Caribbean Con­fi­den­tial


Sport Fishing - - NEW PRODUCTS - By Doug Olan­der

Chris Rus­sell is one of those guys who seems born ready: By the time the skiff sat where guide Kes­sel Cooper planned to an­chor it atop the shal­lows, be­fore I had even put on my sec­ond wad­ing shoe, Rus­sell — mar­ket­ing man­ager for Plano — had hopped over the gun­wale. He walked slowly, hold­ing a light rod with a Quan­tum Smoke In­shore 25 spin­ning reel poised for ac­tion. Rus­sell had gone maybe 50 feet when Cooper, stand­ing in the skiff, pointed out a shadow, faint in the gray light un­der heav­ily over­cast skies early on that Oc­to­ber morn­ing.

The an­gler made his cast, and the her­mit crab on a light-wire snelled hook dropped 10 feet or so be­yond the shadow. “Reel, reel!” Cooper urged, sotto

voce. “Now stop. Stop it!”

Rus­sell stood mo­tion­less. Still sit­ting in the skiff, I saw his rod tip start to bend slightly. He re­leased the light braided line with his in­dex fin­ger to re­move all ten­sion, and maybe 10 sec­onds later, set up on what was at that mo­ment a chrome flash to my eyes.

With a shout sug­gest­ing he’d just won a few mil­lion dol­lars in some lot­tery, Rus­sell worked to put the brakes on the trip’s first fish, and shortly af­ter, he was re­leas­ing a per­mit of mod­est pro­por­tions.


That catch, made be­fore the other three an­glers in the group had even started fish­ing, seemed to bode well for our Roatan fish­ing ad­ven­ture.

We had made the trip to the large is­land of Roatan, some 40 miles off the coast of Hon­duras, not re­ally know­ing what to ex­pect. That accounted for part of the ap­peal of the ad­ven­ture. Most of us had vis­ited some of the bet­ter-known fish­ing des­ti­na­tions in the west­ern Caribbean, but — like many an­glers — none of us knew much about Roatan.

Our ex­pec­ta­tions included some great flats-fish­ing and the chance to spend a few days in a re­ally, re­ally cool place called Mango Creek Lodge. It’s hard to imag­ine any­one see­ing pho­tos of this unique, rather whim­si­cal lit­tle re­sort and not find­ing it ap­peal­ing, with its brightly col­ored round cab­ins built over tur­tle-grass beds in clear Caribbean wa­ters.

In some ways, Roatan is more ob­scure than re­mote: Af­ter all, it’s only a two-hour flight south of Mi­ami.

It sits at the south­ern end of what’s known as the Me­soamer­i­can Bar­rier Reef Sys­tem, one of the largest such reefs in the world, stretch­ing more than 600 miles from Hon­duras north to the top of the Yu­catan.

Ac­cord­ingly, we brought gear both for the flats and for reef-fish­ing. (We al­ready knew that some ex­cel­lent fish­ing for pelag­ics could be found in the blue wa­ters off the is­land, but we were cu­ri­ous about the ex­ten­sive reefs, which also make Roatan a fa­vorite with divers and snorkel­ers.)

But our first fish­ing day was all about the flats.


We learned that day of sev­eral flats within an easy boat ride of the lodge, on the is­land’s east end. More-dis­tant flats around the is­lands of Mo­rat and Bar­baretta can be fished but re­quire a bit more time com­mit­ment to reach, since the lodge’s 16-foot, lo­cally made skiffs pow­ered by 40-horse out­boards aren’t speed­sters.

The V-hull boats, fairly heavy and bare-bones, lack any sort of pol­ing plat­form. In fact, they’re used pri­mar­ily to trans­port an­glers to the flats where they stalk their quarry while wad­ing, though they can also cast from the boats when fish­ing deeper water or around man­groves.

While fish­ing at Mango Creek is of­ten a fly-fish­ing show, we had brought light spin­ning gear. I have done well in some ar­eas fish­ing small white Gulp! tails for bone­fish, but the ticket for ac­tion here seemed to be her­mit crabs. Our guides, Cooper and Jo­evy Bod­den, each had a bucket of the crit­ters in his

skiff. The crabs con­stantly dragged their shell homes around the bucket and oc­ca­sion­ally man­aged to climb out.

All an­glers that first day cast to and caught bone­fish, some of re­spectable if not tro­phy size. None repli­cated Rus­sell’s feat to land a per­mit, though we cer­tainly saw more. Late in the morn­ing, An­drew Cox, off­shore com­mu­nity leader for Costa sun­glasses, had his shot when the over­size per­mit he hooked took off un­stop­pably to­ward deeper water and sev­ered the line on the edge of coral.


On an­other day, we fished the same group of flats but had to con­tend with in­ter­mit­tent rain. Rus­sell, our king of per­mit, landed an­other, and we man­aged a few bone­fish on the flat just across from the lodge (its brightly col­ored huts clearly vis­i­ble).

What we didn’t catch ended up be­ing a high­light of the day. This par­tic­u­lar flat proved a good place to stalk big trig­ger­fish tail­ing (se­ri­ously) around high tide in an area of very shal­low water be­tween the flats and the rocky edge where a chop washes in from deeper water.

Ap­par­ently, the trig­gers were will­ing to risk feed­ing so shal­low, their tails and dor­sal fins wav­ing in the air to get a shot at good­ies nor­mally off-lim­its to them. But clearly it made them ner­vous: They were at least as spooky as per­mit; stalk­ing them gave us many tense mo­ments, but ul­ti­mately, we landed none.

But their ag­i­ta­tion paled next to the coolest tar­get of all, com­pared to which their color sure paled as well. At the very edge of a rocky bor­der where the flats dropped off to deeper water, we could see enor­mous fish of prob­a­bly 20 to 40 pounds in shock­ingly brilliant hues of scar­let and blue.

Our guides as­sured us that at times those rain­bow par­rot­fish would eat a her­mit crab, but get­ting a crab in front of them proved nearly im­pos­si­ble. With the slight­est provo­ca­tion, they’d ex­plode in a shower of spray and dis­ap­pear into deeper water. Once or twice I man­aged to cast be­yond them (not easy into the wind while un­able to

get re­ally close). Even then, the small crab sent them pack­ing when it landed nearby. An­other time, I man­aged to drop a her­mit crab well be­yond them, and at­tempted to reel it into the path they were fol­low­ing along the small surf line be­fore they were past it. But spot­ting the crab mov­ing their way was enough to make them scat­ter.

Bod­den told us he has hooked a cou­ple of these things on crabs. “No way could I stop them,” he said with a laugh. “Man, they’re even stronger than a big per­mit!”

My sight-fish­ing bucket list now in­cludes a mon­ster rain­bow par­rot­fish.


While we could count stalk­ing fish on the flats as a real suc­cess, our ef­forts at fish­ing the reefs be­yond didn’t pro­vide much to re­port. I can tell you that the wa­ters are crys­tal clear and the amaz­ing reefs ap­pear lush, with great drop-offs. But de­spite our best ef­forts — not just with metal and buck­tail jigs but with live pilchards as well — the to­tal catch came to a skip­jack, horse-eye jack, and one hefty bar­racuda landed by Van Staal’s Chris Lit­tau. Ad­mit­tedly we were at some­thing of a disadvantage, with­out a work­ing depth sounder, par­tic­u­larly try­ing to work the sharp ledges.

A bet­ter bet for an op­por­tu­nity off the flats, we de­cided, would be fish­ing the man­grove chan­nels for tar­pon and snook. We spent a few hours do­ing just that, cast­ing pilchards to

the edges of the lush man­groves. Even though tide and conditions con­spired against us, Rus­sell nearly struck sil­ver, but a small tar­pon tossed the hook back to him in a mon­u­men­tal leap.

Later that af­ter­noon, we fished by a small is­land that ap­peared sur­re­ally sculpted from jagged rock. Rus­sell hung what Cooper fig­ured had to be ei­ther a larger tar­pon or a snook of se­ri­ous pro­por­tions, fish­ing the deep edges be­neath the rock wall.

When all was said and done, we had to rate our ad­ven­ture to fish Roatan as a suc­cess. The flats are pro­duc­tive and — though fished reg­u­larly by Mango Creek Lodge clien­tele — are sel­dom both­ered oth­er­wise, it seems. More­over, I noted that they’re fab­u­lously healthy, cov­ered with car­pets of thick tur­tle grass. For any­one who wants to com­bine flats-fish­ing with div­ing and/or just plain re­lax­ing with a quiet, laid-back vibe, Roatan and Mango Creek get the job done.


Per­mit are typ­i­cally skit­tish on Roatan flats. While we saw many of mod­est size, such as this one that Chris Rus­sell is about to un­hook and re­lease, we also saw (and, yes, lost) some mon­sters.

Two an­glers and two guides stalk a sun-dap­pled flat in search of tails or wakes.

Left: A suc­cu­lent her­mit crab def­i­nitely in­ter­ested bones and per­mit, but casts had to be spot-on; the noisy plop of a crab too close to feed­ing fish would send them pack­ing. Be­low: On the jun­gle-shrouded coast of Roatan, Mango Creek Lodge is one of the Caribbean’s most ap­peal­ing bou­tique re­sorts.

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