Twenty-one years ago on Turneffe Island Belize, a few of my friends and I were on an exploratory fishing trip to this interesting coral atoll.
Read on for a story about flats fishing at Turneffe Island Belize.

Turneffe Island Lodge : Tacu Johnson and Edward Johnston

This tale starts twenty-one years ago on the Turneffe Island about 35 miles off the coast of Belize in Central America. A few of my friends and I were on an exploratory fishing trip to this interesting coral atoll.

A year or so earlier I had fished the well know tarpon flats around Ambergris Cay Belize from the El Pescador Lodge and also I had visited Ascension Bay Mexico which was located about 100 miles north up the Yucatan coast, so I was not a total stranger to this part of the world.

Turneffe Flats Lodge : Edward Johnston with a Turneffe permitWe flew into Belize City on a Saturday afternoon and spent our evening in town at the Radisson Hotel. First thing Sunday morning we boarded the Turneffe Flats Lodge transfer boat and headed for our destination.

These days Turneffe Flats takes you to the lodge on Saturday afternoon, so you don’t spend a night in Belize City any longer.

The ninety minute trip takes you past the famous St. George Keys and out to blue water.  In the craft, you run a short distance through sparkling open waters. In the distance, lining the horizon, a string of palm trees border Turneffe Islands, dazzling and inviting. As you near your destination at the Turneffe atoll, the water colors changes from the deepest blue, to azure, to aquamarine, to palest green where crystalline waters lap the white coral sand beaches.

The Turneffe Islands, Located 35 miles east of Belize City , comprise part of the largest and most biodiverse coral reef system in the western hemisphere. Turneffe is the largest of the three offshore atolls in Belize. Inside the atoll there are more than 200 mangrove covered islands, brackish lagoons, deeps creeks and expansive flats surrounded by shallow reef. Together this area supports an abundance of wildlife. The crystal clear waters offer Permit, Bonefish, Tarpon, Snook, and a host of other species.

Craig Mathews was manager at the time and the lodge was quaint but quite primitive by today’s standards. Since that time the entire lodge has been rebuilt with spacious ocean side guest suites, a beautiful gathering dining area and a swimming pool.

I was to be escorted a young Belizean fishing guide by the name of Tacu. Tacu and his brother Fabian grew up around the island helping their father fish for conch, spiny lobster and some of the various species of food fish. Brother Fabian still owns the land on Turneffe where his father’s fish camp was located. Both brothers were, and still are extremely familiar with the geography of both above and below the surface of this beautiful place and know every creek, nook and cranny of the 35 mile long and 12 mile wide island.

Turneffe Flats Lodge : Pool overlooking a bonefish flat

Throughout the week we fished the hard bottomed coral sand flats of the eastern side of the island for bonefish and the deep creeks of the western side for tarpon and were successful at both, but always in my mind was that elusive permit.

I will never forget one calm morning; we eased away from the dock in the predawn darkness. The first rays of light were just peering over the coral reef. There is a large deep channel adjacent to the lodge and this morning it was full of tarpon. We motored for just a couple of minutes and Tacu cut the engine and poled the skiff as far as he could go until he lost contact with the bottom. We drifted in a slow current with the incoming tide. The surface of the water was like a sheet of glass punctuated by the backs of the rolling tarpon around us. There were literally hundreds of tarpon surrounding our boat. Turneffe Flats Lodge : Early morning tarpon fishing

One short cast and I was hooked solid. I made quick work of the fight and released the fish. I was a bit dirty from the encounter. Moments later a friend eased up in his boat and took one look at me and said “you rascal” as he knew I was already up one “poon” for the day.

Towards the end of the week there was little wind and the sea was calm. Tacu had a bright idea and decided we should visit the Lighthouse reef on this fine day and we should take the 16 foot Dolphin skiff the fourteen miles across. This action would be frowned upon these days as it was very risky, especially with the less than dependable little two-stroke engine we had, and looking back I certainly would not recommend you try it. However, at the time Tacu was determined and I did not know any better, so we went.

It was a smooth boat ride in the skiff and from the midpoint of the very deep oceanic waters you could see both islands, barely. Famous for the Blue Hole, the Lighthouse Reef is nearly as large as Turneffe, but most the area is submerged with just a few small islands above sea level.

Turneffe Flats Lodge : Edward Johnston with bonefish

The north end has a decent fishery but is too small to support a lodge or excessive fishing pressure. There is a small mangrove island with nice grass flats and a slightly larger island with hard coral flats on the north side and a deep harbor on the south side with an abundance of bonefish (at the time).

The bonefish was easy that day and we moved on the hunt for other species.

Tacu poled us along the mangrove island and spied a school of juvenile tarpon one of which we soon had to the boat and released. A short while later we came across the telltale sign of a permit feeding with its sickle shaped fins protruding from the surface.

My good friend Ted Williams was an excellent angler and also a master fly tier. Ted had success with a buggy looking fly which he used in the Florida Keys and bestowed a few samples to me. Well, I can tell you, when the permit saw that fly he jumped all over it. I was tight to my first permit and gently persuaded the fish back to the boat. I had never caught a permit on the fly and I was delighted. After a few photos the fish was released back to the ocean and we headed back to Turnefffe.

The ride back to Turneffe was pure bliss, I was in paradise and life was good! However Tacu was not finished just yet. We had to check a few other places before we called it a day.

This part of the story I have rarely told; it would be hard to convince most anglers as the rest of this remarkable tale as it was amazing. Tacu took me to a swampy area deep in the mangroves where we found baby tarpon rolling. I downsized my tackle for the little guys and started casting. A few moments later I was fast to a…..snook, and “wow’, a super grand slam, four flats species caught in one day.

Edward Johnston's first permit Tacu wanted to take me to a spot on the south side of the Turneffe island near Cay Bokel where he previously guided a client to a world record cubera snapper on the fly rod. It was late in the afternoon I was not about to consider the hour run down there and back. He did convince me to try a place nearby where we could sight fish for snapper. Sure enough, the fish were visible in the crystal clear water. I tossed a fly and watched a fine mutton snapper engulf my offering. The snapper did not willingly come to the boat, but to the boat he came.

Five flats species in one day. Hard to believe, but true.

I returned to Turneffe the following year with permit obsession. Tacu and I had a good week and caught five permit together. I was so pleased that after the fifth permit I traded places with Tacu and poled the Dolphin skiff along a grassy flat until he caught a permit on the fly.

Tacu and I did not see each other for a long period of time. Tacu quit guiding for a while and went to live in the United States. It would be nearly twenty years before we were reunited on the flats….

In the interim period I became fairly successful at catching permit and had caught exactly one-hundred on a fly when Tacu’s and my path crossed again.

On this particular trip I was with a group of anglers I normally travel with every year to a Caribbean destination. We were staying at the Turneffe Island Resort on the south side of the Turneffe Atoll. The lodge has five dolphin skiffs which would normally fish two per boat or ten anglers. That week the lodge was short a fishing guide so they brought an extra guide from Belize City. Obviously, being a good group leader, I had the fishing manager assign the recognized “house guides” to my friends and clients and I opted for the unknown guide from the mainland.

Early the first morning at the Turneffe Island Resort I was wandering around the portion of the property where the staff quarters are located. As I rounded the corner of a building I came face to face with a person I had not seen in a very long time, Tacu.

After a happy hello, I wondered what would bring us back together again. Tacu informed me that he was the back-up guide for the week.

I started contemplating the situation; I caught my first permit on the Turneffe Atoll more than twenty years ago with Tacu and here we were together again potentially for permit number 101.  The karma seemed good and I realized it was our destiny to catch that permit together, which we did and a few more that week.

Turneffe Island Lodge : Edward Johnston with a fine permit Tacu’s long absence did not affect his memory and we investigated every nook and cranny on the Turneffe Atoll. We caught permit number 101 and 102 on the second day of the trip.

Every day we would look for migrating tarpon and finally found them mid-week. These were not the huge migratory tarpon, but rather smaller fish from the reef in the 20-60 pound range, which in my opinion are the perfect fun size. Later that week we caught permit number 103.

An incredible story, but true. And that’s the Tale of Tacu! Stay tuned as the saga continues!

With regard to our trip to Turneffe Island Lodge that particular week with Tacu – I would have to say it was one of our best trips ever. Not just remarkable fishing, but all around. Our group averaged 3.6 permit per boat for the week. (18 permit/5 boats =3.6 per boat). This compares to some of the best trips we have had at Ascension Bay. Our best week to date at Casa Blanca Lodge at Ascension Bay was 30 permit divided by 10 boats which equals 3 per permit per boat for the week.

Worth mentioning is our colleague and fellow angler Peter Merriam who experienced some great fishing at Turneffe Island Lodge for that entire week  and came very-very close to a Grand Slam.

Turneffe Island Lodge : Phil Clark with a Turneffe Island permit***

In Twenty-one years I have visited the island eight times, each for a week, including the last four years in a row. The graceful manatee can still be seen gliding lithely throughout the atoll. The pelicans, wading birds, and seagulls are there performing their avian wonders.

The large schools of tarpon are not as plentiful as in the past, but you can still find tarpon if you look for them. The huge bones that used to tail on the Oceanside flats are harder to find, but again there are plenty of bonefish to cast to including the rare and elusive golden bonefish. The permit fishing is holding up and the experienced angler will be successful. And occasionally you will score a nice snook. Turneffe is still a premier saltwater fly fishing and that’s why we continue to return.

***

On the southeastern side of the atoll a five story hotel is being built on a sliver of picturesque costal land with sand dredged from a beautiful ocean side turtle grass flat. The building silhouette is a visual distraction you can see from miles away in this pristine environment. On the interior side, a channel has been dredged for a marina. The dredging has reduced precious ocean habitat and nursery areas for a multitude of  species.

Turneffe Island Resort : Larry Fuller releasing a nice permit The cruise ships heading for Belize City pass the island displaying a striking form and a spectacular sight at night, but pose an ominous threat over the fragile ecosystem.

Will a visit to Turneffe in the future be similar to a trip to Biscayne Bay with the Miami skyline in the background? As of this writing, thankfully, as a result hard work from many concerned people, I don’t think so.

Recently, the Turneffe Atoll, has been designated a Marine Reserve by Belize’s Government, thanks in large part to the hard work of Craig Hayes, owner of Turneffe Flats lodge and the folks at the Turneffe Atoll Trust..  This sets aside 325,000 acres of this unique ecosystem for environmental management, scientific research, sustainability, as well as species protection and promotion of catch and release sport fishing.

Two fish spawning sites were recently chosen as Turneffe Atoll Marine Reserves. Dog Flea Caye Marine Reserve one of the largest spawning sites for Nassau grouper in Belize, and Caye Bokel Marine Reserve which is a large spawning site for mutton, cubera and yellowtail snappers, permit and other species.

Will I return? The answer is yes, as long as the fishery holds up. Would I still recommend Turneffe as a world class fishing destination? The answer is yes and with active management I believe the fishery will improve.

***

We would like to arrange your next trip to Turneffe Flats Lodge, Turneffe Island Resort or one of the other fine lodges in Belize.

Edward  Johnston, of Leisure Time Travel,Inc. has visited Turneffe Atoll eight times (last trip April 2012) and has caught 18 permit on a fly at Turneffe. Why take chances with your precious time? We’ve been there. Remember, There is no substitute for first-hand experience.

Tight lines !

Edward Johnston

Leisure Time Travel – Your best and most knowledgeable choice for fishing the Caribbean

Leisure Time Travel Inc.

531 N. Citrus Ave. Crystal River, Florida 34428

352-795-FISH (3474) 1-800-771-2202

All photographs by Edward R. Johnston

Copyright © 2013 Edward R. Johnston & Leisure Time Travel, Inc. 1996-2013

Turneffe Island Resort : Tacu Johnston with a very fine Turneffe Island permit

Copyright © 2013 Edward R. Johnston & Leisure Time Travel, Inc. 1996-2013