Celebrating a milestone birthday amidst bonefish, permit, and the largest shark in Belize.
[by Ben Romans]
THERE’S A SHARK NEXT TO OUR BOAT—a big shark. Well, the biggest shark my wife and I have ever seen, which, truth be told, might seem small to others more familiar with the diversity of marine life on the saltwater flats. But to a guy born and raised in Cleveland and a North Dakota native, the long, gray fish lethargically paralleling our drift sure does seem like the Belizean version of Jaws.
But that was the gist of our week; just when we thought we’d experienced about all the Turneffe Atoll had to offer, we encountered something else amazing. Little things, like the taste of fresh papaya pancakes, blew back our hair just as much as the big things, like walking on the beach at night and seeing the red glow of a saltwater crocodile’s eyes staring into my flashlight beam.
The premise of our trip was simple— celebrate my wife’s milestone birthday in a locale where we could relax, eat like royalty, select from a variety of experiences like snorkeling and kayaking, and of course, work in a little fishing.
More than anything else, my wife just wanted to see the ocean. After a lifetime of living in the West, she wanted to see salt water with her own eyes—but it couldn’t be just any salt water. It had to be one of those scenes you can’t justify with photographs. The kind of place you can hear and feel when you close your eyes, six months after returning home. We didn’t think about it long—Turneffe Flats was a no-brainer.
I’m always amazed how easy and fast modern travel has made it for someone to zip around to another side of the world. My wife, Heather, and I left our home in Boise, Idaho, at 7 a.m., arrived in Belize around 3 p.m. the same day, enjoyed a short boat ride to the resort, and were looking east toward the Caribbean Sea before the sun even motioned toward the horizon behind us.
We absorbed every moment of our arrival—the incredible colors of the water, the sight of local fishermen diving from the bows of boats to retrieve lobsters by hand, the feeling of the warm, moist, heavy air, and of course, the people. As we stepped off the boat and onto Turneffe Flats pier, the resort’s staff welcomed us and other guests with a cool rum punch cocktail and offered us a brief rundown of what we could expect during our stay— comfortable accommodations, delicious local fare, all the fishing we could handle, including the chance to catch bonefish, permit, and tarpon all on the same day.
Still, I wasn’t prepared for my first Turneffe bonefish encounter. On our first day, just minutes after leaving the dock and before the boat wake settled, our guide, Dubs, sighted a half-dozen fish slowly working out from the calm, protected edge of the mangroves and into casting range. I needed more time to psyche myself up for the task at hand. But for whatever reason—maybe I caught a break in the wind or the fish and casting gods smiled upon me—I sent the line sailing through the air like an old salt. It was a delivery I couldn’t make again in 1,000 tries. But that’s about where my good fortune ended.
You can take the man out of a western trout river, but you can’t take away his western-trout-river hook set. The excitement of seeing a school of fish work through the shallows and turn toward my fly was simply so overwhelming, I forgot everything I was supposed to do next. When a fish ate, and I instinctively reacted by raising the rod tip, I lost the fish—and irritated Dubs. That’s a no-no, and while it wasn’t the last time I raised the rod that week, I saw more bonefish than I’ve ever seen before and redeemed myself several times over, which made Dubs smile again.
In fact, there’s an ongoing contest to see if anyone can catch a bonefish (not just a gold one) while soaking in the pool. Rumor has it, noted photographer (and fly caster) Brian O’Keefe came close once, but if I had to guess, I think most swimmers couldn’t even drop a fly on the fringe of the water at high tide. I know I couldn’t. Having so many fish so close made it easy for my wife and me to do what we wanted on our own time. On those days when she didn’t feel like spending a full day in the boat, Heather would typically stay behind and read a book or nap in a chair on the beach and intermittently wade into the tides with a rod and pocket of shrimp patterns.
Toward the end of week, she bowed out of one day in the boat in exchange for a private massage and DIY flats fishing. Dubs and I returned to the resort earlier than usual and could see her bright-orange button-down shirt flapping in the wind hundreds of yards away. I took a few photos from afar before grabbing a rod and joining her. Later, while reviewing the photos on my laptop, she confided she liked the independence of knowing she didn’t have to be under the “watchful eye” of a guide (or her husband) and appreciated the independence of fishing at her leisure.