Fishing For Lobster And Barracuda In Belize

Not many expats get the real Belizean experience of fishing for a livelihood in Belize. Rick Zahniser, an expat from Colorado Springs, spent seven good years in Belize. And he had a great life in Corozal, before returning to the USA. This is a slightly edited version of one of his fishing exploits while he lived here.

Rick Catches a Fish

Rick Zahniser.

Every Sunday afternoon, we play music at the Last Resort in Copper Bank, which is owned by Donna Noland and Enrique Flores.  Enrique is the only non-fisherman in the Flores family; some of his brothers go off to fish in a sailboat for a week at a time, and a couple go to Turneffe Atoll where they have a fishing camp.  Because I have become “part of the family”, I am invited to go along when they go out to Turneffe.  The trip will take eight days.  Earlier, my excuse was that I was working.  Now I have no excuse.  In fact, I may be going back to teaching school, and I desperately need a vacation.   I pack up and go.

Thursday morning, I pick Manuel Flores up at the Ferry, and we go down to the bus depot and ride down to Belize City, where his brother David has been getting the boat ready for the trip.  By the time we get there, he is ready to go, except for us to pick up nine 100-lb bags of chipped ice.  I buy a little rum (3 bottles) and they stow some beer away, and we putt out of the harbor.

The camp is on the lagoon inside the ring of islands in the atoll.  The shack is 12 by 16, with two sets of bunks built into the far wall. To the right of the door is the kitchen, a long counter with a lower spot at the end where there are two Primus kerosene stoves. No windows, but there is a door in the other corner which gives good ventilation when it’s open.  When they are cooking, the ventilation can blow out the primus so the door is closed and it gets hot.  However, there is a prevailing offshore breeze of about 20 knots which usually comes through the front door.  My bunk is on the bottom (as befits my age) right in front of the door.  This gives me a cool spot when the breeze is blowing.  Unfortunately, August is the season of the Mauger – hot and buggy, with long hours without any breeze whatsoever.

Jose, the watchman, stays here full time.  He is about 55, speaks Spanish, but is studying English.  Unfortunately, he generally doesn’t have anyone to practice on!  This afternoon, he has been looking for us and cooking beans for our arrival.  After they drain the rainwater out of the Red Yamaha gas tank (the source of all our motor troubles) Manny and David go out and catch a few lobsters, and we have fried lobster, beans, and potatoes for dinner.  Sundown is at 7 PM and there’s not much to do. After thirty minutes of Mexican music on the windup radio, I slather on insect repellent and try to sleep. Charlotte has thoughtfully included a big sheet; I wrap up and Z out.  Like most old guys, I get up a couple of times during the night to answer nature’s call, and this requires a trip outside where the mozzies lie in wait.  Tomorrow we will build a smudge in front of the door, but the first night is a long one. Beans and fish, and store-bought bread make a great breakfast, and then the brothers go out to check  their lobster traps.  The traps are hand made, with Santa Maria wood ends and palmetto slats.  They are about 2’ x 1’ by 42” long.

They have 92 traps out, and Jose is building more even as we fish. The traps are laid out in rows in the lagoon in front of our camp.  We find a trap, haul it up and check it out.  It may be upside down, turned over by dolphins (! playing??)  Rightside up, it may be full of lobsters, but we only keep about one lobster in six, throwing the rest out (too small) except for one or two which we leave inside for bait.  We clean off the traps and put them back carefully so that they settle down right-side-up.  I am saying “we” but actually, Manny and David do the work, and I watch appreciatively.

We collect a bushel or so of lobsters in the morning, and head in for a lunch of lobster, beans and rice.  Rick takes a nap, and the brothers go check enuf traps to collect another bushel of lobsters. The lobster is officially called a “crayfish” in government legalese, but it is a shur-nuff Spiny Rock Lobster.  It is the same lobster they sell as “Australian Rock Lobster tails” in the states, and it tastes WONDERFUL.  The ones we harvest have about a 5-oz tail, and they are worth about 3 dollars apiece to the brothers and about $10 in the states.

It’s time to fish for barracuda, which they call “barrow”.  David runs over to a shallow and jumps in the water with an arbolete (rubber-powered spear) and starts bringing up little 6-7” fish to use for bait.  After he gets ten or twelve, we go out to hunt for some big barrow.  They bait me up, and I put a line out and we start trolling.  WHAM!.  I’m using 6-lb line and he broke it.  They expected this, but I inspect the break and it’s obvious that I had the line wrapped around the tip so the brake and the rod didn’t have a chance to take the shock.

We rig up again, but they take me in to some waters where the barrows are smaller.  Almost immediately I catch about a foot-long pounder.  He fights like a tiger, with a couple of nice jumps, and I bring him in.  At least I won’t get skunked.

Within 10 minutes, I’ve caught a couple of three pounders, with the same spectacular jumping fight.   I’m starting to feel like a fisherman again. We move to an area where they know the barrows are a little bigger.  A vicious strike tells me I either have either hooked an automobile tire or a big ‘cuda. The monster jumps about three feet out of the water, and I know I’ve hooked a lunker. After a 20-minute fight, with several five-foot leaps across the water, I bring this barrow up close enuf to the boat that Manny can gaff it.  We look at this wonderful fish. He is 38” long, and weighs about 8 ½ pounds.  On 6 pound test line!  I feel very lucky.  He had swallowed the hook, and the “spider wire” I was using for a leader is about to break. Amazing!  NOW I feel like El Pescadero.

Back at camp, over a lunch of barracuda, rice and beans, we discuss a strategy for the barrow.  I need bigger longer hooks in order to hang the bait so that the barb is in the middle of the bait, and there must be a steel leader.

The next day (Sunday) after a beautiful sunrise and a morning hymn by Rick (“This is the day that the Lord has made!) the brothers dive for lobster.  Over my protestations, they build a ladder so that el viejo can get back in the boat.  We load the ladder in the boat and set out.  David stands in the back, with fins on, running the machine.  Manny stands in the front and looks and gestures to They have purchased twenty-two old truck bonnets (hoods) in Orange Walk, and brought them out here, and sunk them in the laguna in orderly rows.  This provides cover for the lobsters; they call it “shade”.

The water is 8 to 10 feet deep and clear as a bell.  I go overboard, and watch from the surface with my 40- year-old snorkel, yellow Aqua-lung mask and blue Cressi fins.  These guys have a mask and fins just about like mine, only brand new and made in China.  They are poetry in motion, very economical divers, no puffing and blowing. Skinny David, 41, weighs about 135, and dives easily to the bottom.  Manny, 32, has a little layer of “baby fat” and he has to do a pike dive to get down. They take two 2-ft long forked stobs, and prop up one end of the hood.  One of them looks underneath, and grabs a lobster or two.  The lobsters start swimming for safety.  Manny hooks them with a stick with a big hook lashed on the end.  David uses a four-foot stick with a loop on it made out of weed-wacker line.  He lassos a lobsters without hurting it, so that he can throw it back if it’s too small.  “They look bigger under water” he explains.

Heidi Levy was one of Rick’s best students and vocalist for his band during his time in Belize.

“Ah, the short, happy life of a Belizean Lobster”, I think.  “No taxes, no job, clear fields and clean water.”  We get a couple of bushels of lobsters in the morning and go in for lunch – barracuda, lobster, tortillas, and beans.  They kill the lobsters, clean up the tails (separated from the body and veined but not shelled)  store them in a solution of “sodium” and pack them in ice.  Rick takes a nap while they go back out to get another couple of bushels. After the nap, I get up and notice that my earache is gone.  “Salt water does that, sometimes” they say.  We go out for more barrow fishing, this time to the reef,  looking for big ones.  The fishing is fine, and I’m hooking fish and playing them, only to lose them when they charge the boat, or when they leap out of the water, shaking their head violently to shuck the hook.  I catch one 30-incher, but I’m convinced that hooks less than 2” long are just not long enough for these big fish, even if I do catch them on a 10-lb line.

Monday, they service the rest of their traps, and move a lot of traps out into the laguna.   We go out and catch some bait  (this time with my spinning rod and a number 8 hook baited with lobster.)  I catch about 20 little Grunts from six to eight inches long.  We will eat the ones I don’t use for bait.  We go out fishing for barrow, but the hooks I have left are really too short and I keep losing them.   In retrospect, the lobster harvest seems more like farming than fish, although you never know what you will get when you inspect a trap or shade.  They always leave the little ones, trusting in nature to deliver them up in good time.

Tuesday, we get up early and leave, because I have a meeting at school on Wednesday, and the brothers have done everything they had to do.  We have two big coolers packed with ice, lobsters and barracuda.  I will return, armed with more hooks, waders, and a vastly improved fly rod technique.

Editor’s Note: Rick passed on 22 February 2017. He was also known as Senor Reek. Rick moved back to Colorado after his Belize sojourn. Rick made a harrowing journey by road through Mexico back to the U.S.A. in his pickup with his dog and a few possessions.