Guiding fishermen for more than 36 years and fishing on my own for 65 should make me immune to the ravages of big-fish fever — the fishing equivalent of buck fever. I should be calm and collected when I see a big fish come into casting range, right?
Well, I discovered that I am not immune to the shakes when a school of permit or bonefish are within casting distance. Why, I even come unglued by a “small” tarpon 3 feet long or so when it chases after the fly I cast.
In ways, it's heartening to me that I still get excited when I cast to a big fish because I know that I am not jaded, and I'm still passionate about fishing. Still, I would like to be able to calmly make pinpoint casts at 60 or 70 feet and not have to worry about mechanics.
On our recent trip to Belize, my wife, Carol, and I had the pleasure of being guided by a master guide, Eloy Badillo. Eloy had roamed the waters around the island of Caye Caulker since his youth and knew hundreds of square miles of water as well as I know the waters of the Bighorn River from Afterbay to Two Leggins. Not only does he know the waters but he can spot fish as easily as an osprey.
Our first day with Eloy had gone well: Carol landed four or five bonefish in the course of a half hour and I had landed one on my first cast. After we had eaten lunch, Eloy motored to a flat near a small caye. The water was only a foot to 2 feet deep and the bottom was sand, not marl. So Eloy and I disembarked and started to wade across the flat.
There was a stiff breeze coming at us. The water was ruffled by small waves and the breeze, but Eloy soon spotted a school of bonefish cruising the flat about 100 yards away. He and I waded quietly to get upwind of the school as the fish moved erratically about the flat.
When we were 60 feet or so away from the fish, they stopped roving and started to tail — their tails waved in the air like beckoning semaphores. Fortunately, Eloy had jockeyed me around where the wind was pretty much at my back. He had earlier instructed me to put on a Gotcha fly that had burnt mono eyes so it wouldn't sink fast.
I managed to make the cast to the edge of the tailing fish. Eloy urged me, “Strip, strip.” With 6-inch draws on the line, I moved the fly about three times when I felt a tug. I drew hard and was rewarded with a strong pull and the feel of a fish fleeing. Inside of a couple of seconds, the bonefish was into my backing. I pointed the rod at the fish and only elevated the rod tip about 15 degrees.
After taking 40 yards or so of backing, the bonefish reversed direction and ran toward me. I reeled frantically and started backing up in an effort to keep the line taut. When I had about 10 yards of fly line back on the reel, the bonefish decided to go on another long run. This time the fish tired a little quicker but it did take 10 yards of backing.
Finally, after a five minute seesaw battle, Eloy landed the bonefish for me. It was about 4 pounds and had given me plenty of exercise.
We proceeded to stalk the bonefish school again. It had moved a bit but we were able to get within casting range. There were bonefish tails waving to me again. I got in a hurry and didn't power my backcast sufficiently and ended up making a sloppy cast that didn't come close to the fish — thank heavens, for I would have spooked them.
I calmed down, made a strong backcast, and presented the fly within 3 feet of the tailing fish. Again I stripped the line in as soon as the fly landed. I could see a wake and then felt a tug. I set the hook but the fish I had on didn't take off; it angled off to my left with less oomph than the previous fish. After a short struggle the fish was fairly close to us and Eloy identified it as a jack. I was reeling the fish in when a barracuda grabbed it. We had a tug of war for awhile, then the barracuda relinquished its hold and gave up the jack. Though the jack had some major gashes, it swam off after we unhooked it.
After landing a couple more bonefish, Eloy and I waded back to the boat to head for a spot that held tarpon. In a short while we slipped into a small channel that led to a five-acre, mangrove-lined lagoon.
Jon Sweet had loaned me his 10-weight fly rod equipped with a 6-inch long sardine fly. Eloy instructed me to strip some line out onto the deck and be ready to cast.
A boil occurred near a piling and Eloy called for me to cast to it. Well, casting a 10-weight outfit after using an 8-weight is a real challenge for me. It was hard for me to load the rod and my timing went to hell in a handbasket. After three or four lousy casts, I finally was able to land a cast in the general vicinity of the boil.
Eloy said, “Let it settle.” After five seconds or so, he said, “Strip.”
I stripped in the line quickly and after moving the fly about 10 feet, I had a healthy strike. I drew the line sharply to feel the pull of a decent fish on the end of the line. I kept expecting the tarpon to break water in a tail-walking leap, but no such acrobatics occurred. After a couple of minutes the fish showed itself and Eloy shouted, “Snook!”
In a short while, Eloy was able to land the fish and I was able to pose for a photo with my first snook. It was only 20 inches or so, but at least I could add it to my lifetime fish list.
We went back to searching for tarpon. We could hear splashes coming from the mangroves, so I tried making some casts to pockets in the branches. My casting problems plagued me: either my cast would land in a heap well outside the pocket or the cast would uncoil and land back in the branches.
Finally, a heavy boil on the edge of the mangroves only 30 feet or so away got my attention. I managed to land the cast within the boil and started to strip. A tarpon swiped at the fly twice in rapid succession but didn't latch onto it. Eloy coached me to “strip, strip.”
I was almost at the leader so I moved the rod instead of stripping. Of course, the tarpon took the fly and I was hamstrung — I couldn't draw strike on the hard-mouth fish and never managed to hook it. Argh!
On my last day, Eloy managed to guide me to a school of big permit. Suffice it to say having a school of 20-pound-plus permit swimming within 30 to 70 feet of me wasn't good for my nerves. I dropped my backcast, hurried my forecast, and did about every other conceivable casting error known to man. I ended up being skunked, but I guess the experience will give me a little insight when I guide a person who comes unglued when I show him or her a rising trout in shallow water.
Yes, it's good to be humbled. I will try to remember the basics of fly casting and teach myself to calm down and make the picture perfect cast; maybe in my next life, but now I am glad that I still get excited by a big fish, and I hope I always will.
Incidentally, if you are thinking of going to Belize to fish, check out Eloy Badillo on Caye Caulker. His e-mail address is email@example.com.