June 30, 2013

U betta Belize it! 2013 (Day 6)

...So the story continues.

We got back to the hostel and I wanted to have my rods rigged before heading out again. I rigged up my two heavy rod ready for battle. I had put on a water bubble on the mainline, then 60lb Big Game mono, and a 6/0 circle hook. One was a 30-50lb TFO conventional rod with a Saltist BG40. The other was a new Tsunami Air Wave kayak spinning rod rated 10-25lb with a Baitrunner 4500B. The Saltist had 65lb braid while the Baitrunner had 50lb braid.

I caught the Horse-eye Jack on the Tsunami rod so I had a feel of its action and backbone. With a softer tip but still a very good backbone, it would be better to cushion the jumps of tarpon. This was my primary rod to use.

Getting to the Split a little after midnight, the crowd had cleared and it was now real quiet. The tarpon were there. I could easily count 6 of them. After catching his tarpon, Eli now focused on getting me a constant supply of lively sardine with the sabiki.

The first sardine was pitched out about 3-4 feet ahead of a cruising tarpon. Eli said the plop and struggling bait usually get a reaction from the tarpon immediately. But again, these tarpon were very wary. They would nose up to the sardine and then turn around. Over and over, I was getting refused.

I thought maybe the tarpon could see me, so I stood back from the edge and squat down. But they were still refusing me. So I head upcurrent, dropped the bait in, opened the bail, and let the sardine drift down to the fish. I was still not getting hit.

After a good hour, we were scratching our heads. Maybe the fish was seeing my floating bubble...so I took it off, removed the swivel and bead, and tied the 60lb mono leader straight to the braid. The fish were still sensing something, so I changed from a 6/0 circle hook to a smaller 3/0 octopus hook that Eli gave me. And they were still refusing my lively sardine, even after I had changed bait a few times.

Instead of working the shadow line beside the concrete structure, I tossed my bait into the channel and let it drift down the current. I made a couple of drifts and was close to giving up on these fish this night.

We had a few sardines in the bucket and some of them were dying. So Eli took one out and tossed it into the current. No more than 5 seconds later, we heard a big "FLOMP!"

No way!!! That was a tarpon. I quickly reeled in my live sardine and tossed it bulls-eye back to where the tarpon came up. Tarpon likes to school...maybe there could be a few there. Since the current was coming at us, I closed the bail, put the reel on baitrunner mode and let the bait swim.

I felt the bait kicked a couple of time and then nothing. Then I felt a little thump. I thought "No!!! Not a jack!"

The baitrunner started with a slow, steady pull. It was so uncharacteristic slow that Eli doubt it was a tarpon. I was calling it a jack when the run stopped. Crap! Should I reel the line in? Was the fish still there? Was it swimming at me? What should I do? What should I do?!?!

Then the run started again. This time, it was more serious. The fish was running down current and out from shore with some speed. I didn't know how long to wait...and I couldn't remember if Eli and I even discussed when to set the hook. Maybe we did agree on a time, but all I could remember was the run...and then reeling the line tight...felt weight and immediately set the hook HARD!

I'm ON, I'M ON!!!

Still having no clue what the fish may be, we just knew it had doubled the rod over. I set the hook again, and again...a total of five times, just in case it was a tarpon. It dug deep for a few seconds and then we could feel and see it...the line angle was coming up...and this big slab of silver cleared the surface with white water everything! It's a TARPON!!!

Immediately, I squat down, tried to point the rod tip down and bow to the Silver King. The fish landed and it was still on! Okay...survived one jump. It stripped off some line and jumped again and I bowed again. Two jumps...two jumps!

The fish soon tried to swim up the current line beside the concrete structure. I had it on a tight but limited line right by the pier following its every move. With such short amount of line, any jump could be very dangerous. A fish could snap off or the hook could pull out if the fish jumped. It went all the way to the edge of the shadow line, then turned around and cleared the water again. Jump number three...I survived three jumps. I barely had room to squat down and no room to point the rod down at the fish...but I survived. The fish ripped some line and jumped again!

Phew...survived that one too. The thing about tarpon is...the more they jump, the quicker they tire. But these jumps also increased the risk of the fish throwing the hook or snapping the line. It really was a catch-22, no pun intended. The fish reached the end of the split and took a good run down current. It jumped one more time with a lot of line out. I was afraid this would be the death of me since with more line out, there was bound to be some resistance of the line in the water and less control when I bow to the fish...but I survived five jumps!

The fish was now turned and coming upcurrent at us again. I could tell the fish was now pretty tired and I had more and more control of it. So Eli and I started discussing how to land it.

At first, we thought maybe we would walk it along the concrete wall and land it in the little beach where Eli landed his stingray in the morning. We tried that once but it really wasn't a great place to get a grab of the fish. So I suggested we would lead the fish into the shallow area where I landed the Mutton Snapper for him. The only problem is that once the fish is in the area, we have maybe only one shot at landing it. There were a few benches where the fish could run under to break me off. If it wasn't the benches, there were also a lot of posts under the wooden deck and on the side of the concrete pier where the fish could wrap me. At this point, I had the fish in full control though so we thought this was our best option.

I slowly led the fish around the point at the Split into the shallow sandy area. I could see the fish in the water with the pectoral fin fully spread out like wings. The fish was now simply planing in the water. Leading it all the way just in front of the benches, Eli got down and I lead the fish to him. All I remember was seeing Eli touched the leader and praying that the fish doesn't wake up to run under the nearby bench. "Please...don't run, don't jump, don't thrash...we just want a picture...we'll let you go".

Eli had one hand on the leader and with the first chance, his other hand grabbed the tip of the jaw. Then I saw both hands on the jaw. The fish came out of the water swinging, but Eli manhandled the fish onto the wooden dock, and then pushed it further away from the edge.

I remember letting out a very loud "WOOOOOOOHOOOOOOO!!!" and probably woke up the island. I didn't care...here it was...my first hook up, my first fight, and my first Atlantic Tarpon landed. Thank you Eli!!! THANK YOU ELI!!! And thank you GOD!!!

The fish was barely hook by the skin close the the gullet. I just had to give it a slightly harder pull and the hook came out. WOW! Talk about getting lucky!!! About 6 inches of the line was all abraded by the sandpaper like teeth of the tarpon. I still don't know how I had kept the fish on this long and led it around this well. It was truly a miracle.

Atlantic Tarpon (Megalops atlanticus) - Species #354!!!

Mr. Tarpon, thank you! As I promised you, you are free.

I was balanced on one of the benches that was in the area. You can see all the warning signs trying to land a tarpon with all these benches around. We seriously got very lucky!

It was so cool watching the tarpon swam off, coming up to gulp air three times, then swam out of the gap. I was speechless...I was excited...I was shaking...it was wild!!!

Eli and I couldn't believe we each got our tarpons on this night. We were completely satisfied so we decided to go back to get some much needed sleep.

At the hostel, there were still some people up at 2am, including Alice. I showed them our catches and they were amazed there were fish that big hanging out at the Split at night.

I still needed to catch a bonefish. I set the alarm for 5am to get a morning shot at the bones. Eli would be leaving at around 1pm the next day. He wanted to sleep in and spend the morning packing gear, so he would leave the bonefish hunt to me and me alone.

The 5am alarm came too quick. It was really just a couple hours of sleep. I was so tired and I slept in for another 30 minutes. The alarm rang again and I knew I had to get moving. Although I have two more days on the island, any morning could be the once in a lifetime chance. I just had to get out of bed!

I already had my backpack geared up for bonefish a few hours ago, so I quietly slipped out with two rods while Eli was passed out. I tied on 8lb fluorocarbon leader and 1/16oz jig for the 7' medium rod and a 1/8oz jig for the 9' surf rod.

I knew the bonefish liked to hang out by the dock, so I started checking the eastern side docks. One, two, three...all of them had no bonefish around. I thought maybe I wasn't spotting them properly, but I walked all the way to the Split and saw nothing. Now this sucked.

I knew there were some bonefish on the western side of the island so I started working the docks on the backside. The first dock I came across had a nice sandy area with seagrass on the inside. I started looking around and about 3 minutes later I saw a pair of shadows moved in, grubbed on the bottom for a very short time and then moved out. Could they be?

About 30 seconds later, I saw 3 shadows moved in. I tried to make a long cast beyond the fish so I could stealthy bring the jig back to the fish, but somehow I misjudged the cast and the jig landed about 10 feet from a pair of the fish. The two fish swam off, but one was still hanging around. I bounced the jig closer to the fish and it might have sensed the commotion. The fish swam right over, circled around the jig, I felt a little tap, and started to see my line flew off! Oh yeah, THIS WAS A BONEFISH!!!

I forgot how much fun they were. It wasn't a big fish so with a lighter drag, this fish fought well. It made one long initial run, and then two smaller runs before it cooperated at the dock. My only option was to flip the fish up the dock since it was too tall for me to reach down and cradle the fish. I could see the hook was well set but it was still a nervous moment bringing the fish up.

Hell yeah! It's a day late...I was hoping it would happen on my birthday...but I got my boner!!! Finally!!!

Bonefish (Albula vulpes) - Species #355

This dock was hot. There were small packs of bonefish coming by every so often. I hooked into a 4lb bonefish that found a dock post and snapped me off. Then I spotted a school of 30+ bonefish all between 2-5lbs sitting shallow. I tried to toss a jig onto the beach and work it out, but a misjudged cast landed the jig about 20 feet from them and they were spooked off. It's amazing how wary they could be!

The tide started to bottom out and it seemed like the fish had moved out. I checked a couple more docks to find much of the same. Having landed my target already, I decided to go back to the hostel and maybe grab some more sleep.

When I passed by the eastern side docks, I just had to take a few more looks. Maybe it was the tide, but I started to see a couple schools of bonefish. I tossed the jig with a shrimp tail toward the school. Even as the jig landed 15 feet from the school, a couple of fish got spooked but others came investigating. Interesting!

There were three bonefish fighting over the shrimp and soon I was hooked up. Oh yeah!

Not all docks were equal. After fishing these docks for the next 2 mornings, I found that there were certain docks that consistently held bonefish. They were not always there as well. It certainly depends on a certain phase of the tide when they would appear. Once the tide changed, they would move out.

I walked back to the hostel and to my amazement, there was a school of 50+ bonefish right my the area! I managed to get two out of the school before they became very spooked.

They look so cool in the water. Here's a release shot.

After that, I decided to call it a morning. It was about 8am when I returned. Eli just woke up and he was packing his gear. After packing, we decided to get some juice and brunch before he leaves. I couldn't believe how fast the time flew by...but at the same time, it felt like we lived through a long fishing trip together. It certainly suck to say goodbye.

This afternoon it was flat calm. Very beautiful, very serene...but it was also extremely hot and the mosquitoes were out in full force!

Well, this is where the fishing came to a stop. Maybe I was completely fished out. Maybe it was that most of my fishing targets had been met. Or maybe it was the company of Alice...I simply stopped fishing.

I hung out with Alice and Carina a lot. Alice was from Saskatoon and Carina was from San Francisco. Carina was very cool, but I think I bonded the most with Alice. We just chilled on the hammock in the afternoon, then we grabbed a few beers and went to the government dock to watch the sunset. Yeah, I didn't even bring a rod even though the day before we caught snappers and tarpon from the dock.

When we got back, Susanne had brought the snapper to a nearby grill and it was waiting for us. Thank you again Eli for this fish. The entire hostel bonded over this communal snapper dinner. It was a fun time!

Early that afternoon, Alice said she wanted to go out to Lobster Fest and find a place to dance. So I said we could go out for sure. We had a good group from the hostel and added three cool Irish along the way. Somehow, my birthday was mentioned and Carina started to buy birthday rum shot...and then birthday beer...and more birthday beer. I haven't drank so much since my last year of undergrad!

It was a bit disappointing that the Lazy Lizard closed early since this was the last day of the Lobster Fest. It wasn't even 12pm and the bar was closing. Booo! But we hung out at the Split for a little bit.

So we were looking for a place to dance but there wasn't much choice. While walking around town a lot of Belizean guys got a bit pushy and touchy. Carina and I had to step in to protect Alice. She was still young and a bit too trusting, but we could see a bad situation coming.

At the end, we just found a dock to chill. Sometime during the night, the idea about waking up to watch the sunrise and going fishing was made, so we went back to the hostel at 1am to get a few hours of sleep before waking up at 5am again.

June 29, 2013

U betta Belize it! 2013 (Day 5)

That 3am alarm was a bit annoying. After a long day of travel and fishing, it was tough to get up. But...tarpons were waiting...

Eli had spent the last couple of days on the island. Based on some intel we received, we knew that there were tarpon at the Split at night. Eli had figured them out. Using the sabiki, we could jig up some herring/sardine, put it on a 3/0 hook, and tossed them at the tarpon hanging out in the shadow. Seems easy enough, right?

Eli must have hit them just at the right time since he jumped 6 of them in a hour of fishing. Unfortunately, the fish either threw the hook or snapped his leader, so even though he was getting some crazy action, none were landed.

Now that I'm here and he would have a wing man, we were getting serious.

We made it to the Split at 4am. As Eli said, we could see 3-4' long black shadows slowing moving upcurrent in the shadow of the flood lights. We quickly jigged up a dozen sardines and I put one on the hook. For the sake of keeping the bait fresh and lively I didn't take any pictures, but the sardines were Scaled Sardine (Harengula jaguana) - Species #343.

Strangely, something must be wrong since these tarpon were not willing to play. Morning was coming quickly and we could see a little colour in the sky. The fish seemed to know that the cover of darkness would soon be lost and they disappeared like clockwork. Darn! We started too late!

The reason we started so late was due to the Lobster Fest. At the Split was the Lazy Lizard, a bar that was still very busy until 12am. We figured that all the music, crowd and activity would probably scare the tarpon away so we wanted to give the fish a few hours of quiet before trying for them. We needed to start early tomorrow night!

As the day break, our attention switched to the species hunt.

I saw a Black Hamlet hanging right by the wall. I tried for that fish for a bit but the other damselfish were just too quick and the Black Hamlet was too busy defending its territory. Then I saw another Black Hamlet, and another, and if you just search for them, they were all over the place.

So I picked out one that seemed to be sitting in a spot without a lot of bait thieves. A few drops later, I finally got it to hit! They are cool little fish!

Black Hamlet (Hypoplectrus nigricans) - Species #344

A few Bermuda Chub showed up and I really wanted to catch one. These fish were not as shy as the ones I saw in Florida. Out of nowhere, a big Puddingwife Wrasse took my bait...and I GOT IT!!! They are stunning fish and it was such a cool catch!

Puddingwife Wrasse (Halichoeres radiatus) - Species #345

The Bermuda Chubs were very easy to catch. In fact, they get very annoying very fast.

Bermuda Sea Chub (Kyphosus sectatrix) - Species #346

Eli and I wanted to get a couple of small grunts for bait. Out on the Split, the Slippery Dick, Sergeant Major, Schoolmaster Snapper, Bermuda Chub and Doctorfish were too much to deal with. So I went into shallower water where I may be able to get away from them.

Checking one area, I saw a different looking fish darted out from under some logs to chase away the damselfish and grunts that were swarming my baits. Putting on some new bait, I dropped the chunk of shrimp as close to the log as fast as possible. Soon, that funny fish came out and took the bait. Got it! This was a completely unexpected catch and some of these surprises were the coolest!

Night Sergeant (Abudefduf taurus) - Species #347

With the species list steadily checked off, I turned my attention to the little Mojarra. It took some times before I could figure how to get them to hit. But at last, I got em too! They want the bait sitting still on bottom. If there was any sudden movement, they would dart away. It was difficult since a bait that sat too long would then attracted the Slippery Dick. You just had to place the bait in the right place and hope the Mojarra would find it before the Slippery Dick.

Slender Mojarra (Eucinostomus jonesii) - Species #348

The Mojarra was just the right size so Eli put it on his bigger rod. I found myself a small Yellowtail Snapper and tossed it out too.

I saw an initial phase Stoplight Parrotfish and got it hooked...but while trying to swing the fish into the bucket where we rested and revived fish between pictures, the fish wriggled off the hook and back into the ocean it went. Argh! It would have been an awesome catch!

While this report is very focused on me, Eli also caught his Black Hamlet. He was poking around a shallow sandy area that was just perfect for Peacock Flounder. By chance he found a tiny one and actually got it to hit...but just like my batfish, the fish came off the hook halfway up the water column. I feel for you, bro.

I know it's not much of a consolation for losing a cool fish like the Peacock Flounder...but Eli's big rod went off with a good run! We were both guessing what it could be...Stingray? A big snapper? A big grouper? The fish took off quite a bit of line and at one point rocked Eli. But being a patient rewarded with the fish coming out of the snag and we finally had colour. We debated how to land it, but then decided to bring it into the little sitting bench area at the Lazy Lizard and I would try to get it with the lip grip. With my heart pounding, I slipped the grip sideways, twisted, and snapped the jaw shut. Got em! It was a nice Mutton Snapper!!!

Eli had caught Mutton Snapper in the past but without any picture to show. This can't get any better!

Looks massive, huh? It was only 18" long LOL. Still, it was a very nice Mutton Snapper! We kept the fish for Susanne since she said she would appreciate any fresh fish we could bring back.

Back on my front, there were some Yellowhead Wrasse flirting about. It took some trying to get the bait away from the other unwanted species and finally had one to hit.

Yellowhead Wrasse (Halichoeres garnoti) - Species #349

Then, Eli got another good run on a free lined grunt. It was taking line steady like a big stingray...and indeed it was! It was a medium Southern Stingray...just big enough to have some fun but not too big to break your back. Eli and I had caught one before so we didn't bother to take any pictures.

All this time, there were Bar Jack cruising by. They would come to inspect any smaller fish we tossed out as bait but they would not bite. As the morning wore on, we saw some surface activity so Eli put on a topwater...and the fun began! Fish would crash the bait and missed most of the time, but it was just fun watching them crash bait! Most of these were Horse-eye Jack but occasionally there would also be a Bar Jack in the action. We tossed lures for a while since a lot of the interesting species disappeared as the sun got higher...so the jacks would fill a void in the action.

Someone came by to join us on the lure action. After hearing a blitz, he tossed a lure into the swirl and something blew up on his lure! He was lucky the lure was just hooked the right way with the rear hook on the tip of the mouth and another hook in the corner of the jaw...since this was a 2' barracuda full of sharp teeth! It was great to see someone landed a 'cuda since these fish had been a bit frustrating to get to bite. There were very hook and line shy...but I guess a reaction strike from a fast moving lure gave them little time to inspect your hook and line. Eli and I had caught them before so we didn't put too much thought to figure them out.

It was 10am and we decided to call it a morning. We've been up and fishing since 3am. We went back to the hostel, put away our gear and went for brunch. It was at that time that Eli reminded me it was my birthday! Had he not said anything, I would have forgotten LOL. Thanks bud! He treated me to lunch. The stew chicken at this little Cuban place was awesome!

After lunch, we decided to take a siesta. As much as we love fishing, having only 5 hours of sleep before taking on a 7-hour fishing marathon during the ungodly hour is just too much. I wanted to have a shot at the lobster-sucking bonefish so I wanted to get up at 3pm.

Again, I only got about 2 hours of shut eyes before the alarm went off again. In fact, it was 2 hours of broken sleep since I was so excited about the bonefish. Eli had already caught his bonefish so he decided to join me later.

It took a little time to find the dock again...but what a disappointment! The bonefish were gone! Instead there was a boat docked right on the spot where the bonefish were holding and the boat was being worked on so there was a lot of commotion. It also appeared that no one was cleaning lobster that day so the bonefish may have left to find other food.

Well, here are a bunch of lemons...let's make lemonade.

The day before, Eli noticed some Mangrove Molly in the shallows and caught a beautiful one. I took out some bread and pinched a tiny bit on the tanago hook. These mollies are very apt at taking the bread off the tiny hook, so it took a few tried to finally hook one.

Mangrove Molly (Poecilia orri) - Species #350

Then I saw 4 little fish that were definitely some kind of livebearer but they looked different from the Mangrove Molly. They also form separate groups. A few tries later, I found out they were Yucatan gambusia! (I agree, Eli, G. yucatan is the most likely species given the habitat and distribution).

Yucatan Gambusia (Gambusia yucatana) - Species #351

There were also some livebearer on the bottom. They didn't want bread, but a bit of shrimp got them excited. BTW, I credit the ID of this species to Eli. Darn, good call!

Ocellated killifish (Floridichthys polyommus) - Species #352!

Eli arrived and I showed him the Yucatan Gambusia. There was only a pair around and he tried for them but they were rather shy. After a while, we decided to move on.

There was a government pier that we found the day before that looked good. I was armed with a 9' surf rod and a 7' spinning rod while Eli had a heavy rod and a lighter rod. There wasn't much opportunity to for me to toss a live bait. We started fishing some shrimp on a dropper loop and quickly found a good number of grunts, Mangrove Snappers and Lane Snappers. The area has seagrass so we were hoping to find some Mutton Snapper. Among all the other snappers, I managed to find a little one! This was a great catch for me since I've been trying for one for a while in Florida!

Mutton Snapper (Lutjanus analis) - Species #353

I caught a Slender Mojarra and Eli called for it as bait. Not very long after he tossed it out, the rod went off and it was another good fish! It was a 1.5lb Mutton Snapper. We had thoughts about putting it on the grill for dinner. While Eli was putting some water into the bucket to keep the fish alive, the snapped managed to jumped out to its freedom. Oh well. Not like we didn't have enough seafood already LOL.

The sun soon set and we were packing up to grab dinner. Eli tossed two of the ballyhoo we had since they had been thawed for quite a few hours already. While packing, we heard a loud "FLOMP"! It sounded like someone tossed a tray of cinder block into the water. We look up to see a flash of silver rolled back into the water. Really?!?!

So Eli and I start paying attention to the remaining ballyhoo floating on the water. Then we saw it...a large dark shadow. No doubt it was a large tarpon. We figured it was probably about 40lbs. It kept coming to the ballyhoo, circled it and then turned away. After a few inspections, the tarpon got a bit more bold and nudged at the ballyhoo. Maybe it could see us and suspected some foul play. I said to Eli "Tarpon loves shrimp, too. Try tossing out a shrimp at it."

Armed with his heavier rod with braid but only a 25lb fluorocarbon leader, Eli put on a shrimp and tossed it toward the ballyhoo. The tarpon came around and just vacuumed the shrimp in. NO WAY!!!

Okay...not what? The tarpon ran with the bait on the clicker and Eli set the hook hard. Got EM! GOT EM!!! The fish tried to get deep and then changed its mind and jump clear out of the water...then SNAP! Crap!!!

The 25lb fluorocarbon was no match for the 40lb tarpon...

But seeing one tarpon at this pier, there has to be more around. We started paying attention and saw quite a few smaller tarpon now cruising the shadow line. This pier was so high it would be very difficult to land them though.

A couple of local kids came by to tell us that there are tarpon at the wooden dock right across from us. The dock was lit by a tall dock light and we could see the glint of tarpon cruising around. So we relocated to the wooden dock since it was lower than our concrete pier.

We saw about a half dozen of tarpon under the dock. Sometimes they would swim under the dock, sometimes they would swim into the shadows. We took some time to re-rig. I had 30lb braid on my 4000 size spinner matched with a 9' surf rod rated 10-25lbs. It wasn't ideal...but it would have to do. I tied on a 40lb mono leader while Eli tied on a 40lb fluorocarbon leader. Luckily, these tarpon were smaller...what we would call "fun size" since there is a better chance to land one of them.

We first tried shrimp. The tarpon would come looking at the shrimp but at the last second they would turn away. The kids said we should retrieve the shrimp slowly so we tried that for a while only to get follows. The kids asked if we have any "fake fish" and we did have some lures. We tried the lures for a bit and Eli got a topwater hit on a Sammy while I had a good gulp on a Zara Puppy...but the small treble hooks on these lures simply couldn't find anything to set into.

We were tossing anything and everything at them. If there was a kitchen sink, we would have tried it.

It seemed like the tide had changed and the tarpon moved out further. We could still hear tarpon busting bait out further but everything looked either too small or too big. There were some tiny silverside around and a handful of needlefish. We also saw some luminescent creatures and the kids said they were little fish. Eli wanted to see what these glow fish may be, so he tossed out a sakibi to try to catch them.

Well, what do you know...he caught a good size sardine. We were commenting earlier that if we only had some live sardines these tarpon would be all over them. So here we were with a sardine. Eli put the sardine on a 3/0 hook and waited for one straggling tarpon that was still hanging around. Finally, the tarpon came by and Eli tossed the sardine in its path just inches from the dock. The bait suddenly got excited and that triggered the tarpon to chew!

Eli let the fish run with the bait for a couple of seconds then set hard! We GOT EM!

Now the hard part began. We were fishing on a dock with lots of dock post in the water. The fish was fighting very close to the dock and we worried it would find a post to wrap us around. About 10 seconds into the fight, the tarpon jumped and smacked itself on the side of the dock! I thought it may land on the dock and honestly I was prepared to pounce on the fish with my whole body if it had happened LOL. I know tarpon had jumped into boats before.

Maybe the tarpon had knocked itself silly against the dock. It seemed to have tamed a bit. It jumped a couple more times before seemingly tired out. It really didn't take that long to fight the fish, but it felt like minutes. Eli felt he had control of the fish so now we debated how to land the fish. I tried to lean over the dock to see if I could at all even reach the fish, but my hand was about a foot short. So I grabbed my lip grip to see if I could get it with the grip, but it was just a couple inches short and we wouldn't gamble on trying to grip it.

The only decision left was to leader the fish and tried to flip it over the dock. This was actually Eli's decision. This was Eli's last night in Belize, possibly his last shot at an Atlantic Tarpon on this trip, and this fish had stayed on the line long enough, tamed enough, and seemingly well hooked enough to do it. I had the honour of leadering the fish and flipping it over. Trust me...my heart was about to explode when I touched the leader...

"Don't jump, please don't jump, just stay hooked, please, please, please don't let me not lose this fish for Eli. He would hate me forever and I would hate myself forever."

Taking a deep breath gathering some courage, I made one smooth and continuous move and flipped the fish over. I don't know how it could have been done. The fish did not flinch a muscle, and as heavy as it was, it came out of the water and onto the dock without so much as a hitch.

Oh my god! We got it on the dock!!! The fish was now flopping everything and I jumped on it to pin it down. I wasn't about to let the fish flop back into the water. All I would remember was getting slime all over my shirt and pants. It's probably not the best way to handle a tarpon, but we're definitely not letting Eli's first tarpon flop back!

The fish was hooked on the tip of the upper snout. The hook barely held and we were surprised that I was able to leadered the fish and swung it up the dock. It popped out as soon as we work the hook back. Let me tell ya, we were very lucky!

We probably screamed like a little girl. I can't remember much about our reaction. All I knew was that we were over-the-moon ecstatic!!! After Eli had jumped 10 tarpons on this trip, we finally landed a tarpon for him!!! It wasn't a huge tarpon. It was 26". But having jumped so many time and time again, Eli was stoked and I was just as stoked for him!

For those who were worried about the well being of this tarpon, the tarpon swam off as soon as it touched water. No problem at all!

I wanted to get my own now, but since the small school had moved on, we decided to have dinner, maybe get a few hours of sleep, and try the Split at 2am.

All I remember that night was landing the tarpon. I can't even remember what we ate. (I did remember meeting my friend Alice on this night). After dinner, we were debating when we should fish the Split. I just want to check the area out to see if the tarpon is there even with all the music and people, so we took a walk to check things out. The tarpon seemed not to care about the busy top side. They were cruising just the same. We talked to a bouncer to see what time the bar would close. "We'll close soon at 12am". I looked at my watch and it was 11:30pm. Well, let's go back, prepare some gear and get at it!

And the story continues...

June 28, 2013

U betta Belize it! 2013 (Day 4)

I would take the first water taxi out of Tobacco Caye at 9am. Before leaving, I tried one last time for some of the smaller reef species. With only an hour in the early morning, I certainly did try hard. I had one of the Blackbar Soldierfish bit and spat again. They just didn't want to hold onto the squid! I saw a couple of small Puddingwife Wrasse but even the tanago hook was too big for these juveniles. The only thing that committed was strangely a Mantis Shrimp.

Originally, my outbound flight from Dangriga was booked for 14:15. But there were only a 9am outbound water taxi, so I had to leave early and try to arrange earlier flights. Back at the dock in Dangriga, I saw some cichlids by the shore. These were definitely a new species (if not a couple of new species). However, it was a very busy day in Dangriga and the local crowds hanging by the dock did not look too friendly. I didn't feel safe enough to open up my luggage on the street to dig out a rod and fish for these cichlids. Next time...these fish isn't going to go anywhere.

I got to the airport and just missed the 10:04 flight by a couple of minutes! Darn! The next flight was at 12:30 and there were seats. So my itinerary was adjusted and I flew to Belize City Municipal Airport (TZA) by 12:45, then another flight from TZA to Caye Caulker at 13:15.

On Caye Caulker, golf carts were the most common vehicles. Taxis were golf carts with green license plates. A ride is usually US$5, so instead of walking 10 minutes with my luggage down a gravel street full of potholes, I decided on the taxi ride.

This was my home for the next few days. It was a very fun hostel that was well managed and safe. Susanne was the owner and she was there most of the time. She lives on the very top floor. There was a night guard every night and there was set quiet hours as well as a "Guest Only" rule. I had 2 nights in the dorm room and then 2 nights in private room. I wanted the private room since I would not want to disturb any potential roommates with my early morning or late night fishing schedule.

As soon as I got there, I heard "KEN!"

Well, there he was...my species hunting bro Eli! It was good to see him again. We've been chatting for the last 6-7 years online about species hunting and fishing in general. Last summer was the first time we fished together and we only fished for one day together. I credit this Belize trip to Eli since he initiated the idea. Eli was visiting Belize for a dental internship to provide dental care to some residents on a volunteering basis. Since he was around Caye Caulker, I decided to follow him to Belize.

After settling down, Eli and I walked around to check things out. There were lots of docks on the eastern side of Caye Caulker. These docks were situated on a huge seagrass flats. Often, the seagrass had patches of sand beside the docks or natural pockets. Eli said he had seen bonefish hanging around these sand patches. While we checked from dock to dock, a 3lb bonefish came cruising by and my eyes almost popped out! But...it would be a few more days later that I finally locate some bonefish with consistency.

Seeing that bonefish was enough for me. Eli wanted to check out some docks and areas on the western side of the island where there were many more mangroves. So we grabbed a couple of rods and set off hunting.

We walked all the way to the Split and started at the first dock we come across. This dock was behind a very nice hotel and it looked private...but we decided to check it out anyways.

Wouldn't you know it...I spotted something that looked way to symmetrical and it looked like some kind of skate. A closer looked revealed it was a Shortnose Batfish! This was one fish that is high on my target list and I was very excited.

And as fate would have it, one of the hotel staff came by to tell us it was a private dock. We begged him to just give us a few minutes to just catch that one special fish and we'd be on our way, never to fish there again. He agreed and I quickly tied on a #8 mosquito hook, pinched on a splitshot, and put on a chunk of shrimp.

Just like on Tobabbo Caye, the bait thieves were ravenous. But here on Tobacco Caye, they were Mojarra species, small Schoolmaster Snapper, Grunt species and A LOT OF Sergeant Major and other damselfish. It was difficult dropping the bait in front of the batfish...but finally the batfish took notices, made some kind of body gesture to claim his territory and vacuumed up the piece of shrimp with lightning speed!

I waited a second before setting the hook. On the hookset, I lifted the fish off bottom...and the the dreadful pop! I don't know how the hook didn't set...but it came out like the fish just opened its mouth and let go of the bait.

The situation cannot get more frustrating since a boat was now docking right on top of the batfish and we were now asked to leave. The boat came in and muddied up the water anyways. That batfish will haunt me for a very, very long time.

We kept checking some docks and thought we saw some Yellowtail Damselfish. We decided to try for the the next day.

Stopping at this little dock, we found a spot where people cleaned lobsters. You wouldn't Belize the number of bonefish holding right by the pile of lobster carapaces!!! There were easily 20 bonefish all around 2-5lbs. Some of them even picked up an entire carapace and swim away with it while sucking out the flesh!

I've yet to catch a bonefish in the Atlantic. It certainly would be a new species of bonefish for me. I rigged up with a 1/16oz jig head, 8lb fluorocarbon leader and put on a chunk of shrimp. They bonefish were very picky for the lobster and they seemed to ignore my shrimp. It also didn't help that snappers, grunts and mojarras were picking up my shrimp if they sit in one spot for too long.

After sorting through a few unwanted fish, a bonefish finally picked up my shrimp, swam with the jig for a short distance, and spat it before I could set the hook. Hm! I had a couple more suck-and-spit. Eli said maybe they could feel the weight of the jig so he suggested I should just free line a piece of shrimp. I tried that and the bonefish were still spitting out the shrimp. These fish ONLY wanted lobster!

I joked about buying a lobster tail just to catch these darn fish. Funny as it may, a local kid came to the dock with a fly rod. His name was Harrison and he lived just around the corner. His family cleaned the lobster and he offered a small lobster tail for us to use as bait. I was very, very tempted...but it just didn't feel right taking a lobster tail from his family only to use it as bait. These tails were worth a lot to them.

We were losing light fast so Eli and I decided to move on and maybe try again the next day.

We walked back to the main street and the Lobster Fest was on full swing. Today was the first day and there were already a lot of people. We picked a street side stand selling grilled lobster (US$12) and chicken (US$6) and got dinner. Eli treated me last time to lunch in San Diego...so there was no way he was treating me again this meal!

While taking to Harrison, he said you could catch Mutton Snapper (locally known as Red Snapper) from a dock close to the hostel. So after dinner, we decided to check it out.

The night bite was surprisingly very slow. Maybe we were fishing on the wrong dock. There were some small Lane Snapper, Mangrove Snapper, ample amount of Yellowfin Mojarra and some grunts. Even though Yellowfin Mojarra were not our targets, they do pull hard and it is usually pretty fun.

Eli caught a good number of Ballyhoo and had them frozen for bait. We chucked out chunks of ballyhoo but nothing picked them up. We didn't fish too late this night, since we were planning to wake up at 3am to hit the Split. There were tarpon waiting.

June 27, 2013

U betta Belize it! 2013 (Day 3)

I woke up this morning at 4am to horizontal rain, some howling winds, thunder and lightning. It was the raining season after all, so some rain has to be expected. I tried to soak a bait out in the back porch but the rain basically soaked me within seconds so I had no more desire to try harder. I went to bed again and didn't get up until 6am when the rain turned into a light shower and the wind into a softer trade wind.

It was wet and sandy all over the island so I fished on the back porch for a while only to find nothing big enough to take my #8 hook. After the 8:30am breakfast, the sky cleared and the sun soon dried everything out. It was time to start species hunting again.

I promised myself that this morning is focused on getting some of those difficult reef fish. So I primarily armed with a tanago hook and 2lb test. Don't be fooled...I took 3 rods with me to the dock and one of them was rigged up with wire and a 6/0 circle hook in case the tarpon or barracuda showed up again.

I started trying for Bluehead Wrasse but the darn grunts and Slipper Dick just wouldn't leave me alone. Even the Doctorfish and larger Redtail Parrotfish came into the fray and busted my 2lb mono off a couple of times. I don't mind losing tackle...but those tiny tanago hooks are a biatch to tie!

Finally, I figured it was too silly not to cast a big bait out where while I get pestered by unwanted species. So I went into the shallow water to catch a small grunt. Wouldn't you know it...hiding amongst hundreds of French Grunt and Bluestriped Grunt was a new species!

Smallmouth Grunt (Haemulon chrysargyreum) - Species #339

I used the Smallmouth Grunt as bait since it didn't seem to be very fit to survive a release. I sent it out under a floating bubble hoping for something big.

While I was targeting one of the Bluehead, I heard my rod falling over and the Baitrunner gave a steady pull. I ran to grab my rod (smartly secured to the dock with a carabiner clip rod leash), wait for the run to slow down...only to find it was a small Houndfish messing with my bait. I've yet to catch a Houndfish and of course I tried for a hookset...but a circle hook is not designed to catch these bony jaw fish.

I switch my hook to a 4/0 baitholder hook. Maybe it would give me better hookup percentage.

After sending out a small Yellowtail Snapper as bait, I went back looking for a Bluehead. At last, I was able to catch one of the juvenile, which looks nothing like the terminal phase Bluehead.

Bluehead (Thalassoma bifasciatum) - Species #340

Initial/Juvenile Phase

Terminal Phase

There was a Puddingwife Wrasses that showed up after I released the Bluehead. While trying for it, my Baitrunner ran off again and I had to grab it, but it was a large needlefish playing with my bait again. By the time I came back, the Puddingwife Wrasse was gone.

I noticed a damselfish that was fiercely guarding its territory. It had a very bronze coloured head and dorsal area, plus longer looking fins than the Dusky Damselfish or Beaugregory I had seen or caught so far. Curious about what this fish may be, I tried to get it to bite. It took quite a bit of trying getting it to commit since it was too busy chasing all the wrasse and other damselfish that would swarm into its territory as I dropped the bait near this fish...but finally I had it hooked!

While inspecting it in person, it had decidedly longer dorsal and anal fins reaching past the caudal fin base. I'm confident beyond doubt that it was a Longfin Damselfish even though the camera angle and the resulting picture is a bit questionable. We would catch a few more in the next few days where, time and time again, these damselfish with bronze head and back were proven to be Longfin Damselfish. They were actually very common all over the island and in other areas of Belize.

Longfin Damselfish (Stegastes diencaeus) - Species #341

I also lost a couple of fish that would haunt me for a while. One was a juvenile Striped Parrotfish and the other was a juvenile Princess Parrotfish. I had them on the dock but both somehow twisted off the hook, found the gap between the boards on the dock and fell back into the water before I can even take a picture. Urgh! Also, while fishing the the tanago hook, a Yellow Stingray was working the sandy bottom to hunt for prey. As usual, I was not ready for it. By the time I took off my tanago hook and tied on a #8 baitholder hook, the stingray was gone. These guys were just not giving me a chance!

Just before lunch, I was chatting with a couple of Swedish girls who were snorkeling the seagrass beds by the dock. I told them there was better snorkeling on the outer reefs so we arranged to go there after lunch.

During lunch, I also recruited the Guatemala family and the two UK guys to join me...but most of them fell deep into an after lunch siesta and only the two boys from the Guatemalan family and the two Swedish girls joined in. This time I didn't forget my camera...but we didn't see any large marine animals :(. I didn't take too many pictures since the visibility had decreased a bit due to the morning storm. I was also leading the group so I felt responsible to keep track of everyone at all times.

Still, the snorkeling was great for a spot that you can just slip off the dock, swim around the point and reached the outer reef.

After snorkeling, we hung out a bit and then lounged around a bit. Life is real rough on this island LOL.

Later in the afternoon, a sailing boat tour from Raggamuffin Tour arrived and the population of the island almost doubled! Still, there was room on the dock for me to chase after some fish. I noticed some Redfin Needlefish very close to shore. A tiny bit of shrimp on a #20 hook skimmed on the surface got their attention. After they grabbed the bait, you have to let them take the bait around on a slack line. If they feel any sort of tension, they will spit the bait. True to their name, their dorsal fin is red.

Redfin Needlefish (Strongylura notata notata) - Species #342

I spotted a pair of Blackbar Soilderfish at the base of a dock post but they were super shy. One grabbed a tiny piece of squid and spat it out quickly. I really wish I had some fresh shrimp with me!

While I was attempting for a repeated bite from the Soilderfish, a Yellowtail Parrotfish came out of nowhere to grab my #20 hook tied to the 4lb fluorocarbon. It wasn't even a fair fight. The parrotfish took me into the piling and snapped me off in no time. Darn it! It would have been a new species as well. Argh!

Dinner time was approaching so I decided to pack up. On the way back, I noticed a tight rope and it turned out that the friends of the 2 Swedish girls had arrived via the sailing tour and they had set it up. So we gathered there and walked the tight rope for a while. I don't really have to balance to walk the whole length without any assist yet...so I usually need a shoulder there for a bit of support. One of the girls had been practicing for a long time and it was amazing watching her walk the rope.

Before dinner, I took a couple more pictures of my home away from home.

Dinner as usual was good. We had some Caribbean style meatballs...but I love the sweet ripe plantain most. I also had an extra serving of snapper added to my meal - one of the fish I caught the night before. :)

After dinner, I was back to my usual post fishing the night bite. I kept the Redfin Needlefish for bait and cast out a chunk of it on a 4/0 baitholder hook with a wire leader. The snapper bite was slow and I only landed a small snapper, but about 30 minutes into fishing, my Baitrunner slammed down hard and gave off a mean scream!

I reeled my snapped rod in quickly and grabbed the big rod. Something was running fast and hard on the other end. When I set the hook, I heard some splashing on the surface and the fish ran off about a 100 yards. I tightened the drag some more and finally turned the fish. It had ran off to my left almost parallel to shore. Luckily, it wasn't too close to shore so the cabins next door did not interfere at all. As the fish got closer, I could hear more splashing on the surface. I was guessing it was a stingray. When I finally see some colour, I was a silvery side, a large reflective eye and a forked tail. The thought of a juvenile tarpon crossed by mind and I was getting a bit excited...but then it turned out to be a decent Horse-eye Jack. We put this fish on the scale and it came out to be 4lbs even.

The night bite was really slow tonight so I decided to start packing. I would be leaving Tobacco Caye tomorrow morning on the 9am boat so I had to spend a couple hours to reorganize my gear.

June 26, 2013

U betta Belize it! 2013 (Day 2)

Situated on the north side of the island, my cabin received a great amount of trade wind to keep the nights comfortable for sleeping. Waking up at 6am in the morning, I started at the deeper dock again trying to look for something different to catch.

The tide was rising this morning and there were a couple of larger Bar Jack rushing at the school of Silverside. If I was not so focused on the species hunt, I would have cast something to them.

I could see a couple of Bluehead Wrasse around the dock posts, but the Slippery Dick and Doctorfish were just too fast! The smaller mouths of the Bluehead Wrasse also made them very difficult to hook.

Then I believe I saw a Black Hamlet on the bottom. They are truly a cool fish to water. They flap their wide pectoral fins as they swim and that flapping reminds me of a fluttering butterfly. Truly cute fish to watch...but that one didn't want anything to do with my bait.

I also saw a small Sand Tilefish that was flirting about, but again, it didn't like my salted squid at all. If only I had some fresh shrimp with me! :(

While poking around the dock, something caught my attention at the corner of my eye...something big and silver. I've heard that Atlantic Tarpon hang out around the dock. I didn't expect to see 5 of them between 3' to 4' cruising straight toward the dock and sat under it!

Of course I tried to fish for them...but they didn't like my lures or my 3" Gulp! Ghost Shrimp. Sigh...

The tarpon left when the 3' Great Barracuda moved in. I tied on a wire leader and a 6/0 circle hook, caught a small grunt on the light rod, pin the grunt onto the circle hook and tossed it in. The Great Barracuda came in for a cautious look but turned around. In that clear water, maybe it was too smart to bite something with a big hook and a heavy wire leader.

The breakfast bell rang at 8:30am and we had a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon and some fresh flat bread with some fresh squeezed orange juice. Yum!

After breakfast, I went back to fish some more at the dock. It didn't take long for a school of Ballyhoo Halfbeak moved in. A small piece of squid fish on the surface with a small hook got them to chew pretty easily. I jumped a couple of them before finally landing one.

Ballyhoo Halfbeak (Hemiramphus brasiliensis) - Species #336

A local kid came to join me on the dock with a hand line. He had some shrimp for bait and he was catching a few grunts. At first, he said he'll keep the grunts for dinner, which I can understand when he slammed the fish on the dock to dispatch them. But when it came time to leave, he just left all the grunts on the dock after he caught a bigger Redtail Parrotfish. It made me a bit mad that he would kill those little grunts and leave them on the dock to rot.

On the island, there is an older gentleman named George (they nicknamed him Grandpa and he's 58 years old). George shared quite a bit of fishing knowledge with me. When George asked if those were my grunts that were left behind, I told him it was the kids. When the kid later returned, George gave him a lesson but the kid simply tossed the fish up into the air for the Man-O-War birds to fight over the dead fish.

The morning flew by quickly and soon the lunch bell rang at 12pm. We had some chicken salsa tortillas for lunch with fresh watermelon juice that was spiced with a bit of ginger. Really interesting and refreshing taste.

Midday was really hot during the summer in Belize. Instead of fishing, I lounged on the hammock until the couple next door asked if I wanted to go snorkeling. They were a family of three from Washington DC with a one year old son. It was a small island and the ladies at the cabins were real friendly, so they entrusted their napping son to the ladies while we went for a 45 minute snorkel. I'm still mad that I forgot to bring my camera with me since we saw a Spotted Eagle Ray from a pretty close distance and there was also a school of a dozen large tarpon in deeper water. There was a lot of cool reef fish on the outer side of the reef. Lots of soft coral and sponges grew healthy and tall.

After snorkeling, I lounged on the hammock again for a nap, only to wake up an hour later craving for more species hunting in the afternoon. I had about 1.5 hours before dinner so I tried to find a nearby spot to try. (Seriously, the term "nearby" is all relative. On this island, if I had to walk about 3 minutes away, it was pretty "far" LOL).

At the dock next to me, I saw these little damselfish with yellow tails. There were some dark blue juveniles with bright cyan spots. I'm pretty sure these were Yellowtail Damselfish juveniles and the darker damselfish with the yellow tails were the adults. I caught one of them but the tail was not as brilliantly yellow out of the water. I knew what I saw and caught even though the picture can't seem show the species characteristics well.

Yellowtail Damselfish (Microspathodon chrysurus) - Species #337

Just a little further, there was a shallow area full of small shells. Hiding among the shells were little fish. These turned out to be Frillfin Goby. They were very easy to catch but very difficult to photograph in the fading light. Here's a picture on one I caught the next day.

Frillfin Goby (Bathygobius soporator) - Species #338

Dinner time came around again and we were served the fresh snapper caught last night.

What I love about traveling is the people I often meet. A few more guests had arrived today, including a family from Guatemala and two young guys from the UK who just got into medical school. There were a lot of interesting conversations during dinner.

After dinner, I returned to my night shift work again. Just like clockwork, I caught two snappers quickly before tossing out the heavy rod. As I was looking down, I saw a Yellow Stingray cruising by. Of course, it left before I could even get my line in.

I still had the Ballyhoo with me so I scored the fish a few times and chucked it out whole hoping for something big. Maybe a bigger Yellow Stingray would find it.

Some time during the night while I was admiring the stars, my Baitrunner start clicking with a steady pull. The fish was not running real fast so I let it run for about 20 seconds before reeling tight to set the circle hook. Somehow, the hook didn't set but the leader came back kinked. I suspected it was a big stingray that had vacuumed the bait into its cavernous mouth but the circle hook simple couldn't find the right jaw structure for the hookset. It was a real bummer since I felt the fish for a couple of seconds and it felt like a nice fish.

After running out of large bait, I tried to soak squid heads again but there was no taker except for a couple of snappers that busted me off on the reef bottom.

By 12pm, I called it a night since the wind was really picking up. A storm was coming!