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Turneffe Atoll, Belize

How the Turneffe Atoll Trust is working to preserve paradise

Turneffe Atoll, Belize
Jeremiah Watt photo

(This story first appeared in the 2019 Fly-Fisherman Destinations Issue. It was originally titled Believing in Belize: How the Turneffe Atoll Trust is working to preserve paradise.)

Two well-known conservation-driven anglers walk into a trade show . . . It could be the start of a joke except that the punchline is no gag. It marks a milestone in the storied career of Belize’s Turneffe Flats owner Craig Hayes.

It was 2002 and Hayes stood manning his promotional booth at a fly-fishing trade show, wooing would-be customers with the prospects of fly fishing amid tailing permit and bonefish, resident tarpon, and epic sunsets. A lifelong conservationist, he had recently formed a nonprofit organization to more effectively work on conservation issues facing Turneffe Atoll, the largest and most biologically diverse coral atoll of the four in the Western Hemisphere.

“Yvon Chouinard and Craig Mathews walked in,” says Hayes. “They told me they were starting an organization to get businesses to donate 1% of their income for environmental conservation. They asked me to be a charter member, and I said ‘yes’ right there on the spot. I knew what environmental group it would go to . . . Turneffe Atoll Trust.”

Chouinard, the founder of the Patagonia clothing company, and Mathews, the founder of Blue Ribbon Flies, signed Turneffe Flats to the 1% for the Planet program in its inaugural year. Over the next 17 years, more than 1,200 members in 48 countries followed suit. For Hayes, it was like finding the missing piece of a puzzle. Beyond merely donating lodge profits to Turneffe Atoll Trust (TAT), he built an environmentally sustainable business that set the standard for fly-fishing lodges worldwide.

Jeremiah Watt photo

TAT energetically, albeit painstakingly, checked box after box in protecting the atoll, backed by funds from Turneffe Flats, global anglers, and grants from conservation-related funds. TAT worked for several years toward the creation of the Turneffe Marine Reserve, which became a reality in 2012. The Trust began executing landmark policy campaigns and a series of environmental sustainability studies centered on the atoll. “For example, we helped the catch-and-release law pass using a major economic study in 2009 that showed how $60 million is generated annually in Belize by just tarpon, bonefish, and permit,” says Hayes. “Not by killing them, but by keeping them alive so anglers can come here and connect with them.”

In 2018, the trust worked with postdoctoral researcher Julio Benavides, Ph.D. (University of Glasgow, Universidade Estadual Paulista) to publish a report called “Climate Change Impacts on the Atoll.” The study details the impact of climate change on Turneffe’s ecosystems, including coral reefs, mangroves, sea grass, and littoral forests, and the impact for key animal species including commercial and sport fish, queen conch, and lobster. It also offers potential mitigation strategies and recommendations.

Another side of the economic importance of atoll conservation is found in TAT’s report, “The Value of Turneffe Atoll Mangrove Forests, Seagrass Beds and Coral Reefs in Protecting Belize City From Storms.”

“We calculated the value of Turneffe Atoll for providing storm protection for Central Belize and Belize City to be $383 million annually, and demonstrated how protecting Turneffe’s mangroves in their natural state makes good economic sense for Belize,” says Hayes. “You don’t get far just by being a tree hugger. You have to show decision makers, from an economic standpoint, why it makes sense to protect these resources.”

TAT prides itself with getting into the economic weeds to protect the resource, proven by its study estimating the value of carbon sequestered in the atoll’s mangroves and sea grass beds through a net present value analysis.

Most recently, TAT published a 55-page detailed analysis called “Risking The Atoll,” showing that unsustainable development practices are to blame for damages there. It identifies the illegal dredging of back reef flats and deforestation of mangroves by developers and shows how these activities impact corals, sea grasses, and water quality, and put the economy of the atoll in jeopardy.

An in-progress task is the campaign to end gillnetting throughout Belize. As a leading member of the Coalition for Sustainable Fisheries in Belize, TAT is helping guide efforts to institute a gillnet ban throughout Belizean waters. Joining TAT in the effort are the Belize Federation of (commercial) Fishers, the Belize Tourism and Industry Association, the Belize Game Fish Association, the National Sport Fishers Association, Oceana, MAR Alliance, Yellow Dog Community Conservation Foundation, Belize Audubon, World Wildlife Fund, and all Belizean sport-fishing lodges.


Of all the alluring fish species at Turneffe Atoll, there’s one that stands out as the golden egg of the island. The golden bonefish (no, not carp) is unofficially exclusive to Turneffe Atoll. “These fish don’t just have a yellowish tint to them,” says veteran guide Dubs Young. “They are actually gold colored. Like, standing out bright, bright, bright gold in a school. We see them sometimes, and we do catch them. I’m always keeping an eye out for them. But when you see one, there’s no mistaking it.”

Golden bonefish behave just like their platinum buddies, except they are always outnumbered at least 100-1. They are often swimming and tailing in the middle of a school, and they are often the largest in the school. Golden bonefish are particularly hard to catch, since the other surrounding fish spook easily with the splash of a line or heavy fly, sending the entire school to a new flat in seconds. They are tough, “But we have even caught them right out on our home flat, right in front of the dining room where everyone could see,” says Dubs.

Jeremiah Watt photo

Turneffe’s rugged oceanside flats host large schools of tailing bonefish, offering opportunities for fly fishers to take their time targeting specific fish within the school. In this situation, with fish rooting in mere inches of water, unweighted size 6, 8, and 10 flies are key. Weighted flies get hung up in the coral every time. The go-to for this shallow, outer flats area is chartreuse, white, or pink-and-brown Crazy Charlies. Weighted flies with small beadchain eyes like Gotchas and Avalons in sizes 6 and 8 work well in deeper water at the center of Turneffe around the mangrove islands.

While it’s fun to get creative with permit patterns, all paths eventually lead back to the Del Brown’s Merkin as the crab of choice. Also popular are the Turneffe Crab—created and proven by Craig Mathews—or the EP Crab in olive, tan, or mottled colors. Sizes 1/0 and 2 work best.

For tarpon, guides suggest dark-colored Deceivers in the early morning, and brighter colors in full sun, sizes 3/0 or 4/0. Bring a 7- or 8-weight rod for bonefish and a 9- or 10-weight for permit. The guides here like longer leaders, so bring 12-foot tapered saltwater leaders the guides can top off with 12- to 20-pound fluorocarbon tippet (depending on the species). A Scientific Anglers Amplitude Grand Slam fly line is the clear choice for chasing permit, but for spooky bonefish and small flies and skinny flats, a dedicated Amplitude Bonefish line with a more delicate taper is a better choice.

As a 27-year-old emergency room doctor from South Dakota, Turneffe Flats lodge owner Craig Hayes started visiting Belize in 1977 with a small group of friends. One night in a bar in Caye Caulker, the friends mused that they could write off their fishing adventures on their taxes if they could create a legitimate business around it. In 1980, the friends made it to Turneffe Atoll after Hayes became inspired by a Sports Illustrated article about bonefishing there. They started their company a year later. “Fly fishing and tourism had not taken off yet in Belize,” says Hayes. “It was bare bones. We built a wooden outboard boat and didn’t know how to run it. We stayed in a local friend’s lobster shack while we got our place built. It wasn’t really a lodge yet, it was a rough fish camp.” One of the group, Doug Moore, agreed to stay at Turneffe and run the new outfit. Hayes’s wife, Karen, handled reservations. In 1994, Turneffe Flats added a diving operation. In 2000, the same year Hayes decided to leave his medical career to live and work in Belize full time, the company added the Atoll Adventure Program, marine eco-adventures with snorkeling, birding, wildlife sightseeing, kayaking, and Mayan history, all led since its infancy by Belizean Abel Coe, a history buff with intimate knowledge of the local flora and fauna. “Not everyone who wants to come here is a fly fisherman,” says Hayes. “A lot of people come with a companion with an interest in nature tourism, and they get the most accurate, up-close look at the roles of the mangroves, seagrass, coral reefs, and animals in the ecosystem.” Hayes suspects the Atoll Adventure Program helps get more female guests to fly fish, given the low-pressure opportunity to do a number of activities. “Now, about a third of our guests are women,” says Hayes.

Running an environmentally aware business isn’t merely a back-office job. It’s an ethos shared by the staff and guides at the lodge. “Many of our team have been here for decades and they plan to stay until retirement, so keeping it healthy is extremely important to them,” says Hayes. “And our fishing guides pride themselves in being the stewards out there, who know the atoll inside and out, and who are its guardians.”

Jeremiah Watt photo

One of the youngest guardians on the guide roster is Alton Jeffords. Jeffords has lived and worked on the atoll for almost 20 years. As a guide and manager at the Oceanic Society’s Turneffe field station working with thousands of volunteers and students, Jeffords became dialed on conservation-related research projects. Now, as a flats fishing guide, he combines his science-based resource protection approach with knowledge of the atoll that’s become a priceless intellectual property.

“I love that when people come here they ask me to tell them more about everything they see,” says Jeffords. “There is saltwater fly fishing all over the world. But our guests tell me this place is not like anywhere they’ve been. And they want it to be healthy for when their kids come here.”

Craig Hayes agrees, driving home the connectivity of the fly fishing industry and environmental awareness. “Anybody who loves the sport of fly fishing should be interested in conservation,” says Hayes. And that, Hayes suspects, is the point Yvon Chouinard and Craig Mathews hoped to make when they walked into a trade show almost two decades ago. 

In addition to TAT’s efforts, Hayes continues to lead by example through standard-setting operations at Turneffe Flats. “We kicked single-use water bottles out of our program long ago,” says Hayes. “We don’t leave anything on the island. Waste management is a big part of what we do. We grind up glass to use in our cement for lodge construction, we compost everything including the ash after burning leftover meat. We compact our recyclables, and we haul our kitchen oil and used engine oil to the city for biodiesel.”

In 2019, Turneffe Flats will unveil a 300-panel solar field to produce 80 percent of its energy, rather than the current consumption of 60 gallons of diesel per day.

The lodge’s environmental efforts, including its highest-level Green Globes rating, have become significant marketing tools. “We’ve always advertised our involvement in 1% for the Planet, TAT, and Green Globe and our other conservation efforts,” says Hayes. “It’s good business. We are recognized for being aware and active, and people care that we care about this place. And that’s a big part of why they want to come fishing and diving and exploring with us.”

If the promise of environmental consciousness lures guests to Turneffe Flats, the quality fishing experience of the coastal marine ecosystem keeps them coming back. More than 30 miles long and 10 miles across, the atoll’s large lagoon systems, broad back reef flats, sea grass beds, and mangrove forests host 250 fish species, 77 plant species, and five spawning aggregation sites. Between casts, fly fishers can also see sea turtles, seabirds, manatees, and dolphins. 

Jeremiah Watt photo

Bonefish often run in schools of 50 or more at Turneffe, with the average size being 3 to 4 pounds. Larger fish are not uncommon. In early years, bonefish were the primary interest, but for the past 20 years, permit have been the main attraction. Permit cruise in small groups or singles in virtually all areas of the atoll, accessible to anglers wading and casting from skiffs. There are also 60- to 90-pound migratory tarpon in the lagoons, creeks, and channels from mid-April through October, making Turneffe Atoll one of the world’s great grand slam locations. It’s a rare feat to get a tarpon, bonefish, and permit on the fly all in one day, but on Turneffe it happens with some regularity. The interior of the atoll also hosts popper-pounding barracudas, jacks, snook, and snappers. Triggerfish and boxfish will eat bonefish flies on the flats—if properly courted—mixing up an already diverse daily fishing log.

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Recommended Gear

Flats anglers who have previously waded on white Bahamian sand flats or Mexican turtle grass should take special note that barefoot wading and thin-soled wading shoes are not viable options on Turneffe Atoll. The sharp coral has put wading fishermen with inadequate footwear in the hospital. Durable wading boots with stiff, puncture-proof soles are as important as your rod and reel. Bring an 8-weight rod for bonefish and a 10-weight for permit, ’cudas, and tarpon.

Jeremiah Watt photo

Orvis Helios 3D 9-foot 8-weight Rod, $950

Orvis Mirage Reel, size 4, $650

Scientific Anglers Amplitude smooth bonefish, $130

Patagonia/danner river salt wading boots, $450

Costa Waterwoman 580 blue mirror sunglasses, $270

Patagonia tropic Comfort crew, $60

Patagonia quandary shorts, $60

YETI Panga Backpack 28, $300

*Hilary Hutcheson started guiding fly-fishing trips when she was a teenager in West Glacier, Montana. After a short career as a broadcast news anchor, she established the PR and marketing company Outside Media, and began hosting Trout TV. She now owns the fly shop Lary’s Fly & Supply in Columbia Falls, Montana, where she lives with her two daughters and a yellow Labrador named Jolene.

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