Jim Austin's Vermonter at Large
Jim Austin
Jim Austin
is a freelance writer from Putney, Vermont.

His previous columns are archived HERE.

Posted 04.03.03


Tarpon Town

While Genghis Bush was beginning his campaign to conquer the Middle East, I was lollygaging in the fleshpots of beautiful Belize. Actually, the only fleshpot was I, a well-marbled northern albino ready to be sautéed by the equatorial sun.

Our trip this year saw myself and a pal escorting several college students to warmer climes over Spring Break. Costa Rica had been our destination in years past but the birds were too loud in CR so Dennis and I settled on Belize as an alternate.

Tobacco Caye is a five-acre dot in the middle of the biggest coral reef in the Western Hemisphere, nine miles from Dangriga on the mainland. One reason we decided to try Belize is the fact that it is the only country in Central or South America whose official language is English. Belizian English is delivered in a calypso-like accent that assures a frozen Vermonter that they are not in Montpeculiar anymore.

The fact that the guidebooks raved about the fishing in Belize did not escape my attention. I would rather fish in the sea than be thrown into a pit of naked super models.

Belize is a big salt-water fly-fishing destination and your best chance to catch the vaunted "grand slam" of fly-fishing. Any bug flicker who can land a tarpon, permit, and bonefish will be deemed a master fisherman and Belize gives the would-be super flies their chance to accomplish this. I don't fly fish. I tried it, hooked my hat, the weeds on shore, and very few fish. Besides I don't look good in tweeds and prefer a good stogie to the ubiquitous pipe of the fly guys.

I decided to hire a guide and fish for two hours before dinner every day of our stay on the island. At the last minute, Murray, a Canadian from Calgary Alberta, asked if he could share my charter. Naturally, the legendary Austin largesse kicked in and I happily invited my new Canadian friend along. On the way to catch bait. Murray informed me that he had never fished before in his life.

Now, rather than curl my lip in disgust at a life wasted, I saw an opportunity to broaden Murray's horizons by making him privy to my encyclopedic knowledge of the sport. Our guide steered us to some mangroves and with a deft cast of his circular net he hauled in about 3thirty sprats, 4-inch long fish that we would use for bait. The idea was to hook the sprat through the nose and slow-troll them through tarpon country. It was tarpon that I was after.

As we began to troll I asked Murray what he did for a living. "I grow hay, eh" was his reply. I challenge you to ask a sensible follow-up question to that statement.

"Hay," you say, "How fascinating"or "Really, hay, like horse food?"

Consequently,, we just sat there trolling in silence. Eventually Murray got a hit and reeled in a 12-pound barracuda. There were many instructions given as old Murray cranked that Penn reel and whooped about his first fish ever. "I got one, eh. She's a beauty, eh."

Eventually, we boated the toothy predator with congrats all around. Murray had been deflowered and was ready for more. He did get more. He got a jack and two more barracudas. The avuncular and worldly attitude that I had been dispensing turned to hostility. How dare this wretched newbie hay farmer outfish me, the golden boy of angling?

The final straw came when Murray hooked a 15-pound tarpon. These silver missiles are truly the strongest fish with the biggest heart in the sea. Murray's tarpon broke water and tail-danced for five minutes before the beefy farmer hauled him to the side of the boat. A quick picture taken by his sulking fishing buddy and the tarpon was released unharmed.

I didn't get a strike for the entire two hours. Oh, the ignominy. Just to rub it in, the erstwhile silent Murray gave me an interminable description of the strength and feel of that marvelous fish blah, blah, blah.

Fortunately, Murray and his wife left the next day. I was able to resume fishing on my own without being annoyed by hay farmers.

It was 6:30 the next evening and the guide and I were trolling in to have dinner when my rod bent over like I'd hooked a Buick. I hauled back for all I was worth to set the hook as a five-foot-long silver scud shot ten-feet out of the water and landed like the movers had dropped a piano in the water.

The guide casually observed "You got a big one, boss.". That fish broke water seven times, each time gill plates rattled like maracas as the huge fish tried to throw the hook. It took exactly thirty minutes to land the monster. Several pics were taken and he was revived and released.

Suddenly, I felt fine about Murray's miserable fifteen pounder. The guide estimated mine at 80 lbs. My life is now complete. Except that I really need one to top a hundred pounds before I die.

Guess where we're heading next year on our school trip?