Category Archives: Travel

The Historical Gravity of the Panga

I once took a bonefishing trip out of Belize City. I was there for other reasons but the concierge said she had a cousin who could take me out. He picked me up at a pier about three blocks from the hotel and we started for the mangrove cayes off the peninsula. He worked the tiller of the old outboard to steady us on the ride; wind catching the high profile of the bow made the boat wobble. This is a common problem with pangas.

Chris Santella’s article on Punta Allen in the New York Times reminded me of this, mostly because of its striking color photo (by Matt Jones) of  anglers on a panga variant. Anyone who has ever engaged in back country travel to a desolate stretch of foreign water has thrown flies from a panga at some point, likely unaware of the significance found in the cheaply laid fiberglass under his feet.

There is debate over who really created the panga*, but Yamaha Motors developed and mass produced the modern version in the 1960s, desiring a low cost work boat with a flat transom that could hold the outboards it was selling. Inspiration came from traditional Japanese fishing boats, as well as from cast netters in Central and South America, Africa and Asia, who launched their long, narrow wooden boats through the surf.

It’s designed to get in and out of the breakers without rolling, with a flattened keel for pulling onto the beach. They original panga was 22 feet long and five and a half feet wide, with that rounded rising bow for extra buoyancy. A Delta pad underneath helped it hop to life with little horsepower and skip like a stone on top of a bay chop.

Here’s how pangas changed the game: They could be quickly molded from fiberglass and with their long, narrow, efficient shape they could run forever on a small tank of gasoline. Seeing their economic value, the World Bank got involved, working to distribute pangas and outboards to net fishermen in Asia, Africa and South and Central America, and to teach their owners how to fix a carburetor.

Over the years they’ve evolved into water taxis, freight haulers, drug runners, dive boats, marlin chasers and flats skiffs, like the dark green one I sat in as we glided over the water between Belize City and the bonefish flats.

My guide picked up his homemade push pole and stood on the back bench. He’d crafted a casting platform from plywood, roughly cut and planked across the bow. From there I had a higher vantage point than he did–he didn’t have sunglasses anyhow–and I saw the shadows moving across the flat first. He staked off and I made ready to cast, another small transaction in the history of a boat that brought waters all around the world within reach.

*(See comment below.)

Can Fly Fishing Save A Community?

The sunglass maker Costa Del Mar has a new film out about fly fishing for arapaima in Guyana.

I’ve only watched the trailer but am awaiting the DVD, and it seems well worth the screening. Sure all the protagonists are wearing Costa hats and sunglasses but so be it. I love fly fishing videos that go beyond just being awesome, and actually have some weight (see Rivers of A Lost Coast, Red Gold). This one seems to. It’s based on the premise that developing a catch-and-release fly fishery for these giant freshwater fish can create an eco-tourism economy and thereby save a community and ecosystem from habitat destruction.

That’s a tall order, but I’m buying into it.

I give Costa props for the message. Lots of companies make pledges to protect the environment, especially ones who depend on it to sell product, but few put real money behind that. (Patagonia and Rise Fly Rods are two that come to mind.) I look forward to seeing the full film.

 

Paging Mr. Deneki

Like many of you out there, I’ve indulged the fantasy of owning a remote and bad-ass fishing lodge. The reality is I am not properly wired for anything remotely related to service. But Andrew Bennett is, and he owns the Deneki Lodges on Andros, The Kanektok, and the Dean.

Mr. Deneki on the flats. (Photo by Tim Rajeff courtesy of Deneki.)

I was fortunate enough to be invited down to Andros South for the first FIBFest back in the day. Andrew struck me as a bright, easy-going guy who could laugh at himself but at the same time had his shit together. These type of people can be disconcerting, especially when they are younger than you. I threw a few questions at him, just to find out what it’s like to run your dream business.

 

So why did you want to own a fishing lodge operation?

I grew up in Alaska and always spent a ton of time outside. After college I spent 9 years working for a great software company…but I got the small business bug pretty bad, and I also missed being outside more, and I also really love fishing. I remember thinking to myself “why should I work 50 weeks a year so I can do what I really want to do for 2 weeks a year”.

Putting together a group of fishing lodges seemed like a neat way to build a new kind of business and apply some of what I learned in my previous life – but in an industry where I was much more personally passionate about the product.

You’re Ivy League; shouldn’t you be launching a tech start-up or bundling subprime mortgages?

Do you know how many of those guys spend all of their time wishing they were on a river or on a flat or hanging out at a tiki hut on a beach? No I don’t spend most of my time in any of those places…but I spend a lot, and working on business issues is a lot easier for me when the business is all about fishing.

The irony of being a guide is that you’re on the water all the time but never fishing. Does that hold true for lodge owners?

Let me start by saying that I know how incredibly lucky I am to have spent so much time on the water as part of this business. Hanging out with our super high quality team and spending time with interesting guests is a ton of fun. And I really truly love the fishing at all of our lodges – they’re amazing places.

That being said, it does get difficult to turn off the ‘business brain’ when I’m at our lodges. No matter how much fun I’m having, I’m constantly thinking about how we can do things better.

So no, I actually do get to fish quite a lot, and I’m really lucky that way – even if it’s not quite the same as just fishing with friends without a care in the world.

What does Deneki mean? And is it pronounced Den-eh-ki or Den-EEK-i?

Duh-NEE-kee. Deneki is an Athabascan Indian word that means ‘moose’ or ‘little moose’. A popular children’s book in Fairbanks where I grew up was ‘Deneki, An Alaskan Moose’, by William Berry. When my brother and I were quite young – he was 6 and I was 4, I think – we got our first dog, a Springer Spaniel. My brother had just read the book – he suggested and we all agreed to name our dog Deneki. That’s the story!

 I’m guessing behind the scenes there’s a fair amount of stress, putting out fires, and solving logic puzzles. I mean, these are often peoples’ dream trips, and a blown starter motor on an outboard could ruin somebody’s day. How much is involved to make it seem seamless to the guest?

It is absolutely incredible how much goes on behind the scenes, and like I said I am incredibly lucky to have a solid, experienced team that handles the vast majority of it. Our job is to make sure all that stuff is invisible to our guests so it doesn’t get talked about much – but yes, the average guest has no idea what’s involved.

In Alaska we have a full-time employee who does nothing other than run freight and fuel to our camp. In BC everything comes in via helicopter or float plane (or barge if it’s really big). On Andros we pay 57% import duty to bring in vehicles.

Our team rebuilds motors, learns foreign tax codes, literally fights actual fires, plants gardens, aims satellite dishes…the list goes on and on. And that stuff is all in addition to normal daily logistics, guest management, customer service, and…oh yeah…fishing.

Why Andros and the Kanektok?

And the Dean! [editor's note: we stupidly forgot the third one] Very simple – first and foremost, start with the best fishery possible. That’s just the most important part of the formula. We are 100% focused on delivering high quality fishing trips, and for that you need the highest quality fishing. If you want Alaskan salmon and trout, you want the Kanektok and the Arolik. If you want bonefish, you want South Andros Island. If you want steelhead, you want the Dean.

At the end of the day, if the fishing isn’t the best, it doesn’t matter how friendly the staff is, how good the food is, or how nice the lodge is. We sell fishing trips.

The Drinking Man’s Guide To Drinking

Courtesy ©Peter Strid Art (http://stridart.blogspot.com/)

He was a Brit living in Singapore and he smoked cigarettes that smelled like incense. He kept buying us expensive vodka as a reward for our work and, at some point, suggested it would be a good idea to snort it.

He turned out to be a fisherman and he told stories about chasing trout in Pakistan and we chose to believe him. He headed an agency branch and traveled Asia to work on ad campaigns and he appreciated our mindless intern support over here.

He wanted us to try absinthe but of course we couldn’t get it so he ordered some 100 proof. Abby started to slump in her chair and I found myself unable to stop talking about this one Adirondack brook trout.

We later found out he won multiple One Show pencils for his work but when he left all we remembered was he wanted us to meet at the docks for his morning charter.

By that point we realized we’d been done in by a professional. And there’s only so much you can do when you can’t even hold it together.

Things That Matter on the Flats

locked and loaded, despite

 You motherf&*$&*rs got no creep,” -Kima Greggs, “The Wire” Season 2

The bonefish started moving away from me the second I raised my rod to throw and I had no accounting for it. But Ellie, my guide, gave me a look that made it clear this was all my fault.

“What’s in your bag, Pete?” he asked, and I felt embarrassed for overlooking such a small thing that could dampen my prospects.

I get to go flats fishing for bonefish, on average, about once every two years, so I am no authority on the subject. But in my brief travels I’ve picked up things that have stuck. Besides the general obvious ones–false casting sucks, poise counts and so on–it sometimes seems to be the tiniest of details. Such as…

THE SHIT IN YOUR BAG: Sound travels 4.3 times faster through water than air. Ellie, one of the guides from Andros South*, had detected a rattle coming from my pack when I loaded my back cast. The culprit: Those little plastic containers you throw your desired flies into at the fly shop. I’d left one loose in there with three crabs I’d purchased and forgotten about.  And it cost me shots.

THE SHIT ON YOUR LINE: Scene two, I was walking along a shallow flat, floating line stripped and trailing at the ready. Except it kept sinking. Every ten feet or so I’d snag a rock or shell or coral bit and get otherwise hung up. This again, entirely my fault. Despite my known preferences for ditch fishing in sandy, muddy and potentially toxic areas, the number of times I had cleaned my line added up to never. All that grit, and all the times I’d stepped on it added up to FUBAR. Thankfully, I’d left my spare reel sitting safely in my luggage at the lodge.

The guide wound up serving as my personal line caddy for the session, walking side by side and holding my line free from snags until I was ready to throw. Mighty cool of him.

The fish I did catch were, thankfully, blind to my inadequacies.

*(From FIBFest 1)

Bonefish Perspectives

SECOND PERSON

You come on the scene three days into it, and walk into the Slack Tide at Andros South and immediately someone drops a line at your expense. Ball busting travels. Then you wake up in the morning and you’re on the flats, stepping quietly, and trying to figure out how the hell the guide walking next to you is looking at the same water but seeing entirely different things.

Your line is floating behind you and you’re creeping forward hoping you get it done. The guide stops and points and you don’t see anything but you lay down the line and strip, and you feel the tension as the line starts clearing but it catches on the reel handle and that’s it. Mistakes are not abided.

People compare bonefish to false albacore but they are similar only in their backing runs. Chasing albies is hyperactive and a little bit demolition derby. Bonefishing seems to work best when you slow down your heartrate and make the moment small. Easier said than done.

You start seeing the fish and you race. Thinking about what is 50 feet and are you making too many false casts and the next thing you know you’ve left it short and the fish keep swimming. You pick up your line and shoot it and you overthrow and watch the water explode with spooked fish.

You keep walking, wondering if you’re ever going to get this right when your guide stops and points and you finally see what he sees and he asks, Can you make the cast? I can try, you whisper and before you can overthink it your line has landed and you watch a fish make a move to your fly. You raise the tip and the line comes tight and starts ripping out of your hand and the reel reverses. Then everything else that happened before doesn’t matter. Except for the comedy at your expense. You’ll have to think of a way to repay that sumbitch back at the lodge.

THIRD PERSON

Norman noticed the dark clouds forming behind and started the long wade back to get the skiff. He said to keep moving forward until he returned to pick us up. Gracie spotted a ray gliding ahead, fanning its wings and kicking up marl. “There could be bones trailing behind that,” he said.

Gracie had taped his fingertips because of the line cuts accrued in the days prior but unfazed he talked across the flats about data encryption but then suddenly stopped, and the only sound echoing across the water came from his reel. That ray swam right by him and he made the cast, picking up the lead fish of four about two feet behind the barbed tail.

Watching other people stalk bonefish is just as interesting….

The tide is barely over our ankles on the flats and Smithhammer is rolling through a set of off-color guide jokes. After walking a distance over several football fields, Ellie notices separate sets of tails working in opposite directions. He points Smithhammer, who doesn’t need the same help, off to the fish on the right.

Ellie walks and walks, then stands patiently, then points at the disturbed water about a hundred feet forward. The sound of a reversing reel interrupts him and he turns his head back to witness Smithhammer holding his rod over his head to keep the tension on one of those other tailers.  “He’s done it,” Ellie says, and then turns to move closer for a shot at our rooting fish.

FIRST PERSON

I’m in the dining room trying to hold down some cereal in a digestive system unsettled by last night’s beverages, and from losing straight up cash to Gracie at the card table. I’ve played Texas Hold Em five times in my life and never sober, so it always needs to be re-explained. Never won, go figure.

The van is just outside and it’s time to leave. I get a window seat on the Western Air flight to Nassau. The prop plane pulls off the runway in Congo Town and that’s it, mang, time’s up.

I didn’t count my fish but I can replay every take in my head and, jesus, it’s about time I took a day off to go striper fishing.

This One’s For Bjorn

If there’s any blogger that should be a part of FIB Fest, it’s the guy who names his blog Bonefish on the Brain.

Bjorn couldn’t join the crew because real life got in the way, but last week he tied a handful of flies and sent them my way. The idea being that if he couldn’t be here, at least his flies could help a brother out.

Caught all my fish today on flies from Bjorn’s vise, with Michael Gracie as witness.