Low-Impact Permit Fishing
November 17, 2017
In May 2007 Lincoln Westby used weathered, sun-bleached lumber to post signs at both ends of a 2-mile-long flat near Channel Caye, Belize, with the words "no wading" scrawled on them. The signs were at a place called Permit Alley—a collection of submerged turtle grass and coral shallows where Westby himself had walked and poled for more than 20 years.
For those who don't know Westby, it would seem that such an audacious directive could only come from a native foreign investor, or some dictatorial property owner who didn't want interlopers fishing in "his" spot.
In reality, the signs were an open invitation to learn what Westby learned the hard way—that resident flats fish can be trained by aversion. Through decades of firsthand observation, Westby realized that fishermen can modify the behavior of flats fish like permit merely by standing or walking in shallow water. If a permit goes to a specific flat to feed two days in a row, and runs into a strange pair of legs and tentacle arms thrashing the water, it won't likely try to feed there on the third day. That fish will find other, quieter, safer places to feed, and over time, other permit will learn the same lessons. Within the span of a few years, a productive flat can become a "no fly zone" for large resident permit.
Westby believes that fly fishing for permit is akin to hunting. A hunter who wants to scout for whitetails before the season opens doesn't drive his truck along the edges of the cornfield at sunrise, looking for deer. He might well see the trophy he's been looking for, but his presence can (or will) change how that animal behaves.
A skilled hunter, even while scouting, walks quietly and watches the patterns unfold without interacting, and slips away without being noticed. A hunter doesn't change the behavior of his quarry until that pinnacle moment when he takes his shot.
More important (perhaps) than the psychological effect fishermen have on the fish is each damaging, crunchy step across fragile coral and grass flats. Sand flats are mostly inert, but every inch of a coral flat is alive until with urchins, crabs, worms, shrimp. And the coral itself compresses and dies with each step.
The oceans are vast, but coral flats like the one Westby posted with "no wading" signs are rare microcosms that draw permit from deep water to feed. Westby has seen these kinds of flats literally stomped to death by the feet of people who love them. His signs were never meant to insinuate ownership, or control, they were his way of saying "maybe we should talk about this."
A Life on the Sea
Lincoln Westby was born in January 1941 in Belize City. His father, Aldin Westby, was a lighthouse keeper at Lighthouse Reef and later Turneffe Island, so Lincoln began his long life on the ocean when he was just days old.
"In school, I had my handline in one pocket, and my bait in the other," said Westby with a smile and an accent deeply flavored by his native Belizean Kriol language. Although he started Belize's first fly-fishing-only lodge, and has guided fly fishers nearly exclusively for more than 25 years, handlining is still his favorite hobby. After weeks of guiding, there's nothing he likes more than handlining for grouper and other species in water up to 1,200 feet deep.
In 1961, Hurricane Hattie swept through the Caribbean killing hundreds of people, destroying 80 percent of the buildings in Belize City, and laying the commercial fishing fleet to waste. Economic prospects were bleak, so 20-year-old Westby seized a rare opportunity to join the British Army. [British Honduras became a crown colony in 1862, and in 1964 became a self-governing colony. The colony was renamed Belize in June 1973, and gained full independence in September 1981. The Editor.]
After growing up on the sea, Lincoln spent 13 weeks at basic training in England, became an army cook, and was first stationed in Gibraltar.
"Joining the army is the best thing I ever did," says Westby who has visited 32 different countries in his lifetime. "It helped me see the world, and become a different person."
When Westby was stationed in the Libyan desert near Benghazi, locals rummaged through the camp trash looking to scavenge food left in cans by the cooks. But there was competition at the trash site, so one of the locals went directly to the source.
"I came in to start cooking in the morning, and there was a guy sleeping in the cook tent," said Westby. "He said he wanted my cans after I was done cooking—he wanted the scraps and the leftovers. So I started giving him the cans, and having him stack firewood and clean dishes, and even gave him full cans of stuff we were going to throw out anyway.
He respected me for helping him, and by the time we were ready to move camp, he took me to his home to meet his family who were surviving on the leftovers from our camp. I learned to respect him because he was willing to do anything to feed his children. That taught me that respect works everywhere, it's the rule of the ocean. Wherever you go, the better you treat people the better they are going to treat you."
In 1967 Westby left the army and became a chef for Vic & Betty Barothy, who built Turneffe Island Lodge, Belize River Lodge, and Spanish Creek Lodge. That opened the door into the world of sport fishing for Westby, who started as a chef, but soon became a part-time guide, full-time guide, and eventually the head guide at some of Belize's best tarpon, permit, and bonefish destinations.
He met his wife Perline at a fishing lodge in 1989, and in 1997 the pair camped on a spit of sand on Northeast Caye barely large enough to hold their tent. They decided to start their own fishing lodge, and that night, without a title, deed, or scrap of lumber, Perline named it Blue Horizon.
With the help of friends and family, they filled and hauled countless bags of sand to create walkways; and drove pilings into the sand to create a dock in a sheltered lagoon, a main lodge building, accommodations, and outbuildings.
"I built it where it was because I wanted to be in the center of the best permit fishing in the world," said Westby. "And that was it right there . . . it was heaven."
How good can it be? While fishing with the late, great Will Bauer in the 1990s, Westby and his guest together hooked 30 permit and landed 14 in six days of fishing.
"That was the best week of permit fishing I've ever had," Westby reminisced. "I poled for him until he caught a permit, and then he poled me around until I caught one. We did that together for the whole week."
Blue Horizon was a fly-fishing-only lodge because in Westby's mind, it wasn't fair to have some guests catching permit on live crabs while fly-fishing guests had to deal with the wind and infamous skepticism of the hardest flats fish in the world. More important, from his two previous decades of guiding in Belize, he came to believe that catching these fish repeatedly on bait would change their behavior, and make the game even more difficult for fly fishers.
With the help of American friends and guests like Bauer, Pat Pendergast, and Russell Thornberry, Westby grew his clientele into a "who's who" of permit fishing, and expanded his rustic lodge—building much of it by hand, and moving some prebuilt cabins into place by barge—until Blue Horizon became globally known not just for high catch rates, but for some of the most highly ethical and specialized permit fishing in the world.
Some people create rules for themselves as sort of a self-imposed governance to slow their own catch rate and lessen their biological impact. It's the reason many people take up fly fishing in the first place, or the reason a hunter changes from a rifle to a compound bow, and then a traditional longbow. It's the point in every true sportsman's evolution when the "how" becomes much more important than "how many?"
But permit are so frustratingly hard to actually catch on a fly that limiting the tackle further doesn't make practical sense, and Westby has learned through decades of observation that the most significant impact fly fishers make on local permit populations is not by actually hooking a single fish here and there, but through their careless presence on the flats.
In Westby's mind, a poor fisherman with an inexperienced guide can have a massive impact—without hooking even a single permit—by chasing after moving schools of permit, poling over flats into the wind, using a motor inappropriately, or wading the same spots day after day and agitating the same fish over and over. That's why Westby posted those signs. He considered it an open invitation to a younger generation of guides to talk to him and shortcut what he has learned since his first picked up a pole in 1967.
Since then, he has mentored dozens of up-and-coming young guides at Blue Horizon and elsewhere who are uniformly inspired by Westby's long experience on these flats, and his uncanny ability to understand how the fish behave and what affects them. Westby knows where the fish will move before they do it. One of his pupils went so far as to call Lincoln Westby "The Father of the Fish" because he knows them so well.
Fishing with Westby is an experience in subtleties. He is a man who cares deeply about the experience, but not just your experience that day. He has long vision, not just in terms of seeing fish where you don't, but metaphysically in a way where he's forecasting the type of opportunities his guests will get next week, next month, and a decade from now.
He reads the wind and the tides perfectly, cuts the engine a safe distance from the flat, and quietly drifts onto the flats from the edges. He is a master of using the wind and tide to move the boat, and while in the past I've wrongly admired the strength and stamina of younger guides who pole furiously against the wind to have the sun at their back, that kind of behavior in Westby's mind is just reckless because you'll needlessly harass the fish without getting a good shot.
Westby uses a heavy wood push pole because he can. He barely uses it. A quiet nudge here and there is all he needs to move across the flats and position the boat for a cast.
What excites Westby after 48 years of guiding is tailing, feeding fish, and despite the constantly changing tidal conditions, he can tell in just minutes whether the depth and the current are just right for tailing permit. If conditions aren't prime, he'll quietly leave the flat instead of poling over it in sub-par conditions. If everything looks and feels "right" to Westby, the fish will be there, and you'll have unparalleled opportunity to catch them.
Because Westby is deeply committed to finding tailing permit, you don't need high, bright sun to see the fish. Early mornings when calm water reflects the glare of the sunrise are the easiest times for you to see the black forked tail of a permit, but Westby can find tailing fish in nearly any lighting condition, meaning you can catch permit when other guides are poling around aimlessly and bemoaning a lack of sunshine to see into the water. Even on dark, windy days Westby can find sheltered flats and if the tide is right, there will be tailing fish.
On my first morning with Westby the skies were overcast, with intermittent—drizzle and a gusting north wind. Westby eyeballed a few flats from a distance but decided they weren't yet deep enough on the incoming tide to hold fish, so he took a wide berth around them and headed south from Thatch Caye toward the maze of shallows and mangroves situated in the inside of Belize's Great Barrier Reef.
The first five flats that looked good to Westby produced five good shots—a couple of singles and three small groups. After I screwed up my first shot, Westby gave a deep belly laugh, and explained how I had focused only on my target fish, and that my fly line in the air had spooked a third unseen fish, sparking a domino effect that ran through the small group.
As he poled away from the flat, I wondered aloud why we were leaving a massive flat that likely held many more permit. Westby explained that although I hadn't hooked a fish, we'd already had an impact, and that it was our duty not only to make small impacts, but to spread them across as many points of contact as possible. It all goes back to the philosophy behind the "no wading" signs, which are meant to protect the shallow flats where permit are transient, sensitive to their environs, and have long memories.
Westby told me on our first day together that permit fishing is a chess match. I've heard that metaphor before but always thought it was a chess match in the sense that it's a challenging game against a difficult opponent.
Days later, I realized that's not what Westby meant at all. It's a chess match because your next move always has complex consequences that ripple-forward toward your ultimate goal. And you can't just focus on checkmating the king. You must have the vision to see how all the pieces on the board can (and will) interact.
"The most important skill is understanding what the fish are doing," said The Father of the Fish. "Seeing a single fish is easy, but seeing all the fish and understanding how they will move and how they will feed is the difficult part. The guide can only tell you so much, how far to cast, what direction, but you have to be able to gauge everything else, and predict what all the fish out there are going to do."
Westby says his most satisfying permit came when he saw two fish moving across the flats, and he made a long cast that placed the fly quietly in front of the lead fish. "I saw the fish take the fly, but I had too much slack in the line. I knew I could never set the hook on that fish, and if I tried I would spook the second fish. So I let that fish spit the fly out, quietly made another cast, and caught the second fish."
In 2015 Westby sold Blue Horizon—the sun-bleached buildings, the island he had essentially homesteaded, and the goodwill of one of the best-known fly-fishing operations in the Caribbean—to Texan Bill Poston, who also bought nearby Thatch Caye Resort that same year. Poston's plan is to host fly-fishing guests at nearby Thatch Caye (a luxury resort popular with honeymooners) while he builds a new Blue Horizon fishing lodge at the site of Westby's famous (and incredibly rustic) fishing camp.
The new eco-friendly lodge to be completed in 2018 will eliminate the problems created by the old camp's sanitation system, diesel generator, and freshwater system using state-of-the-art, low-impact technology.
For Westby, the sale wasn't a cash-out. He's 76 years old, but has no plans to actually retire. Except for that short stint in the army, he's been on the ocean his whole life, and he won't change who he is. "You don't give up on the sea," he said when I asked why he was still guiding. "The sea decides when it will give up on you."
In the meantime, the sale of Blue Horizon means his longtime guests can visit more comfortably and make a lower environmental footprint due to the improvements planned by the new owner. And instead of drumming up business, Westby is now more than ever focused on teaching a new generation of Belizean guides how they can have a low impact, and a high rate of success at the same time. In Westby's mind, the two are tied together.
"One day, I'm going to die," said Westby "so I don't have any fishing secrets. I can't use them after I'm dead. If there's something I can teach you of course I'm going to help you.â€¨ That's why I posted the signs."
He doesn't consider himself the father of the fish, but he would like to be the father of a new generation of guides. What Westby wants to pass on to a future generation is the principle of respect—respect for the ocean, respect for the fragile shallow-water ecosystems, respect for your quarry, and respect for fellow guides and fly fishers. If you treat a flat with respect, you pay it forward for the next skiff that slips quietly over it.
He also hopes that the sale of Blue Horizon can in the long run boost the economy of local small towns like Hopkins Bay, Dangriga, and Placencia where the guides and the support staff raise their families. These are the people who graciously make the fishing possible for outsiders. They act as stewards of the flats, and Westby's "respect" for his fellow Belizeans means he wants them to prosper. That's why he was careful to sell Blue Horizon to an owner who believes in careful, win-win development for everyone involved, and why Westby is still intimately involved with planning for the future and training the next generation of fly-fishing guides.
"There are foreigners out here who hire locals to build their vacation homes, care for their children, clean their laundry, and serve their drinks," said Westby. "After 10 or 15 years, they don't even think about spending millions of dollars on a new sport-fishing boat, but the little people who helped them all those years are still living in the same place they always were, still suffering, and they don't get the benefit of all that work. It has to change for everyone."
Westby realizes that if the flats fishing from his youth is going to be preserved, it has to start with local resort owners and residents working together to eliminate unwise use of the resource, illegal fishing, and abusive development. Once there is a grassroots coalition of locals and outside investors, Westby believes he can convince the Belize government to better enforce current laws and regulations, and to regulate and adequately train and certify the guides who are on these flats on a daily basis. Until then, Westby is teaching and preaching the gospel of low-impact permit fishing one fisherman at a time.