SB Note: While we brainstormed this piece when talking about ideal and luxe Father’s Day gifts, fly fishing came to mind. And while we’re showcasing it as a great Father’s Day gift idea, it is indeed a co-ed sport for which many couples, families and friends travel together to partake. This is one Father’s Day gift that you can buy and then ask to tag along, and everyone will end up having a ball!
In today’s ultra-connected society, it’s important to sometimes unplug and get back to nature to recharge your batteries. Fishing offers the perfect opportunity to get away alone or with your family and spend some time on the water. Whether you’re looking for a luxe Father’s Day (or Mother’s Day!) gift, or just the chance to enjoy the sea breezes in a tropical locale, there are some wonderful options available at fishing lodges that offer every amenity you could ask for, but the time to start planning for and booking these trips is NOW. Don’t worry if you’ve never fished before. They’ll be happy to teach anglers of any ability the art of fly casting or set you up to fish with an even easier spin fishing setup. As the final chilly days wind down, close your eyes and think of these two destination to remedy the cold weather blues.
Bahia Honda Sporting Club — Lower Keys, FL
The lower set of islands in the Florida Keys stretching north from Key West are shaped somewhat like a funnel, with the Gulf of Mexico on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other. This orientation attracts all sorts of migratory fish during May and June, particularly the most sought-after ocean fish among fly fishers: the tarpon. These sleek, silver fish can grow to more than 100 pounds. Known as ferocious fighters, a battle with a hooked tarpon on a fly rod is definitely a fair fight. Anglers routinely lose more fish than they actually reel all the way to the boat, but that’s fine since you wouldn’t want to eat a bony tarpon anyway, and regulations require catch-and-release. (If the fish comes off the hook before you get it into the boat, you can just declare that was what sheepish fishermen call “a long release.”)
With this incredible fishing ground in the Lower Keys, you’d think that there would be plenty of lodges that would be happy to host your fishing expedition, but the islands surrounding the prime flats fishing areas are lightly inhabited. Traditionally, a trip to this region would necessitate flying into Miami or Key West, finding a hotel, renting a car, packing up all your gear and a sack lunch, driving into the middle of nowhere to meet a trained guide, loading everything into the boat and fishing all day in the hot sun before reversing the process to get back to a lonely hotel so you can do it all over again tomorrow. That doesn’t sound very relaxing, does it?
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Gordon Baggett recognized that there was an opportunity to offer a more convenient and luxurious experience to anglers of any level or ability. Gordon had plenty of fishing and guiding experience before he started operating Bahia Honda Sporting Club. When he was younger, Gordon spent half the year working as a professional bull rider on the rodeo circuit and the rest of the time working as a fishing guide in the Bahamas seeking out tarpon and bonefish with his clients.
“Fishing for tarpon is the pinnacle of challenge. They are an extremely aggressive saltwater fish,” he says. “It’s really exciting fishing! When I talked to the guys I was guiding, they all wondered why they couldn’t find an upscale lodge in the States where they could hunt for tarpon.”
He decided to see what he could find in the Keys, but discovered that there were very few accommodations available due to local regulations on short-term rentals. He discovered a luxurious Mediterranean-style villa with two cottages included on more than seven acres of property surrounded by a nature reserve to ensure plenty of privacy. Gordon arranged to lease the lodge during May and June, based around the height of tarpon migration, and Bahia Honda Sporting Club was born.
“We want to allow our guests to concentrate on fishing and having fun,” he explains. “We have them fly into Key West and then send a shuttle for them. It’s just a 30-minute drive to the lodge, and you won’t need a car at all while you’re here. We take over all the logistics.”
A gourmet chef prepares breakfast, lunch and dinner every day that guests are at Bahia Honda, and they can put in a special order for food to take with them on the water. The menu revolves around some of the freshest fish you can find anywhere plus local game that Gordon brings into the kitchen. A typical day begins with meeting a local guide for breakfast at the lodge to plan out the day before setting off fishing.
“We offer a flexible schedule based on our guests’ needs. It doesn’t have to be from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. like with most other guide services,” promises Gordon. If you’re an experienced fly caster or even if you have never tried it before, Gordon and his guides will be happy to help teach you how to handle your rod on the open water. He is a certified casting instructor through the Federation of Fly Fishers (FFF) and many of his guides are as well. He adds, “We like to rotate our guests through different guides every day of fishing so that they can pick up new tips from each one.”
Guests usually fish two to a boat, although you can pay a little extra for a solo trip. “Camaraderie is a big part of fishing,” explains Gordon, “so you’ll probably want to take turns fishing anyway. Fighting an 80-pound tarpon will wear you out, so you’ll probably want to take a rest anyway.” Gordon will provide all the gear for you, from rods to tackle, and if you’re not comfortable using a fly rod, he’ll happily loan you a spinning rod so you can fish using small live crabs as bait. Guests can even take both types of rods out with them, just in case they want to try their hand at fly casting but also want to have an easier backup option.
Guides use long poles to propel the modern and comfortable fishing boats across the shallow flats and assist the guests in locating the fish. While tarpon and bonefish are skittish and often difficult to spot, Baggett assures that his guests will see fish, especially during the height of the big migration. “You’re not casting at a single fish. You’re fishing in schools of up to 500 tarpon. On a slow day in May, you’ll still see 1,000 fish, and you could see as many as 5,000-6,000 in a day.”
Especially lucky guests may experience a phenomenon that is only seen in the Keys a few afternoons of the year as the Palolo worm hatches, sending the tarpon into a feeding frenzy. “It’s crazy,” describes Gordon. “It’s said that during the Palolo hatch, you could almost walk back to shore on the backs of all the tarpon without getting wet!” Gordon actually invented a very popular fishing fly that mimics the Palolo, which is very effective during these hatches.
At the end of a day of fishing, the guide drops guests back off at the lodge for some downtime before a communal dinner prepared by Chef Bill. The all-inclusive experience at Bahia Honda includes all your meals, fishing, an open bar, house wine and cigars after dinner. Sometimes dinner is served on the pool deck and guests gather around fire pits to swap fish stories.
Gordon is surprised by the number of guests who don’t even go fishing. “Lots of people bring their husbands or wives, and they can spend the day at the beach or head into Key West for some fun. We designed the resort specifically for fishing, but we find that a lot of people just love the peace and tranquility of staying here.”
For more than a decade, the noted sporting outfitter Orvis has endorsed Bahia Honda as their only certified fly fishing lodge in the Florida Keys, and the sporting club is renowned as one of the only tarpon-focused lodges anywhere in the country. Guests can stay at Bahia Honda for as short a trip as they want or for an entire week of fishing.
Gordon offers a 10% discount for bookings that are at least five days long, and you can make your reservation at the Bahia Sporting Club website.
El Pescador Belize Lodge and Villas — Ambergris Caye, Belize
Belize sounds like an exotic and faraway destination, and it is indeed a tropical paradise. However, the country is just south of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and only a few hours flight from the U.S. mainland. Frequent flights on most of the major airlines including Southwest depart from major airports such as Houston, Atlanta, Miami, Dallas and Charlotte. Once you arrive in Belize City, Chris Spiro and the staff at El Pescador will take it from there.
“Once you land, we take care of everything, including the cost and the arrangements for traveling to Ambergris Caye,” she explains. “There are flights over to Ambergris Caye every hour on 14-seat planes, and it’s only a 15-minute trip.”
El Pescador is a family affair, with three generations helping to operate the lodge, which can hold up to 60 people during high season. “Our son and daughter bought the lodge in 1997, and my husband Steve and I joined in 2004 after working in marketing for Bloomingdale’s in Manhattan for years. From our careers at Bloomingdale’s we learned that everything is about guest services, so that’s what we focus on at El Pescador. Our daughter Ali is the CEO, Steve does our forecasting and financial planning, and I handle the reservations.”
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Belize is a world-class fishing destination, where anglers can try for the legendary “Grand Slam” of catching a bonefish, a tarpon and a permit in the same day, but the country is also well known as one of the premier spots for scuba diving and snorkeling anywhere in the world. “What sets us apart,” relates Chris, “is that you can bring the whole family to our resort. You can go fishing or you can stay home and get a massage or learn to dive or snorkel or just enjoy the lovely accommodations.” More adventurous visitors can arrange excursions through the resort to go zip-lining or ride inner tubes through a cave or diving on the second largest coral reef in the world. Ambergris Caye has a population of about 20,000 residents and is different from the rest of Central America as a primarily English-speaking country based on Belize’s history as a British colony.
Chris gushes, “Belize is such an amazing country! Forty percent of the land is under conservation regulations so it remains wild and beautiful. We’re also unique for having a year-round population of all three major flats sportfishing species: tarpon, bonefish and permit. Our resident tarpon range from 20 to 80 pounds, and during the migration from June to September you can catch fish that are more than 100 pounds. Belize was the first country to legislate catch-and-release regulations on all three species, and you can fish all year round.”
The consistently temperate climate also means that there’s really no bad time to visit El Pescador. “Our high season is dictated by Americans’ desire to get out of cold weather back home,” explains Chris. “The weather doesn’t change much around here; you can expect temperatures with highs in the mid 80s and lows at night in the 70s. And the fishing is almost always good!”
A typical day at El Pescador begins with an early morning breakfast with one of the lodge’s 15 independent local guides. Chris boasts, “Our guides are all born and raised on the island. We are actually working with the third generation of some of our guides, and it’s one of the most prestigious jobs on the island. Most of them spend 3-4 years as apprentices just learning the water and the best fishing spots.” Guests hit the water around 7 a.m. to avoid the hottest part of the day, and everyone is encouraged to wear long pants, shirts with SPF protection and buffs to protect their skin from the stronger sun nearer the equator. Fishing one or two anglers in a 23-foot boat, guests have access to more than 400 square miles of flats and reefs to fish over.
The staff offers complimentary casting clinics or can outfit anglers with spinning tackle if they would prefer not to fly fish. “We ask each guest to fill out a fishing questionnaire in advance to determine their individual skill levels, desires and expectations. We pair up beginners with patient teaching guides and even the most novice fisherman should be able to catch a bonefish. While everyone needs to be open to changes in the weather and different weather conditions, you will see fish. No question!” promises Chris.
Guests fill out a lunch form every day for what they’d like while out on the water, and it’s possible to meet up with other guests and family for a fun communal shore lunch on a beach while taking a break from fishing. Most guests come back to the lodge between 2 p.m and 4 p.m. and head to the bar or the pool for a snack or a drink before a good nap before everyone dines together at around 7 p.m. Chris is quite proud of the cuisine at El Pescador: “We have extraordinarily good food! All of our food is sourced locally. Farm-to-table is really the only option in Belize, and we get lots of great seafood and poultry, meats and produce sent over from the mainland. We can also accommodate all sorts of special dietary needs for our guests.”
Like Bahia Honda, El Pescador is an Orvis-endorsed fly fishing destination. In fact, Orvis twice named the property as its “International Lodge of the Year” in 2013 and 2017. Whether you’re a serious experienced fisherman, a beginner or just someone looking for a lovely spot for a vacation with friends and loved ones, El Pescador has something to offer. Chris travels to and from the resort from her other home in Richmond, VA, and she always looks forward to the trip. She shares, “It’s just a lovely way to unplug for both adults and kids.” We could all use a little of that every now and then.
The all-inclusive resort requires a three-night minimum, and your vacation package includes round-trip transfers between Belize City and Ambergris Caye, three meals a day, local Belizean rum and beer (with other options available à la carte), complimentary use of all amenities (including three pools, a gym, volleyball courts, WiFi, paddleboards, kayaks and bicycles) plus accommodations in the luxurious main lodge. Upgrades to private villas are also available along with special fishing and diving packages.
For more information on these or to book your stay, visit El Pescador’s website.
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