December 08, 2021
This article was originally titled Seeing is Belizing in the April/May 2013 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine.
A “grand slam” in fly fishing uses terminology from tennis to describe perhaps one of the most difficult achievements in saltwater flats fishing.
Winning the Wimbledon tournament in and of itself is an incredible feat, but to also win the French, Australian, and U.S. open tournaments all in the same year is the stuff legends are made of.
Now, getting a saltwater flats grand slam won’t get you on the front page of The New York Times, but public accolades aren’t what fly fishing is all about. Fly fishing is all about the personal satisfaction of making the perfect cast under overhanging branches, of wrapping the hackle on your Parachute
Adams so the feather fibers cup downward, or finding a big brown trout feeding in the tailout of a pool just as the evening gloom turns the water to gunmetal. Nobody presents us with a trophy when we pass these milestones—we do it for ourselves. And catching a bonefish, permit, and tarpon in one day is reason enough to give yourself a pat on the back.
But a saltwater grand slam is a more than a personal accomplishment, because saltwater flats fishing requires teamwork. You depend on the guide to anticipate the tides, wind, and the sunlight; position the boat; and help you spot the fish. He’s not there just to bring the sandwiches, and you’re not on the bow just to look good holding the rod—he’s depending on you to hold up your end of the bargain.
Turneffe Flats guide Dubs Young must have shared his boat with some decent fly fishers to achieve his legendary status as the grand slam king of Turneffe Atoll. (He’s also been at it a long time.) Dubs holds a lodge record of guiding an angler to three grand slams in a single week—and he’s done that on two different occasions.
It’s no surprise that his brother Deon Young would enjoy matching or surpassing Dubs’s one-week record, and he was close to doing that in May 2012 when he and John Kao of San Jose, California, got together for a truly epic week of saltwater flats fishing.
May and June are arguably the best grand slam months of the year because that’s when most of large ocean tarpon pass through the perimeter reef and take up residence in the spiderweb of deep creeks and channels that move water to and from the interior lagoon of the atoll. The other 10 months of the year, fly fishers can find baby tarpon deep in the mangroves, but part of what makes a Turneffe grand slam so special is that the tarpon in the spring are often oceanic giants that follow baitfish back into the creeks. Bucketheads from 50 to 100 pounds are the norm, not the exception.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The hardest part of any grand slam is the permit. Widely regarded as the most challenging and sought-after of all the flats species, permit have keen eyesight and the jangled nerves of a meth addict at a police convention. They move quickly and erratically, avoid contact at all costs, and once spotted, are usually gone in moments.
Maybe nobody passed this message along to John Kao, because he left the dock at about 8 A.M. Monday morning—on his first day of fishing—and the time stamp on his photo shows he landed his first permit at 8:38. Deon and Kao continued permit fishing until about lunch, when the tide was right for tarpon fishing. When they dropped anchor, a large tarpon rolled near the boat. Tarpon often roll at the surface—sometimes to take gulps of air, and other times they are feeding on baitfish trapped just under the surface. In any case, in the deep creeks of Turneffe, that’s how you know the tarpon are around.
“Should I cast now?” Kao asked his guide.
“Nah, let’s eat our sandwiches,” Deon replied.
But the tarpon continued rolling, and a few minutes later, a half-eaten sandwich was on the seat, and Kao was hooked into the biggest fish of his life.
“It was just like hitting a wall,” said Kao of the fish that went on a long, blistering run that showed Kao the nether regions of his backing . . . and then it leapt high into the air with the line stretched into and out of the water at an oddly obtuse angle.
Kao “bowed” to the fish at just the right moment, and then Kao was able to gain line and bring the tarpon close to the boat. And then it ran under the boat, and in a tragic lesson in trigonometry, the fish-fighting angles became acute, and the rod shattered between the cork and the stripping guide.
While Kao carried on the fight, Deon used electrical tape to make a hasty splint on the rod butt section. Amazingly, the makeshift rod held up and Kao landed a 100-pound silver-flanked fish that had possibly frequented that very creek channel during spring tides for a decade.
It didn’t take long for Kao to finish his grand slam with a small bonefish from the wadable flats near the lodge. Turneffe Atoll is not known for producing giant bonefish like Florida or the Bahamas. While there are some big bonefish around, most people find the vast schools of 2- to 4-pound bonefish hugely distracting.
If you’re just getting started saltwater fishing, Turneffe is a great place to tune up your presentation skills and keep your line tight on bonefish in the process. If you’ve already caught a bunch of bonefish, like Kao you’re likely to focus on tarpon and permit, and turn to bonefish only when it’s grand slam time, or when the tides create optimal bonefishing conditions.
Of course, when Kao hit a grand slam on day one, Deon began to think that his brother’s record might fall. And so they began tarpon fishing early the next day by leaving the lodge at 4:45 A.M., dropping anchor in the dark, and making the first casts of the day before sunrise.
You typically need high sun for permit fishing because it’s highly visual, but with tarpon fishing at Turneffe, you can pick a spot based on depth and tide, and cast large baitfish imitations with an 11- or 12-weight rod, and a clear, intermediate sinking line. The wee hours of the morning are a great time to get a jumpstart on the day’s fishing—particularly if you’re hunting for a grand slam.
Standard procedure is to fish one of the big tarpon holes near the lodge so you can navigate there in the dark, and be back for breakfast. Kao didn’t get a bite on his first morning of sunrise fishing, but it’s an exhilarating experience to make long casts in the cool morning air and watch the pink and orange sunrise slowly warm the palm trees.
But he did land a permit around noon when the sun was high, and they hit the same tarpon hole again on their way back to the lodge. Kao hooked a tarpon at 4 P.M. but luckily for their grand slam hopes, it was not a giant.
“You’ve got 20 minutes to land this tarpon,” Deon told him. “We need to get a bonefish before it gets too dark to see them.”
Sometimes things go exactly according to plan, and by 5 P.M. on day two, the duo was back at the dock with a second grand slam. Even Dubs thought that his record of three slams in a week might be in jeopardy.
But on other days, things don’t go exactly according to plan, and in the days that followed, Kao landed more permit but no tarpon. In total he landed five permit for the week, and hooked several others. One morning he hooked a permit on a #8 olive Enrico Puglisi Permit Crab and broke the fish off. A few hours later he was fishing in the same vicinity where they saw a similar-size school of fish. Kao cast to the lead fish, hooked and landed it, and the permit had an extra, identical fly in its mouth. Was it the same fish?
Maybe not, as Enrico Puglisi fishes at Turneffe Flats every year, and his success with his fly patterns there has made believers out of nearly all the guides. The small, but well-stocked fly shop at Turneffe Flats lodge carries most of his flats patterns.
The most popular tarpon fly at the lodge may be Puglisi’s black and purple Tarpon Streamer. The name is a little boring, but Dubs and Deon call it “Peanut Butter and Jelly” for tarpon.
On their last day of fishing, Deon still had hopes they might hit the magical number of three grand slams in a single week. A small weather front pushed through, making visibility tough on the flats, but the fish showed their tails and dorsals enough that Kao landed his final permit of the trip just after lunch. To switch things up and wait for the tide, they next caught a few bonefish and late in the last day, they dropped anchor in a deep, narrow creek fringed with mangrove roots and overhanging branches. It was their last chance at a grand slam.
The tarpon didn’t seem to be rolling, but they could see flashes and some mud down deep where at least one tarpon seemed to be grazing on sardines hiding in the tangle of roots.
Deon had Kao cast up under the mangrove branches, and allow the “Peanut Butter and Jelly” to sink down into the unseen feeding frenzy.
Deon must have seen something, because before Kao felt the fish, Deon yelled “SET THE HOOK!” causing Kao to instinctively strike with his line hand as if he were spiking a football.
The big tarpon erupted from he water right near the boat, rattling its gill plates in the air and spraying water across the creek channel. When the fish took off running toward the Atlantic, coils of loose line jumped off the casting deck and somehow secured a stranglehold around Kao’s wrist. Kao was using a straight piece of 50-pound-test fluorocarbon for a leader, but the fish didn’t pause on its surge toward the ocean. The leader snapped, dashing all hopes of a third grand slam.
By any standards though, it was an incredible week, and indicative of just how good the fishing can be at Turneffe Atoll. Kao’s experience was anything but unusual—the same week another angler recorded two grand slams.
Even if you don’t care about grand slams, the opportunity—the very fact that they are within reach—highlights the variety of the fishing, and the amazing biodiversity of the largest coral atoll in the Atlantic.
These three flats species, while important to fly fishers, give only an inkling of the aquatic life in this complex ecosystem. While you’re there you’ll see saltwater crocodiles, manatees, several varieties of sea turtles, giant spotted eagle rays, porpoises, conch crawling the flats, and local lobster fishermen diving down to their pots. In some similar ecosystems without protections, the conch are gone, the manatees are seen only on signs recognizing them as endangered species, the crocs are a distant memory, and the permit and tarpon are barely hanging on.
Craig Hayes and the members of the Turneffe Atoll Trust, along with other Belize conservation groups, have done the planet a great service by working with the Belize government to set aside this atoll as the country’s newest and perhaps most significant marine preserve. This not only serves the interests of future fly fishers, but also protects a fragile ecosystem in a rapidly overdeveloping region. Their success is indeed a “grand slam” for future generations.
Ross Purnell is the editor of Fly Fisherman.