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TRIP TO SOUTHERN BELIZE
It is dusk on Monkey River, and it's the end of our first day's fishing in Belize. Chris and I are quietly casting for the last fish of the day, while all around us we can hear the sounds of jungle creatures getting ready for the night. In the towering trees, troops of howler monkeys hoot and scold. "Hear that?" asks Victor, our guide, as a bird calls insistently, r-rack, r-rack, r-rack, "That's the toucan". Large turtles drop into the water from the banks with resounding plops, and above our head, tiny bats are making their first sorties of the night, when they will eat a thousand or more mosquitoes. Night Feeding Herons in twos and threes lazily fly in from the island at the river mouth. They have been resting on Little Monkey Cay during the heat of the day, and they are coming up river to gorge on fish all night.
In the air is the scent of orange blossom from the white, elderberry like flowers which grow along the river. Even Victor doesn't have a name for them, but they produce a small black fruit which the howler monkeys gorge on, so I have christened them "monkey flowers", and look out for them as we travel along the jungle river - there scent signalling their presence long before we pass them. Up ahead we can see the mouth of the river, and the lights of the fishing village of Monkey River Town begin to twinkle out as people prepare the evening meal. A few small boys fish from the village beach with handlines, hoping to bring home a snook or even a barracuda for the family's dinner table. We've had our share of fish today, starting with Chris's fine 12lb snook which is laying in the bottom of the boat, destined for Victor's dinner table - he's a widower with seven children at home, so the snook died in a good cause. "OK," says Victor, "It's time to call it a day. Let's just troll the river mouth on the way home."
We obediently swap over from our casting outfits to our trolling outfits - Ugly Sticks and Penn reels - as Victor fires up the outboard, and I clip on one of my favourite warm salt water lures, the Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnow in Goldfish, which trolls very shallowly. I'm hoping for a barracuda. (I am one of those crazy people who think barracuda are a fine, tough, sporting fish on the right tackle - not just a nuisance.)
There's a bit of a chop as we come to the river mouth, and I am idly chatting to Victor about the wind turbine generator which provides electricity for the village's two street lights, when there is a great wrench on my line, and suddenly I am on my feet feeling power plunging through the rod and into my hands.
Chris has been watching the boys fishing on the bank, and he spins round as I let out a whoop when a tarpon of probably 100lb clears the water, flexes its silver slab sides, shakes its massive head like a dog worrying a rat and contemptuously spits my lure into the air. "Bloody hell Sue, that was an enormous fish," Chris shakes his head in wide eyed sympathy as I plonk down onto the bench seat. I gaze at the water where moments ago there had been an explosion of molten silver, and where now there only dying ripples.
Victor is delighted. "That was a gooood fish - I told you the tarpon would bite that thing like crazy, mon," He had too, and over the coming days we were to realise that Victor was the best guide we had ever had, anywhere.
When we first thought about going to Belize, we needed to get out the atlas and find it on the map. Over the years we had heard from customers in the forces who'd been posted out there that the fishing was pretty good, and a few hours research on the Internet confirmed that story.
Belize nestles on the Caribbean coast of Central America, between Mexico and Guatemala - about two hours south by plane from Miami. We were looking for somewhere unspoilt, with a good variety of fishing, where we could leave the day to day hustle of running Harris Angling far behind. The main tourist area is in the north of the country around Ambergris Cay - sport fishing lodges have been established there for twenty years or more. They sounded very luxurious - and very much on the beaten track. Not for us, we decided - let's go where people don't go much yet.
More research led us to Toledo province, in the very south of the country, and to a small fishing village. We found a tiny lodge there with just one or two cabanas, right on the beach, and reachable only by water. It sounded perfect, so we booked ourselves in.
One chilly day in February, we flew to Miami, where we stopped overnight, then next morning caught a flight down to Belize City, then a puddle-jumper to Placencia, where we were met at the airstrip by Victor, who was to be our guide, and who had moored his boat conveniently alongside the dirt runway.
Climbing over the lodge's weekly shop, which contained an amazing number of crates of beer, trays of eggs, bags bulging with tropical vegetables and several giant packs of toilet rolls, Chris and I settled ourselves down for the 45 minute ride down South. Victor picked his way through a bewildering maze of mangrove and small islands, but to him the route was as obvious as the M25.
From time to time we would come to a "one way" section, when we would stop and listen to see if anyone was coming the other way, then tear through the narrow, twisting channel at breakneck speed. "Are there ever accidents here," I enquired, somewhat fearful of the answer. "Oh, yes, teeeerible accidents", laughed Victor in reply. But I needn't have worried, Victor, a conch diver for thirty years and now a lobster fisherman and qualified guide, was a safe pair of hands. He wouldn't even have a beer when he was working - though this didn't apply to out of hours partying - and his knowledge of the reef, mangroves, flats and rivers was unsurpassed.
After an afternoon settling into our wooden cabin up on stilts and exploring the narrow palm fringed beach, and an evening under the stars yarning with our host and the American guys staying in the other cabin, we slept like dead dogs. The next morning Victor showed up right on time, and the day being calm, we decided to go out to the reef. His typical Belizian long, slim boat, built to cut the waves and equipped with a 60hp outboard was comfortable and stable, and pretty fast, and there was plenty of room for the small mountain of tackle which we like to take with us to new venues.
Belize has the second largest barrier reef in the world, and we were at the southern end, about an hour's run from the fishing. Outside the reef we trolled in vain for kingfish, using big Rapala magnums. The sea was just a little bit too lively for comfort, so we switched to inside the reef, where action for the assorted "reef raf" as we call them - barracuda, snapper and the like - was fast and furious. Nothing very awesome in size, but lots of fun and the opportunity to gaze down into the crystal waters and admire the aquarium-like beauty of the creatures and plants of the reef.
We stopped for lunch on an island with a half built resort. Sturdy cabins made from wood by local carpenters but not completed - the millionaire owner had apparently lost interest in the project - dotted the beach. With the permission of a friendly watchman, we took advantage of the shade of a cabin to have a mid-day nap, then we explored the tiny island, marvelling at the piles of pink lipped conch shells which in this part of the world are used to make small sea defences. They must be one of the world's most beautiful civil engineering materials.
It was fortunate we chose that day to visit the reef, as subsequent days were too windy to make the journey. The wind also meant that we didn't sample the permit and bone fishing, available off of one of the small cays, or islands, a whole three minutes ride away from our cabin - the sea just wasn't clear enough. But the beauty of this part of Belize is the incredible variety of fishing available. It's windy, so, "No praaablem, mon." we just went up the rivers for freshwater fishing instead.
The two main local rivers are filled to the brim with snook and tarpon. The nearest, Monkey River, is something of a highway, with people traveling up and down to fetch water in barrels from the sweeter upper reaches, women taking their laundry to a favourite laundry spot, and of course, the odd local angler trying his luck. You may also meet one or two small tourist boats which come down from Placencia with perhaps four people on board to look at the jungle. We had some good snook along Monkey River, but the tarpon - except for the huge one I lost - proved very elusive. We could see them rolling, we could cast to them, we used every lure in the book, all tried and true tarpon favourites, but would they bite? Would they hell!
The howler monkeys, from which Monkey River gets its name, seemed to be howling with laughter as we thrashed the water to a foam to no avail. Victor took pity on us, and decided to focus our efforts on Deep River, an hour's run down the coast.
Our favourite of the two rivers, Deep River is incomparably lovely. The mouth of the river is a maze of mangrove fringed channels, with the odd crocodile slipping along the margin. Here we found jewfish, a species we hadn't encountered before. Jewfish are members of the grouper family, grow to 8ft long and 1,000lb, but are usually found in relatively shallow water. Handsome fish, they are not especially hard fighters, but they're very dogged, and Chris and I both enjoyed catching specimens around 20lb, once again on our trusty jointed Thundersticks.
Victor was pleased too - one of the jewfish headed home with him for the family's dinner. He was also happy to take home a barracuda or two - Belizeans regard barracuda as good eating, and in fact we ate it one night for dinner and found it pretty good - though not as good as snook, which is really excellent for the table. I was a real hero the day I caught a silk snapper of around 2lb - apparently they're the best eating of all - that was another fish that landed up chez Victor!
Once past the mouth of Deep River, you travel along a river lined with the most fascinating and awe-inspiring jungle trees. The thing we loved was the variety of trees and plants, butterflies and birds, which thrive in this wonderful environment. Plants which we were only familiar with growing in flowerpots on windowsills revealed themselves to be beautiful giants of the jungle.
Mahogany is the national symbol of Belize, and here we saw majestic specimens, safe from the loggers' axes as this is a national park area. Butterflies of every colour, as big as birds, swept past, and only the biting of deer flies prevented it from being total paradise. Strangely enough, behind the jungle, which in places in only a few yards deep - though you wouldn't know it from the river - is savana, with herds of wild deer, where the local men have weekend hunting parties to get some meet and have some fun away from the village.
After perhaps an hour of cruising along the river, we came to a wide, sweeping bend. Here we settled in the shade of the inside bank, and waited, eyes peeled for signs of fish. Soon we were rewarded with the sight of tarpon flashing and rolling all around. A few casts, and we were into fish - lots of fish, though nothing big.
Tarpon fishing strains all your skills and patience. They have notoriously hard mouths, and unless the hook penetrates just so, you are treated to the sight of a fish like a silver firework flying through the air, tossing your lure gaily over his shoulder. Still, using small sinking red and white Cisco Kids (sorry guys, they don't make them any more) Chris and I managed two or three each to the boat.
Chris decided to try a plastic shad, much to Victor's approval. We didn't have the best colour, bright green (why is it that however many lures you take, according to your guide, you never have just the right one?) so a shad coloured one was sent sailing over to the far bank. Chris allowed it to sink into the deep water, turned a couple of cranks of the reel, then made the traditional cry of "I'm in!"
He played the tarpon with his usual caution and skill to the boat, but the fish was staying deep. As Victor and I peered over the side into the gin clear water, we were amazed to see that the tarpon was hooked on the jig head, but the body had slid up the line and was under heavy attack from a small shoal of snook! The tarpon was a baby of about 10lb, and Chris landed it safely - I'll bet Victor has thought up a way of double rigging shad by now!
By the end of our ten days in Belize, we had fallen deeply in love with the place, and were already planning our next trip. The great attractions for us are the variety of types of fishing available, the unspoilt beauty and tranquility of the place, and the friendliness of the people.
On the negative side, it is quite remote, there is nothing in the form of entertainment or shopping for non-fishing visitors, accommodation and food are relatively expensive and very simple, and fishing is medium expensive (about $250) though the guiding is first rate. At some times of the year (August and September) the climate is unpleasantly hot and wet, and at other times fishing can be spoiled by that plague of the Caribbean - wind. There are mosquitoes and sandflies sometimes, though we didn't find them to be too bad, and there are the usual jungle creatures - snakes, crocodile, jaguars and so on to be aware of - though we didn't see any snakes, and jaguars, though common, stay away from man.
All in all, if you like tropical paradises and don't mind a degree of roughing it, then southern Belize is definitely a place to consider for a wonderfully varied fishing holiday.
Reprinted with permission