The tarpon broke through the smooth black surface of the mangrove creek and launched itself into a spectacular tail walk, leaving the channel foaming in its wake. Crashing down, it jumped again, all silver and spray. It is said that a tarpon's fight is really fright, if so, this one was in a full, mesmerizing panic. Only the voice of Kent Leslie freed us of its spell. With a glance at his watch our guide said, "We still got time for de Turneffe Island slam, mon! Bring dat li'l fella in."
It was 10 minutes past five, an hour and 20 minutes before dark at this time of year. If Fred Arbona could quickly boat the tarpon, there would be enough light for one more shot at a permit.
One more shot, 500 more shots—a man could fish a lifetime and never catch a permit on a fly. I don't know if Fred would agree with that statement or not—even now—but he certainly would have taken issue with it five days earlier, in Belize City's Fort George Hotel bar, where the Turneffe Island grand slam was first mentioned. We were having a drink with Dave Bennett, owner and proprietor of the Turneffe Island Lodge, and with two of Bennett's friends from Jamaica, who had cruised over from Port Royal that day, trolling for marlin along the way.
"You gen'lemen want to fish marlin?" the Jamaican captain asked us. "I take you. Plenty of marlin off Turneffe."
We thanked him, but told him out-main goal in coming to Belize was to catch a permit on a fly and, with luck, make the grand slam—land a permit, tarpon and bonefish in a single day. Once we'd done that, Fred said, we'd be pleased to fish for marlin.
"Sure, mon. You catch de slam," the captain said. "No problem." Fred nodded at me sagely. Months earlier he had told me the same thing.
"Ah, but the real trick," Bennett said with a wink, "is to catch a Turneffe Island grand slam. That's never been done."
So there it was: immortality staring us in the face. Predictably, Arbona rose to the bait. I must tell you about Fred. He's a very intense fisherman. Very intense. He doesn't fish to relax, but to satisfy the inner needs of some primal finny demon. A large, hard-fighting bonefish is, in Fred's words, a macho bone. A reel with a heavy drag is a macho reel. Fred, who is stout as a stump, enters the sea in the frame of mind of a predator. The fish does not exist that can best him.
He asked Bennett to define this Turneffe Island slam. "Bonefish, tarpon, permit and mutton snapper in one day," Bennett drawled pleasantly. Originally from Wilmington, N.C., Bennett, who's in his late forties, had run the Turneffe Island Lodge since 1981. In the autumns he outfitted duck and goose hunters on Maryland's Eastern Shore. It was not a bad life. He was trim, blue-eyed and bearded, as laid back as Fred was hyper. "Over the years folks caught so many regular slams—there's been six since ah've been here—that the guides decided to add the mutton snapper to the list," Bennett went on. "Good fighter and absolutely de-licious to eat. I expect that's why they chose it."
I had never heard of a mutton snapper. But then, until a few months ago, I had never heard of Belize. It was known as British Honduras until 1973. Nestled in a politically quiet corner of Central America, Belize is bordered to the north by Mexico's Yucatan, to the south and west by Guatemala, and to the east by the Caribbean. Thirty miles off its coast lie the Turneffe Islands.