On The Barrier Reef – Part 1

South Water Caye, Belize

On The Fly Saltwater

July 2023

Article and photos by Jimmy Jacobs.

The 2 1/2-hour flight into Belize City provided plenty of time to mull over two truism I’d heard often about fly fishing in Belize. First of all, you would see big schools of bonefish, but the fish would be smaller than in the Bahamas or Florida. Secondly, this was permit country and if you threw enough reasonably accurate casts, you could go home with a trophy photo of one of those fish that you caught. As it turned out, this trip put both adages to the test.  

Just getting to South Water Caye is part of the adventure.

After changing planes in Phillip S.W. Goldson International Airport in Belize City, the Maya Island Air flight to the town of Dangriga in the south of the country took but 20 more minutes. There Associate Editor Polly Dean and I were picked up by a shuttle van courtesy of the Blue Marlin Beach Resort and driven to a boat landing. From that dock it was a 14-mile ride aboard the resort’s Black Orchid to South Water Caye and our fishing headquarters for the next four days.  

The Black Orchid.

Our plan was to spend two days targeting permit while fishing with a guide, then do a couple more days of DIY angling on the flats around the caye. Upon arrival, greeted by cold libations sipped through a straw from a coconut, we quickly discovered we were in a small piece of paradise. The mile-long, 160-yard-wide isle was surrounded by tropical blue water, but featured wadable fishing flats on both ends. The Blue Marlin Beach Resort covered 4.5 acres of the island, which sits right on top of the Belize Barrier Reef. That fortunate location meant that bonefish, permit, tarpon and a host of tropical denizens were literally feet from the shore.  

Hooking a permit was the goal of the guided fishing.

At dinner that evening we met our guide, Ian Cuevas. His home is in the town of Placencia on the mainland, roughly 30 miles southwest of South Water Caye. He makes the run out to the island in his 20-foot panga-style boat and stays in the guides’ quarters at the resort when he has charters there.  

Guide Ian Cuevas.

Like many Caribbean guides, Ian got his start as a commercial fisherman. When he discovered fly fishing and the money that could be made guiding traveling anglers, which became his new profession.  

During our meal, Ian provided us with some basics about the permit fishing. First, he got our expectation in line with reality. He explained that on an OK day you might get four or five shots at a permit. On a good day it might go as high as 10 to 15 such opportunities. An experienced permit angler could end up catching four or five in a week’s fishing.  

The next morning, after finishing breakfast on the resort’s thatched roof deck, we had to walk only half a dozen paces to step into Ian’s boat, tied to the deck. As we headed out, the conditions were not the best for our pursuit. The day started with patchy cloud cover that promised to make spotting fish difficult.  

Suddenly, Ian cut the motor, grabbed his pole and instructed Polly to get her rod that was rigged for bonefish. Not 50 yards from the dock he had spotted a pod of bones. A couple of casts and a short but furious run later, she brought one of the fish to the gunnel. Unlike the small bonefish we had been told were common, this one was more than 20 inches, with broad shoulders.  

Polly Dean with her first bonefish taken close to the dock.

Though it seemed a good omen, we were after permit, so we again cranked up and headed out. Another discouraging factor was the first part of the day would have an outgoing tide (though it is but a 9-inch swing here). Ian likes the low tide phases for bonefish and tarpon, but for permit he wants a rising to high tide.

We initially headed to several small islands that Ian identified as the Sand Fly Cayes. It was here we first sighted the black sickle-shaped fin of a permit edging along in the shallows. As he poled the boat into casting range, he cautioned us to keep our voices down.  

“In saltwater, your ‘best’ cast is the good one,” he pointed out, then added that you ordinarily don’t need the 80- to 90-foot casts often referred to in stories of permit fishing. Ian wants his clients to be able to throw an accurate 50-foot cast.  

“Permit are easy to hook,” he said with a sly grin, ”but hard to cast to. Lead the fish by three or four feet. When the fly hits the water (hopefully with a soft ‘plop’), move it slowly. If the fish turns, strip it away slowly.”  

Searching for permit with the Maya Mountains barely visible on the horizon.

When you feel the fish, or when the guide tells you to, use a strip set.  

Polly was on the casting deck and followed his instructions, but the permit virtually swam right over the fly, which had Ian baffled. Then as she stripped her line back in, he suddenly yelled, “Set.” Her knee-jerk reaction was to yank the rod up over her head, which would have been a good move it she was fishing a dry fly for trout. As it turned out, it was the guide’s way of reinforcing the need for a proper strip set. I thanked him for not having pulled that trick on me!  

As the day progressed, we had good shots at permit at Coco Plum Caye and just off of Tobacco Caye. In both those instances, the permit again casually swam over our offerings, which continued to puzzle our guide. That, coupled with the overcast conditions ended up having us return to the dock, with only Polly’s bonefish preventing the skunk from riding along with us.  

Although day two started with a clearer sky, the wind did kick up and we mostly had the unfavorable tide to contend with. Again, we saw a few permit, but not in the numbers Ian expected and they again did not seem interested in eating. Day two looked to be even more unsuccessful than the previous outing. That is until we got back within sight of the dock.  

As we motored slowly toward the dock, a shallow grass flat close against the shore came alive with tails and back fins waving over the surface. All told, there may have been 50 or 60 bonefish foraging there.  

The grassbed was alive with tails protruding through the surface.

Again, it was Polly’s turn on the casting deck. She began tossing a No. 4 Gotcha into the school, which produced a couple of quick hits, but the fish just as quickly shed the hook. Finally, she did firmly set the hook in the lip of one of the fish, but pronounced it be a small one since it was not putting up much of a fight. Turned out that was because it was moving toward her and didn’t seem to know it was hooked! Then it turned and made a scorching run for open water. It took several more such freight-train runs before Ian reached down and brought the fish into the boat.  

This catch dispelled for certain our expectation of little bonefish in Belize. This one stretched beyond 25 inches and could have tipped the scales at near the 6 1/2- to 7-pound mark.


Polly and Ian with her trophy bonefish.

As it turned out, our guided fishing ran contrary to our expectations. The permit were tough to find and even tougher to fool. Meanwhile, South Water Caye proved that Belize does hold some brute-sized bonefish.  

Stay tuned to next month’s On The Fly South, when we hit the flats around the island on foot for a potpourri of action.

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