Our 3:59 pm departing flight from Redding to San Francisco was delayed due to storms and heavy winds in San Francisco. As we waited in the small Redding terminal the panoramic skies to the east were dramatic, dark and foreboding with towering thunderheads and flashes of lightning. I had just started re-reading Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, perhaps my favorite book of all time and fitting for our own pending journey deep into the jungle. The darkness brooding in the words on page paired with the bleak skies outside to set an ominous tone for the trip. Still, our spirits were high and the three adventurers (myself, my dad, and Allan C.) were excited for the journey awaiting us.
The flight ended up taking off almost 2 hours behind schedule, but we had a lengthy layover in SFO so it was a non-issue. The short flight was relatively smooth. We found the Gordon Biersch restaurant in the San Francisco airport and ordered some burgers and brews, then made our way to the International terminal to wait for our next flight. The fourth in our intrepid crew, Mike S., joined us at our gate, and at 10:00 we were boarded the Copa Airlines flight, barely more than half full, bound for Panama City.
Our first fishing day at Patagonian Basecamp we floated the Rio Claro Solar, also known as the Rio Quinto, a modest-sized stream large enough to float, but far from big water. It's beautiful, crystal clear water, filled with downed trees that harbor big trout. Greg Bricker was our guide, and we hit it off well - an excellent instructor who taught me a great trick to improve my streamer fishing hookups (keep stripping until you come tight to the fish, and never lift the rod to strike - same as bonefishing). We floated in a self-bailing cataraft with comfortable seats fore-and-aft for anglers, and the guide rowing from the middle. It was rapid-fire fishing, slamming dries and streamers to the bank, covering as much water as possible - the water was a little high, so we were moving fast. Greg was clear that the stream didn't have many fish per river mile, but the shots we got would all be for large trout... he was correct on both counts. I blew plenty of shots as I attempted to master the new streamer technique, but at days end had a respectable number of hookups with browns and rainbows in the 16-20+ inch range, and even managed to land some of them. One of my more spectacular failures remains emblazoned in my mind, an absolute TOAD of a brown trout that chased and ate my streamer two times... and I "lifted" to strike, both times. Needless to say, I did not get a third chance. Greg said nothing, which said it all!
Mongolia itself is a remarkable place, and its people are truly wonderful. While the fishing is so often what draws people to this unique world, it is usually the sheer beauty of the landscapes and smiling faces of those met along the way that keeps them coming back.
The long travel day started early, awake at 3:30 am to get to the airport for my 5:40 am departure. The flight from Redding to SFO went smoothly, and by 7:30 am I was sitting down to a hot Yankee Pier breakfast and much needed cup of coffee. I had about 4 hours of layover, so wandered around the airport for a bit before finding my gate in the International terminal, where Larry was already waiting. We chatted for a bit, then found Bob and Cord, and before long we were all boarding the plane for the next leg of the journey.
The plane was full, but for a 12 hour flight it wasn't too horrible. Fortunately I had a slender Korean girl sitting in the middle seat next to me, so actually room to breathe. They fed us a couple of times, normal airplane food not tragic but not great either. Sustenance at least. I napped for about an hour, but that was it and spent the rest of the time reading up on the history, culture, and politics of Mongolia.
I have to admit that this trip just kind of happened, and Mongolia was never a place high on my angling radar. Sure, I'd heard about it, read about it, and the idea of catching a monster taimen was appealing. I knew that taimen were the largest salmonid on Earth, an ancient, slow-growing fish that lived up to 35 years or more and were the dominant predators in their ecosystem. But I didn't know much about Mongolia, except brief recollections from high school and college about Genghis Khan (Chingis Kahn to a Mongolian) conquering the known world hundreds of years ago.
The more I read, the more intrigued I became: the least densely populated country in the world; a dichotomy between two Mongolia's, the bustling capital city of Ulaanbaatar and the rest of the country preferring the nomadic herding lifestyle it has maintained for generations; no property ownership outside of UB; a rare progressive democracy bordered by China and Russia over a hundred years of recent history dominated by these larger Communist neighbors; and that pales into comparison to Shamanism, reindeer herders, and Eagle hunters. I was quickly becoming not only intrigued but enamored with this unique culture, almost unknown to most of the Western World.
Late in the summer of 2015 we were visited by a gentleman representing an operation called Thatch Caye Resort in Belize. Most interesting to us was that they had locked up the services of legendary permit guide Lincoln Westby and his crew of guides to fish any and all anglers visiting their place. After some back and forth it was determined that we should check the place out, and I was the only one free to make the trip. I'd fished with Lincoln before, and knew I was in for a treat...
So on the 22nd of September I left Sacramento, California, at midnight (because the flights were made almost literally at the last minute there were no better itineraries available), flying clear across the country to Atlanta and eating breakfast there, then doubling back all the way to Belize City. Normally, West Coast clients will want to fly to Houston, and then on to Belize City, which makes for a much shorter trip. The flights were uneventful, and at 10 am on the 23rd I walked into the Belize City PSW Goldson Airport, where I was met immediately by the smiling faces of Brian O'Keefe - the photographer who would spend the week with me – and a gal who works for Lil's Adventure Travel Service in the airport, the agent who made the Maya Air flight arrangements between Belize City and Dangriga. She already had our Maya Air travel documents in order, helped us to check our luggage, and walked us to the gate where we'd be catching our flight …she was very helpful and deserved her tip. After thirty minutes of catching up with my friend Brian, our Cessna Caravan pulled up to the gate, we boarded, and took the 20-minute flight to the smallish town of Dangriga. At the modest, essentially one-room airport we were met by the lodge's mainland transfer driver, Darrington – Big D, a character – as well as resort representative Pat Timmins, who helped load all our gear into the van. From here we drove through town, then out to a dock on a small river - on the way seeing a big alligator cross the road in front of us – where the covered transfer boat was waiting. There were already eight to ten locals (from the islands crew of over thirty) on board; loading in all our gear beside the supplies, we sat down and enjoyed the 20-minute drive out to the island.
Arriving, the first impression was favorable, with an extensive and new dock and boardwalk in place to accept boats. The island was beautifully manicured with little undergrowth, allowing one to see through the largely cypress tree-studded land mass to water on the far side, about 100 yards away. The island was probably over a quarter mile in length, in total. Coming off the boat, there was a beautiful raised boardwalk that wound its way out over the water to the large Starfish Bar, where guests could sit at the circular bar and watch snappers and other fish swim around beneath their feet through an open hole…pretty cool. The entire island is surrounded by a seawall made of large posts driven into the sand just off the land's edge, and they were actively working on building more of it while we were there. They have a crew of seventeen who did nothing but take care of the grounds, all day, every day, raking the white sand (both on the wide walking trails and everywhere else), disposing of the relentless onslaught of sargassum grass, pruning, working on the decks surrounding all the cabanas, and who knows what else. Apparently when they took it over in February it was an overgrown mess, with howler monkeys and all kinds of bizarre exotic animals brought out by the previous owner/managers, and really showing years' worth of wear and tear. The amount of upgrades they had accomplished in six months was impressive, and their vision to finish it off even nicer was also encouraging.
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