Monday, January 7, 2019

The Southern Belize Fly Tying Initiative - Hopkins Session

Julian slowly stroked and twisted the tan craft fur between his thumb and index finger on the underside of the Gotcha that had just come off the vise of Dave Student.  Turning his head while inspecting the fly, you could see Julian mentally playing through the steps and tying techniques that had just been taught and then he said aloud, "I really thought robots made these or something...".

We were just a couple minutes into the introductory fly tying session held at Hopkins Bay Resort and I could already see wonderment written on the faces of those sat around the table who had come to be part of the "Southern Belize Fly Tying Initiative".

The idea for this program was sparked last winter in Denver, Colorado with Scott Thompson and Dave Student, professional fly tier for over 30 years and Fly Specialist at Umpqua Feather Merchants, with the thought that teaching Belizeans how to tie flies could be a way to spread the sport of fly fishing beyond the circle of the few local permit guides, who may or may not even known how to tie flies themselves.   

I wish I could boast about being on the pointy end of a lot of different pangas in Belize (or other places where there are permit and bonefish) but from the few times that I have, one of the first questions I've been asked by the guide was "What do your flies look like?"  This is usually followed by me digging past camera gear to the bottom of the pack to find my fly box.  Handing it over, the guide slowly fingers his way through my overly obsessive fly box crammed with every sort of crab and shrimp pattern.  Usually one (or several) flies are grabbed out and the day begins.

Fly shops don't typically exist in these places and even if the lodge has a few loaner fly rods and reels, they usually don't always have flies in abundant supply.  It's just hard to get them down there.  The mail or shipping systems don't always work and if they do, it can be expensive.  Guides don't always tie either as they might not have been taught or, just like it's tough to get flies, it's not always easy to get the materials needed to tie their own flies.   

But what if that wasn't the case?  What if local fly tiers were properly taught, had routinely materials provided and learned the skills to tie patterns that were needed from simple bonefish flies to the permit favorite, if there is such a thing, the Bauer Crab?  Instead of hustling tourist knick knacks or keepsakes, what if they were selling to visiting anglers in need of a flies with some local mojo tied into them?  Or what if these tiers were contracted to keep guide boxes fully stocked?  Even better, what if they had agreements with local outfitters to keep their bins and fly boards full of essential patterns?  Couldn't this possibly fill a gap with a cottage industry where there isn't one already but it's certainly needed?  The Southern Belize Fly Tying Initiative was born from those ideas and those ideas would be soon put into action as May approached.

Sadly, it's been quite a while since I've last sat down and tied a fly but when Scott started talking about this trip, I knew that I wanted to be apart of it even if it meant just going along to be helpful, snapping photos and doing any grunt work that was involved.  This idea felt like it had tremendous potential and I really wanted to see it through first hand.

After several months of planning and working around a hectic work schedule, I was able to box out five days on the calendar for the trip to Belize.  On a day last May, I made an early morning flight from Atlanta to Belize City and then hopped on the noon flight to Dangriga.  I had done this trip several times before and it felt really good to be back in Belize.  Scott and Dave had flown in the day before and we met at the airport in Dangriga as they rode with the shuttle driver to welcome me.  After handshakes, hugs and introductions, were were on the road headed to the resort.

We arrived in Hopkins and the next twenty some hours were a mix of bumping into guide and friend, Lincoln Westby of Blue Horizon Belize (read the T.F.M. post HERE), dinner at Geckos Restaurant and then settling back at the house.  We were in bed early and then up the next morning a daylight for a quick walk down the beach to look for tarpon rolling near the creek mouth but instead only found a few small but hungry jacks busting bait in the change of tides.  We walked back to the Rhum Shack for a tasty Belizean breakfast (eggs, beans, fry jacks, fruit and coffee) followed by Dave and I kayaking a nearby lagoon.  This was kinda a bust but still a good time before returning back to the house to prep for the afternoon fly tying session.

The kickoff event for the Southern Belize Fly Tying Initiative was supposed to begin around 1:00 p.m. and not minutes before, a strong thunderstorm rolled through dumping rain and making it pretty messy outside.  As expected, this kind of postponed the start of the session but a short time later a few local teens showed up, who Scott was familiar with as they were related to fly fishing guides he knew, along with Julian, who is kind of a jack of all trades in Hopkins.  He owns a shuttle service, has several vacation rentals that he manages and he is also a tour guide.  He's a good person to know if you're ever in town.  Where others in the class were there just to learn, I could tell that Julian's mental wheels were turning as he saw the potential in this being another source of income for him and his family. 

Dave Student got things started with the group and even though I was there to take photographs and keep the Facebook Live feed going, I was quickly sucked into the instruction as he was just so damn good at getting everyone involved.  Dave went from carefully explaining how to set up the table clamp vise and using the fly tying tools that each had been given and then transitioning to the step by step instructions on how to tie a Gotcha.  It wasn't long before everyone had tied their first fly and even if they weren't pretty, we all decided that they'd catch a bonefish.  The smiles of satisfaction were all over each of their faces and over the next couple of hours the group worked through tying several more flies while Dave went student by student, answering questions and fine tuning their tying techniques.

Halfway through the session, permit guide Ransom Nunez (previously I had spent time in the panga with him HERE and HERE) showed up along with a few others to get in on the class.  Ransom's arrival (and we'd see it again in Placencia the next day) really highlighted how important it was for these young local teens to see someone they knew, and looked up to as an esteemed permit guide, take interest in being there to learn and maybe even more importantly, show an interest in what they were doing as well.

The afternoon session continued and while I was taking photographs, Dave and Scott helped everyone along.  Gotchas were laid out on the table in front of each tyer and you could see how each one was a little better than the last.  When the session wrapped up, everyone who attended was given a vise, tools and enough materials to tie a few dozen Gotchas on their own.  These kits and materials were provided by Umpqua Feather Merchants as their initial investment in this program.  There was also the promise that the instruction and support would not end there.  Future tying events were being planned and there was a real sense of excitement and interest in what each of them had learned and gained over the several hour session. 

With the first session complete, Scott, Dave and I went into town for dinner and then we were back to the house.  The next morning we would be off to Palcencia for the second session of the Southern Belize Fly Tying Initiative and the stoke was high to see who and how many might attend.

Special thanks to Blue Horizon Belize and Muy'Ono as they were host and sponsor to this event along with putting Scott, Dave and I up in stellar accommodations while in Hopkins.

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