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February 12, 2007

Belize South

Sport Fishing's Chris Woodward takes us to Monkey River, where the bonefish behave and fishing is still an adventure.

My desire to fish Belize could've come from reports of generous bonefish willing to swarm fearlessly around a poorly cast bait. It could've come from hints at triple-digit tarpon and bully snook overpopulating the muddy river mouths.

It could have. But it didn't. It came from a promise made to my father more than a decade ago, after he died on the eve of our visit there. So when I heard about the new fishery emerging in remote southern Belize, I quickly volunteered to give the place a try.

In three days of fishing, my husband and I caught school bonefish into the double digits, half a dozen husky snook, smoker kingfish and assorted reef fishes including snapper, jacks and barracuda. We nailed a wary permit on the flats, and we hooked a lumbering silver king and watched it explode the water's surface. Dad would have loved it.

Nonstop Bones
When I say southern Belize, I'm talking about waters far south of legendary Turneffe Island, already ballyhooed for its prime bonefish flats. I'm talking about a place called Monkey River Town, which runs on generator power, and the nearby Sapodilla Cayes, the last cays along the 185-mile Belize barrier reef, second largest in the world.

Guides down south in the Toledo District fish from skiffs that double as transport to and from the closest airport in Placencia, about 15 miles north, at the border of the Stann Creek District. These guides have fished and lobstered for many years here, but they're still exploring blue-water fisheries that lie just off the cays. This place defines true adventure fishing, where surprises delight not only anglers, but guides as well.

Ask a guide to describe the best permit and bonefish seasons, and he'll simply say, "All year." School after school of bones - averaging 2 to 3 pounds - circle the small cays searching for food.

We fished for them in thigh-deep water just off the beach. Our boat came within 15 feet of them at times without spooking the school. If the fish did spook, they moved a few yards away and schooled again. With few obstructions nearby to hang up anglers, these bones provide a perfect training opportunity for rookie fly anglers and a fun diversion for spin casters.

The best tarpon months seem to be March and April; November, December and January top the timetable for snook. Our late-July trip placed us off-peak for the more seasonal fisheries and smack in the middle of the rainy season. We were serenaded to sleep each night with distant rumbling and occasionally awakened by flashes of light and cooling rain that poured over the tin roof.
Plugging and Pitching

On the first morning of fishing with our Belizean guide, Ian Cuevas, we left the dock of Steppingstones Resort in a light rain. Our hosts Chris and Sue Harris handed Ian several candy baits - Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnows and Storm WildEye Swim Shads - and we ran the few minutes south to the mouth of the Monkey River.

We had brought three travel rods (8-, 12- and 15-pound-class spinners), a few spools of leader and assorted plugs and lures. The caramel-colored delta water made our home waters of Georgia look clear. No fluoro-carbon needed here, so we rigged mono leaders of 40- and 60-pound test, preparing as best we could for snook and small tarpon.

Pelicans plunged like sodden rags into a few schools of bait showing near the surface. Smooth boulders formed eddies and rips in the fast-moving water, and Ian knew exactly where the snook could find ambush locations out of the current.

Sometimes Ian anchors up and casts to productive zones, but this day he chose  to prospect by trolling the Yo-Zuris. My husband, Spud, and I acted as human outriggers, each holding a rod with the drag backed off. We could feel the lipped minnows dig deeply, sometimes belly-rubbing the bottom in the shallow water.

Within minutes, we were assaulted by jacks - everything from horse-eyes and crevalles to blue runners. Ian made a turn and passed a little closer to the river mouth. Instantly, a snook thumped my plug and began to singe the drag as Ian turned the boat.

We estimated the snook weighed only about 10 pounds, but we'd found what we were after. Ian anchored, and we began pitching an assortment of baits, including jigs, swim baits and plugs. Ian worked a red-and-white jig over the bottom and was smashed by what we hoped was a tarpon. But the fish never jumped.

After almost finding the backing beneath the braid on his spinner, Ian turned the fish and brought it boat-side: a 12-pound king mackerel, caught in 10 feet of water. 
Seeing Is Believing
After picking up lunch, we boarded the skiff for the 23-mile run to the Sapodilla Cayes. Light rain had been replaced by a scorching sun and a breeze that chopped the nearshore waters into obnoxious speed bumps. But the startling white sand, gem-clear aquamarine water and schools of hungry bonefish at the end of the trip quickly made the bouncy ride a faint memory.

Ian poled the skiff toward a school numbering in the dozens, while Spud used the 8-pound rod to cast a tiny, light crappie jig at the nonchalant fish. Ian likes these tube jigs, but they're tough to cast, especially in any wind. Of course, that levels the playing field between spin casters and fly casters. We decided to try a few Gulp! baits to add a bit more scent. Normally, guides use conch to tip their jigs, but the season for those mollusks runs from October through June.

As the bones smelled the bait, one after another fell victim to the jig's appeal. Most weighed about 2 to 3 pounds, but offered screaming runs. Without nearby mangroves to hinder the hookup, most bones came to hand easily, and we released them without much wear.

As Ian motored off one flat, he saw two permit swim off the sand into the eel-grass beds. He stopped, and the three of us peered into the water for movement and signs of silver. The permit pair stopped to linger in a sandy spot like deer standing broadside to a hunter's gun.

Spud fired a cast and let the bait drop. One permit swam over, picked up the bait, then spit it before Spud could come tight. Ian cautioned us to free-line the bait until the fish not only picked it up, but also swam away.

We staked out on the flat to wait for permit. Two more came through, and Spud cast ahead of them. The bait fell. The fish circled the bait, and circled again. Finally, it picked up the jig and swam. Spud cranked up the slack and stuck the fish.

After proud pictures with the schoolie permit, we headed back to Monkey River to troll. After a 15-pound snook took my Crystal Minnow for an exhilarating ride, dusk descended and we headed home.

Size Large
By the second day, we had already lived out several light-tackle dreams on smaller game fish. So we started to hunt for larger quarry. Hampered by strong winds, we began the day trolling farther out from the mouth of the Monkey River, where we saw schools of silversides at the surface.

A giant horse-eye jack inhaled my plug and acted every bit like a tarpon except for the acrobatics. This fish dogged and hunkered down, swimming powerfully against the spinner's might. I began to think the fish could be foul-hooked, which was confirmed when the flashy jack finally came near the boat. On a final surge straight down, it snapped the rod.

With the midsize rod disabled, we trolled the 15-pound spinner through a school of minnows. A 100-plus-pound tarpon inhaled the Yo-Zuri and made one body-shaking leap, spit the hook and splashed down. All three of us groaned as we watched the fish of a lifetime (for 15-pound test) disappear below the froth.

Afternoon winds drove us into mangrove channels, but the bite shut off, so we motored back to the resort. Winds remained high the next morning, associated with a high tide. Tides here are minimal - mostly a foot or less - but the winds seem to know when the water's up.

We waited until 9:30 to begin our assault across the interior passage and out to the reef. The run to Pumpkin Caye took an hour, but once we arrived, we found shelter and lots of live bait. Pumpkin Caye looked like Gilligan's Island - tiny, palm-filled, sandy and beautiful, but lonely.

Ian motored into a small cove and set the skiff to drift. Spud threw the cast net and hauled in enough silversides, called sprat here, to fill the livewell - a cooler plumbed with an aerator.

Ian dug out some wire from his bags of rigging material, and we twisted up some leader. We began slow-trolling the reef in about 60 feet of water. (The boat had no depth recorder, but a quick look down through the crystalline water gave us a clue.)

Rather than plunging down like a wall, the reef slopes off along this portion of the barrier reef. Still, the water deepens quickly enough. Spud hooked a barracuda that we promptly gave to a nearby dive-boat captain from Placencia. Belizeans regularly eat 'cuda and cherish them above most other fish for consuming. Ian says he's not aware of anyone in his town or elsewhere becoming sick from 'cuda.

We resumed the troll, and within moments, a 30-pound kingfish inhaled my bait. On the light tackle, the king dogged below the boat, where I could watch it lying like a log in the water between its short bursts of energy. The fish took 30 minutes to boat.

A 'cuda blitz followed, which made Ian happy. Spud and I broke for lunch, keeping the trolled rods pinned beneath a leg or under an arm. And, of course, another king hit. Its first blistering run gave us the impression that this fish might be larger than the first, but it came to hand more quickly and measured out about the same.

Ian spotted a piece of drifting flotsam with diving birds and ran toward it. A long weed line wafted along behind the debris, trailing off into the distance, where we saw one lone sport-fishing boat picking its way.

The flotsam held bait and fish, but had drifted up to the reef, so the fish turned out to be barracudas and Spanish mackerel. I caught one Spanish, but a 'cuda snacked on its body before I could get it boat-side.

By 2 p.m., I was dipping my hat in the sea and pouring water over my head to cool off. The afternoon winds began building as if to assist me, and Ian pointed to clouds forming up at the coast.

We ran back to Steppingstones, and I dozed along the way, picturing my father the time I saw him hooked up to a sailfish in south Florida. I smiled the same smile I saw on his face. Mission accomplished.