By Jim Reno
My brother and I are almost polar opposites, yet we are best friends. He’s the hardest working guy I know, but not great managing people. I’m a terrible employee, but I’m a good boss so I became an entrepreneur. He goes to church every Sunday and hosts bible study. I read the Bible and pray a lot but dislike church and most people. He has an addictive personality. He attaches to things, activities, habits, you name it. If he does it, he goes all the way. I’m just the opposite. I’m fairly passive about most things; addicted to none. I’m watching him as he frantically works on his substance du jour, a malfunctioning e-cigarette that he brought with him on our fishing vacation to Belize. It was to be just the two of us for two weeks and unless he got this thing working, I was concerned about our plans.
“Damn thing!” He said as he nervously fumbled with the tiny apparatus. He’d recently quit smoking by using the e-cigarette. I did not want to tease him (much) as I was proud of him for quitting one of the toughest habits in the world. As I watched him feverishly trying to fix the igniter on his new pacifier, I held my tongue. As far as I could see, he had really not quit anything. The only thing he had stopped doing was buying cigarettes. He still had the hand to mouth habit and was dreadfully addicted to nicotine. At least he was no longer inhaling smoky carcinogens and he smelled a lot better these days. I was unsure about this new, untested habit of his. He’s a first generation e-smoker and the jury is still out on the safety of these devices. Phen Phen seemed like a good idea. So did asbestos. Give it five years and a few class action lawsuits. We’ll know for sure soon. I worried about my brother’s new crutch. I did not trust it.
My brother has had a lot of hobbies and each one drew him in deeply. He knows every nuance of RC racing vehicles, motorcycles, video games, UFC fighting, skeet shooting, go-karts, etc. Most of his hobbies have included speed and/or some kind of danger. Lately, as we’ve gotten older, he’s settled in with two new hobbies that have lasted for years now: gardening and fishing.
Gardening, I get. Planting something and receiving the bounty of your efforts is almost magical. It’s also healthy and saves money. But fishing? That just appeared to be something you did when you were bored on the boat or if you were really hungry.
“I think it’s really broken this time.” He said sadly. He had that defeated look on his face that always made me jump into older-brother mode. I’m Mr. Fix-It when it comes to situations that sadden my little brother, even though we’re both pushing fifty.
“Did you bring a spare?” I asked. “I’m afraid it might be tough to find a replacement here in San Pedro.” He nodded in agreement.
“Yes, I did.” He said. Two days ago, we’d arrived in Ambergris Caye, Belize where I’ve had a condo for about twelve years.
“I brought this other one as a back-up, but if it breaks…I’m screwed. It does not even work as well as the other one. It’s just a back-up.” He said as he puffed away on the spare, blowing out a mist of steam that smelled like old gum mixed with maple syrup. It was a foul smell, but much better than cigarettes. I often wondered if he knew how silly he looked, pulling in sugary steam from that huge electronic tube. My brother had opted not for the brand that you see in the magazines that looks like a cigarette with a blue tip. Ironically, his smoking device looked more like a miniature iron lung for a G.I. Joe doll. I wondered aloud why he did not bring more than one back-up.
“They’ not cheap, man.” I said.
“I get that, but if I’m going to space and I need air to breath, I’m bringing more than one spare breathing apparatus. You could have brought cheaper back-ups. I mean, tires for my sports car are $500 each but I have a AAA card, a jack and a skinny spare…” I was lecturing him. I stopped. I just hated him being dependent on that stupid little device that apparently was very finicky. I knew how he could be if he did not get his little vapor blast of nic mist. Uneasey would be a polite way to describe how he’d feel. I felt sorry for him and looked forward to the day when he did not need any of this crap.
“You know what…” I offered. “We’re acting like this is life and death. Heck man, if worse came to worse, grab a pack of Marlboro’s and call it a day. Worse things have happened in Central America!”
“No way. I’m never going back.” He said. I nodded. I was proud of him. This was tough and so was he. We decided to forget about things holding us down. We came here to relax and forget about those worries for a while.
I own a small corporation and my brother works for me. He’s my top dog. He works his butt off and is stressed out most of the time. He has not had a “real” vacation in four years…since I last took him on a real vacation. For him, a “real” vacation means he and his wife get away without their kids. I always thought that was odd. We take our son everywhere and love being with him.
“Let me assure you, bro. When you have two, they fight and then somehow they outnumber you. It’s not the same as your situation.” He explained. He’d been working a lot and our business burns people out. He was burned out. I offered to buy him and his wife a fishing vacation, something they both love to do. When at the last minute she could not get the time off, he was crestfallen. I have never been able to watch my little brother upset. I had to do something.
“I’ll take you fishing. I’ll go.” I said. And before I realized I’d said it, I was committed.
“You hate fishing.” He said glumly.
“I do. But I can learn to like it. You can teach me.” I said with a half-smile.
As I said before, I don’t get fishing. I’ve done it many times, each time only to be reminded that I really just don’t see the pleasure of fishing. You sit in a boat for many hours, often times in blistering heat with unsafe wind and wave conditions. The goal is to catch creatures that look like they are from another planet, most of which can hurt you with their teeth, skin or other natural weapons. They stink and touching fish makes me sick. Every time I saw some oakey on TV sticking his hand in a dark hole and pulling out a 200 lb. monster catfish I wondered what hell that was. When anglers on TV held up huge fish by the mouth I just knew I could not do that; my fingers inside a wild creature’s main weapon? Not in this lifetime.
He and I had talked about this a lot. Neither of us understood the other.
“I don’t get it. You like boats, you love the ocean and you drink beer. That’s fishing.” He smiled.
His passion was similar to watching paint dry to me. How could that be fun? And these days, it’s popular to catch the fish and then put him back in the sea…you don’t even get to eat him. What’s the point there?
“It’s called ‘catch and release’ and it makes sense for the environment.” My brother said.
“Not when tuna is $12.00 for four tiny pieces of sashimi.” I said. “And who pays for the fish’ plastic surgery after having a huge hook pull him through the water for half an hour? That’s gotta leave a mark.” He just grunted at that remark, apparently too stupid to him to even deserve a reply.
“Dropping a line in dark water and waiting for hours is akin to playing the lottery.” I said. “It’s hardly a sport.”
“That’s not the kind of fishing we’re going to do. We’re going ‘hunting.’” He said. “You will love it.”
* * * * *
I trusted my brother when he selected a fishing lodge on the north side of Ambergris Caye. I told him it was his call completely and price was no object. I wanted to do this right. We might as well do it with the best if I was to make a final decision on how I felt about this activity. I’m in my forties and I know what I like to do, but for my brother I’d give fishing one more try.
“I’m going to try to see fishing through your eyes.” I said. “I’m going to pretend that I’ve never fished before and really try to get this. You and many other fish heads love this stuff so much, I really believe that there’s got to be something to it that I’m missing. I’m going to really do this. I’m going in with an open mind and a clean slate.”
“There is really something to it. Millions of anglers can’t be wrong.” He said.
“Well…they could.” I said. “I mean millions of Britney Spears fans were wrong.”
“Point taken. But, you’ve never fished like this. We’re going out to catch bonefish, permit and tarpon in the flat mangrove areas on the lagoon side of the island. We will hunt the fish in a small, flat boat, spot him and then cast the lure to land him with the bait. We’ll get fish on the boat. It takes skill, but we have a guide to help us.” He said this and his smile was so wide I was glad we did this already. Making my brother happy has always been very satisfying for me.
“It sounds like fly fishing.” I said. And he immediately frowned.
“No. Jeez, bro. This is not Montana and this is not that stupid fly-fishing movie. Man, that movie made every toolbag in the world want to buy a $5,000.00 fly rod and escape for the river with their little wood-woven fish purse strapped to their back.” He almost spat on the ground as he spoke. “This is Caribbean flats fishing. You’ve never experienced anything like this.”
The unfortunate thing he left out was that he’d never experienced anything like this before either. He’d seen it on TV. He’d seen the cut-aways of great catches, the late evening chit-chat of the famous, celebrity guests of the lodge as they were interviewed. He had watched many famous people fish at the lodge he had chosen so he believed it was the best. He’s seen a lot of TV shows filmed there. He’d been sold on an ideal that would be hard to match. If you saw it on TV, it must be true, right?
* * * * *
Before we arrived, the lodge had us fill out a questionnaire on the computer including a menu of what we’d like to eat on the boat. That looked promising.
What type of captain would you like to accompany you?
I hate it when tests were so obviously patronizing and really just a piece of marketing, but it was a business. I circled #4. Later in the form it asked about our experience, what we hoped to accomplish, etc. My brother laid out his resume in full detail. True stories, questionable ones and full on fish stories were all included. Just kidding, his fishing resume is long and impressive. I was not sure why he wanted to impress these folks. I was honest: “No experience. Hope to catch fish.”
Apparently, they had lost our menu selections because the night before we left for the lodge, I received an email asking us to fill it out again and send it to them before a certain hour that night otherwise we would simply get whatever they chose for us for our lunch. By the time we got the email, it was too late to email them back and the phone in my condo had been shut off after that last tenant left. I was a little miffed but figured we’d just eat what they chose.
One thing that was going to be tough was getting to the lodge. My condo is in the largely undeveloped southern part of the island and the lodge was way up north. We planned to drive twenty minutes to get downtown in our golf cart and then take a ferry up north another twenty or thirty minutes to the lodge dock.
Timing was crucial as the lodge made it clear that if we missed the one ferry that we’d miss our trip. Since we were the only two on the boat I wondered how we could miss a private, all-day tour. Isn’t that similar to missing a private flight that’s supposed to leave when you are ready? I also was beginning to wonder why our boat operator could not just pick us up at the ferry dock, or our dock for that matter. Either way, the cost was huge and I did not want to chance missing the ferry. We planned to leave early.
My brother was not feeling too well the day we were to fish. He and I had both eaten something that made our stomachs revolt. I doubled up on stomach meds and just toughed it out. He did the same. We had to leave very early that morning. My brother wanted to bring along a half dozen of his rods so we bounced along the dirt road in our golf cart, hooks and gear rubbing against my shoulder as we drove. We hit downtown early.
“Want some coffee and a burrito?” I asked him.
“Sure.” He was pre-coffee quiet. That and the mutual case of the trots that we shared probably made our morning conversation a bit thin. This condition happens a lot to tourists. It’s just the island’s way of welcoming us to the local fare.
“It happens to me all the time.” My brother said. “I could drive two hours to visit grandma and it could happen.”
“I did not know you were so delicate.” I grinned. My brother is a big man, very capable of reducing bad guys to apologetic, tearful little men. I teased him for his orchid-like constitution.
“It happens to me once in a while. That’s why I carry all those OTC meds for stomach maladies of all kinds. It’s the Caribbean, man. And Mexico is next door.” I laughed. “Something will get you when you’re down here.”
“Thanks for bringing all that stuff.” He said. “It helps a little.”
We took a ton of Imodium in hopes of damming up the river. All day on a small boat was not looking good at this point. I gave him the coffee, a huge bottle of water and a plain chicken breast burrito. We headed for the ferry dock.
I parked the cart, grabbed our gear and headed for the ferry dock. The 2:1 ration of Belize dollars to U.S dollars always messed with my head. It’s an easy thing to calculate, but the gal at the ferry dock ticket window was playing three-card-molly, switching back and forth between currencies.
“OK, so it’s $20 BZ each, each way, so that equals $40 US.” She smiled.
“How much is it one-way?” I asked.
“Belize.” She said.
“I thought it was $20 BZ.”
“For one, one-way, yes.” She still smiled. People behind me were shifting around a bit, letting me know they were getting anxious. My brother looked nervously around. I knew he needed a bathroom.
“Where’s the bathroom?” I asked her quietly. She pointed. I nodded at him and discreetly pointed. He raised his eyebrows. I nodded again and smiled, nodding my head in the direction of the bathroom.
“What?” He asked loudly. So much for my discretion.
“The bathroom…it’s over there.” I said. He left so quickly that he almost disappeared.
“Let’s start over.” I said to the girl.
“Look, it’s a total of $80 BZ for both of you.” She said, a bit tired of the exchange.
“That’s round trip?”
“Yes. Two people, two ways.”
“It just sounds like a lot.” I was listening to her and looking above her head at the menu of tickets and destinations while trying to ignore the coughs and grunts behind me.
“You can come back later.” She said.
“But we need to be on this next boat.” I said. She just looked at me.
“OK, one more time.” I said and heard a dozen sighs behind me. “$10 BZ, round trip, right?”
“Right, that’s what I’ve been saying.”
“Actually, you’ve been saying it was twice that.”
“Well, that’s what I meant.” She said. Her manager was now looking over her shoulder.
“Is there a problem here?” He asked gruffly.
“Maybe. How much does it cost to go to this lodge and back?” I asked.
“$15 BZ.” He said.
“Are we compromising?” I asked. He just stared at me.
“OK fine then, here’s $20 US.” The girl took the money and gave me two round trip tickets.
“Have a great trip.” She said.
“Thanks.” I said and scratched my head as I sat on an outdoor bench. My brother came up to me and sat down.
“Thanks for the bathroom tip, bro.” He said. “It’s going to be a long day.”
“Yeah.” I said as I smiled. I know how to play three-card-molly, too.
* * * * *
The ferry finally arrived. It was little more than a partially-covered, large speedboat and it was packed full of lodge and resort workers heading north for their shift. We were separated as my brother had to stay in the rear in the open air near the captain with his rods sticking out at odd angles.
I was crammed deep inside the covered area of the boat where there was no air. I began to stare at a small porthole, wondering what it would feel like once the boat began moving and air actually flowed again, imagining the air. The captain had his 4-stroke outboard running the whole time we sat there so the cabin filled with fumes. Add that smell to the “fresh from the shower” soapy smells of the resort staff and the fact that most people who work in balmy climates always wear way too much cologne and perfume. Then for the insult to injury, there was some curry fish meal carried in a huge pot by a very old Mayan woman. The fish curry smell wafted up and intermingled with the fumes and soap making me stop focusing on my rear end. I was close to vomiting. I kept looking at the porthole, wondering if I could vomit through the hole when the boat moved. I pictured what it would be like to vomit through that little circle you see at a bank teller’s window, or to blow up a large balloon with vomit.
We moved slowly at first, but soon the porthole flowed life-giving fresh air. The air cooled my sweaty skin and helped flush the odors, but now we were bounding through the waves, the boat pitching up and down. I looked back towards my brother. He was smiling. I knew I was doing the right thing even if I was about to redecorate the interior of the boat and all its passengers with my coffee and chicken burrito.
We finally arrived at the lodge dock. My brother was able to get off the boat easily with his rods and gear. I had to play Twister to get out of that dark, sweaty hole in the covered area near the bow. Stepping on every foot, sweating on each person, I twisted like a slo-mo NFL running back as I moved rearward to the exit. The air felt so good on my face when I popped our near the rear that a tear formed in my left eye. I breathed the air like Tim Robbins escaping from the Shawshank sewer pipe.
“Tickets.” A heavily tattooed man near the captain said to me. I stood on the dock, dropped my gear and fished for the tickets. I gave him just one, he nodded and the boat took off.
“Hey bro, did you give the man a ticket?” I asked wondering how the ferry company stayed in business.
“No. You have all of them.” He said as he surveyed the shore. His smile was huge. We were there. Thousands of miles and months of planning and we were finally there.
A tall, blonde woman probably in her fifties or early sixties walked out on the dock like a Caucasian pelican. She was obviously heading for us and she waved our direction. Her skin was dotted from too many years in the sun, she wore a small hat to protect her cheeks and her shorts were probably meant for someone less than half her age.
“You are the brothers from California, right?” She asked.
“Right.” My brother said as he shook her hand. I nodded and stared at the shoreline. It was covered with smelly seaweed. Two men with shovels and a wheelbarrow were tasked with removing it which would take some time. I estimated three months.
“Let’s get you signed in, geared up and licensed.” She said. We followed her down the dock towards the beach.
“You can leave your rods here.” She pointed to a wooden rack that held dozens of rods. I noticed that every single rod had a fly-fishing rig attached. I’m sure my brother saw this too, but we had pre-arranged to use his spin-casting rigs.
“Good morning.” I said to the eight or so men who sat at a large outdoor table. They were eyeballing us as we approached so I greeted them. None of them said anything so I looked at our host.
“No English? Or just stuffy?” I asked. Then I heard one of the men chuckle a bit. “So it IS a good morning, then. Glad to hear!” I said aloud to the group of men at the table. The men silently looked away now. East Coast WASPS, no doubt. What a rude bunch. And I can say that. I’m a West Coast WASP. I had not yet realized that they were probably scoffing at our spin-casting gear.
We entered a small office/store. It was icy cool in there from the AC and I relished it, knowing that soon we’d be sweating and swatting mosquitoes, wishing for a toilet that did not exist and counting the minutes like a death row inmate. I did not look forward to the next eight hours on that boat but my brother’s face said it all. He was thrilled.
“Just outside there, that’s where I saw Joe Big Fish interviewed. And at that conversation pit, that’s where Dan Rather and his crew sat telling fish stories. That beach right there…Johnny Bonefish….” He went on and on. He was absolutely enamored with where we were. He was in his element. I’d play along. I’d do my best to get this done for him.
* * * * *
After buying some fishing licenses (that should have been included in the high fee I’d already paid) we were told that our guide was running a little late. We headed for the dock to prepare for his arrival.
“I’m writing an article on this trip.” I told the pelican lady.
“Really, well you’ll have to send us a copy.” She said.
“I tend to be very honest in my writing.” I warned her.
“Then I’m sure we’ll look great.” She smiled.
Finally, the guide pulled up in a boat that appeared to be about nineteen feet long, with two forward-facing seats in the front and no Bimini top to block the sun. I was told that to spot the the fish, we had to stand up and a Bimini top would get in the way. I thought of different ways this could be avoided but chose to remain silent. It was going to be a long, HOT day.
The guide had brought his son to assist us today and the young man seemed nice enough, but his English was very limited. English was the national language of Belize, but like California, only half the residents spoke it very well.
The stocked twelve beers, a couple bottles of Coke and two gallons of fresh water…for eight hours, for four people? The Mayo Clinic says men should drink about 3 liters a day. On a hot day fishing, that amount jumps. One gallon is about 3.8 liters so we really needed about 12-15 liters just to get by and we had just under 8 liters. Who planned these trips?
We introduced ourselves, secured the rods and sat down for the ride. The skipper was very businesslike and his son was very quiet. The first thing we did was head south, right to the same dock area where we had earlier embarked on the ferry that morning.
“We were just here.” I said. “Maybe next time you can just meet us here?”
“Getting bait.” The captain said. He was a short, round Belizean man wearing cargo-capri pants, no shoes, a long-sleeved shirt, sunglasses, a cap and a piece of cloth that appeared to double as a scarf and a facemask. That man was protected from the sun. As he sent his son scrambling to the shore on one of the many docks, I encouraged my brother to put on more sunscreen. He refused. I put on another layer on my legs, arms, hands ears, neck and face. Finally, the son came back with our bait.
“Jus dis.” He said, holding up a small, dead crab about three inches wide.
“That’s our bait?” I asked.
“No bait. We use da lure.” The captain grunted as he pulled the boat back out away from the dock and headed back north. His son took the small, dead crab and put it into a cooler that say on the foredeck of the boat. He then sat on the cooler for the ride.
“Isn’t the food in there?” I asked him. He nodded.
“With the old, dead crab?” I asked him. He just looked forward. I looked at my brother and laughed. But he was not laughing. He did not want anything to mar this experience, especially my petty, sarcastic gripes.
We passed the center of town and then turned inland to go under the one bridge on the island and into the lagoon area. I avoided this area because of the crocodiles and other creepy things that lived in this area. This was also where the really poor folks on the island lived. For some reason, these poor folks never seemed to bother cleaning up where they lived. The area and the houses there were surrounded by trash. There was trash, metal, plastic and glass in the lagoon too. It was sad. I imagined catching some three-eyed fish. Then I saw some children swimming in the lagoon.
We came upon the marine gas station. Apparently, we needed to fill up on fuel. The captain send his son to the man at the register to pay and to grab a few more sodas which they popped and began drinking.
I looked at my brother.
“We’ve been in this boat an hour now and all we have is a dead crab and some gasoline.” I said.
“You’re bumming me out.” He said.
“I’m not meaning to. Just saying. I hope they begin our 8 hours on this boat now and not an hour ago.” I explained. He seemed to like that. He nodded. But I was lying. I was already wishing they’d began our 8 hour trip 8 hours ago and that we were heading home. This lack of preparation was all very typical of the Caribbean. I was just let down because this place was supposed to be the best.
Finally, we left the gas station and headed deeper into the mangroves. I love water and boats so this part of the trip was awesome for me. I could tell my brother was ready to fish. He leaned to his side and looked straight ahead like a Doberman looking out the window of a jacked-up Jeep.
After about thirty or forty minutes of driving through mangroves the driver slowed down and then stopped the engine. We drifted along as he climbed around us to the bow, looking around. He said nothing and while I wanted to ask, I figured he was looking for fish. He and my brother conferred quietly about important fish stuff. I sat there like the polite girlfriend and just kept my mouth shut.
“Gotta see the flash.” He said and my brother agreed. He had joined him on the bow and was staring into the water.
“What flash?” I asked my brother.
“The bonefish has a shiny side that reflects against the sun. When they move you can see them.” He explained.
I looked into the water. It was shallow, murky and maybe two feet deep. All I saw was the ripples on the surface, the turtle grass on the bottom, cloudy water and some other plant life. I saw nothing that looked remotely like a fish.
“You have to watch for the motion. It takes years of practice. The skipper here can see them a lot better than we can.” My brother said as he scoured the area. We drifted and floated along for an hour or so, the son gently moving the boat with a long pole, when the line began pulling and everyone got excited.
“Fish on!” My brother yelled. The captain pulled on the rod and my brother pointed to me. “I want him to catch the first one.” He generously gave this honor to me so I reached out for the rod and began listening to three people yell at me.
“Not so tight…let him run!”
“Lift up, crank, then let off!”
“Don’t point the rod!”
“Don’t let him under the boat!”
To say this was fun would be a lie. It was stressful! The fish pulled like fish usually do. I had done this before. If this was a “bonefish” he felt just like many other fish I’ve caught, jerking around and quivering the rod, pulling, then tiring, then pulling, then finally giving up. I pulled the little fish into the boat.
“That’s a bonefish!” My brother exclaimed, his smile so huge his teeth looked like a picket fence.
“Yep!” I said. “How about that?” I looked at the fish; we took a couple photos and released the little guy. He was only about 8” long.
“Dey put up a heck of a fight!” The captain said and smiled. I was glad he was finally happy. “A fight?” I wondered. That was a bit overstated. If that was his idea of a fight, then I imagined to him making a tuna sandwich was an argument.
However, finally the skipper was happy. We all smiled. We’d accomplished what we came to do. “Now, can we go home?” I wondered. Nope. We will do this again and again for hours. There was just one problem: that would be the only fish we would catch for the next four hours.
In Part 2 of this article, Jim and his brother return from their first miserable day of fishing, and Jim hatches a plan to put their fishing vacation on a new course. Click here to read Part 2 of “The Non-Angler Tries a New Angle” by Jim Reno.