Return to the Blue Horizon
SUN PHOTO/RUSTY CHINNIS
Will Bauer prepares to release a permit
he landed on a flat in Belize.
Two years ago, I made a trip to a small island in Belize that would prove to be one of the best trips of my life. There I met Lincoln Westby, the lodge owner, and his friend and investor Will Bauer. Bauer, who hails from California, is one of the most knowledgeable permit anglers on the planet. He is a student of this challenging game fish and has been pursuing them for 30 plus years. Bauer and Westby proved the perfect match in their knowledge and passion for the permit.
Westby’s spry demeanor and sparkling eyes belie his six plus decades. Belizean by birth, he has fished the coastal waters of this beautiful country since he was a child. He began his fishing career as a commercial diver and fisherman before following his brothers, Joel and David, as guides to American spin anglers in the late 60s. Except for a stint in the British Army from 1961 to 1967, and two years working on a research ship in Bermuda, he has dedicated his life to learning the ways of the permit, tarpon and bonefish. After working as a guide and manager at nearly every lodge on the Belize coast, Westby had the dream to have his own lodge. With the help and counsel of Will Bauer, longtime permit angler and former Belize lodge owner, the vision of the Blue Horizon Lodge was born.
Westby and his wife, Pearline, leased a small mangrove island from the government with an option to buy. The island was inundated with water on high tides and it took over six months and more than 10,000 boatloads of sawdust and sand to create enough upland to build the first building. Finally, in 1997, Bauer brought the first group of anglers to the lodge and Westby’s dream became a reality.
On my first trip, I had the good fortune to pick a week when Bauer was at the lodge, and I was able to fish with Westby on six consecutive days. Each day, I was immersed in an endless world of multi-dimensional coral patch reefs that hosted school after school of permit. And while there were few spells of more than 45 minutes between fish, it was Westby’s intimate knowledge of the terrain and the permit that held me spellbound. I fished four and one half days, (and spent a day observing and photographing Bauer and Westby) and landed five permit. The number of opportunities was phenomenal, and while these permit were less pressured than in other locations I’ve fished, that didn’t change their basic nature.
On my most recent trip, I had the pleasure of fishing every day with Bauer. As often happens on trips to the tropics, we were challenged with changeable weather including a front that blew up to 35 knots for 36 hours. Fortunately, the lodge is located along a string of islands connected by reefs. When it was too rough to fish, we waded the exposed reef and marveled at the multitude of creatures that inhabited the multi-colored corals. We even encountered a large octopus that was hunting in about a foot of water. As we watched, the octopus changed colors repeatedly as a warning not to get too close. In all, we lost two days to the weather and suffered the fact that permit, like many other game fish, are often hard to entice to the fly in times of unsettled weather. Permit fishermen learn to be philosophical about their passion.
One of the things that impressed me most is the lodge’s philosophy of giving anglers a unique opportunity without pressuring the resource. While other lodges go for numbers, the Blue Horizon (occupancy 6 anglers) concentrates on the quality of the experience. Westby and guides Ransom and Sammy fished us by the tides (high rising, high and high falling) and not by time. These guides’ keen eyes allowed them to slow motor along the edge of flats looking for tailing fish and avoid long spells of poling. We would still explore reefs but I never had the feeling that they were just putting in time. Every minute that we fished, the guides were alert, totally focused on finding permit and getting us in position for a cast. During any given tide, Bauer and I alternated casts at scores of permit, most of which were tailing. Even though I caught only one permit (Bauer caught two) during four good weather days, on most days we didn’t go long between casts.
If I had to condense the knowledge I’ve learned in 10 years of permit fishing, it would be that permit are moody, and every presentation and opportunity will be influenced by many factors. The angler must judge the mood of the fish, know where the fly is at all times and take into account the tides, weather, availability of food, wind, structure of the bottom, sun angle and much more. Permit fishing is incredibly demanding, and therein lies its appeal. Quantum leaps in fly fishing can be built up with years of experience, or on occasion, by having the good fortune to learn from mentors. On this trip, I had the pleasure of fishing with two of the best in the business. Although the fish presented us with huge challenges, I learned invaluable lessons from Bauer, Westby and the other guides. Fly fishing is like that for any species of fish and, in particular, permit. It’s the challenge that keeps it fresh and vital and makes us keen for our next adventure.