Flats Fishing the Western Caribbean Via Cruise Ship
I’ve always been a big fan of cruise ships as a means of angling travel. Though I do far more fly-in and lodge-based trips for pleasure or story assignments, I love the idea of throwing my bags in a cabin, heading out for the high seas, and letting other well-trained folks do the work for me. As an aside, I do know that many of my colleagues are anti-cruise ship, go-it-alone, wilderness junkies- but not me!
There are many wonderful islands like Bonaire and Roatan that are visited by cruise ships, where the props of the ship’s engines or the thousand or more people unleashed on the port-of-call have absolutely no impact on the fishing habitat.
This is even true for Key West harbor, where despite the huge number of ships docking there, the world’s best large permit fishing is mere miles west of the Harbor! There are ports-of-call like Belize where the ships lay offshore on anchor and tenders transfer all the passengers. This arrangement minimizes the impact of the ships on the habitat even more.
Assessing Cruise Ships and Cruise Lines –
There’s a big caveat as to meaningful and enriching activities onboard many cruise lines during a day at sea while en route to a flats fishing destination. Most traveling anglers are a fairly sophisticated group who will find the inevitable bingo, gold-by-the-inch sales, poolside hairy chest and dating game competitions, ridiculous.
Our ship – the Carnival Valor – reached an all-time activity low-point when (without asking) red, white, and blue cruise passenger teams were created along with daily competitive games drummed up through the loud speaker.
For the time being, it’s likely that your days at sea on most of the more modestly priced cruise lines are best spent avoiding these mindless activities. Things change for the better on the mid-priced cruise lines like Holland America.
On a southern Caribbean itinerary that we enjoyed two years ago, the ship offered hands-on cooking classes, art lectures on the Dutch masters, as well as music ensemble performances tastefully tucked away from any hubbub. Based on other cruises we’ve taken, it’s safe to expect that the highest priced cruise lines have much more tasteful activities and venues.
Caribbean Flats in the Wake of a Tropical Storm –
Our itinerary on the Valor was ideal for shallow water anglers: Grand Cayman, Roatan, Belize, and Cozumel. All of these ports of call have fishable and viable flats. Although we chose July as a cruising weather month that was statistically more storm-free than August or September, the odds did not play in our favor.
Just a week prior to the cruise, a robust tropical storm began a westward track across the Caribbean Sea towards and into the Yucatan peninsula area, our intended fishing grounds. On the actual boarding day of the cruise, the ship’s captain decided to stick with the itinerary, but it was clear to me that our path would take us into the freshly churned wake of the storm.
Although our first evening and the next day at sea gave us a tiny bit of breathing room, our actual turn from the western tip of Cuba into the Yucatan channel took us into the turbulence of the storm’s back end. Of course, the Valor is a huge and able ship, so safety was never an issue.
As we headed southeast towards Grand Cayman, the squally effects of the storm were over by the time we sat down to dinner while the sun set on our first day at sea.
According to the weather channels on our cabin’s television, the aforementioned storm was forecast to become a hurricane after it crossed the Yucatan and fed on the warm Gulf waters. My concern about the weather as it affected the upcoming flats fishing was not what the storm would bring, but rather what it had left behind.
Book Early- Book Wisely –
If the planning maxim, ” the fishing trip begins the night before”, holds true for tomorrow’s angling, then surely arrangements for the traveling fisherman begins months before. What this means in actual practice is that I attempt to book fishing guides at every port of call at least six months ahead of the ship’s arrival date.
It’s also crucial for cruise ship-based anglers to coordinate agreement between the ship’s arrival and departure times versus the island time the guide is using: there can actually be a one-hour difference in the western Caribbean.
For my trip on the Valor, I was able to succeed in booking fishing dates in Belize and Roatan, but the smaller number of flats guides in Grand Cayman and Cozumel islands as well as their availability, my personal circumstances, and prices of guided trips made self-guided flats fishing or other kinds of angling more of an eventuality. Because I’d visited “GC” many times before, I knew where to go and since I had lived in Cozumel for a year, a potpourri of already-known self-guided options awaited me there.
Grand Cayman Island –
Island Background –
To appreciate this flats fishing destination, it should be judged according to its’ modesty of habitat. There would not be any of the double-digit bonefish releases that I – or many traveling anglers – had at Little Cayman Island fishing out of Southern Cross Club.
Grand Cayman is a larger island with a far-flung distribution of flats mostly concentrated on its’ northern shores along with pockets of sporadic beach flats along the island’s southern periphery. This can be seen be visualizing Grand Cayman on Google Earth. Indeed, planning all your intended angling travel destinations on this wonderful program should be considered mandatory!
Grand Cayman looks a bit like a western boot with the sole -and most populated area- of this structure facing the west. The tip of the boot faces north.
On top of the boot’s shoe on the northwest portion of the island is a big bay called North Sound. This large scooped out area has a variety of bottoms and features schools of mudding-locally known as marling- bonefish. The Sound is generally fished by boat as opposed to wading off the highways.
My planning to flats fish in “GC” specified any guide who would wade fish the beaches for tailing and cruising bones. I made a decision from early on that I did not want to skiff fish for mudding bones by casting a minnow or fry-baited hook into five feet of water on an outing that would cost a few hundred dollars.
The two guides that my search yielded, Ron Ebanks and Davin Ebanks were respectively unavailable or off-island. So, I was on my own for Grand Cayman.
Arrival Day in Grand Cayman –
Although there were sunny and relatively cloudless skies free of rainy weather, a high-pressure cell behind the tropical storm was creating twenty-five knot east-northeast winds. It seemed as if these Caribbean seas and shores went from a pounding by storm to a pounding by high pressure. Ironically, the most sheltered Caymanian shallows were on the west side of the island an area known for its’ dense population and sparse flats fishing habitat.
Moreover, the gusty conditions were taking a toll on the water clarity as well as creating shallow water wavelets that made it hard to see tailing and cruising bonefish. Unfortunately, the coming days would reveal these to be the general conditions throughout the western Caribbean right up to the Belizean-Quintana Roo shorelines.
For the eight hours that I would have off the ship, my best shot as I saw it was to hire a van driver with good off-road knowledge to take me to whatever shallow water spots I felt that the available time and road traffic patterns would allow. I inquired of some folks at a marina near the cruise ship dock and was referred to a driver who seemed like a fair gamble after I interviewed him and off we went.
Despite all the spots I tried, the conditions were windy and the spotting poor. I also kept additional perspective by noting that this island went through a tropical storm a couple days earlier. Despite all the theories- particularly common in the Bahamas- that tout these storms as enhancing the fishing, I’ve always felt that the rapidly falling barometric pressure of cyclones is far less comfortable to flats species than a fair weather reading.
I told myself, “such is fishing” and headed back to the ship.
Roatan, Bay Islands, Honduras –
Island Background –
This was my third trip to Roatan, the prior adventures being fly-in venues from Miami to San Pedro Sula to Roatan. I’ve excerpted some of my prior reprised writing on Roatan to provide some planning and results data on my first two trips:
“Many of you may not have heard much about Roatan. This island along with some others -collectively called the Bay Islands- lie forty miles north of the Caribbean coast of Honduras. If you traced a southward-moving line through the more famous islands off Belize, and then traced that line eastward by following the perpendicular shift of the landmass, you’d find Roatan.
The three characteristics that almost compelled me to visit Roatan were the following: Firstly, unlike most other Mexican and Belizean islands, Roatan’s environment was lush, mountainous, and undeveloped. A friend told me that you could sleep on the beaches next to the mountains under brilliant starry skies and wake up to little clouds of hummingbirds as a prelude to your day of fishing.
Secondly, the waters of Roatan boasted coral reefs second to none in the Caribbean, and the best thing was that this treasure was a mere 50 yards offshore! Imagine what a nice snorkel break this could provide during a day of flats fishing.
Because Roatan has a diver’s emphasis, it has fishing habitat that is relatively unpressured: this is the third big feature. My research yielded stories about flats that offered plenty of tailing permit, bonefish, and ocean tally. Its’ mangrove-lined bights were said to house plenty of small snook and tarpon. Last but not least, Roatan’s drop-off is so quick; you’d be hooking tuna and wahoo five minutes from the shoreline.
In my research, I made a decision to stay away from the more touristy west side of the island that was so frequented by divers. I decided on the Tropical Beach Resort for many reasons. It was located on Calabash Bight, which offered tarpon fishing only 5 minutes from the lodge, and the most substantial flats were only 30 minutes away.
The reef was only a minute’s swim from the shoreline, and I learned that the beachside resort was covered with palm, pecan, and noni trees. This would be a great place to kick back when not fishing.
The owners, Rod and Jean Christensen, had done an excellent job with amenities at Tropical Beach Resort. Each cabana had air conditioning, cable T.V., hot showers, and comfortable beds. The meals were first class with plenty of meat, seafood, and vegetables, and could be cooked American or Honduran style.
The resort had two excellent pangas: one for the flats, and one for the reefs, with dependable Yamaha motors. I was sold on this perfect combination, and promptly made my reservations.
How We Did –
I was fortunate that Rod had secured the island’s top flats guides. Kevin Bodden would be guiding us on the remote rubble flats, while Perry Cooper would be guiding us for snook and tarpon in the interior mangrove shorelines of Calabash Bight.
Since our trip was during the rainy season, which corresponds to Florida’s winter season, we encountered showers about half of the time. There was rarely much thunder and the fish seemed not in the least bothered by the rain. I spent three days fishing, and the other two sightseeing in the mountains, shooting images, and snorkeling.
Those three days of fishing provided more than enough action. The vast bulk of our fishing was on the extreme southeastern coast rubble flats off Helena, Roatan, Morat, and Barbareta.
I cannot recall seeing more groups of tailing permit anywhere, Belize included. Sometimes I would see as much as six small schools inside a football-sized field of flats- an extremely rare and precious sight for a flats fisherman!
A properly cast fresh hermit crab used with eight-pound spinning gear was “grabbed” about half of the time; the final ratio of solid “takes” and hookups on bait was around twenty-five percent. I’m sure the hookup rate using fly tackle would have been dismally lower.
The flat calm waters of the rainy season made our challenge greater. My biggest permit that I hooked was over 20 pounds and was lost when the fish frizbeed itself up and over the reef and down the drop-off. I suffered the same fate for an ocean tally of about ten pounds hooked on light spin. In retrospect, if I were to fish those rubble flats again, I would spool up my spinning reels with braided running line.
In and around the same flats out of Helena, there were schools of bonefish to 6 pounds, and small pods of tailing ocean tallies to 20 pounds. I caught and released seven bonefish and one permit on those flats. All three species of tailing fish were numerous.
In the remaining days, we explored the mangrove-lined bights, bays, and creeks for snook and tarpon. The fish were there, but were especially receptive to bonefish-sized bucktails tipped with shrimp fished on a 30-pound fluorocarbon leader. My results were two tarpon and about seven snook-five of them common snook, one tarpon-snook, and one swordspine snook.
While my friend Art Blank fished, Rod and I took the big panga out over the reefs for some snorkeling. These reefs are clearly some of the best in the entire Caribbean, and offered an incredible diversity of fish and different corals.”
The excellent flats fishing and diving mixed into a habitat where lush forests carpet waves of rolling hills made me sure Roatan would be a destination I’d be returning to again and again.”
As a postscript to my first two Roatan trips, I have not been able to contact Tropical Beach Resort and believe they may not be in operation under that name any longer. There is another lodge in operation that is close to those southeastern flats.
It is called Mango Creek Lodge. I have never fished with them, yet I did have a brief email exchange with a possible owner- Terry Kyle. Terry wrote to me that he would not use Kevin- who is probably Roatan’s top flats guide-because of the latter’s purportedly laissez-faire attitude as to commercial netting along the flats. I was never able to neither validate nor negate Mr. Kyle’s assertions about netting on the flats of Roatan.
My third trip on the Valor to this wonderful island was to be an entirely different experience. My pre-cruise research turned up a charter service on the northwest side of the island called Mad Max Charters (http://www.madmaxfishingcharters.com).
In our email communications, owners Mirta Marozzi and Captain Gary McLaughlin expressed confidence that they could put me on loads of large bonefish in Sandy Bay, which was five minutes from their dock. Since this area was in a much more highly populated part of the island, my first reaction was astonishment over their claim.
Despite my reserve- I always relish the prospect of casting to big bonefish wherever they are- I booked a six-hour trip with Gary. It would eventuate that they would prove me wrong.
Arrival Day in Roatan –
After the Valor docked and cleared customs at Coxen Hole, I debarked the vessel and walked outside the security area. Gary was waiting in his SUV for the twenty-minute transfer trip from the ship to Las Rocas Resort (www.lasrocasresort.com) where his two boats were docked.
When we arrived at Las Rocas after a quick drive through the island’s lush hills, I must say I was quite surprised when we jumped into 24-foot center console boat to do our flats fishing. Gary noticed my puzzlement and explained that the Sandy Bay habitat was composed of beach flats that run about three feet deep.
He said his plan was to use the windy weather to drift this vessel across Sandy Bay. Although our target area was in the lee side of the islands, the east-southeast 25 M.P.H. winds were strong enough to do the trick even in the island’s “wind shadow.”
Parenthetically, part of our original plans called for the novelty of catching a bonefish and a blackfin tuna within one hours’ time. This was possible because of the island’s rapid drop-off with blue water only a minute or two offshore. I decided against the offshore “leg” when it was obvious that a seasick prone nephew who accompanied me would have a hard time of it in the large whitecapping waves only a few hundred yards offshore.
In addition, Gary’s boat was sporting two brand new engines in shakedown mode. Although our prior talks gave me great trust in his knowledge, I reverted back to the “better safe than sorry mode.”
Gary fired up the engines and pointed his sleek vessel to the west. I’d have to say that five minutes travel time was exaggerated- we were there within two minutes at the most. As Gary idled towards the beach, I noticed quite a few swimmers and three vessels to the right of where we were heading.
My expressions are rarely poker-faced and when Gary looked my way, he said not to worry as the bonefish and even permit in this area are totally acclimated to human activity, including the sounds of outboard motors. I decided to withhold judgment since I’d seen bonefish calmly ambling around the moored skiffs at Casa Blanca Lodge on top of having fed bonefish bread – no lie – off a hotel dock in Bonaire.
Before we got to the flat, Gary put the engines in neutral and insisted that I replace my Backbone jig with a 1/0 hook and 2 BB-sized splitshots. He took out a large shrimp from his ice chest and baited me up. Once we were on the flat, we spotted a small pod of large bonefish immediately.
I made a good cast in front of them, but they swam right over my bait. This frustrating pattern was to maintain itself for four hours of fishing- the bones simply were not eating. Gary’s theory was that their reluctance was probably due to the recently passed tropical storm and that the current high winds created too many changes in the weather for the fish to be comfortable.
I decided to forgo another 2 hours of this Déjà Vu flats frustration and asked Gary to drop us off back at the ship. I was impressed with the fact that these fish were consistently larger than the bonefish on the less-pressured southeastern flats of Roatan. I also hoped I’d get a chance to fish for these bonefish when they were in more of a biting mood although casting to bonefish so very close to beachgoers did not feel optimal to me.
Belize City –
Belize City Background –
My third port of call with the Valor was Belize City, which is in the epicenter of a shallow water angler’s marine paradise. I had been to a fly-in land-based lodge on the prior Belize trip and include a reprised excerpt below:
“My prior research on the exciting destination of Belize urged me to choose the Belize River Lodge (belizeriverlodge.com/) because of its perfectly centralized positioning for the angling habitat, lush jungle surroundings, immediate presence of excellent staff, amenities (phone, fax, and wireless internet) and mahogany-finished lodgings that are imbued with Belizean angling history.
I was sure that owners Mike, Marguerite and their daughter Misha, along with their 25 employees and six house guides, would provide a solid family atmosphere in the midst of such a stunning tropical fishing paradise.
When the fishing week came to an end, I asked myself – where did the time go? I felt that the Belize River Lodge exceeded all my expectations with rave results including delicious native cuisine, Swiss-clock efficiency and knowledgeable guides in well-appointed pangas. I especially enjoyed returning to the dock alongside the lodge at day’s end, knowing that a pre-dinner snack of tostadas, salsa and ice-cold Belikan beer awaited me only a few steps away.
The five-day results in the angling department were superb, especially considering a bit of downtime for rain showers and my friend Art’s photographic sessions. My results were six snook, one tarpon (with eight other fish jumped), ten bonefish, nine permit, thirty ladyfish, and more dog and cubera snapper than I can remember. This does not include the multiple cutoffs by whopper snook or surface plugs launched skyward by near misses from rough and tough jack.”
So, it came as no surprise that I chose Belize River Lodge again to provide me with a light tackle skiff adventure in the nearby rivers, flats, and bays on this trip as well. I knew from my prior stay that Mike had live-aboard and cruise ship programs in addition to his lodge, so I made the cruise ship reservation months in advance. It was determined that my guide would be waiting for me at the Raddison dock barely five minutes from the ship’s tender dock in Belize City.
Arrival Day in Belize City: Disappointment in Paradise –
Though I’d made arrangements with my press credentials to be on the first tender to Belize City, my first glance from the promenade deck above revealed the sea conditions to be fiercely rough. Those very same winds that whirled around me on the other two islands found in Belize a head-on solid wall of western shoreline to keep blasting. Despite this unfortunate situation, I boarded the tender, which, in turn, had difficulty coming alongside our ship due to the rough seas.
Once the tender got within a mile of shoreline, we entered a huge swath of dirty chocolate-colored water that could only mean the discharge of muddy river water. The very same advantageous diversity of Belize’s habitat, which include (unlike the prior island stops) rivers that run back to jungle mountains that now ironically provided another negative post storm effect. The harsh winds and dirty river runoff made this day’s flats fishing possibilities nil. This was definitely a day when the philosophical approach I took came to my aid.
Cozumel Island –
Island Background –
When I lived in Cozumel back in the sixties, things were very different than they are now. There were no “hip” cookie cutter venues like Senor Frogs in San Miguel and the town was more Mexican than American. My residence on this island preceded the hordes of flying bridge sport fishermen vessels that would invade the area in late spring to intercept what would be one of the most dense sailfish “pushes” from the western Caribbean Sea into the Florida straits.
Most of my fishing in Cozumel in those past days consisted of bottom fishing. Since there were some good numbers of bonito and blackfin tuna at the time, I’d practice “running and gunning” for game fish “bustups” in native fishing boats that spent all of their time underway going through the water rather than over it.
As for the flats fishing, the lagoons to the north were neither well explored nor popular at that time. Those northern shallows grew as potential and actually explored habitat when the flats fishing revolution exploded in popularity in the eighties.
That was long after I left, but I certainly learned about those flats and the guides that fished them as the process provided for. While there were/are claims that these Cozumel flats are “vast”, I would have to disagree and simply contrast them with Ascension or Chetumal Bays over on the Quintana Roo mainland to make my point.
I also feel that the flats fish stock numbers are greater on the mainland because there is so much more shallow protected coastline for the bonefish, tarpon, and permit to move along safely. I doubt there is any cross seeding across Cozumel Channel from the island to the mainland and back, simply because of the blue water predatory dangers from the larger game fish like barracuda, sailfish, and sharks, etcetera.
On the present Cozumel flats fishing scene, there are primarily smaller bonefish schools, along with scattered small tarpon, snook, and barracuda. The typical transportation venue involves a truck drive from San Miguel (and back) all the way to pangas that are docked on the fringes of the northern lagoons.
The current operations that appeared most active were Aquarius flats fishing company, Cozumel bonefishing company, and fishing Cozumel company. I’d chosen Carlos Vega’s Aquarius Travel outfitter to coordinate a flats fishing trip to the north of island. As was my custom, I was in the planning mode via email as early as seven months before the cruise. I’ve included his contact data below –
Aquarius Travel Sport Fishing Representatives
Toll Free: 1-800- 371-2924
Direct Telephone: 954- 317-3743
Fax Number: 954- 623-8620
Carlos and I were on the verge of booking a trip when I found out from family members who would also be on the cruise that my presence would be “desired” at an on-island celebration. Out of respect for Carlos and his guides, I put the charter into suspension mode, which was antithetical to any decent planning in the world of angling travel- with all the costs and time invested on planes, boats, and trains, one should never wing it!
Additionally, the realization that I was not the first traveling angler to be snared on the horns of family versus fishing at home or traveling did nothing to lessen my frustration. So Cozumel as a fishing port of call remained a troubling question mark throughout the process.
Arrival Day –
On the morning of arrival at Cozumel, some discussion with family made it clear that some scheduled celebrations were indeed planned at one restaurant and a café on the island. It was clear that declining these events as the “lone wolf” would lose me major points on this trip and more importantly, future getaways – pun intended!
Before breakfast, I took my usual walk on the outside promenade deck for a look at the marine conditions. The sapphire seas were still wavy and windy. Although I knew I wasn’t fishing, I told myself that this just maybe might have made the panga ride out to the flats and the fishing itself a bit iffy.
I ignored the fact that I was consoling myself. Later that afternoon, I sipped a margarita amongst family members while we laughed at silly recollections. Some additional thought and perhaps a few more libations eased me into an acceptance that where I was right now was okay, too.
I realized also that I could console myself that even though my return to an old island home would be fishless, that need not stop me from dreaming about action-filled Caribbean fishing either of the past or in the future!