December 30, 2021
This essay is an excerpt from the book 101 Fish: A Fly Fisher’s Life List (Stackpole Books, HeadWater Books, 2012). This is Chapter 9, titled “Snook.”
In 1960 I traveled to Belize, a Central American country where people speak English. To my knowledge at that time there were maybe three or four fishing lodges in the entire country. I was lucky I would be fishing at a new one on the Turneffe Islands, located 30 miles offshore to the east.
The Turneffes are mainly clusters of mangroves, but here and there is enough solid land to be called a true island. The Turneffes are maybe 30 miles long and sit on the edge of the second-largest barrier reef in the world.
I had caught a number of snook on fly but never more than 24 inches. At a seminar I met two guys who claimed if I went to the just-opened Turneffe Island Lodge located on the island group’s extreme southern tip I would surely get a snook better than two feet long.
After crossing 30 miles of open water in a slow-moving old boat, I arrived at the lodge. The owner, Vic Barothy, who ran a fishing camp on Pine Island in Cuba and had to escape when Fidel Castro took over, met me.
Vic assigned me to a native guide named Phillip, who was maybe 5 feet, 2 inches tall and weighed 140 pounds. We got along famously.
I won’t bore you with the thousands of bonefish we saw and the uncounted numbers we caught. On the second day I told Phillip I really came to catch a big snook, and he said we could do that in the morning. There was a soft knock on my bedroom door well before dawn that awakened me to see Phillip standing in the doorway.
I dressed quickly and we stole quietly out of the lodge. The evening before he had me rig my fly rod with a large white Deceiver with a gray top attached to a 40-pound shock leader.
He cautioned me to be silent as we got into the boat, and he poled us no more than 150 yards from the lodge. He pointed and I cast to a drop-off sandbar near the mangroves.
I started a retrieve and got a jolting strike and hooked and landed a 42-inch snook—still my best on the fly. But for me the best was yet to come.
I made arrangements to come back the following year and requested Phillip again as my guide. When I arrived, Phillip greeted me. The next morning we were off for bonefish. We sat in the anchored boat eating our lunch while Phillip told me one of the most interesting stories I’ve heard in all my years of fishing.
When not guiding, Phillip used his sailboat for commercial fishing. He said that he and his son were in the Turneffes fishing and did not realize a hurricane was approaching. By the time they realized there was a storm coming, it was too late. They did what all natives do—they ran their boat well up into a mangrove creek, where the tough trees furnish the best shelter from the storm.
After securely tying the boat, they waited out the hurricane. At the peak of the storm, because of the storm surge, the boat sank, and they stood chest deep in the water for hours.
After the storm it took several days to get the boat in shape and to sail home. Landing at the Belize City Docks, they tied up the boat and walked up the street toward their home.
On the way they were met by a funeral procession formed by Phillip’s wife. Seeing her husband and her son walking toward her, Phillip said his wife fainted away in the street. A remarkable story that to me was better than my big snook.
Lefty Kreh is the author of dozens of books, and was a Fly Fisherman contributing editor for 30 years. John Randolph, editor emeritus of Fly Fisherman, has called him “the best, and the most influential sport fisherman in the last half of the 20th century.”