Steve Madewell

Pedestrian Ramblings


A Permit On The Fly...

Three years in the making.
My second Belizean experience and my first trip to the Blue Bonefish Lodge

Several years ago, MJ and I had the opportunity to stay at the Chan Chich lodge in Belize. We had a great experience enjoying the jungle and associated plant and animal life, the Mayan ruins and the luxury of one of the worlds first well-done eco-lodges.

Belize is known for its incredible scuba and snorkeling opportunities afforded by an incredible barrier reef with unique coral formations and abundant and diverse fish populations. In addition, Belize has incredible fishing with quick easy access to blue water as well as miles and miles of shallow flats and countless mangroves lagoons. The flats and mangroves provide the perfect habitat for bonefish, permit, tarpon and a host of other game fish. On that trip, however, we didn’t spend any time exploring the coast.

I have spent a considerable amount of time casting a fly rod, tying flies and all manner of activities associated with fly fishing but my time fishing in saltwater has been limited. Needless to say, I was more than a little interested when my friend Jerry Darkes told me that he was putting together a trip to the Blue Bonefish Lodge in Belize in 2016. Jerry’s friends, Jim and Phyllis Johnson had expanded their fishing operation and opened a new lodge near San Pedro on Ambergris Caye.

The Johnson family has been involved with guiding and fly fishing hospitality for over three decades. They initially started offering day trips on Michigan rivers including the famed steelhead and salmon stream, the Pere Marquette. With their commitment to providing quality experiences and exceptional service they quickly grew their business and ultimately built a lodge in Baldwin, Michigan, then Alaska and now in Belize.

The first trip was scheduled for February 2016 but a professional obligation prevented me from going and I had to defer to the following year. Unfortunately, the same thing happened in 2017!
The third time was the charm however and as 2018 rolled around, MJ and I anxiously got our itinerary together to head south for a break from the NE Ohio winter.

Belize is a relatively small but incredibly interesting country with a host of cultural influences. There are extensive Mayan ruins throughout the jungle and archeologists continue to gain insight into the size and complexity of this lost civilization.

An independent Commonwealth Belize recognizes Queen Elizabeth II as the head of state and monarch. Consequently, the Queens image is on all the money. The primary language is English but Spanish and Belizean Creole is also spoken. There is a profound mixture of European and native cultures.

From an ecological perspective, there is a lot going on in this small country! Central America is heavily utilized by migratory birds but other wildlife use this connection between North and South America as well. The Mesoamerican Biological Corridor Project is a focused, an international conservation effort to document and sustain natural systems in this unique region.

We flew out of Cleveland to Huston and on into Belize City. A thirty-minute cab ride took us to a water taxi which ferried us to San Pe- dro. “la Isla Bonita” is the subject of the song recorded and performed by Madonna written about San Pedro and Ambergris Caye!

Jerry was waiting to pick us up when we got off the ferry and we stopped to pick up another couple at the airport. With five people and associated luggage piled into and onto a golf cart club car we set off for the 4.2-mile ride to the Blue Bonefish Lodge.

I can’t overemphasize the condition of the road. It was a mess with one equipment breaking pothole after another. The bone-jarring ride to the lodge added to the element of adventure.

We found the lodge located right on the water and the accommodations were very nice. About half of our party stayed at the lodge and the other half stayed at the adjacent house which had been rented for our group. Both the lodge and the adjacent house had a small pool, great balconies, and an open airy floor plan. Breakfasts and dinners were served in the lodge.

There was a decent sized dock where the fishing guides picked up the anglers at 7:30 and returned them around 3:30. The fishing boats were an open style fiberglass bay boat with a casting platform on the bow and a poling tower on the stern. They were different than any other flats boat I had seen, proportionally narrower with a deeper v hull design and 19-22 feet long. They were set up for two anglers in each boat.

Bonefishing guides are the subject of a lot of stories in the angling community. They have to have the ability to spot fish in all kinds of conditions. They maneuver the boat to provide the angler with the best opportunity to cast to the fish, accounting for wind conditions and the movement of the fish. They also have to understand and work within the limitations of their clients which involves several variables and they have to be able to communicate and explain all of this information to the angler.

This is compounded by the fact most freshwater anglers are used to making short, delicate casts on streams. They aren’t used to casting from a boat in steady, heavy wind, nor are they used to casting at the distances required for flats fishing. Also, it is hard not to be excited when a school of fish is cruising your way and a guide is calling out a string of commands. “Do you see the fish? They are at 11:00, 75 feet moving to your right. Cast 1:00 as far as you can, let it sink. Strip, strip, no long steady strips, pick it up. Cast again, further this time... no the fish are gone. ” Needless to say a lot can and does go wrong and in these conditions and the fishing is anything but relaxing. It is an intense activity subject to multiple malfunctions and disappointment, but when it all comes together it is exhilarating, immensely rewarding and fun.

On trips like this, it is not unusual to rotate fishing partners and guides every day. I fished with a different guide each day and each one had a remarkably different approach. Marco was easy going and easy to understand. Jose was soft-spoken but extremely demanding. “Listen to me and do exactly what I say or we are not going to have a productive day.” Rodger was like the Keith Richards of the fly fishing guides who talked about his playboy lifestyle and Valmont and David were younger than the other guides.

Valmont was quiet and insightful, David on the other hand, was constantly talking. Not necessarily to the anglers, but to the fish, as he stared out across the water while poling the boat. He would croon to the fish nonstop, asking them to show themselves, to provide just a little opportunity for us to cast to them. Assuring them we wouldn’t hurt them maybe just take a little picture or two.

He was clearly focused on permit, he had a permit tattoo on his chest and a permit pedant hanging from his neck.

Our last day fishing was spent with David. Jerry had fished with David the day before and told me he had a good afternoon with him in a mangrove lagoon. They had found and enjoyed some great bonefishing so when David asked my fishing partner for the day Ted Heitman and I what we wanted to do I suggested we go back to where he and Jerry were the day before.

David listened, said ok, we will do that, and then stated we were heading to a permit flat. I have caught plenty of bonefish but had never caught a permit so I was certainly up for targeting a new fish on the fly.

Permit, by the way, are a peculiar looking fish. There are fish that are sleek and streamline and look like they were designed for swimming. Then there are those that are round and flat and really don’t look like they should swim. A permit is the later. Regardless of their appearance, they are incredibly fast and powerful fish.

There is a fascinating system for designating fly rods primarily created around the size of the line the rod can effectively cast. I was using an 8 weight Orvis Helios II rod which was a bit light for these conditions. The reel was loaded with a Scientific Angler line that I borrowed from Jerry. The line was beautifully thought out incorporating a number of features in the design that enhanced the anglers ability to manage the line and consequently make more effective casts. The line was spooled on Ross saltwater reel with 200 yards of Dacron backing. The backing provides additional line to accommodate runs from large, strong fish that may have different ideas about where they want to go after they are hooked. Jerry had color-coded the backing in 100-yard increments so it was easy to keep track of how much line was out and how much was left on the reel. I had tied a 16-pound tippet on the end of a 10-foot tapered leader and was fishing a nondescript, tan colored, weighted crab in a size 4 pattern which was about the size of a quarter.

The way it generally works in a flats boat, one angler fishes at a time, and take turns based on the length of time, opportunity or casts taken or fish hooked and landed. David did his job and provided my fishing partner Ted and I several opportunities to cast to permit.

I had blown two with poor casts and Ted had two refusals and it was my turn again.
Earlier in the day, I told David that I preferred to fish while wading in the water and he had indicated that if at all possible he would let me out of the boat if the conditions were right. In short order, I had an opportunity to do just that!

We continued to work down a long flat toward and small island when we spotted a school of moving permit. As David dropped the anchor, I climbed over the starboard side of the boat. My objective was to move with the fish gradually getting close enough to cast to them or to get in a position where I could let the fish come to me. I had effectively used this approach with bonefish to compensate for my limited casting abilities. Basically, you are making and reacting to observations on the direction the fish are moving, how fast they are traveling and which way the wind is blowing. The closer you get to the fish the easier it is to spook them by moving or with a poor presentation of the fly. The fish were coming toward us about 150 to 200 feet out in front of the boat and heading slightly to our left. David and Ted also got out of the boat and we began moving in a direction to intercept the fish. They shifted their course again and began moving from left to right about 150 feet ahead of us. We also changed our direction and made a 90 degree turn hard toward the right. The fish were moving about 100-125 feet parallel to us and suddenly changed direction and began moving slightly toward us at a 45-degree angle from left to right. We continued to move to our right and when the fish were 80 feet out or so I set up to cast to them. The fish were coming toward us as I made a 45 to 50-foot cast at a 45-degree angle off of my right shoulder. David said the cast was too short and told me to pick it up and cast again. I decided it would be better to let the fish come to the fly and I let the fly sink. Maybe the fish responded to the fly hitting the water or maybe they turned on their own. For whatever reason, the entire school pivoted slightly and were swimming directly toward us. I could see the dorsal fins and tails of several fish breaking the water surface as they moved our way. There were at least 8 in the school and maybe twice that many and it was incredibly hard to keep my composure. When I was sure they were a few feet from my fly I began to retrieve the crab with a finger over finger line retrieve crawling the fly along the bottom. I immediately saw a fish tip up and felt it take the fly. I felt the tension as the fish moved to my left and took several feet of line. I sharply pulled the line hard with my left hand and lifted the rod up with my right hand. I heard David scream “Yeah Man You know how to do this!” And that is when the fish took off! The school of fish flared apart and then came back together and continued to move to our right.

The fly line was off of my rod in an instant and the Dacron backing was being pulled off of the reel at a remarkable rate. David said I needed to follow the fish so I wouldn’t run out of line. I took off toward the fish but told him there was 200 yards of backing on the reel. I suggested that he go see if he could get Ted a shot at that school.

As I followed the permit across the waist deep flat, I regained line whenever I got the opportunity. Four times I nearly got back to the fly line and each time the fish bolted away. As I was fighting the fish I began gradually walking backward and making my way toward the boat.

The school had long since moved on and Ted and David were coming back toward me. I noticed a huge cloud was looming on the horizon and heard David ask if I had anything in the boat that needed to be stowed away. Ted made his way to the boat, stored a few things, grabbed our rain jackets and also got his camera and was able to take all of the following fish pictures. By this time I had gotten the fly line back to the rod a couple times but was yet to get any fly line on reel.

The sky opened up and a torrential rain came down that was so heavy that it was hard to see more than 30 to 40 feet. As David and Ted helped me into my rain jacket, David said this is like the “Old Man and the Sea”! I thought to myself, “That’s cool, but I don’t need any sharks man!”

In a matter of minutes, the rain began to lighten up and I continued to gain line on the fish but it was clear that the permit was a long way from being ready to come to hand. The small island was behind us and the boat was anchored off to our left. David told me to continue to move the fish into the shallower water and I continued to gradually back toward the island. The permit came toward me and started to arch to my right and continued around behind us heading toward the island and the boat anchor. David ran back and intercepted the fish to turn it away from the coral rocks and back toward the sandy bottom in front of me. The ensuing run once again took me deep into the backing. This time however as I reeled in line, I had the feeling that we were indeed going to land this fish!

David walked out in front of me perhaps 25 feet and after two attempts grabbed the permit at the base of the tail and lifted it out of the water.


The fish was thick and powerful, incredibly silver with just a tiny bit of mustard yellow on its belly. Ted took several photos but we were all too excited to take the time to set up any posed shots.

When David lifted the fish out of the water the tapered leader was so stretched it coiled upon itself like a strand of DNA. I told him that when I had tied in the 16-pound test tippet I had not cut the leader as far up as I should have. In other words, the tippet was heavier than the end of the leader it was tied to. I recognized what I had done when I tied the tippet on but was in too big a hurry to cut and retie the tippet. From the moment I set the hook through the entire time the fish was on the line I was thinking “God, I hope the leader doesn’t break”!

After a few quick pictures, David stuck three or four fingers into the fishes mouth and adroitly popped the fly out. He turned to me and said, “This was your fish man, you got to let her go.” So I grabbed the fish, slid her nose in the water and in an instant, she was gone.

I just had the privilege to enjoy and share an incredible experience, catching one of fly fishings most coveted prizes, and a pretty big one to boot! We waded over to the island and took a few minutes to regain our composure.

The next day, on the golf cart ride into town to take the water taxi back to Belize City I took notice of the cleared and drained lots. I couldn’t help but think how the development might affect the nearshore marine resources and the future fishing and diving opportunities that currently exist here. Belize is a develop- ing country and San Pedro is a developing island and the Belizean government is trying to be proactive creating measures to protect both the cultural and natural resources of the country. Having spent the better part of my life in the conservation and recreation industry, I have a great appreciation for experiences like the one I enjoyed. With changes in land use, consumptive and recreational use, and the impacts of pollution, it is unclear if the resources that enable these experiences are stable or subject to shifts and decline. I felt compelled to write the story of my experience not as a chronicle to my abilities but rather to document an incredible experience with a magnificent fish, in a very special place... in the ever-changing world we live in.