The live crab, lighter than the Gulp! bait, took great skill and effort to accurately cast. And as the afternoon sun passed its meridian, Spud was forced to throw into the wind.
Scully spotted a 20-pounder. "Let's put this guy in the boat! He's at 90 feet over that dark bottom ... 70 feet now ... he's right on it!" Tension sunk to disappointment as the fish swam past the bait. A second cast spooked the permit.
By 1:30 p.m., we'd had 10 shots, still no takers. An afternoon sea breeze kicked up. I rifled for a Coca-Cola Light in the cooler. This Central American version of Diet Coke offers a really refreshing burst of carbonated coolness in the hot, humid jungle climate. It also seemed to chill the tangible angst on board as we waited for just one fish to get hungry.
A half-hour later, Spud spied, cast to and hooked a permit. But before we could celebrate, the fish snapped the line on a rock. We were out of crabs. Frustrated, we hopped into the water and found bait. As we crawled back aboard, Scully stopped: "Permit, permit, school of permit off the bow!" He urged Spud quickly back into the water and toward the edge of the flat.
Standing in the water, Scully pointed. Spud squinted, then cast. Hooked up! Finally! The silver fish raced toward deeper water as Scully pulled the boat to Spud, who had hoisted the rod way above his head. He clambered aboard, arm extended high, then stood at the bow as we moved toward the fish.
After a full-on frenzied fight, the tired permit posed for multiple in-water photos before its release. As in most other areas of the world, Belize guides release permit. In fact, all anglers must, by law, release all permit, bonefish and tarpon caught in Belize waters. (The country also recently implemented a fishing-license regulation. All visiting anglers must purchase a weekly ($25) or daily ($10) license, available from resorts and Belize Tourist Industry Association offices.)
With a flats-permit release on the books, we relaxed during our final fishing day and spent more time at the Rio Grande River mouth. Within five minutes of arriving, Spud hooked a small tarpon on a plug but lost it on its first jump. We narrowly missed a three-day slam.
Scully put the boat in gear, and we trolled plugs upriver. A 10-pound snook snatched a black-and-silver Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnow. The fish couldn't get its body turned downriver, so it lost the use of the water's forceful flow and came quickly to the boat for release.
On the second pass, the 3-inch silver spoon took a hard hit. The fish shot downriver almost before we could turn the boat. Its heft suggested a tarpon, but it didn't jump. After chasing the fish out the river mouth, we finally brought the big snook boat-side. Scully estimated its weight at 25 pounds.
We took a short break to visit the marine-reserve ranger station, a white-frame building perched atop one of the small cays, where we heard about efforts to police the protected waters. Belizeans, like Americans, deal with the delicate balance of conservation and development and the difficulties of enforcement.
An afternoon hunt for permit yielded half a dozen shots as we tried numerous new locations, including a shallow lagoon at the north end of the reserve. As the sun sank, we still hadn't seen a full school of permit. But the desire to see an acre of waving tails, along with many already fond fishing memories, just gave us another reason to return.