those patterns when I sat down at the vice each evening or prior to breakfast. We loved Daniel and heard that the other guides got their clients into fish each day, too.

While this trip had the potential for everything to go wrong, nothing did. Despite my initial reservations, our trip to Turneffe was one of my more remarkable warmwater fly-fishing adventures. The weather was a welcome contrast to what we would have experienced back in Alaska. The logistics were simple. The accommodations couldn’t have been better, and importantly, the fishing was outstanding. In the future, my wife may plan all of our trips. And if that happens, who knows, I may fly fish Portugal yet.

NOTES

Travel: Alaska Airlines recently expanded service to Belize City, with non-stop flights from Seattle and Los Angeles. Getting to and from there was a cinch. And on our way back, we were able to leave Belize City mid-morning and land in southeast Alaska early that night, having only taken two flights. While international travel can be a hassle, on this trip it was about as easy as it gets.

Accommodations: Knowing my wife, I realized there was little risk we would be staying in a sweaty wall tent on the beach. The accommodations were stellar. The lodge complex is located midway on the eastern side of the atoll, within a couple of hundred yards of the reef. In fact, in certain conditions, you can even wade out to the reef and cast along its edge catching untold varieties of fish. Most of the lodge buildings and the dock are newer and immaculately maintained. The lodge has a beautiful bar and dining facility. There is an outside infinity pool and all guests have individual cabanas on the water facing the beach and reef. The breaking waves against the reef are a constant and soothing reminder that you are staying in a tropical paradise.

Cuisine: When we returned each day from fishing, the staff greeted us, asked about our day, and took orders for the following day’s lunch. Then we were offered drinks and appetizers. The service and hospitality throughout our trip was truly outstanding.

Each night we enjoyed well-planned gourmet meals and deserts. The lodge also had a guest store with flies, sunglasses, souvenirs, and other items. A licensed massage therapist is on-site. Needless to say, my wife and I were pampered throughout our stay.

Z. Kent Sullivan
Z. Kent Sullivan travels the world with a fly rod in hand. And no fish is safe around his home in Juneau, Alaska, either—he casts for kings, silvers, halibut, steelhead and anything else that rips line from a fly reel.