Woonsocket Call

Belize of­fers all the fish­ing fun law will ‘per­mit’

Mar­lin-like quarry intrigues an­glers


I was stand­ing at the front of a 23-foot-long panga in the Bay of Hon­duras, some 10 miles north­east of Punta Gorda, Belize, as my an­gling part­ner, Nel­son Mathews, was perched in a seat be­low. A group of frigate­birds cir­cled above, rem­i­nis­cent of cruis­ing fighter jets, while sev­eral pel­i­cans and cor­morants watched from a snag on a man­grove is­land nearby. The low-ly­ing Maya Moun­tains were just vis­i­ble through a thin haze to the west. My right hand held a 10-weight fly rod; my left, a size-6 Bauer Crab fly. At my feet, 40 feet of fly line lay coiled. The blue-green wa­ter danced be­fore my eyes, as­sum­ing dif­fer­ent shades from the ever-shift­ing sub­strate three feet be­low – some­times tur­tle grass, some­times coral or sand. This did not make it any eas­ier to spot my elu­sive quarry, the per­mit.

From an el­e­vated plat­form in the back of the boat, our guide, Scully Gar­butt, pushed the boat along si­lently with an 18-foot graphite pole. His eyes seemed at least as sharp as those of the ospreys that pa­trolled be­low the frigate­birds. After a time, he called out calmly, “Per­mit, ten o’clock. Point your rod.” I pointed my rod to where I thought the fish was.

“A lit­tle to the left.” I ad­justed. “Yes. Do you see it?”


“Go ahead and cast.” I whipped my rod back, lift­ing my fly line and crab fly high into the air be­hind me be­fore mov­ing the rod for­ward, stop­ping sud­denly to send the crab fly­ing in the gen­eral direc­tion of the fish – or, at least, where Scully said there was a fish. The fly dropped with a small plop.

“Good. Now strip. Slower.” I stripped my line back, se­cur­ing it against the cork of my rod to keep ten­sion on the line.

“He’s on it.” I stripped the fly again.

“He spooked.”

“Did I do any­thing wrong?” “No, man. That’s how it is with per­mit.”

As Ever­est has long at­tracted se­ri­ous moun­tain climbers, the per­mit holds a sim­i­lar sway for pas­sion­ate Caribbean fly an­glers. Read­ily dis­tin­guish­able by their broad bod­ies, large round eyes and blunt faces, the per­mits’ hy­dro­dy­nam­ics give them tremen­dous strength; spec­i­mens, which can run from five pounds to more than 40, can tear off 150 yards of line once hooked.

To catch a per­mit on a fly, one must do many things right – ac­cu­rately cast a heavy fly 40 or 50 feet, of­ten into heavy wind; mimic the halt­ing gait of a crab with your re­trieve; and play a very strong an­i­mal on light line around coral heads that wait to part you from your prize. Just as im­por­tant, you need Mother Na­ture’s co­op­er­a­tion. An­glers pray for a mod­icum of sun­shine to il­lu­mi­nate the fish in the shal­lows (or “flats,” in an­gling par­lance), and a mod­est breeze to cre­ate a rip­ple on the wa­ter’s sur­face – enough to make it dif­fi­cult for the fish to see you, but not so much that you can’t see them.

“Per­mit are the true Holy Grail of the flats species,” said Jim Klug, founder and op­er­a­tions di­rec­tor of Yel­low Dog Fly­fish­ing Ad­ven­tures, a Mon­tana-based com­pany. “They are, hands down, the most chal­leng­ing, picky, dif­fi­cult and mad­den­ing fish to pur­sue with a fly rod, and 99 out of 100 times they’re not go­ing to eat what­ever it is that you put in front of them. When they do, how­ever, it is one of the most re­ward­ing ex­pe­ri­ences in the en­tire world of sport fish­ing.”

Some an­glers will seek per­mit for many years be­fore fi­nally bring­ing a fish to hand for a quick photo and a gen­tle re­lease. (Catch-and-re­lease an­gling is the law for per­mits in Belize.)

In the past decade, Punta Gorda, a small­ish fish­ing vil­lage on the south­ern coast of Belize, has emerged as the hot spot for per­mit an­glers, thanks to the great num­bers of fish present. This plen­i­tude is gen­er­ated by sev­eral fac­tors. “First, the re­gion’s coastal habi­tats are healthy, and as for any fish­ery, healthy habi­tats equal a healthy fish­ery,” said Aaron Adams, di­rec­tor of sci­ence and con­ser­va­tion for Bone­fish & Tar­pon Trust, a Florida-based non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion de­voted to con­serv­ing and restor­ing bone­fish, tar­pon and per­mit fish­eries and habi­tats. “Se­cond, the fish­ing guides in the area have done a good job de­creas­ing the amount of netting that oc­curs in coastal wa­ters. They un­der­stand the eco­nomic and cul­tural value of the catch-and-re­lease flats fish­ery. Third, much of the per­mit fish­ing out of Punta Gorda oc­curs in two pro­tected ar­eas: Port Hon­duras Ma­rine Re­serve and Payne’s Creek Na­tional Park. Tag­ging stud­ies we’ve con­ducted sug­gests pro­tected ar­eas make a dif­fer­ence for fish pop­u­la­tions.”

A rel­a­tive abun­dance of per­mit doesn’t mean that in­di­vid­ual fish are any eas­ier to catch. But it does af­ford an­glers more chances. And few are bet­ter than the Gar­butt broth­ers – Scully and Oliver – and their ex­tended fam­ily (in­clud­ing Un­cle Vic and cousins Yogi and Kenny) for find­ing fish and cap­i­tal­iz­ing on those op­por­tu­ni­ties.

Scully, the dean of Punta Gorda guides, has been lead­ing an­glers to per­mits for more than 20 years. He was a com­mer­cial fish­er­man be­fore tak­ing up guid­ing, free-div­ing for conch and lob­ster, and spear fish­ing.

“I al­ways wanted to make my liv­ing on the ocean,” he said. “But we knew lit­tle about sport fish­ing and noth­ing of guid­ing when we were grow­ing up.”

The Toledo In­sti­tute for De­vel­op­ment and En­vi­ron­ment, a non­govern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tion, helped co­or­di­nate train­ing for some area fish­er­men to make the tran­si­tion to guid­ing in the late 1990s. As word got out of Punta Gorda’s per­mit bounty, the Gar­butts (un­der the lead­er­ship of el­dest brother Den­nis) con­structed their lodge to house vis­it­ing an­glers.

The prop­erty, as Den­nis has said, was “built by fish­er­men, for fish­er­men” – which is to say it’s sim­ple but clean and func­tional. Air-con­di­tioned rooms rest upon stilts above the Caribbean and have decks for tak­ing in the sunrise and moon­rise, as well as en-suite bath­rooms with hot show­ers.

Most so­cial­iz­ing is con­ducted in the bar, a bright and open room with walls fes­tooned with pho­tos of an­glers pos­ing with a per­mit and a bot­tom­less cooler of Be­likin beer, the lo­cal lager. (Cashew wine is also avail­able for the ad­ven­tur­ous oenophile.) Meals, of­ten pre­pared by the fifth Gar­butt sib­ling, Betty, fea­ture fresh fish and chicken, rice and fresh veg­eta­bles, and are served in the bar; dur­ing our stay, we also vis­ited a few nearby restau­rants for din­ner. The food was whole­some, if not haute cui­sine. But one doesn’t come to Gar­butt’s for a gus­ta­tory re­treat.

Late on the af­ter­noon of our first day of fish­ing, lady luck smiled on my an­gling part­ner. Scully had been pol­ing us around much of the day, with no tak­ers. At the point of a man­grove is­land, he called out, “Fish at twelve o’clock, forty feet.” Though was fac­ing a stiff wind, he made an ac­cu­rate cast. After one strip, he was tight to his first per­mit – a small­ish spec­i­men, around six pounds. Nel­son dubbed it his “learner’s per­mit”; pho­tos were taken and the fish was gen­tly re­turned to the brine. The next day, he re­peated the feat – at al­most the ex­act time and place as his first en­counter.

As we mo­tored back to the lodge, I was still fish­less – at least in part be­cause of a vi­sion chal­lenge. Al­though per­mit are sil­ver and some have a sil­hou­ette the size of a garbage can lid, they can be in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult to see, de­spite the clear, shal­low wa­ter. Scully could see the fish, but I was usu­ally guess­ing. And putting the fly a foot be­hind a fish as op­posed to a foot in front is the dif­fer­ence be­tween fish­ing and catch­ing.

But after two days on the flats, my eyes be­gan to ad­just. And on the morn­ing of Day 3, when Scully an­nounced “Fish, sixty feet, eleven o’clock,” I could see the black tips of the fish’s dor­sal fin and tail, and make out the direc­tion it was mov­ing. I dropped my cast, with the same Bauer Crab fly, a few feet in front. Ten min­utes later, I was cradling an 8½-pound per­mit.

While Nel­son and I were ju­bi­lant, each hav­ing landed at least one fish, Kris Vut­pakdi, a physi­cian from South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, had ac­cu­mu­lated what seemed to be a life­time’s per­mit al­lot­ment: 16 dur­ing his week-long stay fish­ing with Oliver, in­clud­ing a fish of 34.5 pounds.

Vut­pakdi booked his visit for 2019 be­fore de­part­ing.

 ??  ?? ABOVE: An an­gler casts his fly to a per­mit, while a guide poles, in the Bay of Hon­duras as the sun sinks be­hind the Maya Moun­tains in Punta Gorda, Belize.
ABOVE: An an­gler casts his fly to a per­mit, while a guide poles, in the Bay of Hon­duras as the sun sinks be­hind the Maya Moun­tains in Punta Gorda, Belize.
 ?? Jim Klug/Yel­low Dog Fly­fish­ing Ad­ven­tures (above) Chris Santella/ Wash­ing­ton Post ?? BE­LOW: The guest rooms at Gar­butt’s Fish­ing Lodge, perched on stilts above the Caribbean Sea, are full of ameni­ties.
Jim Klug/Yel­low Dog Fly­fish­ing Ad­ven­tures (above) Chris Santella/ Wash­ing­ton Post BE­LOW: The guest rooms at Gar­butt’s Fish­ing Lodge, perched on stilts above the Caribbean Sea, are full of ameni­ties.
 ??  ?? LEFT: Nel­son Mathews and guide Scully Gar­butt show off Mathews’s se­cond per­mit of the trip.
LEFT: Nel­son Mathews and guide Scully Gar­butt show off Mathews’s se­cond per­mit of the trip.

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