Turneffe Flats – Belize

Nick & Kami Swingle target bonefish and permit

The clouds were thick that first day. The rain came shortly after our first ride down south, an overly-optimistic jaunt meant to look for permit. There would be no such poling of the flats today. With rain jackets zipped to our chins, we motored back north, headed to fish the skinny waters near the reef. The first two cut-ins were occupied by other anglers. What had felt like an endless expanse of flats and opportunities when we left the boat dock that morning had rapidly closed in on us. Weren’t there only three other boats out today? While I was still trying to do the maths, Dion pulled up to the next opening, a nice large swathe of reef flat. He took a wide berth to give us a long stretch to walk and fish. Just as our spirits began to lift, the unaccounted for fourth boat pulled in. We often talk about how enjoyable it is to meet people from near and far on these fishing trips. That friendly networking by no means eliminates all undertones of competitive spirit. If you don’t believe me, just hang around the bar at a lodge when a bunch of anglers come back from a day of fishing. Subtle and not so subtle jockeying quickly ensues as each guest answers the ubiquitous, “How was your day”, which, in its most raw form can be interpreted by some personalities as, “Did you have a better day than me?” Make no mistake. We had just been high-holed at the reef. We have spent enough time on the San Juan and other rivers to know how it looks and feels. Classic high-holing. After a few thinly veiled statements of agitation by Dion, we calmly ate lunch and pulled up to the next spot to the north. The heavens, for all of the dumping of rain and clapping of thunder, would have mercy on us this day. Vindication took the form of a dense grouping of dorsals and tails spotted by Dion from over 100 feet away. It was as if every bonefish in a couple of miles radius had rallied to the same 20 x 40 foot area of our flat. Our afternoon filled with screaming reels and laughs. More like giggles really — we were punch drunk on bonefish. All of a sudden and all at once, the fish disappeared. They knew what we would find out moments later. The squall had arrived in full force. The morning’s rains paled in comparison. Minutes later, we could barely see 15 feet through the rain as we hustled back to the boat. The wind had kicked up so strongly that the skiff blew its anchor. Dion half swam to grab hold of the anchor rope. We flopped in and quickly secured the gear as best we could. The lightning strikes were near enough to leave the air smelling burnt. It was the longest 15-minute ride back to the dock we have ever experienced. Once we dried out in our cabana, our smiles quickly returned. What a first day. Coffee Bones Describing Turneffe Flats sounds like hyperbole. The sunrise fills the front side of the cabana, the sliding doors and windows giving an early glimpse at the day’s weather. When the sun rises above the horizon or breaks through a low layer of clouds, the view from bed can be spectacular. My morning routine would start in earnest with a short walk up to the lodge for a coffee. I try to avoid caffeine when home but this felt like a when-in-Rome experience. On my way back, I’d scoop up an 8-weight off the porch and a small box of flies, that while mostly unnecessary, add peace of mind to combat the nerves that accompany anxious fly fishers and infrequent coffee drinkers. Between the lodge and the reef lies a sizeable flat. Often in the morning, a good-sized school of bonefish will push a recognisable wake when patrolling the shallow water above the turtle grass. The dorsals and tails of larger singles and doubles can be seen glinting in the morning sun. Like optical calisthenics, looking for the telltale fish signs is great preparation for a day on the skiff. I find my eyesight relaxes during these morning sessions, able to identify fishy discrepancies unencumbered by the pressure of standing on the bow. Unsurprisingly, patience is rewarded on the home flat. I learn there is no need to tromp across the flat chasing tails a hundred yards out. Ample bones pass quite close to the patio. Boots are also not necessary, with a cast from dry land reaching a number of fish. If I have to get my feet wet for a particular shot or better yet, to land a fish, grass and sand feel rewarding between my toes. Even a fly change is often superfluous. Success on the home flat seems to be more about presentation than bug selection. If the fly on the rod was good enough for the day before, why not dance with the one that brought ya? Career, relationships, God, olive as an underestimated fly colour on the flats — the cushioned wicker chairs offer comfort to dig into a number of life’s deep issues. Not to take anything away from the wonderful guides, comfortable skiffs, and broader fishery of the atoll, but I could have had an amazing week on one of those chairs. In the front row to this beautiful sunrise over the reef, sitting courtside to an abundant flat, I found something more elusive than a trophy fish: contentment. Kami’s Permit Any serious saltwater fly angler worth her salt has likely had a complicated relationship with the black-forked devils known as permit. Our meet-cute came near Xlacak, Mexico, nearly six years ago. We were tracking a school on a calm mid-morning. It was my turn at the bow. I blew the first shot. As the school magically came about for a second pass, it was part nerves and part love for my husband, Nick, that I handed the rod to him. He stuck the lead fish and the smile that ensued was so worth it for me. Fast-forward a few years, and I finally got my own permit boatside, this time in Ascension Bay. As I processed the fact that Nick was not there to share in this victorious milestone with me, the guide dropped the fish. Three times. And on the third drop, fate slipped the hook out and the fish took off. There would be no picture to remember the moment for this photographer. Now more motivated than ever, I doubled down. During each of our trips down south this spring, I lobbied to spend the vast majority of our time hunting permit. Each trip seemed to offer fewer and fewer shots. We were certainly paying our dues. Between those empty spring trips and heading to Turneffe in November, Nick and I became older and wiser. Or maybe we just tired of flying home empty handed. On the way down to Belize, we decided to take whatever the flats would offer us and not try to force a permit agenda. Without sunshine on our first three days of fishing, we easily stuck to that game plan. Then Day 4 happened. The sun broke through the clouds. It was game on. The first school surprised all of us, guide included. When we saw them a second time, my line came tight, only to go limp on the second run. The hook-set had felt solid; the hook came back in good shape. The reel and drag had seemingly performed well. The next day, we awoke to even better conditions. Nick got us on the board first with a small permit, which meant I was back on the bow. Dion somehow found us yet another school and poled us efficiently within range. Again I came tight. Again the line went limp after multiple runs. How?! Why?! I was too upset to curse. I could only shake my head and fight back the tears. I wondered if it would ever come together for me. Stupid fish. Yes, stupid fish. Nick and I had joked earlier in the week, while we had no sunshine or hope to spot a fish that wasn’t exposing a fin above the water, that we needed to run into a school of stupid, not-too-bright, unintelligent permit. Well on Day 5, after going 0–2 that week, we found a fish with just the right IQ. No one on that skiff breathed for the entirety of the fight. When Dion reached down and grabbed the forked tail, the entire boat lifted in the water column. Somewhere during the ensuing photo shoot, I re-gained consciousness. I would finally get my picture.

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