Editor’s Note: Looking through some old files again this evening and I found this ESPNOutdoors.com story that I had written a few years back.
It was written to preview an ESPN Outdoors television episode when Conway Bowman – the current host of “Fly Fishing the World” on the Outdoor Channel and the former host of ESPN2’s “In Search of Flywater” – traveled to Belize for some epic tarpon action.
Ironically enough, Bowman – the undisputed king of San Diego mako shark fly fishing – is back in Belize as we speak fly fishing for the silver king as he films a new episode of “FFTW.”
But my primary reason for posting this tale is that it’s tarpon season in many parts of the saltwater fly fishing world. And for many who fish the fly, there is simply nothing better than spending a late spring day on a Hells Bay skiff looking for a laid-up tarpon willing to eat a fly.
Because of that, I thought I would dredge this old story back to the surface, let it gulp some air, and allow it to live once again.
It’s hardly the stuff of Thomas McGuane and his timeless tarpon fishing tales in “The Longest Silence” but maybe you’ll find a little something to enjoy here nonetheless.
In his role as co-host of the popular ESPN Outdoors show, “In Search of Fly Water presented by Chevrolet,” fly guide Conway Bowman has seen some of the world’s best locations to cast a fly line.
But as viewers will see on this “Saltwater Sunday” at7 a.m. ET on ESPN2, there may be no better place to fly fish the brine than the Caribbean paradise of Belize.
While there might be places that offer bigger bonefish or more tarpon, few places in the saltwater angling world can top the sheer variety of fly fishing opportunity that this member of the British Commonwealth offers.
“There are other places to go for better bonefish,” Bowman said. “But with better bonefish, you will not get as many shots at other things like permit, tarpon, and snook.
“For multiple species, Belize is about as good as it gets.”
Take Bowman’s quest for a Belize tarpon for instance.
While the saltwater fly fishing guide has caught plenty of big mako sharks on the blue-water fly near his San Diego home, he had never done battle with Megalops atlanticus.
Until, that is, he visited the beautiful Belize River Lodge, just a few miles down the road from Belize City.
“On the first day I got one that went about 90 pounds,” Bowman said. “That was the first time I’d ever caught a tarpon.”
On that first morning out, it didn’t take long before Bowman and his guide spotted the Megalops cruising along the edge of an eel grass bed on the sandy flat.
“We tracked him and I got a 60 foot cast out there,” Bowman said. “I started stripping the fly, he turned, and I saw the whole thing happen.”
With a mouth as big as a “five gallon bucket,” the angler described the take of the fly as akin to watching “somebody flushing the toilet.”
“He jumped four or five times – it was awesome,” Bowman said. “The fight took about 30 minutes. He was much stronger than the (world record) redfish I caught.”
Such brute strength requires, in addition to stout fly tackle, a couple of key elements in fighting the fish to the boat: applying plenty of constant side pressure and “bowing to the king” when they leap from the water.
“The thing about a tarpon is that once you hook them, they make an incredible first run and will jump several times and tail walk,” Bowman said. “Then it gets down and dirty.”
“They can gulp air and regain energy and the fight can be on again, so (once I hooked him) I didn’t let up and put as much heat on that fish as I could get away with all the time.”
“They’re the toughest fish I think I’ve ever caught.”
Lest you think that Bowman’s catch was simply a case of beginners luck, think again. So good is the fly fishing found around the Belize River Lodge area that before his stay was complete, Bowman was a tarpon catching veteran.
“Most clients go 2 for 10 (on tarpon hook-ups versus opportunities), but I hooked a bunch of fish after that,” Bowman said. “I think I got 15 tarpon on that trip and we really didn’t fish for them that hard.”
“We had lots of shots at tarpon in the 80 plus pound range. We also went back into the mangroves and took plenty of shots at baby tarpon, which was pretty cool.”
In fact, while Bowman was mighty proud of his 90-pound tarpon – caught on a 12-weight fly rod, a floating fly line, a nine-foot leader with a 20-pound tippet, and a 2/0 grizzly fly pattern, by the way – he admits that he may have enjoyed catching baby tarpon up to 25-pounds most of all.
“I’d prefer catching them on a day-to-day basis,” Bowman said. “They’re fun, they jump really high some three to four feet out of the water, and you can get them in quickly.”
“That allows you to get multiple shots at them,” he added. “Plus, you get to use lighter equipment like a nine weight or a ten weight and you’re fishing in the mangroves, so you can get out of wind.”
Not to be forgotten in this saltwater paradise – perhaps best known for its incredible permit fishing action – is the opportunity to hook up with a drag-melting bonefish.
Using eight-weight rods, a floating fly line, a 12-foot leader with an eight-pound tippet, and either a Crazy Charlie or Gotcha bonefish fly, Bowman got into a dozen or so bonefish up to five pounds.
But it isn’t any of the bonefish that he actually landed that he’ll remember most.
“I saw a couple of them about 80 feet in front of me (one day),” Bowman said. “They blend in so well and once I saw the fish, I thought there were four or five of them (in total).”
Actually, the southern California fly guide soon found himself casting at the lead fish in a school of some 300 bonefish.
When that bonefish felt the sting of the hook, it made a sizzling run through the school causing a virtual piscatorial explosion on the shallow flat!
Perhaps the greatest measure of how good any fly fishing trip really was is how strong the pull is to go back once an angler returns home again.
In Bowman’s case, that pull is as strong as a 90 pound tarpon.
“I’d like to go (back) there in April when they have giant 200 pound tarpon at the mouth of the Belize River,” Bowman said.
“They’re sitting in three or four feet of water and you’re sight casting to them,” he laughed. “Man, wouldn’t that be insane to cast to a 200 pound tarpon in three-feet of water?”
Not if you’re fly fishing in the Caribbean angling paradise of Belize.