The Flying Kayak

Hunting, Fishing, Rambling, and Complete Outdoor Hilarity

Category: Fishing

It’s The Freakin’ Weekend

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The obnoxious ring tone of your alarm jerks you awake. For a moment, you simply lay there before realizing how strange it is that at some moment in the past, you purposefully chose an alarm style. You tried different tones and jingles, wondering whether or not it actually had the ‘umph’ to get you out of bed. But after a few minute of searching, you finally found it.

This is the one. This is the alarm tone I will grow to hate. Time to ruin this jingle forever.

It’s 6:00am on a Monday morning and it’s time to go do that thing. That thing that so many of us do every week: Work.

Whether you enjoy your job or not, very rarely is anyone super stoked to be woken from a nice slumber, only to realize it’s not the weekend anymore. Alas, you’ve got five more days of this and another four rude awakenings before you can cut loose again. But at that moment, you merely stare at the ceiling and mentally prepare for what’s going to be another long work week.

Though you may work in an office, you’re an outdoorsman at heart. The only thing that makes your coworker, Janet’s insufferable stories around the water cooler even somewhat tolerable is the anticipation of hitting the woods on the weekend. It’s archery season, and chasing that big buck has been on your mind for almost a year now. The national forest you grew up hunting is just an hour outside of town, and the only thing standing between you and that tree stand you’ve picked out are five days of conference calls, emails, and TPS reports. The woods are calling.

By Friday afternoon you’re completely exhausted. It’s been a hell of a work week, but the one thing that’s gotten you by is the thought of Saturday morning. The crisp, cool Autumn air, the smell of the trees, and the anticipation of seeing deer has been on your mind since Monday morning. And so when you finally clock out for the week, you can barely contain your excitement. Tomorrow’s the big day and you race home to make sure everything’s ready.

It’s odd that the alarm that you absolutely loathed on Monday morning is now a welcomed friend Saturday morning at 4:00am. With a groggy mixture of excitement and anticipation, you get dressed and head out to the woods. The drive is actually kind of nice. Unlike the commute to work every morning, the roads are fairly empty at this ungodly hour. Who in their right mind would be up this early on the weekend anyway?

Soon you reach the cut off road for the national forest and turn down an old, bumpy dirt road. A few moments later a pair of headlights turn onto the same dirt road a few hundred yards behind you.

Hmm…Must be another hunter

With the excitement of getting to your stand beginning to creep up, you speed up a little bit as you head down the road. Soon, your headlights begin to pick up clouds of dust, and it isn’t long before taillights appear in front. The wire cable of a tree stand can clearly be seen poking up from behind the tailgate of the truck in front, and it’s obvious this hunter is on the way to his spot as well.

Eventually you turn off the road onto another and lose sight of the other two trucks. Not far up ahead is where you’ll park and walk in. It’s an area that you -thought- was relatively secluded. So it comes as a surprise when you round the corner only to find a truck parked where you were planning. Your headlights shine on the hunter as he’s getting everything ready to walk into the woods.

Damn it

You get out and greet the other hunter. To your relief, he describes where he’ll be and it’s no where near where you were planning. So with that, you ready yourself, slap the climber on your back and grab your bow before walking down the trail you marked during scouting season.

Once up the tree, you quietly wait as the woods slowly begin to wake up. It’s the magic hour. This is what you were waiting for all week. A chance to escape the office. To spend some time in peaceful tranquility, uninterrupted by the hustle and bustle of every day life. With twilight quickly turning into day, you begin to scan the woods for deer. It doesn’t take long before you catch a glimpse of a tail flick, and the body of a doe materializes about eighty yards away. It’s a good sign, and in that moment, work and all your weekly troubles have vanished. This is why you’re here.

Suddenly you hear the sound of a truck door slamming in the distance. The deer, thankfully, seems to have paid no attention to it. But for a brief second you’re reminded that you aren’t alone in the woods. About a half hour goes by and the doe you’ve been watching hasn’t moved a whole lot. Out of nowhere, however, she spooks. Tail up, she blows several times before bounding away into the distance.

What the hell?

Then you hear it. The all too familiar crunch crunch of boots. You turn to see another hunter strolling in late to his stand, right down the trail you took to come in. The immediate reaction is surprise. Then anger. Then simply frustration. You wait until he’s about sixty yards away before whistling at him. Stopped mid stride, the late hunter looks up at you and raises a hand apologetically before turning around and slinking off the other direction. With a heavy sigh, you lean back in your stand. You’re beyond annoyed. The doe you were watching is long gone, and the morning hunt might as well be ruined. You slugged through a brutal work week, and the one thing you were looking forward to beyond everything was to be here in this tree. Away from people, and to have time to yourself. But now? Now it’s ruined.

Welcome to the weekend.

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Over the years, the above scenario has happened to me far too many times. Of course, I don’t usually have office jobs, but it’s the same  concept: I have off on the weekends, I love to hunt/fish, so I go hunting/fishing on the weekends. The problem? EVERYONE ELSE DOES TOO.

I’ve been a weekend warrior before, so please don’t think I’m hating on them. Unfortunately many people have no other options than working that Monday-Friday 9-5. So that means they’ve no choice but hit the woods or the water on Saturday and Sunday. Weekends end up becoming insane. Hunting and fishing pressure go through the roof as everything is inundated with people trying to get their outdoor fix. But eventually there’s a point where it becomes unappealing. We all seek the outdoors for some reason, and often that experience becomes tainted with -far- too much human pressure.

“Why bother going fishing this weekend? There’s going to be 8 billion people at the boat launch Saturday morning. I probably won’t find a place to park the trailer”

“I guess we can go to the springs, but we’re gonna have to wait in line half an hour since it’s a pretty day”

“I’d rather not go to the trouble of getting to the tree stand. Someone will assuredly walk in on me”

It applies to almost any outdoor activity you can think of. Too many people end up ruining an good thing. And they don’t have to be destroying anything, or trashing it, or being loud, etc. Simply too many people being there end up taking away the experience that many look for.

Hell, I might as well have just stayed at the office. I’d see less people”

For almost two years now, I’ve been lucky enough to be a guide. Whether it be taking people out in the Everglades to look at Alligators, kayaking to look at Dolphin in St. Augustine, or chasing down Elk in Colorado. I’ve gotten to see people use our natural resources that have been set aside for just that: Use. And since I’ve been guiding, I rarely get a weekend off. Ever. It makes sense though, when you think about it. People primarily have off on the weekends. They want a guide and they hire me on their days off. So I’m thrust into these outdoor settings every weekend with everybody and their brother.

What it’s done is change me. At least as to how I enjoy the outdoors. On the off chance that I actually get a weekend off, you won’t catch me dead outside. I’ll be inside on the couch. I’ve had too many days practically ruined during the weekend rush. Be it a jet-ski buzzing by the kayak at 30 yards and scaring all the fish, or a hunter walking right up to my tree stand. It happens all the time and I’ve grown tired of it. Friends might ask:

“Alex! Can we go kayaking Sunday morning?”

“Absolutely not”.

I simply won’t do it. I can’t do it. There’s too much pressure and it’s lost its appeal for me. So I question; How many others are like me? How many hunters, or fishermen, or hikers, or whatever, have altered the way they use the outdoors? How many have all but just given up? Think about the most popular outdoor spot near you. Now imagine it on a holiday weekend. It’s going to be an absolute zoo. There are so many people that it might as well be Wal-Mart, and lord knows no one ENJOYS going to Wal-Mart.

Luckily for me, since I work the weekends, I often have weekdays off. I can go kayaking on a Tuesday morning and not see a soul on the water. I can hike after lunch on a Thursday afternoon and not see the faintest sign of another hiker. It’s fantastic. But I realize not everyone has the same luxury of doing things on the weekdays like I do. I’ll never claim to be any more or less avid than any of my fellow outdoorsmen. So I ask the question: How do you get around the weekend crowds when you’re stuck to the weekend schedule?

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I’m avid enough that should I ever find myself stuck with that schedule, I’d still try. But I can’t say I’d enjoy it nearly as much as I should. It would wear on me, and eventually might break me. I’d find myself skipping weekends and just watching football and drinking beer instead of being outside. Anything to avoid a tainted experience with something I love.  All because everyone wants to do the same thing at the same time with their days off.

Are there ways around this? Yes. Well…Sort of. Take hunting for example. Don’t hunt public land like national forests, right? Okay, so you fork over the cash to join a hunting club, and you’ll get to avoid the crowds. But what’s that end up doing? Driving the cost of hunting through the roof. If you weren’t already aware, hunting is becoming a rich man’s sport. Yes people pay big bucks to hunt…well…big bucks. But they also pay up to avoid the crowds of people who flock to public areas when they can’t afford a private hunting lease.

I honestly don’t have a solution when it comes to dealing with the weekends. I’ve figured out how to deal with it personally, but I question everyone else. Do you simply grin and bear it? Do you wake up -extra- early to beat the crowd? Or do you hike those extra ten miles into the wilderness JUST to dodge everyone else?

Personally, I don’t see the issue getting any better. Hell, if it’s even an issue at all. For all I know maybe there are people out there who love fishing around the crowds or watching the chaos that is the county boat ramp in the morning (ok, that’s admittedly fun to watch). But for me, it’s a problem. And I can only hope that we can find some sort of solution before more people want to simply give up.

 

Outgunned With the Ghost of Fly Fishing Future

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As far as days go, you couldn’t ask for much prettier. The clear blue Utah skies let the sun shine uninterrupted over the river valley, and the occasional breeze kept the temperature in the comfortable low 70’s. Nearby, the soothing sounds of a softly flowing river weaved their way through the trees at the water’s edge, and each gust of wind made the grassy fields sway in waves, sending clouds of freshly hatched Caddis flies airborne. In an adjacent field, a herd of Alpaca grazed silently. Their methodical feeding halted only occasionally as they raised their heads to see where the one unnatural sound was coming from. Somewhere in the field ahead of the herd, violent coughing and hacking, with an intermittent gurgle was erupting from the grass.

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MY violent coughing an hacking.

One of the billions of Caddis flies had managed to find his way straight into my lungs while I was walking across the field. Dressed in full saltwater fishing apparel (I own nothing else), I crawled around in the grass in a futile effort to hack up my lungs. Tears began to stream down my face as I struggled to breathe and eventually an Alpaca came near the fence to see what all the commotion was about. He silently chewed his cud and with an unblinking stare, he watched me struggle on the ground for a few minutes.

A fitting end, I suppose. Who would have ever seen this one coming? Slain by a rogue Caddis in the Utah desert, with no one to witness it except an emotionless cousin of the camel from the Motherland (my mother is actually from Peru). It’s a death none of my friends could have predicted, although…Now that I really think about it…I doubt any of them would have been -that- surprised by the event.

But as you may have guessed since you’re reading this, I eventually managed to dislodge the foul beast from my windpipe, wiped the tears from my face, and thanked my Alpaca friend for the help. I then grabbed my fly rod and set off to do what I’d intended to do all along: Fly fish for Brown trout.

Having lost my shoes in a fly fishing success story a few weeks prior, I was still running around barefoot. And by running, I mean carefully and deliberately taking each step, only cursing wildly every once in a while when my foot found a thorn. The river I was fishing -looked- fishy, but at this point of my trip I still had no idea what I was doing. None. My only real hope was to just get out there and try it. So I cruised the bank until I saw a decent looking hole, and walked down to begin casting from a rock. Almost immediately I noticed fish rising. BIG fish. Every once in a while it seriously sounded like someone dropped a bowling ball into the water when I fish hit something on the surface. Now remember, I’d spent the past 4 weeks fly fishing Montana in a very long trout lesson that resulted in only a handful of fish. So imagine my surprise when I big brown took my dry fly on the 3rd cast.

The fight was on and I immediately realized something: I was outgunned.

My 3 weight fly rod simply didn’t have enough *umph* to get these fish out of the current. The fight honestly took over 5 minutes before I managed to get the fish to the bank. And it was then that I realized I was missing a vital piece of equipment. No, not my shoes…ok…Yes my shoes…But something even more important: A landing net. I splashed around barefoot in shin deep water for what felt like an eternity before FINALLY grabbing hold of the fish. I honestly couldn’t believe what I was holding.

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My first Brown! I’d fished so long and hard for trout the past few weeks that this just seemed…Easy. Maybe it was just a combination of things. Higher water levels. Different fish. Different river. Different hatch. Shoot, even I can admit I’d learned what to look for over time. Maybe I was actually getting the whole “trout” thing down pat? Regardless, I soon revived the fish, and started fishing again. With the same result. Just a few casts later I was hooked up. To an even bigger one.

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Given that I barely landed the last fish, I pretty much had no chance with this one. He bulldogged his way into the current, and then just sat there. Had it not been for him slowly moving further up current, I would have thought I’d hooked bottom. Sadly, my hook eventually pulled, and he swam off. But was it really this easy? It was only 3 in the afternoon. Was this about to keep up the rest of the evening? Excitedly, I stripped out some more line, and executed a flawless cast about 8 feet up a tree on the far bank and broke my fly off.

Fantastic…I thought to myself as I began to dig through my fly box for a clone of my lost fly. And it was then that I realized…That was the only one of it’s kind that I owned. Nothing else I had was even -remotely- similar to it. I tried everything. Nymphs, hoppers, you name it. Nothing was working like my long lost fly.

So I sat there on a rock and drank some water. All the while contemplating what I should do. Busily watching fish feed in front of me, I was startled by the sound of something crashing through the bushes behind me. Suddenly a man came staggering out of the bushes. An old man. A REALLY old man. Dressed in waders and a wide brimmed hat, he was toting around a 6 weight fly rod and had the overall look of an old fly fisherman. The creases around his eyes and forehead showed the signs of a man who’d probably seen it all, and slightly crazy from it. Not from life in general, but from fly fishing too damn much. It’s estimated that every three hours spent fly fishing is frustrating enough to take a week off of your life expectancy. Given the man’s limp he was sporting, as well as his overall appearance, I would have put him somewhere between 80-127 years old. But he crashed out of the bushes as gave me a big smile as he approached.

I was surprised to see someone there since I hadn’t seen a soul since I arrived, but we began to chat and he told me that he’d been fishing just about all day and hadn’t had the first ounce of success. I told him about my varied luck and he commented about how crazy I was for swinging just a three weight on this particular river, but congratulated me on actually landing a fish with the thing. He gave me the usual old man banter about better rivers elsewhere and the whole “it’s not what it used to be” schpeal, and then said he was  giving up for the day because he was sore. Why was he sore? This ancient guy had undergone double knee replacements, double HIP replacements, and a shoulder replacement. And here I was complaining about sore bare feet and a throbbing knee from an ACL tear in highschool.

Before he left, he asked me what I’d been using and I answered as honestly as I could.

“Just this little…brown dry fly thing…”

“Oh, like this one?”, he responded, holding up his rod to show me the fly. “I’ve been throwing this all day and haven’t caught a thing yet”

That was it! That’s the same fly I’d been using!

“That’s actually the one!” I told him.

“Well here…maybe you’ll have better luck with it than I did”, he finished, and snipped the fly off to give to me.

I thanked him profusely and he said he needed to get going. I told him bye and he wished me good luck before disappearing back into the bushes. Quickly I tied on the new fly and walked up to a fence that overlooked the field with the Alpacas in order to get further down the river. This field was the only point of access to this river, so I expected to see the man walking back to his truck. But it was then that I realized something…There were no other cars when I parked. I was alone out there. To add to the mystery? The man was gone. Like, GONE, gone. As easily as he’d appeared, he’d disappeared.

Was he even real? It was like the Ghost of Fly Fishing Future. If I kept fly fishing like this, I was assuredly going to end up just like him. Was that what I have to look forward to?

Regardless…The fly was very real. And I proceeded to slay the fish with it.

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Still outgunned, I only managed to land two other fish, and lost another 5. Oh, and of the ones I landed? Thanks to not having a net, I managed to finally bare hand a fish before he flopped from my grip, and snapped the line…Money Fly in tow. Just as easily as that fly had entered my world, it was gone. And as far as I was concerned, my day was over.

I learned a lot from my time spent out west. As a die hard saltwater guy, I’d always kinda poo-poo’d coldwater trout fishing. It was something that never really interested me because it was something I knew -nothing- about. Having lived and breathed it for over a month, I can say that it’s something I thoroughly enjoy. It’s extremely technical and challenging. No two rivers are the same, nor are any two days. What worked yesterday won’t necessarily work today. And it’s details like this that keep the game ever changing and keep the angler on his toes. Of course I love paddling out a giant bloody piece of bait for shark fishing here in Florida, but western trout fishing has managed to find its way into my heart, and I’m sure I’ll be back sooner or later to get that fix. Maybe next time I’ll get to run into the Ghost of Flyfishing Future again and thank him, and maybe next time I won’t be outgunned in the desert.

 

Mennonite Jim and The Case of the Missing Fly Rod

The deafening crow of a rooster right outside my window shattered the stillness of the predawn jungle air. I jerked awake and sat bolt upright in bed from the sound. Immediately I was met with the all-too-familair, head spinning sensation that reminded me of the five too many drinks the night before. A sudden chill shot down my spine and I clutched the sheets around myself a little tighter.

“Holy shit…”, I muttered out loud, the steam from my breath rising up into the ceiling of the sparsely furnished jungle shack.

It was cold. I mean, actually cold. Especially for a Florida boy.  And especially for being a freaking jungle in Belize. I’ve watched predator enough times. It’s supposed to be hot as hell in the jungle, right?

I laid back down in bed and pulled the girl next to me a little closer in a futile attempt to warm up and fall back asleep, but it was no use. The rooster kept crowing and I couldn’t stop shivering. After a while I had no choice but to make that painfully cold journey across the room to don my scattered clothes. All of which, however, were warm weather fishing clothes. So I might as well have still been naked when I stepped onto the porch and met the foggy jungle morning.

Near the Guatemalan border, the place I was staying at was very eco-friendly. Extremely eco-friendly, in fact.

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Too damn eco-friendly. Now that I think about it.

Cold rainwater showers and latrines were all there was. So while suffering through seizure like shivers from the cold, and attempting to keep my skull from splitting like an egg from the hangover, I staggered my way to the latrines. Hummingbirds darted to-and-fro along my walk. Emerging from the fog briefly to feed from the bright orange flowers that guided the path, then disappearing back into the white mist. I probably would have slowed down and really enjoyed this picturesque walk, but I felt like absolute death and honestly had pressing business to attend to.

The latrines were, of course, filled with some sort of Satan spawned, cold-resistant breed of mosquito that had apparently taken up residence in the screen covered wooden building the night prior. So in addition to freezing, and feeling like I was going to die, I had to protect myself from losing any more heat from sheer blood loss. It was a far from relaxing bathroom experience. But while sitting on that freezing toilet seat, I realized something else: I didn’t just feel like death…I smelled like death. I hadn’t showered in days. This was an issue that needed to be fixed immediately.

So I finished up my business and sprinkled the wood shavings down the hole like a true eco-friendly person. My stomach was still in knots as I brushed off the ever-growing cloud of mosquitoes around me and stepped out of the latrines. In fact, my stomach had been messed up for over a week. Maybe I shouldn’t have drank that rainwater back on the coast… Suddenly a voice bellowed from around the corner as I came down the steps.

“Morning Alex!”, said a tall white man that was strolling down the path toward the latrines. I recognized him from a few days prior. A gentleman who did chimney sweeping in Washington state.

“Mornin’ Jim”, I croaked, my voice hoarse from whatever I’d gotten myself into the night before.

“I’m leaving for Belmopan about 10…Did you still want that ride?”, he replied.

I had honestly forgotten the whole game plan for a moment. You see, I traveled to Belize originally to do 3 things: Fly fish, Snorkel, and hike some jungle ruins. Well, all of these tasks were completed in my first week and I now hadn’t a clue how I should spend the rest of my trip. So one night, I picked up “the book” (my travel guide), closed my eyes, started flipping pages and told myself, “wherever my finger lands, that’s where I’m going”. When the pages stopped and I opened my eyes, there was my destination. A place called Hopkins on the southern coast of Belize. The only issue was getting there. I didn’t have a car, so public transportation was really my only way to get around the country. I checked “the book” and I found that I could at least get close to Hopkins by bus. I just needed to get to Belmopan to catch said bus. Well, it just so happened that Jim was leaving Belize that day, and had to drive through Belmopan on his way to the airport. He was nice enough to offer me a ride and save me from bus hopping all day, and I gladly accepted his offer. All I needed to do now was pack up my things, pay the owner of the shack for my stay, and get cleaned up.

Ah….Getting cleaned up.

I’m generally not the world’s biggest fan of cold showers, even on the hottest days. So I absolutely dreaded the rainwater shower that chilly morning. If the neighbors hadn’t been woken up by the roosters yet, I’m sure my shrieks when I hopped in the shower did the job.

Soon it was time to leave. Pack and fly rod in tow, I found the shack’s owner and paid him. To this day, I absolutely cannot remember the man’s name, but he was one of the nicest people I ran into in all of Belize. I referred to him as Belizean Jim (not to his face of course) and he insisted that I not pay him anything until I was ready to leave and had enjoyed my stay. So I said goodbye to Belizean Jim and the jungle, and hopped aboard American Jim’s car to take off to Belmopan.

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The ride to Belmopan was relatively uneventful, albeit very bumpy. The roads in Belize are in decent shape. However, all the highways have -extremely- poorly marked speed bumps. If you aren’t paying attention, it’s not difficult to go full on Dukes of Hazard and get airtime in your rental car.

It was about lunch time when I got dropped off at the Belmopan bus stop. I weaved my way through a crowd of people and stepped into a hot, dusty bus terminal. People darted all over the place, and those lucky enough to have found a seat were busy trying to fan themselves and stay cool while they waited for their bus.

Speaking of buses, I needed to find mine to Dangriga. But there’s a slight issue with public transportation in Belize; there’s zero organization. On the far side of the bus terminal was the yard where all the buses pulled in. And in between those of us inside the terminal, and the buses, was a giant, black iron fence that kept everyone from swarming the buses. However, there were no signs on the gates of the fence to indicate where a bus might go. The only real way to tell where a bus is going is to wait for one to pull up, fight through a swarming crowd of people as they try to rush through an open gate in the fence, and maybe catch a glimpse of the small, handwritten sign that’s in the bus’ windshield.

Eventually I just resorted to asking strangers where each bus was going and hoped they knew what they were talking about. Soon, a bus leading to Belize City stopped in and just about half the terminal piled onto it in a massive pushing and shoving match. I bought myself what looked like a week old slice of pizza from a food vendor, and sat down on an open bench seat while I waited for the bus to Dangriga. The pizza was cold and greasy, but anything had to help the throbbing headache I was suffering through.

It was then that out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a group of white people. As a definite minority, we all kinda stuck out like sore thumbs amidst most of the crowds in Belize. But there was something unique about this group. They were all Mennonites. Unbeknownst to me prior to traveling to Belize, the country has a significant Mennonite population. Most of them speak German and Spanish, and are extremely recognizable with their wide brimmed hats, beards, plain colored shirts, and black pants with suspenders.

There were four of them. Three men and one young boy who looked like he may have been eight or nine. They walked by speaking German and I noticed (as I’m sure most everyone around me did) that one of the men was extremely tall. Like…Woah tall. Like, he probably played center for his Mennonite basketball team. I’m 6’1”, and this guy made me feel like a midget. He smiled at me from underneath his big red beard, and lead the boy through the terminal to stand in line at one of the gates.

A little while later I learned that the line they were standing in was the line I wanted to be in, so I grabbed my pack and fly rod and moseyed over to stand in line behind them. One of the men was actually speaking English to a Belizean woman and her son when I grabbed my spot in line. Immediately I was able to tell that the man was American, and through inadvertent eves dropping, I caught on that he was from a Mennonite community in Missouri. He apparently had friends or family that lived here in Belize, and he’d come down to visit them. I wanted to strike up conversation with him, I really did (at times I can literally talk to a wall), but my hangover had reached full on “wish-you-were-dead” status, and words just never formed.

The American switched back to German to speak to his friends including the tallest one and his son. I was in no position to learn their names, so I simply referred to tall one as Mennonite Jim, and his son, Mennonite Jimmy.

Over time, the line I was in began to take shape of something new. Anything but a line, in fact. It was more like a crowd. More and more people joined the sweaty mass of strangers as a subtle pushing match began. Everyone wanted to get onto this bus.

Finally, the bus showed up and the gates opened. What happened was something I wasn’t really expecting.

Have you ever seen the black Friday videos where Walmart opens and people rush through the doors like water from a broken dam?

Yeah, it was sorta like that. Except through a single, 3 foot wide gate. I tried my best to get up to the front, but it wasn’t much use. The bus filled up, and I was still a few people back from even reaching the gate. But I noticed something. Everyone but Mennonite Jim’s Missourian friend had made it onto the bus, and it was about to leave. The American Mennonite pleaded with the man at the gate to let him on. There was some yelling between the gate guard and the bus driver. Another bus showed up at the gate next to us. It unloaded people. There was a crowd of people moving all over the place outside. And finally, before the bus to Dangriga could leave, they let the Missourian on the bus.

Good. I’m glad at least Mennonite Jim has his friend.

But bad news for me. The next bus wasn’t for another hour.

Determined to not miss the next bus, I propped myself up with my fly rod tube, and didn’t move from in front of the gate for the full hour. By the time the bus finally showed up, another crowd had formed around me. And just like the time before, the gate opened up, and the shoving match ensued. Suddenly I was pushed from behind and a fat woman stepped in front of me, followed by a man and their kid. To my right, I watched as another fat woman shoved an older man out of the way and made a B line to cut me off too.

At this point I’d seen enough, and I sure as hell wasn’t about to wait another hour for a bus. I went full on, Black Friday, super-shopper Mom mode. There might as well have been the last Tickle Me Elmo doll on that bus. And it was gonna be mine!

The fat woman to my right was coming in hot and from the look in her eyes, I was her next trampling victim. I immediately faked a cough, covered my mouth, and turned to catch her under that arm with my elbow and deflect her out of the way. Simultaneously and accidentally (I swear), I stepped on the shoe of a middle aged man and he was forced to slow down and be swallowed by the writhing masses behind me. I stumbled through the gate into that dusty loading zone not a second too late. The gates swung closed behind me. As I removed my pack and climbed the steps of the old American school bus, I looked back to the terminal at all the people behind the iron bars. There was one person in that crowd that stuck out.

Mennonite Jim! But…how? I watched him, his son, and his friend climb aboard the bus an hour ago. He had a frustrated look on his face, and he turned to quickly weave back through the crowd, his wide brimmed hat eventually disappearing in the masses.

Aboard the bus there was, of course, no empty seats, so I was forced to stand. And by stand, I mean that the bus driver made me put my pack on the floor and sit on it in the middle of the aisle as we took off through town.

As the bus slowly worked its way through town to the outskirts, I couldn’t help but think about the Mennonites I’d seen. The only thing that I could presume had happened was that the Missourian got separated. Mennonite Jim, Jimmy, and their friend realized they’d lost their American friend and in the chaos of another bus pulling in, they bailed from the bus to rejoin their friend in the terminal. In that same confusion, there was obviously some room freed up on the bus, so the Missourian Mennonite climbed aboard, not noticing that his friends weren’t there. This, of course, wouldn’t be much of an issue except I could only assume they weren’t using cell phones, and now the American was well on his way to Dangriga alone while his friends had no way to tell him they were (now) two hours behind.

I was, at least, grateful to finally be on the bus south. Once we’d gotten a few blocks away from the bus station, it was apparently OK to go ahead and stand back up. We made a few stops here and there to let some people off, while almost immediately others climbed aboard to take their place. By this point I’d been shoved nearly to the back of the bus. Using my fly rod tube like a cane and bracing myself against a seat, I attempted to get comfortable and settle in for this several hour bus ride down the Hummingbird Highway. Turns out I’m -just- tall enough to not be able to stand straight in an old school bus. So I was already a little uncomfortable by having to bend my head down.

Just before leaving Belmopan for good, the bus made one last abrupt stop to allow a few passengers on board. I looked up to the front of the bus, and who do I see step on?

Mennonite Jim!

What the hell?

How they made it halfway across town on foot that quickly is a mystery to me. But given how hard they were panting and sweating told me that they were booking it. They’d obviously played this game before as well. Anticipating that the bus would empty a few seats before leaving town? Something I never would have thought of. Even though they were all still complete strangers to me, I couldn’t help but feel like they were my oddly dressed buddies. Maybe it was because I’d been living vicariously through them for the past two hours. Or maybe I was just delusional from dehydration. Who knows?

The bus soon found the Hummingbird Highway and took off to the south. Over the course of a few miles, we climbed higher and higher, up into the mountains. And as the grade got steeper, the bus began to slow to a crawl. With each switchback and windy turn, the bus engine roared louder and louder over the strain to get the passengers to the pass. I honestly began to worry whether or not the bus would make it and I looked around to see if any of my fellow passengers looked worried.

Most were asleep. Those that weren’t just stared out the window at the slowly passing jungle, bored out of their minds. I looked up in front of me to where Mennonite Jim was standing, but all I could see of him was the bottom of his beard. The rest of his head was disappearing into the ceiling of the bus.

That lucky son of a…

Ever crafty, Mennonite Jim had managed to stand directly underneath the emergency escape hatch in the ceiling. His overly tall self was perfectly comfortable standing upright, while I was still forced to bend my neck to fit. Almost as if he knew I was watching, he suddenly poked his head down, looked back at me straining to stand, pointed, and laughed at me. Then gestured to the escape hatch and stood back upright.

Rub it in why don’t you…

By this point the bus was moving at a joggers pace up the mountainside. There was no way it could take much more and I was certain we were about to break down in the middle of no where. Oddly enough, there were random bus stops even all the way out here, and every time we stopped to pick up a passenger, I was sure that was it. That we’d finally broken down. We picked up several more guests and I got shoved a little further back in the bus as we took off again at a snail’s pace.

Eventually, we reached the pass. The bus sped up slightly as we went around a bend in the road and then…Well…

You know that feeling when you’re on a roller coaster and it finally finishes that climb to the top? It levels itself out for a brief, heart-stopping moment, then plunges back to earth at a terminal velocity?

It was something like that. Except faster and about a thousand times more terrifying. The old school bus shot down the downhill side of the mountain at paint-peeling speeds. Each switchback sent the bus tilting at about a 45 degree angle while we sped down the jungle road. One of the turns was enough to dislodge the sleeping old black woman in the seat next to me. But she didn’t wake up. Instead she just continued to sleep through our land speed record attempt by resting her head on my hip. Jungle racing by in a school bus, old woman asleep on my hip, Mennonites laughing at me, and a white knuckle death grip on my fly rod was a strange enough scene, only made stranger by the music. Christmas was just around the corner, and a Jamaican steel drum band was playing their rendition of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” over the bus’ speakers.

Eventually the road flattened out from its 90 degree vertical pitch, and the bus returned to a relatively safe speed. At that point I felt safe enough to abandon my surfer-like stance in the aisle, and stand upright again. I soon realized I wasn’t hitting my head anymore.

What’s this? I thought to myself, looking up to see I was now standing under the rear emergency escape hatch. Oh how the tides have turned Mennonite Jim! Look who’s laughing now.

Never one to miss out on a good joke or Karma, I looked up ahead to see that Mennonite Jim had been pushed back from the other escape hatch, and was now bent over like a giant, red beared Quasimodo. He looked back at me and I pointed above my head and stood upright, shooting a giant, shit-eating grin back at him.

He didn’t even crack a smile in return. He just glared back at me in jealousy. Maybe my Mennonite humor isn’t what I thought it was.

After reaching Dangriga, the bus continued south.

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By this point I’d miraculously acquired a seat, and I spoke with the person who collected tolls at the front of the bus about my get off point to get to Hopkins. It turns out there’s only two buses that go to Hopkins each day, one in the early morning, one late evening. Not wanting to wait until dark to arrive in town, I opted to do the next best thing (or so I thought). The bus I was currently on went past the road that lead down to Hopkins. If I got off at the intersection of that road, it was about a 4 mile hike into town, which seemed doable. Especially considering I wanted to stretch my legs a bit after being in vehicles all day.

———

The roar of the bus engine faded away to silence as I stood at the intersection of the highway and the road to Hopkins. The sounds that soon took over were the chirping of songbirds and the soft sea breeze that rustled the trees and carried the familiar smell of salt. Ahead of me, the road continued to vanishing point to the east, and wherever that road ended was my destination. So I began to walk.

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Numerous cars and trucks passed by while I trudged along with my giant hiking pack on my back, and my fly rod tube in hand. The road soon turned to dirt. Each passing vehicle left a massive cloud of orange dust in their wake which, in turn, enveloped me and forced me to cover my face with my shirt to avoid a coughing fit.

I could hear another vehicle coming up from behind and I stepped off to the shoulder to allow it to easily pass. But to my surprise, the little black truck actually slowed to a stop next to me. A Hispanic man (not Belizean), rolled down his window and with a very strong Spanish accent asked, “Hopkins?”

To this day, I’m still not sure why I decided to become a hitch hiker near the Belizean coast. Maybe I was sick of walking? Tired from the long day? Maybe I still wasn’t thinking clearly thanks to the fading hangover? Who knows?

But I hopped right into the bed of that little pick-up, and off we raced toward Hopkins. The road was partially under construction and bumpy as hell, but I was thankful for the ride. I would have spent my whole evening simply walking down that road into town. I still needed to find some food and a place to stay for the night, so the sooner I could get there the better.

I got my first glimpse of Hopkins while sitting on an old tire in the back of that pick up truck as it pulled into town. The town itself was extremely small, pretty dirty, and its pothole riddled dirt roads made for a bone breaking ride.

When the truck came to a stop, I was almost near the center of town. On either side of the road were small restaurants, hostels, and groceries. I grabbed my pack, bailed out of the truck, and thanked the man profusely for the ride into town. I watched as he drove off to the south on, what I could only assume, was his way to the next town down called Sittee River.

Ready to find where I’d be sleeping that night, I proceeded to walk into a few hostels around the immediate area. I checked out two of them, and it wasn’t until an old woman was busy showing me one of her rooms that I realized something was amiss. My hands felt empty. I was holding onto just a water bottle. Something was missing. Something wasn’t right. Something….

“OH SHIT!”, I said out loud, interrupting the old woman as she led me down a hallway to another room. “I’m sorry…I’ve…I’ve gotta go!”, and I raced back down the hallway and into the dirty street.

My fly rod. Gone. Bouncing around aimlessly in the back of a stranger’s pick up truck on the way to Sittee River. I’d somehow managed to simply leave it sitting there in the bed of the truck. I remembered grabbing my pack and bailing out. Nothing more.

I felt ill. Sick to my stomach. And it had nothing to do with the hangover.

How could I have let this happen? You. Freakin’. Idiot!

It was a helpless feeling. I didn’t really know what to do. Sittee River was a dead end. The only road out was right back through Hopkins. Did I sit there and wait for the man to come back? What if he was spending a few days there? What if he drove back late at night? Could I recognize him? Or his truck for that matter? Should I walk the 5 miles down to Sittee River on the chance that -maybe- I could find his truck there?

I didn’t really have much of a choice. I needed that fly rod back and the sooner I started looking for it, the better. Still trying not to have a full blown freakout/meltdown, I took a big swig from my water bottle, tightened up my shoes, and started the long, dusty walk to Sittee River to search for the missing fly rod.

That’s what I get for bumming a ride…

——–

Part II of this tale is just around the corner. Stay tuned!

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