Sometimes all a person needs is a fly rod and the ocean to restore the soul
All too often, with good intentions, each of us fall into routine and mindless compliance with daily life. We get into a rut, and it seems the only difference between the rut and the grave is the dirt in our faces. We yearn for our souls to be renewed. Each of us finds that renewal in different ways, and this week my soul yearns for adventure, the kind that comes from a big fish and a tight fly line. Fly fishing offers the opportunity to challenge your day-to-day routine and open yourself up to an adventure that is unscripted. And what better place to embrace that than Belize.
I’m Zach Weinzetl, the host for this trip which was put together by myself and Trent Culver, of Epiqwest Culver Wealth Advisors. One of my best friends, Gavin Greeley, is from Knoxville, and he suggested inviting Nathan Sparks, Cityview’s publisher, and Chris Goodwin, former fishing guide turned builder, along. That is how this story ended up in Cityview. Joining us from the west are Tim Harrington, an avid rock climber and home builder from Boulder, Colorado; Ryan Ludwar, a leader in oilfield containment systems; Nathan Medin, a successful financial consultant; and John Hasegawa, a restaurant entrepreneur. Some of these folks didn’t know each other, and that is often how it is on Trent’s trips. He hopes to bring together like minds and forge new friendships.
A 14-minute Tropic Air flight to San Pedro from Belize City yields me a visual field filled with colors not observed when I’m at home. We land in a beautiful chaos of golf carts, bikes, and wandering dogs. The smells are unfamiliar and range from wonderful to providing me a glimpse into how good the sewage systems are in the United States. Relaxing into the island vibes while drinking a Belikin on the back of a golf cart, we soon arrive at a four-story beach house with spiral staircases and woodworking by an artist.
Anticipation and reality are coming together. We’ve arrived in a foreign country seeking out the pinnacle of fly-fishing accolades, the flats grand slam. At least, that’s what helped this group take time away from their busy lives and commit to flying to Belize. I soon realize that I’m traveling with seven other people, some who know each other and others that are meeting for the first time. Everyone settles in at the Truck Stop, a local hot spot where a variety of food vendors— several operating out of half-size shipping containers converted into kitchens—offer everything from wood-fired pizza to fried plantains and ceviche. They have local cocktails ranging from the Rum Punch to the classic Margarita. We toast to tight lines and big fish, and the first moment of vacation sets in.
Our planned 6 a.m. start on our first day comes early as everyone hustles to set up fly rods, find nourishment, and meet our captain on the dock in front of the house by 7 a.m. We separate onto several boats and begin our day, motoring away on locally designed center consoles with elevated poling platforms. The anticipation builds as to what today has to offer. Each of the big three species has a unique type of flat and different style of fishing. There are several flats that hold both bonefish and permit, but permit will be the target if they happen to be there. All three prefer a different fly, and likely you will want a larger weight rod for permit than bonefish and respectively for tarpon than permit. Being ready for the moment here is as important as having your passport to travel through customs.
It’s not yet 8 a.m. and a world class tarpon is traveling solo near my boat at 11 o’clock, the shot a righty dreams of. I quickly and quietly strip out as much line as possible to throw double haul in the direction of the approaching tarpon. “Good cast, strip, strip, strip…” and all hell breaks loose. First shot, first eat. The 60-pound tarpon is ready, but it is hard to go against instincts. It’s as if I need to create more space in a nanosecond to satisfy the many things that I could do to mess it up—all of which could leave me with an outcome where the tarpon is not connected to the other end of my line. In many ways, this feels like a combination of archery hunting and fly fishing with a shot of adrenalin that makes even the most experienced angler have weak knees. Throughout the day, we take shot after shot at big tarpon, have four eats and jump one—tarpon are awesome jumpers. Although success is generally determined by holding the leader connected to a tarpon, both anglers are left shaking with excitement and awed by the challenge.
Later on, we motor up to the dock, returning to the luxurious fishing camp eager to hear the tales of triumph and heartbreak from my fellow fisherman. Each boat reports of what seems like an entirely different fishery. I’m continually struck by the diversity of flats and amazing amount of water to be fished. Chris, Ryan, and both Nathans bring home a nice catch of snapper on their first day that we fillet and fry for dinner. Accompanied by Old Fashions, Black Manhattans, and other cocktails, we eat and drink to our heart’s content. No night is complete without a trip out to the dock to see if we can land a few bonus fish. Each night something is caught; this night finds us with a bonefish and something, likely a shark, that ripped out over a hundred yards of line.
On day two, I pair Nathan with Gavin and a young guide who goes by Gordy. The ride to the flat he chose is about an hour. Gordy is a fairly laid back person, and Gavin being the more experienced of the two fisherman takes first turn. Gavin is an expert fly fisherman, and these fish required casting pretty much into the backing, over 90 feet. So when you get a big one sometimes you have to go after it. Nathan tells me later. “On Gavin’s second fish I will never forget him looking at Gordy as the fish continued a long run, and Gordy saying, ‘Go after it!’ Gavin literally and instantly leapt from the boat into five feet of water—an impressive display which resulted in landing a great fish.” It’s a story they will surely tell for years to come.
In the morning on day three, we have breakfast and discuss the variety of options on this, our one day without guides. The group is unanimous in their decision to stay together and head north towards land less populated by people and flats well populated with bonefish, permit, jacks, trigger fish, and tarpon. The two golf carts are loaded with nine fly rods, eight people, and the hope of finding something special around each bend. We fish a few flats—everyone hooks up fish—and then decide we are in need of a watering hole. We happen upon El Norte and saddle up with the witty owner, Iz. El Norte is a very quaint little place. Kind of a mini resort where you go to just leave the world behind and enjoy the ocean. Iz, a former National Geographic photographer has quite a few entertaining stories of his own to share. I guess he likes us because he quickly points us in the direction of the beer fridge and shows us how to tally our own beverages. Some venture off to fish, some find a hammock, but everyone relaxes, settling into this unique island life.
Before this trip, we were all eight individuals, but after this shared experience of three days adventuring, we are a group. Everyone shares their lives, laughs, cries and feels the joy of exploring unfamiliar environments. For many, this is amongst the favorite days, despite not catching too many fish or having a boat take us to the best flat. It sparks the sense of adventure as we wade out into an ocean flat not knowing what is beneath the surface and cast a line. With an ear-to-ear grin, Ryan exclaims, “I am way out of my comfort zone”. This is how all human growth is inspired: you get out of your comfort zone and say “yes” to the experience that is present for you. Even better when you can do it with a smile.
The next day, we meet our captains on the dock at 7 a.m. sharp. Each boat is ready to push off, the anglers filled with the wonder of what they will target today. My boat, guided by Abby Marin, unarguably the most famous guide in Belize, goes out to the same flat as two days prior and targets tarpon again, shot after shot to no avail. I go through every tarpon fly in my box with more and more rejection by these prehistoric beasts. We are baking in the sun, and the conversation turns to discussing religion and politics. Abby is very opinionated—and on more than just fishing—and while these are usually good subjects to stay away from, it is Sunday and seems fitting to have an ocean sermon. Out time today on the water is nothing short of a spiritual experience, confirming my belief that humanity is gained by more connection to the environment.
Returning to the lodge and finding shade from the intense sun of the flats, the sound of fishing stories starts emerging from the quiet. Catching one permit on a fly is a lifetime accomplishment; Gavin landed four on five opportunities. The rest of us share our successes, but the entire group feeds off of the energy of this monumental accomplishment. I’ll drink to that, is of course the modis operandi. We come together to share a table full of food: chicken curry with coconut rice, garnished with red cabbage in habanero balsamic with cilantro. We fill our bellies while stories fill our ears.
After catching four permit, Gavin is pretty content, but agrees to walk out to the dock to see what is there. As fate would have it, the dock has rolling tarpon in to feed on the bait attracted to the light. Gavin runs back to grab a tarpon rod and hands it off to me. But I hand the rod back and tell him quickly, “I’ll be right back.” I emerge literally seconds later but to late. With a beautiful roll cast; Gavin is hooked up to an arial tarpon. Ripping line out and launching out of the water, this fish is putting on a show. It quickly runs back towards the dock and towards a host of problems for landing it.
Quickly emptying his pockets, Gavin jumps off the dock to fight this fish away from trouble; seems Gavin is just never afraid to jump in after a fish. But it’s too late; the tarpon has wrapped the line around a pillar and is tangled. With nerves of steel, Gavin calmly untangles the line and while reeling underwater, comes back tight with this amazing fish. Knowing that tarpon don’t quit, the last jump is waited out and in a dizzying haze the tarpon is landed. The first tarpon of the trip, at midnight, caught by Gavin, John and myself. This is only made better by the multitude of incredible fishing days Gavin and I have spent on the rivers of Colorado and the time and preparation we’ve both put in to be at this dock for this moment.
The next morning, as the group grabs rods and walks to the dock for the final guided day of the trip, it feels as though we just got here, except for all the memories of the past days. The flats that all looked the same on our first day are identifiable now and the mangrove islands now have names. There’s a familiarity with the wildlife and a knowing of what is moving through the shallow water by their silhouettes. The contrast of colors and brilliance is made more spectacular by the flamingo pink of the roseate spoonbill flying between the layers of the ocean meeting the horizon line. As I cast to a school of permit, I realize that the rod, reel, and fly are merely a conduit to connect me to a deeper experience. Success is inevitable.
Returning to basecamp with smiling faces are all around, the tension of day-to-day life seems far away. After years of pursuit, Chris got a grand slam and is bursting with gratitude from a lifetime accomplishment achieved. He has also made reservations for the group at a favorite restaurant in San Pedro, which seems a fitting way to allow the poignancy of this moment to be savored. Again the group is around a table sharing incredible food and stories.
Coming together over the shared interest in fly fishing brought this group to adventure together. With this shared experience, each person was able to turn the gaze inward and find the deeper value beneath the sport. From the conversations with the guides, the fish caught, and the fish missed, to the experience of a foreign culture, we are all left with an immense appreciation for Belize. As we pile back into the single prop Cessna Caravan, realizing this trip is coming to an end, one thought inevitably raises its voice: “When can I get back”.