(This article is reprinted from Flyfishing magazine)
BELIZE VIA MOTHERSHIP
Written by: Scott Muelrath
Photography by: Marte & Don Muelrath
The sun was not up yet, but the pale morning light coming through the porthole suggested it wasn’t far off. Belize serves up some of the finest sunrises and sunsets to be seen anywhere, with orange and red hues that can’t be duplicated. I would take in the sunrise top-side. After grabbing a cup of coffee from the galley, I groggily made for the aft-deck. The colorful horizon was certainly enough to clear my sleep-clouded vision. As I settled down into a lounge chair, I absorbed my surroundings.
We were aboard the Cristina, a 58 foot Hatteras chartered out of Belize City. The yacht was our mobile base of operations for the week. On this morning, the Cristina was comfortably anchored in a mangrove cove near Hicks Cay. Two 23 foot pangas, used for our daily excursions, were tied off the stern. Charles Westby, the captain of the Cristina and a native Belizian, was swabbing down one of the pangas. He is a charismatic individual, a meticulous captain and an outstanding fly fishing guide. On this trip, Charles was assisted by Pedro, an exceptional fishing guide in his own right. Carlos, our chef and steward, rounded out the crew of three. He prepared our daily meals from scratch, spanning Belizian, Mexican, and American cuisines.
Fishing Belize via mothership is a relaxing yet intense experience. It is relaxing by nature; you are living on the water without a concern, breathing the ocean air, having all your needs met by a capable crew. Which day of the week it is becomes an irrelevant question. However, it is intense in its fishing possibilities. Should you desire, you can fish from sunrise to sunset and beyond, and fishing from a mobile base allows for maximum efficiency. The long boat rides often experienced from land-based lodges are virtually negated, and you have the option of fishing a wide array of coastal waters. There are shallow flats holding bonefish, permit, and large tarpon; the roots of mangrove islands and channels provide cover for snook, snappers, and small tarpon; and the great variety of species that thrive in the reef environment. The standard week aboard the mothership is what you make it, custom designed by you to meet your objectives.
This particular trip was a family vacation. While my dad and I had fishing as our top priority, my mom and sister had other ideas; snorkeling, beach combing, and some first-class yacht lounging topped their list. The barrier reef, which runs parallel to the coast, is the second largest in the world and provides a spectacular snorkeling environment.
As the family gathered around the breakfast table, we discussed our possibilities for the morning. My mom and sister opted for snorkeling at Gallows Point Reef while my dad and I sought some of the big tarpon lurking on the flats near Hicks Cay. It didn’t take long to find some.
“Tarpon!” exclaimed Charles.
This vibrant exclamation caught my dad and I off-guard as we had just arrived on the flat and had yet to even stand up.
Twelve o’clock. One hundred feet. Hurry!”
As my dad prepared to cast, my eyes quickly found the three dark shapes off the bow moving thankfully slowly directly at the boat. It was an adrenaline pumping sight. My dad’s cast landed about five feet short of the lead fish. The tarpon tensed and then surged forward, inhaling the fly. After a hard hook-set, the fish embarked on one of the fastest runs I had ever witnessed, complete with the expected but always breathtaking acrobatics.
The reel howled in resistance and every aspect of dad’s equipment was tested to the maximum. Regardless, everything held true and forty-five minutes later he had boated about a 90 pound fish. No sooner had the fish been released than Charles proclaimed, “let’s get another!”
It sounded easy. I was confident. But three hours later I was still standing in the bow holding the flyrod in one hand and my fly in the other waiting for something to cast at. Anything. But there was nothing. Sometimes it seems so easy; usually it is not. We decided to head back to the Cristina for some lunch.
As Carlos served some delectable tostadas, we shared our stories from the morning’s events. My mom and sister made an attempt at counting up all the various types of reef fish they saw, only to determine there were too many to figure. They also managed to catch two large barracuda trolling back from the reef and had collected some beautiful shells. Since 1987, we’ve taken over a dozen mothership trips to fish the coastal flats and mangrove channels of Belize and were familiar with our possible cruise destinations. Usually, we would plan on visiting two or three different fishing environments during our seven nights on the water. We would begin our trip with a potential agenda in mind and then adjust to the fishing opportunities as they presented themselves. On this trip, we had planned on spending a few days at the Turneff Islands.
In planning our afternoon activities, we discussed some options with our captain. For a change of venue, he recommended moving the Cristina to a string of cays about twenty-five miles south from our current location for some late afternoon permit fishing. Also, this location would reduce the amount of open water we would need to navigate to go to the Turneffe Islands the following afternoon. The only potentially rough water on a Belizian mothership trip is encountered if you opt to cruise to the Turneffes, as the stretch between the Turneffe Islands and the barrier reef is the open sea. All other times the mothership is anchored behind cays or cruising inside the reef, resulting in smooth trips and calm anchorages without any motion sickness discomfort (to which I am very susceptible).
The Cristina is the largest and most luxurious of the Belize motherships. It has two staterooms, one with a queen sized bed and the other with two single bunks, with each having its own bathroom and shower. These accommodations are cleaned and maintained daily by the crew. Air conditioning is a welcome part of the package, especially on very hot days when some cool relaxing after lunch provides the opportunity to recharge your batteries.
One of the great advantages of a mothership vacation is that you can steer a course for waters that aren’t easily accessible from the land-based lodges. Going north from Belize City, the flats around Hicks Cay and Long Cay can provide some world-class sight-casting to tarpon. Cruising south, there is an array of cays and small reefs continuing about 75 miles south to Placentia harboring the most productive permit fishing flats to be found anywhere. After a pleasant cruise and securing anchor, everyone developed their own agenda. My sister determined she would do a little R & R on the boat for the afternoon, while mom and dad decided to scout for some permit tails with Charles. That left Pedro and I to do some intense flats fishing.
Standing in the bow as Pedro polled the boat along the edge of a grassy flat, I couldn’t help but become lulled into a relaxed physical and mental state by the surrounding environment.
Trying to focus on the flat, I noted the various coral heads and their vibrant hues as we drifted by them. It was truly a divine setting. My response when Pedro whispered “permit” showed anything but preparedness. “Where?” I replied. “At eleven o’clock, 70 feet, swimming towards the boat.” “I don’t see it.” “It’s coming right at us! 60 feet!” I peered into the water ahead of us, still seeing only grass and nothing more. “I still don’t see it” was the best I could come up with. “It’s there! It’s feeding! 50 feet now!” This sounded like a prime opportunity; I was ready to participate. Where was the damn fish? Then, abruptly, the permit materialized before me, less than 40 feet from the boat. I had to act fast, but there was still time. I made a false cast and let it go. Whack! I nearly got motion sickness as I watched my Merkin Crab wrap itself around the middle of my fly rod. Not a good show. The permit apparently didn’t like it either as it swam off for other waters. “We’ll get the next one,” commented Pedro. I was momentarily angry with myself. I would be ready next time.
After covering a few more flats without seeing any fish, we decided to check one last area before going back to the Cristina. The tide was beginning to go slack and productive time on the flats was coming to an end. As we started poling, Pedro immediately spotted a tailing permit in the deeper water near the edge of the flat. I saw it, too. I was on this one. After two false casts, I laid out my best cast, gently setting the crab imitiation down two feet from the permit’s head. After one short strip, the permit moved on it and with no hesitation ate. The rod tip came up and I cleared the line from the deck as the permit ran off the edge of the flat. He was on the reel and the drag began screeching.
“Right on Scott!” whooped Pedro. I gave an exalted yell of my own. As if on cue, the line went slack. After inspecting the frayed tippet, it was apparent the permit had obviously found something with a sharp edge upon which to part the line. “I need a beer” was my commentary. Pedro popped the cap on a cold Belikin and passed it forward. The outboard started up and we turned toward the sanctuary of the Cristina. Arriving back at the yacht, I was quick to read my father’s face before a word was exchanged. I asked, “You got a permit didn’t you?” It was more a statement than a question.
“Yep”, responded my father and I proceeded to hear all about it over dinner. My mom was also proud to announce that she had caught a bonefish on a fly, something she rarely attempts. By all accounts, it had been a successful day, although I had to define my success in terms other than fish landed.
After dinner, Charles recommended a mangrove channel where he thought we might be able to stir up some tarpon action with fly rod poppers. I was an easy recruit; the rest of the group opted for a game of cards.
For the third time in the day, I found myself in the bow of a panga embarking upon yet another adventure. By moonlight, Charles confidently maneuvered the skiff through a winding mangrove channel. It was a beautiful, clear night with a nearly full moon illuminating our surroundings.
“Cast out into the mouth and strip it back against the tide,” explained Charles. The tide was running strong, streaming through the channel like a river. It created a perfect feeding area. Occasionally I could hear baitfish erupting on the surface, no doubt trying to avoid a finned predator. “Sounds like a school of jacks,” Charles stated. No sooner were the words uttered than a feisty horse-eyed jack hammered my popper. Fish on! It felt good to be hooked up. I felt the frustrations of the day ease away as the jack put a big-time bend in the rod. After a few more tugs, I boated and released the fish. I ended up catching a couple more in the five to eight pound range before action ceased. As I lay in my bunk that night, my thoughts drifted back on the events of the day. What a wonderful day it had been: trophy tarpon; tailing permit; cruising bonefish; toothy barracuda; aggressive jacks; and that was just the fishing side. So many experiences! And it was all done in a pristine environment where I never saw another recreational fisherman. I was tired. Good thing, otherwise the anticipation of tomorrow would have kept me up all night.