There are few places in the world that get the heart racing more for permit fisherman than the saltwater flats of Belize. Endless shallow flats covered in sand, coral heads, or turtle grass, a playground for permit.
The country of Belize lies immediately south of Mexico on the Caribbean Sea. With a population of just 420,000, the capital is Belize City and the main point of arrival for most visitors. Belize boasts an ecologically diverse jungle and also the second-largest coral reef in the world, after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
Working closely with Flylords, I was making my second visit to Belize with only one ambition in mind – to catch one of their prized permit. The plan was to fish in Southern Belize at two different locations. The first stop would be in Punta Gorda, Belize to stay at the Copal Tree Lodge and fish with the Garbutt Brothers. The lodge at Copal Tree is situated atop a mountain in the rainforest that overlooks the ocean.
The second stop would be off the coast of Placencia, Belize, on Northeast Caye. A small island where the Blue Horizon Lodge is situated. It was recently rebuilt and re-opened this past year.
It was my second trip, as I had spent a frustrating 6 days 3 years ago flogging the water without the success of catching a permit. I knew the fish were there; would I be luckier this time?
Those that fish for permit know they are amongst the trickiest fish in the world to catch. Even professional permit fishermen regard themselves as doing well if for every 10 fish they have a shot at they manage to hook one. And after achieving that success, there is then the difficult task of getting it to hand.
I was supposed to fish Belize in 2020 but COVID travel restrictions put the kibosh on that idea. So this year I finally was able to leave Europe and head to Belize, I was determined to catch a permit on the fly.
Rocking up tired and travel-weary at the country’s small but efficient national airport (Philip Goldsmith International Airport), I was greeted by the smiling Jesse who was to be my fishing buddy for the next week.
We hopped onto a small plane for a local flight (which always makes my heart jump, but this one was very good) and flew for 30 minutes south into Punta Gorda.
Stop 1: Copal Tree Lodge, Punta Gorda, Belize.
For the first part of our adventure, we were staying at Copal Tree Lodge, which is a member of Muy’Ono Resorts. This sumptuous eco-lodge is set in a 22,000-acre rainforest preserve of the Maya Mountains in Punta Gorda. While we were a fishing party, the lodge caters to adventurers and nature lovers of every description.
It is the perfect destination for those with an adventurous spirit and who want to “get away from it all,” yet also enjoy immaculate service, creature comforts and outstanding cuisine. What was not to like, especially for a girl from Czech?
I was hoping for a good first night’s sleep in my new luxury home, but jetlag and a howler monkey on my roof eating fruits put paid for that idea. The sound of this primate was one I shall never forget!
The Fishing at Copal Tree Lodge with the Garbutt Brothers
The morning brought an early start with clouds and high winds. This promised to be a tricky day’s fishing. We snaffled a quick breakfast of pancakes, honey, and bananas, all grown on the lodge’s farm. Even the coffee was grown there! Stuffed with these delicacies and excited at the prospect of landing large fish, we headed off enthusiastically for a short drive to the coast, accompanied by our cheerful guide, Alex.
We all know that fishermen have plenty of excuses why they don’t catch fish. The good news was that we saw plenty of permit for the conditions, but the first day was not ideal. The wind blew, and while the waters were clear, the clouds made seeing the fish difficult.
Jesse and I shared shots at numerous fish but without success. After a morning of frustration and excitement in equal measure, I finally had a good chance.
Alex was scanning hard when he spotted a fine permit – at least 20lbs – this was what I was after. Our guide got us into a good position and I stood motionless on the front of the boat. With a perfect cast – perhaps 40 feet – the fly landed just in front of our target’s nose. Bull’s-eye, I thought to myself waiting for the take. There was a heart stopping moment as the fish hooked up and rushed away. My fish was on! But then I began to have doubts. This fish wasn’t fighting like a permit. Certainly not like a 20lb permit. I wound hard on my reel and the fish came straight towards me. My heart sank. This was no permit on my hook but a wretched intruder. A bloody snapper had pushed in front of the queue and taken my fly.
I was mightily pissed off.
For the next couple of days, the weather continued to deteriorate, with high winds and cloud cover making visibility very difficult. Nevertheless, we continued to see plenty of permit and had more than our fair share of shots, but the fish just wouldn’t cooperate.
It might have been the weather that had turned the fish off and made them not “happy”. Nonetheless, it was still enjoyable fishing. The guides at the Garbutt Brothers made sure of it.
Eventhough the fishing was tough, it was compensated by the magnificent hospitality of the lodge. The pinnacle of this hospitality was the freshly made cocktails that were enough to make the legs of even a hardened sailor wobble.
Stop 2: Blue Horizon Lodge, Placencia, Belize.
This is much more of a fishing lodge in style, situated on its own island with magnificent views of the sea. Our welcome was warm, with camp manager Damien and the rest of his professional team making us feel immediately at home.
Every morning, we watched enormous Tarpon rolling in the ocean, no more than 100m from where we tucked into a huge breakfast.
The Fishing at Blue Horizon:
The weather had much improved and we immediately came upon numerous permit tailing in water no more than knee-deep. Between us, Jesse and I probably had 20 shots the first morning, often following the same school and repeatedly trying but with no luck. Nothing seemed to work. We switched from shrimps to crabs; we stripped quickly, we stripped slowly, but nothing would tempt these finicky fish. Only if you have fished for permit will you really know how tricky they can be.
Our frustration increased; the one thing that wasn’t to blame was an absence of permit – there were more than enough to catch.
We were fortunate to have been paired with a famous local guide, Blake Leslie. We all know that a great guide is a key to success in these circumstances. Blake’s enthusiasm never waned and he remained determined we would catch our permit.
The good news was we were detecting a change in the behavior of the permit. From showing no interest in our flies, we noticed they were starting to pay attention. Fish followed curiously, but they didn’t take. This was promising.
My turn came again when we spotted a small school near the boat. With Blake, I slipped carefully into the knee-deep water and moved away from the boat towards the fish. My heart raced. I was fishing a Merkin crab pattern and cast at the small group. Nothing. Not a sign of interest.
I cast again and the same thing happened. But at the third attempt, and with my worst cast, one of the group shot towards the crab. I know the trick with a crab is to move it slowly but my heart raced so much that I could not control my stripping. Blake and Jesse said to me afterward that they thought I was fishing for pike! I stripped rapidly and the fish raced faster towards this speedy crab. Another strip and with the mighty crash the fish took the crab. I strip-set the hook and the permit was on.
The loose line ran quickly through my fingers as I controlled its running, praying for no knots or tangles. Then the reel began to scream. There were congratulatory shrieks from Jesse and Blake but I knew the task was still far from done, as the permit began its run through the shallow, blue, coral waters.
This was the moment permit fisherman live for.
But the drama was not over. After a couple of runs, my line went slack and I lost contact with the fish. I thought it had gone but then Blake realized that somehow the line was caught in deep coral. Surely it would be cut?
To my astonishment, Blake put on flippers and a diving mask and swam to the point where the line was caught. He dove into the deep water and moments later he had freed the snag. I again made contact with the fish. What fishing miracle had a witnessed? I could not believe what happened, so certain outside the fish would be lost.
After this drama, getting the permit to hand proved a formality and my first Belizean permit had been landed.
We immediately started to celebrate with the guys on the boat, drinking ice-cold local Belikin beer. You can be sure the celebrations continued long into the evening!
That fish is one that I will remember forever. A permit on the fly is a great feat for any angler, sometimes it takes a little luck, a good guide, and the right state of mind.
On this trip, we enjoyed such great hospitality at these two amazing Belizean lodges and I can confess for certain I can’t wait to be back in years to come!
Thank you to Blue Horizon Lodge and Copal Tree Lodge, if you are looking to plan a fly fishing adventure to Belize, shoot us an email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Or get in touch with Blue Horizon Lodge at email@example.com and Copal Tree at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Check out the second feature for this trip here:
Article by Katka Švagrová, a traveler, journalist, ambassador, and fly fishing guide based in the Czech Republic. Check her out on Instagram at @katka_svagrova.
Photos by Jesse Packwood @jessepackwood.