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Bonefishing Belize
written by Larry Larsen

World-class flats and huge schools of bonefish await the itinerant angler in the unspoiled waters of Belize.
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Belize Bonefish
The islands off Belize's mainland are either sandy and palm-lined or mangrove cays.

You don't have to motor far to find a good bonefishing flat in Belize. Bordered by Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula on the north and Guatemala to the west and south, this Central American country is at the heart of the Caribbean basin. The world's second largest continuous barrier reef extends 185 miles, and its flats are reputed to be the world's largest bonefish haunts. Fortunately, this destination is not over-commercialized: the waters are mostly unspoiled, meaning that "fishing pressure" is not too much of a factor here.

The Barrier Reef extends the full length of Belize to the Gulf of Honduras and lies anywhere from 5 miles in the northern part to about 30 miles in the southernmost part of the country from the nearest marina. The reef and shoals tend to flatten the seas in the lagoon, or "inner harbor" as it is often referred to, and there are approximately 150 remote islands and beautiful cays with white sand beaches adjacent the brilliant turquoise waters off the mainland.

At least half of the picture-postcard islands offer bonefish flats on their perimeter and almost all of them are lined with tropical trees and foliage. The waters inside the many shallow coral reefs include unsurpassed scenery, sand and grass flats for as far as one can see. Only 250,000 people live in this English-speaking country, where the unspoiled and under-promoted bonefishing will continue to be "Mother Nature's best kept secret." It is a paradise to explore.

Bonefish Jig
Bonefish love small jigs that crawl along the bottom.

Several U.S. airlines fly into Belize City; domestic flights eastward to Ambergris Caye and the town of San Pedro are 20 minutes or to Punta Gorda under an hour.  Ambergris is a 25-mile-long island separated from Mexico by a narrow river channel at its northern border. The channel, called Bacalar Chico, was dug by ancient Maya Indians thousands of years ago, and even after hurricanes and man-made interference, it has remained unobstructed and the official border with Mexico.  

I have had the pleasure of four trips to the bonefish mecca and all were productive. The popular Ambergris Caye has gathered much of the tourism attention. A few bonefishing lodges and resorts are on the small island or nearby including my favorite, Cayo Espanto, an exclusive 3-acre private island with six luxury villas. It lies less than 5 miles off the San Pedro and the 'Ambergris Caye airport and very near the bonefish-abundant French Lagoons off San Pedro Bay.

The "French Lagoons" are a series of 15 or more salty, inner-connected lakes behind the primary leeward shoreline of the big island. The shallow waters there range from small lagoons about a quarter mile round to those much larger that are over two miles long. Most of them are about two feet deep, but some have deeper holes in them. The schools in the lagoons vary from very small ones with a couple of fish to those having 50 or more fish.

The fishing in the lagoon lakes, and occasionally in a few small creeks that wind through the flats and mangroves, is usually best when the wind is minimal. The schools may have 30 or 40 bones in them, averaging 2 to 3 pounds. In windy conditions, the fish run smaller.  

Other nearby top spots that can produce up to 40 bones in a day include Brasilete Island and Punta Gruesa or "thick point." Deer Caye has a larger average size bonefish, but they are spooky and the angler's numbers for the day may suffer. The largest bonefish caught on most of the flats may be around 6 pounds, so most Belize flats are relatively small fish fisheries.

Belize Bonefish in Hand
While many bonefish are small, you're sure to encounter some heavyweights.

In the southern part of the country lies the seaside village of Punta Gorda, my favorite Belize mainland lodge, Machaca Hill, and the Port Honduras Marine Reserve which extends about 15 miles from the mainland. The 160-square mile reserve is considered a great area for bonefish and the elusive permit that roam the 110 small mangrove islands. For the area's bonefish you have to venture about 30 miles out from Punta Gorda towards the barrier reef. That is a boat run across the flats of about 50 minutes to an hour on a relatively flat day.

The run to the scenic islands that are mostly coconut palm fringed is worth it though because there are six great areas to fish, and bonefish tallies usually run high. Scully Garbutt, my guide out of Machaca Hill Lodge, brags about one fly fisherman client who caught 60 bonefish one day. Anglers will see a couple of hundred in the shallow waters just inside the reef, often in big schools tailing, and fishing is from either the boat or wading. In the deeper waters, the bones create "muds" as they are feeding. In the shallow beach areas, sharp eyes are needed to sight-fish.

There are many fine areas to fish in Southern Belize. The border with Guatemala lies just three miles south of Lime Cay at the southern tip of the Sapodilla Cays, a collection of 12 beautiful islands, and the Barrier Reef.  Ranguana and the Silk Cays, about 5 miles northeast, offer excellent bonefishing. I caught a couple of two-pound bones from the beach flats at Ranguana and a couple more from the flats off Silk Cay. There must be three or four miles of great bonefish flats around the four Sopidilla Cay islands where I took a few more bones up to 4 pounds each.

Bonefish are on the flats year round and can generally be caught as long as the wind is blowing from the east, but the prime season is November through May. August and September are good months because the fish are less spooky in the "off season". Fishing for the small bones on the making tide is relatively easy, and that's good. Spinning tackle and small jigs or flies with 6 or 7-weight wands are very productive on these flats. Small jigs and flies that resemble shrimp, quality reels with good drags and line capacity of 150 yards or more of 6 or 8 pound test monofilament are suggested.

On all of the days that I have fished bones in Belize waters, I have yet to see another bonefishing boat. You can always get away from the crowds when you have flats that are 160 miles long!

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Bonefish Resorts: Cayo Espanto & Machaca Hill Lodge

Cayo Espanto Island is a secluded, upscale resort in Northern Belize that offers only six bungalow villas, each with a small dock, a small "plunge" pool, king size bed and two large showers - one outdoors overlooking the ocean. Other amenities include air-conditioning, a large flat-screen satellite TV and a small sitting area with couch and lounge chair. It also has a "houseman" who is always waiting with your favorite cocktail (and/or a cold, wet washcloth). The resort's amenities and privacy attract most of their clientele but plenty are seduced by the bonefish that work the flats a few feet from the luxury bungalows. For information or questions on the Cayo Espanto Resort visit www.aprivateisland.com or call 1-888-666-4282 or e mail info@aprivateisland.com.

Machaca Hill Lodge is a favorite respite when fishing Southern Belize. Situated on the private Laughing Falcon Reserve, the serene rainforest canopy lodge is surrounded by the Rio Grande, a marine reserve and miles of jungle. Black howler monkeys swing in the surrounding trees daily at this comfortable, all-inclusive lodge which offers 12 luxurious tree house suites. Each cabana has a large main room, a huge walk-in shower with glass wall, and a large screened porch. The suites cling to the mountainside and some have a glimpse of the river 800 feet below. Access to the river boat dock where you meet up with the guide is via a long funicular. For more information on the Machaca Hill Lodge, contact visit www.machacahill.com or call 011-501-722-0051 or email info@machacahill.com.

Larry Larsen, an inductee in the Fishing Hall of Fame, has traveled to 15 islands and countries to chase bonefish and is the author of 21 fishing books.

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