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October 19, 2009

When Your Fishing Trip Goes South

Sometimes you fish for what's there...

To cast a line in a foreign clime represents one of the ultimates in angling. We save, we plan, and when the time is right, we go. It's not like a morning run to a nearby trout stream or bass lake. International travel creates fantasies and expectations of almost unbounded proportions. The fish (your dream fish here, be it salmon, bonefish, tarpon or tuna) of a lifetime is the prospect and project. Reality can either confirm or confound such magical thinking. Sometimes the fishing gods smile on you, and sometimes they don't. If your quarry is there and willing, the hook-set is sure and the line holds, the miracle happens. You grip and grin for the requisite photos, and memories are enduringly etched and e-mailed to one and all. However, this is an account of a time when the angling spirits were, if not scowling, decidedly indifferent to our fishing fate. What you do under such circumstances and how you react to adversity distinguishes the positive from the long, hard slog into piscatorial purgatory or worse.

My wife, Beth, and I arrived in San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, Belize, on May 28, 2008, in hopes of taking advantage of some of the best tarpon, permit and bonefish prospects in the Caribbean. Visions of a flats grand slam played in our heads. Our guide, one of San Pedro's best, Capt. Pedro "Pete" Graniel, was optimistic. Bonefish were abundant and tarpon were rolling along the reef line and in the backwater channels of the island. A permit shot was always possible. Life, as the saying goes, was good.

Absent from our ambitious speculations was the meteorological fact that hundreds of miles to the west, Pacific Tropical Storm Alma was steadily bearing down on Nicaragua. On our first day out, on the flats south of Ambergris Caye, we connected with a score of fine bonefish, but slow-trolling the reef line for tarpon with Belizean sardina (in Florida, they're pilchards) produced little but a pleasant afternoon in the Belizean sun. "There's always tomorrow," I thought to myself. As Capt. Pete brought his panga back to the dock, he looked at the gathering clouds in the southwest and uttered the prescient words: "I don't like the looks of that." In this case, looks were far from deceiving.

Alma had crossed Nicaragua. It reconstituted, switched genders and became Atlantic Tropical Storm Arthur. The storm tracked north along the coast of Belize - for more than three days. Seventy-two consecutive hours of torrential rain anywhere is not much fun, but throw in frequent power failures and winds gusting to 60 knots and you have an adventure that no sane person would select. We stayed in our hotel and waited, waited, waited. After an estimated 10 to 15 inches of rain, we ventured forth to the very waterlogged, partially flooded streets of San Pedro. We had two days remaining before our flight back to Baltimore. I found Capt. Pete at his dock, bailing out his flats boat. When I asked if we should go out, Pete smiled and replied, "Well, we can always try, señor." And that's just what we did.

For the next two days, we found no tarpon, no bonefish and absolutely no permit, but ladyfish, jack crevalles and barracuda were more than obliging. Rods bent to the strain, drags were screaming and our smiles could not have been more expansive. We had fun. We caught fish. Not the fish we expected or fantasized, not the fish awarded top ranks in the saltwater angling pantheon. But there are times when one should forget devised hierarchies. We left Belize with spirits elevated and will willingly return someday to continue our flats quests. We learned not merely to tolerant other fish, but to embrace any opportunity to test our skills. And from our encounter with Tropical Storm Arthur and a truncated fishing vacation, Beth and I devised two rules that will center our sanity and serve us or anyone well. These are scarcely earth-shaking mysteries made plain; they are simply two applications of good common sense that help make days on the water more enjoyable.

Fish for What's There and Appreciate It
While the runs of bonefish or permit can be mind-boggling intense and the leaps of tarpon absolutely gravity defying, there are other fish that provide a similar adrenalin rush. Jack crevalle, the tropical Energizer Bunny on steroids, defines the word "indefatigable." Their circular runs around the boat that make a fisherman yearn for a fighting belt and sometimes a wrist transplant make one quickly understand why jack crevalles are nicknamed "toro" in Belize.

Barracuda are probably the most underappreciated game fish, but with their substantial virtues, that's difficult to comprehend. First, barracuda are almost always there, widely scattered on the flats and channels. Second, these toothy torpedoes aren't reluctant to crash baits, plugs or feathers as long as the angler moves them faster and faster. Finally, once hooked, barracuda range from runners to jumpers, and often both escape modes are employed. The sight of a yard-long 'cuda soaring above the turquoise flats is hard to forget but renewable almost every trip to the tropics.

On our final day, Capt. Pete steered us inside the reef but beyond the flats into 10 to 15 feet of water. "What's here?" Beth asked, for we hadn't fished this area before. Pete scanned the depths and said cryptically, "If there's a school, you'll see." Then he pointed off the bow and told us, "Cast there." Beth's lure arched on target, and she had barely begun her retrieve when the rod whipped down. A seeming nanosecond later, the largest ladyfish I'd ever seen soared above the waves in a shower of spray. For hours we followed schools of Belizean ladyfish. We lost count of the strikes and lost far more than we brought to the boat for a quick release. Each ladyfish encounter exemplified its aka, "the poor man's tarpon"; however, in our case, we hardly felt impoverished. These ladyfish, averaging between 3 and 6 pounds, were in a class by themselves. They enriched our lives and secured a lasting affection in our angling hearts.

Keep Things in Perspective
In the aftermath of the storm, Beth and I drove our golf cart slowly around San Pedro and its surrounding neighborhoods. Often we saw houses completely surrounded by standing water with the occupants looking out forlorn and depressed. They had every right to be. We could leave and they couldn't. In Arthur's aftermath, seven people died and thousands lost their homes. For us, Arthur was an inconvenience, but for far too many Belizean citizens, it was an undeserved disaster. Once back in Baltimore, we promptly sent a check to the Belize Red Cross. There's fishing and then there's people. Good common sense dictates that people are by far the most important.

Herb Smith, Ph.D., is a professor of political science at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland. In addition to lecturing about American politics, he teaches three courses in the exercise-science and physical-education department: Fishing the Florida Keys, Fishing and Diving Belize and Trout Fishing in Maryland. He also serves on the Maryland Sport Fisheries Advisory Commission.