I think there is a defining moment in your fly fishing career when you find which of the many forms becomes your passion. I had been an obsessive fly fisherman since the age of seven, but had always focussed on freshwater species, predominantly trout and salmon. At the tender age of 21 this was all about to change. My older brother Alex has always been a pioneer when it comes to destination fishing and was the first member of the family to fish Mexico, Belize and Christmas Island. As my parents were also dedicated fly fishermen my brother organised an expedition to Turneffe Atoll in Belize. Back in the 1990’s this really was far more of an expedition as were heading to a small key on the southern point of the atoll. To get from the mainland we all piled into an open wooden boat with two mismatched outboard engines on the back and hunkered down under a tarpaulin from the sea spray for some three hours. Having grown up in boats in the far east I had always had an affinity with the sea, the spray and open water only adding to my growing excitement.
Before we had left my brother had given me an idea of what kit I would need. I managed to beg, borrow and steal most of the right line weights matched to a pair of old System Two reels I had saved up for – my pride and joy. Clothing had come a definite second – fashion a non existent requirement. I was a student at the time, so a quick trip to the army surplus shop furnished me with; Shirt, Men’s Tropical x 2 and Shorts, tropical lightweights x 2 that I cut the legs off. I did have a bonefish hat.. Lefty had one, so therefore this was obviously a totally requirement. A pair of old dive boots I had borrowed from a friend completed the ensemble and I was ready to go fishing. Being a student I had obviously no comprehension of what I was about to embark on, and had also done very little preparation other than some casting practice.
The first few days were an extraordinary baptism of fire. I will never forget wading across the open turtle grass flats and seeing those tails waving in the sunlight as schools of bonefish moved up and down along the reef edge. I remember that first connection like it was yesterday, the school moving left to right. The casting had been an easy adaption for me from long distance stillwater fishing back home, so I automatically hugged the edge of the wind like a close reefed sail. The Brown Crazy Charlie dropped in amongst the turtle grass fronds, the tail went up, the line went tight and the school exploded in front of me. At this point in my career I had caught a lot trout, battled quite a few salmon, but NOTHING prepared me for the speed with which that first bonefish took off. It charged of across the flat, my heart pounding and the System Two screeching as the line vanished in a heartbeat. Holding the rod high over my head to stop the line being cut on the coral I began to try and get some sense of control on this fish. It seemed to sense this and tore of another rip-roaring run. I distinctly remember a huge grin appearing on my face that never wore off. This was so far out of left field to anything I had done before. Finally that first silver bullet came within my grasp and I clutched it with both hands to prevent that feeling from escaping.
We spent the mornings wading across open flats with not another soul in sight. Often grey ghosts would be found gliding through calm water along the mangrove edges, easily tempted by pink puffs, turd flies and charlies. The fishing was prolific and unspoilt and even rank amateurs like us caught lots. It was like a piscatorial playground. Big barracuda lurked in holes to be tempted with streamers and finally my brother landed a fabled permit on the flat on his 6 weight. The sight of this only fuelled the fire to try and tempt one of this weird fish I had never heard of or even seen. Later in the week while fishing with my mother the guide had taken us to an inner lagoon to hunt these strange beasts. I had been instructed I needed heavier gear, so had adopted the 10# and my large System Two. To me this felt like a broom handle attached to a coffee grinder.
As we drifted along one sandy bank I was standing on the wooden foredeck, rod in hand.. wearing an outfit that probably made me look like Sanders of the River, I suddenly spied a school of black backs coming down the other side of the sand bar. I began to whirl the large weighted Merkin around my head before finally landing it some two feet off into the water on the other side of the sand bar and 10 feet ahead of the approaching school. In retrospect I think this was luck more than ability. The guide hissed to wait and remember my right leg began to shake uncontrollably.. the blood was roaring in my ears as a second whack of adrenalin hit my system. I gave the fly one small twitch and immediately all six fish charged it. In the mayhem the line went tight and with the worst start up inertia ever the rod bucked flat and I was attached to the most powerful thing I have ever encountered on a fly rod.
I will never forget staring in wide eyed disbelief as the fly line and then the backing began to simply peel off the reel. I continued to watch as nearly all the backing and finally the fish slowed and began to move to the right in an arc. I could see the black spindle of the spool through the last wraps of backing. I am sure I probably had eyes like dinner plates. Suddenly the spell wore off and I grabbed the handle and began to crank it… I could see that I was in the perfect spot, clear water all around us and just the sand bar between the boat and the fish. I had just about managed to regain half the backing before it took off again and I distinctly remember that cold grip of fear on my stomach that I might not be able to stop it. Luckily for me the fish tired and inch by inch, foot by foot, the coffee grinder did its job. In what seemed like an eternity the guide grabbed it by the wrist and I was staring at my first permit. The elation flooded through me, and only then did my mother speak and off congratulations. She had remained very quiet through the whole proceeding not wishing to distract the intense concentration.
After these experiences I have never looked back. Saltwater fly fishing took hold in a massive way, and it was only later did I truly appreciate what my older brother Alex had done for me. He had blown open the doors in a big way on what I suddenly knew I wanted to… no, had to do for the rest of my life. Twenty four years later I have now had the chance to do the same thing for my own family, on those same flats of Turneffe Atoll in Belize and I can see the fire burn equally as hot in their eyes. What a feeling it is…