By the time we’d returned to the lodge and set our wading boots out to dry, Hayes, owner of Turneffe Flats Lodge, had just arrived back at the island after a short business trip. At dinner we chatted with Hayes about many topics, including how to grow the sport of fly-fishing, the best permit flies and whether or not the wind would lie down the next day. This would be the pattern each night, but one subject that almost all of our discussions circled back to was the conservation issues Turneffe faced. It was obvious these issues were very important to Hayes, and while he’s a self-proclaimed naturalist and a devout conservationist, I believe the reason why it’s such a big deal to him is because, just like it did to me, Hayes’ first trip to Belize changed him. So much so, it eventually inspired him to start the Turneffe Atoll Trust in 2002. The trust is a nonprofit organization that follows a simple mission: to promote conservation that benefits a healthy ecosystem while stimulating social and economic benefits for the country of Belize. With any luck, the trust will continue to thrive and can serve as a model for other threatened, valuable, unique and diverse marine ecosystems.
Over the next few days, Sommerlatte and I found our fill of happy bonefish, scratched our itch for a catch-and-release frenzy and decided it was time to up the challenge and target permit, the fish that I call my white whale. I’ve done everything right so many times, and up until this point the only things I’ve had to show for my efforts have been a few stories about a fish or two that followed the fly. As he had been each preceding morning, Dion was happy to accommodate, but he was also realistic.
He informed us that the schools of permit that he’d been seeing had mooning fish (fish swimming on their side close to the surface) among them. He said this was an indication that the spawn was on. Clearly, if this was in fact the case, the permit in these schools would likely have other things on their mind than eating. But it’s difficult to know a school of permit would be easy enough to find and not at the very least give it a try.
Skies were gray with intermittent bursts of sunlight, but even then visibility was minimal. Each permit search seemed as though we were beating a dead horse; however, inevitably Dion’s voice would break the silence and desperation by saying, “Ahhh, there they are.”
After we’d made cast after cast to I don’t know how many schools, Sommerlatte’s line came tight after a long, slow strip followed by a drop. His line sprang from the deck into a controlled aerial tangle before it was securely on the reel. After the first blistering run, Sommerlatte reeled with abandon to regain his line, but the permit had other plans and bolted away from the skiff for a second sprint. When we got the permit to the boat, I congratulated him — and why wouldn’t I have? He’d accomplished a great angling feat. OK, so I was slightly bitter. We had essentially been doing the same thing for a couple of days at that point. I just couldn’t figure out what he did that I didn’t. Even though our days were numbered and our time on the water was dwindling away, I trusted that something good would come my way — there was something in the air that told my gut that my time would come.
Each night, our conversations with Hayes continued, and with each day on the water, I realized that my focus was waning from catching a permit and becoming more about soaking in the experience and enjoying what a rare and beautiful ecosystem Turneffe truly is.
On the morning of our last fishing day, I woke up permitless but content nonetheless. We set out, had a shot at a permit here and there, and caught a few bones. As the sun began to fall, Dion asked, “You guys had enough or do you want to hit one last flat before the sun goes down?” Sommerlatte and I looked at each other and both agreed to keep the boots on for one last session.
“Just bonefish on this flat?” I asked Dion. “Yeah, every once in a while you’ll see a permit but not very often,” he replied. I tied on a No. 8 bonefish bitter that had been the winning pattern for the bonefish we’d caught and stepped out of the skiff into the soft marl. I took two steps and stopped. I looked out across the white sandy flat in front of me and had a sudden change of mind. I snipped off the bitter and tied on a small crab fly, just in case.