And there is the fishing, which is, in a word, exceptional. Says Haerr with a smug grin: "You can see that for lots of people the very variety is frustrating. Here comes a guy from Chicago who is raring to get at it, but where does he start? Should he hit the passes for tarpon, or work the bonefish flats first? While he's mulling that over, someone mentions that he got a big wahoo the day before just outside the reef. Then there is the yellow bonefish at Calabush Cay. It swims right in with a school of normal bones and looks to be about four pounds. It would be a rare trophy."
Haerr's pitch is as true as it is unusual, but most fishermen are inclined to concentrate at first on the bonefish, and they need go no farther than 300 yards from camp to find them standing on their snouts in eight inches of water, broad V tails waving slowly above the water as they grub for crabs, worms, clams and grass shrimp. Although it is possible to catch as many as 50 or more bonefish in a day by blind casting chunks of fresh conch into the trenches that border the flats, the sportier method is to stalk them on the flats. It is not unusual to find bonefish tailing right up against the barrier reef, but the surf washing over them makes the fish spookier than usual, and the plop of a tiny ?-ounce lead-head jig enhanced with a piece of conch often results in a great whoosh of water as the panic-stricken bonefish streak off across the flats.
After a long, suspenseful day of sneaking around the flats, chasing elusive fish that are scared of their own shadows, one can always switch to plug casting for tarpon in the mangrove-lined channels and passes. The tarpon are always there and, except for occasional fish of 100 pounds or more, they run in the 20-to-40-pound class. The time to fish for tarpon is at sunrise or in the evening, when they are chasing schools of pilchard and balao. In the company of wading herons, ospreys and pelicans, you can drift lazily with the current, casting into likely looking holes. When a school of tarpon is spotted rolling on the surface things happen fast, especially if Burley Garbutt is acting as official guide and interpreter.
First off, you make several casts with your brand-new, scientifically designed, torpedo-shaped, perfectly weighted plug. Nothing. Then Burley, looking properly apologetic, will offer you his favorite plug, an ancient jointed-minnow creation full of impressive tooth marks and clusters of rusty treble hooks. On the first cast a tarpon swirls under the plug.
"Dat tarpon, 'e git vexed at de bait," Burley shouts in singsong Creole. " 'E come now, mon. MON, 'e git it."
For every 10 tarpon hooked, a fisherman will manage to bring one to the boat, if he is lucky. The other nine will make several high, twisting leaps and throw the plug.
" 'E rid de bait, mon," Burley says. " 'Nother tar-pon. Cast dere. Ah, 'e come to de bait. 'E GIT IT. Oh, 'e rid it, mon." And so it goes until the school finally sounds and the fishing is over.
The Gulf Stream, which flows past the Turneffes just outside the barrier reef, has not yet been seriously fished, but Haerr plans to bring down experienced charter-boat men from Florida or the Bahamas to work the stream for sail-fish. Whether it is actually the Gulf Stream or a similar body of warm, moving water formed by the winds and the equatorial current is something that oceanographers are still arguing about. If the sailfish are indeed there in numbers, Haerr can offer fishermen virtually every species of Caribbean game fish, with the possible exception of giant blue-fin tuna and white marlin.
In the meantime fishermen who spend a week at Cay Bokel (Haerr offers an eight-day, all-expense package deal from Belize for $550) can get ail the action they want with the bonefish and tarpon. They can also take side trips to the lagoons for small snappers, jacks and barracuda and to the barrier reef for big red snapper and grouper. The inside edge of the reef teems with small fish and startling formations of brain and staghorn coral.
The cays are also full of promises for the amateur naturalist. There are all sorts of wading birds, wild pigeons, woodpeckers that feed on the fruit of the night-blooming cereus, huge nests of termites that are reputed to be capable of devouring a large palm tree in one year and the red-footed booby, a rare species that nests only on Half Moon Cay, 32 miles east of Cay Bokel. Among the other attractions on Haerr's list of "exotic wildlife" are key coons, iguanas, horned lizards—which the guides call "bush willies"—and a few alligators. Haerr prefers not to include the boa constrictors in his list, since the chances are his guests will never see one even if they want to. The guides consider the boa "bod poison" (which it is not), and they religiously avoid any place where one might conceivably be hanging out. Their reasoning, according to an old Creole proverb, is simple: "Coward mon keep 'soun bone."