The Y2K Barracuda of Belize
Hysterical hubbub of impending doom permeated society in the weeks leading up to the turn of the century. It was so preposterous that my wife and two teenage children thought it would be more interesting to spend the week camping on a remote island far from the commercial hype of a man-made event. We chose Glovers Reef in Belize, a large atoll that is older than man and doesn’t know Monday from Friday, A.D. from B.C. or Times Square from Red Square. Glover’s natural indifference to man-made contrivances is what made this trip especially memorable; that, and a four foot barracuda on a fly.
The months leading to this momentous moment, dubbed by geeks of the day as Y2K, were crazy times. The explosion of internet euphoria twisted reality into nonsensical pretzel logic. This was Fed Chairman, Alan Greenspan’s, famed period of irrational exuberance. The internet had finally caught its stride, and the stock markets were on a capitalistic rampage to profit from its potential. Easy money was to be made buying, then quickly selling, shares in companies with absolutely no track record, or even that totally unnecessary component, revenue. Greedy madness underpinned a fragile market stoked by novice day traders as everyone from cab drivers to professors were making what they thought was real money. “Throw a dart.” was the basic analysis most were using to choose the next winner. I was not immune from the hypnotic allure of this easy money which was almost as simple to catch as pond stocked trout on power bait.
On a Monday in early October I bought shares in a company that had just gone public. It had no history of producing online games for profit, but it had an alluring name, “Uproar.com”, and that’s all that was required to make a massive 328% profit by the following Friday. It was ridiculous, I knew that, and decided it was time to take my profits and step to the sidelines.
Adding to the raging inferno was rampant speculation of a technological meltdown sure to alter the Earth’s rotation. The world’s computers would self destruct when confronted with identifying the double zero’s when clocks struck midnight 31 December, 1999, opening the year 2000. Cars would pile up at intersections, security systems would crash, and power grids across the planet would send the world into darkness. It was a pending panic for the masses, and greenback heaven for the makers and traders of anything remotely related to the fix. My family and I didn’t buy this fantasy of calamity and decided to skip the whole affair by packing up some snorkeling gear and fishing equipment and head to a desolate outcropping in the Caribbean. So, I parted with the ill gotten gains from Uproar and booked the trip.
Covering 90 square miles, Glovers Reef is a beautifully formed volcanic atoll 35 miles off the central mainland of Belize. Inside the edges of the submerged coral covered mountain top rim is a lagoon with more than 700 patch reefs and thick fields of turtle grass loaded with active sea life. Its 50 mile perimeter is cupped by cliffs that drop off dramatically to depths of 2,700 feet. Above water, the small spits of land are made of shimmering white coral, black craggy volcanic rock and soft white coral sands held together by the root systems of wavy palms, tamarind and fingery mangroves. It’s a precious and fragile ecosystem now protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We bought our travel package from a Canadian outfitter so joining us were 4 young pale skinned Canadian couples, of course, eh? They were wrapped in long billed caps with flapping awnings, full length zip-off trousers tucked into their stocking sandaled feet, and baggy long sleeved khaki shirts with epaulettes. Their exposed noses were zinc white under large wrap-around sunglasses. This amusing fashion matched the overall humor, laughs and easy going dispositions of typically jovial, wonderful Canadians.
After salutations we hauled our bags across a rickety pier and loaded into a 26 foot double hull cruiser with twin 150 horsepower Yamaha’s. At full ahead, on 26 December 1999, we swept across the dark blue ocean chop from Placentia until we crossed the second largest barrier reef in the world, and then, over the perimeter of Glovers Reef into shimmering bluey/green shallows. It was like an animated Disneyland production. How could something be so splendiferous? We all gasped at the abrupt change from the deep blue as our motors downshifted to a 3 knot speed. We long-necked it over the gunwales to watch turtles, manta rays, eels, barracuda, lemon sharks, and other colorful flashing species of fish by the gazillions skittering about in the warm tropical waters. Entranced by the humungous display of nature just feet below the boat bottom, we all got antsy to hop out as we glided up onto a thick soft beach.
Fidgeting to string up my eight weight and get on the water, the realities of being a family man led me instead to checking out camp, situating our gear and getting to know the staff of four who were emerging from the shade of fluttering palms. Dave, a graying science teacher from Oregon was headmaster; he greeted us and introduced his Belizean staff. Oscar, an expert fisherman with a serious regal demeanor, shook hands firmly and examined us with a deep look. Otto, a squatty, but powerfully built little man with tarantula legs poking out of his nostrils, was camp go-fer, and the rotund Alice, camp cook, dressed in a flowing light dress and lime sandals offered a welcoming white smile and a tray of chilled mango juice.
Camp had white safari tents scattered amongst the palms and a stilted 20′ x 20′ hut made of mainland hardwoods and palm fronds that served as dining quarters and reading lounge. The volcanic rock beneath the topsoil provided perfect structure for filtering salt water through the sandy soil creating a fresh water aquifer for drinking. Our little island was two or three acres in size, one side faced the expansive lagoon and the other the wild deep blue of the open Caribbean. It was dissected by a shallow channel of flats that looked ideal for bonefish when the tide rose.
During the week ahead, we would listen to Dave’s lessons on fascinating science, astronomy and celestial navigational history. We went snorkeling with Oscar and he taught us to pluck lobsters from holes in the patch reefs. We laughed at Otto untangling himself from kayak sails, and we gobbled up fresh, delicious foods prepared by Alice in her lean-to kitchen nestled in the palms. This was our holiday family, and as the week progressed we all connected in mutual respect and friendship.
The lagoon of Glovers Reef was a great place for fishing, but it offered much more than that. One afternoon my daughter and I paddled right up to a loggerhead turtle with a shell the size of an executive desk. It looked at us with soft yellow eyes then slowly drifted its way down into disappearance. Another day my son and I sailed a two man kayak far across the lagoon for a picnic lunch standing waste deep in the sparkling waters. Like my parents did for me, my wife and I always tried to give our kids experiences in life that would have lasting meaning.
Against some objection, I had trouble appreciating the value of disposable gifts wrapped up neatly under a pulsating Christmas tree – these seemed to be anticlimactic and were usually discarded or forgotten rather quickly. More often than not, the times before and during Christmas are racked with anxieties of all sorts. Parties, year-end business transactions, long lists of things to buy, writing cute cards, staged photographs, jammed parking lots, irritating, relentlessly repetitive music, men dressed in red hats on almost every corner ringing bells in a form of begging camouflaged by festivity…. and this year, the added chaos of Y2K. Far from that world, it was decidedly a pleasure to be wafting about under a giant sky of rolling cumulus with only the sound of a sleepy breeze.
One of the funny Canadian couples, a drive time radio D.J. with a slapstick personality and her affable hockey junkie boyfriend, could care less about the activities, just so long as there was plenty of Belikin beer on hand for breakfast, lunch, dinner and all times in between. Back home their friends were ice skating on the river in Ottawa, so they just wanted to enjoy the tropics, with a beer in one hand, a cigarette in the other, awnings flapping, zinc on the nose.
Otto enjoyed his beers too, and one night after supper he stumbled up to me and asked in a whisper if I’d ever heard of the buried treasures in the mountains of the mainland. Superstition had it that Spanish pirates had stashed caskets overflowing with looted gold in the mountains near his home. He was looking for an investor to finance a search party. “You see, I have friends of friends who have sure knowledge of its whereabouts, and just a small investment of, say, 10,000 US?… we could all be rich!” It was an intriguing story, but with his bulging eyes and those creepy wiggling spider legs dangling down from his nostrils over his upper lip, it was hard to take this man seriously about anything. I just wanted to shake him and shout “Dude, get some tweezers!”
In the early mornings before camp started to rustle, Alice was always near the lean-to humming Shania Twain tunes. I could smell warm doughy scones in dutch ovens, and a bitter aroma of percolating Belizian coffee. This was my cue, before daybreak, to kiss my wife and crawl out of our tent, fly gear in hand. If the tide was rising I’d carefully tip-toe through the channel flats and quietly fling a twelve foot leader with my favorite crustacean imitations, McVay’s Gotcha or chartreuse Crazy Charlie’s. The ghost’s of the flats are hard to spot, and it takes a keen eye to recognize the difference between a surface riffle and the slow moving translucent oblong of a bonefish. In skinny water, a long delicate cast is required several feet ahead of protruding glassy silver tails, which indicates feeding is underway. When the shiny caudal fin gets close to the shrimp replica a short double twitch usually gets the result; an eruption of water, a zinging reel as line screams off the spool, pulled by a high speed torpedo of pure muscle. It’s a jolting thrill, and a good bonefish will give two or three runs before succumbing.
Bones can be found throughout the Belizian coastlines, but it’s the diversity of other species that occupied my imagination at Glovers. The fish in and around the turtle grass and patch reefs are what I really wanted to tangle with. Those aggressive monsters that shoot out of nowhere to bang down like a sledge hammer on a red headed Crystal Popper. Jacks, Snappers, Dorado, weird looking psychedelic colored reef fish and the occasional giant Barracuda were all on my wish list.
To reach the right water I used a sit-on-top kayak which requires good balance, simultaneous paddle/rod control, and long casts, sometimes into stiff winds. Popper fishing is like dry flies in the sense you see the fish hit, but much more action is required to imitate a wounded minnow on the surface. It worked like magic and I had my fill of Horse Eyed Jacks, Mackerel, Snappers, Bonitos and a few of those crazy iridescent fish seen while snorkeling.
Finally, the last night of the 20th century, had arrived. We hadn’t mentioned it once during the previous 5 days but I suppose we were all silently curious or slightly nervous about it. A big fire was lit at sundown, fed long into the night with thick crackling driftwood logs and warming hardwoods boated in from the mainland. The air was clear and camp glowed bright under a glittering confetti sky. There were buckets of special hooch concocted by Alice that we greedily scooped with our mugs, something sweet and sour that had the sneaky mellow kick of a Mai Tai. Dave, our master, surprised us with his multitude of talents yet again by bringing out an old Gibson guitar, strumming and singing tunes from the 50’s and 60’s by Pete Seeger, Kingston Trio and Arlo Guthrie. He was a peace and love man from the Woodstock era, and a delight to be with as we welcomed in the 21st century. This scene around a flickering fire was perhaps slightly more appealing than a frigid New York City countdown by Dick Clark in front of a boob tube with a platter of cheesy hors d’oeuvre’s.
Like a desert mirage materializes invisible vapor, puffy pink skies appeared on the horizon from under the black hat of early morning twilight. It was literally dawn of a new millennium, 01 January 2000, and as far as I could tell everything was the same as yesterday. The world was still rotating, the sky hadn’t fallen, and blue footed booby birds were diving for Sardinia as they’d done well before Mayans built grand temples in the nearby jungle landscape of Latin America. All looked calm and beautiful on the brilliant azure waters inside the reefs of this atoll off the coast of Belize. It was a quintessential morning for saltwater flyrodding.
On this first morning of the new millennium I left the revelers in their tents to sleep off last century’s rum and paddled out into the clear waters in my sit-on-top kayak. The surface was as smooth and shiny as polished silver; the air was soft under rose skies. It was perfect for tossing sparkly poppers over the beds of turtle grass where big snappers and horse-eye jacks love to feed, but I had another idea….
I paddled out a little further to a snorkeling area where the day before we’d seen a thigh sized toothy barracuda with a black spot on his tail about as big as a baseball. With shaky hung-over hands I tied on a steel leader, snapped in an articulated bright green rubber tube fly with two hooks and began double hauling. There was nothing tentative about the smash that clobbered the fly within seconds of its landing and I matched it with a hard pull on my rod. It had to be Joe Frasier, and I was Ali.
Like a possessed demon, this monster shot out across the lagoon taking my entire line to the backing in mere seconds. I tightened the spool down to its stingiest setting and placed the rod butt to my belly, clutching both hands on the stout Loomis rod. With the line tightened down my kayak began skimming across the water in an involuntary chase. With every crank of the reel the kayak sped up so I tossed the paddle lengthwise into the boat so it wouldn’t fall out and used the foot pedals to steer the rudder. This fish was racing like a drag car to the edge of the reef where, once outside of the shallow lagoon, he’d dive down deep. I had to stop him or I’d be out in the inky blue water amongst swift currents where the advantage would become distinctly his. I still had a little rum buzz going but my instincts took over and I put the rod butt under my seat and grabbed the paddle. I knew this was cheating of sorts, but I locked the rod in between my knees, grabbed the paddle and began back paddling toward the beach a half mile behind us.
Sliding onto the shore I rolled out of the kayak and began reeling. He shot out again and again with great strength and determination, but he eventually eased up and came in under exhaustion. There he was, in the warm shallow water staring at me, buck toothed and beady eyed with a black baseball on his tail. A pair of hemostats jerked the one remaining hook of the mangled fly from his razor toothed mouth. He made a quick snap toward me then bolted out, disappearing into the lagoon. I blew him a kiss and laid down on the beach to watch the pink clouds turn blue, then bright white.
As I walked into camp tuckered from the battle an aroma of scones and bitter coffee stirred in the air with Shania Twain. Slowly but surely, my moppy headed campmates wobbled out of their tents to greet the first day of the new century, which was just like any another natural day in an unfazed natural world.
Back in Placentia a few days later, we all gathered for lunch at a small café where a fuzzy television was showing news from America. The panic of a Y2K meltdown had vanished and been replaced with a drubbing to the Nasdaq and Dow, an ominous portent to the beginning of a “dotcom” stock bubble burst. I smiled and realized that no matter what silliness humans decide to create to satisfy their needs and greeds, the natural world we just experienced will live on long after our species has gobbled itself up. We were fortunate to the tenth power to have spent this time together on Glover’s Reef and I think we all gained a greater, calmer perspective about this big beautiful world we call Planet Earth.