Welcome to Belize

Belize 2001; Required Gear.

By Al Campbell

First of all, I need to introduce you to the other writers who were my fishing partners and co-conspirators on this trip. Since we fished together, ate together, took pictures of each other fishing, and shared equipment, it will be helpful for you to know who I'm talking about when I mention them.

From left to right:

  • Me - representing Fly Anglers OnLine magazine. I'm also the only person in this bunch who isn't an editor or publisher of a magazine.

  • Kathryn (Kate) Fox - Publisher/vice president, Abenaki Publishing (American Angler, Fly Tyer, Saltwater Fly Fishing magazines).

  • Philip (Phil) Monahan - Editor, American Angler magazine.

  • Mark Easton - Editor/publisher, Outdoor Florida magazine.

  • Harry Canterbury - Editor/publisher/host, Adventure Sports Outdoors magazine, radio talk show and TV video productions.

  • Jason Wood - Editor, Saltwater Sportsman magazine

They were all fun to fish with and all had a great sense of humor. Jason Wood had more one-liners than most comedians and you never knew what Mark would do next to get a laugh. We had fun, but we also had a mission, so we put all our efforts into catching fish and helping each other do the same. It was refreshing to see six writers from different magazines working together without even a hint of territorial rivalry.

Like I said last time, when I learned I was going to Belize on a fishing adventure I panicked. I had two months to collect all my gear; practice casting at distances I don't normally cast, and tie up the flies I needed for the trip. I also had to research much of what I needed to take with me. Here are some of the things I learned that you'll want to know if you venture that direction (or anywhere else) on a fishing trip.


Belize is known as the "grand slam" capitol of the world. That means you need to be prepared to fish for the big three - tarpon, permit and bonefish. You'll also have a chance at barracuda, jacks, snook and red snapper. These fish can be handled on the rods used for the big three, so you don't need to be species specific while selecting rods for these "other" fish.

Bonefish require 8wt rods for the most part, but the smaller fish can be handled on a 6 or 7wt rod just fine. If I go again, I'll take a 7wt and 8wt rod for these fish. Always take a spare rod since there are many things that can eat a rod; like ceiling fans, feet, fish, boats, etc. Your bonefish rod is the rod you'll use if you chase snapper or jacks. The 7wt would be my backup for the 8wt rod I'd probably use the most. You'll be casting a lot, so a quality rod that is light in the hand and responsive to the casting stroke is a must. I used a 9ft 8wt Gatti I borrowed from James Castwell as my primary bonefish rod. It did an excellent job.

Permit are a lot bigger than bonefish and are usually fished with a 9wt or 10wt rod. For smaller permit, an 8wt rod will do fine, but there is a chance to hook a big one and a light rod might not handle a big fish very well. I took two 8wt rods and a 10wt, so the permit were fished on an 8wt with plenty of prayers that I'd be able to handle a big fish if I hooked one. My back-up 8wt rod was a Lamiglas 4pc-travel rod (borrowed from Ladyfisher), but it wasn't required (this time). If I go again, I'll probably take along a 9wt for permit.

Tarpon are the big beasts of the Belize flats. They should be fished with a 10wt to 12wt rod with the 12wt being the preferred rod of the guides there. I used a 10wt for this task and for barracuda also. I didn't hook a tarpon, but barracuda averaging about 10 pounds bent the rod all morning the second day of fishing. Big flies and big fish need big rods. This is also a good size for snook. I borrowed a 4pc 10wt titanium rocket from Todd Vivian (the rod design guru for Lamiglas). That rod can deliver a heavy tarpon fly 105 feet with my (lacking) casting skills. I wonder how far a good saltwater fly caster could launch one of those flies with that rod? I'd definitely take that rod again if I had the chance.

You must be able to cast at least 60ft fairly accurately, in all kinds of wind up to 30 mph, at all kinds of angles, if you hope to catch many bonefish. Permit require the same distance and more accuracy than bonefish, and tarpon require a lot more distance than either permit or bonefish. If you can't achieve these basic saltwater casting distances, you need to practice, take a class or whatever else it takes to get at least that good. It didn't look pretty, but after two months of practice I was able to meet the casting demands of the sport.

If I get to go again, I'll have four rods in 7, 8, 9 and 10 weights. I would definitely want to have the titanium Lamiglas and the Gatti rod along on any adventure of this nature. That Sage XP Phil was using would be a nice touch too, but they didn't offer and I (unfortunately) didn't ask.

Reels and fly lines

Your reels need to be big enough to hold a weight forward saltwater fly line in a size to match the rod; plus at least 200 yards of 20 to 30lb test dacron or micron backing. They must have a good, smooth disk drag that will handle lightning fast runs. That means you need to forget click drag reels. They just won't work for these fish. It also means forget cheap reels with small drag surfaces. The low cost side of suitable reels would be Redington or Teton. I borrowed all the reels I used from James Castwell and Todd Vivian. Personally, I don't own a good saltwater reel yet, but I think I'll own one before long.

Large arbor reels are helpful to take up all that line a bonefish will strip off your reel before he changes direction and starts back toward the boat just as fast as he departed. I think I fell in love with Phil Monahan's Charlton reel (distributed by Scientific Anglers). It took up line faster than any reel I've ever seen. Smooth drag too. Some guys have all the nice toys.

SA Fly Lines

You might get away with a standard weight-forward line or even a bass line for practice, but you'll need a saltwater fly line for fishing. Standard lines won't last half a day in the coral and mangrove environment of Belize flats fishing. I used Scientific Anglers Mastery bonefish and tarpon lines on one 8wt and the 10wt rod. They cast like rockets, and the saltwater makes them almost too slick to grab. I also used a Cortland bonefish line on one of the 8wt rods. It would be hard to choose between the SA and Cortland lines for casting qualities. They were all excellent casting lines.


Suitable clothing is a must for this kind of fishing. Shirts must be lightweight, vented and breathable to allow your body to cool. Pants must be lightweight, fast drying and breathable. Zip-off pants legs are preferable. Headwear should be breathable and protect your face, ears and neck from the sun. Footwear should be comfortable, easy to put on and take off, and protect your feet and ankles from sharp coral and shells.

I wear vented fishing shirts all summer long. They are the most comfortable shirts I own, and my wife says they seem to be the only shirts I own. The shirts I took to Belize were the best ones I've seen to protect your body from UV damage while providing adequate ventilation to prevent overheating. They also dry real fast.

First, I wore Sea Harbour Ultra-Tech shirts (supplied by Cortland). This shirt dries fast, has vented under-arms and back, has roll-up sleeves, and resists wrinkles. It's a great travel shirt with long pockets (great for airline tickets, etc.) behind the bellows pockets. The collar can be raised to protect the neck from harmful sun rays. The shirt is designed to provide the ultimate UV protection in a harsh climate. Its design shouts fly-fishing with a d-ring at one bellows pocket and enough space in the pockets to hold a reasonable-sized fly box. The square bottom is designed to allow the shirt to be worn outside the pants for increased ventilation.

Next, I wore Ex Officio airstrip shirts. These are the lightest and most breathable shirts I own. They have full side vents that stretch from the underarm to the pants, and a fully vented back that can be pinned up for increased ventilation. Square bottom for increased ventilation.

I also wore Ex Officio Baja Plus shirts. These shirts have side vents and arm vents. A little warmer than the other shirts in the tropical sun, but they dry fast and are very comfortable. I've had several of these shirts for 7 years and they look fairly new, especially considering that I wear them almost all the time in the summer.

Any of the above-mentioned shirts will provide the best UV protection you can find, are cool and comfortable in tropical climates, resist wrinkles, and last many years under hard use. One guy I fish with occasionally has a Baja Plus shirt he has worn for 15 years; and the only visible signs of wear are the faded fabric. Good clothing is worth the money spent to buy it.

My fishing pants were the type with zip-off legs. They were from Sea Harbour, Ex Officio and Columbia. The fact that they were designed for flats wading was critical for comfort. They dry fast and breath very well. Anything heavier would have been a sweatbox in the heat. They are also great for summer fishing in the freshwater environment where I live.

Headwear should be lightweight and protect your face, ears and neck from the sun. We all wore different types of headwear, but they all had those features. Sunscreen on any exposed skin is still critical because the reflection of the sun off the water can burn you in minutes.

Flats boots are a must any time you leave the boat to wade the flats. Coral and seashells can destroy bare feet and soft soled shoes in minutes. The flats boots I wore were supplied by Chota (a sponsor here). I also noticed that the guides at the lodges wore Chota boots. When I asked them why they chose Chota boots, they said they chose them for comfort and because they were more durable than the others they had tried. They also mentioned that the zippers don't fail on Chota flats boots, but they had experienced problems with zipper failure on other brands. That's a better product review than I could ever provide.

Polarized sunglasses are critical if you want to see any fish. The lenses must be brown or amber to see anything in a saltwater environment. This is where I failed in my preparation. I always wear Action Optics sunglasses while fishing. At one time I had two pair of Action Optics sunglasses; one with brown and the other with gray lenses, but the pair with brown lenses was stolen out of my car several years ago and I never replaced them since I had a good pair with gray lenses. I just couldn't see the fish with those gray sunglasses, so I missed a lot of opportunities. Fortunately, I was able to borrow a pair with brown lenses for several days, and those were my best fishing days.

Don't short yourself with cheap sunglasses. There are several good brands of sunglasses, but Action Optics seem to be favorites in the fishing crowd (with the exception of Mark Easton's Costa Del Mar glasses). Cheap lenses don't filter the sun's rays the way good lenses do. Before I learned the value of quality sunglasses I suffered with headaches and sore eyes. My cheap sunglasses didn't penetrate the water as well as my Action Optics lenses do. Next time I'll have Action Optics sunglasses with brown lenses. The gray glasses I currently wear are 6 years old and work well in freshwater, but they aren't the right glasses for saltwater flats.

Other Tackle

Scientific Anglers supplied all of the leaders and tippets our group used. Bonefish leaders should be 9 to 10ft long and have a tippet strength of 8 to 14 pound test. Bonefish leaders work for permit, but the heavier test versions are preferred. Jacks and snapper can also be caught on bonefish leaders. I have long been a skeptic of fluorocarbon leaders and tippet for general fishing, but for presenting flies to fish feeding underwater, fluorocarbon is a definite advantage. I noticed the difference in hook-ups right away.

Leaders and Tippets from SA

If you want to learn how to create knots with names like bimini and hufnagle, be my guest; they give me a headache. If you think other things interest you more, Scientific Anglers has tarpon leaders already tied with those knots, so all you need to do is provide the heavy back part of the leaders complete with loops to attach the class-rated leaders SA makes. I even used a tarpon leader with 50lb shock tippet for barracuda without any cut-off problems, but steel leaders are preferred for this task. If you get a chance to chase snook, your tarpon leader will work for them too.


To round off the tackle selection, you'll need a bag of some kind to hold all your gear like fly boxes, leaders, cameras and suntan lotion. I purchased a BW Sports Boatsider bag for this task. It carried all my gear and more. Any soft tackle box will do the task just fine, but the layout of the Boatsider is designed for fly fishing and excels in that area. A fanny pack designed for fishing that holds your gear and a water bottle is a good idea if you're going to wade the flats. I bought one from BW Sports that I used there and will use often on hot days here at home too.

Other Important Gear and Information

Don't forget to carry plenty of water. You can dehydrate quickly in tropical climates, so water is critical. You might want to pack a bottle of aspirin or Tylenol in case you get a headache. That saved the day twice for me. A bottle of Imodium AD and/or Pepto Bismol is a good idea in many places too.

Fanny Pack is great for wading

Sunscreen is a must. Take the SPF 30 to 40 strength and make sure it's the kind that doesn't wash off. Apply it often and liberally, especially on nose, ears, chin, neck and that little triangle of skin where the shirt collar is open in the front. Lip balm with a sun block is a necessity too. Your body only has a limited amount of skin, and you can't afford to loose all the layers in any area.

Note the Jergens lotion I carry hand lotion in my gear bag. It's a great way to prevent and/or treat chapped hands. I can't remember any day when I handled multiple fish when that bottle of hand lotion wasn't a handy item. A small flashlight is a good idea too.

For anyone carrying cameras, check your cameras when you get to your destination. Those of us who went through the security check at the Dallas airport had a problem we didn't discover until it was too late. The ISO settings on our cameras were moved from the DX setting to another setting. One of my cameras (the one I used the most) was moved to ISO 400 (a speed I never use), and I had it loaded with ISO 50 film. Eleven rolls of slide film and some priceless images were lost to that oversight on my part. The other camera was set to ISO 80; but that didn't hurt much since I had it loaded with ISO 100 film. I set all the settings on my cameras before I left home, and I made sure the ISO settings were on DX so the camera would sense film speed automatically. I knew I had pre-set everything, so I didn't think to re-check the settings when I got to Belize. It cost me dearly, but it'll never happen to me again. I'm not the only one who learned that lesson. If the security guys at the airport handle your cameras, check all the settings before you use them at your destination. Actually, it's a good idea to check everything again just to be safe. You never know what may have been bumped enough to change something critical to good photography.

Film Shield

Another thing to think about if you're carrying film; get some film bags designed for airport security machines. These lead-lined bags can be purchased at any good camera shop, and they protect your film from the x-rays they use at airport security checks. They also help protect the film from moisture, a common problem in a boat.

We asked the lodges to place a second (dry) cooler in each boat for camera and film storage. Those extra coolers were gear-savers in the rain and spray from high waves. They also protected the gear from heat (heat can ruin film fast, and it doesn't do your camera any good either). Any lodge worth visiting should be willing to provide coolers for your cameras without any questions or objections. All you need to do is ask.

Circular polarizing filters are a must on the water. They reduce the glare of the sun reflecting off the water and intensify the colors a little. They also make it much easier to see into the water with your camera. You'll never capture the turquoise color of tropical water without a polarizing filter. An added bonus a filter provides is protection of that costly lens from water spray. Be sure to remove your polarized glasses before you use a camera with a polarizing filter. You'll never see the effect of the filter with polarized glasses on, and your pictures won't be glare-free if you can't see the effect and adjust the filter properly.

I hope these hints help you prepare for your next trip to a tropical fishing paradise. If you learn from my mistakes and successes, you'll have a much better trip.

Next time we'll discuss flies. See you then. ~ Al Campbell

More of Al's Adventure

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