Fishermen have pilgrimaged to the Caribbean for decades, hopping from one island to
the next with aspirations of finding new and better fishing destinations. It is an endless pursuit and a textbook example of believing the “grass is always greener on the other side.” A quick search of Hemingway’s favorite hangouts—Bimini, Islamorada and Cuba, to name a few—reveals destinations that continue to live up to their reputations and produce record-breaking fish to this day.
It may be hard to believe that a new hot spot could pop up on the map, but in recent years the inshore fishing scene in Belize has exploded. The secret is out, and the country’s east coast, including Ambergris Caye and Hopkins, has quickly become the new fishing mecca for those itching to hook bonefish, permit or tarpon on the fly.
Sonny Culp is relatively new to fly fishing,but over the course of a few years has developed a true passion for pursuing these saltwater species, an addiction he calls “The Chase.” Instead of choosing to target fish using any means, he prefers sight fishing on the flats, a method many consider one of the most difficult yet pure forms of angling. “Sight fishing is hunting,” Culp explains. “You know going in that the odds are against you and no one has a winning record, but you do it anyway.”
Recently, the “The Chase” has led Culp south to the waters of Belize. Landing a feeding permit on the flats is a goal he claims to be the, “Holy Grail of permit fishing, if not all of fly fishing.” Permit are slender, silver fish with a prominently forked tail. Typical permit in Belize range from 5 to 25 pounds. Most of their time is spent in deeper water along reefs, but they move with the tide, venturing into the shallow water flats to feed on crab and other small, bottom-dwelling crustaceans. Permit are notoriously elusive, which makes feeding one, then setting the hook with your artificial fly an accomplishment not soon forgotten.
An experienced guide is a must in this quest, and Culp teamed up with one of his favorites , Wil Flack, who is a self-proclaimed “permit freak” and has an image of the fish inked on his neck to prove it. Flack owns and operates Tres Pescados, a successful guiding outfitter located on Ambergris Caye, a twenty-five-mile-long barrier island just off the mainland. Ambergris offers diverse fishing territory, making it an optimal location to target multiple inshore species on a single trip. With landing a permit their top priority though, the pair headed further south to Flack’s newly opened Belize Permit Club, located in Hopkins at the mouth of the Sittee River. “Hopkins offers the most direct access to what is known as Permit Alley,” Culp says. “It is 30 miles of flats
and mangrove islands located about six miles from shore but still inside the barrier reef’s edge.”
Culp arrived in Hopkins in the afternoon after a short flight from the capital, Belize City. Walking out on the dock after dinner on the first evening, he looked up to find the sky was a sea of stars. The following morning, much to Culp’s dismay, the weather had taken a turn for the worse. “Heavy rain pounded the metal roof as we sipped our coffee,” he recalls. “Despite the rain, we would not be delayed. We wanted to be fishing on the front side of an early morning high tide.”
Fishing on the flats is a constant battle with weather conditions, and it is often the determining factor in whether or not a fisherman arrives back heart pounding or heart broken. The wind, sun and tides are the three key elements that you hope will align in your favor. “Strong winds not only play havoc on casting, they also chop the surface making it harder to see the fish,” Culp explains. “And good sun is a must, especially if the tide is low and you are looking for fish on
the deeper edges.” Unfortunately, unfavorable conditions prevailed on the front end of Culp’s three-day trip.
“Our first day yielded a few encounters with permit, but the high tide never rose to the level it needed to allow permit access to the elevated flats. Maybe it was the moon phase, or maybe the Mayan gods were cursing me for leaving my family and business to go fishing. But, it was only the first day and optimism still reigned. We returned to the mouth of the Sittee with Belize’s tallest mountain, Victoria Peak, prominently framing the sky as our beacon home.”
On day two, the clouds broke and Culp and Flack motored back out to Permit Alley under the warmth of the rising sun. The tide was still not quite cooperating, but Culp managed to find himself within casting distance of a few nice permit. Spotting the tip of a forked tail is no easy task and takes an experienced eye, but making a perfect cast and getting the
fish to eat is the real challenge.
“This has been the hardest thing for me to learn,” Culp says, “Ideally, you see the fish move aggressively to the fly, swimming toward it and then stopping. When it stops, this is ‘the eat.’ You don’t feel it, but you slowly strip set the hook. If you wait to feel the fish, you will very likely miss the set. It’s too late, he has spit it and spooked. You have to read the fish’s body language.”
With time running out on the last evening of the trip and having yet to land a permit, Flack steered the boat to a flat named “Permit City.”
“Surely I could catch a permit at Permit City,” Culp laughed. “Soon enough we saw several permit tails pointed skyward, which we had not seen since morning. Easing into the water, I waded toward the feeding school while Wil stayed back coaching me from his platform with the advantage of height. This was going to be it. I could feel my heart in my throat. But with the first cast, the lead permit detected the line. That was it. The school was off the flat and it was clearly time to call it a day. Temporary frustration would leave me with no option but to be satisfied just having the chances that I did have over the last three days.”
Arriving back at home, Culp’s satisfaction with near misses was short-lived. Symptoms of “The Chase” returned. Winning the fight with a big permit weighed heavily on Culp’s mind. A few short months later, he was back in the boat with Flack poling his unmistakable blue panga, Luna Nueva. This time they were in Ambergris Caye on a couples’ trip—fishing, of course, but also there to enjoy a pair of concerts by famed country musician Jerry Jeff Walker, who has a house in San Pedro. This trip would be different. The first highlight came with local guide George Bradley. Culp witnessed fellow angler Chris King catch his first tarpon, a large 60-pound migratory fish that jumped nine times before being brought to hand. Culp had his moment with Wil Flack that week as well. With idyllic conditions and after a few near misses, a forked tail cut through the crystal blue water and turned on the fly. Culp slowly stripped the line and bingo, fish on! After a long fight and screaming drag, Culp’s persistence had paid off, resulting in a 15-pound permit. At last “The Chase” was over…at least for now.