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.
"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.
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Santella is a writer based in Portland, Oregon.
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IF YOU GO
Where to stay
Garbutt's Fishing Lodge
Joe Taylor Creek
Five simple hotel rooms are perched on stilts above the Caribbean, with a bathroom, air-conditioning and a deck overlooking the water. There is a bar in a separate building for drinks and meals.
Where to eat
Asha's Culture Kitchen
4 Front St., Punta Gorda, Belize
This casual, thatched-roof restaurant serves a variety of fresh fish, grilled chicken and beef alongside Belizean staples, including beans, rice and plantains. Dishes start about $9.
What to do
Most come here to fish for permits. Five nights and four days of fishing is $2,170, which is based on double occupancy and includes three meals a day, plus all beverages (including beer/alcohol).
Copal Tree Lodge, five miles inland from the Bay of Honduras, offers a number of agritourism activities, including chocolate-making classes. Birding trips (among other eco-tours) are also offered. Tour prices start at $75.