Belize Navidad - A Fly Fishing Christmas

Montana winters can be long and hard, but they are much more tolerable if you have a plane ticket or two to the tropics. This year my family decided to break with tradition and forego a white Christmas for a trip to a fishing lodge in Belize! It had been almost 30 years since my last trip to Ambergris Caye and had yet to visit the stalwart Belizean lodge: El Pescador.

I’ve heard and read for years that El Pescador is a good family destination and wanted to see for myself. When I asked my daughters Elina (13) and Noni (11) back in September if they wanted to skip the Christmas tree and all the gifts this year in favor of this trip, they leapt at the idea with great enthusiasm. ‘Nuf said!!

 

Getting There
El Pescador is located on Ambergris Caye, a small Caribbean Island off the coast of mainland Belize. Getting there from Ennis, Montana does require some time and effort although that can be said of most places worth visiting. Our itinerary routed us through Houston where we had to overnight both ways in order to make the connections. From Houston (or any other hub) you fly into Belize City. From there it’s a 15 minute island hopper flight to Ambergris Caye and the small town of San Pedro. The flight is beautiful if the weather is clear and looking down on the flats and small islands from above definitely gets your imagination flowing.

We are greeted at the airport by Ricardo who manages the airport transfers for El Pescador. He quickly had us in a short cab ride to a nearby bar and dock. Beers were on the house at the bar (nice touch) while Ricardo loaded our luggage into El Pescador's large boat. Not sure what you call this type of boat, but it’s got a covered cabin so it’s just right for the 10 minute trip over to the lodge. There is something special about arriving by boat.

 

Lodging & Amenities
El Pescador has a very nice new dock that extends about 200 feet from the beach. It makes for a great arrival at the lodge, as it is a beautiful place with a very nice and well-kept beach. Ricardo handed us off to Marlin who welcomed us, checked us in and gave us a brief orientation on the lodge program. There is also a fishing orientation offered daily by the fishing director Isa, but we arrived late and missed that.

There are main lodge rooms and villas available. We stayed in main lodge rooms, which I believe are the cheapest rooms they have but were very nice. Each room had 2 queen beds and all the modern comforts. The beds and linens were very good quality... of utmost importance in any good lodge, especially when travelling with the princesses!!

We chose the all inclusive package, so all of our meals and some drinks were included. This was hands down the best all-inclusive package we have experienced. The food was excellent! Breakfast is ordered off a basic, but diverse menu. Lunch is either ordered off a menu at the lodge, or at happy hour for the next day’s fishing. The fishing lunches were solid. Nothing fancy, but plenty of choices. You can also opt to have a beach lunch with your guide if you want. We never did this, as we didn’t want to eat into our fishing time.

The bar and patio are great, and a major hangout spot for most guests everyday, especially at happy hour. They have a large TV, pool table, and several good bar games that are fun. Belekin regular, dark and Lighthouse are the only beers they have and are included on the plan so you can drink as many as you want. Some hard liquor is also included, but much is not. Mariano makes great Margaritas but they are not included in the plan. Unfortunately, red wine is not included either. These drinks are expensive and can be charged to your guest account.

The lodge does have Wi-Fi, but it has a very weak range and is only available in the main pool and bar area. I think they may do this intentionally to make people be more social. The main swimming pool is nice and well maintained. It’s a great spot to chillax after fishing or on your day off from fishing.

 

The Fishing
The coast of Belize, including the waters around Ambergris Caye are home to all of the major flats species: Bonefish, Permit, Tarpon, Snook, Barracuda, Snapper, Jacks, Sharks and Rays. There is definitely the opportunity for a Grand Slam or a Super Slam here, and many have done it. In fact, El Pescador has a plaque on the wall in the bar commemorating all those who have slammed there.

The guides all seem to like to go early. Six or 6:30 am was the standard start time, with some guides and guests departing even earlier. Although there are some nice flats very close to the lodge both on the front (Ocean side) and in back (bayside), these guides like to travel. Many times we were starting off with runs of 30 to 60 minutes or more from the lodge. They particularly like to go to “The Park”. Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve is on the very northern end of Belize about an hour run from the lodge. If you fish the front at the park, you will run through a creek that is the dividing line between Mexico and Belize. ($5 USD cash per angler to enter the park)

The guides like to ask what you want to fish for in the morning which is nice, but perhaps not always the best plan. Conditions will often dictate what is possible.

Bonefish are abundant and can be caught DIY off the beach near the lodge or at “secret beach” on the backside a few miles from the lodge. They are generally small. Of the many that we caught or saw while there, only one would honestly break 3 lbs. Still fun for sure, and great for novice salt anglers. Even my two young daughters caught some.

Permit is the big prize for me, and many devout flats anglers. I made it very clear to my guide Junior, that Permit was Plan A. Toward the end of Day 2 we found a school of medium sized Permit very close to San Pedro. Worried that the boat would spook them, Junior advocated that we get down and wade for them. He also insisted that I change to a #2 Squimp! They weren’t tailing, but were in about 3 ½ ft. of water and clearly milling around slowly and in a feeding mood. One good cast and I was on. No better feeling than coming tight on a Permit!

There was little time to waste after landing the fish as the school was still nearby and still milling and pushing water. Rikki jumped down with Junior and started wading after them.  It was getting late and the light was tough as they looked directly into the glare. After some maneuvering and several casts, she hung one! Watching my wife catch a Permit on a fly was probably my favorite fishing moment of 2016. The stress was high after Junior turned her drag knob the wrong way and caused a minor backlash tangle in the backing. Disaster was narrowly averted and a few minutes later she had the beautiful fish in hand. Catching 2 Permit on a fly in one day makes for a great day anywhere and we headed home with big smiles on our faces.

There are resident Tarpon near Ambergris, but they are very elusive in my limited experience. We only found a few and they were extremely boat sensitive and didn’t seem to have much interest in my flies. There are resident populations of baby Tarpon and apparently they do get large migratory Tarpon in the Summer months. One guy who was at the lodge with us, reported catching 7 baby Tarpon one day when it rained most of the day.

 

The Scorecard
In the end, we only did OK in the catching department: two Permit were certainly a highlight, lots of small Bonefish, a couple of mid-sized Snook, and a couple of Cudas on a tube lure. In spite of pretty good conditions and 5 days of trying, we only really had a few opportunities at Permit. We just didn’t find many of them.

A couple different anglers expressed a theory to me that the fishery there isn’t nearly what it once was. One guy said it was recent hurricanes, the other pointed to the growing and hungry population of San Pedro. I’m not sure I buy either of those theories, given the sheer size of the area and the natural occurrence of tropical storms. Regardless, it didn’t strike me as a very prolific fishery although I did have shots at all the major targets. I certainly understand that fishing is fishing, and results are always uncertain. However, after 5 days of running and polling around you start to get a feeling for a place. We just didn’t see many fish, other than the abundant small bonefish.

 

Overall Rating
As a family vacation I’m giving this trip an A+. The lodge was indeed a great base camp for my whole family to hang out and goof off. Town was just a few minutes away by golf cart and there were several other fun activities close by. These include: para-sailing, jet skiing, snorkeling and scuba diving the nearby reef, kayaking, SUP paddleboarding, exploring Ambergris by bike or golf cart, shopping in San Pedro, jungle tours and visiting the Mayan ruins on the mainland.  All of these activities can easily be arranged by the El Pescador staff and added to your lodge bill. Very easy and convenient.

Purely as a fishing vacation, I would rate the trip somewhat lower on the grade scale. There are always myriad variables at play on any given day or week on the flats. After 10 seasons in the Keys, I think I understand that as well as anyone. However, aside from Bones I just didn’t see the kind of action on the flats that gets me really excited. I would certainly go back to El Pescador, but would be inclined to try a little different time of year in the hopes of having more opportunities for Tarpon, Permit and Snook.

 

Gear
El Pescador has more tackle available their guests than any tropical lodge I have visited. The rod/reel combos are available for guests on a first come basis. These are mostly high quality Orvis Helios rods and Hatch reels. Flies and other terminal tackle are available for purchase in their small shop. Of course you can use your own stuff, if you have the right stuff. The guides like to review all of your gear and flies before leaving the lodge. I always suggest bringing your own stuff to the tropics if you can.

Here is my gear list:

  • 7-9 wt. rods
    • Scott S4S 907/4  I used this rod largely for Bonefish
    • Sage XP 890-4 I used this rod blind casting for Snook, as well as Permit
    • Scott Meridian 909/4 This was my main Permit rod, but also swapped leaders and threw at Tarpon with it.
  • Tibor Everglades Reel - A true workhorse reel that has stood the test of time. Love my Tibor reels!
  • Hatch Finatic 7 Plus Reel - This is a great reel for the 9wt. Meridian Permit/Baby Tarpon rig.
  • 9-12 ft. RIO Fluorocarbon leaders in 10, 12, 16lb
  • 10, 12, and 16lb. RIO Saltwater Fluorocarbon Tippet
  • Scientific Angler Saltwater Sharkwave lines. Great lines!
  • Definitely have some kind of wading shoes. Sometimes, it’s the best/only way to get a good shot.
  • Flies - The Christmas Island was the guide’s favorite bonefish fly. They also like a large #2 Bunny Gotcha or Squimp for Permit. They liked small olive crabs too.
  • White bunnys are always a good bet with both Snook and Tarpon, and these were Juniors go-tos. I would include some other color Tarpon bunnys and Toads too.
  • I almost always bring a 12lb. Spin rod with me flats fishing rigged with a pin or green tube lure. Giant Cudas are present everywhere I fished in Florida, the Bahamas, Mexico and Central America. They can make for a great diversion while hunting other species. Yes, you can catch them on a fly, but you gotta be quick. I find the tube lure just as challenging and just as much fun!

As always, feel free to call or write anytime if we can help you with your trip planning to El Pescador, or any other destination.

 

Tight Lines,
JD

joe@montanatrout.com
406-682-5150