Failure and Redemption in Belize
A laid-back atoll promises agony, exaltation and lots of shots at the flats’ big three.
By Jerry Gibbs

Permit may get top billing, but they aren’t the only glamour species roaming Caye Caulker’s flats.

Call it eccentric, idiosyncratic, call it funky in spades, Cay Caulker, Belize, has been a stop on the barefoot Gringo Trail for years—a must-do on the life itineraries of young travelers with the wherewithal or savvy (or a combination of both) bent on traveling the world on the cheap.

It is a sweet, multi-cultural gumbo that includes the ancestors of Mestizo refugees from the Yucatan Maya caste wars, stateside expats of both the entrepreneurial and Parrot Head bent, Afro-Caribbean drummers, talented Mayan artists and Rastas young, old, and uncertain. There are coveys of post-college ladies exploring independence and their soaring hormones, clusters of indeterminate sybarites mulling waist deep in the swim-up Lazy Lizard bar sipping neon-green Lizard Juices (two are plenty) and Panty Rippers (the Belizean national cocktail) under the electric booming of Bob Marley wannabes.

Caye Caulker is a funky melting pot of a place where anglers mingle with travelers craving a laid-back atmosphere.

Craft venders, dive tour operators, cafés, pubs and a serious day spa border Front Street, a busy, packed sand artery directing the flow of pedestrians, bicyclists, golf carts and dogs (there are no cars). All that’s needed is a meditation center run by immigrant Nepalese beekeepers. The fellow who swerves his bicycle around the golf cart taxi we’re attempting to unload is grinning wildly happy. He wears an intricately woven crown of palm fronds on his head and pumps his arm vertically while calling out, “Fishing, fishing!” How did he know?

Out of the happy throng at the north end of the “Split” that divides five-mile-long Caulker in two there is quiet. A light breeze dapples the Caribbean at the end of the dock a couple of casts away from the thatched roof entranceway of the boutique Sea Dreams Hotel where we’ll headquarter. Dave Beattie and I, a couple of New England Yankees, are grinning like the guy in the palm-frond hat. Maybe it’ll turn out to be a new tropical fishing Elysium.

Clear, tranquil waters surround the Belizean atoll of Caye Caulker.

The in-room Gallon Jug brand coffee, with which Dave builds his Mayan Death Brew each morning, is good stuff. A ration of the hot potion is now scribing circadian oscillation at his cup’s lip as Dave rushes from the dock with the morning fish report: “Rolling tarpon, bonefish, snappers—all within casting range!” he reports; this following the night dock-light sighting of yet more snappers and bonefish far bigger than is normal for Belize. “Yard Dogs,” hotel owner Haywood Curry says. “They get fed.”

There’ll be no fishing for dock pets. Guide Ken Coc, who just now is running his black-hulled, vaguely piratical-looking 23-foot Super panga in an arc that ends with a whisper nudge against the dock, has other plans for us. Ken is a fair-skinned Mayan built like the Weather Channel meteorologist Jim Cantore. Besides US English, he speaks a handful of languages, including the island lingua franca, Creole. He is one intensely focused angler with incredible vision and the ability to get you sufficiently stoked to match his own rush over any fish that might eat a fly, no matter its size. When fishing with Ken, you want to be on your A-game, to please him as much as yourself. Of course, after a long winter neither of us is in shape. And so begins our initiation on the panga’s bow of shame—and the eventual redemption.

Seaworthy 23-foot pangas are the standard craft for most Belizean fishing guides.

A week and a half prior (naturally) there was a surprise run of 80-to 100-pound tarpon, here. “Stupid fish,” Ken tells us. “The males looking for sex, you know, dripping milt, big ‘P’ blinking on their foreheads. We caught them 30, 20 feet from the boat.” He then tells of Sea Dreams owner Haywood—who also guides and teaches fly-fishing technique—wading when one of those large fish glided by 6 feet away. “Haywood wants to show the student so he casts and hooks up right there.” Only a few of the larger fish are still rolling around here, but we’ll have no complaint over the expected juniors of 15-to 30 pounds, maybe more. Fun on the right tackle. And sometimes they’re easy. The bonefish, too.

But there’s to be no easing into this thing for us because, right out of the box, there are permit, and there is wind, and Ken is giving rapid orders, beginning the first of what we’ll put down in the lexicon of “Kenisms”. The permit are 150 feet away, into the wind, and Ken is pleading “Don’t cast!” Well, yeah, we’re not one of the Rajeffs, for God's sake. At 100 feet Ken directs “Get ready! OK, start. Farther, farther, farther… No good; wait!”—as the false cast begins to collapse. With the shooting head quickly transitioning into the skinny running stuff, there won’t be non-stop line aerialization of the length Ken wants.

Expect skilled guides well versed in fly fishing techniques when you visit Caye Caulker.

We’ll eventually clue in on this “farther, farther” business and shoot when it feels right, before Ken says to do it because he will be giving the directive while we send the line away. But that will happen later; right now we are switching off in the bow, mutual technique falling apart in the wind and in the emotional tension. When it’s the next time for me to climb onto the bow a brain worm begins playing from Shakespeare’s Henry V—“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more…”

The worst comes after 4 p.m. with the sun fast slanting low. A huge school of some 60 permit appears, gliding, and Ken casts off anchor. It’s a downwind shot, but it requires facing into the low-sun glare, and even our guide has lost visual contact with the fish. He turns the boat with the push pole and urges, “Gonna have one shot; make it good.” I shoot directly into the stiff breeze, and I fail. So Dave christens this place after me, not flatteringly, and so it stays for the entire trip.

The Sea Dreams offers fishing packages and all the desired comforts in Caye Caulker at very reasonable prices.

Evening recaps and wound-soothing are greatly aided by one’s dinner considerations in Caye Caulker, where fishing packages include generous breakfasts and lunches (on board), but not evening meals. Those who take to the village will find a town graced by a bounty of restaurants offering economical prices. The food is always good and the venues offer a surprise a night.

After a long day on the water, it’s hard to beat the tasty snacks and cold libations at the Sea Dreams’ upper-deck bar.

Cocktail hour is always at the Sea Dreams’ upper-deck bar, captained by vivacious Elicia—Ellie—who also builds an extraordinary conch ceviche. Those on the fishing program are pleased to learn that all the Belikin beers and local distilled refreshments (like the pleasant One Barrel rum) are included in the tariff. Of course, with the following day’s fishing demands, one is mindful of the sort of past youthful indulgence flawlessly described in Robert Ruark’s classic Something of Value: Young Peter McKenzie makes a “grievous error of matching gins with old soakers whose stomachs were lined with zinc and whose hobnailed livers had long since ceased trying to fight back.”

Come the morrow, along with our expected performance, we learn some island history as well as some unique quirks of the fish and fishing here. There’s little doubt that ancient Mayans used the island as a base to fish and hunt sea turtles. A large, exposed freshwater spring, La Agueda, was boon to early British mariners, including roving buccaneers who, evidently, re-corked their water vessels here—this is one theory on the island’s naming; the other claims sailing vessels were hauled and caulked in a protected bay, La Ensenada, on the island’s western side.

Abundant around Caye Caulker, juvenile tarpon are easy to spot and provide memorable, acrobatic battles.

The low landmass is not more than a sand, limestone and coral outcropping close to the barrier reef. Ken tells us that the water depth reaches 15 feet or a tad over, meaning you can follow fish over a broad area compared to more southern Belizean cayes where, given that the surrounding flats quickly drop not far off the islands, tides are much more important. Caulker’s physiology means that permit and the larger tarpon are often in 6 feet of water or so, moving and feeding over grass, rock or crumbly bottom. Classic extreme shallow wading to tailing permit is not the norm. We learn, in fact, that in deeper water you’re wise to first drop your fly and leader over the side and do a countdown until the fly hits bottom, gauging how far to lead the fish—if they are grubbing. Of course, they’re not always on the bottom.

The same gear used for Belizean bonefish will also handle tarpon in the 4- to 10-pound range.

There’s something else. We listen to today’s gospel according to Ken: “You need to be aggressive here—with all our fish, not just permit, you throw it in their face.” Skeptical, I argue. Really? Permit? No letting them come to a dropping fly? Ken insists. “Yes, yes, permit, too! And aggressive casting all the time. Same with bonefish, I’ll show you.”

After a couple of missed permit chances, we could use some confidence building. Ken knows it and heads to a typical shallow-edge flat in search of bones. There is a nice bouquet of tailing fish trembling there. Not wanting to spook them, one of us makes a typical, easy lead.

Most bonefish around Caye Caulker range in size from 2 to 4 pounds, typical of Belizean waters.

“No, no, throw it on their nose!” Ken directs. “Look, they’re eating in the eel grass. Too much lead and the fly sinks in the grass. Try again.” That does work and we catch some fish, the usual smaller Belizean bones, not the size of those yard dogs back at the docks.

“The other thing, on a big school that’s out of the grass and you cast too close—the school can split,” Ken warns. “Then you can gamble, let the fly sit and wait because the school’s probably gonna come back around.”

One big group of bones does the split, but won’t circle entirely back. We are too impatient to keep waiting. No matter; we pick a couple off casting at the group now holding at the flat’s edge. Ken is happy with us, for now, and entertains us by aiming the black panga head-on at a wall of mangroves. Just as we’re getting ready to bail, the mangroves open on a narrow serpentine channel. He grins.

The wind suddenly dies and stays down at least two days. We run 20 minutes toward the mainland to a thin stick impaled in the bottom. Unlike others we’ve seen scattered over miles of water, marking lobster-trapping grounds, this one is a fish “waypoint,” a place where Ken says permit, big jacks, tarpon and sharks are possible. But bad luck—there are dolphin terrorizing schools of small jacks.

In Belize, schools of small permit frequently inhabit the same spots as bonefish.

There is a broad channel, an interesting shallow bank, and a piece of structure planted not far from shore —a sunken tire—that promises entertainment. The tire becomes a kind of traffic rotary around which fish seem to navigate. Though Ken thinks tarpon, Dave’s retrieve brings two good permit zooming in. But they don't eat. Then there’s an explosion near shore. Dave believes it’s a crocodile belly flopping in, but it’s really a pelican crunching dinner. More importantly, it alerts us to the waking fins of baby tarpon tight to the shore. Dave is up and Ken is directing his casts relative to a greenish-white bottom spot—left, right, center-on, and again, and again—commanding mid-cast changes in direction. Regardless, Dave plucks one of the little guys using the barbered fly. Ever after the place is known as Crocodile Beach.

When Belizean permit and bonefish won’t cooperate, baby tarpon often make an excellent plan B.

We have remarked on the seeming lack of sharks and large barracuda in the shallows here compared to the Keys or the Bahamas. Perhaps that relates to ‘cudas being on many restaurant menus and in the over-ice trays of seafood displayed outside Rose’s place, where you choose your fish and Eduardo Arceo sets it on the grill. Perhaps not quite the variety of Hong Kong’s Hung Kee restaurant, but what is prepared at Rose’s is fine and lures us back several times, though we pass on the barracuda.

Some of Caye Caulker’s baby tarpon hang out in areas shallow enough to wade.

Wind is still down, heat builds, and Dave has finished off seven bottles of water. There are tarpon near some pilings, beneath a distant dock. We have only a few half-hearted follows in the high sun and heat. But soon clouds are building, huge fanciful shapes like masks and one a giant manta ray.

Another move and we find tarpon rolling. “Permit can be here, too,” Ken says. “Choose. Last time different fish kept coming and I was switching—tarpon to permit rods—it was crazy and we caught nothing,” he volunteers. “Screw the tarpon,” Dave says, taking his permit rod.

With their smarts, speed and power, permit will test any fly rodder’s mettle.

As if on cue, two permit schools appear. The fish are big. For these deeper permit it’s mostly swimming shrimp imitations, and Dave has on an Aberdeen. Ken spins the panga, bending the push pole in a double-hernia effort, thrusting us forward. He’s still able to croak the command: “Throw it in their face!”

Coaxing a hefty permit boatside is always reason for celebration.

Dave does, and the fish eats. It snaps up the little line left on the deck, and the first of those wonderfully merry, drag-zinging runs begins. A bit later Ken raises the fish into our atmosphere. It’s pushing 20 pounds and there’s rejoicing, but we still have to play three more scenes in what will be the final day of our performance.

They begin with bonefish. Then there’s the deep narrow bottom channel off a bank where little 4-pound permit are running tight behind a school of bones. It’s a tiny crab fly that finally plucks one for Dave. My option is dashed by the sudden point-rounding appearance of a boat, much too close, spooking fish, ending the hope for more permit play. While it isn’t stated, we know Ken’s now thinking troika.

While baby tarpon are more plentiful, larger silver kings also reside in Caye Caulker’s surrounding waters.

The water is slick at Crocodile Beach and off the bank near the now familiar sunken tire. Tarpon are gently arching through the gray-green surface. I have on a Keys-style, splayed-wing tarpon fly that escaped Ken’s scissors. As I pick up line at the end of my second retrieve, I hear Ken’s torrid, “No, no, he was trying to eat your fly!” A small fish pops behind, but my eye is on a larger one at a perfect angle, and the cast is away. In an instant, the fly is swimming, and that tarpon eats it just fine. Redemption, I think gloatingly as Ken nets the fish. Other tarpon continue to roll. Dave has no trouble feeding one, and Ken is quite happy with us now. Bonus: Dave has tallied a last-day slam.

In Caye Caulker, scoring a nice permit is a doable feat that keeps anglers coming back.

As we run back to Caye Caulker, I glance behind at our laser-focused, Jim Cantore-built, Mayan guide and conjure up an incongruous, unwarranted, out-of-character image of him playing in the final passage of Tom McGuane’s 92 in the Shade. I see Ken standing, wearing Olie Slatt’s Speedo, white bathrobe billowing behind him as he runs poor, murdered Tom Skelton’s skiff, and I laugh at the outrageousness of it. Far from foiled lives at his feet, Maestro Ken has plenty happy anglers aboard who, to paraphrase the survivor in Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, are already plotting a way to return to permit country, “and begin again.”

Jerry Gibbs

Jerry Gibbs lives, fishes and writes from the mid-Maine coast unless he is on the road hunting off-radar waters, fish and anglers that will make a good story. Gibbs is the former Outdoor Life fishing editor.