Television had lied to me… Having arrived in California some 6 months earlier it had soon become clear that the Pacific Ocean was a little more refreshing than Baywatch may have you believe. Obviously the directors had never heard of the North Pacific Gyre that drives the southward flowing Californian Current, nor the Coriolis induced upwelling that delivers icy cold water from the inky depths up to California’s doorstep. With temperatures peaking at 60F (15C) at the height of summer, and very little other than rockfish and lingcod to keep me interested, I was in quick need of a warm water fishing fix!
The challenge was simple enough. Find a cheap ‘n’ dirty location in the Caribbean next to some prime flats and spend the week fishing hard, living off bare essentials, soaking up the warm water, and did I mention fishing hard? The crying from the next room brought me back down to reality and I remembered I was no longer a bachelor. As I tuned my ear I had another realization, that was not my wife Jenn crying, it was our 4 month old daughter Scarletta.
Who says 4 month old babies and island fishing holidays don’t mix?
There was no way Jenn was going to let me sneak off to the Caribbean without her, as a dive instructor she was craving warm water even more than me. I didn’t even dare floating the idea of a baby sitter, that was sure to sink faster than a Turkey Slider. It was clear that if I was ever going to defrost my feet in the Caribbean Sea it would be with family in tow. While I had never actually read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in high school I can only imagine that the storyline was not too dissimilar from my current predicament.
We discussed our ideal location over a bottle or two of red and pulled together a shortlist of criteria:
- No more than $3000 for the three of us – this would quickly rule out dedicated fishing lodges
- It had to be on an island – the more isolated the better
- Meals had to be provided – camping was out the window
- Accommodation had to be clean and tidy – no bed bugs
- The beach sand had to be white and the water calm – Scarletta had a lot of demands
- It had to be low-key and quiet – the less people the better
- Bonefish laden flats needed to be close by – preferably in front of the accommodation
- The island needed to be serviced by local guides – one flat could get old after a week
Pelican Beach Resort – Could this be the perfect budget island destination for a fishing addict with family in tow?
Meeting all of these criteria however would prove to be a struggle. After a few hours on Google it became clear that this challenge was more like a Rubik’s Cube; as soon as we found a location that matched the next criteria, another one slid off the checklist. We were almost convinced that the only solution would be to break the piggy bank and book into a dedicated fishing lodge. Turneffe Flats almost won the race but at over $3000 per person I needed to sleep on it. Luckily, before I found the mustard to part with the big bucks, Jenn came across a wee little place called Pelican Beach Resort – South Water Caye, Belize.
The southern cottage overlooking the flats – It was tough but the girls put up with this shack for a whole week…
A quick poke around their website had me won over. It looked like a small operation on one of the outer atolls surrounded by plenty of flats and clear water. The pictures of hammocks and white sand beaches as well as cottages overlooking the flats had Jenn excited and, after viewing the rates sheet, I knew we were onto a winner. My only concern was whether you were actually allowed to fish from the island as the regulations were in a state of flux and the atoll was at the centre of the South Water Caye Marine Reserve. I fired off a quick email to make sure they would accommodate a 3 month old and check on the fishing options and soon received the response I was hoping for from the manager Terri. All systems go!
No need for a rod tube, the perfect tools for the job all fit in your suitcase! L to R – Fly for Bones/Permit: TFO BVK 8wt & TFO 375 large arbor | Fly for Tarpon: G. Loomis NRX 10wt & Loop Opti Speedrunner | Spin for Bones: Nitro 007 Magnum Butt & Stradic 2500FI | Spin for Permit/Tarpon: Nitro 007 Viper & Stradic Ci4 4000
After flying into Belize city we took a shiny new Cessna Caravan with Tropic Air to Dangriga. Scarletta took it all in her stride and spent the majority of the 20 minute flight looking at all the fishing options in the maze of rivers below. Pelican Beach Resort operates a second mainland location at Dangriga right next to the airstrip, we were met on the tarmac by one of their staff who transported us around the corner to the Dangriga resort where the boat to the island would pick us up.
We had planned our flights to ensure we had enough daylight left for the 45 minute boat ride to South Water Caye. Unfortunately Huey had other ideas and we were told we would have to wait until the morning for the seas to die down – so close but so far! After a long days travel it was a disappointment however the accommodation at Dangriga was reasonable and the bar soon washed away any annoyance. As promised we were on our way early the next morning over calm seas. Our ride was a nice big longboat that fit the bill perfectly. Scarletta didn’t quite know what to make of the boat ride but with mum and dad so happy to be on the briney again she obviously thought it was best to roll with it.
As we pulled up to South Water Caye the first thing that caught my eye through the crystal clear water was a great big school of bonefish the size of a bus just hanging about off the dock – this was a good sign indeed! When quizzed about the huge f*%&ing school of Bones out the front, Leonard, who greeted us upon arrival, threw “yeah they are here all the time” over his shoulder as if it was no big thing. He then went on to give us a guided tour of the resort and some other stuff that I didn’t pay much attention to…. My thoughts were elsewhere!
The local crowd hanging out at the dock. What a tease!
I came crashing back from my piscatorial dreams when faced with a life changing decision; did we want the raised cottage with the huge balcony and an awesome view over the eastern flat or, the cottage nestled in the mangroves with a balcony overhanging the water where conceivably I could catch bonefish without even leaving my bed. It was an agonizing decision but in the end Scarletta decided on the breezier elevated cottage away from the mangroves and bloodsucking beasties which apparently she is none to keen on.
Scarletta’s chosen cottage overlooking the eastern flat. Check out the nice big balcony / bone spotting station
Once inside I upended my bag, grabbed the spin stick and booties and was soon hurtling down the steps two at a time yelling “back before dark” in my wake. I had decided the Über mega school of bonefish was just an elaborate diversion devised by Rum Gumby to infuriatingly occupy me and ensure I remained fishless all week. Instead I looked towards the flats on the eastern side of the island in front of our cottage and with spinning rod in hand and a trusty Cultiva Savoy Minnow hanging from the fluorocarbon, powered out to the reef edge with no grace whatsoever. No more than a long cast from the shore I ran head on into a party of 3 solid bonefish. They startled and carved up the entire flat as they fled, initiating a chain reaction as fish after fish spooked in their path and scattered leaving an abstract fractal in their wakes. My catlike ninja skills had perfectly announced my arrival to every fish on the atoll, Rum Gumby flies again.
Firing my first cast off over the eel-grass and into the deeper lagoon I was poised for big things. Three winds of the new Stradic Ci4 was all it took. I muttered “I’ve been expecting you” under my breath as my old foe the needle fish greyhounded off to nowhere in particular. This scene repeated itself many times over, occasionally interspersed with the needlefish’s evil brother the mini barracuda. As I moved from the eel-grass to more broken ground near the reef edge a multitude of other species started to show up. The barracuda finally started to reach a respectable size and a lucky dip of snapper and jack of varying sizes fought over each offering. Some quite respectable snapper showed up and easily had the upper hand in the rough terrain. The highlight of the session however was a sizable trigger fish that surprisingly took a liking to a Bomber Windcheater walked slowly over the shallow reef – it did not last long. Hours flew by and while the reef edge did not give up any prize fish, it was generous with variety and numbers and would be a great fall back option if the flats failed to cough up anything over the coming week.
Snapper and Jack provided plenty of light tackle entertainment where the eel grass gave way to broken reef. A great fall back option!
Early to rise the next morning I sat up in bed and peered out the door towards the water below. Clearly I had already slept too late as below our cottage was a pair of bonefish head down and sifting through the eel grass for some tasty morsel. Their tails were hoisted high and waving good morning as I jumped into action and tied an olive bonefish bitters onto the Temple Fork Outfitters BVK 8wt. Slipping quietly into the water I scanned the flat for movement but with the sun still low in the sky it was difficult to see anything below the mirrored surface. Luckily Jenn had made it out onto the Balcony and from her vantage point guided me on the cast. As the cast unrolled onto the water the mirror surface shattered as silver bullets sped once again across the flat. Jenn was quick to point out that my cast had sailed 80 foot rather than the 60 she had recommended, I retorted “perhaps metric distances would help” as my fleet slid eastward towards the rising sun.
Bones were regularly seen tailing right beneath our accommodation, In a rare moment of success, Jenn & Scarletta watched me nail this one from the balcony above.
Following the mangrove shoreline North I was surprised to very quickly come across a pod of solid fish that sped right past me before I even realized what was going on. Another wasted opportunity! I trekked onwards and as the eel grass gave way to some broken ground I came across 10 bones holding station in only inches of water, their backs breaking through the surface in the troughs of the gentle waves rolling to shore. Edging around to the east to aid my visibility in the harsh morning sun, and hopefully cloak myself in some of the glare, it became clear that this was a much bigger school than I first thought. I laid the fly down just short of the school and let it settle for a while before springing the little crab back into action with a few short sharp strips. The fly settled again and on the next strip I assumed I had fouled on some grass until the line began to streak out of the guides and the previously calm school turned the water nervous with worry. It had been a few years since my last bonefish and I had forgotten just how awesome these little speedsters are. After a brief tussle I caught sight of him and realized he was just half the size I was expecting given the show he put on. One more run, a full circle and he was mine. Who says you need to drop the big bucks for a Caribbean island bone fishing getaway?
While not record breakers, the average South Water Caye bone was of respectable size. Opportunities for much larger fish were presented… and wasted…
Sending him on his way I looked up to see the school had not moved despite the commotion. Over the next half hour I pulled another 2 fish from the school before a particularly lively third fish tore through the school and sent them on their way. My confidence led me to tighten up prematurely and soon after he gained his freedom as he took off on another run when my rod tip was pointing his direction. All in all, it had been a very successful pre-breakfast flats session and pointed towards better things to come. Whats more it was all within 300 metres of my bed and there was no need to show Jenn the photographic evidence, she watched events unfold from the hammock on the balcony.
The view from the cottage balcony. As well as individuals tailing in the foreground, large patches of nervous water could be watched patrolling the just inside the wash zone all day long.
After checking in with the girls and being introduced to the amazing breakfast combination of Paw Paw and lime it was straight back onto the flats to straighten out the kinks in my fly line again – or at least that was the plan. In reality I spent the better part of the day doing laps of the flat on the eastern side of the island with very little success at all. It wasn’t that the fish were hard to track down, that was the least of my worries. In fact, there were often times when I had to decide which of three schools I would pursue, and after that opportunity had passed the next school was never more than a few minutes wade away. But despite all those fish I couldn’t even raise a glimmer of interest let alone a scale. The routine would always be the same; after a cautious approach and some well executed casts I would get increasingly frustrated until eventually I fired a cast into the middle of the school, perhaps in the hope of impaling the fly into the next wiseguy that taunted me with his tail. This was not surprisingly unsuccessful and would quickly send the school packing, providing me with some solitude to change flies, polarize the next school, and move up into position. Rinse, repeat.
You didn’t have to look far for the next tailing fish at Pelican Beach.
These bones were clearly feeding at times but it was odd fish here and there and it was not at all with any gusto. I did consider that they may have just been teasing me by waving their bums at me in the air but then I’ve always been a little paranoid around strangers. Perhaps it was the moon or the midday sun? Maybe they had wised up since the morning session, aware that they were no longer alone on the flats? Was it the diabolical work of Rum Gumby? Or maybe I had just got lucky earlier that day and they were now showing me their true colours – plain ole’ hard to please bonefish. Whatever it was I was up for the challenge however, after rotating through my fly collection for the second time, I finally admitted defeat and wandered back to the cottage to lick my wounds.
Our cottage really made the trip for us at Pelican Beach. With a queen-size bed and a crib for all the fishing gear (Scarletta took a liking to the bed), as well as a decent bathroom it was all we really needed. There were also a few nice touches like flowers and toilet paper origami which I overlooked that were clearly a huge hit for Jenn. I was more impressed with the technical aspects of the fly-screen mesh and its ability to keep out the bities so that we could take advantage of the light breeze floating in from the Caribbean Sea. The balcony on the seaward side of the cottage was expansive and overlooked the small dock below as well as the expansive southern end of the flats. Not only did this allow me to keep my finger on the bonefish pulse so to speak, but Jenn could relax on the balcony knowing that I was in sight and not too far away if she happened to need another cocktail from the bar. All in all it was the perfect little holiday home and had we been travelling with friends then we could have booked out the adjoining accommodation as well. The pièce de résistance – being able to spot tailing bones while enjoying a morning coffee in bed – try to get out of the wrong side of bed after that start to your day!
What they lacked in size they made up for in numbers!
Critical to the success of a family fishing holiday for a fishing addict like myself are enough distractions to keep your partner happy, ensuring you can spend long sessions out on the water without being accused of neglect. The biggest draw-card at Pelican Beach South Water Caye was the perfect little beach conveniently located right next to our cottage. This southward facing beach looks across the channel towards Carrie Bow Cay, the Smithsonian’s marine research field station. Fringed by fine white sand, the protected calm beach has a very shallow stretch to the west and deepens as you move east along the beach, giving way to an inviting deep blue swimming hole with crystal clear water. Palm and coconut trees offer plenty of shade by the water and provide the necessary anchor points for several hammocks overlooking the water. Moving around to the eastern side of the island the eel grass pushes close to shore and the water clarity drops thanks to the westerly winds hitting the shoreline. Jenn and Scarletta told me about the huge bonefish patrolling just a foot from shore in the wash zone but it wasnt until I saw it myself that I believed them. I managed to hook a two of these brutes but on both occasions they seem to know exactly where home was as they raced for the safety of the jetty piles to the north.
At the Northern end of the island the narrow barrier reef continues in a straight line towards the horizon. I didn’t take the opportunity to explore this stretch however it certainly opens up further options and looks like perfect Permit habitat. Pelican Beach has a number of kayaks available for guests which would be perfect for exploring this northerly finger of flats. Snorkelling gear is also available and while Scuba is not offered in-house, Terri and Leonard will happily set up a trip with one of the nearby operators which work the barrier reef in front of the resort. It was however not necessary to get underwater to see loads of wildlife; as well as bonefish Scarletta played with all manner of sea creatures during her first trip to the Ocean including wildly coloured octopi, stingrays, starfish, hermit crabs and even a small leopard shark that came in for a closer look. Frigate birds, pelicans and sea eagles were also common visitors to the trees surrounding our cottage and the bench on the end of the dock below was prime real-estate.
The birdlife on South Water Caye was quite impressive. I’m pretty sure this sea eagle, who had a nest out on the flat, caught more bones than I did for the week.
Over the next few days I pursued the bonefish on the western flat hard and tried every trick in the book I could think of. It was not a fish drought and while my efforts were occasionally rewarded with small to mid-sized bones, they were certainly making me work for it! The only pattern I could decipher was that success was closely linked to perfect presentation at the limits of my casting distance. Perhaps unsurprising if you consider that this stretch of water is whipped up by a fair few fly fisherman over the course of the year, why would any self-respecting bone roll over for anything less than perfection? The other interesting success came when using miniature surf candies in blue and green which accounted for several fish in the middle of the day. Unfortunately the mini rogue reef sharks patrolling the flats also took a liking to the baitfish imitation and quickly purged my limited supply.
Whether it was food abundance or reduced awareness, the bones were much easier work nearer reef crest and wash zone
As the sun dropped behind the island each day the behavior of those cautious fish on the flats changed markedly, and with it my success rate. We had noticed on the first night a procession of nervous water moving over the very shallow back reef at the south-eastern end of the flat and as the warm falling light illuminated any tail that dared to pop above the surface I realized what was going on. Resting up during the day, these bones were moving onto the very shallow and relatively higher energy reef crest area to feed at dusk. During the daytime the risk of aerial attack would have been high due to the loss of sensory awareness as a result of the the wave driven noise, turbulence and whitewater. As the sun fell however the limited light offered them the security to feed in this high energy area no more than 100 metres from an osprey nest. During my week at South Water Caye I milked every last minute of dusk light fishing this area and while still challenging, the bonefish were more than willing to play and I took numerous fish on bonefish bitters, mini puffs gotchas and mini charlies. One particular fish cost me a chance at the only permit I spotted on this flat, after hooking up to a decent bone I noticed a big black fork waving back and forth between the procession of whitewater. My increased heart-rate must have gone straight down the fly line as immediately the bonefish changed direction and made a bee line for the Permit, spooking him in the process. It would not be my only chance at permit however.
Plenty of opportunities exist for chasing Permit on the Atolls around South Water Caye
By day 4 I was ready to see some sights so had a local guide from Hopkins take me out for the day to tour the many atolls the area has to offer. The day started slow but as the tide added a few extra inches of water to the flats we started to find fish. Having never targeted permit before my anxiety got the better of me early on but, after a few bumbled efforts, I managed to place some perfect casts. Unfortunately the green and olive merkins were not on the menu today, nor were the white kung fu’s. I eventually broke through with a green EP crab only to have my pre tied tapered leader to give way at one of the knots. I can’t even explain why I was using a pre tied leader as I live by the adage that you should never trust someone elses connections but….. there I was shouting expletives at the manufacturer when really I had broken my own golden rule. I never had another shot at a permit however those 5 magical seconds, which still haunt me to this day, has since fueled my hunger for a permit on fly. I finally get it! (Check out the hookup in the closing scene of the video)
Fishing Pelican Beach Resort South Water Caye – Video Montage
After bouncing past a few other flats in the hope of locating a permit to redeem myself with, we stopped in at an island that was teeming with dive bombing pelicans. Apparently the birds had been ween working this area for some days now and there was still a depleted school of bait-fish holding station on one of the small atolls. Clearly what hunted them from above did not compare with the beasts that lurked over the drop off so I eagerly pulled out the spin stick and opened up the tackle box. Rum Gumby had stolen my last chartreuse Cultiva Savoy minnow so I opted for the nearest thing I had – a 4.5 inch Bomber Windcheater in chartreuse. I was met with instant success in the form of tiny Jack and Snapper but as time wore on I began to wonder if there was actually anything of respectable size lurking in the depths.
As 5 foot of silver launched skyward I realized there certainly was. The hooks never found home and instead my lure was belted across the sky like a rocket ship. I questioned whether my Nitro 007 Viper was up to the challenge as I made my next cast, the water exploded for a second time and it appeared I would not have to wait long to find out. The Tarpon bounced across the water in typical fashion for the first few hair-raising minutes before settling in down deep. While a little more back bone would have been nice, the Viper did its job and pump by pump I slowly gained line. One more outburst in the form of an aerial cart-wheel and he was spent, sliding alongside the boat in submission. I would like to say that the fish was just too big to fit into the frame of the wide-angle lens but in truth it would appear that another great memory had been ruined by Rum Gumby and his meddling ways after the guide was handed a camera fitted with a long lens never meant for success in such a short boat.
What a (travel) rod! The Nitro 007 Viper
It was a good end to a long day on the water and there were clearly some great piscatorial opportunities awaiting those that could spend a few days with a guide. There was however no need to venture far from the comfort of Pelican Beach on this first trip, especially with some challenging bones right out in front. While the permit and tarpon opportunities may have been lacking at Pelican Beach I wouldn’t say they were non-existent. The flat moving north would surely hold numbers of permit and I had even seen one out in front. As for Tarpon, I had heard that at some times of the year the waters around the island are thick with baitfish, if so you can be sure that silver kings would not be far away.
Small flies were generally the order of the day although larger surf candies were strangely successful when all was quiet.
Aside from the great fishing opportunities and the quiet laid back nature of the place, the Pelican Beach staff really put the icing on the cake. The whole place was kept super clean and the beach raked mysteriously without Jenn or I ever seeing it done. Everyone was super friendly and accommodating and absolutely great with Scarletta, playing with her during dinner so that Jenn and I could enjoy our meal together. And enjoy we did! Every meal was different and each course cooked with plenty of pride and love. The menu included a lot of Belizean dishes and we never went hungry. The Paw Paw and lime was a daily highlight for me and something I now enjoy at home regularly. After dinner Terri and Leonard were more than happy to indulge in conversation over the cocktail bar and by the end of the trip we had connected more as friends than guests.
Another bone taken from in front of the cottage, this time on a bonefish bitters in brown.
I have always been keen on visiting one of the boutique fishing lodges Belize has to offer but after experiencing the fishing and quiet laid-back atmosphere at Pelican Beach, I am not sure there is a need. At less than half the price and the freedom to do whatever you choose I can’t imagine risking the unknown by going somewhere else. The money saved opens up the opportunity for another week or perhaps another fly rod and, even taking into account the cost of hiring a guide for the week, you would still be well ahead. Jenn is already keen as mustard to return next year and check out the diving the region has to offer. With the sometimes difficult task of lobbying the wife out of the equation, the only question now is do we go for one week or two?