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Wild Side: The one that got away

Joe Lewinski drove us through falling snow to the Minneapolis airport early in the morning on Feb. 15. Later that same day we were back again under the coconut palms in Belize with our friends Bill and Sue Smith and Sandy Linehan of River Falls. We enjoyed some cold Belikan beers and met some of our Belizean friends.

After a day of acclimating to the sun and warm temperatures, Carol and I went fishing with our friend and guide Elton "Cagey" Eiley. We traveled east in his 24-foot outboard-powered boat to a shallow cut through the Belize barrier reef called "Rock Head."

Approaching from the mainland side through scattered shallow patches of coral, Cagey maneuvered the boat toward the cut marked by a single stick along the miles of reef. He watched a few series of waves break on the reef and then gunned the engine to plane the boat over the reef into deeper water beyond.

We caught some nice big black groupers, barracudas and mutton snappers while trolling stick baits. Those fish hit hard, peeled off lots of line and don't give up easily. Our wrists were sore after fighting them.

We noticed some baitfish panicking at the surface in deeper water. We motored toward Portugal to get in front of a school of feeding tuna. We cast some minnow imitations out on lighter tackle and got immediate hits by blackfin tuna. Blackfin tuna remind me of big energy-packed footballs. Those muscular fish fight surprisingly hard for their size, vibrating their sickle-shaped tails.

As the day wore on, the wind and waves calmed down. The water was remarkably clear giving us a great view of the reef 60 feet down. We watched purple sea fans waving in the current and schools of blue tangs foraging among the coral heads. Spotted eagle rays glided gracefully along the reef. A hawksbill sea turtle surfaced for a breath of air before "flying" away.

We kept some fish to eat and give to local friends. After returning, Cagey made short work cleaning a couple groupers. Our friend Magda cooked up a great fish dinner for us at her restaurant.

Percival Gordon, AKA "King of the Howlers," "Rambo," and "Barracuda Billy" of Monkey River Belize is an animated guide and expert naturalist. Percy took us on a boat trip up the Monkey River and on a hike through the river jungle. We landed the boat right under howler monkeys roaring to defend their feeding territory.

Sandy Linehan bravely hiked along despite the presence of poisonous snakes and giant spiders. She even sampled some termites that taste like mint. We saw a small freshwater crocodile, toucans, tiger herons and some tiny bats perched on the shady side of a log over the river.

On our last full day in Belize this year, Carol and I went fishing with Bruce Leslie, another good friend and fishing guide. Bruce took us far south to Deep River, a mangrove estuary area in the Port Honduras Marine Reserve where several rivers flow into the sea.

The day was overcast and nearly calm; good conditions for seeing tarpon. Tarpon were rolling all over and we could see them cruising near the surface looking for mullet to eat. Carol cast a top-water popper plug ahead of a v-shaped "push" wake a tarpon was making.

A silver submarine with a bucket-sized mouth surfaced to inhale her lure. We were amazed at the size of the fish. The tarpon launched itself entirely out of the water, shaking its head. Bruce instructed Carol to "bow down" toward the fish to give it some slack when it jumped to avoid shaking the lure out.

The tarpon leaped five or six more times and made some long, drag-screaming runs. Carol fought the fish for over half an hour. She had the tarpon up by the boat a number of times and Bruce was nearly ready to grab it by the lip to measure, photograph and release. Then the leader broke and the fish got away.

Bruce estimated that the tarpon weighed at least 100 pounds. He got some video of the fish leaping with his camera, so Carol will have some documentary evidence of the biggest fish she's ever had on a line. We had some additional hits by tarpon but they shook off the lures. We caught some strong jack crevalle and some larger barracudas.

Upon returning to Placencia and telling about our fishing experience, Bill Smith astutely noted that fishermen don't brag about the little ones that got away.

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