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A Thousand and One Tails

White coral sand, warmed by the tropical water I was casting into, engulfed my toes with each step.  The water was calm and clear. My fly landed with a soft “Ploop” and settled to the bottom ahead of a shadow.  A few quick strips and I felt the tug.  I lifted the rod and felt the energy that usually means bonefish.  After a short fight, my prize was in the net.  Not just any fish, this bonefish was special; it was the thousandth one I’d caught since reporting for duty in the Indian Ocean.  A few minutes later I added one more to the tally before I left the water.

Photo: Capt. Joel Stewart

I’d prepared for my assignment on this remote and isolated island unlike most.  I packed a full array of fly rods, reels, lines, and my tying kit.  The only way to this rock is to have a job.  Tourism is forbidden.  But having a job doesn’t mean one can’t fish during down time.  And fish I have done.  Dozens of species have graced the end of my line, but bonefish have been front and center.

Photo: Capt. Joel Stewart

It took a couple months to orient and learn the habits of these bonefish in various environments.  Eighty percent of the lagoon, including the best flats, is closed to fishing. However, over half of the ocean side beaches are open for fishing.  This gave me two completely different environments to chase bones in, same as with most atolls.  Inside there are expansive flats with coral rubble and white sand.  Tailing bones can be found on calm low tide mornings.  These bones are skittish and picky.  Long casts with small flies are the norm.  Outside are the surf fish.  These bones come in over the reef on the flood tide and stay until the surf pounds the sand.  They are aggressive fish that chase down and hammer flies.  The constant water movement forces them to grab prey before its gone with the current.

I use an Axiom II-X 9ft 8wt paired with an NTR reel as my primary rod and an Axiom II 9ft 8wt with a BVK SD III+ as my back up rig.  Before my new favorite reel, the NTR, came out, I used a Power Reel.  I have fished with both 6 and 7 weights, but prefer an 8 weight to quickly play the fish.  I am a fan of Flip Pallot’s salt water leader formula: 6-8 feet of butt that matches the stiffness of the fly line connected by a nail knot with a two foot tippet.  This system turns over weighted flies beautifully.

For the 8wt, I use a butt of 30# fluorocarbon with a 15-20# tippet.  I use the heavy tippet for two reasons.  First – to play the fish quickly so they release strong.  Second – coral heads and rocks abound and fish will wrap you on them. The heavier tippet helps prevent break offs when they do.

Photo: Capt. Joel Stewart

I am a big believer in impressionistic flies rather than detailed replicas.  Eighty percent of the bonefish I caught were on a Gotcha derivative I call a Jalopy.  Slow crawled, it can be a shrimp or crab, and fast stripped, a fleeing bait fish.  I use 60 degree jig hooks almost exclusively as they present well and most fish are hooked in the upper lip.  I rarely use anything bigger than a size 4, most fish were caught on a size 6.  I use very short strips.  If a fish is hot on the fly but not eating, I will strip about a foot to excite a strike, but normally about 3-4 inches.  I adjust the speed of the strips and watch the fish reactions.  Too fast will spook them.  Too slow and they’ll ignore it.

Some things I learned wading the flats for 1000 bonefish:

  • Read Dick Brown’s book “Fly Fishing for Bonefish”
  • Get good glasses, eye fatigue is no fun.
  • Look for movement and parts of fish.
  • Don’t move too fast, but move.
  • Don’t wade too deep, it’s hard to catch fish you can’t see.
  • Sun helps but you can find fish on cloudy or even rainy days.
  • Always be ready to cast and cast to everything you think is a fish.
  • Look for fish at the water’s edge and in the trough.
  • Cast ahead of spooked fish, sometimes they stop and eat.
  • After three refusals change flies.  Size or color but change until you find what they want.
  • For pictures use a net, have a good action camera, and know how you’ll use it before you get on the water. Most shots here are self-shot.
  • To catch big bonefish you have to ignore small bonefish. Can’t hook a big one with a little one on the hook.
  • Don’t trout set!
  • Let them run and let the reel do its job. Play the fish quickly but play them enough.
  • Every fish is fun.  10 inch bones are dynamite and 29 inch bones are soul snatchers.

I did not set out to keep records and count every fish. The rules for fishing here require a reporting of daily catch – so I had to.  Fishing is not about numbers, but as I grew close to a grand for bonefish, I realized the significance.  At about 850, I focused on that goal.

Much like when I was in Iraq, fishing is my outlet that keeps me on an even keel.  I make the time to go when I can align with favorable tides.  Before work, after work, and even lunch time sessions all got me on the water.  I didn’t catch bones, or any other fish on every outing, though drawing a blank is rare.  Two times I won’t get out and fish are thunderstorms and winds over 25mph.  Sure you can fish in both, but I’m not looking to die of a lightning strike and fishing is supposed to be fun and casting in high winds is anything but.

Photo: Capt. Joel Stewart

Blog written and photos provided by Ambassador Capt. Joel Stewart (@captjstewart)

Fly Fishing in Belize + Reel Women Fly Fishing

“An inordinate passion for pleasure is the secret of remaining young.” Oscar Wilde

There is a great saying here in Belize, “Why not?” Working with Belizean guides creating and building Reel Belize in San Pedro, I ask a lot of questions. And most of the time I’m answered with “Why not?” Which is how I like to roll. Yes, it was a very big decision to move to San Pedro, Belize in 2009. A lot has happened since then, including staying on the island the past two years without travel.

For me and the rest of the world we have had time to assess what is important in our lives. You wouldn’t be reading this if fly fishing wasn’t important to you. What we all don’t know is how far our passion for this all inclusive captivating sport will lead us. If you have been to Belize, you know about the warm hearted English speaking fly fishing guides who share your same love for the hunt of bonefish, permit, and tarpon on the flats. They too are passionate casters and when TFO sent me the 7wt Axiom II-X – everyone was in line to cast and borrow our new favorite. We love this rod!

Photo: Oliver Sutro

If you are planning a trip it’s an exciting time! It is also extremely important to know and love your gear. Precious moments don’t have time for used and beat up gear. Our fishery on Ambergris Caye is for bonefish that average 2 to 6 lbs, permit 5-30 lbs, tarpon 5-150 lbs! We also have jacks, barracuda and snapper – all fun on a fly rod. We have used this one rod – the 7wt Axiom II-X – for all of these fish. Including tarpon landed up to 50 lbs. It’s nice to have a bigger rod for fighting bigger fish, but if the opportunity presents itself, this rod will get it done.

Fly delivery is a huge part of the game – the fish have to see the fly and it needs to be moving away from them. A shrimp or crab would never swim to the mouth of any fish. Smooth casts – one for speed the next for accuracy and put it! Not all casts have to be great but the fly does need to get in the water without a lot of false casting. They see what looks like a new kind of osprey flying over them. Yes, we have ospreys in Belize that love to grab and eat bonefish.

Photo: Lori-Ann Murphy

Depending on the weather and conditions we are generally fishing six inches of water to 3-5 feet for permit and tarpon. You will want a nice selection of Christmas Island Specials, Gotcha’s, Squimps, Tarpon Toads, the Strong Armed Merkin is the latest craze for permit – but basically flies that will fish weedless if needed or some heavy eyes or lead wrapped flies to get down fast. And generally speaking – the flies imitate a shrimp, crab or bait fish. Make sure you fish the fly how a shrimp, crab or baitfish would move in the water. A crab does not swim as fast as a shrimp. I have learned this lesson many times and I’m sure I’ll goof up again. Be the fly!

Photo: Lori-Ann Murphy

Travel

Traveling to Belize is as easy as 1,2,3! This is our slogan. Just this week, entry into Belize has been updated. It is no longer necessary to download an app from the Ministry of Health. A card showing you are fully vaccinated, or COVID testing before travel is still required. The US requires a rapid test 42 hrs prior to return – which is easily done from your hotel or lodge and costs $75 US.

Belize is also making lists! – “the safest international places to travel right now.” (TravelPulse). While many countries were downgraded by the US State Department for COVID levels, Belize was one of only 15 countries upgraded to a Level 2 travel advisory. Level 2= Exercise Increased Caution. 4= Do Not Travel. No countries are currently at Level 1.

Belize has very low COVID numbers. However, only 15% of the population has been vaccinated, so it is still law to wear a mask and safe practices remain in place. It is required that the travelers stay at a Gold Standard Hotel and fish with a Gold Standard Tour Operator. I’m happy to say Reel Belize has met all Gold Standard requirements. I submitted a 47 page application! I felt like I was in nursing school all over again but it did put us all on the same page.  Plan to be treated like royalty when you show up – Belizeans were very very sad without tourists!

Photo: Lori-Ann Murphy

Reel Women Fly Fishing Adventures

I’m proud to say that women are fly fishing on waters all over the world. And I’m proud because RWFFA was established in 1994 to do just that – get women fly fishing so we could lead trips to fun places. For almost thirty years, we have met women who have an adventurous spirit and the guts to make it happen. These are incredible women and many of them have made friends from these trips that have lasted over time with many more fishing stories to tell.

The most exciting time in all of this for me is now. Now we have remarkable fly fishing women and guides who have become RWFFA Ambassadors leading their own trips. Now, there are so many women fly fishing guides all over the world – I can’t name them all. It used to be easy, because there were so few of us for such a long time.

Photo: Lori-Ann Murphy

This year fly fishing exploded due to the pandemic. People are wanting to get out and explore rivers and salt flats and learn about fly fishing. To accommodate the demand, we have added more trips and fly fishing schools. We have schools for the beginners and schools for guides. There are freshwater trout trips in the mountains of the east and west, and then of course we have our RWFFA saltwater trips!

Since I live in San Pedro, Belize, own a fly shop and outfitting business (Reel Belize), it only makes sense to lasso these women and invite them to fish our waters! This week, eight women are showing up from all over the place for our first ever RWFFA Women’s Tarpon Quest! There is only one beginner in the group and she will have a lot of love to bring her up to speed. Stay tuned for the action!

Photo: Lori-Ann Murphy

 

Blog written by TFO Ambassador Lori-Ann Murphy. You can find out more about Reel Belize here, or Reel Women Fly Fishing here.

The Basics of Bonefish: What You Need to Know

A few weeks ago, we celebrated the beauty and grace of the tarpon. This week we turn to another pillar of saltwater’s Big Three — the bonefish. And there’s no better authority on the grey ghost than Bjorn Stromsness, who has spent more than his fair share of time on the flats. When the Northern Californian is not chasing bonefish, he’s writing about them on his blog, Bonefish on the Brain.

TFO chatted with Stromsness by phone for a few minutes last week to glean a few pointers on bonefish. Below are excerpts of our conversation, a handful of tidbits for novice or intermediate bonefishermen.

Why Bonefish? Location. Location. Location.

BS: “They say the same thing about trout. Bonefish live in beautiful places — where it’s sunny, warm, tropical. You think of beer or something with rum in it and you think of bonefish, too. Part of the (appeal) is location, which is hard to beat.

“Another thing, when I trout fish, I don’t see a lot of the trout I catch before I get them on the line. Bonefishing is so visual. You should see every bonefish before you even cast to it. It’s very different from where you go out and cast to likely spots. That visual element is really appealing.

“And then there’s the fish itself. It puts you to the test. You have to be able to make the cast. You have to be able to make the presentation. You need to be able to see the fish. And when you catch the fish, there’s a power to the bonefish that’s just way out of scale compared to most other fish. If you put all of that together, it’s a pretty compelling package.”

Best Places for bonefish

BS: “St. Brandon’s Atoll is where I would go followed closely by the Seychelles and followed by that would be Christmas Island. I’m actually going there in January. Those are exotic places with shots at so many different species — from GTs, to bumphead parrots — and there’s lots of bonefish, too.

“St. Brandon’s Atoll is in the middle of nowhere. There’s no airport. You get there by boat. It’s like a 20-hour boat ride. There’s no one else around. It’s very, very isolated and it’s not close to anything. When people talk about what it was like to fish in the 1800s, it probably isn’t any different now in St. Brandon’s than it was 200 years ago. It just doesn’t get the pressure that other places get. It’s high on my wish list of fantasy places to go. As good as that place is, I just got back from a week in the Bahamas. It was awesome.”

Bonefish on a budget

BS: “Go to Belize. Or Mexico. You can do Belize fairly cheap. I’ve even flown Southwest. Prices there are lower than you’re going to find in a lot of places. The fish are small, but you also have more shots and permit as well. There are places in Belize you can do on a budget; there are places in the Bahamas you can do on a budget. It’s just that the flights to the Bahamas are a little harder sometimes. They might have a flight in or out on one day. It can be harder (to travel). Mexico or Belize can certainly provide budget opportunities.

“With (the Florida) Keys, their bonefish population is way, way down. It’s not that people aren’t catching them. They are, but they’re probably catching more redfish than bonefish down there these days.”

Practice your double haul for those big bonefish

BS: “The casting. It’s different from most fly fishing. You’re going to have to make a cast in a specific place in a 25-mile-an-hour wind. It’s a unique skill set. I’ve seen confident, proficient trout fishermen lose their minds not being able to make it happen.

“The thing any angler going for the first time needs is a 40-foot double haul. Forty feet is not far, but when the wind is really blowing and you have to cast in the face of it, it can be really daunting. Classically, people think you need a 70-foot cast for bonefish. You don’t. Most of your fish will be caught at 40 feet. It’s not that it’s far. You need to be able to do it in the wind with a little finesse. If you slap a fly down in front of a bonefish, they’re not going to eat it. The main thing is just getting the cast.”

The best time of year to go for bonefish is …

BS: “Whenever you can. It’s trite, but it’s true. I was just in Grand Bahama in July. I was in Mexico last year at this time. It was amazing. It was fantastic. It’s not the time people are bonefishing generally. But, the wind was really low. Yes, it was hot. The wind being a non-factor was so different. There are tradeoffs. People tend to think of bonefishing in March, April, May. Really, it’s whenever you can go. It makes more sense to pay more attention to tides than time of year. You want a good incoming, so you have a good shot at it. That’s what you want. Places I’ve been on the wrong tides have made it more difficult.”

Keep it simple with bonefish gear

BS: “You only need an 8-weight. You don’t need a 9. Some places they say you need a 9. You don’t need a 9. You only need an 8. If you need to, up line by one weight. With most of the lines out there, an 8-weight line isn’t an 8-weight line, it’s an 8.5. You really don’t need to up line, usually. You need a good 8-weight line and a good large arbor reel. The leader? Something 12, 14 feet. I make my own — 4 feet of 40-pound butt, 2 feet of 30, 2 feet of 20 and then the tippet. I’m usually going with fluoro, 15-pound. It’s simple and saves money.”

 

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