Grand Slammin' in the Flats of Belize

Article excerpt

Need a respite? Try casting flies at this idyllic Caribbean fishing hub. But don't expect the tarpon to be easy. Just ask Intel's Craig Barrett

TRAVEL

There's a fish at 11 o'clock. About 40 feet. Moving left. Hurry." From the casting platform of our narrow skiff, I whipped the rod back and forth to work out enough line to make the cast into the shallow, sparkling green water off the coast of Belize. Then I dropped the fly two feet in front of the silvery boncfish and followed the guide's next instructions.

"That's good. Now strip, strip, strip."

I lowered the rod tip and brought the fly alive, retrieving line in short stripping motions. I watched as the shadow followed and then inhaled the tan-colored fly with beaded metal eyes. Setting the hook, I lifted my rod and held tight. My Orvis 8-weight bent over. The large-arbor reel started to whir.

Within a couple of seconds, the fly line spooled off the reel and my backing followed suit. The three-and-a-half pound bonefish screamed through the water like a torpedo; there was no chance to slow it down. After two strong, long runs, the fish finally tired. I wrested control and worked the bonefish up to the boat.

In the time-honored tug of war between man and fish, I'd wrestled my way to a victory, but the ultimate fly fishing achievement, a "grand slam," is another story. The feat consists of catching a bonefish, a tarpon and a species called the "permit" on a fly-all in the same day. Naturally, many of the adventure-seeking CEOs and other top execs who travel to Belize are drawn to the challenge.

People from all walks of business and industry journey to Belize every month of the year to cast a fly. Frequent visitors include one of the top network anchors, bankers, doctors, lawyers and a contingent of chief executives. Craig Barrett of Intel once achieved the first two legs of a grand slam while spending a long weekend there. He caught a raft of boncfish and bagged his first tarpon, a "baby" 20-poundcr, on a fly.

"I spent half a day chasing tarpon with my guide and we finally caught up with one late in the day," says Barrett, an avid fly fisherman and hunter. "Landing the fish was very exciting. I was really impressed with the nature of the fight." Someday, he says, he hopes to complete the slam. But that will have to wait: Next up on his fly-fishing itinerary is a trip to New Zealand to target big trout.

There may be no better place to pursue the grand slam than in the bathtub-warm flats off the coast and islands of Belize. The small country on the eastern side of Central America, wedged between Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and Guatemala, lias impressive numbers of resident and migratory fish. Belize is a convenient flight from major air hubs, and communicating with the affable local fishing guides is a snap because they all speak English. (The country was known as British Honduras before gaining its independence in 1981.)

Over the past two decades, Belize has blossomed as a destination for high-end fishing, ccotourism and adventure travel. For a tiny country about the size of Massachusetts, it offers a startling level of natural diversity. The mainland is dominated by the Maya Mountains and their rainforests and jungles. Just offshore sits a string of approximately 200 small islands called cayes (pronounced KEYs). Shallow flats of iridescent blue and green waters, mud flats and lagoons ring these cayes and provide an ideal habitat for fish. East of the islands, one of the largest barrier reefs in the world parallels the entire 175-mile-long country. In some places, the reef is less than a mile offshore; in others, more than 20 miles out.

For visitors with a thirst for adventure and culture, there's much to see and do in Belize. The nation has long been known as a top spot to dive and snorkel the crystalline waters of the barrier reef. Ecotourists also can tour wildlife preserves in the rainforest, explore Mayan ruins, paddle rivers, ride horseback through the jungle, mountain bike and enjoy outstanding tropical bird-watching. …