Belize Please! – A Fishing Adventure in Paradise
by Warren & Jann Brooks, Lansing Safari Club members
Blue Reef Adventures & Cotton Tree Lodge – February 2020
Bidding on Belize
My wife and I were fortunate enough to place the winning bid on a five day four night Belize sport fishing adventure donated by Drake Dawson and Safari’s Unlimited at the SCI Annual Fundraiser in 2019. We had seen this auction item up for bid numerous times and we decided that it was time to pull the trigger and put in a serious bid for this awesome adventure. During the bidding we were on the phone with our good friends from the Chicago area, Jim Wrenn & Jan Welky and John & Chris Long, who were as eager as we were to take this wonderful vacation. Once we were announced as the winning bidder we all let out a giant cheer (and a giant sigh of relief) and couldn’t wait to start planning this very unique trip.
We talked logistics with Drake Dawson @ Safaris Unlimited and he suggested that while we were in Belize that we add an extra three day stay and include The Cotton Tree Lodge in the jungle of southern Belize to our itinerary. After our time on a private island the jungle retreat would be just the thing to add a unique level of relaxation to the end of our trip. Dates were suggested and schedules were reviewed and we decided to book the 2nd thru the 11th of February for our adventure.
Blue Reef Adventures
Once our dates were set we were contacted by Polly Alford at Blue Reef Adventures to finalize our island trip plans. Polly, along with her husband Roland, are the owners of Blue Reef Adventures. They are a family business and truly care about their guests and making their experience a memorable one. Our flight plans would take us from Detroit/Chicago to Houston, TX and then to Belize City. From Belize City we would need to make our way down to Placencia for our jumping off point for the island adventure. Polly made all of our flight arrangements with Tropic Air, the local Belizean airline, and handled all of our logistics while in Belize. From arranging flights to securing hotel rooms to arranging pickups and drop-offs at the airport Polly made sure our trip plans came off without a hitch!
Waiting for Belize
While we waited for February 2nd to arrive we all did some investigation into the country of Belize to determine just what we could expect when we landed. It turns out that Belize is primarily an English speaking country and their currency is pegged to the US Dollar so you don’t have to worry about a fluctuating exchange rate, it’s always 2 Belizean dollars to 1 US Dollar. Restaurants and shops take credit cards and US Dollars so having to exchange money at the airport or a bank isn’t an issue. We discovered that we would be visiting during the Belizean dry season so the weather and insect levels should be just about perfect.
Fast forward to February 2nd, 2020! Our flights went as scheduled and we found ourselves at the airport in Belize City. A quick trip through the Duty Free Shop at the airport and we had all our particulars ready for our island adventure. We took the Tropic Air flight from Belize City to Placencia and our hotel had a van waiting for us at the baggage claim area all made possible by Polly at Blue Reef Adventures. Once in our hotel rooms we all scrambled to stow our gear and hurry down to the hotel restaurant and bar in time to see the kickoff of the Super Bowl. We had a great meal of fresh fish and ceviche along with samplings of the local rum. After the game it was off to bed and rest for the beginning of our island adventure.
As promised, our guides pulled up in their boat to our hotel’s dock the next day at 9:30 AM sharp. The boat was a center console style fishing design and my first thought was that there wasn’t going to be room for all of us and our luggage. The guides, Brad and Keon, were able to stow our gear in plenty of spaces and we were soon shoving off for an hour long ride to the island. The boat ride to the island was very pleasant and full of anticipation of what was to come. Technically, we spent the next four nights at the Pelican Beach Resort on South Water Caye inside the Belize Barrier Reef System. That sure sounds like a mouthful but it was truly one of the most beautiful places my wife and I have ever had the privilege of vacationing. Once we reached the island the staff handled all of our luggage and gave us a quick overview of everything that was available to us during our visit. We proceeded to sit down with our guides over a fresh conch chowder lunch and discuss our plans for the day.
Both Brad and Keon of Blue Reef Adventures made it very clear that they were at our disposal whenever we needed them and that the only schedule they were on was whatever we wanted to do. They provided us with our own private secure area below a beautiful observation deck where they stored large coolers filled with ice, pop, water, soft drinks and beer along with three different kinds of rum and rum punch mixers. We called this little area our “She Shed” and, it also was a storage place for fishing and snorkeling gear and kayaks if we ever needed access to them. Above our She Shed was the observation deck with a view over the lee side of the island that was a great place to gather for cocktail hour and to watch the beautiful Belizean sunset.
During lunch we all decided that our first priority was to go fishing! Our guides determined that with the current weather and tide conditions our best bet was to try bottom fishing after lunch and we eagerly agreed. It was a short ten minute ride in the boat from the dock at our island paradise to the fishing grounds and soon we were baiting hooks and dropping down on our unsuspecting prey. We fished in approximately 500’ of water and caught a number of yellow eyed snapper and a very large barracuda. We were using a spinning reel combo with cut chunks of fresh fish on circle hooks with four or five large barrel sinkers to quickly get our bait to the bottom. After we brought up our first yellow eyed snapper our guide Keon asked if anyone knew why they were called that… Ha Ha – these guys had a great sense of humor too!
For a guy from Michigan used to ice fishing for bluegill and perch in 12’ of water at this time of the year this type of fishing was a real treat. It probably took three minutes for our baits to make it all the way down to the bottom and even longer to reel in our catch. On numerous occasions we would hook a nice snapper only to then have a shark decide that it was feeding time and steal half of our catch. We fished for maybe two hours and then took the short ten minute ride back to the island in the boat. Using the island as our “base camp” for fishing, snorkeling and scuba diving was extremely convenient. We could begin or end any of our boating excursions at any time and still be within 15 minutes of our island home. A definite plus when plans and weather may change.
We made it back to the dock, took some pictures and cleaned up for cocktail hour while our guides cleaned our catch and took the snapper to the kitchen so it could be served that night at our evening meal. The kitchen prepared the yellow eyed snapper in two very distinct ways: broiled and deep fried. I have almost always enjoy broiled fish more than deep fried as frying seems to mask some of the fish’s flavor but I must say, this batch of lightly breaded and deep fried snapper was some of the best fish that I have ever eaten. The resort set up a long dining table that had room for all of us and our guides in a very private area of the outdoor deck. We were able to trade our fishing stories and share much laughter at all of our meals without worrying about imposing on any of the other guests that were at the resort. During dinner we discussed the next day’s adventures and determined that snorkeling in the morning looked like our best option.
We got to snorkel!
After a hearty breakfast we met our guides at the dock for individual fittings with mask, snorkel, swim fins and flotation vests. Once we all had our gear sized up and ready to go we took another short ten minute boat ride to snorkel some donut reefs in approximately 12’ to 20’ feet of water in the Belize Barrier Reef system. Our guides explained that this was that largest living continuous barrier reef system in the world as Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has large portions that have died or become destroyed by both man and nature. Upon entering the water I was taken aback by how gin clear the water was with a multitude of colorful fish and corals to see. Our guide Brad was in the water with us the entire time while guide Keon captained the boat.
Two priorities for us while snorkeling were to try to spear and capture as many lionfish and lobster as we could. Lionfish are an invasive species and damage the reef ecosystem so a priority is placed on removing them as often as you can. Lobsters were still in season and we all talked about how great it would be if we could catch some fresh ones for dinner some night. During our snorkel adventure our guide Brad caught my attention and said “Do you want to see me spear a lionfish?” Well, the obvious answer was “Hell Yes!” But, my problem was, where is this lionfish? I had been snorkeling for over 15 minutes and never seen one. To my astonishment the lionfish was in a tiny crevice in about 15’ of water right below me. It is amazing how our guides were able to point things out that would seem totally obvious once you saw them. Brad swam down and I followed him until suddenly I saw the lionfish with its fans splayed out in a beautiful display of color. With a quick flip of the wrist Brad speared the lionfish and brought him to the surface for all of us to gawk over.
After about an hour of snorkeling we all made it back on the boat to dry off in the beautiful Belize sun. While we were drying off our guides took turns searching for more lobster and lionfish. On this first snorkeling adventure our guides speared two lionfish and seven lobsters. Another snorkeling trip a couple of days later and the guides scored another eight lobster. Of course, our guides cleaned and prepared our lobsters for the kitchen to serve with our evening meals. The tails were split down the middle butterfly style and baked in the oven with a little light garlic butter. To say these lobsters were sweet and savory would be an understatement.
Some more fishing expeditions
In addition to our snorkeling adventures we also went on a number of fishing expeditions. After our first trip bottom fishing in 500’ of water our guides suggested we try trolling along the outer reef in relatively shallow water. After leaving the dock we moved about 50 yards out and our guide Max threw a cast net over a large school of sardines. Within a matter of minutes we had all the bait we needed and were already starting to troll for fish. As I have mentioned, being on an island in the center of all of our activities was extremely convenient. There were no long boat rides to fishing grounds or trips to the marina or bait store, everything, it seemed, was literally minutes away. Once again, our guides set us up with open faced spinning reels and medium action rods trolling a sardine hooked thru the lips at about two mph. As soon as we started trolling Chicagoan Jim Wrenn hooked a very large barracuda and the fight was on! We were using a method the guides called “free spooling” where you leave the bail of the reel open and hold the line with your finger waiting to feel a bite. Once you feel the bite you release the line and count to two then close the bail and the fight will be on.
Using this method we trolled along the reefs edge and hooked a number of red snapper and more barracuda. At one point Chicagoan John Long had a nice snapper on the line and I had hooked a good size barracuda. Of course, my barracuda decided to circle the boat and both lines were tangled but, both fish were boated successfully. Once our lines were untangled I challenged our guide Max to a “Mano a Mano” fishing contest from the stern of the boat to see who could boat the next fish before we made it back to the dock. We both had multiple strikes and Max had what we thought was a nice red snapper on the line only to have him shake the hook causing our big contest to be a draw.
Outer reef trolling for wahoo
We decided at dinner that night to get an early morning start on outer reef trolling for wahoo the next day. My wife Jann and I along with Jim and John met at the dock at 6:30 AM ready to go. It was quite windy and there was a good size surf building as we trolled north from our island paradise to another island off in the distance. The conditions were certainly not optimal and after two bouncy hours we were back at the dock empty handed but not discouraged. On Thursday our guides determined that trolling the outer reef again for wahoo would be best at around 9:30 AM so that was our plan of attack. In between fishing trips we snorkeled, swam, fished from shore and relaxed in hammocks and lounge chairs on our private beach but, always on our own agenda.
Thursday came and we began trolling for wahoo on the outer reef. We saw a number of flying fish darting across the waves after about a half an hour of trolling and then, suddenly, the cry went out “Fish On!!!”. I was the closest one to the pole so I quickly grabbed and started reeling. I made it to the back of the boat and before I knew it my 12 lbs. wahoo was gaffed and boated. I must say, it was quite a relief to me that we had finally caught a wahoo and I could now relax a little and hope for bigger and better things for my angling friends. Sure enough, after about 15 minutes the cry of “Fish On!” was heard again and John was up and darting towards a pole that had line screaming from its reel. Once situated on the back of the boat the guides all said “Big Fish Johnny, Big Fish”.
I had come around the center console to get a better look at the fight and couldn’t believe at how much line was already off the reel. The fish had struck the lure and probably run off at least 100 yards of line before John was able to stop the fish from running away from the boat. With cries from our guides of “Reel Johnny Long…Reel” it was about a 15 minute fight until we got a glimpse of the fish. As I watched behind our boat I saw a beautiful silver blue color emerge in the wake and couldn’t believe the size of the wahoo I was witnessing. One of the guides grabbed the leader and our guide Brad swung the gaff at the giant’s body striking home a solid shot to the middle of the fish. Brad hoisted the fish into the back of the boat and we all exploded with cheers and shouts of joy as the 50 lbs. plus fish started to smash its tail into the fiberglass. Not much longer after the fish was boated we had another strike and Jim sat down to battle the next fish on the line. Unfortunately, during the battle the fish broke the leader and made his way back down to his watery lair.
Overall, our four nights and five days on South Water Caye were some of the best vacation days my wife and I have ever spent. It seemed like we were always doing something fun and also, totally enjoying our surroundings with old and new friends alike. We were very fortunate to be travelling with two wonderful couples and we shared many a side splitting laugh with both day and night. I can’t thank Blue Reef Adventures and Polly, Brad, Keon and Max enough for making this trip such a memorable one. I also want to thank the staff at the Pelican Beach Resort as they were overly friendly and professional. Alas, after all this fun in the surf and sun we took the hour boat ride back to Placencia on Friday to begin our jungle journey.
Our Jungle Journey
Placencia is a quaint and fun town. There are many shops along one of the longest sidewalks you will ever see for shopping for clothing, rum, jewelry and wood carvings plus, there are plenty of options for food and drinks on the beach. After our brief overnight visit here it was another short plane flight down to Punta Gorda for our jungle adventure at the Cotton Tree Lodge.
We touched down at the tiny Punta Gorda airport and our van was waiting for us for the hour ride to the Cotton Tree Lodge. Our driver took us to the Farmers Market in Punta Gorda before leaving for the lodge and we bought some bananas and limes for making drinks and daiquiris. The lodge is under new ownership and proprietors Adam and Kasey Van Tassell have a very unique and beautiful setting on the banks of the Moho River in the southern Belizean jungle. It’s a very striking contrast going from an island paradise to a jungle getaway as they are two very different ecosystems but the Van Tassel’s are experts at this. You see, they also own a fishing lodge in Northern Minnesota that they operate from May thru October which corresponds with the rainy season here in the Belize jungle.
As we pulled up to the lodge the first thing that you notice is the lushness of the surrounding area and the giant cotton tree towering above the jungle floor. The lodge has elevated wooden walkways that meander thru the fruit tree groves, gardens and eventually to your private cabana. We were housed in three individual cabanas nestled along the Moho River that all had their own bathrooms and two large queen size beds. The size of the cabanas was very generous and we also had matching his and hers hammocks on our partial wrap around deck where we spent considerable time just enjoying the quiet of the jungle and the river. Once we stowed our gear we all made our way over to the large main lodge for a wonderful lunch of chicken and vegetable soup and a quick briefing of what we could expect over the next three nights. We spent the rest of the day swimming and floating on tubes in the Moho River while enjoying rum drinks from the lodge bar.
Included in our Cotton Tree Lodge escape were two land based tours associated with the local area. From a list of probably ten options we chose to visit the Nim Li Punit Mayan Ruins site with zip lining and river tubing along with the Blue Cave Wet Creek Adventure Swim tour. The Nim Li Punit tour was very educational and our guide, Pop, was very knowledgeable not only about the Mayan culture but all the plant life in the area as well. After touring the ruins we went on a jungle zip line adventure which was a first for both my wife and myself and was followed up with about a half an hour gentle float down a local river to where Pop was waiting to pick us up and take us back to the lodge. After a wonderful cocktail and hors d’oeuvres hour we enjoyed a delicious meal in the lodge and were then serenaded by the howler monkeys before falling asleep to dream about our wet cave swimming planned for the next day.
Blue Creek Cave
Our drive to the Blue Creek Cave took approximately an hour with a quick pit stop in the middle for snacks and a bathroom break. Pop again was our guide and we thoroughly enjoyed his company and his running commentary about the local history of the villages we passed through. We dressed in appropriate swimwear and made sure to have water shoes with solid soles for the 20 minute hike up to the cave entrance. Once there we donned our flotation vests, helmets and head lamps for a truly unique adventure and one that would be very hard to repeat anywhere in the world.
We entered the cave and immediately crawled down to the water level and slid gently into the cool flowing stream. We intermittently swam and climbed over shallow areas and waterfalls all the while in total darkness except for the thin beams of our headlamps. This was truly a one of a kind adventure and at one point we all climbed up onto a small rock plateau and Pop instructed us to turn off our headlamps. We sat there in total darkness, unable to see our own hands move in front of our faces. As the cave started to get smaller and the going got a little tougher we all decided that a return to the cave opening would be a good plan. Pop was always there to lend a hand and to warn us about upcoming areas of difficulty.
Once out of the cave we dried ourselves off for the short hike back to the van. At the end of the trail where the van was parked a number of local children had set up blankets with items for sale such as wooden carvings, baskets, necklaces and associated jewelry. All the children were very friendly and had smiles on their faces as we browsed through their sale items. This type of friendliness was typical of just about everyone we met in Belize, from the Farmers Market in Punta Gorda to our instructor for the zip lining, everyone seemed very happy that we six Americans were visiting their country and having fun. Thanks again to Adam and Kasey Van Tassell and to our wonderful guide Pop who made our visit a real success.
Our Trip to Belize Was a Success!
Overall, we found Belize to be a very safe and tourist friendly country and we would not hesitate to go back again to this wonderful island and jungle paradise. We can’t thank Safari Club International enough for all they do for the advancement of hunting and being advocates for the outdoors and “First For Hunters”. Also many thanks to SCI for allowing us to share this wonderful trip with two other couples who are even better friends after this fantastic adventure. Thank you!!!!
We would highly recommend you see these places for yourself and visit their websites at:
Safari Unlimited Worldwide Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Blue Reef Adventures Email: email@example.com
Cotton Tree Lodge Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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