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Report from El Pescador.....

A few weeks back we made plans for a last-minute trip to El Pescador on Ambergris Caye in Belize. My son David had a few vacation days to use, and after a brief internet search found a “Two-for One” special for three days of fishing at the all-inclusive resort.

Several folks replied to my Forum question on info, and I promised a report when we returned, so here goes...this report that I’m writing on the plane home as we pass over Cuba is geared toward providing the info that would be helpful for someone considering a trip. Forgive me if some of my information is too basic for seasoned, world-traveling fly fishermen (as many of the guests at El Pescador indeed were). If you only want to hear about the fishing, skip the next few paragraphs.:

The flight connections to Belize City were straightforward, several hours out of Miami or Atlanta or Texas, as were customs and immigration. The only recommendations I would make are to avoid the offers of assistance with your bags after you clear customs in Belize City (the Tropic Air check-in desk is only a few steps around the corner, and porters are not needed), and to not bother with eating at the airport while you wait for that flight (El Pescador will have a great made-to-order lunch waiting for you when you arrive.)

El Pescador makes all of your travel arrangements, and you will have a ticket for your short flight to San Pedro on Ambergris Caye emailed to you when you make your reservations. The flight on Tropic Air was cool: David sat in the co-pilot’s seat and had a great view of the flats and the surrounding islands.

A representative of the resort met us at the San Pedro airport, and handled all of our bags. They and we were escorted to the boat which delivered us to El Pescador after a brief trip along the Atlantic side of the island.

We were greeted at the dock with a warm welcome and smile, the first of many very sincere and happy interactions we had with resort staff. We checked in at the office and were escorted to our room at the lodge, which had recently been redecorated. The accommodations were excellent, with everything we needed including rod racks in the rooms. The en-suite baths were beautifully tiled, and everything was spotless.

The resort has space for 36 or so guests, and usually serves a maximum of 24 anglers. (They contract with 12 guides.) It is right on the beach, protected by a reef just offshore. All of the services one would expect from an international resort are available, from massage and spa services to the pool and arrangements for all sorts of non-fishing excursions such as diving, jungle and Mayan ruin exploration and zip-line tours.

We were there for the fishing, of course, but please know that this is an all-inclusive, world-class experience, and no description of our visit would be complete without the reader fully understanding the personal service we received. When we fish in the Keys, I don’t expect someone to carry my bags or ask which drinks or bar snacks I would like or to serve my fresh-fish lunch by the pool. In fact, I feel guilty not toting my own load, but the guilt was self-inflicted...each of the staff members, from Ricardo who drove the boat, to Marlin who was so sweet as she greeted us at the dock, to Theresa who served our first lunch, to Issa (I’m sure I’m spelling his name wrong) who so patiently provided valuable fly-casting lessons, to the housekeeping staff who attended to our rooms and made the classic towel animals that met us when we came in off the water; each of them made our stay very comfortable, seamless, and in fact very guilt-free. I am not used to such service, usually doing the DIY fishing trips in the Keys that we love so much, but I could get used to it!
Ed, the Fishing Director, was there to encourage and explain the options and conditions and generally served as the MC for us anglers. Many of you may know or have fished with him; he had guided in the Keys for years and has worked with may well-known anglers.

The food was outstanding. Breakfasts were made-to-order from an extensive menu starting at 5:30 am. Our lunches were prepared to our orders the night before and placed in Yeti coolers on the boats ready for us. Dinner was from a pre-fix menu and served family style, with entree’s such as pork chops with coconut shrimp to chicken and beef fajitas, and the chicken and lobster we enjoyed last night. The bar was open each afternoon and evening, and the bar snacks were meals in themselves. Other than the weather, which I’ll discuss shortly, my only regret was that I ate too much.

Fishermen from all over the world come to Belize and El Pescador for the flats fishing for bonefish, tarpon, and permit. This is a location that provides one of the best opportunity for a flats slam on fly, hence it’s popularity. I had heard and read and seen articles and TV shows on the area and on El Pescador, and I’m glad that David and I had the chance to come. With their “off-season” two for one special, and considering the accommodations, food, transfers, and fishing are all included, the trip was truly no more expensive than a guided trip almost anywhere else in the world, including my DIY trips to the Keys. (FYI, the a la carte price for an 8-hour fishing day is $430.)

Now, finally, to the fishing :

El Pescador employs local guides who fish out of their own boats, pangas. Each boat is slightly different, but provides a safe, stable, and remarkably-shallow draft fishing platform. They are NOT technical flats skiffs but they get the job done, just not quite as fast or as fancy. Our guide, Hilberto, is one of their senior guides, with two of his sons also employed by El Pescador. Based on our level of experience and working with the terrible weather conditions, we started our first day on bonefish.

Many of you have either commented or heard that Belizean bonefish are plentiful, small, and dumb. Right on the first two. There were thousands of bonefish on the flats. In the keys, we expect to see small snapper and grunts everywhere we look; in Belize, the same niche seems to be held by the bonefish. The muddy water held schools of bones, not ladyfish or mullet as I’m used to in the Keys. They are indeed small; the largest we caught was probably 4 pounds. In the muds they would hit our fly or our jig readily, and that became old pretty quick. (Hilberto was using that time to help us fine-tune our fly-casting skills- as I’ve mentioned before this was a new experience for us.)

The bonefish are just as slippery in Belize as they are in the Keys!

He then took us to a flat where the bonefish were tailing and cruising everywhere...small groups of 5-10 fish mixed with singles and doubles. On this one flat I saw more tailing bonefish than ALL of the bonefish I’ve seen in the Keys my entire life ( I don’t fish for bones much, and have not been to the Bahamas, but have caught several dozen over the years, and have been on the Keys flats for the past 35 years.) If you want to sight-fish for bonefish, you will get plenty of shots here.

But the bones are still bonefish, and they are NOT dumb. They are still spooky in shallow water, and our level of fly-fishing often made them laugh at us (and the guide roll his eyes, I’m sure) as they sped away. Heck, we even spooked schools of catfish and puffers with our casting I jokingly told our guide that most of the nervous water I saw was the water which was about to be flailed with my fly line!

Regardless of their size, and with a full understanding that this may not be a big deal for some, it was still an accomplishment for us to catch them on a fly.

The second day of our 3-day trip was focused on permit. Many commentators report that this area is one of the best areas in the world to catch a permit on fly. That may well be true, but if you can’t see them because of horizontal rain and lightning, you can’t sight-fish for them. Just as the day before, the morning thunderstorms kept many anglers at the dock all day, and kept us away from the permit areas for a few hours.

After the storm was over we did head toward the National Park area at the Mexican border, some 20 miles north of San Pedro. The rain lightened up but never left completely, and the wind kept blowing. Visibility was poor, and we had to depend on Hilberto to point out nervous water. How he did that is still a mystery; my eyes are old but they’ve seen plenty of fish on the flats. I know what nervous water looks like, but I can’t figure out how he saw it 100 yards away in 6 feet of water with broken bottom and a 20 mph wind! (Maybe he never did see any nervous water, but kept encouraging us by his “sightings” and is now laughing at home as he tells his family how he was able to keep us casting to fictitious singles and small schools! No, just kidding, but his experience in sighting the fish was amazing.)

We did find several schools of permit as we poled a flat that was sheltered from the wind. Because of the clouds and intermittent rain, however, they often saw us before we saw them, and were either busted or too nervous to eat. When we did make a good cast and hooked up, bonefish ended up on the line, and one beautiful shot at a small school of permit was intercepted by a barracuda before the permit saw it. We were frustrated, but the guide was happy to take it home for supper. We were in the midst of some of the best permit water on the planet, BUT because of the terrible weather we will still have to wait for the elusive permit on fly.

Yesterday we awoke to more of the same weather, and, honestly, the lack of success was a bit disheartening. Without visibility sight fishing was out of the question, so we headed south to blind-cast both flies and jigs in some channels where the last of the migrating tarpon were still active.

Within minutes my 3rd cast was taken by a tarpon, and the powerful initial run was an encouragement. The first jump, about 150 yards out gave me the familiar thrill of seeing the silver body suspended in air, and then the equally familiar sight of the jig flying out of her mouth and back into the water. At least it was a start. A wall of black clouds moved in from the east, and the rain began again in earnest. I kept my back to the gale, and watched in admiration as David continued to double-haul the 10-wt fly rod even in the teeth of the storm. He reminded me of Odysseus from Greek mythology, lashed to the bow of his boat determined to persevere in spite of storm or sirens. If you don’t remember mythology from high school, just know David was hanging in there and kept on casting, because he knew it ain’t over till it’s over.

And it wasn’t. With only an hour or two left on our last day, the rain let up enough for Hilberto to try one last spot. In a small basin of 6-8 feet of water, we began to see a few fish rolling up ahead. Hilberto poled David closer, and as two fish rolled about 30 yards away, David cast in front of the lead fish. A brief flash, and his line came tight. David did a great job of strip-setting the hook and clearing the line as the fish ran, then we shared that special moment we had come for: seeing a tarpon erupting from the green water attached to David by the 60# tippet and floating tarpon taper fly line!

David bowed to several jumps, and I tried to get video of some leaps and excited comments by him and the guide. He really did a good job on the fish, and my attitude gradually began to change from “we’re not going to catch anything today” to “he ate it, the tarpon actually ate it” to “David’s fighting a tarpon on a fly rod!.

30-40 minutes and a number of jumps later, the fish began to yield as David carefully increased the pressure. Several times the leader was just inches away from the guide’s outstretched hand, and I was almost tempted to jump out of the boat to be sure we got that leader-touch. As David was steering the fish toward Hilberto once more, though, there was a sudden surge and a sickening “snap” as the 10 wt rod broke at the first ferrule! Miraculously, the tarpon was still attached and David began to carefully hand-line her toward the boat. Fortunately, the fish had been tired-out well by this time, and David was able to apply the proper amount of “hand-drag” when the fish did try to run. A few nervous minutes later, Hilberto carefully grabbed the leader and then the fish’s jaw.

David had done it... His fish was 75-80 pounds, a great fish for his first on fly (David has caught them up to 200#’s before, but on spinning tackle.)

Plenty of pictures and some reviving was in order, and she was released in good shape. We had just enough time to run by one more flat on the way back to the dock, and were able to catch one last bonefish and a mutton for the road, and our fishing was completed.

Last night at dinner we had fun sharing our stories, and It was really neat to hear David retell the story as new friends would come up to congratulate him. This morning we made the water-taxi ride to the airport in a light rain. (The weather looks like it is improving some, and I’m glad for the other fishermen we leave behind, but it would be terrible if the sun came out just as we were leaving!)

We did enjoy the company of the other anglers, and they all seemed genuinely interested in how our fishing was going. The anglers we met were generally well-versed in international fly fishing, coming from Finland, England, and several areas in the US. Many of them were repeat clients, and had a personal relationship with Ed, the staff, and guides.

I must admit that we felt a little out of our element, since we had not made 17 trips to Mauritius and don't frequently fish in the Caribbean or in New Zealand as did most of the other anglers who were there, but that feeling did not come from the anglers or the staff. We were treated with respect and good-humor, and took the mild ribbing about the spinning vs. fly fishing debate in stride. Each style of angling has merit, and we certainly did not apologize for our years of successful, family-oriented DIY fishing in the Keys.

I do need to mention the weather again. The tropical moisture that was contained in the recent Pacific hurricanes has drifted across Mexico and Central America, and has fueled some really rough weather days. The rains were not not the late-afternoon thunderstorms that are so common on the tropics and Florida, but persistent clouds and drizzle with strong, embedded squalls which contained lightning and gusty winds.

These conditions did not allow us to experience the best sight fishing activity for which El Pescador is known. The guides did their best to put us on fish, and we caught both bonefish and tarpon on fly, but if I had been on one of our annual trips to the Keys we wouldn’t even have left the dock in those weather conditions. (Several of the fishing guests did not fish for a day or two while we were there, and one group ended up at the Palapa Bar over the water in San Pedro rather than fighting the gale.)

This is the kind of weather that may cause an experienced, world-traveling fisherman to be frustrated but content to sit it out by the bar or head to town to the Chicken Drop Bingo game (I kinda wanted to see that, but would have missed the lobster dinner last night.) For someone like me who is passionate about fishing and whose opportunities for this type of adventure are few and far-between and involve considerable sacrifice, this weather may make one question whether we are using our family’s resources wisely as we indulge the passion. However, if we look at the “passion behind the passion” as one of my favorite authors puts it, we see that fishing is the vehicle and the venue for our passion; relationships and shared experiences that bring family and friends closer together are the true objectives of such a trip. Whether the excitement of that first tarpon on fly or the pride at seeing David casting into the teeth of the storm, even having fun chasing the cool Basilisk lizard to make him run on his back two legs (we were not in Kansas anymore), we fish for the total experience, and not even the weather this week could keep us from leadering that trophy.

I do highly recommend El Pescador. If you are a hard-core fisherman and enjoy roughing it and DIY fishing, there are less expensive ways to scratch that flats itch. If you would like a world-class experience at a world-famous fishing resort, and would like to have a friend or family member share that experience with you, El Pescador may suit you well.

With their two-for-one special deal they run during the off season (July-December, I think), the trip would be less expensive than a similar trip to many of the high-end resorts in the Keys.

Please feel free to contact me if you have any interest in more particulars.


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