You can learn a lot out on the Belizean flats, if you just watch and listen.From the Expedition and Guides 2011 Issue
by Heather E. Goodman
By now I should be more settled. Should have adjusted to the weight of the fly rod, to the fact that in Belize there is nothing behind me but wide-open space to load and shoot line.
I fight the instinct to raise my arm for a trout set, wrangle my hands to strip line low and hard. Last night I woke myself up when I set the hook correctly in my dreams.
The coral flats crush like damp seedpods under each splashing step: lobster eggs, baby conchs, sea biscuits. With each stumble, dozens more lie dead.
“There he is. See him?” Wyatt, my guide, points his arm straight out, his fingers an arrow. “Fifteen meters.”
I squint through sunglasses and the Caribbean blaze. The dark fin pokes high out of the shallow water, and I suck in my breath, push a stray strand of hair behind my ear. The black spear disappears, and reappears two yards to the left. This fishing is hunting. We hunch low, whisper, contain our movements until ready to strike.
“Go, cast.” Wyatt’s voice belongs here—low and lapping, like the water at my ankles: reassuring and repeated.
I lift my arms and open my chest, and still hear Dad saying, Ten and two. I’m jittery, fagile. My cast shows it, short and piled up.
This time the line and leader fall in sine waves, a heartbeat monitor. But this permit, the elusive fish I’m after, is uncharacteristically approachable, not like most we’ve seen the last three days.
I cast and force the line against the wind. It’s so damned open here, wide and gaping. I miss my tight Pennsylvania trout streams—trees to cut the gusts, branches to force delicate sidearm roll casts. I miss the chapel-quiet lake where Dad gave me my first fly-casting lesson, a morning so still, the mist teased us, lifting her skirt for hours. Jack, my older brother, had been fly-fishing for years, leaving me as the family’s only spin caster. Usually he was out with Dad on those vacation-sunrise mornings, but on that morning it was me.
The hush of the lake had made us whisper. Dad said, “Ten and two. Just try to feel the weight of the line.” I dropped my arm to nine and four, flopped my wrist, tied wind knots on top of wind knots, and failed.
“I’ve watched you and Jack for years. Why can’t I do it?”
Dad smiled. “It’s your first day.” Always that patience. Even at the end with the doctors when they wouldn’t let him go his way. “It’ll happen. I’ll die. Not to worry.”
This cast is better. “Bump it, bump it,” coaxes Wyatt. The fish doesn’t respond. When I cast again, the permit darts, a gray streak.
I sigh and fix my bathing-suit strap under my shirt. Wyatt takes out a cigarette, turns his back to the light breeze keeping us cool in the early-morning sun.
These flats, these shallow coral beds, are my refuge, my chance to redeem myself. To prove once and for all I was a worthy daughter: tough enough, skilled enough. Tomorrow I leave the island, fly home. I try to stow these thoughts.
I let Wyatt walk a few steps ahead across the flat, watch him smoke and scan the area for conchs. He’s not quite as tall as me. There’s a roundness to him, and not just his belly; his face, too. Cheeks that smile even if his eyes don’t. Mostly I don’t see his eyes, hidden behind sunglasses, but in quiet moments after dinner, sometimes our eyes meet, and his are often sad. His skin is chestnut brown, the color of the desk in Dad’s old office: warm, worn.
“Should check out the next one; still three to go,” Wyatt says, leading the way back to the skiff. The 50-horse wears a Belikin beer T-shirt, so it will look new when Wyatt tries to sell it in a few months. “Two years out here, buddy; lot of work for a motor.” And a lot for a guide, is the implication.
These are the sorts of things we talk about: motors and fish behavior, ospreys and tides. He calls me buddy because I’m just another client; my name isn’t important.
I relish my anonymity here and am pleased I convinced my brother, Jack, and his wife, Beth, I’d be fine on my own.
“It’s fly-fishing only?” Jack asked when I told him about my flight and reservations. “After just two months?”
“It’s time, Jack.”
He knows it’s time. Beth told me he was on the Pickering in snow and waders two weeks ago.
“We could go with you,” he offered. Beth nodded.
“You’d catch all the fish. You’re not invited.”
Just their lips smiled, but they never said I shouldn’t go alone. I hugged them hard.
Since I came to the island, the others, eight clients and four guides, all male, have looked at me, curious to know how a woman arrives at a fly-fishing destination by herself. I let them wonder. Things feel possible again for the first time. I don’t want to give answers.
Everything is audacious here. The sunlight nearly overwhelms me as it ricochets off the sea, the white sand, the flipping silver fish bursting from waves. It’s all so decadent: fruit on every bush, ornate orchids, bougainvilleas that tumble and flow. Colors that don’t exist in Pennsylvania: fuchsia, emerald, beryl. Even lizards sizzle with brash oranges, shocking jades.
My skin expands with the humidity, fills out, softens in all this color. My fingers are always full, the ring from Dad tight on my pinkie. I lumber through the water when fishing and over sand back at the island. I pick up bits of shells and avoid quick movements once I’ve showered, not wishing to sweat again so soon. My hair waves—full, sensual, so that most nights I leave it down, abandoning my ponytail.
Mornings with Wyatt start before the horizon moves from gray to lavender, and the days sear. I know many of his clients must be easterners, used to thin, cool trout streams and narrow creeks, freshwater line and size 20 Blue-Winged Olives. He’s reworked my cast again this morning.
When he told me to cast for him the first day, I floated the line out, trying for the undetectable drop of trout flies smaller than baby teeth, Duns and Cahills I have to tie on while sitting down because my hands aren’t steady enough to feed the hook eye. Here, flies are rampant—giant neon feathers, gangly legs, marbles for heads. Even the crab imitation, the muted olives and tans I’m used to, are radical here. Some flies are the size of a half dollar, with sprawling legs, bulging eyes.
After my first casts, Wyatt taught me to shoot line. He stood behind me, bare dark legs with wiry hair wedged against mine. He drove my arm back, straight, high. We waited several beats too long, and then he rifled my arm forward. Line soared along the rod, a cast I’d never seen before. “Nice, buddy, nice.”
When he stepped away, the sun’s heat replaced his. “Go. Try it. Shoot it.”
I exhaled. Yanked the rod back, forced it forward too fast, and the line piled, half the distance from the last cast. “Again, again,” Wyatt said.
At the second flat he spots tails immediately. He sets the anchor while I strip line, toss my fly behind me, struggling to be the good student, in control.
We stalk the fish, bending low in our sand-colored shirts. I keep my rod facing backwards, careful even about the line.
Wyatt whispers, “Go, buddy, toss it right about a meter. A mess of ’em.”
Six tails flash alternately; the permit, their hard beaks for jaws, feast on crabs. I breathe deeply with my opening cast, forcing myself to relax, and this shoot lands perfectly the first time. I strip the slack.
We repeat. I bump it. Wait, he whispers, bump it, wait. Then, for no reason I can detect since the series of steps is the same every time, the fish follow. They aren’t 10 yards away. Then they’re turning, coming straight for us, and I can see an eye, flash of silver gray, plates swarming.
“Bump it, set!”
I bump and even remember to strip-set the hook. But I pull too hard, yank the crab from the fish’s mouth, force something I didn’t have to force. Damn.
I put my hands on my knees, remind myself this is supposed to be vacation, recovery.
“Damn permit,” Wyatt breathes and lights another cigarette. “You were good, the fish followed.” The cigarette dangles from his dark, full lips when he talks. Dad, too, tried to make me feel better when we drove home from days on the creek. “Your presentation looked great. Roll cast has really improved.” My first guide.
I blink hard, look up to push back the stinging at my eyes. A small ray hovers nearby. They’ve been fishing with us on the flats. Yesterday, Wyatt drove the boat east before heading back to the island, wanting me to see the white sand bottom just before the barrier reef. Rays, nearly as long as the boat and the color of windy dusk, haunted the sand. I could have laid down on them crosswise, soared and slept. “Wyatt’s aquarium.” He laughed. Later, “Used to bring my kids and wife here.” I didn’t ask. Instead, I looked overboard at the ridges of white six feet under.
But the candlelight sand with its quartz green water wasn’t what mesmerized me. It was the constant breaking at the reef line—crashing, bewitching waves. I thought Odysseus’s Siren must have sung in a low voice, an unexpected contralto, captivating.
Wyatt idled the engine at the shipwreck just ahead of the reef’s beating waves. “Wreck was here before me,” he said. I guessed at what the remains might have been, not even sure which end of the rusting carcass was bow or stern. It mattered little.
I thought of Dad’s bones, that I was glad they wouldn’t be this way, decades of crumbling to pieces, rusting to dust, his bruised skin falling away. Instead, med students take him apart, find uses for the body that gave out on him, the disease that ate him until life support was his only option. Not that it was an option he wanted.
“A man should be allowed to die,” he said, holding the hand I had fed under the metal rail of the hospital bed. Moving only his eyes, he glanced at the whirring machine, his anchor. I nodded, placed my other hand over both of ours. “So many things we have to do, should do. You,” he squeezed my hand, “don’t do so much. Fish more. Let someone else do some.”
I opened my mouth to argue, but he took a deep breath, struggled to say more.
“This is the last thing I have to do. I’m ready.”
He had been telling me this for weeks during his lucid moments when the morphine wasn’t ramped up. These conversations were few, because without the drug he winced through the pain as he spoke. He blinked his left eye fast, gnashed his teeth. “I want to live or die. I don’t want this—” He swallowed hard, moved a finger against my palm. “—half death. This isn’t life support.”
I traced the scar on his hand from the day I hooked him with a fly and pulled with all my weight because I thought I was stuck in another tree.
“Let’s practice,” Wyatt says. I watch him to see if he means anything more. I look forward to today’s casting lesson, to feel Wyatt’s skin heat and breath at my neck, his “ready” coming without the first syllable, a long low dee. A wave crashing. I’m less hassled without a fish tail in sight. There’s no pressure, except not to disappoint Wyatt. Which is crazy: I’m just a client. Bwith angling expertise.
Again and for the last time, Wyatt sinks his hips into me from behind. He’s firm. His shins nudge against my calves, sensitive to the touch because of the stinging sunburn from yesterday. He grasps my wrist, his calluses at the tips of his fingers scratching against the white underside of my arm. I wonder if he can feel my pulse.
I nod. He rockets my arm back. He opens my chest, beat, beat, then thrusts our shoulders, arms, elbows, wrists, thumbs forward. We lean with the line. It sprints, an arrow, a mile out. “Oh,” I say, completely unprepared to do it myself.
“You’ll get it, buddy.”
But I won’t. Today’s the last day.
We walk back through the brilliant water, gold lines of sun over tawny starfish and dark grass. “Water’s running, but we can take a look at the last two flats. See what we see.”
I nod, place my rod in the boat. When I lift my foot, the water runs from my shoes before I step into the skiff. The grit of sand and smashed shells needles my toes.
Wyatt’s one of the best guides I’ve ever had. Quiet, like all the elite, and he knows more than just the fish. Yesterday, he told me about the manatees, the way they pile up on each other in the mating season, a lone female at the bottom of the heap. And the sea turtles, when coupling, hug each other for days in a row so that they float perpendicular to the water, just their head and shoulders above the waves. “Turtles don’t care if you come by, just keep holding tight.” Wyatt looked off at the mangroves.
The turtles showed up in my dreams, too. Clinging, days-long embrace. I woke, startled. How don’t they drown, holding on so tight?
At dinner last night, Raymond, another guide, told the story of a golden sandbar where the fishing can be outstanding. One of the guests asked if it was the bar they had fished, but Raymond shook his head. “We don’t fish it now. Wyatt proposed to his wife there. Since she moved the kids to Sweden, we just don’t go.” I glanced at Wyatt. He looked at me, then back to his conch fritter.
“Man, I say we fish that sandbar tomorrow!” said the client from Texas, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
These men are the reason I’m here alone. So few with the sense to listen to what’s being said. So few to see what’s to be seen: the bugs rising, the trout sipping from the surface.
The conversation finally halted when the cook brought a wooden tray full of lobster tails. They smelled of the mangrove coals they were grilled over, and there was a huge bowl of melted butter with a deep spoon set next to the tails, two for each of us. The indulgence felt sickening. The Texan ate my other lobster tail, and I went to bed with a glass of One Barrel rum as the moon rose.
We drift past the third flat without seeing any permit. Wyatt pushes the throttle, and we flee to the last flat of the day. The tide is already too low.
Despite the shallow water, Wyatt spots two tails. Wanting the sun in front of us so we don’t throw shadows, we choose the smaller of the two fish, still probably 9 or 10 pounds. This will be my last attempt.
I tighten my ponytail and cringe when I splash into the water and my feet hit the sea floor. This flat is loud; each step sounds like jaws grinding.
Again, Wyatt crouches, and I follow his lead. Knees bent and hunched at the waist, he waves me closer to him. With his arm pointed out straight, he whispers, “Go.”
I throw my line, slowly, patiently, and it feels just the way it’s supposed to, gliding on smooth ice, swimming in silk water. The line shushes and runs. The leader unfurls and the crab drops lightly. By now I know to wait. I watch the dart tail, see the permit work.
“Bump it,” Wyatt doesn’t breathe. “Bump it.”
I do, twice, and at the second bump the fish dashes, gone from sight. “Damned permit,” Wyatt sighs, already reaching for a cigarette. Me, I’m glad it’s over. This has been too hard, too challenging when I’m already split apart: a sea biscuit, shattered.
Back at the boat, Wyatt asks, “Lunch?”
I open the cooler and hand him a sandwich wrapped in plastic. “There’s watermelon and cookies, too.” I open two Belikins—both are supposed to be for me, the client—but today’s our last day. I hand one to him. “Cheers.”
“To the fish.”
We sit silently, occasionally pointing out a passing ray or boxfish, once a blowfish. The water coruscates—reveals yellow finger coral, violet fans, conchs with flushed lips. The Belikin bottle sweats, and the beer goes down fast.
“The sun’s strong today,” I say, thinking of ashy patches of old snow and bare trees that will meet me at home tomorrow.
Wyatt sips his beer, nods. “Was in Sweden for a month this time last year. No sun. Well, two hours of it. But it never really rose. Just surfaced, broke the sky, then dove deep.”
I pick at the crust of my sandwich, push the tomato back in. I don’t want him to stop.
“One day it never even became white light, just kind of pink. Snow sort of blushed. Sky, too.”
I want pink snow.
“But I was so messed up. No sun. From here,” he circles his arms indicating the flaming blue sky and sea, “to there. You know, buddy? She wanted to stay. In the ice. I wore jackets in the house. Daniel and Megan loved the snow. Snowmen and forts, but I froze. They never felt the cold.”
Wyatt shook his head, took another pull from his beer, and scanned the horizon. “Couldn’t get used to it. Cut the trip a month short, came back alone. They were supposed to come home.”
Now he did stop. I waited, then pushed, “But?”
“Now my two best things are in the cold, in the dark.”
I wait. When he still gives nothing, I say, “You should go to them.”
“No,” he says too quickly while watching a pelican dive.
0“I would want as much time as I could have with my dad.”
“They have their mom.”
“It’s not the same.”
I stare at him through my sunglasses, and he looks back. We can’t see each other’s eyes. “You’ll be sorry,” I say, and feel my face grow hot.
He looks at me, turns back to the pelican. “Might.” He polishes off his beer.
I reach for his bottle, and he hands it over without looking at me. “Cookies? Watermelon?” I offer.
My face flushes with a fresh wave. “I’m sorry, Wyatt. I shouldn’t have said it.”
I bite my cheeks, relieved that the sunglasses hide my filling eyes before I can blink the wet away.
I nod gratefully, and again, we are racing on water.
The cove nestled between two mangrove islands flashes with bonefish. Yesterday there wasn’t a bone in sight here. But today there’s a broad school, moving back and forth between the islands and under a wooden moored boat, not quite eight feet. “Water’s changed,” says Wyatt. Two pelicans linger, one sitting among the schooling bones.
Wyatt chooses a white Crazy Charlie from my fly box, and I tie it on with the loop knot he taught me the first day.
When I cast into the shimmer, he tells me, “Be patient. Let it sink.” He’s said this for three days.
“I have a student, Mohammed from Saudi Arabia. His expression for relaxing is ‘squeeze the mango.’”
“Squeeze the mango,” Wyatt repeats. He laughs a little. After 10 more seconds, “Strip it, strip it.”
On the second cast, I strip-set then jerk the rod to the sky, monitoring the tangle at my feet as it dashes with the bonefish. My reel screams. The bone races out beyond the wooden boat, dives. I smile in spite of myself. The tug on the tight line brings me home.
Brings me to Mom, Dad, Jack, and me on the river, the creek, the lake, casting for trout, catching fallfish. Brings me to looking upriver at three other lines bending and arcing, water droplets catching sunlight.
The bone lets me reel it in, thrills me again with its bolt when it sees the boat. With a thick and burning arm, I work the fish back. Wyatt waves my rod tip toward him, and I lead the glinting streak to the back of the boat. He hands me my first bonefish. Solid silver, covered in slime. It gulps, works its jaws, fins splayed and catching the sun. I free the hook from its mouth, I thank it silently and try to slip it into the water, but it flips and splashes. My hands are covered in the bonefish’s eel-like slime. I lean over the boat, rub my hands together, and watch the primordial sludge pull away. I fling my fingers to throw the water, smile at Wyatt. “Thank you.”
Behind us, pelicans dive along the mangroves, hold their pouches down till the water drains, then gobble their catch. Except for the pelican that stays in our school of bonefish. It dives repeatedly, each time coming up with nothing.
Again and again I toss my fly and bring up three- to four-pound bones. After releasing each tight fish, I rinse the slime, clean it out of the ring Dad gave me for my last birthday.
The next time I bring a bone to the boat, the pelican tries to take the fish as I lift it. I laugh.
“It wants food. It’s going blind,” Wyatt says as he begins to work tangles out of a leader I ruined yesterday.
“Salt blinds ’em. Can’t see to feed.”
After releasing the bone, I look at the pelican. The feathers are a dull brown, scrawny, mangy. Its head seems to be balding. The skin at its face looks bruised, but its eyes appear normal.
“Instead of starve, it’ll commit suicide. Dive into a tree. We see pelicans hanging in the Ys of tree branches.” He feeds the end of the leader through the loops of knots; it will take an afternoon till the leader’s useful again.
“Oh.” I scan the mangroves and see only branches. “Horrible.” I study the bird, note its wings that don’t seem to rest in place. It appears stiff, hurting in its own body. Trapped and anchored. “Or maybe not,” I say, more to myself.
Wyatt nods. I release the fish, rinse my hands, and cast.
“Squeeze the mango,” he says, freeing two feet of line from the snarled mess.
I smile, turn to watch the silver flashes.
The pelican takes off, circles our boat, and then dives with an undignified splash. Again it emerges without food. I let my fly sink, sit, now surely resting on the ocean floor.
“Part of a cycle. Even if pelican’s young are starving, another adult won’t help.” Wyatt coughs, clears his throat. “Till it’s dead. Then the others pick up where the dead left off.”
I peer over my shoulder at Wyatt. While his hands work the monofilament, he watches an osprey land and tear into a fish at the top of a mangrove tree. He widens a loop, looks at me, but I can’t read his expression, sunglasses hiding his eyes. I wonder if he can tell about Dad’s death, this man who reads fish tails.
I look away, wipe the sweat at my temple. The salt at my lips bites, stings their sunburned tenderness. I retrieve my fly. A tug, a deep rush in my chest, and I hook into another bonefish. I lift my rod. The bone takes the slack. The reel zings._______
Heather E. Goodman drafted this story the morning after her husband, Paul, proposed to her on a Belizean flat. Today she’s casting in Pennsylvania’s streams, teaching creative writing, living in a log cabin, and throwing unretrieved sticks for her dog, Zane.