“Go!” my Belizean fishing guide said. My heart started racing. “Eleven o’clock — 50 feet,” he said quickly.
Trying to remain steady, I admonished myself, “Don’t choke!” — which can happen to the best of us when seeking to connect with the illustrious tarpon on a fly rod.
After spending an active morning wading the flats on Turneffe Atoll for bonefish with Alton Jeffords, we returned to his boat and started the afternoon searching the pale green water for signs of tarpon, hoping for a fin briefly breaking the surface or the sound of one gulping air. The chance of success came down to a single moment.
As I stood on the deck of the boat, holding my heart along with the grip of my fly rod, I made three false casts and the 11-weight fly line shot out to the intended target — a tarpon rolling as he grabbed a breath of air.
“Strip, strip, strip,” Alton instructed as the fly began to sink. Almost immediately the tarpon’s savage strike shot back its message of vitality and strength like an electric jolt through the line and rod — a feeling of vibrant life and raw power that is truly amazing. This is where many tarpon are lost.
“Keep the rod tip down and keep stripping!” Alton reminded me, as earlier I had lost two by lifting the rod. This time was different. After two or three wild jumps, a couple of runs and a dash under the boat, Megalops atlanticus gave up and came in for a photo and quick release back into its watery world.
Turneffe Flats Lodge on Turneffe Atoll, Belize, has been a premier destination for saltwater fly fishermen and scuba divers for more than 40 years. Established by Karen and Craig Hayes in 1981, Turneffe Flats started as a fishing camp but has evolved into a unique resort with multiple opportunities to experience the pristine marine environment on Turneffe Atoll. It is the largest of only four Caribbean atolls, which are coral islands consisting of a reef surrounding a lagoon.
Karen and Craig, originally from South Dakota, came to Belize after Craig read an article in Sports Illustrated about the fishing. After a few exploratory trips, Craig decided his career as a doctor was too routine and decided to make a go at creating a fishing and diving resort on Turneffe Atoll.
Four decades later, they have built a beautiful and relaxing oasis known not only for its saltwater fly fishing but also for its sustainability as a low impact, environmentally friendly resort. Karen and Craig have thought out the details and implemented the processes necessary to have a resort that simultaneously caters to travelers on a year-round basis but poses no problems to the surrounding environment.
Fresh water is captured from the rain with 250,000 gallons of interconnected storage tanks that are purified regularly. Most of their power comes from solar and is supplemented by diesel generators. Craig says the goal is to have 75 percent power from solar, which they are close to obtaining. Food waste is composted, and materials like bones are incinerated and then added to the compost for use in their vegetable and fruit garden. Plastic is kept to a minimum, and glass is ground and used as an aggregate in cement. Turneffe Flats has received the highest rating in Central America from Green Globe, the world’s leading environmental travel certification organization, and the second highest rating in all the Caribbean.
The resort’s focus on sustainability with low impact to the environment has not in the least compromised the quality of its experience. Guests are pampered with outstanding personal service and the best in accommodations. Eight cabins with two rooms each provide superb comfort, large bathrooms, and wonderful porches overlooking the Caribbean Sea — the perfect spot for a cocktail at the end of the day or a cup of hot coffee while watching the sunrise.
A destination’s culinary experience can make or break a trip, and Turneffe Flats does not disappoint. Meals are served family style, which allows the opportunity to get to know fellow guests and to hear about their day on the water. Breakfast consists of various egg dishes, such as eggs Benedict or huevos rancheros, alongside French toast and fruit.
After guests spend a physically exertive day out on the water casting off and on for eight hours, dinners are highly anticipated. Freshly caught snapper with bell peppers and garlic sauce, sweet potato soufflé, and coconut cake for dessert is just one example of a sumptuous Turneffe Flats dinner that restored our energy and soothed our palates.
Turneffe Flats is easy to reach from Columbia. Frontiers Travel, established in 1969, is the premier international travel agency for fly fishing and hunting throughout the world. They make all the arrangements for a trip to Turneffe Flats, ensuring a hassle- and stress-free travel experience. Our short flight to Atlanta was followed by a two-and-a-half-hour flight to Belize City that could not have been easier.
Once in Belize City, we took a quick ride to the dock and joined other guests on a very pleasant boat ride to Turneffe Flats. At one point, the 48-foot transfer boat threaded through a narrow passage in the mangroves. From the flying bridge, we could see over the mangroves, allowing a unique perspective of the environmentally rich habitat that provides for a multitude of marine life.
Upon arriving, we were greeted by Karen and Craig, as well as their manager, Jad Donaldson, and the rest of the staff. After enjoying a rum punch and meeting everyone, we were shown to our cabins and rooms. Cocktails, including one of the best mojitos I’ve ever had, and dinner soon followed. The evening was topped off by a stroll back to our cabins, enjoying the tropical trade winds while watching a full moon rise from the horizon blanketing the ocean with reflected moon beams.
Jad gave us a great orientation the next morning on details about the upcoming six days of fishing. We also met our guides and went over our gear. Every morning after one of those great breakfasts, we met Alton at the dock and headed out to the flats.
Fishing at Turneffe Flats takes place either from a flats boat, poled by the guide, or by wading the flats and casting to tailing bonefish or permit. The water is clear and shallow, interspersed with turtle grass, sand, and coral. The fish move in on the tides searching for crabs and shrimp in water only inches deep. Schools of 100 or more bonefish are a common sight only a few feet away.
Presentation of the fly is key to getting a strike and not spooking the fish, but opportunities are endless throughout the day. Once a bonefish is on, look out because they are masters at breaking off on the numerous coral heads sprinkled across the flats. Pound for pound, bonefish are one of the strongest fish so they can effortlessly peel off line into your backing in the initial seconds of being hooked. The most effective flies we used were small, weightless shrimp patterns and epoxy crab patterns called bitters.
While focusing on bonefish, Alton kept an eye out for permit. Permit are the holy grail for fly fishermen. At most flats fishing destinations, they are seldom seen and exceptionally hard to hook. Turneffe Flats has a reputation for being one of the best places to have a chance at permit. Alton’s sharp eyes spotted permit on five different occasions. He carefully positioned us for a shot, and although the flies were dropped in front of their noses, the fish swam off without a bite — a common occurrence with these fish. One guest in our party, however, caught three permit and lost one or two more.
Turneffe Flats is also a great destination for a saltwater fly-fishing grand slam — bonefish, permit, and tarpon all in the same day. The tarpon fishing is best during the summer months when migratory tarpon are passing through, but some smaller resident tarpon are present year round. Tarpon fishing is always done from the boat. Alton took us to one particular spot along the shore of an island that had a large floating weed bed that attracted bait fish. Almost every time we went there, tarpon could be seen rolling, and we had multiple hookups on these beautiful fish.
Another morning, we went snorkeling with Abel Coe, Turneffe Flats’ marine naturalist, to one of the shallow reefs. On the boat ride over, we came across a manatee munching grass in one of the lagoons. At the reef, the variety of corals, fans, anemones, and fish was spectacular. Unlike many reefs that are under attack from warm water and bleaching, this one showed no signs of that. Abel is a walking encyclopedia about every living creature on the reef. We thoroughly enjoyed being with someone who not only identified the marine life but could tell us all about it and its interconnectedness with the reef system.
Turneffe Flats is a popular dive destination due to its proximity to some of the best dive sites in Belize with more than 60 dive sites available, including The Blue Hole — a large sinkhole in the reef. The Blue Hole is known for large pelagic fish, such as sailfish, swimming around in it, as well as stalactites protruding from its walls. Another popular site is The Elbow on the southern end of the atoll that harbors a variety and large numbers of fish.
One of the best aspects of diving out of Turneffe Flats or just being a guest there is the small number of total guests at the resort. Craig says they usually have no more than 25 guests, of which only a small number are divers.
Turneffe Atoll has stayed remarkably untouched but not by happenstance. Karen and Craig have taken a proactive approach to keeping Turneffe Atoll protected and minimally developed. In 2002, Craig founded the Turneffe Atoll Trust, a nonprofit organization committed to protecting Turneffe Atoll and to fostering education about the atoll’s economic benefits through sustainable tourism to Belize and the world. They have purchased more than 20,000 acres of marine habitat and are working with other owners to safeguard the wildlife treasure that is there.
Turneffe Flats possesses one other quality one rarely sees in a resort — the presence of the owners. At most resorts, visitors don’t even know who the owner is, much less get to spend time with them. Karen and Craig go out of their way to be gracious hosts for all their guests and focus on the details to make sure every stay is special. Their devotion to the staff is reflected in the superior service and warm reception that every guest receives from all who work there. The grounds, buildings, equipment, and boats are meticulously maintained, and everything works seamlessly and smoothly. In an age when many resorts seem homogenized and geared toward maximum profit, Turneffe Flats is a rare exception that provides a personal touch surrounded in a marine paradise.