There’s a certain mystique to a good fishing lodge. It’s a flavor that, while familiar to those who frequent fishing destinations around the world, still remains welcoming and encouraging to the new angler. It’s a fine line to ride — keeping seasoned, globe-trotting fishermen content while also teaching and embracing those on their first fishing experience. For saltwater fly fishing, the challenge grows: it’s a niche sport, and doing it in saltwater narrows the cadre even further. These anglers tend to be driven, sometimes obsessive individuals who often talk about the “addiction” of casting for fish in a saltwater environment, even if they only get to do it one week a year.
All of this to say: it takes a well-run, thoughtful retreat to balance the seasoned saltwater angler with the newbie. I’ve fly-fished six continents, spending time at lodges I yearn to return to, as well as some I was happy to put in the rearview mirror. They say some places get in your blood, becoming a touchpoint over the years. One of those, for me, is Belize’s El Pescador Lodge. A decade ago I lingered a few days after a photo-shoot job, hoping to get a look at what this “flats fishing” thing was all about.
I got my desired introduction, and the first taste of a place that keeps me coming back.
A short flight from the States (about three hours from either Dallas or Atlanta), Belize is home to world-class saltwater fly fishing, and its close proximity to the U.S. makes it far more attainable than other far-flung saltwater destinations. It’s also an easy country to travel in. Most locals speak at least a little English, and many restaurants and shops in the larger towns even accept U.S. currency. For those perhaps pondering a first-ever trip out of the country, these two factors make the country approachable; it’s a good first-time-abroad travel experience.
Incoming anglers will land at Goldson International Airport. (The airport staff are used to seeing fishing gear come through, so don’t be surprised if they ask if you’re more a Permit Guy or a Tarpon Guy. They know the difference in Belize.) Then it’s time to hop into one of Tropic Air’s Cessna Grand Caravans — Tropic is amazing and easy to work with on all levels — for the quick flight out to the island of Ambergris Caye, home to El Pescador Lodge.
Welcome to El Pescador Lodge
Located near the town of San Pedro, El Pescador has been owned and run by the same family for more than 25 years. Three generations of the family are involved, giving the lodge a non-corporate, home-like feel. El Pescador has also won a variety of awards and accolades from the fly-fishing and travel industries, but maintains the feel of a family-run establishment — something becoming increasingly rare in today’s travel industry.
It’s a true fisherman’s lodge. The main building houses comfortable, hotel-like rooms, while eight villas line either side of the property for those traveling in groups or looking for a bit more privacy. Three swimming pools dot the resort, offering a cool respite to fishermen returning from the flats.
But the heart of the lodge is the Grand Slam Bar, named for the feat of catching all three of the area’s most famous sport fish species (bonefish, tarpon and permit) in a single day. Inside the bar, the impeccably observant staff whip up all kinds of local concoctions and island favorites (pro tip: go for the Grande or the Painkiller after a long day on the water). The kitchen serves hors d’oeuvres every afternoon, and also manages to supply three quality meals a day, including box lunches for the anglers. In the evenings, family-style dinner is served outside under a spacious veranda, allowing guests to mingle and talk about the day’s adventures. This is what it’s all about: camaraderie, with anglers of all skill levels mixing, making friends and trading stories.
Chasing Dorado (And Finding Home) on the Sea of CortezUnexpected familiarity at Ventana Blue in the small Baja California Sur village of La Ventana
Fishing in Belize
El Pescador has access to more than 400 square miles of shallow fishing waters surrounding the island, and the blue-green tropical flats are home to healthy numbers of bonefish, tarpon, permit, snook and other Caribbean gamefish. Fishing is good year-round, though many diehard tarpon anglers often visit from May to August, when larger, migratory tarpon swing through.
Like most fisheries, it can be encouraging one day and frustrating the next. It’s the nature of the game, especially fly fishing, and especially fly fishing in saltwater. There’s no accounting for weather, air pressure or simply the mood of the fish. But many saltwater anglers (this writer included, many years ago) have caught their first bonefish in these waters. There’s enough variety on the flats surrounding Ambergris Caye that a week spent fishing hardly seems long enough; one day you’re cruising deep in mangroves looking for tarpon in lagoons, the next you’re wading turquoise flats stalking a school of tailing permit. For serious saltwater anglers, it’s a playground worth exploring, and one that fishermen of any level won’t be eager to leave. Dolphins, manatees and iguanas are common sights during the day.
It’s also possible to catch a Grand Slam straight from the lodge dock — not common, but possible, and a feat I’ve seen in person — so fishing from the property itself is a good way to spend a relaxed evening at the lodge. For fishing days, the guides pick guests up and take them to various fishing grounds pending weather, conditions and where the fish have been eating. It’s hard to beat an hour-long run in the panga, the local style of fishing skiff, as the sun rises over the Caribbean, downing a fresh breakfast burrito made early that morning by the hardworking kitchen crew.
Sometimes (okay, often) the fishing is less about the fishing, and more about the things that come with that fishing experience, breakfast burritos included.
For Those Not Fishing-Inclined
As difficult as it may be for some anglers to imagine, some people actually want to relax on their vacation. They prefer to sit on the beach, swim in the sea and just generally play tourist. El Pescador caters well to significant others who don’t fish and even to family groups; there are plenty of non-angling activity options. For those who prefer more action than lounging by the pool with a cocktail, renting a golf cart and driving into San Pedro to explore, shop and dine for the day provides a good taste of local culture.
The clear turquoise waters are also home to world-class snorkeling and diving, and charters are readily available from the island. It’s also possible to plan a long day of adventure and head back to the mainland to explore Mayan ruins or go cave tubing in the jungle.
Belize Food Culture
Belize is a foodie’s delight. As one would expect in the Caribbean, fresh seafood, tropical fruits and quality rum abound. Be sure to sample a good ceviche (El Pescador’s kitchen staff makes an excellent conch ceviche; it’s the perfect boat snack straight from the cooler on a hot day). The local beer is Belikin, a classic European continental lager, and rum is easy to find. Breakfast is a meal that truly shines at El Pescador, where arepas — ground maize dough with a savory filling — and breakfast burritos on homemade tortillas are tried-and-true favorites.
It’s worth the trip into San Pedro to experience more local food, if nothing else. The Belize Chocolate Company crafts artisanal chocolate using beans grown from small family farms, and even offers a chocolate-making class for the culinary-curious. The Farmhouse Market & Cafe is a go-to stop for coffee, smoothies and healthy local groceries, and Lavish Habit is another solid stop for coffee and cafe food.
Even if you never leave the El Pescador property except in a panga, you’ll find plenty of Belize hospitality right at the lodge. With the exception of Eben, the American lodge manager, the staff is local, friendly and one big family.
“Family” is a term thrown around often at lodges, and it’s been cheapened with overuse. But for the El Pescador staff, it’s often true both literally and figuratively — there are uncles, nieces, brothers, cousins and childhood friends working here. By the first evening at the lodge, the camaraderie is more than apparent, and it’s clear that the El Pescador family is indeed just that — a family. There’s laughter and teasing, friendly banter with staff and guests alike. It feel like a home.
And I can hardly think of a better fishing trip than going to visit family on the tropical waters of Ambergris Caye.