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May 03, 23


Yellow Dog client Dougal R. from New Zealand recently spent ten days in southern Belize, fishing with Garbutt’s Lodge. He sent a great write-up and story about his permit fishing trip in Punta Gorda, which we highly recommend for anyone who loves chasing permit and enjoys the waters of southern Belize. We hope you enjoy this as much as we did!

"I opened my eyes, trying to sense where I was for a moment before I glanced at the first of the morning light playing on the curtains. It was 5 a.m. and I was already thinking about permit. Our unit hung over the water facing east towards the rising sun.

I lay quietly, listening for signs of the day. I was pleased to hear the water lapping around the piles just a couple of meters below the floor. The east wind that hammered the shore last night had calmed. The sign from the curtain wasn't as promising, the muted light suggesting something less than full sun. Sue dozed beside me, so I left the curtains closed, and besides, I wasn't sure I was ready to face up to the reality of the light.

I set the drip coffee maker to work and climbed into the shower. It's not a shower I have mastered, and it tumbled unheated water over me, but the water wasn't cold in this warm place and it helped blow the last of the sleep from my body.

I dressed, piled my boat bag on the end of the bed and pulled back the curtains ready for the truth of the day. It wasn't the sight I was hoping for. Broken layers of cloud extended west across the Caribbean, and at the horizon several towering cumulus reached into the stratosphere before being sliced off by the jet stream. The sun speared shafts of light through these jumbles of peach, grey and purple onto the flattened sea.

"It might burn off," I said, without conviction. I searched for signs of the direction these giants of the sky were taking hoping that today they would choose to visit the peaks of Honduras to the south west. I drank my coffee on the deck in the velvet air and watched a line of flowers jettisoned from a tree overhanging the shore float west, as though an offering had been made to the gods. Sue said a manatee disturbed the water as it swam by yesterday, but this morning the sea was without blemish.

At 6:15 I took my gear to the panga. Two 10 weights rigged with long leaders and size 2 camo crabs, one mottled brown for the mud bottom of the lagoon and the other green, for the turtle grass flats around the keys. Start time was 7 but Scully had the boat ready early. We had unfinished business from the day before.

I had shots, a follow or two and one bite, but nothing stuck. By 6:30 we were nosing quietly out of Taylor's Creek and heading north as I grabbed a breakfast wrap each to eat on the way. Scully opened the throttle and we carved through the still morning air on the way to the permit flats, following the channel close to the shore for five minutes, passing a couple of fishermen throwing hand nets for schools of fish close to the steaming edge of the rain forest, before curving west towards the small keys that from a distance appeared suspended over the water like dark fly saucers.

We rounded the first key before Scully cut the engine and climbed on to the poling platform and began to push us back over the turtle grass flats that surround the keys. The light was poor, and we needed what little there was behind us.

"Lets find some permit Mon," said Scully. "Saw a bunch here the other day---feeding hard, tails up."

We scanned the water as though our lives depended on it. A pelican stretched it's loose neck and flapped awkward wings near us, but nothing else moved. Conch shells piled on the shore like a minor Mayan ruin. Half an hour passed before we rounded the eastern end of the key and began pushing west. The light bounced off the water leaving us with less than ten meters visibility, way too close to see permit before they were aware of us.

A patch of water ahead gave off something. We both saw it but it was too subtle to describe. I pointed and Scully whispered that he had seen it. We watched as the hint of nothingness evaporated. A minute or so went by ---it's hard to tell exactly, because my concept of time changes when I'm fishing for permit. At times it slows, and I feel every long minute through my tired feet, and at times like this it passes in a blur.

A large black edged tail broke the surface and quivered in the air. Three more followed. They were close to forty meters away, moving slowly towards us in the thigh deep water. It was like watching a ballet. Exposed dorsals carving the water, lanquid tails pushing up, then trembling as I imagined they plucked crabs from the turtle grass.

I had close to thirty meters of line piled in coils behind me, and the hook of the camo crab firmly pinched between thumb and forefinger. When the permit closed to twenty five meters Scully whispered "Are you ready?" Without noise he shifted the bow of the panga to improve my casting angle.

"Three feet in front of the lead tail," he said. I swung the fly behind me, extended forward towards the closing fish, hauled one solid backcast away from the target, and delivered the fly exactly where I wanted it---a meter in front and just beyond the path of the permit. They reacted as though a grenade had gone off beneath them.

The group was larger than we could see, and under the glare we hadn't spotted the fish right where my fly landed. As they surged away Scully said "We need more sun. Wind up. Lets try the lagoon." We ran north at high speed on an oil flat sea with no sound beyond the howl of the outboard and the air scouring my face.

Close to the entry to the lagoon a sigh of breeze touched the water and the noise of the engine mixed with the ripples chattering on the hull. We entered the tight mangrove channel that led to the dark heart of the lagoon, took a number of side channels so that within minutes I felt lost in a maze. Fortunately Scully has a fished these waters for much of his life, and has a well formed mind map of this place.

The lagoon felt primeval and the air smelled of salt with just a hint of armpit from decaying vegetation. It doesn't have a firm edge. Layers of mangroves competed to extend brown legs into the peaty water while further back palm trees studded the rain forest. I wouldn't have been surprised to see a dinosaur extend a long neck towards us. Monkeys and white tail deer inhabit the fingers of land that enclose the lagoon, and at the top of the food chain jaguars rule.

Scully saw a large jaguar swimming across a bay a couple of weeks earlier. Scully slowed at the only indication of human habitation---a sign warning of manatee. In the dry season they enter the lagoon looking for trickles of fresh water they need to stay alive.

He shut the engine, climbed the poling platform and pushed us through a narrow opening in the mangroves to what looked like a shallow lake beyond. "Time for a permit." he said. Our limited conversation was reduced to a whisper, and beyond that was a silence so rare that it was almost shocking. I extended my scan beyond fifty meters. Any hint of a dorsal or tail flicking the surface of this marble like surface would be visible for miles and a group of permit on the move in this knee deep water might be visible from space.

Everything slowed as we played the long waiting game. What looked like a patch of breeze touched the water a hundred meters out, and as the disturbance moved towards us we searched for more concrete signs of the permit below.

Just beyond my casting range the fish turned away from the mangroves and the track that would have taken them directly to us. I waited for Scully to follow them but we stayed fixed on our spot. He whispered "They sense something. I don't want to move the pole--they are listening for us." Whisper apart, he is a man without noise.

"They will come back." The permit could have passed us out wide, but they were drawn back their original course, so for a time they went nowhere, before heading back to the mangroves and then on to us. Around thirty meters out Scully said "You got em?" I nodded and when the fish were twenty meters away I dropped the camo crab a rod length in front of the school. Tails flicked the surface as they moved towards my fly.

I began a series of short strips and felt the fly skidding on the muddy bottom of the lagoon. The lead permit pushed a bow wave off its shoulders as it rushed the fly, before it tore away with the spooked group. We released it and resumed the search.Within an hour I had another. I held the partly submerged permit above the tail as Scully removed the fly.

I felt the beauty of the permit, it's mother of pearl flanks absorbing colours from the peaty water, sky and the mangroves; my eyes meeting one of it's large dark eyes, it's life pulsing in my hand---into my being. Its not a meeting of equals though. I care about the life of the permit, and know when I look at it that we are on this crazy ride together, but I suspect all it feels about me is some primal fear. Within minutes of it's release though I don't imagine it will have a memory of our contact, but I doubt that I will forget it.

"The first one was for yesterday," said Scully. "That one was for today. Let's find another one Mon." We had a quick lunch of rolls and fresh fruit. We share a common language, a connection from our British colonial past, although while I feel like a Kiwi, we come from different ends of the colonial process. Scully said his ancestors probably came to this place from Africa as slaves, but for generations since have been fishermen along this central American coast.

Scully and his brothers have played a significant role in having these vast flats in southern Belize protected from commercial fishing. They make a different living now, guiding people like me. We pushed into another expanse of lagoon, relaxed after lunch and still talking of our families; about those gone who we missed, and Scully's son who was to graduate from high school the next day. Mid conversation a push of water materialized near the mangroves, headed at us.

Without time to think I launched the fly towards the fish, and felt the almost instant connection as it took and ran into the backing. It felt too easy, which is a rare thing with permit. "Bound to be a jack," I said. "No Mon, that's a permit. I got a good look at it." As we released my third permit for the day a huge storm cell closed in from the north. For a moment we hoped that it would veer east towards the mountains, but soon realized that it was headed our way.

Lightning turned the interior of the cloud into a giant bulging lantern as we put our carbon fibre conductors down and watched the purple base of the storm approach. It lowered a veil of rain that quickly turned into an impenetrable wall of water. The air around us remained hot and still, and the approaching rain sounded like a forest fire raging in our direction. "Wind up. I'm going to try to outrun it," said Scully.

We ran from the lagoon into open water, thunder crashing above, cool air spilling down the vertical wall of the towering cumulus, white caps rearing behind. We stayed clear of the heart of the storm, but it tore the sea up, and we lost all visibility so we sped over waves crests on our return to Punta Gorda and the comfort of the Garbutt's Lodge."

- Dougal Rillstone

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