“Cast, Mon! Cast now!” said my Belizean flats guide, Joel Westby. He is screaming this at my back because I am doing my best to do what he says. A wizened, grizzled Belizean burned dark as mahogany by the tropical sun, whose reputation ran far and wide in flats fly fishing circles, Joel hated to miss a cast to a bonefish, permit or tarpon.
After my cast fell behind and far short of the big bonefish he had just spent 10 minutes poling me into position for a cast, the air was dark with language I had not heard before come from the lips of a guide, let alone one who was already a guide with mystical powers and abilities. It was a good thing he was fouling the air with the pidgin Creole of the Caribbean I was unfamiliar with at the time, or my feelings and ego probably would have been crushed forever.
That day was 35 years ago. This week in May also marks 35 years writing the Streamside columns in the Cody Enterprise. There were no outdoor columns to speak of in the Enterprise at that time, so I corralled Bruce McCormack, the Cody Enterprise’s rather new editor, and pitched my idea for a column dealing with trout fishing around the Cody/Yellowstone area to him. He liked the idea, told me to keep the length at one and half pages doubled spaced and see how it goes. Streamside is still going albeit a tad longer in length and words than Bruce and I originally agreed upon. The rest is history, as they say.
The bonefish trip was done with three long-time friends now from Cody. We spent our time at Turneffe Flats Lodge, now a popular flats, offshore and deep sea diving destination. At that time, it was barely more than a lobster camp that just happened to be located on the east side of Turneffe Island, where miles and miles of salt water flats were (still are) begging to be fly fished.
Boy, did we fling some flies in the week we were there. I am not sure about this, but I think we might have been one of the first groups to lodge at Turneffe Flats and one of the first anglers to explore the miles and miles of flats, tidal creeks and mangrove stands on the atoll. Believe it or not, we also ate like kings as we indulged in Belizean cuisine and especially the homemade hot sauces available at every meal.
We caught the heck out of bonefish, jack, barracuda and tarpon. These fish were dumb when it came to flies like the Crazy Charlie, Permit Puff, Blanton’s Whistler and Lefty Kreh’s Deceiver tarpon fly patterns. Fly lines were lost to huge bonefish, jack crevalle, sharks and some fish we never saw. Fly rods were blown to bits on leaping tarpon. What a memory. Permit, the true ghost of the flats, were elusive then as they are now, sad to say. Joel Westby, my guide the first few days of that trip, went on to become a legendary permit guide, as had his brother Lincoln who had operated Blue Horizon Lodge now for nigh onto 20 years. Pops Cabral was my other guide that week. His guiding style was a bit less intimidating but just as effective as Joel’s. He, too, went on to become a flats guiding legend at Turneffe Flats.
In 1987, the cost to fish at Turneffe Flats was $900 for a week, excluding airfare and gratuities to our guides, cooking and service staff. Not cheap at that time, but less expensive than some of the Bahamian or Floridian flats fishing destinations were then charging for a week of fun in the sun. Today, a week at Turneffe Flats is well past $4,000 per week, more if you’re a solitary angler, and the lodge is certainly not some thrown-together huts with shutters for windows, but air-conditioned cabanas with hot showers and dependable running water. The lodge also offers combo fishing and deep sea diving tours or eco-tours for those who might have a partner who is not all that interested in catching fish or diving with the sharks. To read the rest of the column about the trip at Turneffe Island, you’ll have to find that column in an old copy of the Cody Enterprise.
Jumping back to Cody 35 years ago, the first few columns in the Enterprise focused on when the North Fork would be clear enough to fish and which flies would be working when it did. In May that year, East Newton Lake grew rainbow trout larger than 10 pounds with regularity and this was most of the subject matter in Streamside until rivers and streams cleared and dropped early July. East Newton was famous for these large trout, and anglers would come from far and near to wet a line there.
Unfortunately, special regulations in existence today didn’t come about until a few years later, so most of these huge trout were taken to a local taxidermist, and then hung on someone’s trophy wall. Giant traveling sedges (caddis) were the insect hatch to fish come late May through June out at the popular trophy fishery. The huge and aggressive trout would break 0X tippet and leaders as if it were kite string and the line-burning runs those trout could make would strip the gears on pawl drag fly reels in a matter of weeks. That’s a strong fish, Mon.
Hooks would be straightened out when these beasts took your size 6 dark green caddis imitations. Anglers would stare in awe at fly reels whose drags had just been fried by the long runs these big trout would make as they sped across East Newton like a salmon trying to get back to the ocean. Happily, three and a half decades later, fly fishing tackle has greatly improved as has the quality of fly hooks, leaders and tippet.
It is good to remember days gone past, although it does make one wish for those days to return so younger generations or newbies to the sport of fly fishing can experience what East Newton once provided in regard to sport and challenge. Memories begin somewhere. Sometimes they tell about fishing or trips out of the country. Other times it is from memories created nearer home. If your memories are of times on a river, lake or ocean with friends who have aged out, or passed on to fishing grounds in the fourth dimension, you do have company. I encourage each of you to remember times past and hope for more memories to be made in the future.