I am a statue gliding over a bleached flat, stiffened by salt and wind and sun. In the water ahead of me, a silver knife cuts the surface and in a moment I am casting from the skiff, the fly streaking through the sharp Belize sky, the blisters on my hands forgotten. Sixty feet of line and months of preparation hang in the air. I square my shoulders and flex my knees. And I wait.
Good fishing stories ideally end with a fish. But the stories have changed in recent years, the romance of fishing evolving from brutish grappling matches on the open ocean (picture the conquered marlin, mounted in mid-leap on the wall, a reminder of the strength of the contest) to something faster, more precise, yet altogether more considered.
When you talk to a fisherman, a real fisherman, you are talking to a steward of the water. He is a lover of fish. He is angry about the vast islands of plastic poisoning the sea, and about ruinous overfishing and fishery mismanagement. Most of all, a real fisherman wants fishing to survive into the next generation and beyond. That’s partly why catch-and-release practices have gained popularity in recent years: saltwater fly-fishing, a fast and athletic catch-and-release sport that seems more like hunting than fishing, is what fuels interest today. As with other sports, this one has its brash young talent, like Captain Will Benson, and its technical prodigies, like Maxine McCormick, who help define what angling means to a new generation of fishing enthusiasts.
The hobby has turned in a quick, kinetic and eco-minded direction, with amateur anglers setting off around the globe in pursuit of bonefish, tarpon, permit and more — but with plans to return home with no more than what they packed in, raising the question: What exactly are sport fishermen collecting if every fish is the one that got away?
Mike Heusner was born in Belize in 1939. He grew up fishing the mangroves and keys around Belize city with his father, using cotton handlines and a small harpoon. The local fisherman taught him techniques for trolling kingfish.
After high school, Mike traveled to California for college, where he studied environmental management. He returned to Belize in 1970, and ten years later was hired to manage the Belize River Lodge, then named Keller Caribbean Sports. A year later, he took another management position at a neighboring lodge, which then led him to start his own ecotourism and sport-hunting and fishing business. When Keller Caribbean Sports put itself up for sale in 1986, Mike got a call from the then-owner.
“He told me that he’d sell it to me for a good price,” Mike says as we motor up the Belize River on one of the lodge’s 23-foot fishing skiffs. “He said he’d give me thirty days to come up with the money, but then he’d have to sell to someone else.”
Mike didn’t have the money. The bank agreed to underwrite the purchase if he could come up with one-third of the funds himself. Mike started calling sport fishermen he knew, offering discounted trips. “I offered them thousand-dollar trips for seven hundred and fifty. Thirty days later I had enough money to buy the lodge.”
Mike had sold anglers on a lodge he didn’t yet own, but he knew the rich waters would support the business. By the late ’80s, Belize River Lodge was a premier destination for adventure anglers. But the Lodge’s early success was tempered by Mike’s growing concern about the improper management of the fishery, a potential catastrophe that could destroy the fish population and capsize Mike’s business before it could truly take off.
On the water, Mike managed the guides and the guests; otherwise, he turned his attention to formalizing conservation efforts in the region. He joined the Belize Chamber of Commerce, the Tourism Industry Association and the Fisheries Advisory Board. He lobbied relentlessly to get the three main sport fish — tarpon, permit and bonefish — legally protected from harvesting by designating them catch-and-release-only species, and brought in environmentalists and representatives from fishing gear companies to help educate his guides on best practices for hooking, handling and releasing fish.
Through his advocacy, Mike Heusner joined a long line of angler-conservationists that includes Lee Wulff, who advocated catch-and-release practices as early as the 1930s, and Lefty Kreh, the fisherman, journalist and author who educated anglers and sportsmen about habitat conservation and the preservation of fish populations until his death last year at the age of 93.
It’s an idea of fishing that would have seemed as foreign to my grandfather, peacefully bobbing for catfish on the banks of Moonda Creek, as it does to the thrill-seeking suburbanite who plays out his Hemingway fantasy wrestling swordfish on a rented day boat. It’s an idea of angling that favors skill, care and craft over chest-thumping bravado, and here in the water under the hot flat sun, I will need all three.
Tarpon have been swimming the earth’s oceans for 100 million years. They’re thick, muscular fish that developed something interesting during their long evolution: lungs, of a sort. Tarpon are air-breathing fish. In the warm, low-oxygen waters of estuaries, bays and mangroves they break the surface to gulp fresh air, using their unique air bladders to flush oxygen over their gills.
This surfacing behavior is called “rolling,” and it’s one of the ways fisherman identify where the tarpon are. My guide, John Moore, has brought us to a small tarpon spot called Sugar Boat, named after the barges full of sugarcane that pass through the channel. We spend a few minutes blind casting with sinking lines and a pattern of my own making: a white Mangum tail with a white, orange and black EP fiber body and a red eye. John sights a tarpon rolling.
The fish is about 70 feet away, my max range with my current line in the 15-knot crosswind. I cast well and land in the feeding window. The tarpon turns on the fly and gives chase; I strip the fly, pulling the line hard with my fingers, mimicking the movement of the bait. The fish chases, shouldering through the waves. If it strikes, it will require several hard tugs to seat the hook. In these shallow coastal waters with nowhere to dive, the tarpon may leap — up to 100 pounds of angry muscle launching out of the water, thrashing its head to lose the fly.
Instead: nothing. Gone.
A moment later the fish surfaces again, close to the same spot. I land a long cast, about 85 feet. The tarpon sees the fly, but my line has wrapped around the butt of the rod, and I know if the fish strikes, the line will probably break. I work quickly to unwrap the filament, but in that moment the tarpon is gone. John, an athletic, surefooted guide of thirty years who pilots the skiff like it’s an extension of his body, estimates it weighed about 85 pounds — a good fish.
Casting requires athletic coordination and efficient movement that prioritizes timing over speed and finesse over power. It took me two years before I could cast a fly with consistency, and two more before I could cast with deftness. Delivering the fly to the fish is yet another skill — hitting the target gracefully, without too much splash, 20 yards away and into the wind. To make it look natural.
The physical mastery needed to cast a long, elegant presentation of the fly means nothing if you don’t understand the ecosystem in which the fish lives: the water it prefers, where it spawns, how far it ranges, how it forages, what it hunts — and then: the movements that its prey makes through the water and how to mimic it. The time and effort required to gain this knowledge demand a deep respect for the ocean and everything in it.
It’s not surprising that catch-and-release is more prevalent than ever. The conservation of fish populations has become a cause not just for environmentalists and the guides and outfitters whose livelihoods depend on flush waters, but for countless organizations and private companies. For many young anglers today, catch-and-release is the only practice they’ve ever known.
The long-term health of fish populations aside, it would have been nice to at least see a permit. They’re fast and skittish, the most elusive of the flats fish. Anglers spend years, sometimes decades trying to catch one. Permit inhabit the flats, and I had a vision of sighting one coming in from the deep waters, its large black dorsal fin and sickle-shaped tail heading in with the tide to feed on crustaceans. Making an accurate cast with a crab pattern dropping expertly by the permit’s short flat snout before hooking one to the envy of all the old-timers at my fishing club. But the permit, as always, remained out of reach, and on my last day, with the tarpon remaining hidden, I had just one more chance to catch something.
Bonefishing is sight fishing. The fish feed on the bottom of wide shallow flats, rummaging in soft mud for crustaceans. When bonefish feed they drop their heads, presenting an opportunity. These fish need to be stalked; they’re edgy and quick to flee. The glint of a rod in the sun or a line flying overhead will spook them. But with their heads down, rooting around in the turtle grass, an angler has a chance to place a cast without being spotted. There is usually only one opportunity.
A strong eastern wind has been blowing for two days now, raising white-tipped waves and buffeting the skiff as we cruise. John guides the boat around the half-sunken posts of an old dock. The wind has hemmed in the tide, so the water is cloudy and deeper than usual, making the bonefish harder to spot, and a fly harder for them to notice.
The wind is whistling at 15 knots as John poles us along the lee side of the flat. He thinks the fish may have sought out these calmer waters. A large brown stingray emerges from the sand and skitters away. We follow it, hoping perhaps it will lead us to a glint of scales.
I once fished with a guide in northern Canada who made an offering of tobacco at the start of each day, breaking a cigarette and dusting the dry leaves over the water. I have no smokes to offer, and I worry I have offended the sly and capricious fishing gods. I’m sunburnt and my arms ache and my palms are swollen with blisters. I stand very still on the skiff, letting only my eyes move over the water.
John, on his perch, braces, then raises his arm and points. One hundred feet out, eight o’clock, a solitary silver torpedo cruising right at us. My nine-foot rod raises of its own accord, muscle memory ticking through its mysterious automatic math as I factor in distance and wind, the speed of the fish, the drift of the boat.
The cast lands softly, five feet in front of the approaching bonefish. The imitation shrimp at the end of the line glides toward the floor. The fish is a foot away. I move the fly with short pops of the line to imitate a shrimp squirting through the water. The fish sees it, reacts, turns and accelerates. I retrieve the fly as fast as I can. The fish closes faster, tackles the fly — I yank the line, lodging the hook in the corner of its mouth. For a moment we are linked, each feeling the other register the umbilical connection. The fish bolts, turning for the open sea, taking along a hundred screaming feet of line. We pull one another, jockeying for advantage, trading massive lengths of line — in and out again, and in and out. I am no longer tired or sunburnt. My blisters are gone. It is only me and the water and the sun and a fish and the line that connects us.
I’ve spent countless hours reading fishing books, countless hours hunched over a fly-tying vise contemplating the exact colors a bonefish might find most alluring. For months ahead of this adventure I exhausted myself on rowing machine, doing deadlifts, working my forearms and my core, legs, and back. Kettlebells for my grip. I practiced casting. I visualized the strike. And now I have a fish on the line, and the fish wants to get away but I can’t let it.
Good fishing stories end with a fish. This one is lean and silver like a wide flat blade with an elegant curved dorsal fin. The fish is exhausted, dazed. I take the hook from its lip, lower the animal into the ocean and cradle it, letting the water flow over its gills. The bonefish’s strength returns; it flaps its tail slowly, then with more strength.
Now, increasingly and for the love of the sport, good fishing stories don’t end with a fish. I watch this one swim away, back into the dark. I feel grateful, and I wish the fish well.
Tips for Adventure Fishing Trips
This story was originally pitched around an entirely different ecosystem: the marlin, sailfish and swordfish off the coast of Kenya. When a terrorism high alert derailed our plans at the eleventh hour, we turned to Evan Peterson of Angler Adventures in Old Lyme, Connecticut to help plan an epic trip at the last minute. Peterson, who arranges guides and lodging around the world’s great fishing destinations, broke down the tips and tricks anyone can use to maximize their chance for tight lines, or at least a good fishing story.
Airlines lose stuff. Always carry your fishing tackle — rods, reels, lines and flies — as well as two pairs of polarized sunglasses with different lens colors (to cover a variety of light conditions) and a days worth of fishing clothes. At least.
Check your line before the trip. An old dirty fly line can affect your casting. Better yet, buy a new one. A new fly line will be well worth the investment when you’re on the water.
Consider getting a known traveler number. TSA Pre-Check or Global Entry are two options. It’s a small investment in advance, but can be a huge time saver when you’re traveling, especially with a bunch of gear.
Don’t waste good fishing time. Show up prepared: study your species, practice your casting, and double-check your gear. And break in wading boots beforehand.